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Go North

For a livable future, look to the Upper Midwest

Walking along Chicago’s Lake Michigan shore this summer, feeling the cool breeze off the water, I often thought about calling friends in the rest of the country to ask: “Are you OK?” I wanted to ask them: “Have you thought about moving to the Upper Midwest?” Even with some bad days from the burning of Canada’s forests, it is only up here I feel safe, and on my long walks next to the lake I was wondering in what year to come the federal government will have to start relocating people here. It is ironic that in my lifetime so many have moved from the Midwest to the South and West, because their children will have to come back here, and some may bring their aged parents along. No rational person is going to stay in a region with 115-degree heat, soon to creep up to 120 degrees, and within ten years or so, probably 130 degrees. Nor will they want to endure the water shortages. They’ll have to move north.

Maybe in five more years they will start to come, in serious numbers, whether we up here like it or not. I hate to think of them all bringing along their red-state politics, as we have enough trouble already in holding off the Trump vote. Of course, I would get a bit of pleasure out of it. Recently, in Texas and Florida, they all had a good laugh sending migrants up here. The day will come when they will be begging for letters of transit to come along.

But as this is the most big-hearted part of the country, the Midwest will have to do something. We can’t keep them down there to be broiled alive. But where will we put them? We can’t take them all back without some kind of plan, some new infrastructure that we should start building now. We need the help of the federal government, and a true national growth policy, to turn the Upper Midwest into a reception area, to pack as much of the population growth of this country into a place that will be habitable for the decades to come.

We will need to retrofit our cities to provide more housing. We will need a more densely populated country and more energy-efficient cities. That means better transportation, better commercial construction, and more housing in Chicago, Milwaukee, Columbus, Cleveland, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Yes, we must even think about Detroit. We might say “If we build it, they will come.” But if we don’t, they’ll be coming anyway.

Of course, there is no plan yet for what to do because we go on thinking that we will be living in a steady state world of occasional 115-degree heat waves with relief coming when it drops back into the 90s. Nor does the richest 5 percent of the country even care. The other night a friend said to me, “I don’t see any problem. We just go down for winter, and summer we’re back here.” It just leaves out those in that part of the population who don’t own two homes. 

For the last five hundred thousand years or so, whole tribes moved when there was climate change. The ice ages are proof enough. Higher temperature turned North Africa, once the breadbasket of ancient Rome, into a desert. And back then they didn’t have all the problems we have now in getting home insurance. Are people in the United States less likely to move than in the Neanderthal era, when we now have interstates?

We need a true national growth policy, to turn the Upper Midwest into a reception area, to pack much more of the population into a place that will be habitable for the decades to come.

There is a law attributed to the economist Herbert Stein: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” To be sure, even now people are moving from Ohio and Illinois down to states like Texas and Florida. I can understand why there is still migration to Florida, at least among old people. It has been much nicer in the winter but also cheaper. Upon retirement, people could sell their family home and buy a townhouse in Florida. But that’s going to stop making sense—not just because of climate change but because of the collapse of the insurance market. That means an increased risk of losing everything in a flood or storm. They will come back to the Midwest, or their children will, if not for the fresh water in the lakes, then at least for the home insurance.

It is harder to understand why younger people would move to the South. What do they think it’s going to be like in thirty years? But there are reasons: Hourly wages have stagnated, and the poor and less educated look to the South for a lower cost of living. Population growth in the South has been driven by the collapse of the labor movement—along with the rise of residential air conditioning since the 1950s. It is dangerous to try to organize under our outdated labor laws—anywhere—and even harder in the right-to-work states. So business has a special incentive to relocate to the South, and workers in turn have to relocate there. Even this year the South and West will go on displacing the Midwest as the industrial heartland, as The Economist recently pointed out. It is a disgrace that as a matter of public policy, albeit unstated, we keep pulling workers out of relative climate safety to work in what will be furnaces in twenty or so years. 

Of course, the economics of moving to a state like Texas have always been dubious. There is a lemming-like flight from “high” taxes in states like Illinois and New York. Meanwhile, to get a small cash savings because Texas has no state income tax, you accept lower wages, no union protections, and in many cases no workers compensation insurance, since companies in Texas are not required to offer that benefit. A friend of mine says let them be damned and fall off the rim of the country and into the Gulf of Mexico. He lives in New England. People are too nice in the Midwest even to take any pleasure in such a thing.

