Creative Class Myth Debunked?
Does talent spawn growth? Or does growth attract talent?
Regular commenter Jon Personna points me “The Fall of the Creative Class,” an interesting essay by Frank Bures in Thirty Two magazine. In between a lot of snark and wry observations about his exploits in Madison, Wisconsin, the essay is about Richard Florida’s evangelization of the “creative class.”
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.
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.
That last bit really explains the popularity of the theory. Regardless of whether creative people drive prosperity or prosperity attracts creative people, there is certainly a creative class. That is, a group of people who make their living writing, thinking, teaching, and otherwise sharing their ideas with others. This creative class does in fact tend to congregate in a relative handful of metropolitan areas and in college towns, especially those which house elite institutions.
I moved to the Washington, DC area just shy of ten years ago. We have something of a critical mass of bright, well educated people with a passion for public policy in these parts. We didn’t come for the coffee shops, social tolerance, or the presence of large numbers of openly gay people but because we’re home to the United States Government and a bevy of institutions who study and/or attempt to influence said government.
Certainly, I could live just about anywhere and write blog posts about public policy. And Twitter has made it much easier to network with other wonks than it was until just a couple of years ago. But there’s nowhere else I could go and meet these people on a daily basis. Much less where there are dozens of institutions and firms where I could conceivably find gainful employment.
Florida—who has his PhD from Columbia in Urban Planning, not Sociology or Economics—seems to be studying the shadow rather than the object that’s casting it. But he’s not wrong in describing what he sees. The qualities that describe urban areas with large concentrations of “creative class” people–the three Ts’s of talent, tolerance, and technology–are conducive to economic growth. I don’t know how you’d go about attracting that to an area that doesn’t already have a means of paying said talent or affording said technology. But it’s clearly possible; Silicon Valley didn’t always exist. Nor did North Carolina’s Research Triangle.