Tag Archives: creative class

The Politics of Resentment

8 Nov

What does the Rob Ford scandal have to do with Erie County politics? At first glance, there are no similarities. 

While Buffalo’s mayor is a mild-mannered, African-American professional who has henchmen and cronies to do his dirty work whilst he is out cutting ribbons, Toronto’s mayor is a blond-haired, 300-pound, lying, crack-smoking drunkard who is as completely in denial as he is out of control and enabled by his own henchmen and cronies

As Buffalo struggles to find its way amidst a storm of population loss, educational crisis, crime, lack of jobs, and crushing poverty, Toronto is now the 4th largest city on the continent and growing. Toronto’s boom over the last 30 years has been amazing to see, and the city has invested in the infrastructure and quality of life changes that attract residents and businesses. It’s as if the Swiss ran New York City. 

Rob Ford, however, would not be mayor of Toronto if that city hadn’t undergone a change in the mid-50s to regional government, culminating in amalgamation in the late 1990s. Rob Ford is a politician who is of, and for, the Toronto suburbs. His home and political base of operations is in the western suburb of Etobicoke (the k is silent), which was dissolved as a separate political entity in 1998 and became part of Toronto. 

Ford’s refusal to resign has to do with his loyal fan base, known as “Ford Nation”. Xenophobic, urbanophobic, and virulently anti-tax, Ford Nation will back Rob and his city councillor brother Doug without question. This constituency sees in them the only hope for reducing government waste and lowering taxes; it is, simply put, a tax revolt cult of personality. 

No longer run by the Swiss, Toronto is instead being run by a loud tea party addict. Rob Ford has the personal cult and conservative anti-tax ethos of a Carl Paladino, the in-your-face obnoxiousness of Chris Christie, and the personal problems of a Marion Barry, Chris Farley, John Belushi, and Artie Lange. 

The City of Buffalo has almost nothing in common with Toronto, except perhaps a Great Lakes locus and climate, and having “City of” preceding its name. Toronto is a world-class city with a booming economy based on knowledge and creativity, while Buffalo is a grande dame-turned -provincial backwater with a struggling economy based on government handouts and nostalgia porn. Amalgamated Toronto has 44 city councillors, each representing about 55,000 residents, and a non-partisan city council, overseeing an $11 billion budget. 

But the lessons Toronto teaches us are the perils of regionalism, and the ugliness of the politics of insular suburban resentment. Rob Ford ran on a platform whereby he attacked former mayor David Miller. Miller was a charismatic Harvard-educated lawyer who cleaned up the lobbying system, rejuvenated Toronto’s waterfront, improved public transit, attacked unaccountable public authorities, demanded that landed immigrants be enfranchised, and made huge investments in public housing, child care, and other civic services. 

But with taxes being spent on social services for inner-city poor, the Ford Nation backlash came in 2010 with Ford’s platform of, “putting people and families first, focusing on the fundamentals, reducing waste and eliminating unnecessary taxes”.  He would do all this without cutting services. 

There’s nothing magical about suburban politicians sowing resentment against inner-city poor. We know that sort of thing all too well in Buffalo.

I’m not a big fan of the suburb/urban divide, and firmly believe that it’s incumbent on everyone to realize that our shrinking, poor region sinks or swims together. Toronto is swimming. At best, Buffalo is treading water. In a storm. Without a life vest. In winter. 

But what we saw on election day this past Tuesday was primarily brought about by one thing – low turnout. For the vast majority of people who aren’t political junkies, Tuesday’s elections were hardly exciting or compelling. Races for sheriff or comptroller don’t bring out the non-prime voters. When you add to the mix the fact that Byron Brown’s conspiracy with the county Republicans to completely ignore Republican Mayoral candidate Sergio Rodriguez helped to depress city turnout, Republican countywide candidates could be guaranteed an anemic Democratic turnout.

This wasn’t a campaign season based on ideas as much as it was based on tactical cynicism. So, Democrats had a bad cycle and will have to endure another year’s worth of concern-trolling from nominal Democrats who actively and passively helped to sabotage Democratic candidates to gain some unknown advantage in an internecine war they could end tomorrow. 

The only mandate anyone can claim based on Tuesday’s election is that people are so unmotivated and uninspired by local politics that 70% of them stayed home. “None of the above” won in a landslide, which allowed flawed incumbents to skate without breaking much of a sweat. 

Who can blame them? Who cares? What’s Stefan Mychajliw going to do? Chase headlines for 1 or 2 more years until he finds himself a promotion. Tim Howard will sit there and wait to collect his pension. The County Legislature will fight with Poloncarz over the small fraction of the county budget over which they have discretion in spending. They will demand more money for suburban roads and less money for things that people in the city count on, like culturals and social services. Our own Ford Nation will cynically deepen further the chasm between the city and suburbs – a chasm that distracts from ways to bridge the joys and richness of city living with the good government and prosperity of the suburbs.

