Thursday, June 21, 2012

Understanding the "Creative Class"

I have been chastised for my perceived drive-by on Richard Florida and his snake-oil policy prescriptions for cities.  See, I can't help myself....

Actually, I had only intended to highlight a passage about how what we are really talking about is human capital which, for the most part, means we are talking about education (but in general it is whatever makes us more productive: education, experience, intelligence, yes even creativity, etc).  And that the emphasis on attracting creative types to cities through catering to their preferences is a bit off.  There is no doubt that human capital is immensely important to cities and being able to attract those with high human capital is a great thing, but I tend to prefer we concentrate on how we create human capital ourselves. But of course in the quick firing off of a short blog post all context is lost and meanings become mangled (especially when I tarted up my tweet with the term "Debunking" - which again was meant to refer to the fact that we are talking fundamentally about human capital, not all of Florida's work).

So it is not so much about the substance of the argument - human capital matters and correlates of human capital, creative types, gays, patents, are therefore important as well - but the way that the story is told and the policy prescriptions that follow that we can quibble about.

An argument made forcefully to me is that it is not enough to be right and have evidence on your side, you have to know how to speak to policy makers in a way that can actually move them in the right direction.  Florida has done this - sneakily emphasizing human capital but using language and imagery that can be seized upon by policy maker and that can actually have an impact on policy.

This is fair enough, and a good point: there is no point being precise about everything when no one listens.  And those of us ensconced in the ivory tower tend to think we are doing important work that speaks for itself when the truth is it doesn't.  We have to find a way to make it digestible to, and repeatable by, policy makers.

So what do I think overall of Florida's work, well here is the best thing I have seen written about it by my go to guy on all things urban, Ed Glaeser of Harvard:
But if Florida’s novelty is not emphasizing creativity, or the rise of bohemian lifestyles, he deserves considerably more credit for putting them together. Lifestyles really do differ across occupations, and changing workplace patterns assuredly do matter for changing lifestyle preferences. This insight is correct, and I think Florida really deserves credit for emphasizing it in the popular domain.

He is also right in arguing that if cities want to succeed they need to think about providing lifestyle, or consumption, advantages to their residents. As I have argued elsewhere, declining transportation costs mean that few places have any innate advantages in production anymore. Proximity to the coal mines or the harbor may have mattered in 1900, but do not matter today. Instead, the productive advantage that one area has over another is driven mostly by the people. Urban success comes from being an attractive “consumer city” for high skill people (see e.g. Glaeser, Kolko and Saiz, 2001).

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—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 mostsuccessful skilled city in the country in the 1990s (measured by population growth)—it’s not exactly a Bohemian paradise.

The source of Florida’s policy prescriptions seems to be his attempt to argue that there is a difference between his “creative capital” view and the mainstream urban view that human capital generates growth. As mentioned above, I have always argued that skilled cities grow because “the presence of skills in the metropolitan area may increase new idea production and the growth rate of city-specific productivity levels,” but if Florida wants to argue that there is an effective of bohemian, creative types, over and above the effect of human capital, then presumably that should show up in the data.
He then goes on to do some basic regressions with Florida's data to show that when you put a college educated variable in them it is terribly significant and all the rest of the "creative class" variables - patents, gays, 'super creatives', bohemians - become insignificant.  They do so because, presumably of the high degree of correlation between them and the college educated variable.  It is just a crude way of showing, once again, that it is really all about education.

So you can talk about creatives all you want, but be aware that in so doing what you are really focusing on is education.  Creating places where educated people are created, attracted and retained is crucially important.  I think, as does Glaeser, that the attracting part is a bit of a fools errand - what exactly do they want?  Probably good jobs, first and foremost.  No, what policy makers have more control over is the creating part, through a high quality public education system.  And what concerns me is making sure that the creative class amenities mantra does not dominate the education mantra.


ABC said...
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ABC said...

Except that, to take Glaeser's point about low transportation costs and supposed geographic irrelevance, society is highly mobile. Investing in education is worthwhile for its own sake, but if you expect to invest in education as a way of bolstering a local or regional economy, That logic is flawed. There is absolutely no guarantee that highly educated people from our region will stay here. They will go to wherever best offers them an opportunity for a good life, and that includes both jobs and lifestyle quality.

Florida's thinking, in some ways, is merely a matter of shorthanding the issue. Bohemian etcetera demographics are more likely to be highly educated, therefore try and attract them. I don't see this as particularly controversial. Where this does go off the rails is when it is portrayed as the one true way, rather than merely one possible strategy. And it also goes wrong when it is simplistically taken to be a cause and effect scenario, that just because you attract this demographic your city will become wealthy and dynamic. It leads towards a slight smack of theme park marketing.

Florida does translate human capital into language that can reach out to policy makers, but the danger is also that in so doing, the underlying truths about human capital get lost in translation, simplified, dumbded down even, until they no longer represent sound policy.