Longworth: Midwest Needs Strategy to Deal with Globalization

“The good news is that globalization is still fairly new–only a few decades old now,” said Richard Longworth to a packed room in Downtown Chicago this afternoon. “The bad news is that the Midwest is already behind on coping with it.” Longworth (pictured), a former economic and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and current senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, spoke on how the Midwest as a region has been failing to adapt to global economic change in recent decades, and what political, business and academic leaders here can do to help turn the situation around, spurring economic development in the region and concurrent real estate growth. The outlook is grim, especially for many rural areas and small towns in the Midwest, but not hopeless, Longworth said. Recently he said he spent a year researching his new book, Caught in the Middle – Amercia’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, “driving 11,000 miles and talking and meeting with everyone that I could about how globalization is transforming the Midwest.” As an economic region, the Midwest was created by the success of agriculture and the rise of industry in the 19th century, Longworth told the audience, who were gathered at a luncheon sponsored by Chicago-based Lake Effect Communications L.L.C. “But recently, both agriculture and industry have been turned on their heads,” he said. The changes in agriculture have come about with the increasing size of farms, which are farmed by fewer people than ever. That trend, Longworth noted, has put downward pressure on towns that previously made their living from an economy that employed a lot more people. Manufacturing decline in the Midwest has partly emptied out formerly robust cities, such as Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis, and effectively killed a lot of smaller towns, Longworth said, adding that the Midwest started out as “the Silicon Valley of the early 20th century. But later generations got used to safety and stability, and lost the knack for innovation.” What’s the Midwest to do? Longworth offered a number of suggestions, but stressed that competing successfully in the new global economy would take more regionally thinking, as opposed to each state working on its own behalf. “We’re balkanized by state lines, especially when it comes to state governments,” he said. “Governors like to cut ribbons–in their own states. They don’t care what happens across state lines.” The private sector, as well as the region’s powerhouse academic institutions, need to be at the forefront of changing this parochial mindset, he said. The talent certainly exists in the Midwest to compete globally in–but hardly limited to–such industries as animal and plant bioscience, nanotechnology and other cutting-edge fields. “There’s a sense of denial about the old industrial jobs, which are truly gone,” Longworth said. “We in the Midwest can either resign ourselves to a bad century, or we can recognize that it’s a new ball game.”