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.