It should be clear that America’s economic future is not in the Sunbelt. But even in our most recent round of economic policymaking in Washington we’ve come up with new incentives that make everything worse. Here are two examples:

The Inflation Reduction Act, part of Biden’s campaign pledge to “Build Back Better,” is scattering its seeds in a way in which they will dry up and wither. Consider the electric vehicle incentives, which will go to the heat domes where companies like Nissan and BMW go to flee the United Auto Workers. (Disclosure: as a lifelong labor lawyer, I am a partner in a small firm that has recently done legal work for the UAW.) Why build back better in these right-to-work Southern states? While it’s too early to say the exact amount, many of the electrical vehicle supply chain investments that qualify for tax credits are going to Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina. These are the contracts for the nearby battery-related suppliers for the foreign-owned auto companies that long ago located to the South to escape unions. While the Department of Energy does have discretion to issue billions of dollars in grants and loans, and just issued a large loan to Ford, the tax credits are likely to go mostly to the South, the part of the country The Economist magazine recently described as our nation’s true industrial heartland. As monitored by the Blue Green Alliance, a labor-environmental NGO, there is also evidence that the investments announced just in the last month are going to Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. Thanks to Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the IRA as passed into law dumped the original bill’s requirement for the job quality standards which would have given an edge to suppliers with union workers. As a result, it was more likely that, apart from the DOE investments, the tax credits would go to the Southern and right-to-work states in the hottest parts of the country. 

While the IRA is bad enough, the Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett v. EPA is another climate change blunder. It may be the worst decision of the Supreme Court in the recent term, even if it has a lot of competition. Of all times to do so, the Supreme Court held that despite long standing precedent, the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to regulate our nation’s wetlands unless they directly feed into rivers and lakes. In other words, developers can now pour concrete over half the wetlands in this country. As a lawyer I understand that one can plausibly argue that wetlands that are not contiguous to rivers and lakes are not “the waters of the United States.” But words being words, the meaning of those words are as fluid as, well, “the waters of the United States.” Why not leave the old precedent in place, especially now?

They will come back to the Midwest, or their children will, if not for the fresh water in the lakes, then at least for the home insurance.

The reason is, there is a property right, and in this country, unlike Europe, the right to property means the liberty to do with it anything you like, the common good be damned. But paving over half of our wetlands will not, in the end, serve the cause of limited government. It may even increase the risk of an authoritarian state. The historian Karl Wittfogel in his iconic book, Oriental Despotism, which is about the extreme importance of irrigation in the ancient world, describes the “hydraulic civilization” as one that depends on highly centralized government. As in ancient Egypt under the Pharaohs, the greater the need and extent of the irrigation, the bigger and more centralized the state. Those who want to stay on in heat dome regions like Arizona may have to submit to much greater government control.

Of course, that’s not in the offing now. Even if Trump is elected, the likely outcome is weak, corrupt, and incompetent government. But over time the higher temperatures may incline much of the country to a different form of authority. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu, the great French philosopher, doubted that either liberty or equality, or just a moderate form of government, could survive in intense heat. It would be predictable to Montesquieu that red states, first to boil, would be the biggest base for Trump. It’s in the sun-baked South where people were enslaved. As the temperature rises, so does the spirit of the old Confederacy. Florida is requiring students to learn that slavery was good for Blacks, taught them useful skills. Perhaps some future historian, or Heather Cox Richardson herself right now, might be able to correlate changes in the climate with the January 6 assault upon the Capitol.

Well, I do admit to a certain bright side: this all may be good for Chicago. One day a new Chicago will be the old Chicago, the Chicago of the Columbian Exposition, the city of the future, that linked the country to the West. People will no longer compare us unfavorably to Los Angeles or New York. The city’s old farming hinterland of Illinois and Iowa may even have to take up some of the slack in California’s crop output, as California becomes dryer with less irrigated land. Yes, Chicago could be back on top. The problem is, unless we get stronger gun control laws, some other Midwest city may be there instead—like Indianapolis, Columbus, or God help us, Detroit. A few months ago, I was in Detroit and saw a T-shirt: “Detroit Against Everyone.” But everyone one day may have a change of mind about Detroit.

I know some say that they can never put up with the winters in any of these cities. But just as they assume life down there will stay at 115 to 120 degrees, so they think that winter up here will stay the same. They forget that winter, real winter, as we used to know it has already changed, and the day may come when winter in Chicago, or even in Duluth and Minneapolis and Omaha, is the best time of year. 

