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Richard Longworth, "The Midwesterner"
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Chicagoans are justifiably ga-ga over the news that their city has been awarded a $320 million digital manufacturing institute with a mandate to invent the future. At first glance, here’s what it means: It’s a big deal, all right. The Digital Manufacturing and Design Institute, backed by $70 million in federal money, is to be an idea factory for advanced manufacturing. It could make Chicago a global center for industrial research and restore the city’s status as a global center of manufacturing. But this is not to say that Chicago is about to be, once again, the City of the Big Shoulders. Its days of powerhouse mass manufacturing are over. The institute should spin off new companies, create good jobs, bring in serious money and contribute to the city’s wealth through exports. But the jobs that were lost when the smokestack industries closed aren’t coming back. The institute will cement... Continue reading
Much of their manufacturing has disappeared, but many old industrial towns in the Midwest still have two things going for them. These are colleges and hospitals, or eds and meds, as they’re called. Most of these towns are counting on these industries to support them in the way that factories once did. This always sounded a little desperate, even when both education and medicine were fast-growing parts of the economy. That’s stopping now, and towns that have staked their future on teaching young people and treating old people may be in for a disappointment. Basically, both eds and meds depend heavily on government financing. In an era of tight government budgets at all levels, that financing just isn’t going to be there. From Washington University in St. Louis to Case Western in Cleveland, Midwestern cities have long boasted first-rate universities. Many of these universities had their own hospitals and medical... Continue reading
All across the Midwest, virtually every town, city, county and state has its own economic development agency aimed at attracting investment, jobs and economic vitality. But most of these places aren’t getting the investment or jobs they need. The reason may be that their economic development agencies are dropping the ball. This is the message (stated more politely, of course) of an important class project run by a bunch of students in a Citizenship class at Monmouth College, a small (1,300 students) school in western Illinois. The project focused on economic development practices in Galesburg, a hard-hit industrial city 15 miles to the east, and compared Galesburg’s efforts – especially its web efforts -- to those of 50 other similar cities in eight Midwestern states. The professor, Robin A. Johnson, gave me permission to link to the project’s findings and final report. (It may strike you that Monmouth gets more... Continue reading
A big sporting event grabs the global spotlight and turns it on the city or country where it is held. With the Sochi Winter Olympics barely two weeks away, that spotlight will shine on Russia, for better or worse. So it’s a good time to talk about that tragic and complicated nation and ask a question that baffles most Americans: What makes the Russians tick? Granted, this is a long way from our usual Midwestern beat. In an earlier life as a foreign correspondent, I spent four years in the old Soviet Union, went back regularly on shorter assignments, and covered the Soviet implosion in 1991 and its tortured transformation into the Russia we know today, which is the Russia of Vladimir Putin. So I know the territory and hope you’ll follow me on this Russian detour. Americans don’t understand the Russians (and vice versa) because we share almost nothing... Continue reading
2014 is an election year and the stakes are high, especially in the Midwest. In this guest posting, Robin A. Johnson outlines the races and what they will do to the political balance in the region. Johnson is an adjunct professor of political science at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, and a political consultant who has worked on dozens of campaigns at the federal, state and local levels in the Midwest. This year is shaping up to be a critical year for the balance of power in Washington with major implications for the Midwest. Only months into President Obama’s second term, pundits and strategists are already handicapping the 2014 election cycle and selecting key races that could give either party control over both houses of Congress. If the Democrats hold the Senate and gain control of the House, it would provide momentum for Obama’s agenda and ease the way for... Continue reading
It will be news to most Midwestern farmers that they should turn an unused corner of their barns into a public relations department. But they do, and it looks like this may be happening. At the moment, the farming debate in this country has been seized by a handful of city-based ideologues who have never been on a real farm and scorn farmers who till more than 20 acres and actually try to turn a profit. The result is that the people who produce most of America’s food have been losing the debate. Now they’re fighting back. A recent Associated Press story described how farmers and farm organizations are banding together to present their side of the story. Part of this involves farmers sponsoring visits and tours of their farms: Illinois Farm Families are an example. Trade groups, such as the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliances, are getting their message... Continue reading
