Any astronaut looking down from space at night would spot a solid band of bright light wrapped around the southern end of Lake Michigan. The lights go on somewhere north of Milwaukee, stay on as the band moves south through Kenosha and Racine and turn into the glare of Chicago before sweeping east across northern Indiana, finally fading into the blueberry belt of southwestern Michigan.
What our astronaut is seeing is a megalopolis, a super-city, a midcontinental metro -- a region. From orbit, it looks like one big urban area. He can't see any state lines or town lines, which makes sense, because it's hard to see them even from ground level.
But they're there. Oh boy, are they there, and they keep this Chicago region from acting like the one big city it really is. Down here on the ground, it's not one big region but three states, 21 counties, dozens of towns and a couple thousand townships, school districts and other jurisdictions and taxing bodies, all out for themselves, with little regard for the other state, town or jurisdiction next door.
Obviously, this Chicago region is much less than the sum of its parts. This is the conclusion of anyone who's tried to get these many parts to work together and, more immediately, of a major new study by the very authoritative Paris-based economic body, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The OECD, set up in the wake of World War II to promote economic recovery in Europe, now embraces 34 of the world's leading nations. Because these 34 countries are all members, the OECD's research often turns into national and international policy.
In recent years, the OECD has published a shelf of Territorial Reviews, aimed at looking at cities beyond their city limits, to see how they fit into broader natural regions. Until now, the organization never did one in the United States, but the new publication -- "The Chicago Tri-State Metropolitan Area" -- looks at the Chicago region, from Milwaukee to Michigan City, assesses its strengths and weaknesses and prescribes doses of cooperation that would enable it to leverage its assets and become the region it truly is. (The report is available online at http://oecdwash.org/chicagoreview. Hard copies can be ordered from Shannon Doepke at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, at 312.494-6734 or email@example.com.)
The report basically says that the region is strong (its economy ranks eighth in size among the OECD's 90 metro regions) but slipping, with both income and productivity lagging behind other regions. Obviously, many reforms and repairs are needed, but a big fix would come with more regional cooperation -- in transport, worker training, education, the green economy, water, infrastructure.
A problem is that all those jurisdictions have never worked together. But there are signs -- particularly, the enthusiastic conference held in Chicago to unveil the report -- that many of the region's cities, towns, schools, especially its businesses -- see the need to work together and recognize that, in this global economy, century-old political dividing lines are anachronisms.
This word doesn't seem to have reached the state governments, which remain the biggest stumbling block to regional cooperation. All the towns and cities in the Chicago economic region have more to do with each other than any of them have with Madison, Springfield or Indianapolis. Yet jealousies and rivalries between state governments and governors poison inter-state relations and create barriers to cooperation.
The state governments of Illinois and Wisconsin at least cooperated in the OECD report, if unenthusiastically. Indiana, still intent on stealing companies from its neighbors and under the illusion that it alone can prosper in a declining Midwest, refused even this cooperation.
It might help if the parts of the region seceded from their respective states, but this seems unlikely. Short of that, then, what can be done to make the region function like the economic unit it is?
The OECD recommended more coordination between the various working training programs, to eliminate wasteful duplication. It urged the states to stop fighting each other for investment. It suggested the region's first-rate universities and laboratories work more closely together. Businesses should collaborate with schools and vice versa, to end the mismatch between available jobs and available skills. Public transit coordination is a must, it said, as is more cooperation on venture capital for start-up businesses. Business groups can mesh their activities, and better planning can maximize the region's huge water resources. Most important, it said, is regional coordination of all transport, simply because the region is a national transportation hub, and its smooth operation is vital to the national economy.
All worthy goals. But the question remains -- how do we get there from here? The OECD report didn't really say, which means it's up to the region itself and its people to get the balls rolling.
Other regions around the Midwest face the same problem and are wrestling with the same question. From what I've seen, a first goal is to make sure that the states are cut out of the action. Since state governments exist, they will have to be given a seat at the table, sooner or later. But they can not take the lead nor be given a veto: inevitably, they will drop the lead and use the veto, to protect their own power.
Nor is thinking big necessarily a good idea. We can dream about a regional organization overseeing and coordinating all manner of activities in the three-state area. Realistically, it may be better to think small, starting with a few small projects -- in transit, say, or branding and marketing, or working training links, or university projects. This is how the European Union got started, with a few small economic agreements, often highly technical: over the years, these agreements built up, like brick in a wall, until the European edifice appeared.
A stealth approach? Possibly. But there will be political opposition to any real cooperation, and a smart approach will figure out a detour around this opposition.
There already are people in the region who know about these subjects and want this cooperation. The job now is to encourage and enable them to contact each other, get together, lay their plans, work with local officials and strike their agreements, before state capitals have a chance to intervene. They may need "coaches," professional economic matchmakers who know how to get people working together. They probably will need central and neutral meeting places -- community colleges, say -- where people who've been competing for years can feel comfortable in the same room with each other.
Years of petty rivalry won't be overcome quickly. The work will be long and hard. But the OECD report points the way, and it would be a tragedy if the potentially mighty Chicago region doesn't follow.