Sunday, April 13th, 2008
Caught in the Middle by Richard C. Longworth, formerly a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, paints a picture of a Midwest ravaged by globalization and unable to adapt to the future. As he puts it, “The first task is to tell the truth, that the Midwest’s golden era is gone forever. Much of the Midwest is in denial. It will take courageous leadership to speak the truth.” (255).
Longworth’s view is sort of a cross between “The World is Flat” and “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” His thesis: globalization has permanently destroyed the ability of the Midwest’s key industries, agriculture and manufacturing, to provide a middle class lifestyle to the majority of Midwest residents. However, Midwesterners are not rising to challenge because they have a low understanding and awareness of the reality of their situation, are too lazy, are completely unwilling to change, have lost the will to innovate, and don’t value education among a host of social values, principally conservative, that Longworth views as pathological. In addition to explaining this, he also dedicates his time to examining outlier communities such as Chicago, Peoria, Warsaw, and others that have been relatively successful. And a significant amount of time is dedicated to the impact of Latino immigrants.
His prescription includes amnesty for illegal aliens along with a ramping up of further immigration, universal government health care, a return to valuing education, and a regional focus on solving problems rather than state by state solutions, which he views as unworkable. Examples of regional collaboration would include better cooperation between Big Ten institutions such as enabling in-state tuition across the Midwest, creating a Midwest regional think tank, and a Midwest regional newspaper. Perhaps his most radical suggestion is that, in a city-based global economic future, rural areas, small towns, and small industrial cities should be left to wither on the vine.
Longworth is at his best when discussing the plight of the rural Midwest, small manufacturing towns, and the metro/non-metro divide. He is also right on in the value of education and the need for change. However, his work suffers from a linear trend extrapolation, failure to examine in the internal contradictions of his globalization thesis, overlooking other urban success stories in his fixation on Chicago’s “world city” status while minimizing that city’s problems, and the gratuitous insertion of politics. What’s more, while he tries to be sympathetic towards the plight of globalization’s losers, he ultimately comes off as patronizing towards them.
Being a journalist, Longworth has an engaging writing style and a good eye for strong anecdotes and quotations. Rather than overwhelming with dry data, he more commonly selects archetypal places such as his hometown of Boone, Iowa and extrapolates their experiences to other locales, using data more sparingly. This is good in that you can take in this entire 300 pager in one session. On the other hand, it suffers from all the weaknesses of journalistic accounts in that it appears a bit superficial and episodal.
Among the strongest and best points he makes in his book is that globalization has changed the rules of the game forever, but the Midwest has, with some notable exceptions, failed to come to terms with this. One of the things he points out that really resonated with me was how in so many places Midwesterners still continue to rail against NAFTA, as if that were the source of their problems. Indeed, we’ve seen NAFTA play a role in the present presidential election. But NAFTA is clearly a sideshow. The problem isn’t plants moving to Mexico from the US, it is the completely dominance of manufacturing by China, the rise of offshore IT in India, nationalization of natural resources, the global mobility of capital and people, etc. All of these are vastly more important than NAFTA, but that’s what Midwesterners fixate on. There’s an old saying, “Without awareness, there is no choice”. If you don’t even know what’s happening to you, you can’t make choices about the best way to move into the future.
Longworth is also right when he says, that, like or not, it is cities that are the economic engines of the 21st century. The small town and the family farm may be the spiritual anchors of the Midwest, its locus of identity, but they are no longer its material future. As Longworth notes, “The rural Midwest, in truth, existed for one era, and that era has passed. It responded to the economic demands of a single century, from 1850 to 1950, and has been withering ever since. Globalization only finishes the work of earlier decades. There is no place in a globalized world for the small town and the family farm.” (98) Painful words, but true. It is easy to see why people who spent their lives in those environments would not easily come to terms with their loss. Giving up on that way of life means to give up on many of the values one holds most dear. Sitting in a big city, it’s easy to lecture about this, but it’s always easier to dispense tough advice to others than to take it yourself. If someone said that the modern, upscale urban lifestyle was toast and it was time to move on, my guess is the latte sipping crowd wouldn’t let it go without a fight and a long period of denial. It is the same for everyone. The first step is admitting you have a problem, and that’s so often the toughest one to take. And nobody can be easily expected to give up the things that are most precious to them.