The “us vs. them” mentality rings about resentment and bad policy in Toronto, as it does here. Urbanist philosopher Richard Florida is promoting a governmental “rethink” as he watches Toronto’s mayor embarrass itself with no recourse to deal with the problem. Part of this has to do with the new suburbanization of Canada, 60 years after America’s. Canadian commentators call the anti-urbanist suburban political blocs as the “New Hosers” with hockey commentator Don Cherry as their lord and king. 

Florida says cities succeed when they embrace diversity and creativity. He says that “creativity is the new economy“. He has a point, and Toronto is still growing and thriving in spite of its political problems. Buffalo, by contrast, has a political and regulatory system that stifles growth and creativity. It has a horrible transit system and dumb infrastructure. But most importantly, it is busy looking for silver bullets and attracting outsiders instead of making life better for the people already there. The schools are a Ford-like embarrassment on a daily basis, crime hasn’t been meaningfully addressed, there is no opportunity for poor residents, and jobs are few, far-between, and pay too little to attract talent to town. 

A good start would be a regional vision and plan. One that lifts all boats and reduces achievement gaps and resentment. A good start would be to focus on people’s quality of life and figure how to achieve the bare minimum of what constitutes good government.  Let’s give people good schools, safe streets, and fewer barriers to prosperity and growth. 

The State of Buffalo’s Creative Gig Economy

7 Sep

Turns out I’m not the special unique snowflake I thought I was. Turns out I’m a  special unique snowflake that looks just like one-third of the US workforce.

When I moved back to Buffalo four plus years ago, I had trouble finding a “real” job. You know, one where I put on a shirt and tie everyday and went to the same office and did the same thing and derived the majority of the family income from one employer and got health insurance and a retirement plan. A job where I worked 60 hours a week for one organization and structured my life around that schedule. A job that looked a lot like the military career I was leaving, at least as far as pay, healthcare, vacation, advancement opportunity and an office with a computer were concerned.

So instead I settled for a tenuous, shadowy unreal job: full time consultant. I made a home office, incorporated for the tax advantages, got a business credit card, and hired myself out to a DC-based defense contractor. Buffalo was my bedroom community, and my “employer” flew me around the country for work. I got irregular paychecks, no health insurance or retirement plan, and had to hire an accountant to make sure I paid correctly into income taxes, social security and unemployment insurance (which, being effectively self-employed, I’d never be able to claim). I worked when the work was available, and vacation meant not only no pay, but the fear that I’d be passed over for the next consulting job.

Over time I’ve added to the income stew. I raft guide on the weekends and am trying to write more, finishing a book and finding magazines that pay. My wife started her own consulting company on the side to pick up extra work and do the statistical research she enjoys. Between the two of us, we have six jobs: one real one (hers) that doesn’t pay well but provides the family health insurance, and five fake ones that provide a mix of personal satisfaction and funding for everything from daycare to date night. All this time my self talk, the little voice of Catholic guilt and inadequacy in my head, has told me that my inability to secure a “real” job is a fundamental failure. All this freelancing is just temporary playing around. My situation, no matter the actual enjoyment I derive out of it, is less desirable than the stability and structure of a “real” job. If I am part of a general statistic, it is the increased unemployment rate among military veterans.

Spot Coffee - how much work is happening here?

Turns out the group I should have tossed myself into is the growing Gig Economy (a clever play on words, referencing both the electronics and temp job slang) as a ronin, now 33% of the American workforce.

For Labor Day, The Atlantic magazine has run a series of stories on the new freelance economy, which they describe this way:

It’s been called the Gig Economy, Freelance Nation, the Rise of the Creative Class, and the e-conomy, with the “e” standing for electronic, entrepreneurial, or perhaps eclectic. Everywhere we look, we can see the U.S. workforce undergoing a massive change. No longer do we work at the same company for 25 years, waiting for the gold watch, expecting the benefits and security that come with full-time employment. We’re no longer simply lawyers, or photographers, or writers. Instead, we’re part-time lawyers-cum- amateur photographers who write on the side.

This idea isn’t new – Richard Florida has been hawking books about his Creative Class for years – but the uncertain economy is bringing the issue to a head. The Atlantic notes that the government doesn’t even collect statistics about this nebulous world of freelancing. We may be caught in a cycle where companies are waiting for certain business stats (unemployment rate, etc) to improve before they invest their piles of cash, but the economy has so fundamentally changed, and the government statisticians are so far behind, that they might as well be waiting for Godot. Higher old-fashioned unemployment rates in urban areas becomes a reflection of the size of the freelance culture, while low rates in the Great Plains simply means everyone is still stuck in a “real” job.

