Since the 1970s, we have all been witnesses to the dismantling of the U.S. economy. Historian Judith Stein and others have traced de-industrialization to a combination of poor political choices and domestic policies, the corporate obsession with short-term stock positions over long-term planning and research and development, and global economic trends. Often in this telling, we lay blame with the new style Republicans like Ronald Reagan, but Stein points an accusing finger towards Jimmy Carter as well.
Through the 1990s, the popular view was that this trend—i.e. globalization—was natural and inevitable, and therefore, no one was responsible for the “creative destruction” over a generation of corporate reshufflings, massive layoffs, offshoring, and the diminishing of the middle class and crushing of the working class. We found ourselves a hollowed-out America.
Journalists like Barbara Ehrenreich chronicled the crushing poverty and desperation of the working poor in old industrial cities. It was well documented in Michael Moore’s seminal film Roger and Me, showing the decline of Flint, Michigan—25 years before its water was poisoned. There was a whole intellectual subfield of what was called rust-belt porn, witnessing and chronicling the urban decay of our industrial cities.
Meantime, Democrats and progressives struggled for years to articulate a positive vision for our ailing cities and the working poor who clustered in them. Enter social scientist Richard Florida, an urban planner by training, a demographer and big-data scientist by practice, who recognized that to survive, cities needed a highly trained, creative, and flexible workforce. That and that alone would attract industrial investment. While teaching in Pittsburgh (he was teaching at Carnegie Mellon), he noticed that his best students who had local job offers weren’t staying local. They wanted to live somewhere with a lively/creative cultural scene, one with more music, art, and restaurants. In short, they were looking for what would be called gentrified communities—think hipster Brooklyn of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Florida and his team of researchers at the Creative Class Group found that companies were best served by moving to the locations where these workers were and that cities could boost their economies by attracting more of them. So instead of tax breaks for manufacturing plants (old economy jobs), Florida argued that cities should also be investing in public arts, bike share programs, and rezoning neighborhoods, i.e. stop trying to save old manufacturing zones and instead turn those neighborhoods into hipster heavens (new economy jobs). It was a radical plea to shift from a hard industrial policy to a soft cultural policy to move the economy. But the timing for such an argument was perfect.
Florida laid this all out in his 2002 book, The Creative Class. Written in digestible bits for a general readership, the book was an instant mega-hit that made Florida an in-demand urban guru and public intellectual of the moment. He became popular with mayors and governors who lined up to sign on for his consulting firm. As liberals stumbling for new urban economic policies found in his ideas the positive, forward-looking urban agenda they’d been missing for decades, his platform grew.
Eventually, Florida came in for his share of attacks and blame, especially as gentrification accelerated. For a time, his creative class theory (or, rather, the recognized pattern he pointed out) seemed to suck the air out of national discussions around urban economic policy.
One can see the basis for this attack in his optimistic celebration of the emerging creative class as it became clear how much had been lost in the so-called gig economy. As downtowns gentrified and nine-to-five job faded, it was easy to point to Florida as a cause.
The political scientist Jacob Hacker has demonstrated how in the late 20th century we as a society moved economic risk from large institutions—such as corporations and the state—onto individuals. It turns out that the class that Florida celebrated was at the vanguard of this exploitation and risk shift. American lived in the gig economy, creative or otherwise.
Now, Florida is looking directly into the mirror and taking an account for the growth in inequality and how his ideas may have fed that growth, saying that the rise of virulent populism—in the election of Trump here, Rob Ford in his home city of Toronto, and the Brexit vote in Britain—has led him to reconsider the impact of his ideas. In short, this virulent populism and continued wealth gap forced him to rethink his agenda and role and place the battle against inequality at the center of urban policy discussions. Many have claimed it is too little and too late, or simply that he is being expedient to remain relevant.
Re-examining one’s own ideas and how they have been received and used is an admirable thing to do. What seems most striking to me is not the personal role one unelected academic played in the transformation of cities, but rather how mayors and planners and others in power latched onto Florida’s creative class remedies in their most simplistic form—as if bike lanes and parks with Wi-Fi alone would solve every urban problem. Embracing those ideas provided liberals with cover to roll back housing subsidies, defund mass transit, defund education, and cater to what remained of the middle class while increasingly ignoring the working class.
Florida’s central aim, as I read it, was to have cities and states rethink industrial policy—but not by ignoring housing, transportation, health policies and other important aspects of running large cities. Rather, I read it as forcing a serious look into the economic consequences of cultural spaces. Sadly, his book and corresponding creative class thesis gave many urban policy professionals the cover to give up on the constellation of policies and remedies aimed at decreasing inequality, and widen the wealth gap.
Florida continues pitching his new diagnosis about inequality with the same vigor and authority as he did his creative class prescription. But I wonder who out there is ready to listen to this more pessimistic, and realistic, assessment.