Where the Streets Have No Numbers

Statistical indexes won’t fix inequality in cities

In the 1990s, Richard Florida was just another professor. He taught classes at Carnegie Mellon University and edited management textbooks with titles like Locating Global Advantage and Industrializing Knowledge. He rose from that academic obscurity to international fame in the early 2000s through his book Rise of the Creative Class, which told mayors from Marseille to Memphis a beautiful lie: Your cities are one pork-pie-hat-wearing pickle vendor at an indie-music festival away from economic success. Florida proposed flipping economic development on its head by saying that employers follow their middle-income creative professionals, not the other way around. Make some nominal investments in cultural amenities instead of raising taxes, he argued, and you’ll eventually reap the rewards of an expanding tax base anchored by the “creative class” professionals that you lured in with your pickles.

Other scholars and theorists were not so sanguine. Economist Jamie Peck, in a 2005 International Journal of Urban and Regional Research article “Struggling With the Creative Class,” did not mince words: Florida’s prescriptions amounted to nothing more than “Biscotti and circuses” and was a framework for “crass celebrations of hipster embourgeoisement.” Conservative writers like Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute found it a bit too convenient that economic development was only possible through enticing progressive bohemian types into your city through “big government” spending programs on cultural amenities.

Richard Florida embodies a new sort of urban thinker who finally recognizes the basic problem — getting the most people to live in comfort and dignity — but is continually confounded by capitalist land markets

Florida himself has since backpedaled on many of these claims. His latest work, The New Urban Crisis, is a mea culpa of sorts, a career-spanning apologia similar in scope to Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, another work by a prominent liberal technocrat desperately trying to explain a world that their political failings helped create and that has largely cast them aside.

The parallels between Clinton’s and Florida’s books are striking: Each was overconfident in their computer models and ignored contrary evidence. They failed to understand the Rust Belt, seeing only rejuvenating progressive cities like Madison, Wisconsin or Hudson, New York and missing the deeply seated white resentment that also flourished alongside them. To Florida’s credit, he eschews finger pointing and contritely admits how sorely he had missed the mark. He had, in his own words, “been overly optimistic to believe that cities and the creative class could, by themselves, bring forth a better and more inclusive kind of urbanism.”

Buried in the acknowledgements of The New Urban Crisis is a surprisingly earnest account of the book’s origins. The scene is the Crosby Hotel lounge in New York City in the summer of 2013. Florida meets his publisher and, in midst of describing a book about the “re-urbanizing trend,” that looked to be spurring massive inequalities, the publisher tells him, “What you’re talking about is a new urban crisis. Write that book.”

Florida did, admitting that it required him to “retool” himself in order to sufficiently explain the emerging trends he was witnessing. Florida says that over the years since his popular breakthrough, he looked on in surprise and terror as his prescriptions quickly gave “rise to rampant gentrification and unaffordability, driving deep wedges between affluent newcomers and struggling longtime residents.” While he is humble enough to concede that he was too bullish on the trickle-down opportunities of the information economy, he is also adamant that he was the first to raise the alarm, going so far as to claim that “well before Occupy Wall Street … or Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century opened our eyes to global inequality, I warned that America’s leading creative cities were also the epicenters of economic inequality.”

His account of the “new urban crisis” reflects those warnings. The crisis has five dimensions in Florida’s view, but these can be boiled down to this: Wealth and the means of economic growth are owned by a small elite that have created fiefdoms in the world’s largest cities. Smaller cities face brain drain as creative types flock to these centralized cores of wealth. As large cities become playgrounds for the wealthy, everyone else is pushed to the suburban fringe, creating massive inequalities within large cities and increasing the percentage of poor people on the fringes. This trend is even worse in poorer nations, where cities seem to be losing their ability to give rural poor the opportunity to achieve a middle class urban life the way they did in decades past. This is perhaps where Florida gets the most radical which makes the only chapter that substantially discusses non-Western cities, feel that much more tacked-on. Essentially, “urbanization has ceased to be a reliable engine of progress” because free-trade markets have concentrated agriculture and manufacturing to such a degree that most cities do not offer those jobs as an option for recent immigrants.

