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All not lost: Midwest still has punch

British news magazine finds 12-state region with Chicago as its center is facing difficulties, but filled with potential.

The Economist’s special report on the Midwest reveals that agricultural machinery from our state is particularly prized by dealers in second-hand equipment because Illinois farmers are known for taking good care of their tractors.
The Economist’s special report on the Midwest reveals that agricultural machinery from our state is particularly prized by dealers in second-hand equipment because Illinois farmers are known for taking good care of their tractors.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Chicago is distinguished by the critics who’ve taken a swing at her. From 19th century Brit wits like Oscar Wilde (who famously dismissed the Water Tower as “a castellated monstrosity”) to mid-20th century slams like A.J. Liebling’s 1952 vivisection, to our current president regularly slurring Chicago as a violent hellhole, the city has absorbed more than its share of body blows.

So when The Economist, the top news magazine in Britain if not the world, let fly on Thursday with an 11-page report on the Midwest, ominously titled “An outsized punch,” I tucked into a defensive crouch and began reading.

Whew. A rare bit of good news. Instead of being delivered to our midsection, the aforementioned “punch” refers to the region’s international clout.

Chicago may not be the global city of our dreams. But we’re part of a dozen-state cluster that can go toe-to-toe with any region in the world.

The 12 Midwestern states (and a chunk of Pennsylvania around Pittsburgh and a scoop around Louisville, Kentucky) would, were it a nation, be the world’s fourth-largest economy, with a gross product of $4 trillion, tying Germany. Its population of 68 million is equal to Britain’s.

We’re a powerhouse in American politics. True, we used that power in 2016 to deliver the nation to Trump — nothing to be proud of. But we can also decide whether that historic disaster will be corrected or compounded this November.

We are “Midwestern nice,” apparently, with “warmth, hospitality, work ethic and fondness for the outdoors.”

Chicago is much discussed. People downstate hate us — no news there — and try to tell The Economist why.

“People down here want to push Chicago out of Illinois,” a resident in Assumption, population 1,066, explains. Our sins are liberality, plus being both jammed with Democrats and an economic powerhouse — the Chicago area generates $716 billion, or 83% of the state’s economic activity, which pays for a lot of farm subsidies. No wonder they’re griping in Grange halls downstate, gratitude not being a Republican value, apparently.

The British news magazine The Economist special report about the Midwest in general and Chicago in particular.
The British news magazine The Economist has a special report this week about the Midwest in general and Chicago in particular.
Provided

All is not rosy. Racial divisions scar the region like furrows on a freshly plowed field.

“Chicago can feel almost as segregated as South Africa just after apartheid,” writes the author, Adam Roberts, The Economist’s Midwest correspondent, who knows of what he speaks — for four years, he was stationed in Johannesburg.

Folks wondering why Chicago residents stay in violent neighborhoods are missing a key fact: They don’t. In the past 20 years, 290,000 Black Chicagoans have fled the city. This “slow-motion ejection” sends Black Chicagoans to the suburbs, down South in a “reverse great migration” or even — The Economist notes this without the requisite shudder, which makes me wonder if they’ve truly taken measure of the place — to Indiana.

I never paused to consider why Indiana is the Mississippi of the Midwest. It was just something I knew, something that needed no explanation. Because Mike Pence. The Economist puts numbers on that gut feeling. About a third of American adults have a college degree. In Chicago, almost 40% do. Indiana is the least-educated state among Midwestern states, with barely a quarter of adults squinting their way through college. It shows.

There is a solid connection between lack of education and the tendency to vote for fraudulent, blithering idiots. There is also a bond between academic strength and financial success, both individually and as a region. Factories come and go, but Chicago’s top-tier universities remain, and continue to drive economic development — at least until COVID-19 upended everything

Looking ahead, the report suggests the biggest threats the Midwest faces are global warming, the immigrants who make our economies thrive being choked off and, of course, the aforementioned monstrosity doing the choking, Donald Trump.

The report is packed with maps. One shows Illinois the only state among the 12 “safe” for Joe Biden, with seven of the 12 leaning toward Trump. Be afraid, be very afraid.

But if the current public mood can be summed up as “We are so screwed,” the good news is we’re also still in the fight. Chicago might not be the center of the world we imagine ourselves to be, but small town and city, taken together, pack a wallop felt around the globe. We’ve got big problems, but we’ve also got big resources — the city of the big shoulders being No. 1 among them.