Midwest Economy Blog

Someone Call the Doctor—Regions Without Borders?

April 29, 2008

Two fine studies have been released this year that can guide the slow-growing Midwest in finding its “way forward.” At a time when national sentiment has been running high to tighten national borders between the U.S. and other nations, both reports strongly argue for lowering restrictions on nearby borders—namely those between Midwest states and between the U.S. and Canada along the Great Lakes border. So too, cooperative strategies across local borders are urged to address the Midwest’s economic challenges.

Accomplished journalist R.C. Longworth recently published an insightful and accessible book containing lucid explanations and gripping Midwest stories that bring to life how global upheaval and technological changes have affected the Midwest economy. From farm to factory, from small town to metropolis, Longworth tells stories of the region, its places, and its people. To gather his observations, he spent months traveling around the region. And, having been born and raised in small-town Iowa and covered the region and the world for a major Chicago newspaper, Longworth knows where to look!

More importantly, Longworth understands today’s basic mechanisms of economic change—and their impacts on places and people. To be sure, owing largely to technological advances in communication and transportation, the world has “gone flat” in one sense. Goods and services can be produced anywhere and delivered right here, thereby exposing Midwest workers to competition and upheaval.

However, these same changes have concurrently made the economic landscape “more spikey” than ever. Those places that have succeeded in the new environment are well-advantaged mountains of economic specialization and formidable scale. Such places include large metropolitan areas and mega-cities composed of several proximate cities that draw the best and brightest talents together and that produce advanced services in high-valued legal, consulting, technology, administration and the arts. They also include emerging manufacturing regions such as the mid-South—home of foreign-domiciled auto production.

What holds back the Midwest from such invention and re-invention? Longworth believes many Midwesterners still do not understand globalization and instead cling to ideas and strategies that attempt to bring back the region’s glorious form and past. Looking at its reflection in today’s global looking glass can help the region to find new directions—to imagine a new Midwest economic landscape.

In searching for the correct policy framework to re-work the region, Longworth also believes that national governments are too “clumsy … to cope with a post-national world. … But that the smaller building blocks—cities, counties and states—are too weak and isolated to swing much weight by themselves in an economy that spans the globe.” Accordingly, the Midwest must put aside some long-standing boundaries and competitive behaviors such as inter-state tax competition and balkanized transportation systems. Instead, Longworth calls for extensive regionwide dialogue to achieve creative and cooperative policies.

The region has common interests and goals, but fails to recognize and act effectively. To move forward, regionwide conversations must take place, perhaps assisted by a region-wide publication—electronic or print or both. To be a wellspring of new ideas and policies, the Midwest must have at least one think tank of its own to see the region’s greater possibility for growth and re-invention. Longworth calls on regional foundations, research universities, public leaders, and Reserve Banks to move quickly and boldly in this direction. The Southern Growth Policies Board —founded in 1971—may be one model to draw on as the region fashions its own organization to serve as the fountain for cooperative development.

Not all of Longworth’s immediate prescriptions are intangible. The region is rich in the assets of wealth creation such as highly skilled professionals, cultural and recreational draws, and global company centers. But in observing successful regions in the age of globalization, Longworth sees that proximity and scale count for much in marshalling diverse assets into globally meaningful centers. He proposes that the region consider bold interpersonal transportation systems such as high speed rail.

Another recent study—this one from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program—also analyzes the new global economic paradigm and how the Midwest must adapt to its challenges. John Austin and his co-authors take the regional approach to global economic adaptation one step further by recognizing that, for the Midwest, the lowering of national border barriers is acutely important. Along the Great Lakes, Canada’s people and resources closely hug the border and are closely integrated with the Midwest economy. Over two-thirds of cross-border trade between Canada and the U.S. takes place among Great Lakes states and the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The region shares many industries that span the border. Automotive, steel, biotechnology, and recreation/tourism are closely linked in their supply chains, transportation infrastructure, and work force. Such industries and their region could benefit from something more like the European Common Market approach.

But according to Austin, at a time when the Midwest must maximize its advantages to achieve competitive prominence, border restrictions have been rising rather than falling. As border security measures have increased,, border-crossing times have been rising, along with general doubts and uncertainty concerning the openness of the border. So too, cooperative initiatives to clean-up the region’s shared water resources are not moving along fast enough. More generally, the region does not recognize its shared interests—especially the great potential to grow and develop through joint study and policy action.

What might such policy actions be? The report lays out a blueprint for Bi-National Great Lakes economic leadership:

  • By 2010, Develop a Bi-National Innovation Fund and Strategy
  • By 2010, Redevelop North America’s Freshwater Coast
  • By 2015, Define and Implement the “U.S.–Canada Border of the Future”
  • By 2025, Realize BiNational Great Lakes Carbon Goals and Renewable Energy Standards
  • By 2030, Create a Common Market for Commerce and Human Capital

As a long-time researcher, observer, and policy-discussion participant in this arena, I am encouraged to find these ideas being resurrected. As long ago as the 1980s, during the very troubled economic times in the Midwest, many of these same observations and recommendations were advanced.

Two developments dampened forward momentum. For one, the region’s economy enjoyed a strong rebound during the 1990s as surging U.S. economic growth shook the region from its torpor. The region’s flagship companies learned much from their global competitors coming out of the 1980s. While the rebound was welcome and enjoyable, some of the driving force behind fundamental policy innovation in regional development policy was lost through complacency.

The second reason: No region-wide dialogue was created on a sustained basis, and no organizations took on a leadership role in driving forward such a regionwide agenda. The sole exception might be efforts to restore and clean up the region’s fresh waters in the Great Lakes basin, which have progressed thanks to regional organizations such as the Council of Great Lakes Governors, The Great Lakes Commission, and a strong supporting cast.

This time around, inspired by new work, such as the Longworth book and Austin’s study, I believe that we will (very soon) see at least some exploratory efforts towards an enduring pan-regional policy network.

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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