Media Matters

Dr. Florida’s Fever Swamps

Meet the Clintonizing Carnegie Mellon "development economist" who thinks he’s hot because he’s cool.

By 2.11.04

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Economist Richard Florida sees something more than a good flick when watching the wildly popular Lord of the Rings films. Specifically, he sees the economic demise of the United States.

"In the industry most symbolic of America's international economic and cultural might, film, the greatest single project in recent cinematic history was internationally funded and crafted by the best filmmakers around the world, but not in Hollywood," Florida writes in the latest Washington Monthly. Rings director Peter Jackson, you see, chose to make the trilogy in New Zealand rather than in Hollywood.

Of course, many films have been made outside the United States, the local scenery was ideal for the movie, and Jackson is a New Zealand native, but never mind all that. Florida is convinced that the movie's production represents a crisis of epic proportions -- rather like the battle for Gondor.

Likewise, when musician Youssou N'Dour canceled his U.S. tour last spring to protest the invasion of Iraq, it signaled the end of the American music industry. "For American artists and fans," Florida explained, "not being able to see touring bands is the equivalent of the computer industry not getting access to the latest chips: It dulls the competitive edge." (When the Rolling Stones became tax exiles, that pretty much did it for the UK music scene, right?)

FLORIDA HAS A REAL MOTIVE to make mountains out of these ridiculous molehills. The Carnegie Mellon professor of economic development became a hero to gays, dirty hippies, and extreme sports types everywhere a few years ago when he declared that the "creative class" was the real engine of the American economy, not those stodgy "older sectors," a catch-all term to describe the blue collar manufacturing industries.

He set out this thesis in his best-selling 2003 book The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida created a series of non-traditional "economic indicators," including the "Bohemian" and "Gay" indexes, that are relevant to that by now well-worn phrase, the "new economy."

Instead of sifting economic trends, Florida used the acres of print to answer such age old questions as: "Why cities without gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race." The Rise of the Creative Class ranked locales on "coolness" as measured by the vitality of the backbone of the new economy: artists and homosexuals.

The somewhat ham-fisted thesis of his book was that "knowledge workers" only settle in countries and cities that are "tolerant, diverse and open to creativity." Thus, tax cuts don't create jobs, or not the kind of jobs that matter. The super-cool creative workforce doesn't care about income taxes. So the path to economic prosperity is simple. The federal government should subsidize "fun" -- i.e., bike paths, indie rock bands, coffee shops, and art galleries.

MEDIA AND COMMUNITY ACTIVIST types cottoned onto Florida's findings. Groups popped up in cities across America demanding that local governments institute hip reforms. Last year, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper committed $80,000 a year to help market the city as "cool" to potential creative workers, and bought a copy of the book for everyone on his staff. Cincinnati now has a 42-page "Creative City Plan" stressing Florida's "three Ts": technology, talent, and tolerance.

The emphasis falls most heavily on the final T. Florida describes the normalization of gay marriage as one of the "great talent attraction packages of the last hundred years." He created a website and started giving seminars around the world on his discovery, for $10,000 a pop. At this writing, his book sold through ten hardcover printings, and has just been released in soft cover.

Of course, economics isn't called the dismal science for nothing. When Florida's colleagues finally got around to looking at the numbers, they found him to be wrong on virtually every particular.

In a sledgehammer of an article in the American Enterprise, Joel Kotkin demolished the case against the creative class thesis. Historically, the economies of Florida's vaunted top ten "creative" cities have struggled behind the national economy by several percentage points. More to the point, those cities dismissed as "least creative," have grown 60 percent faster than the "most creative" ones over the last 20 years.

GIVEN THE THRASHING he took, a lesser man might have gone back to the drawing board, or at least done some serious rethinking. But Florida, with a reputation and a lot of money riding on the acceptance of his thesis, decided to change the subject by going on the attack.

Thus his savage attack upon that all-purpose lefty bogeyman George W. Bush. In the current Monthly, Florida vents his anger and frustration with Bush and the whole red state way of life. America's creative class, he charges, is being driven into the more cultured arms of the European in a "creative class war."

This he paints as a departure from the previous regime. Bill Clinton, Florida explains, was the "midwife of the new creative economy" who "personally symbolized the creative class archetype -- its libertine character, its cleverness, its global-mindedness. For this he drew the lasting enmity of many millions of those in the 'other' America."

But those days are long gone and the barbarians are at the gates. While the Arkansas son's "whole life is a testimony to the power of education to change class," the current tenant of the Oval office spurns his Yalie past.

This anti-intellectualism, coupled with Bush's "aggressively unilateralist" foreign policy is driving off "high-end immigrants" needed to run the most powerful nation on earth. Florida quotes one unnamed scientist who complains that working in America "is like trying to research and do business in the 21st century in a culture that wants to live in the 19th century, empires, Bibles, and all."

Worse, in the aftermath of the GOP gains in 2002, the "economically lagging parts of the country now wield ultimate political power, while the creative centers -- source of most of America's economic growth -- have virtually none."

It's a nice story, really, but it has very little to do with the economic reality on the ground in the United States today. We might say that Florida's definition of "economically lagging" is rather too, well, creative.

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