But Florida’s “retooling” is hardly a groundbreaking innovation in the urban planning field. The profession has always been based on such warnings. Florida would not have a job if not for the dozens, if not hundreds of people before him who had made such warnings in the past. The field was founded by anarchists and socialists like Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes looking for a means to sustain communities outside of mercantilist and capitalist systems of production and distribution. Florida embodies a new sort of urban thinker that finally recognizes the basic problem the profession sought to solve — getting the most amount of people to live in comfort and dignity — but is continually confounded by capitalist land markets that counter-afford these aspirations.

Such is the frustration of the prodigal son who returns to the critical tradition. In an interview with Jacobin’s Erin Schell, Florida wastes no time laying out his Marxist credentials by recounting his college years at Rutgers: “I read all of Marx, I read all of Schumpeter, I took classes in Hegel and Marx, and the Frankfurt School, and what I came to understand is that the biggest problem we confront intellectually is how capitalism changes.” Perhaps Florida’s transformation is less of a “retooling” as he says and more of a remembering. Or a rebranding. But you would be forgiven for not seeing Florida’s Marxist roots in his earlier books; rather than delineating the various contradictions of capital, he was busy touting a “bohemian index” and charting the ratio of gay couples to straight ones in an attempt to divine what sorts of subcultures are favored by entrepreneurs and capitalists.

And this tendency continues in his new book. Florida — like Clinton — refuses to break out of the overarching frames that put him (and the municipalities that adopted his prescriptions) on the track to the new crisis. The book devotes its charts to different flavors of segregation, inequality, and housing unaffordability, all of which culminate in a New Urban Crisis Index that is used to rank 359 metropolitan regions. This mirrors the all-encompassing indexes he always uses, like the “Global Creativity Index” or the “Innovation Index” of his previous books. His retooling evidently doesn’t encompass methodology any more than it does ideology.

The New Urban Crisis can be read two ways: It is a compendium of important and sobering facts about 21st century cities, but it is also a look at a would-be liberal-technocratic government in exile. Florida reveals in the conclusion that he had written most of the book envisioning “a new Democratic administration that would undertake the deep and sustained investments” in cities. He had “developed a detailed proposal for a new Council of Cities, comparable to the National Security Council,” and had crafted a political strategy that would foster “a new partnership between national government and the cities in which federal investments would flow.” In this alternate reality, rather than Ben Carson, we would have HUD Director Richard Florida, who would be arguing for “transforming and expanding the Department of Housing and Urban Development into a broader Department of Cities and Urban Development.” It is easy to imagine his book’s array of interlocking indexes of inequality and segregation acting as the centerpiece to this strategy of technocratic control.

Florida’s tactic to connect cities’ mayors directly to the federal government would have been a wise effort to entrench liberal power for the long term. The mayoralties of large cities are the last category of big-ticket political contests that progressives regularly win. There are currently 34 Republican state governors and 32 Republican-controlled state legislatures, many of which show no sign of flipping. Superseding state governments by working with and funding cities directly would have established a means of sidelining conservative power centers.

But though the tactics are politically sound, the policies are questionable. While Florida’s past prescriptions of turning downtowns into adult playgrounds were indeed partly to blame for cities’ present inequalities, his latest work perpetuates a much more fundamental error endemic to liberals’ approaches to solving social issues: the belief that measurements and rankings can be used to effectively administer means-tested redistribution programs. Though his faith in lattes and film festivals has been shaken, he still believes in the essential benefit of regulating a capitalist marketplace through a patchwork of conditional, means-tested programs like a universal right to housing or a campaign for collectively owned property through land banks or co-ops. Nowhere in The New Urban Crisis do we get a universal program that is up to the task of eliminating the problems he has so dutifully measured.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard warned that “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real.” Donald Trump’s presidency threatens to have a similar effect. The liberal commentariat constantly refer to “alternate realities” and departures from custom, implicitly casting a nostalgic glow over the political program that centrist Democrats wielded the last two times they held the presidency. That program was anchored in the idea that capitalist markets nestled in the protection of liberal democracies was the last, best political economy. Every new social problem could be solved with tinkering around the edges. It is this notion that governing is about fine tuning a working economic engine — a supplemental program here, a tax rebate there — rather than designing brand new programs, that is liberals’ fundamental error. Social programs are protected by constituencies, and those constituencies get divided up into less effectual subgroups whenever a program is divided into smaller pieces based on income or some other factor. A universal program, like Social Security, however, can draw on a broad base of support for its perpetuation.

