Monday, February 19, 2007

Domestic partner benefits and the myth of the "Creative Class"

If you cruise down to the Frankfort Road district of Louisville, you will see stickers in shop windows and on the bumpers of cars that say, "Keep Louisville Weird". This area of town is becoming a haven for neighborhood art galleries and coffee houses, and a bohemian hangout that includes gays and conservative seminary students (Al Moeller's Southern Seminary is right down the road).

As it turns out, you can find the same slogan prominently displayed throughout Austin, Texas: "Keep Austin Weird". There are probably other cities that account themselves "weird" if you looked hard enough.

What does it mean? What is it for a city to be "weird", and why does it matter?

If you consulted a recent book by Richard Florida, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon, it would all start to make sense. Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, propounds the thesis that communities which practice what he calls the "Three T's"Technology, Talent, and Toleranceare communities that prosper. Communities that don't do this, on the other hand, languish economically.

It is the Ur-text behind the arguments in support of domestic partner benefits plans currently being considered by the University of Kentuckythe source of the argument that UK and other state universities need to provide employee benefits to the live-in sexual partners of its staff to “remain competitive”.

Florida argues that we are entering upon a "Creative Age," and that those cities that sign on to his program for attracting the creative talent that drives it will come out ahead, and those cities that do not will fall behind. His book has become the hottest thing among..., well, among the people it says such good things about. In fact, whole cities, such as Florida's own Pittsburgh, have devoted substantial resources to implementing his policies.

A good summary of Florida's arguments can be found in the 2001 Washington Monthly article, "The Rise of the Creative Class."

The popularity of "weirdness", however, is not limited to a few exotic enclaves. If you were listening to last week's debate over a bill that would force state universities to abide by the State Constitution and refrain from lavishing taxpayer money on the live-in sexual partners of its staff (SB 152), you heard Florida's book brought up repeatedly. State Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, an openly gay senator from Lexington, appealed to it in the floor debate over the bill, and University of Louisville President James Ramsey brought it up in his testimony against the bill before the Senate State Government Committee.

Our universities, we were told, are trying to practice "Tolerance," Florida's Third "T", in order to attract Talent, his Second "T". We cannot attract Talent unless we practice Tolerance. Doing things like refusing to subsidize alternative lifestyles with taxpayer money and following the restrictions of the State Constitution, we are led to believe, will drive away the creative talent our state and its universities need to attract in order to remain competitive.

Keep repeating all This, and it will become True.

Are gays more creative than straights?
It is this emphasis on "tolerance" that has attracted the most attention in Florida's book. Florida goes so far as to create a "Tolerance Index". Florida attempts to quantify tolerance with four measures: "the Gay Index, the Bohemian Index, the Melting Pot Index (the concentration of foreign born people), and a measure of racial integration." (The Rise of the Creative Class, p. 11)

According to Richard Malanga, a critic of his book, Florida has gone so far as to point to gay marriage as an economic catalyst. "[T]he legalization of gay marriage," he reportedly told a Canadian newspaper, "is one of the great talent attraction packages of the last hundred years."

This aspect of Florida's argument has made it into the popular media in the form of various oversimplifications. One of these is that gays are more creative than straight people. This view found its way into print in a recent Lexington Herald-Leader article. In addition, Sen. Scorsone, in his floor speech against SB 152, seemed to come close to espousing this view.

But Florida does not actually say this, and what he does say has little more to commend it.

Florida's Fashionable Falsehoods
What Florida's thesis amounts to is this: kowtowing to left-wing special interest groups and succumbing to trendy cultural fads is good economics. Forget the things that we have always thought really contributed to economic health, like low taxes and non-intrusive government. What really drives economic growth is more bike paths, more Starbucks—and more policies that encourage and affirm gays.

But Malanga, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, pointed out in a 2004 article in the Wall Street Journal that there was one small problem with Florida's thesis: it doesn't appear to actually fit reality:
A generation of leftish policy makers and urban planners are rushing to implement Mr. Florida's vision, while an admiring host of uncritical journalists tout it. But there is just one problem: The basic economics behind his ideas don't work. Far from being economic powerhouses, several of the cities the professor identifies as creative-age winners have chronically underperformed the American economy. And, although Mr. Florida is fond of saying that today "place matters" in attracting workers and business, some of his top creative cities don't even do a particularly good job at attracting—or keeping—residents. ("The Curse of the Creative Class," The Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2004)

There are a number of charts in Florida's book, among them, a chart giving a "Creativity Rank" to a number of cities. As it turns out, Malanga points out, the cities Florida lists as being the most "Creative" largely turn out to be no better than the ones he lists as least "Creative" on standard measures of economic health. In terms of jobs and business growth, as well as population retention, the cities Florida lists as the most Creative turn out to be pretty much the same as those he lists as least Creative—if not worse.

