Still Falling: On Chickens and Eggs, Cause and Effect and the Real Problem with the Creative Class

Still Falling: On Chick­ens and Eggs, Cause and Effect and the Real Prob­lem with the Cre­ative Class

Frank Bures Responds to Richard Florida. 

The morn­ing after my story, The Fall of the Cre­ative Class, went live, edi­tor Katie Eggers 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.” [ital­ics mine]

To my mind, this isn’t much of an iron-clad rebut­tal of Moretti’s point, and it was fur­ther weak­ened by some thing 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 apho­risms, hav­ing “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.


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