Programs like CHIP introduce leverage points that can identify those in need but can also single people out for control. Florida’s approach too depends on subdividing populations

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is a sad but illustrative example of the failures of patchwork, means-tested programs. Created by the Clinton administration in 1997 to bridge the gap between families that make too much to qualify for Medicaid but are still unable to acquire private insurance, Congress recently let the funding for CHIP lapse. A universal health insurance program would of course obviate the need for such provisional funding, would result in less paperwork, and is even estimated to be cheaper to run. Experts in the field note that a public single-payer system would have a sixth the overhead of private insurance and achieve important economies of scale. The same is true for education. Jordan Weissmann at the Atlantic estimated that it would cost less to pay the tuition of every college student than to maintain the current tapestry of federal higher education grant and loan programs, 25 percent of which goes to private, for-profit universities.

According to Michel Foucault’s theory of “biopolitics,” Western governments began from the 18th century on to view human beings as subject to social control via the relatively new powers of scientific analysis. Such analysis “breaks down individuals, places, time, movements, actions and operations. It breaks them down into components such that they can be seen, on the one hand, and modified on the other.” Programs like CHIP are biopolitics in action, coupling the public service it provides with a means of redefining and modifying the populations it serves. They introduce leverage points that can identify those in need but can also single people out for control. CHIP divides populations into categories based on their distance from the poverty line, which means they can be “seen” and “modified” differently. Poor people can be required to go through expensive and time-consuming application processes to receive the same goods and services that the rich receive with the tap of a phone screen.

Florida’s approach too depends on subdividing populations with statistical categorization, making some more vulnerable than others to various means of oppressive social control. His favorite means of labeling places and people is the index, a way of boiling down complex changes for particular groups into a single number that can be given a standard. Hence, the whole middle of the book is really explaining why the information contained in the dozen or so indexes are important, but also very difficult to solve. His seven different segregation indexes and six composite indexes distill vastly different entities into a handful of universalizing data sets, making the issue appear that much easier to manage from atop a bureaucratic hierarchy.

Florida’s earlier incarnation as creative class soothsayer was largely devoted to creating indexes and rankings for cities to compete over and gloat about. A crucial part of Creative Class’s success was the “Creativity Index,” which ranked cities based on their ostensible coolness. San Francisco and Austin could boast that they were objectively cool — the index said so — while midsize cities could pay Florida five figures to tell them how they could inch their way up on his regularly updated charts. A few academics, including Jamie Peck, objected to the idea of the same person making a list and insisting on its importance also charging exorbitant fees to learn how to move up on it. But few civic leaders seemed to mind.

If Florida’s creativity index was able to drive some cities to look past fiscal solvency to coolness, it makes a kind of sense to believe that his new inequality indexes could similarly drive attention to reforms that could address them. After all, who would want to top the list of “Overall Occupational Segregation”? (The San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara metropolitan region holds that title, in case you were wondering.)