If we are doing everything wrong, what public policies should we have? We might consider two of the biggest wrong turns in our history. There were two moments when it would have been possible to guide development in the right direction. But we missed those chances.

In the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration talked about but did little to build the “greenbelt cities” that might have been alternatives to suburban sprawl. But the real tragedy was the failure to build public housing as the preferred alternative to single-family homes. The issue was on the table. In 1937-1938, during the so called “Roosevelt depression,” John Maynard Keynes was urging the president to pump-prime the economy with a massive public housing program. As described by David Kennedy in Freedom from Fear, there was a debate in the White House about whether to push for large-scale public housing or private home ownership through agencies like the Federal Housing Administration. It may seem foreordained that the New Deal opted mostly for the latter, but 1937-1938 was still a much more collectivist age. If this does not seem to fit the national character, remember that the New Deal was a project to reshape the national character, and partly did. Had Keynes won his argument with FDR, millions of us could now be living in the kind of upscale rental housing such as Vienna built in the 1920s, and which still exits, rent controlled and enticing, for people of all income classes. We would have had an alternative to suburban sprawl. We might have had a place to shelter from the coming storm.

The day may come when winter in Chicago, or even in Duluth and Minneapolis and Omaha, is the best time of year. 

In the 1970s, we came tantalizingly close to a national land-use policy. Senator Henry M. Jackson and Congressman Mo Udall were looking for the comprehensive law which would follow and pull together the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and above all, the National Environmental Policy Act. This burst of legislation happened because the Senate was not as easily hamstrung by the filibuster as it is today. Jackson, Udall, and much of Congress wanted a national policy for land use, which had always been under local control. In effect it was a national growth policy, or a policy where to put people, or more to the point, where not to put people over the coming years. Both Jackson’s and Udall’s bills provided for $800 million in grants (in 1974 dollars) to states to set up land-use planning, with some loose federal oversight. Critics said it would have led to tying up every acre of the state in red tape. But that might be better than what happened instead—another half century of suburban sprawl, with all the energy waste from highways, shopping malls, and McMansions. Jackson’s bill passed the Senate, but Udall’s failed in the House. What a tragedy! Had Congress acted, we might today have more arable land for farms instead of these empty malls. We might have had fewer local government authorities making a patchwork of short-sighted decisions. We might have banned single-family zoning. We might have had cities that were more compact and designed for easier public transportation. At least we might have kept people out of coastal areas and Western desert where they don’t belong. 

In the 1970s we still had time to save ourselves. Incredibly—or so it now seems—Congress did require, at least in 1972, that the president prepare a report on national growth policy. Sure enough, the Nixon administration produced, as required by law, a document entitled Report on National Growth. After it came out, Congressman Thomas (“Lud”) Ashley held hearings on it, and various experts picked it up. No, it was not enough, but it was astonishing that such a report, from a Republican president, even came out. I was working as a staff writer in 1972—at age twenty-three—at The New Republic. While everyone else in Washington was writing about Watergate, I was sure Nixon’s report on national growth policy was the big story of the year. I know I missed the Senate hearings, but I did read the transcripts. What I remember was the warning of witnesses about local governments, which were multiplying like rabbits and were a public nuisance. Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota gushed over the idea of national growth policy. His Southern colleague Senator J. William Fulbright made a joke of it. To needle Humphrey, he said, about Minnesota, “I have never understood why people choose to live there.” Perhaps it will soon be wondered why people would choose to live in Arkansas, Fulbright’s home state, or anywhere in the South.

Well, this did not turn out to be a bigger story than Watergate. But it was clear even in the 1970s that we had far too many local governments, including water districts, park districts, wetland districts, mosquito abatement districts, counties, and the very number of them would destroy any kind of land-use or national growth planning such as several countries in Europe in the 1970s were already doing. Jackson, Udall, and Humphrey are long departed, and we stopped thinking about the subject of land-use planning for fifty years.

Perhaps in the Upper Midwest, we are working our way back to this. This summer Minneapolis has been in the news for its affordable rental housing, which has brought the inflation in the city to just about 1 percent. To encourage such rental housing, the city has eliminated single-family zoning, and provided in recent years over $300 million in rental assistance and subsidies. Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Columbus, and Indianapolis, and yes, of course, Detroit should be doing the same. Their downtowns are reeling because of empty office buildings. We should fill them up. People are coming whether we like it or not. If I live long enough, I promise to welcome them.

I ask only that if they do come, they do it in union-made EVs. We want to be careful taking in people from all these right-to-work states.