Should the Midwest Play a Game It Can’t Win?


Noah Smith at Bloomberg wrote a recent column on how to revive the Midwest that channels the ideas of Michigan based Brookings scholar John Austin. This strategy has two main planks: lure more immigrants and invest more in higher education (presumably research universities).

This is a fine idea. There’s only one problem: In an economy driven by immigrants and university research, which places are likely to win? The places that are already winning this very battle: the elite coastal cities like Boston, New York, and the Bay Area.

We’ve had decades now to observe where immigrants are settling in the US. They are mostly bypassing the Midwest. Even Chicago has seen its immigrant flows start to dry up.

And as I previously documented, in a superstar economy, the Midwest has few of the absolutely most elite programs in critical STEM fields. CMU’s computer science program is the exception that proves the rule.

The immigrants and education strategy is like telling the Washington Generals that if they want to start winning games, they should just go beat the Globetrotters. It’s not going to happen. The Midwest’s role in this current system is as the designated loser. The only way to start winning is to find out how to play a different game.

This is something that the Midwest leadership class mostly can’t even comprehend. That’s somewhat understandable. It’s much easier to look at how other people succeeded and say, “Let’s do some of that” than it is to try to change the game completely, which is a difficult an inherently uncertain enterprise. But this pragmatic mindset is what has undermined the Midwest. It’s a big part of what killed Michigan in the first place.

There’s certainly a role for pragmatism, just as there is a valid place in the Midwest for focusing on immigration and universities. That can be part of the mix to be sure. But that’s only going to work for a limited number of places such as college towns. It’s not a sufficient strategy.

Here’s a place to start thinking differently. We are in a disruptive era in Washington right now. What fundamental changes to the status quo in federal policy that aren’t already being advocated by coastal progressives would Midwest leaders like to see? Consider the example floated by Matt Yglesias (a coastal progressive, but in this case putting forth a different kind of idea) of breaking up the federal bureaucracy and moving big chunks of it to the interior. This by itself may not be a game changer. But what new ideas could be? How would Midwest leaders re-write the rulebook to put their own region in a favorable position to win? Thinking of game-changing ideas, and mobilizing leadership to start pushing them, has to be part of any reinvention strategy.

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Brush Park, Detroit. Photo Credit: Stephen Harlan, CC BY-SA 2.0