Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone did creative things all the time and got rich, enlightened and satisfied in the process? Richard Florida certainly thinks so.
Mr. Florida, a public-policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has managed to create a lifestyle brand name from the self-evident idea that post-industrial economies need imaginative, intelligent workers. Mr. Florida tells us that cool and diverse cities that are attractive to young creative types will flourish, while those without the requisite appeal to hipsters will wither.
New Yorkers should know better than to take seriously an argument which asserts that “the real foreign threat is not terrorism; it’s that we may make creative and talented people stop wanting to come here.” But that’s what Mr. Florida says in latest book, The Flight of the Creative Class.
Mr. Florida’s influence is undeniable. State Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer referenced the professor and his book recently, though his comments were so vague that I doubt he’d read the book. The Bloomberg administration asked for Mr. Florida’s input in rebuilding lower Manhattan.
Urban leaders across America and the world have embraced Mr. Florida’s idea, which boils down to “we [are] tapping at most 10 percent of our latent creative capital.” Like many of the big numbers Mr. Florida tosses around, this one is apparently drawn out of a hat.
Mr. Florida tells us that because the “radical revamping of the ways we work, live, play, and think is still only in its adolescence, our times are fraught with contradictions. Take a look around. What do you see? Pure human genius and innovation accompanied by pure human greed and destruction.” Those humans and their human condition! Happily, creativity will save us from all that.
To back this big idea up, Mr. Florida whips out intimidating statistics that fail to withstand even cursory analysis. The so-called creative class is made up of “scientists, engineers, artists, cultural creatives, managers, professionals, and [sometimes] technicians.”
Professionals? Given that the largest single group here is managers, the question is: How many creative middle managers do you know?
My favorite leap from empty number to sweeping conclusion must be when he cites a World Health Organization finding that “the mental illness rate ranges from 26 percent of people in the United States to 8 percent in Italy.” Having thus established that Americans are whacked-out, he concludes that “stressed people can not make breakthroughs.” No wonder the Italians keep breaking through!
Flight takes his conceit, first offered in — you guessed it — “The Rise of the Creative Class” global, warning that the U.S. is losing bright creatives to such powerhouses as Belgium and Canada. The scarcely veiled extension is that America is doomed if we stay the course with our present barbarian leadership, which repels and disgusts all good creatives. That Canada, which Mr. Florida endless praises, sends twice as many highly skilled workers to America as it takes back from us is never mentioned.
New Yorkers ought to have their suspicions aroused again when Mr. Florida takes a moment from his cosmic wanderings to set down on the more prosaic theme of gentrification. He is troubled for a moment by what happens to the unhappy non-creatives when the creatives take hold of their “authentic” neighborhoods, but resolves this to his satisfaction by again recalling that we’re all truly creative. He takes the same tack with public education, offering the fortune-cookie aphorism that “It takes genuine learning—both in and out of our classrooms … to build an economy.”
Mining this banal vein, he tells us that “Disk jockey schools … are valuable contributors to our nation’s culture and economy” and that “I would consider the most creatively fulfilled … the mailman on his rounds, the food-prep worker behind the counter, and, yes, even the janitor who takes great pride in his building.” This makes for hebephrenic reading, as these latter groups are, of course, not counted as creatives in his data, but middle managers are, adding an unintentionally humorous twist to his endlessly repeated paean to the joys of the creative life.
As to how all this is to be accomplished, Mr. Florida is at his breathless best: “This is at bottom a political challenge …. It is impossible [to offer a] plan for building the creative society; [it] needs to emerge organically.” Instead, he offers “signposts on the road,” my favorite being “Tap the Full Creative Capabilities of Everyone.”
Mr. Florida has written a book for the very people who read and review such books, who of course self-identify as members of this creative class. Who wouldn’t want to be told that their work is bringing about a better world for us all, richer and more enlightened? If only we could all get hip, what a wonderful world it would be. But who would bring us our lattes then?