Robert Reich’s new film, Richard Florida 10 years later, and how growing inequality wrecks the new urbanism
Of course the knives are out for Richard Florida, the professor who got himself a $300,000 University of Toronto professorship and endless consulting gigs when he branded the notion of a city-transforming, all-ills-banishing “creative class” in his book of that coined the phrase. It’s been 10 years since Florida published his blockbuster, The Rise of the Creative Class, to a nostrum-hungry marketplace of city planners, diversity enthusiasts, and all the rest of us hoping to catch the latest cresting wave of the clever part of the zeitgeist.
But now? Critics here, there, everywhere, like the very smart writer Tom Franks, who wrote the searing, depressing What’s Wrong with Kansas. Franks recently piled on Florida, though he’d set out to bash TED talks and other celebrants of the notion that it’s good to be creative because creativity makes us rich. Franks points out that this is absolutely the worst of times for writers, artists, and the other folks who make their marks with their brains—because hardly any of them are making their bread with their smarts. Medical doctors? Yes, thriving, thank you. Lawyers in big firms? Yes, sure, even though there’s a shake-out happening, and lawyering has ever been an age hierarchy, with the old partners raking it in while the newbies slog in darkness. Engineers? Consultants? Sure, sure. Here and there. But all these creative-class symbolic analyststs and information-workers are as likely to be working in suburban office parks as they are in revamped, diverse, energized downtowns.
Florida was predictably going to get the scorn of Joel Kotkin, the unapologetic apologist for suburbia. Kotkin’s The Next 100 Million says that the path from 310 million to 400 million Americans will be, for eight out of 10 of the next Americans, in automobiles driven to strip malls and subdivisions, not on streetcars or subways through the walkable diverse neighborhoods of the neo-urbanists’ imagining. Alec McGinnis ridicules Florida in his new piece in The New Republic, entitled “Gay Bars, Bike Paths, Ka-Ching! The Creative Class’s 10th Birthday,” and queries how it is that Florida’s latest work more or less explicitly tells Buffalo, Youngstown, and other Rust Belt towns to forget about it anyway—that failure lies ahead even after our towns put in the right stuff for the smart set, because the smart set wants to be someplace smarter.
Out in Portland, the national Mecca for the creatives, the unemployment rate is almost double what it is here: Frank Bures writes in the sparkling new Minneapolis-based magazine 32 about “The Fall of the Creative Class,” and cites half a dozen economists to the effect that Florida’s correlation of the presence of economic growth with the creative class is not, as the academics say, “robust.” Aaron Renn’s recent critique of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s cuts in mental health clinics and school shutterings, simultaneous with big bike-path improvements and public arts spending, is a reality check on a public official who endorsed the stuff Florida writes about and consults on and, for a big check, speaks about.
Intellectuals aspire to Florida’s commercial success: He has imitators, epigones, even colleagues who are cashing in even while the critics cavil. There’s any number of TED talks by people who call themselves, simply, urbanists—including an apparently famous guy who says that the obesity epidemic is a product of poor urban design. This is what your old logic professor calls reductio ad absurdum. More sensible is Ed Glaeser, who has been selling his 2011 book The Triumph of the City at a good clip, because Glaeser assembles a lot of data about prosaic, observable patterns: People walk more when they’re clustered close enough to take public transit rather than drive cars, and people earn more when there’s a whole lot more firms, government offices, schools, and other institutions clustered close together.
The Glaeser approach, compared to the Florida formula, sounds curmudgeonly. “Agglomeration effect” doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely as “creative class,” nor does techno-talk in algebraic formulae appeal to the politicians, real-estate developers, planning enthusiasts, and city fans who will cluster here in Buffalo next June when former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist’s Congress for a New Urbanism convenes in Buffalo.
Civitas vincit omnia?
But the consensus is strong. If Norquist hadn’t gone Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) one better with his book The Wealth of Cities, then surely Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, authors of The Metropolitan Revolution, would have stamped their Ivy-clad imprimatur on this new consensus with a more sober, classical phrase than their Florida-esque overstatement. (Revolution? Really?)
