The collapse of the creative class

The Twin Cities’ new Thirty-Two Magazine begins with this long tale of a couple who moved from the Twin Cities to …

For a vari­ety of not-very-well-thought-out rea­sons, this brought us to Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. It wasn’t too far from our families. It had a stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion. And for the Mid­west, it pos­sessed what might pass for cachet. It was lib­eral and open minded. It was a col­lege town. It had cof­fee shops and bike shops. Besides, it had been deemed a “Cre­ative Class” stronghold by Richard Florida, the prophet of pros­per­ous cool. We had no way of know­ing how wrong he was about Madison…and about everything.

Florida’s idea was a nice one: Young, inno­v­a­tive peo­ple move to places that are open and hip and tol­er­ant. They, in turn, gen­er­ate eco­nomic inno­va­tion. I loved this idea because, as a free­lance writer, it made me impor­tant. I was poor, but some­how I made every­one else rich! It seemed to make per­fect sense. Madi­son, by that rea­son­ing, should have been clamoring to have me, since I was one of the mys­ti­cal bear­ers of prosperity.

Unfortunately, our writer found that Madison doesn’t live up to its promise:

Nonethe­less, we tried set­tling in. I began writ­ing for the local mag­a­zine. My first story was based on Richard Florida’s “Gay Index,” one of sev­eral mea­sures that was sup­posed to indi­cate how wealthy your city can be. The more gays there are, he reasoned, the more tol­er­ant your city is, and the more cre­ative class work­ers would flock there. My story was called, “How Gay is Madi­son?” The answer, of course, was “very gay.” …

For some rea­son, these and most other rela­tion­ships never quite blos­somed the way we’d hoped, the way they had in all the other place we’d lived. For a time, my wife had a soul­less job with a boss who sat behind her, star­ing at the back of her head. I found work in a dusty tomb of a book­store, doing data entry with cowork­ers who com­plained about their neurological dis­or­ders, or who told me about the mag­i­cal crea­tures they saw on their way home, and who kept web­sites depict­ing them­selves as minotaurs.

I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but within a year or two it was clear that some­thing wasn’t right. If Madi­son was such a Creative Class hotbed over­flow­ing with inde­pen­dent, post-industrial work­ers like myself, we should have fit in. Yet our presence didn’t seem to mat­ter to any­one, cre­atively or otherwise. And any­way, Madison’s econ­omy was hum­ming along with unem­ploy­ment around four per­cent, while back in fun, creative Port­land, it was more than twice that, at eight and a half per­cent. This was not how the world accord­ing to Florida was sup­posed to work. I started to won­der if I’d misread him. Around town I encoun­tered a few other trans­plants who also found them­selves scratch­ing their heads over what the fuss had been about. Within a cou­ple years, most of them would be gone.

The author quotes Penelope Trunk, “a brand­ing expert, a Gen Y prognosticator, and a ruth­less, relent­less self-promoter,” who moved to Madison, only to escape:

On the phone, she was still brash and bom­bas­tic and as she told it, her hon­ey­moon with the city started to end almost as soon as she got there. One day her ex-husband was googling, “sex offend­ers,” and he dis­cov­ered there were four reg­is­tered on their block. Next, she dis­cov­ered that the pub­lic schools were ter­ri­ble. “I started talk­ing to every­one,” Trunk said. “And I said, ‘Hey, aren’t you upset the schools suck? How is every­one send­ing their kid here?’ And peo­ple said, ‘Oh, no, I really love my school. I make sure for my kid it’s all about val­ues.’ I mean the bull­shit that people were telling me was utterly incred­i­ble. Then it just became like an onslaught. Tons of lies. Madi­son is a city full of peo­ple in denial. Peo­ple don’t leave Madi­son, so they don’t real­ize what’s good and not good.” I asked her if she had any regrets, or if the move was a wrong one, or if she had any advice for other peo­ple look­ing to relo­cate. Or maybe, I sug­gested, life was just messier than research?

“No,” she said. “Life is totally clear cut. It’s exactly what the research is. All the research says go live with your friends and fam­ily. Oth­er­wise, you have to look at why you’re not doing that. If you want to look at a city that’s best for your career, it’s New York, San Fran­cisco or Lon­don. If you’re not look­ing for your career, it doesn’t really mat­ter. There’s no dif­fer­ence. It’s splitting hairs. The whole con­ver­sa­tion about where to live is bullshit.”