Of course, many of the Midwest’s cities have problems too, with Longworth also notes. Consider the case of Cleveland. “When I went to Cleveland, I found not alarm but complacency. In a city that is being destroyed by global forces – its industry and young people are fleeing and are not being replaced – I found almost nobody willing to actually talk about globalization or global challenges. In a city crying for answers, no one even asks the questions.” (159)
Because cities are the economic engines of the 21st century, any economic development strategy should be extended metro based. Again, quoting, “In a global era, cities must carry entire economies by themselves. As small towns and cities lose their industry, they’ll become part of a metro region, bedroom suburbs for people who drive into the big city to work. Once, places like Newton and Anderson supported themselves; now they’re part of the Des Moines and Indianapolis region. If these regions are to survive, the big cities must provide enough lifeblood to do it.” (167)
Exactly. I’ve made this argument myself, when I suggested that the path forward for Indiana’s struggling small industrial cities is to bind themselves into a greater Indianapolis economy. But no one seems interested in doing this. Anderson, a frequent example in Longworth’s book, is ideally placed for this. It is only about 25 miles from the I-465 beltway, and located along the principal growth corridor in Indy, I-69 to the northeast. Yet not only does Anderson not seem interested in building a more tightly integrated economy with Indianapolis, it takes active steps to try to keep Indy at bay. For example, Madison County petitioned to be removed from the Indianapolis MSA so they could keep a standalone Anderson one, notwithstanding that Anderson has zero brand recognition outside the state. Recently the newly elected mayor of Anderson scotched building a joint airport with the booming Hamilton County suburb of Fishers, which was an incredible opportunity to link the two regions.
This highlights another key theme of the book – an unwillingness to change. Midwesterners are famously conservative and unwilling to change. Witness the decades of struggle it took just to get Indiana to adopt daylight saving time. Nevertheless, I don’t think this is a particularly Midwestern trait. In his article and book “Change or Die”, Alan Deutschman notes that 90% of people, when faced with the alternative of changing their lifestyle or literally dying, don’t make the change. Astonishing.
There’s a lot of good in this book, and I really haven’t started to talk about it all. But I want to be able to devote space to the downsides as well. One of them is Longworth’s conventional wisdom view of globalization. The world is flat, creative class, bioscience, world cities, etc. etc. But this is merely the trend of the moment, overblown even now, and not likely to endure indefinitely.
For example, why focus on bioscience? Sure, it’s an emerging industry. But why can’t the Chinese do bioscience just as well and less expensively? Is this an industry with staying power in the new global world? Maybe, maybe not.
The whole notion of the creative class is also vastly inflated. Sure, creativity is good, but it is only one value among many. Enron was very creative after all, and look what happened to them. Here’s typical a piece self-flagellation out of Indiana. “’[Richard] Florida says you need a culture of creativity to be successful, and Indiana doesn’t have that culture,’ a morose civic leader in Indianapolis told me, ‘He says you have to have a culture of embracing difference. Not a toleration of difference, but rather prizing people because they are different. Tolerance is one thing, but it’s pretty minimalist. It’s better than intolerance. But Florida’s basis is that you’re excited by the way that people are different from you. You’re glad that some are gay or belong to other races. Indiana isn’t glad.” (162)
Ah, yes, gays. Richard Florida may have invented the idea of turning gaydar into part of the index of leading economic indicators. But as Stuff White People Like – a hilarious send-up of the urban intelligentsia and yuppies – noted, having gay friends is something people love precisely because of the lack of diversity. “Older white people prefer to be friends with gay parents because it enables their children to experience much needed diversity with people who are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same as them.” What globalism means from a practical point of view in big cities has been the creation of a sort of transnational upper class, who might be of difference races or sexual orientation or nationality, but share the same values and are otherwise exactly the same in all the ways that matter. There’s a bigger gulf between the urban elite of Chicago and someone from downstate than there is between the urban elite of Chicago and the urban elite of Buenos Aires or Paris or Singapore. Gay or straight’s got nothing to do with it.
Longworth also doesn’t pursue his thesis to its logical conclusion in all areas. The two states that figure most pessimistically in his equation are Indiana and Ohio. But if it’s true that cities are the economic future, those state’s actually seem to have some of the more optimistic geography. Virtually all of Indiana, for example, is conceivably inside the metropolitan economic zone of a city over 100,000 people. This doesn’t figure into his evaluation.
In another example, he says one problem with luring bioscience companies to the Midwest is a lack of venture capital. “The problem is money. Any biosciences boom in the Midwest will have to be a financial and scientific collaboration between universities and companies. Bioscience backers assume that the industry will grow much as the computer and information industries did, with companies funding university research or with university researchers taking their ideas and setting up their own companies. But this takes money, and as we shall see, the Midwest so far is short of the kind of red-blooded venture capitalists who finance new ideas and new corporations.” (209)
But is this really the problem. How is it that everything can be globalized, but venture capital is local? Money is the most easily transportable commodity around. As we’ve seen from the growth of the carry trade and “hot money” flows, gigantic amounts of capital move internationally every day. The idea that some venture fund, whose entire existence is about making profitable investments, is going to pass up a good deal because the managing director is too lazy to get on a plane to Ohio doesn’t make sense.