As we've reported earlier, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs sponsored a major report on comprehensive reforms in immigration law, acknowledging the moral component of reform but stressing the economic benefits -- that rational reform would bring a huge economic payoff to the Midwest and its people. My colleague, Juliana Kerr, organized this project. She went to Madison, Wisconsin, recently to speak to different groups there on immigration law reform. She has turned what she said and heard in Madison into a report on her trip, and she agreed to let me reprint it here. -0-0-0- When most people discuss Wisconsin’s stake in the immigration debate, they think of the migrant workers in the dairy industry. And with reason: forty percent of Wisconsin’s dairy farm workers are immigrants, and yet, the current U.S. immigration system doesn’t offer a low-skilled year-round visa to legally employ them long-term. Add to this the... Continue reading
“To simply measure manufacturing health based on the number of jobs, that’s not fair.” Todd Teske, CEO, Briggs & Stratton The transformation of Midwestern manufacturing, from its powerhouse past to its uncertain future, continues to play itself out. Here are some capsule insights into what’s happening now: Manufacturing in the Midwest is vigorous, even growing. But the number of jobs on factory floors continues to fall, with no end in sight. The reason is automation. High-end or advanced manufacturing is cited by most experts as the wave of the future. But no one knows how many jobs it will create. Solid statistics on the number of manufacturing-related jobs are hard to find. If the old-line assembly line jobs on factory floors are vanishing, companies require a new breed of “indirect employees,” high-skill engineers or IT specialists, who don’t show up in the manufacturing jobs figures, as the government counts them.... Continue reading
In this season of noisy discord, when Midwestern states and cities compete for bad jobs and large young men concuss each other on Saturdays for our amusement, it’s good to be reminded that our region still harbors poets who speak to our better natures and to more homely verities. This describes Ted Kooser, an Iowa native and Nebraska insurance executive, a thin and quiet man who rises early, pours himself a cup of coffee and starts each day by writing a poem or, at least, trying to write a poem. He’s been doing this for years – his first books were published nearly 45 years ago – and they have won him every prize, including the Pulitzer Prize for poetry eight years ago, when he was midway through his two-year term as America’s Poet Laureate. Ted Kooser isn’t fancy and he doesn’t shout. Sometimes he’s deep but often he’s content... Continue reading
Midwestern states have become both battlegrounds and test labs in the past three years for clashing theories on economic development. On one side are pro-business tax-cutting governors, often Republican, devoted to balanced budgets and anti-union policies. On the other are the pro-growth spenders, often Democrats, devoted to investment in education and infrastructure and willing to raise taxes to pay for it. Several recent articles have totted up the results. First results give the nod to the liberal spenders. But it’s early days yet, and the conflicting returns may owe as much to history and previous governments as they do to the governors now occupying the statehouses. The results are politically important. Most governors in the upper Midwest -- Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is the only major exception -- will be up for re-election next year. If all run for re-election, they’ll run on their records, good or bad. Control of... Continue reading
Can major research universities use the immense resources at their command – the storehouses of data, the research techniques, the expertise in analyzing problems, mostly their sheer brainpower – to help solve the problems of the great cities where many of them reside? It seems obvious that the answer is yes, but for many universities, this leap from theory to practice remains a step too far. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs held a three-day conference this week to explore what can be done about this. In many ways, the conference – called “Global Urban Challenges: The Role of Research Universities” – was unique. It certainly was useful. Whether it changes the world and the universities’ place in it remains to be seen. For the first time, more than half of humanity lives in urban areas. By mid-century, two-thirds will. No less than 80 percent of Americans already do. All... Continue reading
What with dysfunction in Washington and incompetence in state capitals, the spotlight is shifting to the role of cities, not only as arenas of democratic governance but simply as places where things get done. It’s early days yet for this debate, but two new books are setting an agenda. The one getting the most attention, The Metropolitan Revolution, focuses on what metropolitan regions – cities and their suburbs -- can do at home to prepare for the demands of the global economy, at a time when they aren’t getting much help from either federal or state governments. In both their title and in their subtitle, How Cities and Metros Are Fixing our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, the authors, Brookings scholars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, may promise more than they deliver. But they’re being rightly praised for calling attention to the fact that more than two-thirds of all Americans... Continue reading
