Obama And The Creative Class

Joel Kotkin has an interesting take on the winners in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory. His contention is that the election marks the ascendancy of the so-called “creative class. The economic impact that he projects from this thesis is interesting.

He argues that Obama enjoyed immense support both in terms of voter turnout and, probably more importantly, financial support from the post-industrial sector of the economy. At the same time, Kotkin contends that the traditional economic power bases have lost their standing and power to influence events as a result of the economic catastrophe.

Today the traditional business leadership, like their Republican allies, present a spectacle of utter disarray. The commercial banks have been effectively nationalized. Many traditional manufacturers, notably automakers, also yearn to suck on the federal teat. Reduced to supplicants, these companies have surrendered their standing as independent players. At the same time, the traditional energy companies, long the whipping boys of Congressional Democrats, will be fully occupied trying to survive the onslaught of anti-carbon regulations now all but inevitable.

Hard to argue with that contention. But it is his extrapolation of the affects of the increased power of the creative class to its impact on the economy that is of interest.

What will this ascendancy mean in economic terms? Since the creative class deals largely with images, ideas and transactions, it’s not likely to focus much on reviving the tangible parts of the economy: manufacturing, logistics, traditional energy and agribusiness.

On the other hand, the creatives are unlikely to be protectionist since they represent companies whose growth markets, and often suppliers, are located overseas. Heavily counted among the world’s richest people, they are also likely to support some Bushite policies–like low interest rates and financial bailouts–that prop up their stock prices and drive money to Wall Street.

The biggest difference between the creative class and the old business types isn’t on cultural issues–few traditional CEOs embraced the religious right’s agenda–but on environmental policy. Executives at places like Apple, as well as opportunistic investment firms, have become enthusiastic jihadis in the war against climate change. Conveniently, their companies don’t tend to be huge energy consumers and, if they make products, do so in largely unregulated facilities in China or elsewhere in the developing world. And youthful financial firms looking for the next “bubble” could benefit hugely from mandates for more solar, wind and other alternative fuels.

All this could prove very bad news for groups that produce tangible products in the U.S. or that, like large agribusiness firms, are big consumers of carbon. Also threatened will be anyone who builds the suburban communities–notably single-family houses and malls–that most Americans still prefer but that Gore and his acolytes dismiss as too energy-intensive, not to mention in bad taste.

Theoretically, there is opportunity for the Republicans–if they can somehow jettison the more primitive parts of their social agenda and come up with their own bold, environmentally sound energy agenda. The new hegemons could easily be painted as moralistic hypocrites who live the carbon-heavy luxury lifestyle of the super-rich while demanding ordinary Americans give up their cars, homes and even their jobs.

Kotkin is perhaps focusing too narrowly on the carbon issue. Granted it is going to be a profound argument in the coming years and the affects of decisions made are going to reshape the economy but I think that there are other factors which may lessen the power Kotkin sees flowing to the new group of power brokers.

The Democrats are deeply in debt to the unions. Their agenda differs markedly from that of the “creative class” and squaring that circle will be a challenge. Overriding this, however, is the issue that to my mind may well trump all others. Specifically the growing problem of income inequality.

I am a late comer to believing that this issue was anything more than Democratic sloganeering. A bit of reading and some research has convinced me that indeed it is an issue and one which might get much worse much more quickly than anyone imagines. The economic crisis and long term contraction of credit is going to pull one of the major props out from underneath the middle class. Heretofore, the availability of credit has served to mask the income gap and deliver to the middle class the goods that they have been led to believe they must have. Take credit and thus access to those things away and the starkness of the division becomes abundantly clear.

If the majority of the country finds itself on the outside looking in at a precious few who enjoy unfathomable wealth then that majority will become quite restive quite quickly. Obama and the Democrats will have their hands full if they don’t move to address this issue.

Tom Lindmark

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