In fact, some of the cities he lists as top cities, like Austin, Houston, and San Diego, are economic underperformers, while those he has commissioned to the lower reaches of his economic Hell, such as Oklahoma City and Memphis, are "economic powerhouses".
[S]ince 1993, cities that score the best on Mr. 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%. Mr. 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, Mr. Florida's 10 least creative cities turn out to be jobs powerhouses, adding more than 19% to their job totals since 1993--faster growth even than the national economy.
When it comes to jobs, it seems, Florida's numbers don't come close to adding up.
Jobs data going back 20 years, to 1983, show that Mr. Florida's top 10 cities as a group actually do worse, lagging behind the national economy by several percentage points, while his so-called least creative cities continue to look like jobs powerhouses, expanding 60% faster than his most creative cities during that same period.
In other words, not only is Florida wrong, his conclusions come close to being the opposite of the truth.

The "Geek Theory" of Economic Progress
In fact, I have a thesis that is much more likely to be true. Maybe some day, like Florida, I'll dress it up with impressive looking charts and statistics and publish it as a book. My theory is called the "Geek Theory". The Geek Theory is that the people who drive economic and technological advancement are not the trendy yuppies Florida exalts who go clubbing on weekends and work at their laptops at coffee houses with free wireless, but rather nerds with horn-rimmed glasses who who wear food-stained ties and can't find a girl.

These people are not wasting their energies on a treadmill at the gym. Instead, they have devoted themselves body and soul to the kind of economic and technological progress that benefits the rest of us. Where are the policies to attract them? Where is the concern for geek culture? Will it really benefit cities (or universities) to install more bike paths, roller-blading trails, and to institute domestic partner benefits? Or would they be better off with more Radio Shacks and bowling alleys?

People like UK President Lee Todd and U of L's James Ramsey who now distribute Florida's creative class snake oil would have you think the technology revolution is being driven by well educated preppies in search of more rock clubs and neighborhood art galleries. Forget about it. This is a mistaken image foisted on a gullible public. In fact, the type of person actually doing most of the work is some guy at a computer terminal in his small office cubicle with six mechanical pencils sticking out of the pocket of his short sleeve dress shirt.

And people forget: Bill Gates is a geek. So is Stephen Jobs. (I offer the photos, left and right, as Exhibits A and B.) In fact, they're not even particularly well educated. Both are college drop-outs.

Sen. Scorsone is fond of talking about the people who are “just a little bit different” who drive our economy, and he is fond of giving tiresome lectures on how we should accommodate them. But where does he get the idea that these people are gay?

The geeks, I maintain, are the real economic heroes. God bless 'em.

Recently, someone conducted a blind taste test pitting McDonald's coffee against Starbuck's, a cultural icon of the creative class. A majority of test participants chose McDonald's over the trendy alternative brew. This is symbolic of the whole problem with Florida's theory: the "weird" is seldom superior to the normal.

Part of the reason Florida's thesis is so appealing is because the people in the positions by which such social theories are popularized are the very people Florida lauds. His theory feeds the egos of those who populate the chattering classes. These are the people at magazines and journals who review books like Florida's. They are also the people who run our cultural institutions—including our universities.

Is Louisville the worst large city in America?
Ironically, one of the cities Florida puts near the bottom of his list is Louisville. According to Florida, Louisville ranks 44th of the 49 large city regions in tolerance, and 49th—dead last—in creativity. This should have the "Louisville is weird" crowd crying in their lattes.

Louisville, it turns out, is not weird at all, but quite normal—by Florida's standards, hopelessly normal.

Both University of Kentucky president Lee Todd and U of L's Ramsey have bought into Florida's creative class theory big time, and they're trying to convince the public that instituting Florida's flawed ideas, such as that domestic partner policies will attract more and better talent, is the way to economically advance their universities and the state. But what kind of confidence can we have in these men and their policies when the very basis for them flies in the face of the economic data?

What lawmakers should have asked U of L's President Ramsey, as he sat in front of them recently spouting Florida's New Age economic nostrums in defense of his university's attempts to subsidize non-marital relationships, is whether he really believes what Florida says. Does Ramsey actually think that Louisville is the worst large city in the country? Does he really think Louisville is, in words Florida quotes from George Gilder, "leftover baggage from the industrial era"? (p. 285).

If so, maybe the University of Louisville is not the right place for him. Maybe he could find something in a place like San Francisco (one of Florida's favored cities) that would be more to his liking.

San Francisco, after all, really is weird.


Bill Gnade said...

Just thought I'd say that the chart (US Bureau of Stats) does not make sense as presented. There seems to be some data missing, no? I am not sure I understand what it is showing.


Anonymous said...

You obviously did not do your research. "Keep Louisville Weird" is not a reference to mixing gays and straights and increasing tolerance on "Frankfort Road" (which is actually Frankfort Avenue). "Keep Louisville Weird" is actually a Grassroots public awareness campaign promoting patronage of locally-owned independent businesses. By nature, very much anti-Starbucks. Im a little confused as to where you came up with the conclusion that brandishing a "Keep Louisville Weird" sticker somehow equates to using free wi-fi at Starbucks.

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