Creative class wankery

I can’t decide whether American economist Richard Florida, who is currently doing the rounds promoting his latest book The Flight of the Creative Class, is one of those public intellectuals that Tim Dunlop loves, or just a populist poseur. Florida is responsible for the vogue notion that the growth and prosperity of modern cities are fuelled by the “creative class”, and the extent to which a city caters for their tastes and interests.

What intrigued me about Florida’s current publicity tour is the uncritical adulation his ideas seem to be receiving in much of the Australian media. Take this fawning interview in the Sydney Morning Herald and this equally uncritical article in the same journal. Why so credulous? I can’t help thinking it has something to do with the fact that Florida’s shtick panders to the desires and prejudices of the chattering classes. He reckons the “creative class” needs lots of cheeky little trattorias, art galleries, al fresco dining with great lattes, superb theatre, and a generally “gay friendly” and “bohemian friendly” ambience. What’s more, as we’ll see, his latest book adds to this yuppie-friendly mix the additional proposition that George W. Bush’s moralistic neoconservative tendencies run a severe risk of imperilling American prosperity by provoking a flight of the “creative class” to other more receptive overseas destinations. You can see why Fairfax journos might be inclined to serve up a rich diet of Dorothy Dixers to Comrade Florida. This marginally less credulous article in The Age explains the focus of Florida’s new book in the following terms:

This time around, Florida argues that the United States is struggling to hold on to the Creative Class, a problem exacerbated by the Bush Administration’s heightened security concerns after September 11, the growing divide between conservatives and liberals, and the attacks on scientific investigation into areas such as stem cell research, which are causing people to leave the country or stop them from getting in.

However, there are several peculiar aspects to the “creative class” concept. Most importantly, Florida defines them as including not only arts, media and advertising industry types, but also scientists, engineers, technologists, lawyers, doctors, educators and finance workers. Now I know a few “creative” lawyers and accountants, but it’s hardly a label that instantly springs to mind for most of them. It looks very much like Florida is simply using “creative class” as a trendy synonym for “knowledge worker”, in order to give his books an appearance of originality that they don’t actually possess. That’s certainly what Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser argues.

Moreover, Glaeser also debunks essentially the only vaguely original aspect of Florida’s hypothesis, namely that economic growth of cities is promoted by being “gay friendly” and “bohemian friendly”. Glaeser undertook regression analysis of statistics supplied by Florida himself on 242 cities. He found that while there was a significant positive correlation between growth and prosperity and the presence of a highly skilled and educated workforce, there was no significant correlation of growth with either the so-called “Gay Index” (the number of coupled gay people in the area relative to the number of total people in the area) or “Bohemian Index” (the number of artistic types in the population relative to the overall population).

Moreover, what basis is there for the assumption that all or even most scientists, engineers, technologists, artists, entertainers, lawyers, doctors, educators and finance workers are likely to be more attracted by arty or gay friendly facilities than by decent public transport, sporting facilities, good schools and a safe urban/suburban environment? Again it’s a point Glaeser makes:

But while I agree with much of Florida’s substantive claims about the real, I end up with doubts about his prescriptions for urban planning. Florida makes the reasonable argument that as cities hinge on creative people, they need to attract creative people. So far, so good. Then he argues that this means attracting bohemian types who like funky, socially free areas with cool downtowns and lots of density. Wait a minute. Where does that come from? I know a lot of creative people. I’ve studied a lot of creative people. Most of them like what most well-off people like¢â¬âbig suburban lots with easy commutes by automobile and safe streets and good schools and low taxes. After all, there is plenty of evidence linking low taxes, sprawl and safety with growth. Plano, Texas was the most successful skilled city in the country in the 1990s (measured by population growth)¢â¬âit’s not exactly a Bohemian paradise.

An article in the The Age (in contrast to its credulous Sydney stablemate) makes a similar point:

On the other side of the fence, Joel Kotkin, one of America’s most readable and provocative commentators on urban issues, has suggested that Florida’s arguments might be used by cities as a pretext for neglecting infrastructure and social problems. “New York doesn’t need another art museum,” Kotkin has said. “It needs a subway that works.”