More than any other country, the United States looks to philanthropists and their giving to fill the gaps – cultural, social, civic, educational – left unattended by either the market or the government. Over the years, this giving by both corporations and family became an economic force, especially in the Midwest. But more recently, much corporate giving is looking like guilt money paid by companies trying to make up for the social damage caused by their day-to-day activities. At a time when the market is staggering and government is cutting back, philanthropy looms even larger in American life, and deserves a closer look. Almost alone of the major nations, the United States has long encouraged philanthropy with tax breaks. For most taxpayers, this makes sense only to those who itemize deductions. For the big donors, it can result in big tax deductions, both on income and estate taxes. Hence the... Continue reading
The natural habitat of the Tea Party is usually seen as the unreconstructed reaches of the Old South. If people want to blame Dixie for the recent government shutdown, we should probably let it go at that. But the fact is that many Tea Party stalwarts spring from the Midwest, for reasons we should heed. Not that the Tea Party rules the Midwest, in the way it dominates most of Louisiana, say. But all Midwestern states have sent Tea Party Republicans to the House of Representatives. Some, such as Minnesota’s Michelle Bachmann, the founder of the Tea Party Caucus, and Iowa’s Steve King, an immigration hawk, are among the Tea Party leaders who shut down the government in what many Republicans now concede was a misguided attempt to defund and derail Obamacare. The Tea Party represents a cry of defiance – not only against any national health system but again... Continue reading
Elkhart, Indiana, which bills itself as the RV capital of the world, got hit harder by the recession than any other American city. Now it has hit the jackpot. Literally. An Elkhart native named David Gundlach left town, got rich, came back to town and dropped dead. In his will, he left his entire estate – about $150 million -- to Elkhart or, more precisely, to the Elkhart County Community Foundation, with no strings attached. Apart from some oil-fueled gifts to the Tulsa Community Foundation, Gundlach’s benefaction may be the single biggest bonanza ever received by a city or county foundation. Now Elkhart has to decide how to spend this money. One economic development official in town told me that “it’s like winning the lottery.” We’ve all read stories about lottery winners who blew their windfall and ended up in the gutter, wiser and much sadder. Elkhart knows these stories... Continue reading
Small farms are becoming big business. One reason is an innovation called food hubs. Food hubs aren’t exactly new: a few have been around for 20 years. But lately, they’ve been growing like zucchini in August: two-thirds have been in business less than five years, one-third less than two years. Not only are there more of them. They’re getting bigger, and doing more, and becoming more important to agriculture, in the Midwest and around the country. My guess is that they contribute to a phenomenon that we noted in a recent posting on this blog – that the number of mid-size farms, defined as farms with sales of $100,000 to $500,000 per year, is growing. These are the so-called family farms that had been vanishing, as U.S. agriculture became big business and the so-called mega-farmers bought up smaller farms and put them out of business. That’s changing, and food hubs... Continue reading
Three states – Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana – came together in Chicago’s Loop recently to talk about their common future. They didn’t decide anything and the conversation itself revealed how far they have to go. But this meeting simply wouldn’t have happened two years ago, and that’s progress in itself. The meeting attracted the often-warring governors of the three states. Not that they were all there at the same time, or even shook hands. But their presence at least endorsed the idea that the three-state Chicago region might gain more from cooperation than cut-throat competition – and that wouldn’t have happened two years ago, either. The eventual goal is to create a single, high-powered 21-county regional economy stretching from Milwaukee south through Chicago into northwestern Indiana. Right now, the region is incredibly balkanized, with virtually no cooperation across state lines. But a major “territorial review” last year from the Paris-based... Continue reading
Have you been to a farmers’ market recently? I hit a downtown Chicago market before lunch today, picking up some last-minute sage and yellow beets for tonight’s dinner. The city’s Federal Plaza was packed with kiosks, all doing a brisk business. These farmers’ markets are proliferating, and a casual visitor would conclude that they are the future of American farming. Much of what we read about modern farming comes to exactly that conclusion. So a reality check is in order. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is out with its latest survey of the number of American farms and the amount of land in farms. It looks at statistics in 2012 and compares them with 2011, a narrow time frame. But the bottom lines confirm trends that have been going on in American farming for more than a century. Basically, the total number of farms continues to decline. There are ever... Continue reading
My colleague, Juliana Kerr Viohl, has called my attention to an article from the Las Vegas Sun entitled “The Next Chapter: Las Vegas Becomes a Global City.” Actually, the words “global city” are a headline writer’s hype: the article itself doesn’t mention them. But it’s an interesting piece that stimulates some thought on global cities – what they are, how they reach that status and why some cities, not just Las Vegas but similar Midwestern cities, can be substantial cities without being global, or can be global without being substantial. The article was written by Robert Lang, an urban scholar at Virginia Tech, now also director of the Brookings Mountain West institute at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Lang is best known for his work on megapolitan regions – big sprawling metropolitan regions linked by geography or economies: the northeast corridor from Washington to Boston is an example.... Continue reading
