American Talk

A last word from The Midwesterner

This is the last edition of The Midwesterner, a conversation started at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs nearly six years ago on the problems and challenges facing the American Midwest in the age of globalisation. Over that time I’ve visited towns big (Chicago and Detroit) and small (Albion, Michigan, and Searsboro, Iowa). I’ve looked at the future of farming and the past of manufacturing, the hollowing-out of farm towns and old factory cities, the revival of the idea of regionalism and the parochial cussedness of so many Midwesterners who need to cooperate but just can’t bring themselves to do it. I’ve even reviewed some good books: that most of them emerge from Iowa gives me a nice chauvinistic buzz. But I’ve also had to concede that the Iowa Republican caucus is a silliness that is giving both Iowa and democracy a bad name.

Enough. I’m retiring from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and from the world of deadlines and punctual punditry. I’ll miss it, but the online world is awash with acute insights — Dan Hertz’s City Notes, Aaron Renn’s Urbanophile, Lou Glazer’s Michigan Future Inc., Bill Testa’s invaluable Midwest Economy, not to mention Belt Magazine, or Rustwire, or Burgh Diaspora.  Authors such as Chad Broughton and Edward McClelland are probing the industrial ruins for signs of hope.

So strong voices will carry the conversation forward. This is a good time to look back, to see what’s changed over the past six years, and what lies ahead.

The Midwesterner spun off my book, Caught in the Middle, which looked at the impact of globalisation on the Midwest and concluded that the region, which lived on heavy industry and farming, was mostly failing to come to terms with an economic tsunami that was turning both industry and agriculture on its head. Mostly, I found a region in deep denial, refusing to acknowledge that an economy that supported it so handsomely for a century had gone away and wasn’t coming back.

If nothing else has changed, that has. Denial is out. All across the Midwest, good people recognise that their way of life is under threat, and that their towns and cities won’t survive unless they reinvent themselves to meet this new era.

In Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Milwaukee, South Bend, and other cities, the earlier deafness to global trends has given way to a new realism. In many of these places, once-aloof universities like Wayne State and Notre Dame have become part of the conversation. Six years ago, Detroit and Cleveland appeared terminal, doomed to be hollow backwaters. Neither has turned the corner yet. But at least they’re asking the right questions, and may yet rise to be the new Pittsburghs — smaller, less powerful, but decent places to live and work.

Some of these places will survive and thrive. Some will continue to decline: there’s no guarantee that a town that was needed by the industrial age will find its niche in the global era. And some, especially old farm and mining towns, will just die out.

Local leadership is the key. Places with forward-looking leadership who can articulate change and win support for it have a chance. Alas, I’ve been in many smaller places where an old guard dominates, an ageing generation that despises changes and only hopes its town will last longer than it will. These are the ghost towns of the future.

Balkanisation seems bred in the Midwestern genes. But some regions are realizing that they are too small to compete in the vast global economy, and are joining hands across political boundaries. Western Michigan is doing this. So are Cleveland and its suburbs, and greater Des Moines. Along the Fox River valley in Wisconsin, towns from Oshkosh up to Green Bay are working together to encourage new industry. A new alliance is trying to turn the southern end of Lake Michigan, from Milwaukee into northern Indiana, into a single economic region.

But states remain the leading stumbling blocks to any Midwestern revival. All are more intent on stealing businesses from each other than in cooperating to leverage the region’s huge strengths — its universities, say, or its bioscientific riches — to really complete in the global economy. Instead, we get governors like Illinois’s rookie Bruce Rauner, who goes around threatening to “rip the economic guts out of Indiana.”

These are the same leaders, so-called, who are cutting state spending on education, especially higher education, effectively disarming their states for competition in the knowledge economy.

The Midwest’s problem remains today as it did six years ago: a regional problem, not a state problem. All the Midwest shares an economy that rose as one during the industrial era, declined as one during the Rust Belt days, and will revive in the age of globalisation only as the unit it really is.

I remain convinced that the Midwest contains so many good people, asking the right questions and coming up with the right answers, that this rebirth, sooner or later, is bound to happen.

This post was originally published at The Midwesterner