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Creativity & wealth

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, April 11, 2004 12:00 a.m

Let’s play a game. I’m going to describe a commentary I read and you are going to guess to what city it refers.

It begins by mentioning that one Richard Florida, a former professor of economic development at Carnegie Mellon University who recently joined the faculty of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., had spoken of the value to the 21st-century city of attracting and retaining creative people. This leads to a general statement about local politics, the walls that limit dynamic development and people, and the so-called “squelcher” mentality.

This is where it got very interesting. The article went on to reprint parts of letters from local residents expressing their opinions. Here is a sampling of their statements:

  • “I named it the ‘mill mentality.’ This came because in any town, there was but one industry, usually a spinning mill. If you spoke out about the mill owner, or, heaven forbid, mentioned union, you were fired.”

  • “The big (deleted) businesses are beyond criticism: ‘Just do what we want and all will be fine. Do not cross swords with us, all you little people, or life will become uncomfortable for you.’ ”

  • “There is an ethical problem in this city, in that (city name deleted)’s leadership is filled with people who just don’t know how to tell the truth as it is. It starts with the lie that this is a ‘world-class’ city. … In the quest to prove that we are what we are not, the leadership has done incredibly stupid things. It built an arena but has helped continue a long (city name) tradition of ignoring our children’s education.”

    Does this sound like Pittsburgh• After all, it was a CMU professor who started this little conversation. Well, it actually is Charlotte, N.C. But it might as well have been Pittsburgh.

    I read this commentary in the opinion section of the Charlotte Observer while I was vacationing at Myrtle Beach last spring. I laughed. Different city, same story. It even had a CMU professor expounding on the virtues of having creative people in your town.

    That said, what is the point?

    The point is that people such as Richard Florida make an observation about the human condition and the need for personal creativity, but then go on to propose schemes which atrophy this very inventiveness. In other words, he restates Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in modern terms, but then proposes something of a central plan to maximize it.

    It turns out that Mr. Florida is a sort of pied-piper of academic liberals, traveling across the country advocating more power for academic liberals. Since his thesis is fairly weighty, let’s take a step back and review some of his cultural and economic analysis.

    Creativity

    In 1954, Abraham Maslow set out to synthesize the large body of research on human motivation and created his famous hierarchy of needs. To summarize, human needs were arranged pyramid-style. The lowest needs are base physiological requirements for life; to the middle with safety and learning needs; to the highest need being self-actualization qua personal fulfillment.

    So the idea is that once you feed yourself, you can start to think about quality of life. Florida’s views are a revamped version of this thesis, with self-actualization being replaced by the buzzword “creativity.”

    Of course, the idea of leading a fulfilling life has been an area worthy of tomes that would probably stack to the lunar levels. From the rules in the Code of Hammurabi to Jesus, from the Great Seal’s ” Annuit Coeptis ” to Ayn Rand’s hero Howard Rourke, human creativity and the resultant bliss have been known and remained a mystery for mankind.

    What Florida has seen is that creative people tend to be happier and more fulfilled. I tend to agree with him on an individual level. More on the disagreement later. Those I know who are more creative in their jobs are happier at work.

    Of course, that could more effectively be stated as Joseph Campbell did: “Follow your bliss.” Campbell said if you follow your bliss and the money never comes, at least you still have your bliss. If you work just for money and the money goes away, then you have no bliss and no money. A harsh truth.

    But it also can be applied to show that those who follow their bliss work harder and, hence, have a greater degree of achievement. This enters creativity in the form of the proverbial “starving artist” and other aesthetics who bucked the trend and followed their own path. The point is that I question how much of happiness is related to “creativity” vs. having the fortitude to do what you love.

    When it comes down to it, some of the most creative people in history have been tortured by psychological problems. Nietzsche had migraines, Julian Simon fought depression, and Van Gogh cut off his ear. Not exactly the epitomes of health.

    Now I’m not saying that we should deter creativity. I am saying that the individual is the source of creativity and the individual decides when and how much to assert it. Local nor national policy should be focused on such a capricious definition as “creativity” because it is not the catch-all it is implied to be.

