Should an economy cater solely to those who pay taxes in the region, or to those yet to come? I think the answer is both.
If today’s institutions were to cater to only the current generation, we would have a license to abuse our economy and environment in ways we would not wish upon our children. We would use up our natural resources. We would run up our federal government debt and expect our children to pay it off.
And, we would rationalize to ourselves that such an unfortunate legacy is okay because our children will be able to enjoy a bounty we could not imagine today. Perhaps they will even thank us for leaving something to fix in their lives otherwise filled with leisure in a land of milk and honey.
Few of us really believe that someone else should pick up the tab for our indulgences. We’ve paid too high a price for the folly and greed of others. A global financial meltdown reminds us just how fragile our economy can be.
Fortunately, our cities, towns and other public institutions outlive us. If managed well, they can live forever, so we must administer our towns for those who follow. If we fail, we steal a heritage from our children.
If we are to leave a viable town for our children and theirs again, we should do what we can to create a vibrant, sustainable economy. We must be diligent to create opportunities, develop succession plans and produce a quality of life that will not die when we do. We can do so with the sense of grace and appreciation for those who toiled to make our town a region where we could thrive.
There are a couple of essential dimensions to this formula. We can raise families here and create opportunities and amenities so they want to stay and raise families of their own. And, we can foster a creative class of artists and entrepreneurs, engineers and educators, medical providers and musicians, poets and writers who can add to the social fabric that will act as a magnet to others.
Each is noble and each should be celebrated. While we need every job, we also need to foster a creative class if we are to succeed in a globally competitive world.
A noted urbanist, Richard Florida of the University of Toronto, is making a stir in his writings on the creative class. He recognizes that, in a world where our young people experience unprecedented mobility, the regions that succeed are able to best harness the energies of a creative class who act as a tie that binds us all together.
We can be creative with either the left or the right side of our brains. We need the doctors and lawyers, the teachers, but perhaps not too many economists, and we need the artists, musicians, dancers, writers and poets who add color to everything else. This creative class will give us the best shot at attracting the next generation.
These are the individuals who help us see the beauty around us, show us how to think bigger and more globally than we otherwise would, and knit us together with a sense that the whole is larger than the sum of our parts.
The creative class thrives when our town is endowed with such amenities as a restored Strand Theater, a river walk, an arts corridor and maybe a pedestrian corridor downtown and a revitalized waterfront. These are the quality-of-life amenities that bring us together and give us that sense we are part of a greater vision.
Our creative class lets us enjoy music and the arts together, with a sense of community we cannot have while listening to music on our earbuds or viewing art in isolation over the Internet.
This creative class can do their thing in many communities around our country, from Austin to Eugene, Boulder to Seattle, the City to D.C., or many small but vibrant towns in between. They can be creative anywhere and can use the Internet to be creative everywhere from here. All we must do is offer them a positive attitude and belief in ourselves that they find contagious.
We don’t have to create the entire creative mass — just the critical mass to allow their energy to infect us all.
Colin Read contributes to Bloomberg.com and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow his tweets at @ColinRead2040.