The word of the day is globalism. And its sibling, regionalism.
They both came to City Hall yesterday, as Gary Becker took the occasion of his fifth anniversary as Racine mayor to deliver a simple message:
The city is dead. Long live the region. (P.S. The region is also dead...The World is Flat, as everyone whose job has been outsourced, and everyone who has tried to get tech support from India knows.)
Tom Friedman's book came out in 1999; now there's a new, regionally relevant book, and Becker has assigned it (will there be a quiz?) to all the members of the City Council. It's Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism by Richard C. Longworth ($17.13 from Amazon). The mayor gave a copy of it to each council member Tuesday, as part of his state-of-the-city address.
Publisher's Weekly said the book "paints a bleak, evocative portrait of the Midwest's losing struggle with foreign competition and capitalist gigantism. It's a landscape of shuttered factories, desperate laid-off workers, family farms gobbled up by agribusiness, once great cities like Detroit and Cleveland now in ruins, small towns devolved into depopulated rural slums haunted by pensioners and meth-heads.
(Ouch. That's not us by a long shot, yet -- but the cacophony of gunshots lately...)
"But the harshest element of the book is Longworth's own pitiless ideology of globalism. In his telling, Midwesterners are sluggish, unskilled, risk-averse mediocrities, clinging to obsolete industrial-age dreams of job security, allergic to change, indifferent to education and totally unfit for the global age. They are doomed because global competition is unstoppable....the idea of trade barriers (is) simplistic nonsense...the silver linings — biotechnology, proposals for regional cooperation — are meager and iffy. The Midwest's real hope, Longworth insists, lies in a massive influx of mostly low-wage immigrant workers and in enclaves of the rich and brainy, like Chicago and Ann Arbor, where the creative class sells nebulous information solutions to dropouts and Ph.D.s."
Whew! This isn't going to be a feelgood read. Luckily, Becker finds a more optimistic message, even as the Racine economy has seen globalism drive off Jacobsen Textron (and all those jobs), bulldoze Case's foundry (and all those jobs), and... well, why belabor the point. Becker says Caught "explains why we can never be satisfied with where we are...(it) does a great job of explaining the impact globalism has on the Midwest and provides ideas to not only survive, but to have our city prosper.
"The world is not going to stop changing because those of us in Racine find it uncomfortable or difficult to continue to adapt to a new world," he warns. "The key to the future of our city is in doing everything we can to make education at all levels accessible... The people of Racine need to take advantage of educational opportunities unless they want to be on the bottom of the economic ladder. In addition, we must make our city attractive to others who can bring key skills and creativity to our community."
Becker told the council, "We must think beyond the limits of our city. The lines that separate us from Mt. Pleasant and Caledonia can only exist on the map. We must continue working together for our immediate area. There are things we need to work together on to strengthen the Racine area."
Sewer, water? Check (finally, 20 years late.) Regional dispatch? Zoning? Policing? Not so much. Real unification? Heck, after all these years there's a school secession movement afoot.
Regional transportation? Arghhh.
But Becker is thinking far beyond the normal adjacencies... far beyond getting Mount Pleasant and Racine to swap some land and clean up their borders. "Regionalism needs to go further," he said. "We can not view the rest of South Eastern Wisconsin as competitors. They must become partners as we all have different strengths, and what is good for one is generally good for the region. And then we need to understand that the Illinois state line means nothing. The benefits from Chicago’s economy can positively impact us if we choose to understand that they are the engine that drives our region." (Yes, he touched briefly on commuter rail, although not mentioning KRM by name.)
It's a message that doesn't yet resonate with everyone. A similar -- but phrased more negatively -- message from Barack Obama last week created a firestorm for the Democratic presidential candidate (who has been endorsed by Becker): "...a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them... and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Becker doesn't want it to come to that. Instead, he wants us to embrace the opportunities globalism and regionalism present ... since the negatives will be thrust upon us in any event. All in all, a gutsy message.
Here's the complete text of the mayor's address.