The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent
by Richard Florida
(HarperBusiness) $25.95

Last week, as The Stranger first reported, the historically progressive Microsoft bowed to the wishes of an evangelical minister and pulled its support for House Bill 1515, a Washington State anti-discrimination bill that would protect gays. It was a zeitgeist moment in Bush's America, where conservative activists seem to be calling the shots.

For economist and author Richard Florida--whose best- selling 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, posited that tolerant, free-to-be-you-and-me cities (like Austin and Seattle) have an economic advantage over old-school U.S. cities like Cleveland because new-school cities attract, cater to, and harness innovative workers--Microsoft's move is troubling.

And it underscores the theme of Florida's new book. The Flight of the Creative Class argues that the U.S. as a whole (not just Cleveland) is surrendering its longstanding position as an international magnet for global talent (Florida calls it a "reverse brain drain"). And there are numbers to prove it: International-student applications to U.S. graduate schools dropped a whopping 90 percent in 2004, and one-third fewer international students applied to take the GRE.

Central to our losing hand in the new international competition for the creative set is the creeping conservative ideology that's upending scientific research in the U.S., intimidating the entertainment industry, isolating foreigners, and, most telling, discriminating against gays. President Bush, for example, is demanding a constitutional amendment that would outlaw same-sex marriage.

Last week, Florida talked to The Stranger about Microsoft's decision and the economics of intolerance.

Your book deals with conservative policies set by our publicly elected leaders. Now Microsoft, a private sector leader, has caved. Is the conservative mood in this country worse than you imagined?

Yes. This [action by Microsoft] feeds the perception of America being intolerant. It's sad one of our companies is feeding into this process. They said to themselves, "Instead of doing what we think is the right thing, we're just not going to do anything, because doing nothing is not necessarily a bad thing."

Conservative activists [the American Family Association] have gotten Proctor and Gamble to pull all of its advertising from shows like Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. In that sense the intolerance agenda is worse than I imagined.

I was just with a group of top-ranking people from the Netherlands, and we were talking about the United States being viewed in the world as a much less tolerant and open place. The problem is, you can say, okay, these restrictions on immigrants are one thing if it's homeland security, but when you do that and you move backward on gay rights, you're viewed by the world as being a place that lost its way as an open and tolerant country.

Your book opens with a quote by Albert Einstein, who fled to America in the 1930s to escape Nazi Germany: "As long as I have any choice in the matter, I will live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law are the rule." If Einstein were a gay software designer in America today, would he leave?

America now is like Europe in the late '20s. We're on a slippery slope. We see scientists leaving because of stem cell research. 2008 is the banner year. If we get a president like Santorum, that's when you'll see the tide really turn. Many thoughtful people in science and technology and entertainment, thoughtful people across America, are already thinking about their exit strategy.

In The Flight of the Creative Class you write that "the real foreign threat to the American economy is not terrorism, it's the way we make creative and talented people stop wanting to come here." How does a Hillary Clinton translate that bit of seemingly anti-patriotic rhetoric into a successful political sound bite in 2008?

The national political leadership is dead. They don't understand, and they don't care to understand. And I'm afraid to say, it's in both political parties. Now, the Republicans in the main don't care at all. They say, "We care about homeland security, we care about secure borders, and this openness issue is a second-order question." Bush and the Republicans are stoking the tremendous fear and anxiety of people who can't fit into the creative economy, who are being left behind in factory towns and dead-end service-economy jobs. They look at Seattle, and they see successful immigrants, they see young single people having fun, they see a strong gay and lesbian community, they see a new cosmopolitan elite, and they say, "Oh my God!" The Republicans stoke this and say, "The moral fabric of our society is falling away." People look back and say, "I want my family values back."

During the Depression in the 1930s, when we had a class war--almost a class war in this country--Roosevelt and the Democrats said, "We're going to allow many, many more Americans to have good jobs, to unionize, to have high wages, to have good occupational health safety. We're going to have social security and we're going to have welfare for those in need." They expanded the industrial economy to include everyone.

Today, the creative sector of the economy, like the industrial sector of the economy [once was], is the vibrant, growing, propulsive sector. It's generating 50 percent of our wages. The thing to do is not to put the brakes on the creative economy, not to slap down the creative class, but to expand it. And that means people who are toiling in these places, being left behind, who work in the service economy, they have to get a material benefit, they have to get a better way of life, they've got to see a way up, a way to connect. If not, they're going to fall victim to all of this fear and anxiety and exactly the buttons social conservatives are pushing. And now they've got Microsoft running scared.

You say Democrats are at fault for this too.

Yes. My critics on the labor left of the Democratic Party have now become neo-conservative--those folks are saying, "Who cares about immigrants, who cares about artists and musicians, who cares about the gay and lesbian community? What the Democratic Party has to do is go back and get the NASCAR dad." That's crazy. They ignore the issues which I'm telling you are the critical issues. I mean, what the United States faces is not just a trade and budget gap. What the United States faces is a huge talent deficit, because we've ignored the creative energy of our own people.

josh@thestranger.com

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