by James A. Bacon
Economic development has become a game not just of recruiting corporate capital but of developing, recruiting and retaining human capital. Much has been written about the desirability of recruiting members of the “creative class,” the entrepreneurs, scientists, artists and educators who contribute disproportionately to entrepreneurship and economic growth. But how about the super creatives — the 1%, so to speak, of creativity? No one has tracked them…. until now.
The MacArthur Foundation has released data showing the origins and present whereabouts of 897 exceptionally creative individuals in the arts, sciences, humanities and public policy sphere recognized by the Foundation and bestowed with a no-strings-attached $625,000 stipend. The data show two things: (1) MacArthur geniuses are born disproportionately in California and the Northeastern U.S., and (2) they gravitate in huge numbers to California and, to a lesser extent, a sub-set of Northeastern states: New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
It is discouraging to see that Virginia is arid ground for producing geniuses. We’ve fallen a long way since the days of the Founding Fathers! Only three MacArthur fellows were born in the state. The silver lining is that the state has enjoyed a net gain of 10 MacArthur fellows due to in-migration. We may not be producing geniuses but at least we’re attracting them. Still, the number residing here still is meager compared to many other states.
The MacArthur Foundation provided little analysis of what accounts for the birthing and migration of geniuses. Perhaps the paucity of super-creative people in Virginia and the South generally reflects a lower quality education system. One wonders, for example, if Virginia’s emphasis on Standards of Learning — elevating the academic performance of the entire student body to minimum standards, which puts the focus on weaker students — will do much of anything to elevate the number of super-achievers.
One also might ask what factors impel geniuses to move. They are far more likely (79%) to move from their state of birth than the general population (30%) or the college-educated population (40%). More than one-fifth of MacArthur geniuses came to the United States from abroad. Scientific geniuses migrate to centers of research excellence. Artistic geniuses migrate to cultural centers. Geniuses in the humanities migrate to communities with top universities. That explains the concentrations in California, New York and, to a lesser extent, Boston, and the exodus of geniuses from Pennsylvania, which creates geniuses aplenty but has trouble hanging onto them.
The handful of geniuses who live in Virginia, I suspect, are found mostly in Northern Virginia, in the orbit of Washington, D.C. Who knows, there may be one or two in Charlottesville. (If someone has the time, they can peruse the list of MacArthur fellows here to see where Virginia’s geniuses are located.) Among the MacArthur Foundation’s main areas of focus, one is “public issues.” Presumably, many of grantees in this field are located in Washington, D.C. (home to 32 geniuses) and the outlying regions of Maryland (15 geniuses) and Virginia (13 geniuses).
What hasn’t been demonstrated is whether the geography of geniuses impacts the economy. Richard Florida demonstrated a clear connection between the creative class and economic prosperity but no one yet has shown a connection between concentrations of MacArthur fellows and economic vitality. Perhaps that’s because no one has studied the issue.
There’s also one other possibility: Maybe the types of people recognized for creative genius reflect the values and worldview of the civic elite in Chicago, where the MacArthur Foundation is located. Are any of MacArthur’s fellows champions of traditional values, fiscal conservatism and free markets favored by the genius-free heartland? It’s worth a study.