The Atlantic rightly notes that the labor laws of our country are based in a New Deal vision of the workforce, and the protections it delivers workers (unionization, limited workweek, healthcare, vacation, etc) mean little in a freelance world. Particularly galling is the recent uninspired Healthcare Reform legislation that doubles down on propping up insurance companies and the employer based system of providing care. The limited healthcare Co-Ops, slow to be implemented and unknown to most, barely scratch the surface of the necessary reforms. In time, President Obama’s compromised initiative may well look a lot like France’s pre-World War II investment in the Maginot Line: hopelessly and embarrassingly archaic, a failure of vision.

Closer to home, Buffalo has never fared well on comparative Creative Class rankings, and its worth asking if we collectively even want to. Our energies are still directed at attracting and retaining companies with traditional jobs (like most of the rest of the country, to be fair) in sectors of the economy not conducive to freelancing: specialized manufacturing, cross-border logistics, food processing. But like much else in Buffalo, there is organic timely change happening at the fringe, outside of the official channel – Accidental Success as I have called it. The Main Washington Exchange is attracting start ups and freelancers. Kissling Interests made a splash converting the old casket company into live-work lofts in Allentown, though one better be a successful freelancer to afford the rent. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, our dark horse in plain view, has opened the Innovation Center adjacent to the old Trico plant to attract fledgling bio-research companies. These “companies” tend to be individual scientists looking for lab space, freelancers in all but name in their chosen field.

The idea of a small business incubator is well known. What would a freelance incubator look like? Something beyond free wi-fi and strong brew at the downtown coffee shops? Is the MWE the answer? Do we need ten more? Or is the whole question anachronistic itself, and the answer already exists online, a virtual community that gets freelance tips from robo Twitter accounts?

Have We Yet Gained the Brains?

20 Jan

Richard Florida, observer of cities, has a new piece in The Atlantic noting the changing migration patterns of the young and educated. For those not familiar with his work, Florida is a business professor and institute director at the University of Toronto, a former Buffalonian, and promoter of various Creative Class theories which, in short, state that if your city can attract enough educated, diverse, talented, gay and young people, you’re going to turn out okay. Florida lists wooing the Creative Class as the number one job of cities, and so tracks what works and what doesn’t.

The latest info (from a Brookings Institution report) says Buffalo, and the rest of the Rust Belt, is doing a lot better than it has in the recent past. Buffalo has cut its young/educated loss rate in the last four years from 0.85% to 0.45%. That’s better than Cleveland and New York, and roughly equal to Los Angeles and Chicago. And several Rust Belt cities – Pittsburgh, Columbus, Baltimore –  have even seen their losses turn into gains. What accounts for this change?

Florida attributes it to lower migration overall (due to the Great Recession), a transformation in Rust Belt cities of manufacturing economies to knowledge based economies, and efforts of cities generally to be more inviting to young people. But does this theory hold water for Buffalo?

Chris Smith regularly reports on Buffalo’s positive economic data, and how our metro has faired well in the Great Recession. Most Buffalonians also know the great statistics about relative cost of living and low commute times. Buffalo Rising readers may also note the influx of converted loft-residences downtown as signs that the city is not just attractive to young people, but successfully courting them. I remain suspicious.

The Federal Reserve’s Buffalo office report on the matter says we do not suffer from an overly large brain drain, but an insufficient brain gain. In every metro, even booming places like Austin and (until recently) Charlotte, some young people leave. In this regard, Buffalo is like everywhere else – it sends its young off to seek greener pastures. But unlike other cities, we don’t do well attracting the nation’s youth, and experience a minimal brain gain. Unfortunately, this report contains no data to show otherwise. To cut our loss rate in half, we could simply have lost fewer brains, and gained no more.

Anecdotal evidence alone says Buffalo is still not doing well in providing that ultimate carrot to youth: quality jobs. Buffalo has far more intellectual capital than monetary, and this imbalance shows itself in a surge of citizen’s groups, demands for open mic nights for development projects, ironic winter festivals and the Buffalo Expat Network. In cities with the opposite problem, everyone is too busy working and making money to care about much of anything. Young people that do find jobs here are often under-employed, as greying middle managers are stuck in mid-salary positions with mid-salary responsibilities. With a plethora of back office work and few leadership positions available, the Buffalo corporate ladder looks more like a step-stool with not many places to go. As a friend of mine, a University of Chicago trained economist who worked for Citi in Amherst, once said: “If the work is important, it’s not being done here.” He has since moved on himself.

