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 and dandy 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.
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 Smith/Austin 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. But that’s only going to work for a limited number of places.
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.