What would you pay for a map with no roads?

For $2.2 million, Richard Florida and Roger Martin tell us creativity is a limitless resource

What would you pay for a map with no roads?

How much would you pay for a map that had all the cities and towns marked, but erased all of the roads and highways that would get you there? I’ll go out on a limb and guess that most of us would spend zero dollars. But that is because most of us are not Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose Liberal government recently dropped 2.2 million taxpayer dollars on a completely useless road map to prosperity.

McGuinty commissioned Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and his colleague Richard Florida to take a look at the changing face of the province’s economy and job market and recommend ways of keeping it competitive and prosperous in decades to come. The result is a 36-page report entitled “Ontario in the Creative Age,” which Martin and Florida presented to the province last week.

If McGuinty is smart, he will thank the two for their paper, shove it in a drawer, and go back to his preferred mode of governing, which is banning things. But if he were smart, he probably wouldn’t have commissioned it in the first place, since the study bears the overwhelming greasiness of the “Creative Class” snake oil that Florida has been peddling for the past few years. The fact is, the rest of the world got wise to Florida a few years ago, and that U of T went and hired him, and that Ontario commissioned a pricey new report from him, are further evidence of just how much of an intellectual laggard the province has become.

The report begins in the excited tones of economic futurism: along with the rest of the developed world, Ontario is on the brink of an economic revolution as we move from jobs based on physical skills and repetitive tasks into fields that require analytical skills, judgment, and “creativity.”

The report continues: we want an economy that has more high-paying creative jobs—in science, tech, law, management—and fewer low-paying routine jobs, like assembly line work and waitressing. But along the way we need to strengthen the social safety net, enhance diversity, promote urban density and the circulation of ideas and people, and support weaker regions and the hinterland.

I suppose it is a credit to the authors that the report stops short of calling for peace on earth and a pony for every little girl on her 10th birthday. But the report is very light on policy direction or specific measures, an apparently deliberate oversight. “We want to pose goals,” said Mr. Florida. “We can’t write the policy directions for the province. That’s a legislative and political process.”

Well, thanks. But for a project that was to undertake a comprehensive look at Ontario’s economy and workforce, the Martin/Florida report is weirdly disconnected from both the actual world of work as well as elementary economic realities. In one bizarre passage, we are told that in the creative economy of the future, growth will “no longer be limited by physical resources and hours in a day, since creativity is potentially a limitless resource.” I wonder what it means for the province’s pizza delivery folks, security guards, and drycleaners to be told that they, too, must start bringing more creativity to their work. Certainly, the report doesn’t say.

Meanwhile, care to guess which is the most creative city in Ontario? Hint—it isn’t Toronto. Not Kitchener-Waterloo either, despite the presence of RIM and a number of world-class research institutions. No, the most creative place is Ottawa, where 41 per cent of the jobs are filled by people who think for a living. As Richard Florida told reporters, Ottawa, like its counterpart Washington, D.C., is a “post-industrial city” that is uniquely positioned to grow and prosper in the new economy.

It does not seem to have struck Florida as relevant that the vast majority of these creative workers are federal bureaucrats, and the ones who don’t work for the feds are employed in universities and colleges, or at best in the local tech industry that is largely dependent on federal contracts. Ottawa’s economy is not post-industrial, it’s parasitic, entirely dependent on tax dollars from regions of the province and the country where people actually make things or provide services that other people want to consume.

What this underscores is just what a pile of nonsense all of this Creative Age stuff really is. Richard Florida’s theories of the role of bohemians and gays, and of the importance of promoting density within mega-regions, is the sort of stuff interventionist-minded governments like to hear, but their effect on growth is negligible. As a number of economists have been pointing out, once you crunch the data and control for relevant variables, Florida’s “creativity” is nothing more than human capital, and the creative class just the segment of the population that has some form of higher education.

In the end, Martin and Florida have done little more than restate Bertrand Russell’s witticism about work being of two kinds: “First, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.”

Nothing much has changed since Russell wrote that in 1932; the only difference now is that creative elaborations on that basic insight sell for millions of dollars.