A local Indianapolis entrepreneur named Chris Baggott formed an angel group with some of his other successful buddies. They’ve got money to invest. There’s just one problem: no deals. Longworth is right that the Midwest has the research, but it right now is lacking in the most critical resource: people with an entrepreneurial mindset. There’s no money flow problem, there’s a people flow problem.
Longworth also says repeatedly that creative industries, and things like finance, law, and accounting, require face to face interaction, leading to world cities. But do they? I don’t know why any of these professions aren’t equally as amenable to offshoring as IT or manufacturing. Perhaps we just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I sure hope no cities betting their future on this stuff are sitting on their laurels thinking it can’t happen to them, because you had better believe it can.
This brings me to another beef, his continued praising of Chicago as the paradigm of the new world economy. Of course, Chicago has had a gigantic skyscraper building boom, perhaps the largest city condo building boom of any city in America, is a huge magnet for international immigrants, has the best international connections of any Midwest city, the best universities, etc. However, there are huge problems as well. Longworth notes some of them, but only in passing.
I’ve repeatedly in this blog noted how despite all this development, Chicago is losing population. The creative class is flocking, everyone else is leaving, priced out by soaring real estate prices and crushing taxation. Longworth talks about Chicago (and Minneapolis) attracting immigrants, but fails to note that the Chicago MSA last year had domestic out-migration to the tune of 57,000 people. That’s like losing an entire Anderson, Indiana every year. Even Detroit only had 58,000 people leave. Minneapolis had net domestic out-migration too. Chicago’s overall MSA population growth badly trails the US average at only 0.6% per year.
There are other successful Midwest cities besides Chicago and Minneapolis. Ones that I think provide a better model for the future. These are the ones lying along the I-70 corridor: Columbus, Indianapolis, and Kansas City. All of these are growing faster than the national average in population. All are experiencing domestic in-migration as well as international in-migration. All are extremely affordable and can actually offer a middle class lifestyle to someone who has less than a six figure income. But these cities are barely mentioned in his book apart from some throwaway lines about how boring they are. There’s no prospect of creating another Chicago in the Midwest. But there is ample reason to believe that you could turn some struggling cities into a more Columbus like model.
Longworth’s Chicago bias seeps through in his recommendations as well. Where, for example, do you imagine a Midwest think tank might be located? Or the headquarters of a Midwest regional newspaper? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is just another way for an already prosperous Chicago to extract tribute from other Midwestern places. It’s also why no such ideas are likely to be embraced outside Chicago.
Lastly, my strongest critique is of Longworth’s attitude towards Midwestern people and values. There are a lot of quotes I could give, but I’ll select just this one. “Perhaps rural life wouldn’t mesh with IT, even if it was more available. The Internet exists for people who compete in a 24×7 world. Most rural people are accustomed to an 8-5 world. They aren’t lazy, just more tuned to the slower pace and long weekends. Global people want to do deals. Rural people want to go hunting.” (94)
I dunno, that sounds like he’s calling them lazy to me. And I think it is totally wrong. Every union guy I’ve ever known has grabbed every extra hour of OT he could lay his hands on. The rural and small town people I know have an incredible work ethic. The problem isn’t that. And I’d dare say that, given the number of Starbucks, day spas, gyms, and swanky restaurants dotting the urban landscape, that there’s more than ample leisure time for the creative class. I guarantee you I put in fewer hours at the office than my father puts in at the stone quarry he works at.
This patronizing attitude towards the non-elite turns into condescension at times. “In a world of the Next New Thing, devotion to biblical inerrancy and traditional values doesn’t cut it.” (98) Why mention the Bible? Religion is totally not needed to make any of his points. It only gratuitously offends those who hold strong religious beliefs. Some of the cultural problems Longworth talks about are real, but religion isn’t amongst them. Longworth would have been well-served to check his blue state politics before he sat down at the typewriter. (Was it really necessary to say, “Midwesterners … get their news, so-called, from Fox News” (261)?). He’s only going to turn off red staters, when I think the best parts of the book should transcend traditional left-right politics. If there’s one thing Longworth is right about when it comes to globalization, it is that it is a remorseless force, and no respecter of places, people, or even political parties.
On the whole, despite some weaknesses, Caught in the Middle is a welcome addition to the literature on the affects of globalization, and a notable entry in what has been too light a canon of books on the Midwest as a whole.