US Infrastructure Collapse

Below Christopher Dreher interviews Richard Florida on the collapse of our cities, since we have stopped trying to improve mass quality of life.

“Florida: Cities are the places that attract talent. I mean, consider that 90 percent of GDP comes out of metropolitan areas. And yet somehow some people think that we don’t need cities. Not only do we have to open our borders, we have to strengthen our cities massively because they’re the cornerstones of our ability to compete for talent. But for the past four years the Bush administration has done everything to prevent that, from huge decreases in infrastructure spending to drastic cuts in block grants.

And now most cities aren’t equipped to compete anymore. The only policy we seem to have to revive our cities is to build another stadium. What does that have to do with attracting foreign talent? Who cares? No one cares. I’ve never met one foreign-born person that said “a new stadium” was an important factor when deciding where to live and work. The national government is clueless and our cities would rather be distracted by sports mania instead of paying attention to more serious issues.

Once I heard a former high-ranking member of the Bush administration on economic policy, when asked about immigration and national security, say, “If it comes down to a question of national security and economic growth, we will always choose in favor of national security. I don’t care if it means that the next Bill Gates can’t get in …” And that’s a view shared by many members of the administration, at least what we’ve seen in policy.

But the bigger issue is not the Bush administration. The bigger issue is the class divide, which is destroying our country. And that divide is between people who are members of the creative class and fortunate enough to migrate from Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Buffalo or St. Louis to these great thriving creative centers like New York and Boston and Washington and San Francisco and Chicago and Los Angeles. Those people are doing just fine. But the people left behind got really pissed off and got angrier and angrier and madder and madder, and they looked at these cities filled with single people, filled with young people, filled with successful people, filled with immigrants, filled with people cohabitating, having fun, vibrant night life, filled with gay people, and they said “Enough’s enough!”

The blame for this situation also goes to the Democrats, because when the Democrats were in power President Clinton, whom I admire greatly, did not build a society that provided a way for these people to become part of the creative economy. So it’s this anxiety that’s grown up as a result of the rise of the creative economy — whose benefits are extraordinarily concentrated among a relatively small group of people in an even smaller group of regions — that’s ripping this society apart. And that’s what political polarization really is. It isn’t just an issue between red and blue states, it’s a political polarization which has underneath it a new economic geography of class. And it’s terrifying.

What (Franklin) Roosevelt (said is), ‘I’m going to make sure that these working-class people get to be part of the industrial economy. I’m going to build an industrial society that allows people to organize and bargain collectively, raise their wages, has affordable housing, get long-term mortgages, provides occupational safety and health, Social Security in their old age and welfare in their spells of poverty. And I’m going to make sure that their kids can go to college.’

What’s happening in Canada, in Australia, in Scandinavia — I went and met with the premiers of West Australia, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. I met with labor governors and liberal party mayors. All of them are building platforms, and the one in South Australia was remarkable — they invest in productivity and prosperity, invest in economic opportunity, use the market and make sure they’re a creative society with ecological sustainability and social inclusion. So the dialogue in Australia and Canada and Scandinavia is about how to build a creative or innovation economy and how to build that kind of social safety net. Or, a better phrase than social safety net would be socially inclusive innovation. It’s not so much a social safety net like the old industrial economy but it’s a way of making sure people are included as a part of it. But that dialogue isn’t happening in the United States and this is what abjectly terrifies me.

What no one really understands is that in the creative economy, what makes us different and yet the same is our creativity. Every single human being is creative. Every single human being has creative possibility. Whether it’s a blue-collar worker or somebody who cuts your hair, or somebody who waxes your back, or somebody who works in a high-tech company, or somebody who writes poems. What we all have is our creativity. And we can actually organize people on that basis. We can say, ‘We’re all different yet we’re part of the same whole thing.’ Why can’t the Democrats articulate that message?’

Dreher: Why do you say the anti-elitism of George Bush & Co. is so harmful?

Florida: Here’s a guy who went to a private prep school, to Yale and to Harvard. And he’s developed a posture as an anti-elite to cultivate the support of the people who are terrified, legitimately terrified, about how they fit into the creative economy. He’s appealing to the common man by saying, “You know what we’re going to do, we’re going to stop this. All these things you’re afraid of, we’re going to stop. We’re going to stop this gay marriage thing and we’re going to stop women’s rights, we’re going to make sure not as many immigrants will get into your country and we’re going to make sure terrorists don’t take over your cities!” It’s the old Know Nothing platform.

Dreher: The idea of promoting “socially inclusive innovation” might fly in Australia and Scandinavia, but I can’t think of any politician out there who could weather the fury of rote partisan criticism supporting that sort of change would bring out.

Florida: Yes, what scares me is that that force is absent from present-day America. Instead of bemoaning low-wage service jobs and then just talking about restoring manufacturing and dealing with outsourcing, someone somewhere has to say that the real key to the future is to make these service jobs good jobs. I mean that’s the real policy point — the service economy, which represents 40 to 45 percent of the lowest paying jobs in our economy with the least protection, has to become part of the creative economy. We have to change those jobs in the way industrial jobs were once changed from being terrible jobs to being good jobs. We’re in deep trouble if we can’t focus on and address the externalities of the creative age — income inequality, the class divide, housing unaffordability, traffic congestion, and the one also talked about in the book, the incredible amount of mental stress, which is the occupational health and safety issue of the 21st century.

The point is that if all this continues, America’s economic advantage is gone. It’ll become an intolerant place, the kind of place where lines are drawn in the sand, where gays don’t feel comfortable, where young people don’t feel comfortable, where immigrants and newcomers don’t feel comfortable. The fact is that according to our rankings, the U.S. is 20th in tolerance out of 45 countries. As a country we’re not ranking with the equivalent of the San Franciscos or Austins, we’re ranking with the equivalent of the conservative Southern areas. And that’s a huge problem.

If we fail to address this fundamental class divide — on which these evangelicals and social conservatives and all this stuff is being promulgated — if we can’t address that class divide, we are in very deep shit. And it’s not enough anymore to just say, ‘Well, we’re going to tweak our immigration policy,’ or ‘We’ll take a closer look at what’s happening to our cities.'”

(Excerpted from Dreher, Christopher. 2005. “The Gay/Hipster Index.” Salon.com, April 21. http://dir.salon.com/story/books/int/2005/04/21/florida/.)

See: http://pragid.blogspot.com/2007/07/tolerant-creative-class.html
For a review of Florida by an urban historian.

As an economist, Florida doesn’t see how the traumatic and stultifying rise of inequality relates to our subserviance to the economics dogma–our elite-dictated worship of inequality and market efficiency, as well as our incapacity to overhaul a patronage and pork barrel political system. 

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