For the past three years, Aaron Renn has been one of the most thoughtful and provocative commentators on Midwestern affairs, with a special focus on its cities. His blog, www.urbanophile.com, is must reading for Midwesterns concerned about cities, transport (including high speed rail), urban design, infrastructure and other issues. Like most good bloggers, he has a coterie of commentators, a sort of Greek chorus challenging and amplifying his ideas.
Most recently, The Urbanophile has been chewing on the issue of regionalism -- what it is, how it works, whether it's a good idea for dealing with the Midwest's many problems. I think it is. Aaron has his doubts. The debate is joined, and I urge everyone concerned with the Midwestern future to read it.
Regionalism is the use of coherent regions to deal with common problems. Almost always, these regions cross political boundaries -- state and county lines, city limits -- to link people and places with a common history, economy or culture.
If this sounds obvious, it's news to most Midwesterners. When I was researching my book, Caught in the Middle, I found that (1) the impact of globalization was affecting the entire Midwest more or less equally, for the obvious reason that the entire Midwest has its economic base in farming and heavy industry, and (2) that no one was looking at this situation from a regional Midwestern perspective.
Instead, all thinking and all action was locked up within state lines. Each state was competing with every other state, when the real competition had moved 10,000 miles away. I met experts -- business people, academics, government officials -- who knew everything there was to know about, say, Ohio or Illinois but who had no idea what was going on next door, across the state line.
Perhaps this balkanization once made sense, when the economy was strictly national. It makes no sense at all today, when the Midwest has to leverage all the strengths it has got. It makes even less sense, when you consider that states are artificial constructions, existing within arbitrary borders fixed more than 200 years ago, and enclosing people who have literally nothing in common. Chicago is simply a different society from southern Illinois. Eastern Michigan, around Detroit, has nothing in common with western Michigan, around Grand Rapids. Ohio, with its three Cs --Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati -- is three states, not one. Indiana is at least three states, maybe four. Even once cohesive states, like Iowa, are split now between metro and non-metro.
In this situation, it makes more sense for Chicago to work with Milwaukee or Grand Rapids, and for southern Illinois to work with St. Louis. Cleveland has more in common with Erie or Pittsburgh than it does with Cincinnati, whose real region lies across the Kentucky line. The states bordering Lake Michigan or any Great Lake should be jointly promoting this economic and touristic asset. The Quad Cities are divided by more than the Mississippi River: they should be working together like the one city they really are.
Other ideas abound. Some involve treating the entire Midwest as a region: a Midwestern congressional caucus only makes sense, for intance, as does a single Midwestern office in Shanghai and other foreign cities. This is megaregional thinking. Other ideas will be more effective on a microregional basis, like many of the suggestions above.
But also none of this is happening. A key reason is the stranglehold that the individual states have on most activity within their borders. Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution has written on the control that states like Ohio have over what their cities can do -- zoning, annexation, taxation, and the like. States determine where money is spent on highways and other infrastructure, usually without any references to where that money is best spent. States oversee all marketing for the states, usually control school districts, dominate universities and community colleges and delegate other authority to state officials, including legislators, many of them incompetent and almost all of them interested only in their home districts, none in the general welfare. As James Duderstadt of the University of Michigan has written, legislators are more interested in landing a prison for their home town than they are in state universities, with the result that every Midwestern state now spends more to take care of its prisoners than to educate its children.
This focus of public life on state capitals never has worked well. Right now, it's not working at all. Even before the recession, states didn't have enough money to meet the real needs of their citizens, especially those in cities. With the recessions, most states are broke. Saddled with constitutions that mandate balanced budgets, all are slashing vital spending, including spending on education, while borrowing against the future to pay their bills.
Returning to normal, after the recession, means only returning to an inadequate status quo ante. Midwestern cities and regions should seize this opportunity to kick the states -- or at least to kick the habit of depending on the states -- while they're down. I find that economic development officials, educators, businesses, even mayors see the need to join hands with counterparts across state and county lines. They'll never have a better opportunity than now.
For more information on the Midwest, visit the Global Midwest Web site.