Lastly, the non-American cities Florida cites as being the big dangers for attracting the “creative class” away from the evil neocon-dominated US include Sydney and Melbourne, along with Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Dublin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Bangalore and Shanghai. Now I haven’t visited either Shanghai or Bangalore, but I’d be very surprised if either of them is notably gay or bohemian friendly. Moreover, as The Age article observes, it’s a bit difficult to understand the inclusion of Amsterdam in Florida’s “creative class” dynamic attractant list when Dutch economic growth is currently hovering around a dismal 1%.

One suspects the spectre of flight of the creative class from the evil US creativity-crushing neocons (and even its very existence as a significant economic factor discrete from knowledge workers in general) has much more to do with promoting Richard Florida than with encouraging sound policies for urban growth and development.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Three words: a populist poseur.

Steve
Steve
2022 years ago

I think the term ‘bobo’ is more current than yuppie, and is more applicable in labelling the creative class described.

Perhaps Australia’s good economy has nothing to do with either Keating or Howard reforms since the 80s. Maybe it is simply the ubiquitous spread of cafe culture across Australia over the last 20 years. Even plently of little country towns do cappucino’s and lattes instead of your white coffee (nescafe with a drop of milk) these days. Great for that Sunday drive out of the big smoke – you are no longer visiting the country for rough nature, intead you are visiting retired boomer sea-changers – the spawners of the creative class, and big drinkers of fancy caffeinated beverages.

The plateauing and shakiness of our economy over the next few years will probably be due to the spread of chains like Starbucks and Krispy Kreme and the McCafe, which will no doubt erode the creative-class-attracting cafe scene in our major cities.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

“He reckons the “creative classes” need lots of cheeky little trattorias, art galleries, al fresco dining with great lattes, superb theatre, and a generally “gay friendly” and “bohemian friendly” ambience.”

Have to say I’m quite comfortable hangin’ out down at the k-mart cafe — must be the ‘dag-friendly’ ambience. Wrong ‘creative class’, I guess.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Florida was the keynote speaker at the Australian International Documentary Conference earlier this year. I went into it expecting to see a bunch of filmmakers purring like contented cats as he tickled their tummies.

In fact he offered a more layered discussion than I thought. For a start he was stirring the possum in a creative sector which some practitioners argue has abandoned imagination and risk under pressure from financiers

David Tiley
2022 years ago

“Among them are our greatest scientists, artists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, mathematicians and engineers.” – sorry, I got carried away. I was thinking of feature films, where it is pretty close to true. What I meant to say was:

“Among them are SOME OF our greatest scientists, artists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, mathematicians and engineers.”

Small change but important. There’s a heap of good high flyers hanging in at home.

Tim
Tim
2022 years ago

one of those public intellectuals that Tim Dunlop loves

Um, actually, I spent 4 years of my life and 140,000 word thesis arguing that the category “public intellectual” is redundant. Democracies are better served by thinking in terms of citizenship.

As to Florida, I reckon you’re right. Just sounds like bad, unsupported, undergraduate sociology.

Tim
Tim
2022 years ago

Then again, now that I read Dave’s comment properly, maybe I’m wrong. Though I do have a question about his comments about a brain drain. I thought that this was pretty much discounted these days, that most who do go overseas actually return and that, what’s more, we get an influx of other people anyway, so that there might actually be a net “brain gain”. Is that supported by evidence, or did I just pick it up somewhere unreliable?

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Having lunched with the biking fanatic Richard Florida (who loved Australia’s biking urban, suburban and regional bike trails), I’d agree with David that his thesis is more thought out and detailed than has been explored here.

And unlike the David Brooks and Tom Friedmans, he ain’t pulling observations out of his arse while jetting over the heads of suburbia. He’s carried out some pretty detailed research based on some solid methodologies (not at work now so I don’t have them to hand, but google it).

Because his views go against a large chunk of received wisdom being percolated now that wants to pit arty coastal moral relativists against salt of the earth hinterlanders, a lot of his points get oversimplifed for polemic purposes. Like the gay or good coffee shop points which so many critics fasten upon – but which he sees as an indicator, not a driver, of an ideas, capital and people magnet city.

