RALEIGH – At the great risk of confirming certain stereotypes, I must admit that I’m not a paragon of hipness. Actually, the use of the term “hip” in 2006 is an unmistakable mark of not being hip.
I suspect pretty much all fads. I detest change for the sake of change. I wear coats and ties to the office and expect everyone else to do the same. I prefer my rock music from the late 1960s to early 1980s, my movie musicals from the 1950s, my science fiction from the late 1930s to the mid 1960s, and my fantasy from 1911. The revolting Moulin Rouge gave me a headache. I have never seen “Survivor” or “Desperate Housewives.” I mow my grass to a soundtrack of Teaching Company lectures on Ancient Rome and Tantor Media recordings of pulp fiction starring Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Fu Manchu.
While my predilection for circumspection may forever keep me impossibly retro, it does have its uses in public-policy analysis. Just because a theory is new and exciting doesn’t mean that it contains something true or useful. Human beings have struggled with basic conceptions of freedom, justice, and virtue for millennia. It is unlikely that some assistant professor has just come along and resolved these issues with a novel, earth-shattering insight. Admittedly, the limited-government observations of Locke, Smith, Jefferson, Mill, Mises, and Friedman were once new, as well, but they were themselves based on the empirical and philosophical work of predecessors and have been tested and retested for decades or centuries by skeptical scholars and vituperative critics.
Embrace innovation? Absolutely. But not blindly. Not when it is a leap of wishful thinking or a stunt to garner publicity, but rather when it is a creative application of sound principles, defended by a carefully reported set of facts or a rigorous analysis of empirical data.
Take Richard Florida’s “creative class” thesis – please! (Can one get any more retro than Henny Youngman?) I have heard Florida’s work cited countless times by lawmakers, mayors, county commissioners, journalists, and civic boosters who believe that it proves the old factors that influence local economic growth have been supplanted by such critical variables as the prevalence of street performers, nightclubs, and tie-dyed t-shirts (perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much). Proximity to raw materials, consumer markets, and interstate highways are so old-school. High taxes? They aren’t turn-offs. They are good for the economy if they finance sports arenas and subsidized downtown lofts.
As it happens, when I first heard about Florida, I thought he might be on to something important about the New Economy. It did seem plausible to believe that, everything else being equal, communities where younger folks and creative people liked to call home might also thrive in a dynamic, tech-based world economy where returns to human capital were growing faster than other returns. But Florida’s claims aren’t so modest, and they aren’t sustainable. Two years ago, in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, Steve Malanga pointed out that evidence linking creative-class variables and economic-growth measures was hard to come by. In a recent analysis, Nichola Lowe and colleagues at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of City and Regional Planning found (scroll to the July 2006 pdf, p. 10) that Florida’s approach failed to explain differences in economic performance:
. . . [P]reliminary results do suggest a strong, positive relationship between economic growth and the more traditional measures of human capital, innovation, and industrial diversification. In contrast, creative-population indicators demonstrate little or no additional growth effects.
Unfortunately, the Florida fad persists. I just got an email from the well-meaning folks at FoR ENC, the Foundation for Renewal of Eastern North Carolina, informing me about a new “Creative Communities Initiative” encompassing the towns of Ayden, Edenton, Hertford, Murfreesboro, Plymouth, and Tarboro. The press release quotes Florida: “Access to talented and creative people is to modern business what access to coal and iron ore was to steelmaking.” Well, yes, but it turns out that most talented and creative people pay close attention to housing prices, tax rates, traffic, safety, convenience, and educational opportunities for their kids – pretty much like their desperately unhip parents did back in the Stone Age.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.