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
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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.