The problem is that for such a name-and-shame strategy to work, media producers and civic leaders need to care about inequality in the first place. “We’ve known for over 50 years,” Victor Stretcher, professor of Public Health at the University of Michigan, told New York magazine, “that providing information alone to people does not change their behavior.” But even if inequality could be made a scarlet letter, all major metropolitan regions would end up marked by it. This puts most civic leaders in a mutual-self-destruction scenario where no one has an incentive to talk about their rankings on indexes charting negative qualities. Ranked index values are only as useful as the attention they get. Florida masterfully used attention when he peddled his creative class thesis, but when it comes to hard truths, eyeballs may be harder to find. Few business improvement districts are clamoring to put together a media package to send to CNBC or Business Insider about their egregious housing segregation. Unlike the Creativity Index, which had built-in incentives for media attention, the New Urban Crisis Index is fated to be ignored by those who might use it to help fix things.

That’s not to say that measuring and reporting on poverty is inherently bad or that no one ever pays attention to discomfiting news. What recent history has taught us, though, is that attention is an angry dog, and if you can’t make it do your bidding, it will bite you. When it comes to tracking and reporting on poverty, framing can mean the difference between starting a progressive movement for ending poverty or inciting a racist reactionary backlash.

Unlike the Creativity Index, which had built-in incentives for media attention, the New Urban Crisis Index is fated to be ignored by those who might use it to help fix things

Framing inequality as a social problem that has a unique impact on diverse urban communities instantly fuels a well-worn story that pits rural conservative voters (and their entrenched electoral advantages) against more progressive urbanites. A national social project explicitly meant to help cities is a nonstarter, given the gerrymandering and electoral college system that has produced the current political situation in the U.S. “Nothing remotely like what I envisioned and hoped for is likely to happen now with Trump in office,” laments Florida. His proposed half-measure is to “help cities get the increased control they need to build their own economies and address the challenges of the New Urban Crisis.” Even if this weren’t so vague as to be meaningless, it would still abandon everyone in the suburbs and beyond. What is needed are more fundamental changes that eschew new managerial systems and instead builds political power through grassroots campaigning.

This is the essential, critical difference between talking about social programs as fundamental rights (e.g. the right to the city, the right to health care) that deserve mass movements versus an incremental, bureaucratic approach that expands a confusing patchwork of social services. Rather than ask, “what does every American need from their city and how can we get it to them?” Florida’s indexing approach affords prioritizing the places in most need of intervention. It comes from a mindset of allocating scarce resources rather than inspiring a massive redistribution of wealth. Still though, one cannot shake the feeling that Florida sees his approach — means-testing sharpened with a bit of the lefts’ critical edge — as just what the ailing liberal brand needs.

In the 1990s, when the so-called end of history felt closer, capitalism had the power of seeming inescapable. It was treated, by Florida and other liberal technocratic types, as a given reality in need of fine tuning but nothing more.

Today, we live in a new discursive era where even moderate liberals have downgraded capitalism from the inevitable end of history to the subject of a present crisis. When, during a televised town hall, a young audience member asked Nancy Pelosi about socialism, she felt the need to tell the audience that the Democratic Party was a party of capitalists. No such clarification would have seemed necessary 25 years ago.

Capitalism has become an option among many, and the prevailing political order that developed all its policy approaches with the supremacy of markets in mind suddenly seems to have nothing new to offer. For Florida, that means pivoting to the revelation that capitalism has contradictions. But the “central contradiction of contemporary capitalism” according to Florida is not the one Marx saw between collective production and private ownership. Instead it lies in the “clustering force” of cities — how, for example, the film industry and its workforce is clustered in Los Angeles. “Although clustering drives growth, it also increases the competition for limited urban space,” Florida explains. Hence, being the “it” place for an industry simultaneously attracts talent but also repels it with skyrocketing costs of living. It’s such a big problem Florida gave it a fancy name: the urban land nexus.

This isn’t so much a contradiction as it is an indictment of what constitutes “growth” in the first place. Growth, as it is used by urban planners and developers, is largely defined in terms of capitalist accumulation: that is, increases in property values and speculative interest by investors. This isn’t a bug, as Florida sees it, but a feature of capitalism that lets the ownership class amass more wealth while starving the public sector for needed infrastructure funds. Marxist urban sociologists have been making this critique since at least the late 1980s when John Logan and Harvey Molotch published their influential book Urban Fortunes. Florida’s latest book is crammed with neologisms like “urban land nexus” that muddy the water around such critiques. The “patchwork metropolis,” “winner-take-all urbanism,” “new urban Luddism,” and “superstar cities” are not just Florida’s rebranding of old ideas; they rename the problem to make it more amenable to incremental reforms, assessed through indexes and rankings based on his terminology.

