A Lunch and Evening with Richard Longworth

A week ago, it was my privilege to have lunch with Richard Longworth, author of the book that started my thinking, “Caught in the Middle.” Then, the evening of that lunch, I joined about 700 other listeners on the campus of Ball State University (Muncie, IN) to hear Longworth share thoughts about the Midwest and what must happen if our region is to understand and become engaged in globalization. The following are my notes. I trust you will find them useful as you consider what to do personally or in collaboration with others to engage the global reality of our time.

These lunch notes relate to the question, “What have you learned since researching and writing the book?” Here are some things Longworth learned through an additional 70,000 miles of travel across the Midwest:

• There continues to be a lot of talk about needing to get things done, but very little action. There are spots of activity, but this is not the norm across all the Midwest region. Some of the best endeavors are in Grand Rapids, projects related to the Great Lakes, some highway corridors in Iowa, but most communities still do not understand the issues of globalization and what is happening to them.
• Most communities are still thinking in silo/ detached ways and not thinking regionally. There is still significant competition between communities for jobs and not an attempt to work as a region. Longworth shared a bright spot near Columbus Ohio where the towns in proximity to each other have agreed to work together to bring jobs to the region. They are working on regional tax issues, etc. Also, Iowa divided the state into 7 economic regions; some are working well, others not. The worst Longworth witnessed is Kansas City, where attempts are made to draw companies from one side of the city to the other (Kansas City, KS and Kansas City, MO). The biggest employers wrote a collective letter asking that this stop.
• Politics is a great barrier to getting things done collectively/ regionally.
• There is not much collaboration; silo of our companies/ industries is the general rule.
• Competition between states is significant. Ads being run in adjoining states to get businesses to leave one state for another.
• Universities should be helping but Longworth’s general observation and conversations are that they are mostly silos, not connecting well with each other and working at wide scale collaboration (some are isolating themselves from the neighborhoods around them).
• There is still a good amount of economic class division, where people do not see the need to be global and don’t understand it.
• Top down strategies aren’t working; too many political barriers or turf issues exist. The best regions are bottom up with citizens and also philanthropists assisting them. Arts communities seem to be beginning to take shape where citizens are coming together to work with each other; it is attracting other businesses.
• There is continued flight of our graduates out of our communities or states.
• The federal government, top down, is not working. An idea that is brewing in some sectors is a “Marshall Plan” for the regions of the Midwest. If regions work together, they will get funds.

Longworth spent some time talking about a new Fed report coming out of Chicago. They examined 47 communities where industry was at least 25% of the community in the 1950s. They compared them today and then used a number of metrics to determine what might be the reasons for those making a comeback. Here are the top four reasons for comebacks according to the report:
1. Effective work force training/ retraining
2. Adequate and creative funding/ financing of the newer industries
3. People are aware of the globalization/ regional issues. “Are you aware you are in a global economy and do you understand the services and how an economy works?”
4. Strong, local community leadership is needed. These leaders can be in political areas, but most often are grass roots individuals who find ways and work the networks of communities to spark growth.

Now some notes from a packet house at Pruis Hall on the campus of Ball State University:
• Globalization is here…good or bad…it is the present and the future. We are going to have to adapt and change to meet it.
• Globalization changes many things, including demographics, economy, services and industry, income, division of wealth, and more.
• An important lesson of economics….nothing lasts forever, everything changes in time. The question is can the Midwest reinvent itself over and over to work and live within the changes. Examples of Chicago, London, Mumbai and others continually adapting to the changes to stay with the economy or try to live the best they can in it.
• Systemic issues have to be addressed. Systemic issues may give the Midwest the same things again and again; these systems have to be understood and changed where needed.
• The Midwest cannot live off old good ideas for the rest of our lives. Must continually reinvent or invent. Some of the best inventions in the world came out of the Midwest (automotive, aviation, etc.) but we cannot live off the old good ideas as globalization gets stronger.
• Education, both personal and societal, is critical to economies and civilizations. There is a cycle of effective education helping in the economy and the economy promotes more education.
• Educational institutions must offer subjects that businesses need. There need to be partnerships in sharing ideas of need and development.
• We must convince people they are competing with people on the other side of the planet, not down the street or in the next state. If citizens do not understand this, we will continue to be in trouble.
• Most citizens and leaders know nothing about other companies or communities in their locale or region. We know our own communities and organizations, but we do not know how other countries, communities, or companies actually function. We have to be better at learning and thinking regionally and globally in this way; who is my neighbor?
• Advice for expanding awareness (suggested to students, but applies to all): study or travel abroad so we see how the world actually functions (Longworth interviewed the top Illinois economic development person in legislature….he did not have a passport and never traveled outside the US, but was suggesting policies for the state on economic development); get to know the local and regional facts/ info of where we live (census information, histories, legislation, economic plans, etc.; how do we dovetail with them); find places to learn about global Midwest and its impact and how it can adapt or function (Longworth noted in all the colleges/ universities he visited and studied only one school had a program on the global Midwest and what it means to live here, work here, but be competing globally).
• Global corporations are global, that is they may be headquartered in the United States or Midwest, but they hire, manufacture, sell in global regions (they are multinational). They are in a sense outside the network of job development locally because they are thinking and acting in self interest/ development/ capital return. They may not start with thinking locally, but they may start thinking how what they do in the US impacts their divisions in China or India or elsewhere.
• We are in a sense colluding with other countries in destroying environments, enslaving people, creating poor working conditions, etc. because we don’t fully understand what we are doing as consumers in a global market (these laws are not as detailed in other places or nonexistent as in the US). This is very complex.. it is not a simple solution. How might we globally find ways to deal with creating world governance systems to deal with these items? This is happening, but what more might be needed; what moral obligations do we have for people in other parts of the world.
• As wages are rising in other nations and wages lowering or stabilizing in the US, we may see different scenarios unfold in the future about where companies build or locate. The US is very productive…could businesses in other places of the world begin looking more intently at the US to build plants related to distribution of goods? An area that is developing and should be watching. (I didn’t follow all of this, but China has invested only 3% in the US, but as its wages grow, could it develop more factories here, as with Toyota, Hyundai, etc.; I am aware that Mahindra from India is trying to open markets here in the US)
• Churches today are becoming important to the equation of economy. Old, established congregations in towns across the Midwest are beginning to ask what role they might play in helping restore the community around them. Many are still in the center of decaying cities (many are Catholic parishes); how might they revitalize their locales?
• The big idea of the night in a response to a question posed by a student from Boston: “You have to give people a reason to come to the Midwest because they can go anywhere, live anywhere, build their businesses anywhere on the planet like we have not witnessed in the past.” (Longworth commented that occupations like CPAs, lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. etc. can go anywhere and are being attracted to global cities like Chicago, NY, Mumbai…..barbers, auto repair, and like services will stay local; what does this mean for the long term economies)

If you have read Longworth’s book, you see the connections. The most frustrating comment by Longworth was his awareness there has been a good deal of talk, but not very much action. Will the Midwest reinvent itself in the age of globalization? We are a region of hard workers, the past has proven it. But can we rise to the occasion again? I believe we can if we are willing to work together for the good of all. For more information on Longworth and some useful links, visit his site at: http://www.richardclongworth.com/