Thursday, November 5, 2009

Economics - The schizophrenic science

Sorry to besmear those who suffer from actual schizophrenia by associating them with economists. I’ve just read an article for class, “The New American Dream: The economy will prosper again when more Americans can do the work they love”. Written by Richard Florida, it was published in the Washington Monthly, March, 2003. Florida is an urban economic policy guru. I have to get this out of my system because I feel a little dirty after reading it, so profound was its lack of lack of substance or logic. What makes it worse, is Florida isn’t some minor neoliberal crank. Toronto just gave him a 100 million dollar school to run and an annual pay check of 350 000$. Did I say school? I meant a lab, to manufacture crack pipe dreams.

I have to give credit where credit is due. Florida has spun what Hollywood calls High Concept (ideas that can be completely summed up into a few simple phrases, or one line) into a stack of books and papers and an international industry. Florida’s entire snake oil song and dance rests on two words: creative class. That’s it, there isn’t much else to the story. He preaches sinking all resources into enticing, supporting and subsidizing the wealthy elite as a sure fire formula for utopia. These are some magic beans.

He calls it a new kind of capitalism and differentiates it from that old one where lots of people had good secure jobs running the nitty gritty of day to day life. His new economy is that little patch of the city that has granite-countertop million dollar condos, high rise office towers, and the boutique glamour zone that the well-to-do play in. He describes creativity as the central force in the economy and offers up a non sequitur that 70% of the population are not engaged in it. Drat, I knew there was a catch.

Florida says worker expectations are changing: the old American dream was a job with which to feed your family, but the new American dream is a job you love, with which to feed your family. Luckily he doesn’t have to reconcile this pronouncement with the reality that wages are down, unemployment is up, job security is down, cost of living is up, social services are down, and requests for emergency food and housing are up. I think in a lot of places, the American dream is a job, period. Or maybe a waterproof cardboard box.

But wait, we’re still in Kansas. Florida is going to bring us all the way to Oz. He cites outsourcing labour and reducing manufacturing capabilities as positive factors in the new creative economy. Twanging his one string banjo, he tells us “creativity – the ability to come up with and implement a new idea” has always been the prime source of economic growth and advantage. So, I wasted a lot of money at school learning about the functions of ample supplies of energy, resources, cheap labour pools, and complicated market tools. Substantiating his claim with images of a post WWII America, he claims they changed from “perennial creativity to constant creativity”. I got lost at this point, because again, I couldn’t find the part about them being the wealthiest nation on the planet, after making buckets of money on a war that left the rest of the civilized world bombed into the stone age.

He made no mention of the use of economic and military clout to dominate global economics and trade agreements. And there was still no mention of all that cheap oil and steel, or the advantages of migrant workers in the agriculture industry I guess, when you get right down to it, Florida didn’t really make much connection between his idealized world of designers, artists and marketers and the post war baby-boom economy of Fordist production-wage protection-consumption models. I'm not unfair, I am willing to admit that fanning a multigenerational cold war under your arms industry can be construed as creative.

Just when you might be ready to laugh at the article, he just starts to get really disturbingly bizarre. Concerning Americas “golden age”, among his praises are union empowering laws and federal projects like mortgage guarantees, the GI education bill and highway construction. Then, in a surprise sucker punch, Florida says we shouldn’t keep doing archaic social projects if we want our cities to thrive. We’re not sure what is creative, but spending money to ensure a resilient diverse functional community is not creative.

He does encourage “creative education” so everyone can get in on the creative wealth. He never wonders who will clean the sewers once everyone is fully engaged in the creative economy. The creative economy doesn’t have much patience for the people who answer phones, clean teeth, keep records or any of the thousands of vital jobs that make up a city(lots of these people don’t want creative jobs, they want living wages, dental benefits and a well defined job description). He doesn’t wonder where the creative education will come from or what it will look like(except that it isn’t government subsidized).

Next, we get this brain frying powerhouse: “inequality is bad”. Skipped, is the part explaining how lowering wages and then hyper educating the population that will still be stuck with those “tedious” jobs helps cushion the inequality in any way. (It’s not really a question, Russia in the late 19th century enjoyed a sense of pride about a creative elite and ended up producing what they called The Superfluous Man. This man was smart and capable and sophisticated and expected to be made use of in some way befitting his talents. But there really wasn’t anything all that creative or cerebral for him to do. They still needed plumbers and farmers and clerks, but that wasn’t his job so he was idle. It kind of went downhill in Russia after that. Social inequality, raised expectations and lowered rewards are a nasty combination).

One little note, Florida make lots of references to painters and performers and plucky inventors in his creative class sleight of hand, but when you look up his sleeve, he is referring to the powerhouses of advertising and finance behind corporations like Apple and Sony, and the pharmaceutical firms that bring us Viagra and acid reflux pills. So, his range of creativity is getting pretty narrow at this point.

The real prize still to come, the Shoot-Yourself-In-The-foot Prize goes to the massive article space Florida devotes to statistics correlating cities with the biggest “creative class” to cities with the highest economic inequality. He also relates a causal relation between busy wealthy creative class types and the rise of low paid service sector jobs(servants). Hey, whose side is this joker on? Does he conclude that stripping public money from real civic works and giving it to an economic elite might not be good for a city? Does he insightfully note that that small segment of high earners skew income curves and cost of living. Does he make the leap connecting the deconstruction of the manufacturing sector with the desperate plight of income-insecure service workers. Nope. Creative cities, he insists, are winners.

Florida, confident, beaming big white teeth, pulls that one string banjo back out. What these cities need is still more creativity. We need to douse these cities in pure, virgin cold-pressed creativity, until we can “catch” those mired masses and “teach them right” (honest, I am not making this up). Then and only then, can they share in the limitless creative wealth out there just waiting for clever people to come along and pluck.

Anyway, you might want to roll up your sidewalks and fasten the shutters if Mr. Florida comes knocking. You shall know him by his one string banjo (and like Walmart and the corn-into-fuel guy, he may be riding a pale horse).

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't have said it better myself. And I mean that literally. I saw Florida speak at Mount Allison a few years ago and afterwards I was completely unable to formulate a response--the BS was so overwhelming and all-encompassing it was hard to get enough of a handle on it to start rebutting. Like trying to move a futon.