The Magazine

Floridizing the World

The urban-renewal hipster Richard Florida looks to Europe for the next big thing.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By FRED SIEGEL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Flight of the Creative Class

The New Global Competition for Talent

by Richard Florida

HarperBusiness, 315 pp., $25.95

The Anglosphere Challenge

Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century

by James Bennett

Rowman & Littlefield, 352 pp., $39.95

The United States of Europe

The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy

by T.R. Reid

Penguin, 305 pp., $25.95

MICHIGAN GOVERNOR JENNIFER GRANHOLM WAS so impressed by Richard Florida's hipster approach to urban renewal that she created a "Cool Cities" initiative--complete with conferences and a raft of committees. All a city needs to do, it was argued, is attract the people Florida described as the "creative class," and all good things would follow.

And so, working with Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit's self-described "hip-hop mayor," Granholm provided cachet for a downtown revival based on loft living, designer bread stores, and the like. But meanwhile the city of Detroit has been, in the words of economist David Littman, going into "a graveyard spiral." Detroit's tax rate is five-and-a-half times the average Michigan municipality, while its unemployment rate is nearly three times the national average. The residents who haven't fled are subjected to out-of-control crime rates and erratic street lights and buses--despite a vast municipal work force that was scaled to serve a city of two million but which now has barely 900,000 people.

There's a lesson here: Cool is nice, but it's the basics that count. Undeterred, Richard Florida has now produced a new book, The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent, in which he applies his concepts of "cool cities" and the "creative class" internationally. In attracting the cool, creative people who make the world go round, America, he argues, is losing out to New Zealand, Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, and--yes!--even Belgium. He presents, understandably, no statistics to back up these assertions, since Canada, for instance, sends nearly twice as many skilled people to the United States as the reverse. As for Belgium, it's worth noting that Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Union, has an unemployment rate of 22 percent, while the French-speaking Walloon areas have 19 percent unemployment. The Flems of Belgium, with a mere 9 percent of people out of work, are increasingly looking to secede from the nation Florida asks us to take as a model.

Richard Florida is a genius at self-promotion. But along the way in his astonishingly successful career, his sales pitch has been subject to mocking critiques by such students of urban economics as Joel Kotkin, Steve Malanga, and myself. Part of The Flight of the Creative Class is a response to those critiques--and yet, in the end, expanding his notion of cool cities and the creative class to embrace the entire world, Florida shows he has learned nothing. The book takes his one oversimple idea and spins it out into 315 pages that simply reiterate his earlier argument.

Oddly enough, however, Florida does manage to stumble onto an important point, even if it doesn't mean quite what he thinks it does. To draw out the point, you have to compare Florida's work with some other recent books. Take, for instance, The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century, in which James Bennett, a high-tech entrepreneur and political commentator, offers a far more upbeat assessment of the United States.

The high levels of trust and accountability that characterized the English-speaking world helped create the industrial revolution in the past, Bennett argues, and these will pave the way to the future as well. Bennett jumps around from subject to subject, sprinkling his text with interesting aperçus (including a discussion drawn from the historian Alan Macfarlane on how liberty in the English-speaking world emerged far earlier than previously supposed). But at the core of this book is the argument, backed up by numerous examples, that open societies, which place individual rights before the group rights beloved in continental Europe, are more likely to allow innovation and successful adaptation to changing conditions.

There is, however, a glaring and crucial exception to Bennett's account of flexibility and adaptation: the failure of the American educational system to reform itself. In the United States the educational establishment is the equivalent of the European public-sector interests, which demand stasis at all costs.

Here we reach toward Richard Florida's one point of interest. Just as the American trade deficit requires an infusion of foreign investment, the vast deficits in the U.S. educational system require the importation of foreign talent. But since the attacks of September 11, Florida notes, it has been harder for foreign students and scientists to get visas for the United States. At the same time, other countries are doing a better job of retaining homegrown talent and attracting foreign scientists.

If The Flight of the Creative Class were a serious book, Florida would have discussed the need to balance security and immigration policy--and then turned to the extraordinary failure to reform American education. Twenty-two years after the wave of educational reform set off by the publication of A Nation at Risk, little has improved in the secondary schools. Indeed, parts of American academia have descended further into the swamps of postmodernism. But Florida never deals with any particular place or institution, or with the messy realities of political cross-pressures and intransigent interest groups. Instead he engages in what is best described as "abstracted empiricism," in which a long series of charts are displayed to show that tolerance and creativity are important for economic growth. And who doubted that?

FLORIDA NEVER POINTS to the core countries of the European Union as major technological competitors--and with good reason. Despite a superior educational system and despite a record of extraordinary scientific achievement, Europe as a whole is falling further and further behind the United States. You can see this most clearly if you examine the actual facts presented in recent books like The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy. As the title suggests, the author--Washington Post journalist T.R. Reid--imagines that Europe is somehow going to triumph. It is a wish as much as a thought, for readily available facts run against Reid's thesis. Is Germany losing 1,200 jobs a day? Has the German unemployment rate reached record levels? Is the French economy stagnant? Are the French consumed with a sense of decline? Is Europe suffering a democratic deficit? Reid tells us not to worry. Confusing political clout with economic success, he takes heart in the fact that European regulators were able to humble Jack Welch and General Electric.

The United States of Europe is essentially a rewrite of James Goldsborough's 1982 Rebel Europe: How America Can Live with a Changing Continent, which came out when an earlier explosion of anti-American passion was reaching one of its many fever peaks over Ronald Reagan's response to a Soviet missile buildup. Europe, Goldsborough told his readers, is a "new breed of Superpower" that has "responded with clear-sightedness and creativity to economic and political situations the United States has chosen to ignore."

REID ACKNOWLEDGES that the Europeans, who are the most pessimistic people in the world, are suffering from technophobia; they invest 40 percent less in research and development than the United States. But he can't bring himself to even mention the problem of integrating the continent's Muslim masses in order to maintain an unsustainable welfare state. Nor can he grasp the looming threat to European manufacturing posed by China.

Europe's failings are, for Reid, more than compensated by the check he hopes they will impose on American power. When Reid was stationed in Japan for the Washington Post, he wrote about the coming Asian century. His time in Europe has now produced similar predictions about a coming European economic superpower.

Like many others--Richard Florida included--T.R. Reid refuses to recognize the cost to the Europeans of their over-the-top anti-Americanism. With Europe's sense of its own superiority at stake, proposals for labor-market flexibility can be denounced as "American proposals" or "Bush-style thinking." As in the Arab world, innovation and reform are easily demonized by decrying them as Anglo-American, an inverted recognition of sorts for the values Bennett's Anglosphere honors. We should take no comfort from Europe's problems, or Richard Florida's fatuities. The United States has for too long been living off Europe's failings. There are, Joel Kotkin notes, some 400,000 European science and technology graduates working in the United States, and only a fraction plan to return to Europe. Given the hopeless mess we've made of education, we will need them to combat the challenges coming from China and India.

STILL, IN THE LONG RUN, it would be a mistake to bet against the United States and the Anglosphere. The frameworks proposed by Richard Florida and T.R. Reid are crashing on the rocks of reality. The United States, its failings notwithstanding, is, given its traditions and basic strengths, likely to eventually rise to the challenge.

Fred Siegel is a professor at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in New York.