The New Urban Crisis, What Happened, and so much of what the deposed centrists believe are really just fan fiction

For example, Florida defines “superstar cities” as regions that “form a league of their own, often sharing more in common with each other than they do with other cities across their own nations.” This resembles the thesis of Saskia Sassen’s 1991 book The Global City, in which she argues that cities like New York, London, and Tokyoconstitute a system rather than merely competing with each other. What contributes to growth in the network of global cities may well not contribute to growth in nations.” “Superstar cities” rebrands global cities as aspirational peers with troubling index ratings, masking the fact that these global cities’ financial interests are actually antagonistic to everyone else’s. Global cities thrive independently of, and sometimes even because of, their home nation’s economic stagnation.

This is part and parcel with another of Florida’s rhetorical strategies: He rarely identifies agents of the “new urban crisis.” There are no enemies, only amorphous and huge economic phenomena that must be wrangled and tamed. Instead of acknowledging that there are people who materially benefit from slums, we get bromides about how “inequality is an ironic and troubling attribute of urban success.” The desire to ignore the antagonism between classes is so strong that it creates weird moments where he cites International Monetary Fund research to back up the already obvious fact that “countries that redistribute more income have lower rates of inequality.” The IMF, in Florida’s world, is just another well-intentioned researcher, not the organization that contributes to global inequality in the first place through its managing of international debt.

There is a lot to learn from Florida’s new book, but they are lessons about the future of politics and discourse, not cities. The main one is about how liberals like Florida will try to crib materialist accounts of capitalist crisis in order to try to render it amenable to incremental reform rather than a more radical reorganization.

Florida owed his previous success, Jamie Peck observed, to “the profound policy vacuum that characterized the neoliberalized urban realm.” He promised economic improvement while circumventing politics. No pension-plan renegotiations, no expensive infrastructure investments, just happy creatives enjoying açai bowls.

Now that the political attention and energy are shifting, Florida has identified a new vacuum: one created by a defeated left-of-center politics. But rather than fill the vacuum with something new, like a uniquely American right to the city movement that would assert residents’ rights to democratic city management and access to basic services, he is counting on his branding prowess to revive the old wonkish tools of indexes and tables. Poor people don’t need to be filed into yet another index though; they need political power.

In The New Urban Crisis and at least three other places (in his Jacobin interview, in his essay “Revenge of the Squelchers,” and in his “Declaration of Urban Independence” published in Politico) by my count, Florida has approvingly said some version of the following: “I can hardly tell whether the mayors and local leaders I meet with are Republicans, Democrats, or independents: Their economic and community development agendas are driven by local needs rather than partisan ideology.” What is so wrong with a book that speaks to these sorts of people? Why should we be skeptical of a clarion call to technocrats? Isn’t it a net positive that someone as well-known as Richard Florida is casting a critical light on an important issue?

The answer to all of these questions lies in the well-known dangers of positivism — that view from nowhere — which claims to have no ideology, only answers. The idea that political problems are really just disagreements about how to solve the same management problem is the toxic fiction that lost to Trump in the first place. The New Urban Crisis, What Happened, and so much of what the deposed centrists believe are really just fan fiction. Love letters to an alternate universe where we slowly eliminated poverty and disease through stepwise changes to market-based policy solutions. It was an approach that inspired few and alienated many. We all operate under one kind of ideology or another, and ideology defines what is perceived as “needs” in the first place. If everyone Richard Florida is talking to thinks the same way, maybe it is time to toss the whole lot of them.

David A. Banks writes about cities, technology, and society from Troy, NY.