Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Big D leaders try to reel in ‘The Economist’

Move over China, Indonesia and India. Adrian Wooldridge, a leading columnist for The Economist, thinks Texas is a fast-growth up-and-comer on the world economic stage.
Wooldridge, who writes the international magazine’s column about business and management, was in Dallas in late June to see for himself.
“Perhaps I’ve drunk too much Kool-Aid, but Texas has the feel of California after the second World War, when it was the Golden State, did everything right and had a sense of a cohesive, purposeful society,” Wooldridge says. “America has two huge problems: slow-growth stagnation and a society that’s dividing into billionaires and beggars. What Texas seems capable of doing — for the moment at least — is providing growth that creates opportunities and a society that addresses the needs of ordinary families.”
Wooldridge was struck by the juxtaposition between Texas and either U.S. coast last year when he did a book tour that took him to Dallas, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“Dallas feels much more vibrant and optimistic than San Francisco or New York and definitely Los Angeles, which has big, big problems,” the 54-year-old British journalist says.
Jim Falk, president of the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth, invited Wooldridge back to Dallas late last month to speak to the organization. While he was here, Wooldridge asked Falk to arrange a jam-packed tour of the area in less than 72 hours.
Wooldridge says he’d like to write about “this strange phenomenon” of Texas’ mature economy picking up steam instead of losing it, using Dallas as a linchpin for that growth.
Just the prospect has Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings champing at the bit.
The Economist has always been my favorite magazine because the content is so good and you get to see what’s happening across the world,” Rawlings says. “To have The Economist take a serious look at Dallas says a lot about what’s going on here.”
Wooldridge is no flyby U.S. observer. He lived in California twice — he was a Harkness Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley in the mid-1980s and later worked in Los Angeles as The Economist’s West Coast correspondent.
He also spent 10 years in Washington, D.C., covering American politics until he couldn’t stomach it anymore.
“The partisanship, the divisiveness, the name-calling and the inability of the political system to address really serious, profound problems in the United States was ultimately quite depressing,” he says.
So in 2009, Wooldridge returned to London to launch Schumpeter, a weekly business column in The Economist. The name is a tribute to Joseph Schumpeter, the Australian economist who argued that capitalism prospered with constant innovation.
That’s been a theme in Wooldridge’s columns and the topic of his latest book, The Great Disruption: How Business Is Coping With Turbulent Times.
“Business is quite a good morality story,” Wooldridge says. “In general, if you do well, if you create a good company and create a good product, you prosper. Create a bad product or a company that doesn’t work very well and treats its employees badly, in the end you get your comeuppance.
“That doesn’t seem to be the case in politics. People are rewarded for incompetence and punished for competence.”
Growth and promises
On his Dallas-area tour, Wooldridge saw growth and promises of it from the air, met with business and civic leaders, talked one-on-one with mayors and chambers of commerce chiefs, visited Nebraska Furniture Mart and dined on Sonny Bryan’s barbecue.
Falk asked Hammond Perot, deputy director of economic development for the city of Dallas, to help give Wooldridge the lay of the land.
They took to the air from Love Field, courtesy of Hillwood Development Corp.’s helicopter, and spent nearly two hours taking in the sites: Toyota’s headquarters site in Plano, the Dallas Cowboys training center in Frisco’s “5 billion-dollar mile,” Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Alliance, downtown Fort Worth, AT&T Stadium, the International Inland Port and downtown Dallas.
“It is an incredible story of growth and expansion,” Wooldridge says. “New corporate headquarters, new shopping malls, new golf courses and homes along them. Anything you can think of is just springing up.”
The helicopter also flew over West and South Dallas, where Perot explained the efforts to revitalize those areas.
After lunch with developers Lucy and Henry Billingsley, Wooldridge hopped in Falk’s car, and they headed for a tour of Frisco — “the Dubai of Dallas-Fort Worth” — and a meeting with Maher Maso, its colorful mayor.
“Everything was about creating a society around the home, the house, the schools,” Wooldridge says of his conversation with Maso. “The whole idea is you attract people because you provide a good standard of life and living, which means a good, affordable house, an affordable lifestyle and decent schools.”
Wooldridge wanted to see the new Nebraska Furniture Mart in The Colony, which hadn’t been on Falk’s list. Both were blown away not just by the staggering size of the retail complex but also by the central reason behind it.
“You’re not going to create a store like that unless you’ve got lots of people who are going to buy lots of stuff to fill their houses,” Wooldridge says.
Getting back to downtown Dallas at 4:15 p.m. on a Friday had Falk longing for that helicopter. But Wooldridge dismissed the traffic as unimpressive compared with LA’s.
Someone told Wooldridge that Dallas rolled up its streets at dusk. So Falk arranged for a Saturday night trip to Trinity Groves for dinner at Chino Chinatown, followed by a tour of Bishop Arts and Uptown.
Vibrant middle class
Wooldridge says he heard plenty of talk about Dallas’ rich-poor divide and the need to pay more attention to public education. Those are important issues, he says, but not insurmountable.
“As for the barbell economy, yes, you’ve got a lot of rich people here and you’ve got a lot of poor people here. But I still think you have a vibrant middle class,” he says. “That’s a shrinking demographic in California.”
He thinks our area needs more technical, midskill training to meet 21st-century job needs.
He also cautions that we should beware of anything that slightly resembles Proposition 13, which cut property taxes in California and, he contends, destroyed the state by starving its public schools.
“I did get the sense in talking with people that you’ve got a political-economic elite that has a sense of civic pride,” he says. “You don’t want your politics to be captured by short-term interest groups that are only interested in one specific end.”  
Cheryl Hall/ Dallas Morning News