Or to put it another way, in a similar crude and colourful vein to many of his critics, not many hick towns get rich without an abundant supply of nearby natural resources. As Davo sorta pointed out above, brains, smarts, talent and risk takers generally go where the action is already happening – and where it’s backed up by quality of life. Then when they make their bone, then it’s the seachange rural retreat – but almost always well linked to a good nearby funky metropolis.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

“they make their bone”

Yes, I meant “bones”.

And re the brain drain Tim, yes it is becoming a brain gain. Now why do you think that is?

And when are you gonna return to show your little tacker how to handle the left hand break at Bells Beach?

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

I heard Florida on an ABC program which I think was hosted by Alan Saunders last year. I’m afraid my reaction to it was visceral revulsion. The content was ordinary enough, unexceptionable, and of some interest. But the presentation was such a blast of cheap egotism and high pressure bullshit that I was moved (as I am very very rarely) to send in an email complaining – or rather just saying what an appauling guest they’d just managed to promote.

I don’t know if I ended up sending it. After all why send it when such reactions are often taken as signs of broadcasting success. Saunders even had the grace to sign off on the program with what seemed to me to be thinly disgused embarassment.

Later I tracked down an attack on Florida by Steven Malanga at http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_1_the_curse.html. Malanga’s attack was an ideological hatchet job that also contained some empirical criticisms of Florida that went to the heart of his argument. Florida’s response was assiduous in responding to the ideological argy-bargy in kind, but neatly sidestepped the only issue I cared about which was his response to the matters of substance Malanga had raised.

I tihnk the reply I am talking about is here – http://www.matr.net/print-10729.html – but I’ve not read it all through. Not this time anyway. Been there, done that. Like George Bush said “There’s an old saying that says, fool me once, shame on —

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Having met Florida, I’d be the first to agree he is an assiduously self-promoting septic tank, out to make a buck from his theory through a globetrotting dog and pony show that gets local pollies overhyped. But hey, isn’t that what capitalism and the free market of ideas is all about?

As regards criticism of his thesis by Malanga and others, well he’s rebutted them empirically and otherwise:
http://www.creativeclass.org/baffler_response.shtml
Of course his rebuttals are open to rebuttals in turn, and so it goes.

By the way, Steven Malanga lives in New York. And Nick G, where do you live, and why?

Russell Allen
2022 years ago

I always had the impression that the ‘creative’ classes were basically poor, partially retarded (autistic if you’re a glass half-full person), dole bludgers who spend all day practising their art.

Clearly someone got them confused with the ‘chattering’ classes who are robotic, ass-perusers who sip lattes because they don’t drink (all artists drink – come on!!), visit galleries to fill the void in their brain that inspiration once sat, and go to trattorias because they don’t like bistro food and wanted a change.

I wouldn’t mind seeing those critics fly away, preferably to that island in LOST, as all they do is pretend they have artistic value and read the local Zagat guide as if it’s a set text.

too stupid for most things
too stupid for most things
2022 years ago

so…. is ‘knowledge worker’ the new name for university graduate?

Paul Watson
2022 years ago

Ken,

For once, I agree with you. As far as Florida’s empirics go – and while a sample of one is admittedly dubious – I am gay, highly-educated, and otherwise “creative” under just about any measure. And I live in involuntary poverty in supposedly boho inner-Melbourne. So eff-off, Richard Florida – or at least show me the money.
(Hint – the Oz taxpayer funds you’ve already received could at tyhe very least have bought me a day job, I’m sure).

As for Russell Allen’s perceived confusion between the ‘creative’ classes (basically poor dole bludgers – yep, that’s me) and the ‘chattering’ classes (the latte sippers), it’s all actually quite simple, Russ. It just depends on which side of 1962 you were born on.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Nabs

I’m not suggesting that Florida’s books (at least his first one) are complete crap, just that they’re essentially unoriginal popularisations of research that’s been around for years. The linkages between a highly skilled workforce, higher education, training, R & D and economic growth are well established, and were well known to politicians long before Florida’s book. Barry Jones’ unfairly (if understandably) derided Knowledge Nation policy document set all this out in considerable detail.

Florida’s original hook for this unoriginal popularisation is the “gay index” “boho index” stuff, but it appears to be bullshit whether as an indicator or a driver of economic growth (note Glaeser’s analysis of it referred to in the primary post).