A shortage of quality jobs leads to nepotism and connections completely overwhelming qualifications – if you are an outsider, a recent transplant, and not “from here,” or from the “old neighborhood” in some places still, you have little chance of even hearing about jobs, much less securing them. The City of Good Neighbors culture is friendly to its own and suspicious of others coming to take the few remaining scraps.

This culture changes when jobs are readily available, and enough new blood is regularly arriving to soften old perceptions or break down networks built from grade school. Until Buffalo moves from the “loss” to the “gain” column in these demographics reports, I will be unconvinced we have truly turned a corner. Like I have said before, the solution to many of our problems is Growth.


16 Jun

As Richard Florida argues, it’s an idea whose time has come.

…mega-regions have replaced the nation-state as the economic drivers of the global economy. These are places like Bos-Wash (the Boston-New York-Washington corridor), Chi-Pitts (running from Chicago through Detroit and Cleveland and over to Pittsburgh), Nor-Cal (around San Francisco and the Silicon Valley), Cascadia (which stretches from Portland through Seattle and Vancouver), Europe’s Am-Burs-Twerp (from Amsterdam to Brussels and Antwerp), Lon-Leed-Chester (around London) and Asia’s greater Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai.

Clunky sounding or not, the 10 largest mega-regions account for 43 percent of the planet’s economic activity and more than half of its patented innovations and star scientists. They generate all those pioneering breakthroughs while housing only 6.5 percent of the planet’s population. And to take an even broader overhead view, the top 40 mega-regions produce 66 percent of the world’s economic activity and more than 80 percent of its patented innovations and most-cited scientists, still while being home to just 18 percent of the world’s population.

Tor-Buff-Chester is one of the world’s very biggest mega-regions, bigger than the San Francisco-Silicon Valley megaregion, Greater Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai, and more than twice the size of Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest. Its economic might is equivalent to more than half of all of Canada’s. If it were its own country, it would number among the 16 biggest in the world, with economic output bigger than that of Sweden, the Netherlands or Australia.

Being able to run a great think tank — the Martin Rotman Prosperity Institute — in this great mega-region is what moved me back to it. I know both Buffalo and Toronto pretty well. During my time in Buffalo, I endured some large snowstorms, lived in the terrific Elmwood neighborhood, ate my share of real chicken wings and beef on weck and took in as many Bills and Sabres games as I could.

At that time, Buffalonians always would remind me of how, during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, it was Buffalo with its manufacturing muscle and exciting downtown that was the more energetic, stronger city while Toronto rolled up the sidewalks at 10 p. m.

Times change, and these days Toronto has become the engine of the mega-region. Greater Toronto is growing at a fantastic clip, adding thousands of immigrants and 115,000 people a year. But it’s also clear that Buffalo’s economic hemorrhaging has stabilized. Despite shedding 17 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2005, the region’s manufacturing sector actually expanded its output by 3.5 percent, according to a study by UB’s Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth. The same report shows an increase in creative-class jobs in information technology, financial and business services, which I define as ones where people use their minds to create economic value.

Not only is Toronto growing, it isn’t resting on its laurels. One can whine all day about Canada’s socialism, cleanliness, friendliness, and aggressive drivers, but does Buffalo have an agenda for prosperity? Does Rochester? Or are we on the US side of this mega-region satisified instead to harken back to the good ol’ days of Xerox and Kodak; of GM and Bethlehem Steel?

Compare Toronto’s “doing business” section on its website to Buffalo’s, which recently got a re-vamp that actually added a “businesses” section.

The second section of Toronto’s site is its “agenda for prosperity.” In Buffalo, it’s “incentives“.

They plan for growth. We beg for stasis.

In any event, setting aside the completely different mindsets when it comes to growth and prosperity, Buffalo needs to re-focus its gaze in many ways. We need to stop wringing our hands over past mistakes and instead develop a plan to learn from them and avoid making similar ones in the future. We need to – and I admit I’m the biggest culprit of this – stop whining about Albany this and Albany that, and start looking beyond Albany – start looking beyond downstate’s comparative prosperity and figure out a roadmap to Western New York’s return to prosperity.

Look forwards, not backwards.

We need to look to Toronto, look to Rochester, look to the Southern Tier, look to Erie, and realize that the megaregion has much to offer. The border is an impediment to this, but it is not insurmountable. There are small, symbolic ways to begin the mental integration of this mega-region right now. It’s things like when Skybus was going to call the Niagara Falls International Airport “Toronto/Niagara” on its website. It’s things like the Bills playing a few games in Toronto or the Sabres playing a few games in Rochester. There is so much potential within a 100 mile radius of the city of Buffalo, as the epicenter of the mega-region Florida talks about.

We just need to start tapping it, and develop a plan to integrate the region.

Cities Speak

30 May

Via Richard Florida’s blog, this essay:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.

(Read the whole thing here)

What is Buffalo saying?