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In his first book three years ago, "The Rise of the Creative Class," Richard Florida argued that artists and entrepreneurs, scientists and health-care professionals are the ones who drive American business innovation. The cities and regions that will thrive, he contended, are the ones which provide an open, tolerant environment for cultural creatives. Now the public policy professor has taken his argument global and sounded an alarm that the US may be on the verge of losing its competitive edge in attracting innovators. The new book is called "The Flight of the Creative Class." Richard Florida joins us from member station KCFR in Denver, Colorado.

Welcome to the show.

Professor RICHARD FLORIDA (Author, "The Flight of the Creative Class"): It's great to be with you.

KAST: What is the creative class? How do you define who's in it, who's not?

Prof. FLORIDA: The creative class is really the growth sector of our economy and the world economy. In the United States about 40 million people work in this sector of the economy, and worldwide it's about 150 million. They're scientists, people who work in technology and innovate, entrepreneurs who start companies. They're also everyone who works in the artistic and cultural field and entertainment broadly. And in addition to that, we include the people who are in the classical professions: people in finance, the legal and health-care professions.

But having 30 to 35 percent of our working population in the creative sector is insufficient from both an economic and from a political stance. And, really, the challenge of our time is to grow this creative class to encompass many, many more Americans and to let many more people participate.

KAST: You write that you coined the phrase `creative class' because you were infuriated by the elitism of talking about the `knowledge economy.' How are they different? And isn't the idea of a creative class fairly elitist in itself?

Prof. FLORIDA: While most commentators who work on these issues see a culture war or red and blue states, what I tend to see is a fundamental class divide in our society that's worsening. We have to improve the quality of jobs in the service sector, everyone from people who do landscaping to physical therapy, work in grocery stores. Those are the jobs that can't be outsourced. We have to treat those jobs and make them better jobs.

KAST: How should the US improve those jobs?

Prof. FLORIDA: First, the US has to reinvest in our own innovation and creativity. We need to increase spending on education, science, technology and arts and culture because many people who are creative, arts and culture become their stimulant. Secondly, we have to remain an open country. The retreat that this country has made with regards to restrictions on immigrations, this ridiculous debate about securing our borders and keeping illegal immigrants out--immigrants add economic impact to the United States' economy. And, thirdly, we have to strengthen our cities. If we invest in creativity, if we keep ourselves open, tolerant and inclusive and make sure our cities and urban economies are strong, we'll have a pretty bright future. If we fail to do that, I think we face the gravest competitive threat of our time.

KAST: Isn't there a value, though, to the American economy of having smart, creative people who like the US functioning happily in other countries?

Prof. FLORIDA: Absolutely. One of the things that has made the United States so interesting is what Joe Nye at Harvard calls our soft power. A really incredible component of that soft power has been our ability to educate and train people who then go back to Europe, to Japan and help build thriving industries and, also, staff the political and bureaucratic apparatus.

What's happening, though, now is not only are we restricting immigration and visas; people have a worsening opinion of the United States as a place that is no longer friendly to immigrants, that is no longer friendly to foreign students. And one of the things they single out is this obsession with kind of the culture wars. What they're saying is, you know, `It looks to me like a place like Canada or the United Kingdom. They look like the kind of places that are more attractive.' And, unfortunately for the United States, lots of the 150 million members of the global creative class are choosing instead to go to those countries rather than come here.

KAST: You write that blocking creative newcomers is a greater threat to the US economy than terrorism. But isn't security as important as creativity?

Prof. FLORIDA: Well, I think people have to feel secure, and at the same time we have to realize that the thing that's made the United States a great country and an economic superpower has been our ability to attract the best and the brightest people from around the world.

KAST: You seem to minimize the importance of wages in decisions people make. You cite inspiring examples of people leaving fat paychecks for more exciting work at lesser pay. But aren't they really a rare exception?

Prof. FLORIDA: I think that wages are important, and certainly people continue to move to places for economic opportunity. But one of the things I think most economists have missed is that creative people are intrinsically motivated. And if you look at most people who work in the creative fields, they're not motivated simply by money. And for all of those economists who somehow believe you can spur national or regional growth by cutting taxes and using business incentives, the simple thing I would offer is that: Isn't it surprising that the fastest-growing places in the world are typically the highest-cost, most-expensive places? Putting the total emphasis on cost and business incentive factors nixes a much bigger picture: Creative people want to be in places where they can be themselves, do their work, be excited and be the person, the complete person, they want to be.

KAST: Richard Florida is professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia. The book is "The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent," published by HarperBusiness.

Thanks a lot.

Prof. FLORIDA: Thank you, Sheilah.

KAST: You can read an excerpt from Richard Florida's newest book at our Web site, npr.org.

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