I spoke last week to some of Chicago's brightest young people -- business folk, academics, an architect, a government type or two -- picked for a program for the city's future leaders. My subject was the Midwest and its response to globalization: in other words, if Chicago is the capital of the Midwest, how goes its inland nation? Too much of the Midwest, I told them, is coping badly with globalization. In fact, some of its big cities (Detroit, Cleveland) and old factory towns (Rockford, Muncie, Lima, Flint) might not make it. If they don't reinvent themselves, I said, they may be doomed to keep sliding into impoverished backwaters. A lot of old farm towns are already there and also might not come back.
Nobody seemed happy about this news. But some of these young people had a question: so what? Why should we care? Throughout history, towns and cities have come and gone. If Muncie goes, why should anyone in Chicago care? If Detroit keeps crumbling, should we do anything about it? More to the point, should we be expected to do anything about it? In a world of limited economic resources, why should we even consider spending some of those resources on places that have lost their economic purpose and show no sign of finding a new one? The Midwest's future, they said, depends on the strength of its winners -- Chicago, Minneapolis, Columbus, Madison, Ann Arbor -- not on succoring its losers.
So if yesterday's cities vanish, why should tomorrow's leaders care?
A good question that deserves an answer, and I'm not sure I've got one. But at the least, we can talk about it a bit, and see if anyone can give a good reason.
We've been here before. Back in 1987, an academic couple named Frank and Deborah Popper noted that a great swatch of the Great Plains was drying out and emptying out, without too few people to be considered inhabited. Turn it back to the bison, the Poppers said, urging that some 140,000 square miles be designated a Buffalo Commons.
Not surprisingly, the Poppers were vilified by Dakotans and Kansans who insisted that there still was civilization out there. But in the years since, the population and the acquifers have continued to fall. Even some people who hated the Poppers' idea concede now that it might make sense.
But still, what do you do with the folks out there? Some of the nation's most unpopulated (and poorest) counties are in Buffalo Commons territory. One of them is Arthur County in Nebraska which has about 450 people scattered across 718 miles.
I talked once about this with Ted Kooser, the Nebraskan and former American poet laureate who lives near the state capital of Lincoln.
"There's a sign in Arthur that reads 'Vote for Helen for Mayor,'" Kooser said. "You don't want to save these towns just for sentimental reasons. But in Arthur, there's something there that's worth something to somebody. Somebody will move in. So it's never going to be vaporized. But saving them? Let's say Arthur has a water tower and the well goes bad and there's only three families there. They can't get the resources to fix it. So should we try?
"There are people in those places. What do we do about them?"
Not to compare little Arthur with Detroit, which has 900,000 people, or Cleveland, which has 430,000. Let's get serious. Neither Detroit nor Cleveland will vanish. Both still have too much political clout and historical importance to be ignored.
But like Arthur, both have fewer than half as many people as they once did. Like Arthur, both probably have better pasts than futures. Once, they were two of America's richest cities. Once, they meant a lot to this country. But unless things turn around, that day is past.
Members of a younger generation ask, why should we care? They care about the future. They want to put our money into education and innovation and infrastructure for the cities where they're going to live and work.
A young woman in this group came from Buffalo. I asked what's she doing in Chicago. There's life and jobs here, she said. Would she ever go back to Buffalo? Only if you dragged me, she said. If she wants to put her tax dollars to work, she thinks they should go here, not to a dying city up on Lake Erie.
This sounds hard-hearted. But it's the real condundrum facing much of the Midwest.
Between Arthur and Detroit are dozens, probably hundreds, of smaller towns, old factory towns, that have lost the mills and the industries that were their original reason for existence and sustained them for a century. These are places like Galesburg or Muncie or Lima or Flint. Every Midwestern state has them and is spending millions in welfare and other benefits to keep them going.
Some of these towns will certainly live and may even thrive again. A new factory may locate there. More likely, a local entrepreneur will set up the business that saves the town. Just because a place is down doesn't mean it can't come back.
But some other of these towns will certain keep declining. The industrial age needed all these towns. The global era doesn't. Without an economic raison d'etre, no place can keep going forever.
The Midwest is dotted with old ghost towns, places that declined over the years and eventually disappeared. Sad but true. They probably could have been saved, but at what cost?
Now the Midwest is creating a new generation of industrial ghost towns. I guess they all could be propped up, but at what cost?
Ohio seems to have more of these places than most states. I asked some state officials in Ohio what they should do about the people there. They said, seriously, that the best thing they could do is to encourge these peope, even subsidize them, to leave.
The fact is that if these towns are going to be saved, they have to save themselves. No one else is going to do it for them. They can petition the state government, which has more demands on less money every year. They can lean on their Congressmen, even as their population and hence their congressional representation erodes. This way, they'll get enough to hold on to their past but not enough to build their future.
Most of these places already have three strikes against them. They've lost their best young people, like the woman from Buffalo, because there's nothing to keep them there. Schools, dependent on declining property taxes, are generally substandard. Infrastructure crumbles, and there's no money to fix it. The local leaders often are relics from the industrial age who hope they'll die before their town does.
Some towns already are buckling down. Places like Flint, Michigan, and Youngstown, Ohio, have adopted the "shrinking city" concept, cutting back on area and services, concentrating on being decent small 21st century towns instead of big, powerful 20th-century manufacturing cities. Akron and Grand Rapids are reinventing themselves with new industries. Other places are tapping into local colleges or community colleges for ideas.
Good luck to them. All have value. All are civilizations unto themselves. All have residents who care about their town. But they're on their own. The future depends totally on these residents, not on an outside world that doesn't care.
In southern Iowa is a little town called Gravity. It once had more than 1,000 people, a school, a busy main street, nice houses. Now it has about 200 people, and nothing else. Gravity is dying.
Gravity's town slogan, proclaimed on a sign in an overgrown park, is pretty grim: "If Gravity goes, we all go."
No we don't. If Gravity goes, Gravity goes. The rest of us go on.