Monday, January 07, 2008

Rust Belt Economic Union

An article in yesterday's Chicago Tribune highlights the Midwestern struggles to adapt to globalization. A region once known for its "stability and self-sufficiency" is now awash in turmoil with a number of cities exhibiting acute fiscal distress. The prolonged transition might be a result of cultural isolation and vestigial political geographies:

The challenge is too big for these individual towns and states, which remain crippled by parochial politics, strapped for cash and too jealous of the states next door to meet the real competition, which is global.

In practice, what does this mean? It means towns and cities that share the same problems--mostly crumbling industry--must cooperate across state lines to promote a common future. It means much closer collaboration between the Midwest's great research universities, plus independent centers like Mayo or Argonne. Properly focused, it could make the region an intellectual global powerhouse. It means regional promotion of bioscience and nanotechnology research, not the fragmented state-by-state research that goes on now.

It means a Midwestern network to draw the venture capital that now flows to Boston or San Diego. It means a high-speed train network to knit the Midwest together, as similar networks do in Europe. For starters, it means a Midwestern think tank, like the Southern Growth Policies Board in North Carolina, which brings together officials, universities and businesses from 13 Southern states to generate real thinking across state lines.

Are policymakers and leaders blind to the similar plight of their neighbors? I might have been skeptical of that observation if not for a response to my "Michigration is Misinformation" post:

One missing element in discussions about state out-migration are temporal changes because while the typical Michigander may know several people who live in other states, talk and correspond with them occasionally about their lives, and perhaps read or hear some news about another state, in the main, we have little knowledge about what it is like to live in those other states, unless we had previously lived there some years. Michiganders, by and large, like most people, compare their circumstances today not to the circumstances of someone living in Pennsylvania or Nevada or the national average; we compare our circumstances today with what we once were.

The poor lines of communication within the Pittsburgh area are a microcosm of the entire Rust Belt region. I've read about regional initiatives that stubbornly mind state boundaries. I've noted Rust Belt 2.0 wariness concerning intra-regional competition. At times, I'm overwhelmed with the dysfunctional approach to economic development and the lack of trust undermining any existing entrepreneurial spirit.

The Chicago Tribune article quotes John Austin, who (I believe) is the same person helping to spearhead the Brookings Institution's attempt to form what looks like a European Economic Union for the Great Lakes Region. Instead, each city, each region and each state is forging ahead with their own respective projects, the same provincial approach that has fragmented the various attempts to resurrect shrinking cities. Why don't we try to plug into what Brookings is doing?

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