I do not run this to beat upon my home town. (I’ve already done that.) I am happy to repeat this skewering of Florida’s bogus “creative class” theory:

Jamie Peck is a geog­ra­phy pro­fes­sor who has been one of the fore­most crit­ics of Richard Florida’s Cre­ative Class the­ory. He now teaches at the Uni­ver­sity of British Colum­bia in Van­cou­ver, but at the time Florida’s book was pub­lished in 2002, he was also liv­ing in Madi­son. “The rea­son I wrote about this,” Peck told me on the phone, “is because Madison’s mayor started to embrace it. I lived on the east side of town, prob­a­bly as near to this lifestyle as pos­si­ble, and it was bull­shit that this was actu­ally what was driving Madison’s econ­omy. What was dri­ving Madi­son was pub­lic sec­tor spend­ing through the uni­ver­sity, not the dynamic Florida was describing.”

In his ini­tial cri­tique, Peck said The Rise of the Cre­ative Class was filled with “self-indulgent forms of ama­teur microsociology and crass cel­e­bra­tions of hip­ster embour­geoise­ment.” That’s another way of say­ing that Florida was just describ­ing the “hip­ster­i­za­tion” of wealthy cities and con­clud­ing that this was what was caus­ing those cities to be wealthy. As some crit­ics have pointed out, that’s a lit­tle like say­ing that the high num­ber of hot dog ven­dors in New York City is what’s caus­ing the pres­ence of so many invest­ment bankers. So if you want bank­ing, just sell hot dogs. “You can manipulate your argu­ments about cor­re­la­tion when things hap­pen in the same place,” says Peck.

What was miss­ing, how­ever, was any actual proof that the presence of artists, gays and les­bians or immi­grants was causing eco­nomic growth, rather than eco­nomic growth caus­ing the presence of artists, gays and les­bians or immi­grants. Some more recent work has tried to get to the bot­tom of these ques­tions, and the find­ings don’t bode well for Florida’s theory. In a four-year, $6 mil­lion study of thir­teen cities across Europe called “Accommodating Cre­ative Knowl­edge,” that was pub­lished in 2011, researchers found one of Florida’s cen­tral ideas—the migra­tion of cre­ative work­ers to places that are tol­er­ant, open and diverse—was sim­ply not happening. …

Per­haps one of the most damn­ing stud­ies was in some ways the sim­plest. In 2009 Michele Hoy­man and Chris Far­icy published a study using Florida’s own data from 1990 to 2004, in which they tried to find a link between the pres­ence of the cre­ative class work­ers and any kind of eco­nomic  growth. “The results were pretty strik­ing,” said Far­icy, who now teaches polit­i­cal sci­ence at Wash­ing­ton State Uni­ver­sity. “The mea­sure­ment of the cre­ative class that Florida uses in his book does not cor­re­late with any known mea­sure of eco­nomic growth and devel­op­ment. Basi­cally, we were able to show that the emperor has no clothes.” Their study also ques­tioned whether the migra­tion of the cre­ative class was hap­pen­ing. “Florida said that cre­ative class presence—bohemians, gays, artists—will draw what we used to call yup­pies in,” says Hoyman. “We did not find that.” …

Today, Cre­ative Class doc­trine has become so deeply engrained in the cul­ture that few ques­tion it. Why, with­out any solid evidence, did a whole gen­er­a­tion of pol­icy mak­ers swal­low the creative Kool-Aid so enthu­si­as­ti­cally? One rea­son is that when Florida’s first book came out, few experts both­ered debunk­ing it, because it didn’t seem worth debunk­ing. “In the aca­d­e­mic and urban plan­ning world,” says Peck, “peo­ple are slightly embarrassed about the Florida stuff.” Most economists and public pol­icy schol­ars just didn’t take it seriously.

