February 1, 2006
Why 'Pink' may soon make city's financial boys winkPosted in Irish Independent · 3 comments ·
Didyou realise that same-sex marriage could be central to our prosperity? In the years ahead, the more vibrant and flamboyant our gay scene, the more likely we are to thrive. Over the past week we have listened to many arguments, including those of the Taoiseach, on the merits of legalising gay marriage. However, we have heard precious little about the economics of gayness.
This is odd given the prevalence of a type of “tyranny of economics” in public discourse, where the legitimacy of every political proposition hinges on passing the narrow “but is it good for the economy” test.
Recent economic research in the US reveals that a leading indicator of future wealth of a city or region is a strong and open gay scene.
The reason is very simple: there is, and has always been, a strong correlation between tolerance and wealth. The more open, tolerant and irreverent a society and the more foreigners and non-mainstream people living in it, the more effervescent the economy.
In the modern world – where open racism or sectarianism is frowned upon – homophobia is one of the last bastions of intolerance and so, a good way to measure the broad-mindedness of the region, is to look at how its legislation affects gay people.
The American academic Richard Florida has identified a new class he calls the “Creative Class” who work with the creative side of the brain. He believes, and with some compelling evidence, concludes, that the US cities with a high proportion of these types – artists, writers, software engineers, architects, designers and the like – are the cities with the strongest growth rates, the highest standards of living and the most satisfied citizens.
In contrast, cities with a much higher blue-collar population are stagnating and are much more susceptible to competition from the third world, particularly China.
The more jobs they lose, the more introspective they become and the more the Creative Class of these cities flees to other much more attractive places where the arts and cafï¿½ society are flourishing.
Therefore, the very essence of the city – its architecture, restaurants, art galleries, open spaces, public parks – its essential feel – is part of the selling package for the economy of the region. This is soft economy power. In the past, hard economic power – such as steel and coal reserves, large populations and/or political or military might – mattered.
Today, what matters is soft economic power which captures such ephemeral concepts like the feel of the place, the culture, the experience, the mix of people, the night-life and the lifestyle.
For high-wage countries like Ireland, the way to stay ahead of the game is to invest heavily in its vibe. In the US, there is a strong positive link between the Creative Class and the Gay Index (the concentration of gay people and the relative tolerance of legislation in a city or state). The reason for this is that gay people are much more likely to feel comfortable and settle in tolerant cities and these places are much more likely to display soft economic power. This is not to say that gay people are more creative, rather that where you see a significant presence of a creative class, you also see more gay people.
Gays are the last outsiders and it has long been noted that outsiders have always created disproportionate economic wealth. Take, for example, the history of the ultimate medieval outsiders – the Jews. From Babylon and Alexandria to Seville, ancient cities which were tolerant of their Jews prospered. When Jews were banished, in a matter of years those cities began to founder commercially.
For example, Imperial Spain and Portugal had sizeable Jewish populations in the 15th century. The Jews were involved in trading, science, the professions and amongst other things astrology. Spanish and Portuguese explorers were the first out of the traps because they had the best navigators who were in the main Jewish astronomers. The countries flourished until the Inquisition. Jews were expelled and along with them crypto-Jewish pursuits like curiosity, science and inquiry were discouraged and indeed regarded as superfluous because the Vatican had all the answers.
Gradually, Portugal and Spain went into centuries of decline. The Church’s intellectual stranglehold on Iberia strengthened. Up to as late as 1746, the Jesuits banned Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. While the expulsion of Jews was bad enough in itself, this expulsion also represented a closing off of Iberia from the rest of the world in terms of both ideas and trade. The history of the Jews of Sicily is even more alarming in terms of the economic link between commerce, wealth and tolerance. Up until the 15th century, Sicily had it all going on. It was rich, sophisticated, tolerant, mixed, multilingual and important. He who controlled Sicily controlled the Mediterranean, and he who controlled the Mediterranean, controlled the world. Then, in 1492, a great tragedy befell Sicily.
The island was under the control of the crown of Castille and when Ferdinand and Isabella ordered the expulsion of all Jews and Moors from Spain, Sicily had to follow suit. Jews had played a disproportionate role in trade as well as in the professions, particularly those of medicine and pharmacy. As in Spain, Jewish astronomers had used their knowledge of the stars to guide Sicilian adventurers for years.
Realising this, the viceroy of Sicily dithered, sending emissaries to Madrid to explain the vital role the Jews were playing, but to no avail. Gradually, a series of orders were passed which compelled Jews to sell their assets, pay all their outstanding debts immediately and, most ominously, barred them from bearing arms.
Eventually in 1515 they were all expelled but were granted “benevolent” permission to take the clothes on their back, a mattress, a woollen blanket, a pair of sheets, some small change and some food for the way.
Within a few years what had been left of Sicilian trade after the devastating first decrees, collapsed to almost nothing. Economically, Sicily went into a tailspin. Without the Jewish traders (who had formed only a tiny percentage of the population), no one traded. Without trade, there was no cash and without cash, there were no jobs.
About 200 years later, Charles II realised that he had to do something about the plight of Sicily and in particular something directly to promote trade. So what did he do? He tried to import Jews! In 1728 he gave Messina the privilege of a free port and gave Jews the right to return on condition that they sleep outside the city and wear a distinctive sign on their clothes. Unsurprisingly, this only had a modest impact as such terms were hardly inviting.
Then in 1740, he allowed Jews to return unconditionally. Unfortunately, those who did return found the locals severely hostile and scarpered quickly. Sicily continued to underachieve economically.
The economic lessons are straightforward. A society intolerant of outsiders will tend to be one which is not curious about other things, where debate is stifled, questioning smothered, cronyism reins, local big-wigs go unthreatened and a small coterie of insiders stitch up the economy. In ancient times, the treatment of the Jews has proved to be a good pointer to all these other economic restrictions that intolerance brings.
Back then Jews were the outsiders, these days gay people are the outsiders.
In fact, many would argue that gays are the new Jews! In the US, the correlation between states that still have homophobic legislation (mainly the poorer southern states) and economic underachievement is startling. In contrast, those with tolerant legislation are booming.
Clearly, it is impossible to disentangle chicken and egg, but the observation alone, coupled with the unambiguous lessons from history regarding tolerance and wealth should give us food for thought.
The smart successful economies of the next 20 years will be those that foster the right conditions for the creative class to flourish. So as we debate gay marriage, let’s not be oppressed by the red mist of past intolerance, but rather be enticed by the pink pound of future prosperity.