Frank Bures responds to Richard Florida

Originally published in Thirty Two Magazine, July 2012

The morning after my story, The Fall of the Creative Class, went live, [Thirty Two Magazine] editor Katie Egger received an email from Steven Pedigo, director of the Creative Class Group, Richard Florida’s consulting firm. In it, Pedigo said that my article was, among other things, “blatantly false and factually incorrect,” and that I had, “no basis of research or knowledge in the area of economic development.” He meant, I supposed, that I had no business weighing in on these affairs.

I was somewhat taken aback. After all, I’m not an economist, but I have been following these issues for years, and I’d made a special effort to double check my quotes, triple check my facts, and to make sure I understood all the concepts involved. Nonetheless, I started going over the things I might have gotten wrong. I checked them again, but couldn’t think of anything.

Eggers wrote back, asking for specific inaccuracies, which she would be happy to correct. But no response was forthcoming, so I was left to wonder. Then, last week, Florida responded via his blog over at The Atlantic Cities.

The main point of contention was Florida’s lengthy response to some questions I’d sent. Apparently, he felt his answers should have allayed all my concerns about the Creative Class Theory, which they did not. Now that he has posted them online you can read them for yourself. How you read them will depend on whether you believe in Florida’s Creative Class or not, because that it the territory we are in. What I wanted were specific studies and specific data sets I could see for myself, not cut and pasted op-eds or vague references to work that had been done. I was looking, in other words, for good, old-fashioned proof.

After I’d received Florida’s answers to my questions, I immediately went to work trying for track down the specific references he’d made, many of which were either not available or irrelevant on closer inspection. For one, he referenced an unpublished, 2001 study by Robert Cushing which I tried but failed to find. Another that seemed more promising, was work by Todd Gabe, who graciously responded to my questions as my deadline kept getting pushed back, and who sent me two of his papers on the relationship between creative class employment and wages.

In his letter to me, Florida says that Gabe’s research showed “that the Creative Class continues to have a substantial effect on regional economic growth when controlling for the effects of education and other factors. More to the point, having a Creative Class job also brings economic benefits that extend beyond those of going to college.” He said that Gabe “has found the Creative Class to have a strong positive effect on regional earnings as well as to lessen unemployment especially since the crisis.”

The implication, as I understood it, was that cities that attract these creative workers will experience more economic growth than they would otherwise. But the question remained: How do we know that the so-called creative class people aren’t simply moving to areas that have more growth potential? When I asked Gabe if he’d controlled for the possibility that creative workers were moving to counties that had higher wage potential, he responded that, “The two studies that I sent you examine a cross-section of counties at a single point in time, so they do not look at the movement of creative workers.”

I don’t want to take anything away from Gabe’s research, which is interesting and stands on its own. The point here is that this is the game Florida plays: Using a study about a single point in time to imply change over time. While he occasionally says things like, “As usual, I point out that correlation does not equal causation,” at the same time, he routinely uses correlation to imply causation. This habit of inferring a causal connection is my central problem with creative class theory. It can be nearly impossible to discern when Florida means one thing actually “drives” another and when they are merely “associated with” each other.

I’m far from the first person to point this out. Economist Enrico Moretti is the latest in a line of people to accuse Florida of having causation backward. In his new book, The New Geography of Jobs, Moretti shows that Florida may well be concluding that the cart is pushing the horse. His best example is Berlin, which has been swarmed by creative types for years, and which is probably one of the coolest, most bohemian cities in the world. Yet its economy remains dismal. Generating a massive Creative Class has not translated into prosperity. Moretti admits that while amenities may help companies attract workers to jobs, without those jobs in the first place, amenities along are unlikely to have much economic effect. “If it is not working for Berlin,” Moretti writes, “It’s hard to see how it could work for Flint.”

Florida, in his response to Moretti, tried on the one hand to claim that Berlin is an “extreme outlier” and on the other to make the case that Berlin is simply the next big thing. To show the latter, he pulled some enthusiastic quotes from magazines, talked to an academic who gave her opinion, and quoted a “tech writer” who says, “Some say there are somewhere between 100 to 400 startups in Berlin. I was in Berlin for about 70 hours and I met with over 40. I am pretty sure – if I stuck around for another week – I would have met many more.”

To my mind, this isn’t much of an iron-clad rebuttal of Moretti’s point, and it was further weakened by something he left out: The 13% unemployment in Berlin (40% among artists) which is nearly twice the national average, as well as the fact the entire German economy is on the upswing, with cities like Leipzig also booming and the country’s overall unemployment down to 6.8% while the rest of Europe’s is rising. To conclude that the Creative Class is what’s driving Berlin forward seems like a stretch.

The important thing is this: Generally, when a scientist or researcher is accused of having causality backwards, he or she should be able offer some numbers, or point to some studies, that show this is not the case. One city, for example, that has shown a clearly demonstrable benefit from a Creative Class influx. Yet whenever someone brings up the problem of causality with Florida — i.e., when someone asks for proof — he simply labels it a “chicken and egg” problem that we can’t solve, and so we just shouldn’t worry about it.

To me this seems absurd. Causality is certainly complex. But as a scientist (or even a vaguely scientific urbanist) it’s the currency of your trade. If you don’t have any, what have you got? A nifty idea? A sales pitch? A so-called “narrative.” When you are advising cities to become hipper so they can attract the people who will cause economic growth, you should be able to offer some clear evidence of how they do this, of where it has been done, of where it has failed, and why. When you make a career of this sort of implied causality, the onus is on you to show that such causality exists, not on us to keep intuiting it.

Examples of Creative Class failure are easy to find — cities that have had an influx of creative class workers, but whose economies have decidedly not improved as a result: Portland is the case I know best, but Berlin, Montreal, New Orleans, Seattle and San Francisco are all on that list (and please spare me the anecdotal rebuttals on this). Where is the other list? What cities are on it? That was my first and most important question to Florida, and he did not answer it. I don’t think such a clear case exists, and I don’t think the reason has anything to do with chickens or eggs.

There are many other things in Florida’s response to my story that I could take issue with, but there is one in particular I want to address. Florida writes that “Bures misunderstands the similarities and differences between the creative class and human capital theories of regional development.”

This is not true. Human Capital is a measurement of educational attainment and skills. Creative Capital is a measure of professional occupations Florida has deemed creative. The problem is not that I don’t understand the difference between these two. The problem is that I don’t understand the way Florida uses the terms interchangeably when it suits him. The problem is that I don’t understand why Creative Capital is still considered a meaningful term. The problem is that I don’t understand why Creative Class Theory is regarded as anything more than a kind of urban phrenology, with Florida feeling the bumps on the surface of our cities’ heads and drawing wild conclusions about what goes on underneath.

Florida can, and will, carry on with his work: tweeting his own aphorismshaving “senior economist colleagues” privately replicate damning studies so they come out more favorably, and advising his hopeful clients on how to become ever more creative and prosperous.

But in the end, that work itself probably matters less than the fact that we are having a conversation about urban life, about the role of the arts, about how we spend our money and about what kind of cities we want to live in. It’s a conversation that Florida may have helped start, but that the rest of us, out here in the real world, will have to finish.


Originally published in Thirty Two Magazine, July 2012