This is partly because much of what Florida was describ­ing was already accounted for by a the­ory that had been well-known in eco­nomic cir­cles for decades, which says that the amount of college-educated peo­ple you have in an area is what dri­ves economic growth, not the num­ber of artists or immi­grants or gays, most of whom also hap­pen to be col­lege educated. This is known as Human Cap­i­tal the­ory, men­tioned briefly above, and in Hoyman and Faricy’s analy­sis, it correlated much more highly with eco­nomic growth than the num­ber of cre­ative class work­ers. “Human cap­i­tal beat the pants off cre­ative cap­i­tal,” Hoy­man said. “So it looks like growth is a human cap­i­tal phenomenon—if you’ve got a lot of edu­cated peo­ple. We’re in a knowl­edge econ­omy, where human cap­i­tal is worth a lot more than just show­ing up for work every day.” In other words, if there was any­thing to the theory of the Cre­ative Class, it was the pack­age it came in. Florida just told us we were cre­ative and valu­able, and we wanted to believe it. He sold us to ourselves.

I always thought Baby Boomers were the most narcissistic, self-absorbed people on the planet, beginning with making the mistake of watching a few minutes of “Thirtysomething” when I was twentysomething. Those who believe Florida’s “creative class” claptrap might fall into the same category.

What jobs fit into the creative class? Florida says:

The distinguishing characteristic of the creative class is that its members engage in work whose function is to “create meaningful new forms.” The super- creative core of this new class includes scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers, and architects, as well as the “thought leadership” of modern society: nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts, and other opinion-makers. Members of this super-creative core produce new forms or designs that are readily transferable and broadly useful—such as designing a product that can be widely made, sold and used; coming up with a theorem or strategy that can be applied in many cases; or composing music that can be performed again and again.

Beyond this core group, the creative class also includes “creative professionals” who work in a wide range of knowledge-intensive industries such as high-tech sectors, financial services, the legal and healthcare professions, and business management. These people engage in creative problem-solving, drawing on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. Doing so typically requires a high degree of formal education and thus a high level of human capital. … They apply or combine standard approaches in unique ways to fit the situation, exercise a great deal of judgment, perhaps try something radically new from time to time.

That is a group so broad as to be nearly meaningless. “Exercise a great deal of judgment”? “Apply or combine standard approaches in unique ways to fit the situation”? It’s also a group whose earnings are on the poles. Some of the professions listed probably fit into the evil 1 percent; as for others, well, Madison is said to have a large number of waiters with doctoral degrees.

Florida has an ideological message here too, as Steven Malanga pointed out:

But most important, to a generation of liberal urban policymakers and politicians who favor big government, Florida’s ideas offer a way to talk economic-development talk while walking the familiar big-spending walk. In the old rhetorical paradigm, left-wing politicians often paid little heed to what mainstream businesses—those that create the bulk of jobs—wanted or needed, except when individual firms threatened to leave town, at which point municipal officials might grudgingly offer tax incentives. The business community was otherwise a giant cash register to be tapped for public revenues—an approach that sparked a steady drain of businesses and jobs out of the big cities once technology freed them from the necessity of staying there.

Now comes Florida with the equivalent of an eat-all-you-want-and-still-lose-weight diet. Yes, you can create needed revenue-generating jobs without having to take the unpalatable measures—shrinking government and cutting taxes—that appeal to old-economy businessmen, the kind with starched shirts and lodge pins in their lapels. You can bypass all that and go straight to the new economy, where the future is happening now. You can draw in Florida’s creative-class capitalists—ponytails, jeans, rock music, and all—by liberal, big-government means: diversity celebrations, “progressive” social legislation, and government spending on cultural amenities. Put another way, Florida’s ideas are breathing new life into an old argument: that taxes, incentives, and business-friendly policies are less important in attracting jobs than social legislation and government-provided amenities. After all, if New York can flourish with its high tax rates, and Austin can boom with its heavy regulatory environment and limits on development, any city can thrive in the new economy. …

Except that …

But a far more serious—indeed, fatal—objection to Florida’s theories is that the economics behind them don’t work. Although Florida’s book bristles with charts and statistics showing how he constructed his various indexes and where cities rank on them, the professor, incredibly, doesn’t provide any data demonstrating that his creative cities actually have vibrant economies that perform well over time. A look at even the most simple economic indicators, in fact, shows that, far from being economic powerhouses, many of Florida’s favored cities are chronic underperformers.

