Friday, July 7, 2017

Frequent forecasting failure club

Richard Florida, as I think I have mentioned elsewhere, is the Paul Ehrlich of city planning. Widely quoted as an expert but routinely wrong in his observations, forecasts, or conclusions. Succinctly summarized by Antiplanner in his/her post Richard Florida Supports Trump’s Urban Policies.
In fact, the real problem is that most of the policies advocated by progressives such as Florida, from high-speed rail to urban density, are aimed at making cities comfortable for what he calls the “creative class” (meaning the college educated) while shutting out the working class. Because he doesn’t understand this, many of his prescriptions will only exacerbate the political divide.

Rather than say cities should be responsible for paying for their own projects, as Trump urges, Florida is more interested in social policy. Using growth boundaries to increase density drives out the working classes who can’t afford housing. Increasing the minimum wage to $15 drives out working class jobs. Building light rail to downtowns while letting streets crumble favors white collar commuters over blue collar workers. Agreeing to the Paris accords on climate change makes middle-class people feel good while it threatens working-class livelihoods.

Florida is dimly aware of some of this. “Large, dense blue cities,” he admits, “suffer from higher housing costs and higher tax burdens. Sprawling red cities benefit from lower housing costs and an easier path to the American dream of home ownership.” The trade off, he claims, is that the dense cities have “higher rates of innovation, productivity and wages.” However, much of that is an artifact of the policies that made those cities unaffordable: if all the low-wage jobs fled to more affordable cities, the jobs that are left will be, by definition, high-wage jobs. But that doesn’t mean a janitor in San Francisco can earn enough money to live in a house equal to the house they could afford in Houston.

For example, half of the people age 25 or older in the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose urban areas have bachelor’s degrees or better and thus are a part of Florida’s creative class, while only a third of those in the Houston area have such educations. But does that mean the San Francisco Bay Area has been better at attracting the creative class or that it has been more successful at pushing out the working class?

Florida believes in cities because, he says, “The world’s 50 largest cities and metropolitan areas house just 7 percent of the Earth’s population but generate 40 percent of its economic activity.” But this conflates “cities” and “metropolitan areas,” meaning cities and their suburbs. What Florida doesn’t see is that, without the suburbs, the cities can be crippled.
It surprises me how little acknowledgement is given to the importance of class in policy and political conversations. Florida's use of the term 'creative class' has some nominal value as an abstraction but in actual use it has increasingly become a shorthand for 'privileged, college educated, upper middle class people' whose agenda is to use government coercion and taxing authority to make their upper class lives better (parks, bike lanes, public arts, high-end restaurants, artisanal crafts, strong zoning requirements, etc.) at the expense of everyone else. The 'creative class' is a concentrated interest group with access to effective organization and media, but it is still only a 5-10% sliver of the population. They may be passionate about the causes nearest to their hearts, but others have to suffer in long commutes, lost jobs, higher costs, and higher taxes. And those others, the non-creative class, can also vote.

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