The Sunday New York Times these days seems to be edited by the descendants of Saul Steinberg, the New Yorker cartoonist who drew the famous Gotham-centric map of the United States. Steinberg’s map showed nothing much between the Hudson River and the Pacific except Las Vegas and a couple of mountains, and was intended as a parody of a parochial New Yorker’s view of the nation. Day in and day out, the daily Times does a first-rate job of covering the U.S. Certainly, the Times’ Chicago bureau, led by Monica Davey, does a better job of covering the Midwest than any other paper, including Midwestern newspapers themselves. But the Sunday Times, edited separately, regularly forgets that there’s a real nation out there west of Jersey City, filled with Times’ readers who often wonder whether those folks in Times Square think Steinberg was serious. Periodically, the Times Sunday Magazine does a... Continue reading
The Great Lakes are literally the future of the upper Midwest. This is a region built on natural resources, on its fertile land and rich lodes of iron and coal. As the economic benefits of those resources dwindle, our future now relies on how we use our one remaining untapped resource. The Lakes are the greatest reservoir of fresh water on the planet, and reviving the Midwestern economy depends on whether we use them wisely and well. Which is why a vote by an obscure subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representative threatened to pound a nail into the Midwestern coffin. Presumably driven by the budget-cutting madness in Washington, the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee voted to cut funds for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative by nearly 80 percent. It seems at least some will be restored, but we’ve been reminded that our economic future depends on the... Continue reading
Notes from the inequality beat: President Obama was in Galesburg, Illinois, to urge more spending on education and infrastructure to combat the “inequality of opportunity” that besets America and, especially, its shrinking middle class. Galesburg, a hollowed-out industrial city (and hometown of Carl Sandburg), was an appropriate venue: it never has recovered from the closure of Maytag and other factories since 2000 that destroyed 7,000 jobs (in a city of 32,000) and decimated its own middle class. Obama seems to feel that all he needs to do to solve a problem is to give a speech about it. He knows better, of course: five years in Washington has shown him that increased spending, even if justified, isn’t going to come. But a drumbeat of recent news articles and academic reports are making it plain that it will take more than some school reforms to reverse the decline of America and... Continue reading
Let’s talk about Detroit. But first, let’s talk about Potosi. You’ve probably never heard of Potosi. In its heyday, it was the biggest city in the western hemisphere. That heyday was 400 years ago, when Potosi – a silver mining city 13,000 feet up in the Bolivian Andes – supplied the Spanish conquistadores with a fortune in silver. By 1800, the silver mostly played out and Potosi’s economy went away. There was some tin but little else, and Potosi faded into a backwater. It’s still there. It still produces a little silver, giving work to miners laboring in such awful conditions that the average longevity is about 40. It still supports (more or less) a population of 130,000, about half as many as when it was the silver city of the Americas. Is this Detroit’s future? History is full of surprises but, on present evidence, the answer has to be... Continue reading
Catching up with the news after a vacation: The Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, giving new energy to the drive for same-sex marriage and guaranteeing that more states will legalize these marriages. This trend has economic as well as legal and romantic overtones, and the Midwest should pay attention. The urbanologist Richard Florida has compiled a so-called Gay Index or, more accurately, a Bohemian-Gay Index, as it applies to cities. This index basically says that cities with a lot of gay or artistic residents have more vibrant economies. There are two reasons for this, Florida says. Firsts, artists and gays are attracted to already lively places, and then add to the creative scene once they get there, making these cities even more attractive. The second reason may be more important -- a premium on “tolerance or open culture.” Cities with large artistic or gay populations... Continue reading
Urban food insecurity is one of the crushing issues that plague American cities. It’s a fancy name for food deserts – the vast tracts of inner cities that hold millions of America’s poorest people but lack grocery stores or other sources of decent food for them to eat. Much of the debate so far on what to do about this has been distorted by hype, ideology and wishful thinking, mostly from good-hearted activists who think that urban farms or non-profit agriculture will solve the problem. A new and much-needed report has just been issued on this problem, by the Emerging Leaders program of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and it should become the basic text for any city trying to feed its poorest people. The report is called “Feeding an Urban World: A Call to Action,” and it’s hard-headed, sensible, devoid of false optimism and rigorously sourced. It lays... Continue reading