Longworth globalization traumatizing in region

March 15, 2009
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Globalization now shapes the U.S. economy and how Americans work, live and think. But Midwestern states, which were shaped by the Industrial Age and the hardworking farmers and factory workers it spawned, are failing to meet today’s global challenges, said Richard C. Longworth, senior fellow of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in an address at last week’s Economic Club of Grand Rapids luncheon. 

The Industrial Age created the Midwest’s industries, towns and culture, Longworth said, and then globalization came along and with it an influx of immigrant workers and an outpouring of manufacturing jobs. The region’s two major economic activities — farming and manufacturing — were turned inside out by those global pressures, he said.

Longworth spent more than a year touring the Midwest, from its largest cities to its factory towns and rural farm areas. While Chicago is booming and Minneapolis is doing well because it has had less of an industrial legacy to overcome, most other major Midwest cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis are lagging far behind and look like they’re dying, in his estimation.

Many of the towns that were founded to serve farm families have no real reason for existence today, he said. The number of farm families is declining as globalization replaces small family farms with ever bigger, more efficient mega farms that are more and more tied to giant corporations in the food industry.

The Midwest isn’t coping very well with the effects of globalization — not its leaders, not its government, not its schools and universities, according to Longworth. 

“About a century ago, the Midwest was the Silicon Valley of the United States — the wellspring of all the good ideas and innovation that made America tick,” he said. “Today, too often the Midwest looks more like a backwater, having trouble keeping full-time jobs and its best young people. It’s time for the Midwest to face facts and work together as a region to find its future in the globalized economy.”   

The current global economic downturn could finish off most of what’s left of the old Midwestern economy, Longworth said, adding that the Midwest has two choices: turn out the lights, or reinvent itself into something new, innovative and competitive.

In his view, Grand Rapids is making that transition better than many Midwestern cities.

Longworth said the future for small towns and large cities in the Midwest lies in education, and where education is concerned, state governments are failing their people. 

“In a global economy, there is hardly anything more important than education. We are in the knowledge economy now, and in the 21st century, the Midwest will need workers who know science and math and are capable of the kind of globalized innovation and creativity that will power this new economy.”

High school students are not getting that kind of education: It’s a problem nationally, not just in the Midwest, he observed. Families with a history of spending their lives in good jobs on assembly lines often don’t see the value of a college education. He pointed to a recent Michigan poll in which 65 percent of parents in this state said they didn’t think a college education was crucial to their children’s future. All Midwestern states these days pay more to take care of prisoners than they do to educate their children, Longworth added, and there simply needs to be more political support for education.

America’s Heartland, however, has one huge asset: a galaxy of great universities — particularly research universities — and they are the meal ticket for the Midwestern states, Longworth noted.

But a system that is based on individual state governments is incompetent in coping with something as big and complicated as globalization, he said. States in this region need to eliminate those boundaries and pool their resources and knowledge to tackle common problems and cope with global pressures. He sees bioscience, clean water technologies and green technologies as great industries for the Midwest to pursue as a region.

“Isolation is a luxury we can no longer afford,” Longworth said. “We have to build the future together. The Midwest is already so much behind.”

Longworth had a career in journalism before joining the council in 2003, most recently as a senior correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He also is the author of “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.”

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