An Indictment of Urban Liberalism
I know urban planning professor Richard Florida did not intend it, but his new book represents an indictment of urban liberalism. To Florida the motive force in urban America is “The Rise of the Creative Class,” the title of a highly influential book he wrote in 2002. The creative class consists of occupations in the sciences, the arts, music, entertainment, media, management, finance, healthcare and education; in other words the educated elite. Sitting below them is the working class who represents blue collar workers and the service class consisting routine jobs food service, hospitality, maintenance and retail. In other words people like Florida, despite his humble roots, determine the destiny of a city. And to him the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the victory of Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election meant that the barbarians were at the gates. That may be true but the seeds urban liberalism failures were already planted well before the arrival of Trump. As an aside, my guess is that if Hillary won, Florida would now be sitting in a high post at HUD.
As Florida accurately notes the influx of the creative class into the cities of America brought with it rising real estate prices that exacerbated pre-existing income inequality, racial segregation and spatial segregation of the well-off from the poor. This has been especially true in the super star cities of New York and Los Angeles and the education/tech hubs of Boston, San Francisco and Washington D.C. In those cities the demand-driven house price increases are exacerbated by the planning and zoning controls put in place by the very creative class that Florida champions. If you don’t believe me, just look at the over-the-top real estate ads that appear regularly in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. As a result the creative class has been enriched and the middle class is being forced out. Thus in urban America zoning is the engine of economic inequality.
All of this was true from the 1980s on and most, if not all of it, were accomplished under the auspices of urban liberal regimes. Florida’s major error is that he conflates social liberalism with economic liberalism. While his creative class may largely support immigration, gay rights and a high degree of tolerance for different lifestyles; they do not necessarily believe that social liberalism requires them to make personal sacrifices with respect to their tax burden, the schools their children go to and the location of affordable housing in their neighborhoods. For example the liberal voters of Los Angeles just voted to tax themselves to provide housing for the homeless. However there are no neighborhoods volunteering to accommodate such housing.
Now Florida to his credit understands all of this. He offers several commendable proposals to offset the income inequality generated by his creative class. I fully agree with him that urban/suburban densities ought to be substantially increased, additional density bonuses ought to be issued to allow for an affordable housing component in major developments, property taxation should build on the ideas of Henry George by taxing site value alone rather than land and improvements, transportation infrastructure should be expanded to accommodate higher densities, and low income earners need an expanded earned income tax credit. Further he sensibly understands that rent control is not part of the solution.
Where I would disagree with him is that he advocates a substantial increase in the minimum wage on metro-area by metro area basis. The problem here is that substantially higher minimum wages may worsen the problem it seeks to solve and recent research out of the University of Washington on Seattle’s minimum wage tends to support my skepticism. We are also in an age of artificial intelligence and that will work to obliterate routine task jobs in food service and retail.
Where I really differ with Florida is that he thinks that his creative class will support substantially increased urban densities. Here I am very skeptical because it is the legally savvy creative class who has refined protesting new developments to a high art. Listen, I hope he is right, but I am not holding my breath. Three last points, he leaves out a discussion on self-driving vehicles which might work to decrease urban densities by making long distance commuting far easier. He fails to even mention the underbelly of every major city in America, unfunded pension liabilities largely created by that bulwark of urban liberalism, the public employee unions. And third he is silent on the state sponsored child abuse that takes place in all too many urban school systems. I am hopeful he will discuss these three items in a future book.
Despite my critique, Florida’s data driven analysis told us how we got to this place in urban America today and for that he deserves much credit.