Monday, October 05, 2009

Caught in the Middle: A Review

Richard C. Longworth in Caught in the Middle examines the decline of the Midwest and what the region can do to counteract the effects of globalism. Beginning in the 19th century, the Midwest served as the country’s industrial heartland. Since the 1970’s, however, many of the factories in this region have either reduced their workforce or have closed down entirely and moved their production lines overseas. These closings have devastated the region, causing many towns to lose their only major employer. Some of these towns, Longworth says, won’t survive much longer except as bedroom communities for those people willing to commute long distances. Only a few cities and towns have managed to thrive. Kalamazoo, for example, has seen new growth since the city, thanks to private donations, has financed a college education for its local high school graduates. Warsaw, Indiana, has survived by becoming the home for orthopedic manufacturers, something Longworth refers to as “clustering.” These success stories are exceptions. In some cases, a city or town looking to replace its industrial base attracts a meatpacking plant, which, instead of hiring the local population for a living wage, brings in immigrants from Mexico who are willing to work long hours for very little money. This influx of immigrants creates a whole series of financial problems for communities forced to provide essential services.

Longworth believes that certain changes will allow the states that make up this region to survive. He foresees a great deal of potential in biotech, particularly the production of ethanol, and biosciences, both of which involve “turning plants and animals into products that go far beyond food.” “Already,” he says, “about one quarter of the Midwest’s corn crop goes for ethanol production.” More than likely, at least half of the corn crop will be turned into ethanol, he adds. Longworth also believes that the biosciences, which has lead to major centers of research in cities like Chicago, Ann Arbor, and St. Louis, will continue to grow and will lead to new lines of production by major corporations like Cargill, Monsanto, and Eli Lilly. For the region to renew itself, Longworth believes that the region needs an educated workforce. The research and manufacturing he foresees will require advanced degrees and if the young people in this region don’t pursue a higher education, the workforce will be imported into the region. Longworth also foresees major growth in the region’s cities if they can attract what Longworth refers to as the “creative class,” the highly educated people who can create the new ideas needed by the region. These cities will need to lose their provincialism and embrace diversity and open-mindedness, things that the region has not previously promoted. This shift to an educated workforce will create large pockets of poverty in the region, causing those who formally held minimum wage jobs to flounder. Ultimately, Longworth advocates more cooperation among the states, including the elimination of individual states in favor of smaller regions that cross existing state lines. Longworth also exhibits a strong bias toward the Big Ten schools, believing that those institutions hold more hope for the region. He also advocates the elimination of duplicate college programs, believing that specialization is the only hope for the major educational institutions.

Longworth’s examination of this region would have been more complete if he had considered the ecological problems that the region will face. Increasing the amount of corn harvested to fuel the demand for ethanol will be accompanied with a greater reliance on pesticides. What consequences will occur when the soil will no longer sustain the yields that corporations like Cargill require? What will happen when the water becomes more heavily polluted? Longworth’s attitude toward water as something to be sold is revealed when he says that “water is the resource of the future, and the Great Lakes states need to be ready to exploit it.” This attitude will only result in another period of bust and one of more serious consequences when the land will not sustain the population and when the water has been polluted beyond hope or sold to cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix.

Ultimately, Longworth’s book is an important one because of its relatively thorough examination of one particular region. The Great Plains states need a similar study because they offer less hope and will experience more widespread devastation in the coming years.