There’s a lot of talk about “narratives” these days, and they are indeed powerful tools for shaping perceptions. Take California, for instance: for most of my life, it was the apex of opportunity, a republic of dreams where fortunes were made and stars were born, a place of perfect weather and impeccably liberal politics, where only the occasional earthquake might get you down.

Of course, the reality was much more complicated than that. But the narrative contained sufficient truth — who can argue with the fifth-largest economy on the planet? — that the story endured for generations. In recent years, however, a new, darker narrative has begun to supplant it — more or less a sequel to the Death Wish movies, only without the vigilante justice.

This California is a dystopian zone where criminals roam the streets and homeless drug addicts die in the gutter, while a rotten ruling class presides over extreme inequality while peddling delusional ideas. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing the state. During the pandemic, California’s population decreased for the first time since it achieved statehood in 1850, while more than 343,000 people left in 2022 alone — a net loss of 113,000. And the twist in the tale, the truth that is most inconvenient of all, is where the largest number of Californians are fleeing to: Texas.

This isn’t just inconvenient — it’s downright embarrassing. Because until very recently, the narrative about Texas was that it was essentially the anti-California, a backwards hellscape of racist, Bible-thumping, gun-toting hillbillies. In this blighted zone, heavily armed cult leaders await the apocalypse with their child brides while grinning Republican governors sign execution warrants for the mentally ill.

Just as California was never heaven, neither was Texas ever hell. The narrative had a good run, mind you: just a few years ago, I met an expat English journalist in Austin who was still able to pay the rent by hacking out an endless stream of utterly predictable stories about guns and death for a liberal readership in the US and UK. But even as a caricature, this narrative just doesn’t make sense any more: it overlooks the fact that Texas is home to the headquarters of more Fortune 500 companies than any other state, that Houston is one of the most diverse cities in America, and that Austin is home to Elon Musk’s gigafactory. When the richest man in the world abandons the Golden State for shitkicker country, a new narrative is clearly required.

I don’t think it exists yet, which might explain why a new concept being tested in the press — that of the flight from Texas. As far as narratives go, it is at once lazy but also ingenious. Lazy because it mirrors large parts of the California narrative; people are leaving the state en masse due to the exorbitant cost of living and intolerable politics. And it is ingenious for the same reasons. Ha! You thought Californians were moving to Texas because of the low taxes and “muh freedom”? Think again. Some people are leaving Texas for California! Thus this new Texas narrative resolves the contradictions of the California narrative: it’s OK, Texas is shit after all and the Golden State is still golden.

Of course, a quick scrutiny of numbers show that the narrative is weak: yes, almost half a million people left Texas between 2021 and 2022, but the state still made a net gain of 172,261 people. Of course, a narrative doesn’t need to be true to really take hold; it can also pick up steam if enough people want to be true. But it does need to be rooted in some kind of observable detail to be plausible, or to capture an emerging trend.

So, will the flight from Texas become a media staple? The argument is based on three premises: that people are fleeing Texas because of political polarisation, the high cost of living and “disenchantment”.

The least plausible of these is the argument from political polarisation. It’s hardly news that Texas is governed by Right-wing Republicans at the state level and has been for decades. Indeed, the enduring conservatism of Texas is regularly reinforced by the recurring mini-narrative that, any day now, the state will turn blue, which most recently fuelled floods of media fan fiction dedicated to the empty suit that is Beto O’Rourke. But like Millerites climbing on the roof to greet the returning Christ, those who hope are always sadly disappointed. As it is, migrants to Texas are not moving to the likes of Cut and Shoot (pop. 1,185) or Ding Dong (pop. 22, last time anyone bothered to check), but rather big cities, which are all run by Democrats, with the exception of Fort Worth and Dallas. Meanwhile those who are nostalgic for the Leftist politics of Portland or San Francisco can always move to Austin and dabble in avant-garde social experiments such as defunding the police, or chant “From the river to the sea” with thousands of others at pro-Palestinian rallies.

More intriguing is the argument from “disenchantment”.  This refers to the idea that, as far as tech hubs go, Austin is an imitation of Silicon Valley, a place where “ambition goes to die”. As a result, tech workers who moved here during the pandemic are starting to look back to the West Coast. Not being a data scientist or AI guru, I can’t really speak to the quality of the code being written in Austin, but it is true that the action remains concentrated in Silicon Valley. OpenAI did not emerge in Texas, after all. On the other hand, the tears of highly paid tech workers is not really a theme that many people care about (other than tech workers, of course).

But if these two themes are weak, then the third, the rising cost of living, really does have legs. This started to spiral out of control during the pandemic, when tech companies permitted their employees to work anywhere. Suddenly there was an influx of outsiders flush with cash who were able to buy much larger homes than the ones they had in California: I still remember the pang of envy I felt when a friend who worked at Apple told me about some colleagues from the West Coast who had sold some stock and bought their giant homes outright. In 2021, it was the top interstate move in the US. House prices rose in Dallas and Houston, while Austin went from being one of the most affordable cities in the country to a place where an 830 square foot “murder shack” by the side of the freeway might set you back nearly a million dollars.

This problem is compounded by the fact that Texas has no state income tax, only property tax. This seemed like a good deal when houses were cheap, but it’s much less of a good deal when your property evaluation increases at a far faster rate than your salary. Thus, while I and others who bought their homes before prices went crazy have theoretically benefited — my own house, in an unassuming suburb, has increased in value more than 2.5 times since I bought it 10 years ago — we have also not benefited as taxes have surged.

But back to those narratives, one out of three isn’t exactly winning. “Property taxes are really high” doesn’t quite get the juices flowing, and Texas still has a long way to go before it reaches California’s levels of unaffordability. As far as arguments go, then, it’s not nearly as exciting as the old Texas narrative with all those guns and preachers and prisoners on death row. And nor is it as gripping as the new California story of an earthly paradise committing slow suicide.

Points for trying, I suppose. But this story needs spicing up. I’d suggest working in some details about millions of feral hogs on the rampage out west, while hunters strafe them with machine guns from their private helicopters flying overhead. Or maybe it’s time to revive the killer bee panic, or talk up 13-year-old hitmen on the border, or pray for more and worse ice storms. Short of that, perhaps a Tunguska-style asteroid event would do the trick. See? It’s not that hard.

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