The Bounceback

What will save Portland's economy? Two lauded economists hash it out in the media.

By Camela Raymond May 19, 2009 Published in the May 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

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In late February, days after Oregon’s sesquicentennial, Forbes columnist Joel Kotkin sent our state a very unhappy birthday present. A place that had seemed “oddly golden” a year ago has “fallen off a cliff,” he wrote in an autopsy of the regional economy titled “Oregon Fail.” His words may have seemed cruel, but then, so were our unemployment numbers—and that was before the jobless rate ticked double digits.

The essay wasn’t just a condemnation of Oregon, though; it was more like a big red rubber ball fizzing across the media asphalt at Richard Florida, Kotkin’s longtime adversary in regional-economics punditry. At the same time, in a March cover story for the Atlantic, Florida was pontificating on the capacity of different regions of the country to survive the crash, concluding that densely populated regions where young, educated people fuel the “creative” economy—places like Portland, in other words—would bounce back quickest. It wasn’t surprising that Oregon had become ground zero for Kotkin and Florida’s bickering. After all, Oregon’s peculiar way of valorizing quality of life over quantity of jobs (in combination with our habit of staying just barely economically afloat) has long made the state a prime battleground for economic ideologues.

To grasp the region’s role in this unusual game of dodgeball, you have to go back to 2002, when Florida, in his best-selling book The Rise of the Creative Class, asserted that traditional strategies, like recruiting big employers and subsidizing suburban office parks, weren’t enough to make cities economically secure. Successful cities would be the ones to provide the kind of lifestyle amenities—art galleries, gay bars, bike lanes—craved by young, educated workers who generate wealth in knowledge-based growth industries. Portland ranked high on his list.

People like Mayor Vera Katz warmed to Florida’s theory; Katz even created the Creative Economy Initiative, which reached out to artists and creative types with small-enterprise grants. But conservative economists like Kotkin were unimpressed. Kotkin preferred to gauge economic success by things like (snore) job growth. In a series of hectoring articles, he lambasted some cities for ignoring basics like well-funded schools, and for instituting smart-growth policies that jack up real estate prices, limiting affordable housing in the urban core. Portland, he decreed, was a prime offender, “a pit stop for wayward twentysomethings” whose profuse creativity had produced few actual jobs.

Since then, the bursting of the housing bubble has altered the economic landscape while having little effect on Oregon’s special ability to inspire polarizing hyperbole. And nowhere are the possible outcomes of the “Oregon experiment” debated more heatedly than in our own community, where the competing viewpoints embodied by Kotkin and Florida inform decisions ranging from when to expand the urban growth boundary to how to escape this recession alive. So it bears noting how Kotkin and Florida, while peering up at the falling sky, have softened their language.

Florida still heralds the rise of the creative class. But perhaps he’s aware that advising mayors to build more art galleries, much less to look to flailing places like Portland as models, doesn’t strike quite the right note for these times. So he’s toned down the go-go optimism. His rhapsodies on the bobo lifestyle are gone, replaced with a scattershot array of long-understood truisms about the might of urban powerhouses like Seattle and New York.

Similarly, Kotkin still chastises Oregon for promoting urban density at the cost of inflating land prices (sending major high-tech manufacturing companies like Vestas scurrying off to Texas). But, like Florida, he has modulated his tone. Recognizing it’s bad form to be a total naysayer in the face of tragedy, he concludes his column by conjecturing that our region’s tradition of small entrepreneurship might help us rebound—then offers the pitiable evidence of a single, unnamed marketing start-up in Bend.

At last Kotkin and Florida have agreed on something: the importance of adapting your rhetoric, while clinging to your blindered ideology, when disaster strikes. As citizens, given the challenges ahead—like replacing dried-up inflows of fool’s gold from the California housing bubble with stable, wealth-generating industries, while continuing to press for sustainable urban growth—we might consider reaching higher. Trading knee-jerk reactions for honest analysis and innovative thinking is a daunting feat. But with so many creative Oregonians sitting idle, and unemployment figures still rising, there’s never been a better time to try.

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