The Flight of the Creative Class

July 19, 2005

With author Richard Florida, Hirst Professor, School of Public Policy, George Mason University, and non-resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

And commentator:
Rob Atkinson, Vice President and Director, Technology and the New Economy Project, Progressive Policy Institute

And moderators:
Kenan Jarboe, President, Athena Alliance
Kent Hughes, Director, STAGE, WWICS

The Wilson Center's Program on Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy (STAGE) and the Division of United States Studies in partnership with the Athena Alliance hosted a discussion of Richard Florida's new book, The Flight of the Creative Class, as part of its ongoing series focused on the intangible economy.

Richard Florida, professor of public policy at George Mason University, presented the thesis of Flight of the Creative Class. Robert Atkinson, Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and Director of PPI's Technology and New Economy Project and Kenan Jarboe, President of the Athena Alliance, provided added perspectives on the creative class.

In an earlier book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida argued that the keys to a city's or region's or nation's success were to combine technology, talent, and tolerance. The book attracted a flurry of attention because, as a measure of tolerance, Florida noted that cities or regions that welcomed gays were likely to be more creative and hence more prosperous. As Florida noted that the central point was not gays in particular but the tolerance of diversity that made domestic transplants, foreign immigrants, and creative thinkers welcome.

In The Flight of the Creative Class, Florida is expanding his analysis to the global economy. Florida puts a special emphasis on the historic role of the United States as the most open, the most tolerant of nations. He emphasizes the positive impact of immigrants, noting that about one-third of the businesses started in Silicon Valley in the last twenty years were founded by Chinese or Indian immigrants. A high number, even exceeding 50% of Ph.D. candidates in the physical sciences and engineering are foreign born.

But, in Florida's view, that flow of immigrants is now threatened. He opened his remarks by stating that the "United States faces a competitive challenge unlike anything [it] has faced before." He then proceeded to spell out three interrelated challenges.

First, other countries are now competing for creative talent. Advanced economy countries are now actively competing for the scientists, engineers, and talented students that formerly chose the United States as their destination.

Second, just as the global competition for talent has risen, the United States made some mistakes in its reaction to the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001. Visa procedures were tightened and the granting of visas was often delayed. In response, applications and attendance of foreign students at U.S. universities declined. Perhaps unfairly, many foreign students no longer see the United States as welcoming and tolerant.

Third, the United States often focused on the breakthrough illusion – relying on the next "big thing." Florida emphasized the Toyota-like approach of tapping the full creativity of all employees. At a national level, argued Florida, the approach should be on tapping the creating of every American.

Instead, Florida saw a series of warning signs. A housing affordability crisis was making it difficult for junior faculty or aspiring inventors to locate in traditional centers of innovation. American firms are locating production, service and research facilities overseas to take advantage of talent that is less available at home. There was uncomfortable division emerging between the creative haves and the have nots. In a democratic society, a majority left behind may erode support for the factors that helped allow the creative class to thrive.

In his opening commentary, Atkins agreed with a number of Florida's findings but also expressed skepticism about some of Florida's premises. He agreed that the United States is moving to high performance work places, that talented immigrants had contributed a great deal, that income inequality was rapidly rising.

He raised questions, however, about the actual flight of the creative class, suggesting that most who flee are actually foreign born who are often returning home. Florida did not disagree – suggesting that the real title of his book could be the "non-arrival of the creative class."

Atkinson also questioned the general proposition that immigrants are the key drive of innovative success. He pointed to China, Finland and Japan as examples of successful borrowers or innovators who depended on home grown rather than imported talent. In terms of American firms going overseas, Atkinson argued that the key drive was cost savings not the lack of talent in the United States.

The source of U.S. strength lay more in U.S. technology than in an abstract level of talent. In effect, Atkinson was arguing that the entire U.S. innovation system was involved in generating the technologies that raised livings standards.

Atkinson was also somewhat skeptical about the emphasis on turning every worker into a talented innovator. He noted that projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast future growth in low wage, low skill occupations. Instead, Atkinson called for a portable safety net, increased redistribution via programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, and a reliance on automation to eliminate dead end jobs

In his commentary, Jarboe agreed that there was creative potential to be tapped in what many think of as routine jobs. He cited the London cab driver and his or her exhaustive knowledge of a large and complex city as an example. But, he saw a different challenge. He pointed to the recent work of Frank Levy that found routine jobs were often either automated or sent offshore. Where, asked Jarboe, will we find the future middle class?

The discussion period raised a host of other questions. One questioner noted that in World War II and in the civil rights movement all Americans counted. A second questioner recommended the book "Homeland" and noted that many Americans were scared of being left out of the creative class. It was, the questioner concluded, almost a "spiritual issue."

Florida responded by emphasizing the importance of getting to "we." The creative class is creating divisions that endanger its own future. The answer is to value the creativity of all.

A second line of questions emphasized the importance of factors outside of immigration as key ingredients in country-wide success. One questioner noted that several of the leading countries were not open, not tolerant, and not welcoming to immigrants. Instead, their secret lay in the adoption of a long-term economic strategy that integrated trade and technology.

Rather than directly disagree, Florida stressed that his books are driving countries to be more open. They are, in fact, seeking the immigrants that had always sought out the United States. He wanted to be sure to put immigration on the national agenda and to highlight its cumulative effect.

Prepared by Kent Hughes, Director, Program on Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy Ext. 4312