Saturday, January 9, 2010

IndyTalks and "Caught in the Middle"

Talk about globalization makes many Hoosiers nervous. They think of local jobs lost to companies employing cheap workers in China. They feel vulnerable to financial crises outside our borders, to mysterious economic forces made less understandable by so-called “experts” on TV news or talk radio who seem most interested in scoring partisan points.

Fortunately, globalization’s impact on the Midwest is clearly analyzed by Richard Longworth’s splendid book, Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. Think Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat” meets the really flat states. Longworth looks at shuttered shops in small towns and failing public schools in big cities, at state-of-the-art biofuels plants and struggling family farms. Combining personal anecdotes and economic statistics, he sketches a sobering picture of the challenges Midwesterners face.

For nearly sixty years, the family farm has been vanishing, unable to compete with the astonishing productivity of gigantic scale agribusiness. Rural depopulation slowed a bit three decades ago when companies built factories in small towns. But this manufacturing is most vulnerable to global competition, and now boarded-up factories add another sad touch to a bleak rural landscape.

The most distressing feature of globalization may be that its victims seem unable to understand the real causes of their problems. During the 2008 election, whether to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement emerged as a hot Midwestern issue. But NAFTA has been a net economic benefit for Indiana and other heartland states, and the real threat to local manufacturing jobs is not Mexico but China. The answer is smarter investing in education and encouraging innovative collaboration at home, not restricting trade. But “stop NAFTA” is a convenient slogan for saying “stop globalization,” not a solution.

Immigration is another issue that seems to cloud our ability to think clearly. Food processing plants are keeping many small town afloat. But these towns have experienced such a flight of their young people to cities at the first opportunity that a massive inflow of hard-working immigrants from south of the border has been necessary. Rather than an infusion of fresh blood, locals see "Illegals" and "Mexicans" who threaten hometown values and the rule of law.

Longworth focuses attention on the Midwest's major research universities, which are increasingly dependent on attracting the "best and brightest" from around the world to hold their own against rivals on the coasts (and increasingly in Asia). Local companies that can compete globally will themselves need to attract and retain these foreign-born brains.But to many in the Midwest, these newcomers are a source of concern. They crowd out native-born students from universities, they speak strange languages and practice religions that might be dangerous.

Global competition, Longworth reminds us, has not always been scary for the Midwest. In the first half of the 20th century, the Midwest generated more patents than anywhere else. Our factories used the best technologies, our workers and farmers were the most productive in the world. We were the cutting edge.

Our problem today is that yesterday’s successes make it tough to think clearly about hard choices we must make for the future. Political leaders and citizens in Indiana and its neighbors are blinded by a complacent belief that, on the whole, we really are all right. The worst case of this myopia in Longworth’s book is Cleveland, where he says leaders not only have no idea what the answer is, they have no idea what the questions are. But Indianapolis could be headed that direction. Unless we think creatively and talk seriously about how we want to live in a rapidly changing world, he argues, the years ahead will be rough for Indiana.

We can think and talk creatively, and enjoy ourselves in the process.

IndyTalks kicks off at noon Wednesday January 13 when WFYI FM 90.1 interviews Longworth. Read his book, hear what he has to say — and listen to what he doesn’t say. Longworth identifies many of the human assets and regional resources that could help us meet those challenges. IndyTalks focuses on our hidden strengths that even such a sharp-eyed observer might miss.

Longworth, for instance, rightly claims the Midwest’s major research universities can produce future breakthroughs and innovations. But in addition to Purdue, Indiana University and Notre Dame, more than 30 small, independent liberal arts colleges are scattered across Indiana. For many towns, these colleges can be vital sources of ideas and talent. Goshen College is helping Northern Indiana integrate the rapid influx of Latino immigrants. The University of Evansville’s Institute for Global Enterprise in Indiana is reshaping local business strategies in the south.

On March 18, Marian University hosts “Backyard Pundits: Public Leadership and Ethical Questions for Indiana’s Future,” an IndyTalks event highlighting the importance of small liberal arts colleges. More than partisan “talking heads” on TV or shrill “shock jocks” on the radio, local public intellectuals can engage the community in a civil and constructive discussion about how the world is shaping local life, and how local groups in Indiana can help make the world better.

Expect more from IndyTalks than conventional lectures and panel discussions. On Feb. 24 at the Central Library the surrealist art collective Big Car puts on “7 Simultaneous Lecturers: Indy Arts and Globalization.” Seven experts will share the stage, all speaking at the same time about our global challenges. The audience will vote whose microphone is turned up or down. This is how Washington-based pundits sound to us in the heartland, loud voices struggling to be heard. All too often we in the audience respond by tuning out messages we dislike, listening only to views with which we agree.

(Don't worry if this sounds too much like a piece of performance art, IndyTalks will feature a more conventional discussion of "What the Arts Mean to Indianapolis" on July 22, hosted by the Indianapolis Arts Council.)

Many of the features of Midwestern life that could be seen as obstacles to prospering in the world of the 21st century could be assets, if only we are clever and flexible. Consider that most homey and provincial of epithets, "Hoosier." Our challenge in Indiana is not that immigrants will cause us to lose our Hoosier values of generosity, trust, hospitality, and so on. Our challenge is to be able to tell newcomers the story of what it means to be a Hoosier -- explain to them what makes us special -- in a way that makes them want to join us. We also need to listen to newcomers tell us why their cultures and values are also special so that we can incorporate the best from around the world into what it means to be a Hoosier. We can start discussing what this means at the Indiana Historical Center on June 15, when Prof. James Madison of Indiana University asks "Is It Good to be a Hoosier?"

Farming is a major issue in Caught in the Middle, and it's no surprise that food turns up twice as topics for IndyTalks. A product of small town Iowa, Richard Longworth knows that even though manufacturing is the economic heart of the Midwest, agriculture is its soul. Corporate mega-farmer in the Midwest produce more than anyone else, anywhere on the planet. In order to compete the rest of the world, in fact, is being forced to adopt consolidated farming practices developed here ... we can still be at the forefront of globalization.

The problem is that no one likes the idea of corporate mega-farming. Longworth believes it has fatally destroyed the lives of small towns across the Midwest. He sees glimmers of hope in thriving niches of non-corporate small-scale local farmers using less industrial methods. The glimmers may be brighter than he thinks. The :locavore" movement in Central Indiana is driving the blossoming of urban gardening and farmers markets. More generally, many families appear to want to think about what they are eating, and how the food got to their tables. May 4 IndyTalks takes on this desire with "Food for Thought." The Indiana Humanities Council will set up venues across the city for pitch-in dinners where people can share food with one another, and informally discuss the meaning of what they are putting in their mouths.

The issue of food and globalization turns up again on September 30, when celebrity TV chefs Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert come to Clowes Hall.

IndyTalks will succeed only if it delivers on its name, only if it gets us talking and listening to one another about how to meet our common challenges.

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