February 23, 2005

What's Wrong with Richard Florida on Tolerance, Technology, and Talent

Richard Florida's $35k idea -- George Mason U. professor Richard Florida gets paid up to $35,000 per speech to lecture city officials and civic leaders on how they can turn their dismal burgh into the next Austin or Seattle. Inspired by Florida's three Ts, which say that for a city to make lots of money from Technology depends on attracting Talent which depends on Tolerance, Spokane is intending to officially declare part of its city the Gay District. (Florida measures "tolerance" primarily by the number of gays, but also by artists, immigrants, and "bohemians.) Here's part of my review of Florida's new book Cities and the Creative Class from the new Washington Examiner:

Dr. Florida's much publicized theory, which he developed during the Internet Bubble of the late 1990s, is that an urban region's economic success depends on its tolerance level. He argues, "Diverse, inclusive communities that welcome unconventional people-gays, immigrants, artists, and free-thinking 'bohemians'-are ideal for nurturing the creativity and innovation that characterize the knowledge economy…"

Unfortunately, as a theory of economic development, this book suffers from the same combination of obviousness and obtuseness that plagued Dr. Florida's first paean to "Talent, Technology, and Tolerance," 2002's The Rise of the Creative Class.

Sure, regions with smarter people tend to enjoy higher incomes. But, most high tech centers, such as the Dulles Corridor, develop far out in the suburbs away from the hip parts of town. The nerds who invent the new gizmos and the golf-playing business people who sell them tend to be relatively monogamous and family-oriented, and thus soon wind up in the 'burbs, with their backyards and quality public schools.

And, sure, booms and bohemians tend to correlate, but who really attracts whom to a metroplex? Do the engineers and salesguys actually pursue the gay art dealers and immigrant restaurateurs, or are Dr. Florida's footloose favorites more likely to follow the money generated by the pocket-protector boys?

In the 1970s, for example, Houston suddenly became one of the gayest cities in America, even though Houston was not famously tolerant. No, Houston got (briefly) hip because gays, immigrants, and artistes flocked there because OPEC had raised prices, making Houston's unhip oil companies rich for a decade.

In contrast, famously tolerant New Orleans and Las Vegas ("Sin City") rank today near the bottom of Dr. Florida's talent tables because his kind of folks can't make much money in either. So, he appears to have gotten the arrow of causality mostly backwards.

No comments: