Nearly 80 years ago, a couple of sociologists wrote a book about Muncie called "Middletown," detailing one Midwestern city's struggle with change -- moving from 19th-century agriculture to 20th-century industrialization. Now, that 20th-century-style industry is disappearing, and The Associated Press visits Muncie to see how residents are coping with the transition to the 21st-century global economy. Predictably, change is just as unsettling as always:
It is the bitterness of the times, not just the cynicism of the politicians, that is souring people on politics.
"If you want to grow and flourish in a flat world, you better learn to change and align yourself with it."
Those words glow from a projection screen on the second floor of the Ball State University library, where Tatiana A. Kolovou is clapping her hands far too joyfully for an 8:30 a.m. seminar on culture shock in the workplace. The quote is from Thomas Friedman's seminal book on globalization in the 21st century, "The World is Flat," and Kolovou's audience is entranced.
She is a Greek immigrant and newly minted U.S. citizen who consults with businesses about how to prepare employees for a "flat" world, where once-dominant America is competing against rising nations on an increasingly level playing field.
"You must know how to interact with other people around the world and other places because we're no longer isolated in our little personal cocoons _ our families, our towns, our counties, our country," Kolovou tells two dozen Ball State staff. "We are a small part of a global community, like it or not."
In other words, the world is getting smaller ... so get over it. Hers is not a lesson about how to outpace the Chinese and other global competitors, but rather how to work with them: Don't be loud, don't be rude, and don't crowd them.
Don't fight it, people. Be a good global citizen _ or else.
The world is getting smaller, so get over it. The global economy is as much an unstoppable force as the industrial revolution. We can learn to deal with it or be destroyed by it. We need to be smart about what we can and can't do and be serious about things like education and retraining. High-paying, low-skill jobs are not coming back, no matter what the pandering political class says.
Beware of candidates -- Clinton, Obama -- who say they can stem the tide by denying reality with protectionist policies that will only make matters worse. Beware of candidates -- McCain -- who confess they don't know much about the economy and seem most interested in military answers. War was the past. Trade is the future.
This comes near the end of the AP story: "Leadership that offers honesty and inspiration, that shields us from foreign threats, that fixes problems and evens the economic playing field. Is that not what we crave today?" That may be what we crave, but we shouldn't expect it to be delivered, any more than it was during the agricultural-industrial changeover. A politician who is honest won't promise to protect us from foreign threats. One who is inspirational won't pretend to be able to fix all the problems and level the playing field.