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The Mix Is the Message #2: Creatives and Mongrels

Two thinkers make a compelling case for diversity and creativity as the engines that drive economic growth.
 
 
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Every few months the media hype machine catapults a new book into prominence. In what seems like a millisecond a multitude of critics are writing and talking about the "It" book, while hundreds of great books languish without receiving any serious attention. Such is the nature of pack criticism. Everyone needs to weigh in on the flavor of the moment.

Usually these books smartly package a clever idea; often one that has been made before by less clever people. "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks’ "Bobos In Paradise," are two recent examples of the phenomenon. Both books are very entertaining; neither is exactly original. But that's fine. Gladwell and Brooks represent the best of the popularizers, those who are able to take a collection of ideas and facts and weave them into a compelling mix that can connect with a larger, mainstream audience and create change in attitude and behavior.

The current It book is "The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life," by Richard Florida, a professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

This is a smart and interesting book that takes a well-known cultural phenomenon -- the critical massing of technology and creative workers of talent in certain cities -- and mixes in some new elements about why they cohere.

The result is the emergence of a regional economic theory built around diversity. Florida cautions that if American cities and towns don't support a local culture in which gays and ethnically diverse populations, as well as quirky creative talents, can flourish, they will lose out in the economic struggle for investment resources, growth of new cutting edge industries and university expansion.

What makes Florida’s argument particularly provocative is that it makes an economic case for tolerance, civil rights and a broadly defined cultural experience (including a vibrant nightlife), while scoffing at the American corporate model as a dinosaur on the road to extinction.

Florida claims, in a deep and rich interview with Christopher Dreher on Salon that "the world has moved from the old organizational era of corporations and homogeneity into the creative era, which is spearheaded by 38 million workers -- from scientists to IT workers to artists and writers."

Florida shows how cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit "fell victim to institutional sclerosis. They got trapped in the organizational age; they thought we really live in a patriarchal, white, corporate society and that the key to success was to strap on your tie, go to work 9-5 and behave yourself. There was no room for people with new ideas."

He adds: "Cities have become cities of ideas and cities of consumption. They are no longer cities of production. People in Detroit and Pittsburgh kept thinking, ‘We're going to have a headquarters, we're going to have the stadium, mom and dad are going to come from the suburbs and take little Johnny to the game and we're going to have retail.’ That's not what drives a city now. What drives a city are good places to live, great neighborhoods, great cities, nightlife, places to have fun. Austin, Texas (in contrast to Pittsburgh and Detroit) saw this from day one."

Two important factors support the Florida thesis: First, only 23 percent of the creative class are people in nuclear families and only 7 percent are in "Leave it to Beaver" families with stay-at-home moms. This means that three-quarters or more are in a different configuration; e.g. single parents, gay couples, etc.

The second and more surprising factor is the undermining of one of the great myths of the dot-com bubble -- that people in the new economy were working for money and for stock options. In Florida's interviews and focus groups, "People told us they were going to these new economy companies because of the flexibility, the challenge, and the culture they offered. This is supported by ‘Information Week’ surveys of 20,000 people over the past three years: The top four factors IT workers wanted were: challenge and responsibility, flexibility, job stability and then base pay. Stock options ranked about 30th."

While Florida’s book certainly merits the hype it’s getting, another recent book also deserves a lot of attention, but was largely overlooked. In "The Global Me: New Cosmopolitans and the Competitive Edge: Picking Globalism's Winners and Losers," author G. Pascal Zachary has developed the diversity-equals-strength thesis with far broader global themes. He emphasizes the vitality that comes from ethnic mixing, which at this point in history Zachary argues is unstoppable, and fundamentally helpful to economic growth and societal health.

The impact of the global economy on the U.S., and its "creative cities" may, in fact make Zachary's arguments and observations more useful than Florida’s in the long run. "Diversity defines the health and wealth of nations in a new century. Mighty is the mongrel. The mixing of races, ethnic groups and nationalities -- at home and abroad -- is at a record level," Zachary writes.

Zachary, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who teaches at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and has stayed a regular contributor to the small lefty mag In These Times, simultaneously adds: "Mixing trumps isolation. It spawns creativity, nourishes the human spirit, spurs economic growth and empowers nations."

Zachary believes that Americans, like Florida's stodgy corporate execs in Detroit and Pittsburgh, are "trapped in outmoded ways of thinking about ethnic and racial mixing. That diversity is a big plus for U.S. global competitiveness isn't widely appreciated. He agrees with Florida that diversity is the key to economic success: "Money follows the mongrel. Innovation follows the mix. The adept handling of diversity is the secret of economic competitiveness and national vitality."

This contradicts the conventional wisdom. Many political leaders, economists and social critics believe that homogeneity boosts a nation's economic competitiveness and wealth. After a decade of relative stagnation in Germany and Japan, this argument has lost force.

Zachary quotes the historian David Landes, who reminds us that "History teaches that success depends on different strategies in different circumstances."

"The ability to apply knowledge to new situations is the most valued currency in today's economy," adds Zachary. "Creativity bestows more rewards than ever before. ... Highly creative people don't excel in raw brainpower or test taking. They are misfits on some level. They tend to question accepted views and consider contradictory ones. ... This appreciation for paradox, not coincidentally, defines the mongrel mentality. The mongrel is a bundle of contradictions, metaphorically, and exists at odds with others actually. His heightened sense of difference -- of not fitting into molds -- reminds him that every worthwhile creation is at once an act of love (of difference) and an act of rebellion (against formulas, pat answers, imagined harmony.)"

In the long run, mongrelization may in fact be the one hope for the future -- capable of slowing down environmental destruction as well as undermining global violence. In this historical moment when terrorism stemming from culture clash is dominating the national psyche, it is not difficult to see that cultural and economic integration are beneficial to all sides, and might even mitigate the chaos that reigns in the Middle East, in India and Pakistan, and many other places around the world.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.org.