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Florida Daze
Steven Malanga
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The trendy economist extends his creative-class humbug to the world economy.

Economics professor Richard Florida has won a cult following for his theory—developed at length in his hit book The Rise of the Creative Class—that hip cities, boasting bohe-mian enclaves, gay culture, ethnically and racially diverse populations, and funky music, are becoming economic powerhouses because they attract the “creative class” of scientists, techno-geeks, and entrepreneurs that turbocharges the modern economy. Florida advises public officials to toss out outmoded ideas about economic development that focus on things like low taxes, and instead to turn their cities into edgy centers of cool culture and tolerance.

Unfortunately for Florida, the theory is completely false. A closer look by City Journal revealed that many of Florida’s most “creative” cities have in fact been losing jobs and struggling to hold on to people for decades; they’re hardly incubators of fast-growing firms (see “The Curse of the Creative Class,” Winter 2004). Now Florida is back with a new book that extends his specious argument to the global economy. Like its predecessor, The Flight of the Creative Class is a compendium of dubious inferences, staggering leaps of logic, and false assertions.

Early on in the new book, Florida tries to answer the critics of his first tome. He cites the work of a colleague that proves—or so Florida claims—that the creative-class theory is sound. Florida doesn’t bother to reproduce the details of this research, instead presenting its conclusions in a series of bullet points. Nevertheless, it’s possible to see what he’s up to here—and it’s a sleight of hand.

Florida uses the terms “city” and “region” interchangeably, so that when he talks about the healthy economies and demographics of creative “San Francisco” and “New York,” he’s actually referring to the huge super-regions surrounding these cities, encompassing vastly more people and jobs (and job growth) than the economically sluggish cities themselves.

Florida’s “San Francisco,” for example, stretches across the bay through the suburbs of Oakland in one direction, and down Route 101 some 40 miles to San Jose and its suburbs in the other, creating an economy more than three times the size of the city’s real one. The real San Francisco, hip and cool as it might be, has not added a single new job for 30 years; boring, suburbanized San Jose, a city with virtually no downtown, has tripled in size over the same period, creating 600,000 jobs. Florida’s “New York City” extends from the farthest reaches of northern and central New Jersey to the tip of Long Island. Like San Francisco, New York City proper has not contributed a single net new job to the regional economy in decades, even as un-hip Long Island and Jersey have increased their job count 170 percent and 75 percent, respectively.

Florida assumes that the regional economic growth has blossomed from the bohemian cultures of the central cities. That’s dubious, to say the least. Indeed, Florida’s own research shows that the fastest-growing areas of his supersize “New York City” are actually the least “creative.” In a study he conducted after September 11, Florida found that economically thriving areas like Nassau-Suffolk and Monmouth-Ocean ranked way down on his bohemian and gay indexes, while stagnant New York City ranked near the top. If anything, Gotham’s bohemian culture has encouraged the city’s left-wing politics, whose legacy of high taxes, dysfunctional schools, and—until Rudy Giuliani came along in the nineties—scary crime rates has driven residents and businesses out of the city to the suburbs. We can say much the same about San Fran.

In fact, most of the growth in many big metropolitan regions nationwide is taking place far from the central cities and their hip urban culture. Respected Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, a longtime student of regional economic growth, observes that car-centered communities and sprawl are increasingly attractive to the American public. New York Times columnist David Brooks has vividly described the “booming exurban sprawls that have broken free of the gravitational pull of the cities and now float in a new space far beyond them.”

Florida may be out of touch with what’s driving the America’s economy, but that doesn’t stop him from tackling the rest of the world in Flight. America has long prospered economically because it has drawn so many immigrants to its shores, he tells us—hardly a new insight. But the talented global creative class that has sparked our recent technological boom is losing interest in coming here, Florida warns—with dire implications for our competitiveness.

The immediate causes of this growing disaffection with America, he maintains, are the Patriot Act, tougher post-9/11 visa restrictions, and the nation’s deepening cultural conservatism. But the trouble began even before these unwelcome developments, Florida claims. He points to a study that indexed the “global tolerance” levels of people in 65 countries during the mid-nineties. The U.S. scored well behind Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and other “advanced nations,” primarily because we flunked the “values” component of the index that measured “to what degree a country reflects traditional or religious as opposed to modern or secular values”—with the modern presumed good and the traditional bad. The U.S. is just too religious and traditional to join the ranks of the “tolerant” societies, Florida maintains, and that means our economy will soon suffer, since we’re turning off the creative types.

Florida’s globalized creative-class theory has no more connection to economic reality than does his earlier work. Over the past decade, the U.S. economy has far outpaced most of the heavily taxed countries that sit atop the Global Tolerance Index, producing new jobs, for instance, at twice the rate of index leaders Sweden and Denmark. The U.S. has left in the dust Florida’s favorite country: “the real leader in terms of tolerance and diversity . . . our northern neighbor, Canada.” Canada ranks only slightly above average in per-capita gross domestic product among the 30 nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; the U.S. ranks second. During the 1990s, when tolerant Canada should have been bursting with creative economic energy, its unemployment rate was nearly double that of the U.S.

Florida’s policy prescriptions are mostly tired liberal platitudes. To encourage and attract the creative class, he variously calls for a “modern day equivalent of the New Deal” and a great national mustering of resources, comparable to our mobilization during World War II. He urges the Bush administration to stop being “obsessed” with homeland security, since it’s hurting the nation’s reputation with the creative class. He calls for a hike in the minimum wage, because, of course, our creative workers find themselves so underpaid these days. He wants to see vast increases in public spending on the arts and on “all forms of innovation and creativity,” though he doesn’t say who’ll dole out the money (people like him, he doubtless assumes). He derides public school spending levels, seemingly unaware that we spend about twice as much per student on public education as do European countries, including those he wants us to emulate. Finally, he counsels us to replace our ideal of the melting pot with the newer, hipper, Canadian notion of the “mosaic society,” which holds that . . .

Oh, never mind. It’s too painful even to explain.

 

 


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