Hitch your wagon to Estonia?

America's magnet for creativity faces far-flung places on the rise

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Bright lights gravitate toward constellations of creativity. So where better than America - big-bang engine of modern invention - to launch one's shining self into the firmament? Somebody say Estonia?

In a kind of literary franchise extension, sociologist Richard Florida builds on his 2002 "Rise of the Creative Class" with his ominous new book, "The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent."

These days, the world's rank-and-file creative workers can find plenty of nurturing environments in which conditions equal or trump America's legendary offerings, Florida maintains. He calls the impending shift - not so much a mass migration as the cultivation of indigenous talent pools that attract a trickle of like minds - the greatest current threat to America's global competitiveness. It is a bigger worry than China (and, presumably, than the outsourcing of low-wage jobs).

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He also tries gamely - if generally - to float solutions to this drain. The book's real value may be as an identifier of how the world will come to look unless America wakes up to new realities.

First, to quantify: Florida concerns himself with individuals employed as architects and entertainers, lawyers and healthcare workers, artists and financiers, and other "related fields." In the United States, this rather nebulous collective includes 40 million people comprising what he calls a $2 trillion sector "larger than the manufacturing and service sectors combined."

The broad definition is intentional. "One of the greatest fallacies of modern times is that creativity is limited to a small group of people with particular talents," he writes, calling his label "neither elitist nor exclusionary."

Florida knows when to unfurl an illustrative anecdote. (He begins with an account of the production of the epic "Lord of the Rings" films far from Hollywood, in New Zealand.) And he packages his barrage of complex statistics as irresistible rankings by city and country. Readers in Minneapolis will find plenty to crow about. Readers in Ireland will find even more.

But the overall effort is somewhat uneven. To the degree that a trend is actually under way, the book is a fascinating road map. Florida's description of the rise of "global Austins" - small international cities ramping up their lifestyle amenities to lure firms - is compelling. To read that "universities are undeniably our strongest talent magnets," however, seems less than illuminating. And at times Florida appears to stray from his well-documented revelations, diverting a little too much energy to making statements about US government policies.

It may be too soon to anoint Tallinn, Estonia - or Dublin, Ireland, or Sydney, Australia - the world's new creative capital, as opposed to many thriving US cities. Still, by Florida's reckoning, America's magnetism for creative workers has weakened as the drawing power of other nations has become supercharged - owing to regulatory policies, quality of life, tolerance, and a range of other issues.

The US retains the greatest absolute number of these workers, with between 20 and 30 percent of the world's total. "But the creative class already accounts for a greater percentage of the workforce in several other well-established and up-and-coming nations," Florida writes.

The first step for a country being beaten at its own high-stakes game, Florida implies, is to come to terms with the fact that, as great and open and inspiring as the US remains, it does not have "some intrinsic advantage in the production of creative people." Does anyone believe that's the case?

The US - as Florida scarcely need say - has fared well largely because of its traditional openness to immigrants. He hits at today's more restrictive immigration policies. He should probably note that it's not especially easy for an American to emigrate and find full-time work.

Florida devotes considerable space to hammering at what he views as entrenched "partisan cleavage," spreading the blame for America's hostility toward creatives.

In places, Florida becomes deeply pessimistic. He lays out the kind of awareness required of America's political leadership, and then yanks out the rug.

"[D]on't expect to see that kind of leadership soon from either major political party, both of whose platforms veer increasingly out of touch with the global realities of the creative economy," he writes.

Florida saves his idealism for a wide-eyed celebration of the innate creativity of every human being. "Human beings are creative in many different ways, and in many different fields that go beyond acquired skills," he writes. Such statements may be indisputable. But the reader may hunger for more.

Ultimately, Florida calls it "impossible - and undesirable" to outline a specific plan for building a society that would attract and employ his creative class, instead offering what he calls signposts. "[T]his cannot be a top-down or centralized endeavor, but needs to emerge organically from the insights, efforts, and energies of varied groups of people and organizations." What's emerging organically, it could be argued, is the rise of new creative hotbeds like Australia, Belgium, Finland - and Estonia.

Clayton Collins is on the Monitor staff.

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