Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Germany Accelerates Change in its "Rust Belt"

John Austin, thechicagocouncil.org

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Both the United States and Germany are seeing evolving economies in their respective “rust belts,” formerly robust engines of the industrial era. Both countries are developing strategies to address the challenges the regions are facing. But while President Trump’s approach tries to bring back the past, Germany is focused on accelerating change so the region will thrive in the future.

“Here we are proud of our industrial history; we are the hard workers that drove our nation’s economy forward after World War II.”

I could have been in Flint or Detroit, Michigan. Instead I was hearing from the local manager of a new startup and innovation hub deep in the “Ruhrgebiet” – Germany’s coal and steel region, once home to heavy industry and twin to our nation’s “rust belt.”

As part of a Public Diplomacy [JB emphasis] Visitors program sponsored by the German government, I joined an international delegation to examine Germany’s approach to structural change. I was struck by two realities: How similar are the economies and cultures of our industrial regions; and how divergent are the countries’ approaches to dealing with similar dynamics of economic dislocation and change.

In parts of former East Germany, and the Ruhr industrial belt in the West—just like here at home in America’s industrial Midwest—there is great cultural pride in being the economic engines of our countries; places where a middle-class life was afforded through manual labor and hard work. These regions are home to communities where workers were treated as heroes, and labor unions were strong.

Today many parallels remain. There certainly is nostalgia in both our Midwest and many German communities for the days of humming mills, mines, factories and bustling communities. They are both ground zero for the current political debate about the role of migrants and immigrants: On the one hand welcoming immigrants for much needed new talent, population, enterprise and community revitalization; on the other hand, places where many residents are responsive to fear-mongering about a more diverse and changing polity and culture.

But the approaches to deal with today’s transformations are dramatically different. While in the United States there is increasing talk and concern about ameliorating our growing regional economic disparities, the Germans are running plans to do something about it, aided by a more politically durable and aggressive commitment to “balance” growth—emanating from their Constitution. ...

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