What are Governor Lincoln Chafee’s three Ts of economic development, again? Is it talent, technocrats, and tolerance? Or is it technology, tolerance, and twee ideological fashion? It can be so difficult to keep these gimmicky strategies straight.
This particular strategy is also turning out to be difficult to make work. In fact, it may just be a description of a handful of cities that chance made “hip,” rather than a workable, replicable strategy for turning around any given city. Indeed — as should probably be expected when we give broad authority to powerful people to plan the society in which everybody will live — it appears that pursuing a “creative class” strategy tends to produce the sorts of communities that serve powerful people and the cool folks with whom they like to hang out.
Such appears to be the epiphany that is dawning on the father of “creative class” prioritization, from whom Chafee procured his three-Tiaras, Richard Florida. Without really acknowledging that the economic development strategy that made his career is tangibly harming real people, Mr. Florida has come to understand “talent clustering” as “insidious.” Here he is in his own words:
On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits. Its benefits flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers whose higher wages and salaries are more than sufficient to cover more expensive housing in these locations. While less-skilled service and blue-collar workers also earn more money in knowledge-based metros, those gains disappear once their higher housing costs are taken into account.
… There is a rising tide of sorts, but it only lifts about the most advantaged third of the workforce, leaving the other 66 percent much further behind.
If Chafee’s economic development goal is a bifurcated society in which the wealthiest third of residents are able to enjoy elite entertainment and amenities while the other two thirds struggle to get by and are frozen in socio-economic place… well, then I’d say Rhode Island already has achieved that condition. What we’re looking at when we observe the struggling employment picture and the continual exodus of productive people is a sort of “mission accomplished” for central planning.
In his response to Florida’s revelation, long-time critic Joel Kotkin emphasizes that the Floridian approach winds up producing a less diverse community that discourages families:
Indeed in many ways the Floridian focus on industries like entertainment, software, and social media creates a distorted set of economic priorities. The creatives, after all, generally don’t work in factories or warehouses. So why assist these industries? Instead the trend is to declare good-paying blue collar professions a product of the past. If you can’t find work in deindustrialized Michigan, suggests Salon’s Ray Fisman, one can collect “ more than a few crumbs” by joining the service class and serving food, cutting hair or grass in creative capitals like San Francisco or Austin.
There’s the elite, and then there are those who service the elite. With pre-determined, centrally planned economies, the opportunity to truly innovate in the way that people who work with their hands do — inventing whole new industries or just revolutionizing age-old ones — begins to shrivel. As Florida admits, the necessary zoning restrictions of a planned economy hobble the ability of upwardly mobile families to make the necessary space for life and for work.
Add in the union-subsidizing labor rules and family-killing social policies that elite people tend to prefer, and you’ve got a society that is more about preserving the wealth of those who have it and ensuring the dominance of a particular ideology. That sparkling candle burns especially brightly when the economic strategy is designed to attract “largely childless, young urbanistas,” as Kotkin describes them.
A better approach is freedom: allowing the people closest to their own families and their own lives to figure out what they need, in their own unique circumstances, and to go about fulfilling those needs. That means policies like eliminating the sales tax. That means policies that empower all families to determine what schools best fit their children’s circumstances.
That is the engine that harnesses the natural drive for people to improve their own lots in life and to pull the entire community forward. It doesn’t allow those who’ve amassed their fortunes to sit back comfortable in the knowledge that their work is done, and it doesn’t relieve those who’ve gambled on particular industries or occupations of the need to continually innovate and compete.
But economic development shouldn’t be about the upper third. It shouldn’t be about three fashionable Ts. It should be about human beings improving their lives.