Exhibit A is the most fundamental economic measure, job growth. The professor’s creative index—a composite of his other indexes—lists San Francisco, Austin, Houston, and San Diego among the top ten. His bottom ten include New Orleans, Las Vegas, Memphis, and Oklahoma City, which he says are “stuck in paradigms of old economic development” and are losing their “economic dynamism” to his winners. So you’d expect his winners to be big job producers. Yet since 1993, cities that score the best on Florida’s analysis have actually grown no faster than the overall U.S. jobs economy, increasing their employment base by only slightly more than 17 percent. Florida’s indexes, in fact, are such poor predictors of economic performance that his top cities haven’t even outperformed his bottom ones. Led by big percentage gains in Las Vegas (the fastest-growing local economy in the nation) as well as in Oklahoma City and Memphis, Florida’s ten least creative cities turn out to be jobs powerhouses, adding more than 19 percent to their job totals since 1993—faster growth even than the national economy. …

It’s no coincidence that some of Florida’s urban exemplars perform so unimpressively on these basic measures of growth. As Florida tells us repeatedly, these cities spend money on cultural amenities and other frills, paid for by high taxes, while restricting growth through heavy regulation. Despite Florida’s notion of a new order in economic development, the data make crystal-clear that such policies aren’t people- or business-friendly. The 2000 census figures on out-migration, for instance, show that states with the greatest loss of U.S. citizens in 1996 through 2000—in other words, the go-go years—have among the highest tax rates and are the biggest spenders, while those that did the best job of attracting and retaining people have among the lowest tax rates. A study of 1990 census data by the Cato Institute’s Stephen Moore found much the same thing for cities. Among large cities, those that lost the most population over a ten-year period were the highest-taxing, biggest-spending cities in America, with per-capita taxes 75 percent higher than the fastest-growing cities. Given those figures, maybe Florida should have called his book The Curse of the Creative Class.

My favorite demographer, Joel Kotkin, added after the 2010 election, which reversed much of the 2008 election, which Kotkin called “the triumph of the creative class”:

A term coined by urban guru Richard Florida, “the creative class” also covers what David Brooks more cunningly calls “bourgeois bohemians”–socially liberal, well-educated, predominately white, upper middle-class voters. They are clustered largely in expensive urban centers, along the coasts, around universities and high-tech regions. To this base, Obama can add the welfare dependents, virtually all African-Americans, and the well-organized legions of public employees. …

In contrast, the traditional middle class has not fared well at all. This group consists of virtually everyone who earns the national household median income of $50,000 or somewhat above. They tend to be white, concentrated outside the coasts (except along the Gulf), suburban and politically independent. In 2008 they divided their votes, allowing Obama, with his huge urban, minority and youth base, to win easily.

Since Obama’s inauguration all the economic statistics vital to their lives–job creation, family income, housing prices–have been stagnant or negative. Not surprising then that suburbanites, small businesspeople and middle-income workers walked out on the Democrats last night. They did not do so because they loved the Republicans but because the majority either fears unemployment or already have lost their jobs. Many were employed in the industries such as manufacturing and construction hardest hit in the recession; it has not escaped their attention that Obama’s public-sector allies, paid with their taxes, have remained not only largely unscathed, but much better compensated. …

The middle class is a huge proportion of the population. Thirty-five million households earn between $50,000 and $100,000 a year; close to another 15 million have incomes between $100,000 and $150,000. Together these households overwhelm the number of poor households as well as the highly affluent.

In contrast, the “creative class” represents a relatively small grouping. Some define this group as upward of 40% of the workforce–largely by dint of having a four-year college degree–but this seems far too broad. The creative class is often seen as sharing the hip values of the Bobo crowd. Lumping an accountant with two kids in suburban Detroit or Atlanta with a childless SoHo graphic artist couple seems disingenuous at best. In reality the true creative class, notes demographer Bill Frey, may constitute no more than 5% of the total.

As (apparently) a member of the creative class, I say that any politician who creates an economic development strategy based on 5 percent of the population deserves to be unemployed by the voters. (See Cieslewicz, Dave.) Official Madison has failed to notice that its quality of life is dropping like a rock due to the uncool issues of crime and schools, but on the other hand Madison is also increasingly unaffordable to live in. None of that is particularly friendly for families, regardless of how many parents they have in the house. Nor is substandard job growth.

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