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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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.