Cities are cool. Suburbs suck. Simply everybody knows this now, right? Forget about Joel Kotkin’s numbers; forget about Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Syracuse, even Pittsburgh, the most celebrated Rust Belt turnaround town, being at best demographically static but more typically like us—on the decline in both relative and absolute population numbers.
And now along comes another Ivy guy, Robert Reich, to explain that we’re all dreaming. Reich is a progressive: He was Bill Clinton’s fellow Rhodes Scholar from the class of 1972, Clinton’s secretary of labor, a guy who can churn out a policy book every year or so, this time letting us know, with a movie, that we have a big old problem that all the city-fashionistas don’t wanna talk about: namely, money.
Inequity and decline
Reich has made a movie, Inequality for All (opening this Friday at the Eastern Hills Mall), to explain why it’s a problem for everybody that too many of us, especially in cities, are poor. Cities tend to be where the poverty is concentrated. Reality check #1: Over 80 percent of the children in Buffalo Public Schools are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Reality check #2: Less than 50 percent of black males in (in declining order) Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Buffalo, and Detroit are actually in the workforce. But here’s the stinger: White male employment has dropped in these areas, too. The University of Wisconsin’s Economic Development Center has tracked where the workforce lives, too, and it’s irrefutable: The city workforce is far worse-off than suburban workers—because the work left the city.
Reich is good at explaining ugly mega-trends. He did a truly fabulous job in his video that explains the evil mechanics of “private equity,” the business that made Mitt Romney so rich that he searched the world for tax-free, no-questions-asked havens for his lucre.
We’ve been reading about the suburbanization of poverty for several years now, since even before the Great Collapse of 2008. Looking at the sequence of events that began in the 1970s, however, is much more useful in explaining how we got to where we are—which is, as reported even in the Wall Street Journal this week, at a place where this country hasn’t been since the 1920s: in a “barbell” economy. A fat chunk of the population has next to nothing, and a pretty sizeable chunk at the top has more money than anybody could have imagined, and the middle class is getting less and less.
That phenomenon, which Reich spends 100 minutes explaining, has a spatial expression. And there’s no magic fix for it.
Not even the arts. Buffalo has had a strong indigenous arts scene for at least a century. Read the name of this publication: Its title is not an accident, it’s an assertion of place, and it’s a sound one. Public policy here has been strongly pro-arts for decades. There is a genuine cultural economy here, and it’s much stronger than in cities of comprable size. And yet, as veteran members of the “creative class” here know well, the reality of the arts economy here is that most of its participants have day jobs. And though the ongoing public investment in arts and culture here has produced measureable results—with the arts economy here amounting to almost $400 million in goods and services, and as many as 3,000 jobs—it’s a tiny slice of the region’s $45 billion economy and 550,000-member workforce.
The well-known reality of the income squeeze on the middle class, and of the terrible persistence of poverty, is that manufacturing left town when globalization set in. High-paying low-skill jobs are no more. But now what’s happening? High-skill jobs in some sectors pay just fine. But others? Not so much. The people with the money are the people with the financial assets—with the portfolios.
Reich’s new movie is under assault from the right-wingers who seem to have been marshalled to blame immigration rather than financialization for the collapse of middle-class prospects. It’s a campaign to discredit the idea of progressive taxation—the old practice, which Republicans and Democrats used to endorse, of using the ability-to-pay principle to pay for the infrastructure, defense, and regulatory framework that shaped the world’s biggest economy. Now, the idea of taxing the investor class is utterly anathema to Republicans, and—at least until the Ted Cruz shutdown—Democrats weren’t reliably keen to be called “progressive” either.
Reich’s work deserves a wide audience. It should be shown in high schools. If the calendar said 1960 instead of 2013, we’d be scratching our heads at the idea that has become normal now, the idea that we should have a “winner-take-all” economy rather than a broad, inclusive social contract. But for the period of the most rapid growth in the gap between the have-most and the have-less, the messaging about money has been at odds with its distribution. No amount of magical thinking about the creative class, or about entrepreneurship, or about walkable streets, will get American policy toward income-inequality changed—or American cities revived. Progressivity and urbanism go hand in hand. Will they?
Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or atwww.sunypress.edu.