Nearly three years after Thomas L. Friedman famously declared the world “flat,” a former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent and native Iowan examines the Midwest’s struggle with the new world economy.
If the global age belongs to the spry and imaginative, then the American Heartland, sclerotic and dull, needs to beware. Once liberally dotted with neatly prosperous, iconic small towns—including Freeport, Minn., the model for much of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, and Eldon, Iowa, backdrop for Grant Wood’s American Gothic—the region has suffered a four-decade decline from the shocks of the Japanese invasion of the 1980s, the deleterious effects of NAFTA and, now, the white-collar phase of globalization, where even service jobs evaporate. Urban centers like Detroit and Cleveland are all but dead, and St. Louis and Milwaukee are on life support. Relying on agricultural, industrial and census statistics, a variety of professional analyses and, most of all, on his lively reporting, Longworth (Global Squeeze: The Coming Crisis for First-World Nations, 1998) examines a region once dominant in manufacturing products and growing food, now grown tired and shabby, caught flat-footed in a flat world where money, jobs and ideas have no regard for borders. Having convincingly diagnosed the problem, even as much of the Midwest remains in denial, Longworth rejects “solutions” handed down from the national government (too clumsy) or up from city and state governments (too small). Instead, he argues that only the region itself, drawing on its acknowledged heritage and resources, can be both nimble and powerful enough to marshal the necessary financial and intellectual forces to compete successfully in the global age. He calls for the creation of a Global Midwest Forum, the establishment of a high-speed train and a first-class digital-communication system, the founding of a regional journal with global coverage and the rethinking of the area’s education system. He stresses the need for the Midwest to speak with one voice from its trade and investment offices and to open the door as widely as possible to immigration.
A well-reported take on the Midwest’s precarious economic, political and social condition, with a provocative prescription for its survival in the global world.