    Creativity in business

    Florida’s thesis with regard to the economy is that the creative sector is becoming a larger and more prosperous piece of the economy, hence you want more creative people. If you get more of them, you get more prosperity.

    One of Florida’s favorite numbers to back this claim up is his statement that in 1900 only 10 percent of the economy was creative, in 1980 only 15 percent, but in 2000 it was 30 percent. Now, my first question is, “How the heck do you determine which parts of the economy are ‘creative’?”

    Well, it appears that anyone working in high-tech, advertising or art is considered to be in the “creative class.” Even as a generalization, I find this to be bizarre. Just consider that in the past few years, movies depicting unfulfilled people have been hits in all three of his creative businesses. “Pollock” was about the tortured artist. “City Slickers” had Billy Crystal as an advertising exec who was unfulfilled. And perhaps funniest, the entire cast of the cult classic “Office Space” hated their tech jobs at IniTech.

    These movies were hits because people identified with their characters’ plights . It appears that not only is creativity no guarantor of happiness, but categorizing businesses as creative and noncreative is just as silly. Heck, I’m sure there are some people who run what I’ll call nonglamorous businesses who are just a little offended at Florida’s tone. Is everyone who works as a pipefitter a noncreative idiot• I think not.

    In reality, most pure innovation is slight, and is merely a building upon existing knowledge. The list of small innovations, some of which lead to drastic paradigm shifts in entire business processes, is endless when you consider the economy as a whole. Unfortunately, most of these happen outside the dubious category, creatively called the creative economy in the thesis of Florida.

    Creativity, wealth & demographics

    Now, if we were to assume that the category of creative worker and creative industry were correct (raised eyebrow), we would then approach the third plank of this creative miasma: creativity equals greater wealth.

    Just like the other aspects previously discussed, I also partly agree with this and partly disagree. You see, creativity does lead to innovation, innovation leads to productivity and productivity leads to greater wealth. That is stating the obvious. The problem is that Florida’s creativity manifesto does not stop there.

    He asserts that if you increase the ingredients which are associated with his version of creativity, you will get a wealthier society. While it is true these two tend to exist together, correlation does not mean causation.

    But let’s cut to the chase and look at what history will tell us: from the Saracens to ancient Greece to the Chinese Shang dynasty to modern America, certain tenets are constant and they can be boiled down to free markets and liberty. These may not have been well developed in previous civilizations, but they were noticeably there.

    For this reason, I think that liberty and free markets lead to diversity of opinion and greater wealth. Another reason, and possibly a more important one, is that to assume that poorer civilizations are not creative is, well, silly. Heck, in China, you have the same people living in China and Taiwan. Taiwan is rich and has a great plurality of approaches to life while communist China is poor and far more bland.

    In other words, creativity does not create plenitude (cultural nor economic), but free markets and individual liberty do. People who have more wealth worry more about quality of life instead of simply worrying about staying alive. When you mix freedom with wealth, you get cultural plenitude and, yes, great strides in creativity.

    Much in common

    Charlotte and Pittsburgh do have similarities in that they both have a prosperous past, both have a number of colleges and universities, and sadly, both suffer from government imposed “prosperity.” For those who do not understand that last part, it means government enacts programs to create wealth but makes people poor in the process.

    Stadiums and arenas, convention centers, corporate welfare, over-regulation, union handouts and infrastructure neglect have been the big-government, Keynesian approach to wealth development. Those are the ingredients which the politicos thought would bring prosperity. Florida replaces those old social-engineering projects with some new ones, like academic grants, “creativity” welfare, and parks for “gays and bohemians” (Florida’s words).

    Florida changes the load, but the yoke stays in place.

    On the other hand, if you want to set loose creativity and create plenitude, fix local and state government by getting them out of the way. You sure don’t want to make them more powerful qua regionalism. Liberty allows Maslow to be profound and creativity to flourish.

    Categories: News
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