The latest fad in urban
planning and economic development theory is the idea that society's "creative class" is the cultural and economic salvation of cities and states.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm
has embraced the idea under the rubric of "Cool Cities." Among the underlying
themes: attracting and retaining the under-40 crowd in urban areas;
"walkable" communities; attention to the arts as a development tool; and 24/7
But is turning your city
into Manhattan (or SoHo, Greenwich Village, take your pick) worth the bother? Michigan officials from at least
apparently thought so, applying for the $100,000 worth of funds handed out to 17 cities last year for projects like an ice rink in Warren and a gay-and-lesbian community center in Ferndale. Under this program, itís fine (and even
necessary) for politicians to tax and spend ó as long as itís part of an effort to
create a social environment with "buzz."
State of the State address gave an explanation behind the latest attempts
to build an economy through government largesse: "This
is a bottom-up movement in which nearly 80 of our communities have local
commissions on cool that are uncorking the bottle of creativity and unleashing
the genie of possibility ó planning everything from bike paths to bookstores to
attract more people and new businesses."
The effort owes much to the
work of Richard Florida, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He
observed that high-growth areas of the 1990s were more likely to have a large
number of cultural amenities ó for example, bike paths and an independent music scene ó as
well as a pluralistic and diverse culture.
Public officials across
North America have taken Professor Floridaís work to heart. Iowa, for instance, has a
"director of cultural affairs" who argues: "Culture is no longer a frill. It
is fuel (for growth)." Cincinnati gave $40,000 to a local blues society; Austin,
Texas erected a statue to rock star Stevie Ray Vaughan. The mayor of Winnipeg
decried those who want public policy to be limited to "pipes, pavement and
At first blush, Floridaís
prescriptions may sound reasonable. Bike paths? Why not? An independent local
music scene? Austin, Texas has it, and they seem to be doing rather well. Isnít
that where IBM-slayer Dell Computer is based?
And if it takes a little
spending to attract the next generation of web designers, engineers and
high-tech workers, why not? After all, the U.S. economy is increasingly based on
services, which often require highly skilled and creative workers.
Backbreaking labor is less important, and human capital is more important than
ever. If a bike path will retain the younger generation (one goal of Gov. Granholmís initiatives), well, arenít they the future of the state?
But as Steven Malanga wrote
in a critique titled
The Curse of the Creative Class,
Floridaís ideas have a fatal flaw: They donít work.
The cities that score high
on Professor Floridaís "creative index," for example, have not had any more job growth
since 1993 than cities that score low on the index, let alone more job growth than the U.S. economy
as a whole. So much for the idea that socially "creative" cities have an edge on
In fact, even by Floridaís own index, Malanga says, the
least creative cities outperform the most creative ones by 60 percent in job
growth. Nor do Professor Floridaís "creative" cities outperform other cities in generating high-growth companies.
It is the fundamentals that
keep cities moving ahead: efficient government, low taxes, quality basic
services. Even high-tax New York City benefited when, under Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani, it figured out a way to provide effective policing. Overall, though,
low taxes are a winner, both for
as well. People respond: Over the last decade, low-tax states have gained
population, while high-tax states have lost it.
As the Mackinac Center has
already noted, the Cool Cities effort suffers from the same weakness as many
ill-conceived economic development efforts:
Not only does the Cool Cities campaign assume that government can foster
growth through its own strategy (based on flawed reasoning); it assumes that
public officials, not private citizens, are in the best position to recognize
what is "cool."
Itís easy for public
officials, like anyone else, to be caught up in "paradigm-shifting" fads like
those propagated by Professor Florida. Much more difficult, however, are the
simple yet effective tasks of improving public services in ways that are both
cost-effective and respectful of the boundaries of civil and political society.
Bureaucracy, inertia and entrenched special interests stand in the way of
fundamental reforms that would depoliticize society by allowing the
more opportunity to improve the quality of urban life.
Michigan has much going for
it. With a diversifying economy, an abundance of water and recreational
opportunities, proximity to markets both domestic and international, it can be a
vibrant state ó as long as it doesnít try too hard to be "cool."
John R. LaPlante is an
adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and
educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in
whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are
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Copyright © 2005 Mackinac Center for Public Policy