The hook for Florida’s new book (which I haven’t yet read) seems to be the claim of an imminent “brain drain” from the US. If so, it too is bullshit for reasons Tim Dunlop highlighted in an earlier comment.

Tony Healy
Tony Healy
2022 years ago

Malanga, in Nic Gruen’s post above, makes the telling point that Florida’s premise is enormously attractive to trendoid organisations seeking funding in second and third tier cities, and their city councillor supporters. Build the bike tracks and renovate the city quarter, he tells them, and the city will become an economic powerhouse. In Australia, it’s a theme that would be embraced by cities like Adelaide and some ambitious regional centres, almost certainly with no real effect.

It seems to me Florida does not adequately address the criticism that he confuses cause and effect. Trendy workforces don’t just go to areas without jobs. The innovative businesses come first, and that’s what attracts the trendy workforce.

Significantly, Florida’s own environment, Pittsburgh, is one of those environments, desperately trying to emulate its more successful west coast rivals. It’s also interesting that his university, Carnegie-Mellon, is associated with prescriptive efforts in software.

Beyond that, the recent extension of his argument to migration needs to be understood in the context of the American debate on this issue. Florida’s triumphalism on migration is part of a wider response to concern over the impact of temporary workers and offshoring on the engineering workforce. Florida’s arguments on this issue are weak .

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Florida deals in generalisations and boosterism rather than empirical research. Hence he gets to be a best-selling, much interviewed guru. Of, among other institutions, the QUT Creative Industries Faculty which is the subject of a withering reality check by two of its own academics in today’s Australian:

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,15242106%255E12332,00.html

Paul Watson
2022 years ago

The QUT Creative Industries Faculty (CIF) article in today’s Oz is a doozy overall. Where John Hookham and Gary Maclennan go off track, however, is with this:

“This is expressed by opinions that shows such as Big Brother and Wife Swap are the same as or better than Shakespeare. To disagree leads to an accusation of snobbery. There has been an enormous dumbing down of the faculty, an opportunity has been missed.”

I have no personal knowledge of what may be currently going down at QUT, but my strong inkling is that an culture-wars axe is being ground in the above reference.

In any case, one hardly needs to invoke the tired “Big Brother vs Shakespeare” comparison to substantiate claims that QUT is dumbing down (which I don’t doubt, BTW – in fact, every Oz university seem to be guilty of this, in fact).

Just look here:
http://www.sdi.qld.gov.au/dsdweb/v3/guis/templates/content/gui_cue_cntnhtml.cfm?id=14411

QUT’s CIF thus does seem to be inviting special ridicule when one appreciates the tawdry political favours it has slurped up and/or given.

“Queensland Inc” (aka “the Smarm State”): a Royal Commission coming to you, circa 2010.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

They’re referring, I think, to a conference paper that the then Dean, John Hartley gave in 2002 when he asserted just that – Big Brother was the new Shakespeare.

And yes, the CIF is very close to the Smart State government.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Paul – Florida is suggesting that making sure you get the money is part of a sensible strategy for economic development.

In a situation in which the Feds have just supplied 22 billion in tax cuts and sod all in any of the areas under discussion here, I suggest we really need him to succeed in his song and dance act, whether it is truly original or not.

Trouble is, his American ways trip the Australian showoff detector which we all carry under our jumpers. Septic indeed.

Paul Watson
2022 years ago

David,

I’m actually glad that the Budget didn’t do anything for the arts (‘cept capital city symphony orchestras) or education.

Why should we have to keep pretending that we’re buskers for hire, grateful for any donation, however small? Nothing Richard Florida says suggests otherwise; rather, he just propagates the myth that the creative “buskers” (of my generation, anyway) somehow live on air alone.

And a zero-sum, subsistence economy does not an arts honeypot maketh, even when a brash American says that it will.

Call me cynical? Look at Greg Sheridan in today’s Oz, writing about the book/film “Three Dollars”, who seriously suggests that the late 30s protagonist Eddie, an unemployed chemical engineer, would more realistically have “retrain[ed] as a plumber and [gotten] rich”: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,15256514%255E25377,00.html

See the disconnect here with Richard Florida’s prophecy of arts-topias? Greg Sheridan apparently envisages a pipe- and shit-topia, instead. To which I can only say: bring it on.