The craven creative class

If you are familiar with Richard Florida, much of his engaging essay in the new Atlantic, “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” will not surprise you — those in cities lucky enough to be populated by the creative class will only be mildly discomfitted by the recession, while those Rust Belt unfortunates are basically doomed. As Florida points out, “innovation, in the long run, is what keeps cities vital and relevant,” and New York will continue to innovate in the vital fields represented by these creatives: “fashion designers, musicians, film directors, artists, and—yes—psychiatrists.”

My reaction to this is similar to Arnold Kling’s: “I don’t think that the arts are all that important. To me, creative innovation that matters is somebody in a lab at MIT coming up with a more efficient battery or solar cell. It is somebody at Stanford coming up with a way to make computers smarter or cancer more preventable. I just can’t get excited about some frou-frou fashion designers and the magazines that feature their creations.”

Even though it makes me a bit of a hypocrite, I tend to adopt that same skeptical sneer for pseudo-innovations of the fashion cycle, for casual abuse of the word innovative and creative. When Florida writes about cities incubating “idea-driven creative industries” I wonder what he means specifically. Obviously he doesn’t mean the swell financial innovation conjured up by the creative class of Wall Street bankers that helped put us into this recession that, as Florida rightly notes, will dump misery mainly in other parts of the country. But I can never grasp in my noncreative mind what is so beneficial about ideas as ideas, regardless of whether they are good or bad; about innovation for its own sake. Florida is undoubtedly right that cities allow ambitious people with money to find more easily other ambitious people full of conviction in their own ideas; they can then socialize in such a way that they can puff each other up with that right amount of trust and nepotistic networking confidence that’s necessary to launch implausible startups. They can be intimate enough to truly believe each other’s bullshit and craft an excellent marketing plan for it. And they can fashion a richer culture of social signifiers (the art world, etc.) that can alienate and put at a disadvantage those not fortunate enough to breathe in that rarefied air.

But when Florida writes of people “in the intangible sector—what I call the ‘creative class’ of scientists, engineers, managers, and professionals,” it’s hard not to wonder, what are they engineering? What are they managing? Isn’t their creative success ultimately contingent on the poor rubes doing the dirty work under them? Doesn’t their white-collar creativity at some point touch something tangible, a level at which actual human needs are being fulfilled through socially necessary labor? Felix Salmon remonstrates Kling with the implied point that libertarian economist types can’t go around judging businesses in moral terms, as long as they are generating jobs and income. But it seems a fair question to ask whether the fashion industry’s “value added” is more socially useful than a Las Vegas construction worker’s. Florida argues that the Sun Belt building boom, frighteningly efficient and innovative and “highly metabolic” as it was during the bubble, was built on a kind of lie, but I wonder if the same isn’t true of the dubious innovation coming from the media and fashion industries favored by the creative class. It all seems vulnerable to a more rigorous accounting of what is truly socially necessary.

Florida’s core argument is this:

The economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism.

But what are ideas about if not things? Ultimately, any idea must find tangible expression in human labor reworking some piece of material in a way that deemed socially necessary. Otherwise it never gets realized; it never enters the economy. Is haute couture any more necessary than McMansion developments in Mesa, Arizona?

Maybe there is a way for the ideas not to yield things, but an overarching ideology that’s not tangible but is nonetheless very valuable for those it protects. The ideas that are generated by that density of creative people working with fast-moving ideas are perhaps merely those that establish the hierarchy by which they seek to be judged, and the means for putting it over on the people who would otherwise prefer to play by different rules. The velocity is a matter of keeping the fashion cycle one step ahead of the populace they seek to dominate. As long as they succeed it putting this cycle over on outsiders, they “thrive,” because they then get to manufacture the ideas that make them gatekeepers to modern identity.

So much of the New York creative class may amount to no more than an entrenched group of ideological workers, manufacturing tokens of prestige to preserve the class structure while those in the noncreative classes suffer without recompense. So no wonder it won’t be such hard times for us here. The class structure is likely to need more propping up than ever. But I think this dooms Florida’s prediction that creative-class cities will assimilate the economy’s losers; these cities may thrive precisely by preventing those people out from peeking behind the curtain.