I have Richard Florida’s big Atlantic piece open in a Firefox tab, but I haven’t yet had time to read it. Still, I’ve been watching with interest the reactions that Felix Salmon has collected at his site. Felix quotes Florida saying:
Currid measured the concentration of different types of jobs in New York relative to their incidence in the U.S. economy as a whole. By this measure, New York is more of a mecca for fashion designers, musicians, film directors, artists, and–yes–psychiatrists than for financial professionals.
To which Arnold Kling responded:
I hate the Mets. I find the heavy-handed sensory overload of New York tiring and ultimately unpleasant, in the same way that I find Las Vegas or Disney World unpleasant…
I don’t think that the arts are all that important. To me, creative innovation that matters is somebody in a lab at MIT coming up with a more efficient battery or solar cell. It is somebody at Stanford coming up with a way to make computers smarter or cancer more preventable. I just can’t get excited about some frou-frou fashion designers and the magazines that feature their creations.
This is a very strange thing to write, for several reasons. For starters, why does Kling’s personal opinion of New York have anything to do with the economic value of the goods and services the city produces? Secondly, it’s fairly bizarre, is it not, for a libertarian to suggest that “frou-frou” innovations aren’t of any importance while all that tech jazz is. If people are willing to spend billions on clothes and entertainment, well then there must be value there. Either that, or this whole market mechanism thing is way overrated.
But the real silliness is the failure to understand that production is only valuable if there are desired consumption opportunities available. Why make the money, in other words, if there’s no stuff worth spending it on? The development of fashion, culture, and entertainment innovations generates a diverse array of valuable consumer experiences that people want, which is precisely why people continue to work after they’ve earned enough to pay for basic food and shelter.
And the tech fetish is a bit absurd, as well. Efficient technologies are nice, in no small part, because they allow us to cheaply or sustainably use electronics, either to work more productively (in order to spend on those frou-frout consumption goods) or to directly consume entertainment (like television or video games, which contain disturbingly high levels of frou-frou design, music, and narrative).
Kling seems to want us to live in some bleak, technophilic dystopia, where we work to enable ourselves to work. But that would be a poor society indeed. Cultural goods aren’t just a nice by-product of a modern economy. They’re the very justification for it.