Does having a thriving gay scene help the economy? Research from the US indicates that tolerance of our gay population is a significant leading indicator for the future economic fortunes of a city. Given that Dublin is so crucial to the economy of the nation, by extension, the fortunes of the gay community and the fortunes of the nation are inextricably linked.
In the US, those cities with flourishing gay scenes are also the ones with the highest income per head, the most highly paid employees, the most creative industries and the best environmental record.
Why could this be?
The reason is quite simple. The types of cities that tolerate a gay scene are also likely to tolerate other sorts of non-conformists. And where you get non-conformists, you tend to get creative thinking.
In his book on ‘creative cities’, the American economist Richard Florida suggests that these are the type of urban, literate workers who give a city a dynamic edge. In a globalised world, where cities are driven by services and the entertainment industry, the lifestyle a city can provide becomes part of the economic, as well as cultural, armoury.
For cities to attract creative people, they need to have a cultural, social and environmental, as well as economic, vision. This means all the agencies that run the city subscribe to an idea of what the city should look like, not next year, but in 50 years’ time.
This is why all great cities have great mayors whose job is to drive the city forward. Does a vibrant tolerant Dublin need a mayor? Of course it does. Great cities need to be looked after – they need care and love if they are to prosper.
A successful city is like a well-tended garden. The gardener spends time and energy thinking about what to plant, what will flourish, what will allow others enough light to blossom and how the entire ecosystem works. It doesn’t happen overnight, but via a process of trial and error that takes years to perfect.
If there is no overall plan for the city, like an untended garden, it will grow wildly, before giving way to weeds that will ultimately choke it.
Last year, I worked in Australia for the mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, under whose tenure Sydney has become more tolerant, more vibrant and an economic powerhouse, as well as a huge tourist destination. Working with a mayor whose job it is to market, promote and direct the city reinforced to me why a directly elected mayor with a vision is essential to harness the economic energy of this city.
The economic energy of Dublin is amazing. And this achievement is even more impressive, given that for years in Ireland, political and economic debate has focused on relocating industry and financial opportunities from Dublin to the regions. The rationale for this is that people and money accumulate in the city at the expense of rural Ireland, so it is incumbent on the elected representatives from ‘the country’ to make sure some of the goodies are divvied up more equally.
Yet Dublin and the major cities across the world are the dynamos of the national economy. Without the heat generated from cities, there would be no such thing as a national economy.
But there are serious new challenges for the city.
The first surrounds direct foreign investment. In the past, it was easier to locate direct foreign investment somewhere far away from the cosmopolitan centre because many of the old investments were factory-style assembly plants.
Now, however, when the new direct foreign investment comes in the guise of Facebook and Twitter, the lifestyle the city offers is crucial because so many of the workers are imported, as well as the company itself. These workers tend to cluster around each other, hang out in similar joints and experience the city in a similar way.
Here is where tolerance and experimentation come in. In the coming years, it is not our ability to import capital that will dictate the success of Ireland, but our ability to retain and attract creative people, both our own and foreigners. Brainpower will be at a premium and the city that can produce the lifestyle to attract the best brains will win. And if Dublin wins, Ireland wins too.
That lifestyle involves blending architecture, infrastructure and culture together. The battle is not between Dublin and Cork or Limerick but between Dublin and Amsterdam, Antwerp, San Francisco, Boston, Berlin and Paris.
Dublin is well placed. According to the ‘Financial Times’: “The Greater Dublin Region in Ireland is the best European region of the future for economic potential on account of the large amount of FDI per capita it has attracted, especially greenfield FDI projects in R&D. The banking crisis in Ireland does not seem to have affected FDI into the Dublin region; project numbers were up 15pc year on year in 2011. Investors in Ireland benefit from a favourable corporation tax regime; 20pc of FDI projects in the Greater Dublin Region in 2011 were classified as headquarters”.
We know that the corporation tax issue won’t go away. Indeed, yesterday, an OECD report called for more stringent control of tax breaks for multinationals. This, I believe, is a good thing, but the implication is that we need to offer a suite of reasons for investors to both come here and, as important, for Irish investors to stay here.
The Dublin experience has to be something memorable and this is where the treatment of our gay community becomes an acid test for lots of other things.
How we regard gay life here is a barometer for all sorts of other attitudes regarding a tolerant and ultimately creative city.
We have to build a city that talented people will want to move to and that talented locals will want to remain in. Part of this package will be an increased tolerance on the one hand, while preserving that which makes Dublin unique on the other.
Without care, attention and affection, this won’t happen. Is it time for a directly elected mayor with full executive powers? Yes.
The buck has to stop somewhere, and a powerful mayor of Dublin might just be the solution. There is no great city that doesn’t have a directly elected mayor with executive powers. When I see councillors playing self-preservation politics with something as important as the future of our capital, it saddens me.
From an economic perspective, the case is unambiguous. Dublin needs a visionary mayor. Let Dubs decide.
David McWilliams writes daily on international economics and finance at www.globalmacro360.com