Of all the reasons to celebrate diversity (as the bumper sticker says), a novel one emerged at the State House yesterday: Tolerance is good for business.
The issue on the table was gay marriage, specifically a bill introduced by State Sen. Dennis Damon that would recognize same-sex unions in Maine.
How does such a hot-button social issue affect the bottom line? That’s spelled out in a new report from the Williams Institute, a UCLA-based think tank, as reported by Josie Huang of Maine Public Broadcasting:
A report being released by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA's law school, says that gay weddings would boost Maine's economy by nearly $60 million over three years. "So people buy rings, they pay for hotels, they pay for halls and food and all that kind of stuff," says Gary Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute, which also predicts that same-sex marriages would net another $3.6 million for state and local governments, in the form of marriage license fees and sales taxes.
To me, that makes not just business sense but common sense. In fact, I would widen the discussion — beyond the contentious issue of gay marriage, and beyond the singular focus on tourism.
A growing body of analysis — reflected most recently in a lengthy piece in The Atlantic by Richard Florida — points to a strong link between the social climate and economic vitality. The topic is complex, but one point emerges clearly: Places that are, in Florida’s words, “more tolerant, diverse, and open to creativity” fare better than other places that are more socially rigid — even when the latter seem business-friendly by traditional standards (e.g. tax rates).
In large part this is due to the growing importance of what is variously called the creative workforce, the creative economy, or (by Florida) the creative class. The term might seem a bit squishy compared to, say, “the manufacturing sector.” Florida defines it like so:
"Members of the creative class do a wide variety of work in a wide variety of industries — from technology to entertainment, journalism to finance, high-end manufacturing to the arts. They do not consciously think of themselves as a class. Yet they share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit. More and more businesses understand that ethos and are making the adaptations necessary to attract and retain creative class employees — everything from relaxed dress codes, flexible schedules, and new work rules in the office to hiring recruiters who throw Frisbees."
Fortunately, this is not a new topic in Maine. The Baldacci administration was in fact quick to recognize the importance of the creative workforce in the broader context of the economy at large. The state’s Department of Economic and Community Development has developed a “Creative Economy Community Handbook” that you can download in PDF format here, while the Maine Arts Commission runs a Creative Economy listserv that you can join here .
And what does attract creative types? Mainers can probably answer this question as well as anybody — our state has long been awash in artists, writers, poets, innovative thinkers of all stripes. They are drawn to our natural beauty, our functional communities, our ability to manage a political discussion (even on a subject like gay marriage) without screaming ourselves red in the face. But just as important, they like the fact that Maine is traditionally a welcoming, live-and-let-live kind of place. We don’t need much encouragement to celebrate diversity here — we’ve long enjoyed living among colorful characters from all stripes of the rainbow. It livens things up in the depths of winter.
I expect we will legalize gay marriage someday, whether as a result of Sen. Damon’s bill or some other initiative down the road. But the important thing right now is that we’re moving in the right direction — the direction of greater rather than less tolerance, growing rather than shrinking diversity. That will help the economy. But it will also be good for our souls.
Novelist Richard Grant lives in Lincolnville and is a Down East Contributing Editor.