Two Countries, Two Red and White Flags, One Trade Deal?

“I don’t even know what street Canada is on,” Al Capone once said. But Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, is determined to make sure he puts Canada on the map with one key global power: Japan.

Map courtesy of

If he accomplishes his goal, it could have ramifications for the automobile industry, agriculture and the Midwest in general.

Harper opened negotiations this weekend with Japan on a free trade agreement. Negotiators were careful to caution against any quick resolution, because it can take years to negotiate such deals, and Japan isn’t known for speedy decision making.

But, a Canada-Japan trade agreement would join one between Japan and Mexico — and leave the United States as the only North American country without one.  Continue reading “Two Countries, Two Red and White Flags, One Trade Deal?”

4 Things The Japanese Earthquake Taught The Midwest

Mt. Fuji, as seen from the bullet train/photo by Micki Maynard

A year ago, people in the Midwest were realizing the damage that the massive earthquake and tsunami had done to Japan. And, while the region affected by the earthquake is starting its long recovery, everyone here has learned some permanent lessons.

1) We are all connected. To borrow a phrase from the Symphony of Science, the earthquake on the coast of Japan reminded us of how closely linked everyone is on earth. The earthquake disrupted parts and vehicle production for automakers overseas and in the United States for months — and had a significant impact on the Midwest.

In the Midwest, our Niala Boodhoo found that 160,000 people in the Great Lakes states worked directly for Japanese based companies. She reported on the impact for Morning Edition.

All across the region, companies, charities and even chefs stepped forward to help people affected by the disasters in Japan, sending everything from portable toilets to gas tanks and of course, cash. At Takashi, in Chicago, an all-star team of restaurant owners from around the city stepped up to cook a meal whose proceeds benefited the American Red Cross.  Continue reading “4 Things The Japanese Earthquake Taught The Midwest”

Happy Birthday, Industrial Robot: 50th Anniversary of Unimate

Here at Changing Gears, we can’t let 2011 go by without marking a revolutionary anniversary.  Fifty years ago, in 1961, GM installed the first industrial robot.  It altered the course of manufacturing forever. Unimate was a robotic arm that unloaded hot pieces of die-cast metal.  Joseph Engelberger, known as “the father of robotics,” saw the invention as a way to replace dangerous, dull and dirty jobs.

Unimate actually had two fathers – George C. Devol, who died in August at age 99, and Engelberger, who is still alive.  Back in 1966 Engelberger joined Unimate on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, where he (the robot) sank a putt and opened a can of beer.  We were struck by the wonder of that moment, the enthusiasm for the power of automation.  Chrysler and Ford followed GM’s lead, but it was Japan that fully embraced the new robotics.

Midwest Memo: Budget Cuts Concern Chicago Aldermen, Japanese Currency Adjustment Angers Michigan Contingent

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Chicago aldermen send Emanuel letter. Saying proposed Chicago budget cuts would hurt public safety and quality of life, a majority of the city’s 50 aldermen have called for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to alter his 2012 city budget. Our partner station WBEZ reports that 28 aldermen signed a letter that said the cuts would cause too many layoffs at city libraries, close too many mental health clinics and endanger public safety. Also, the letter stated they have “reservations” about the doubling of fees for city parking stickers for SUVs.

2. Projected layoffs drop across U.S. After planned layoffs across the U.S. hit a 28-month high in September, they dropped 63 percent to 42,759 in October, according to a new report. Government and financial sectors keyed the rebound, said outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. But “the two sectors are not out of the woods, by any means,” John Challenger, CEO, tells the Chicago Tribune. Employers have announced a total of 521,823 planned layoffs so far this year, a jump of 16 percent from 2010. The report comes in advance of Friday’s October jobs report from the federal government.

3. Michigan Senator Slams Currency Adjustment. U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and a trade group that represents Detroit automakers criticized a decision by the Japanese government to lower the value of the yen. “Currency manipulation gives other countries an anti-competitive advantage and directly translates to lost American jobs, especially in Michigan,” Stabenow told the Detroit News. The automotive trade group that the move, the third this year, essentially subsidizes Japanese exports to the United States while weakening U.S. exports to Japan.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder Courts Asian Investment in Energy, Battery Development

Throughout his economic development trip to Asia, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has had an unlikely ally.

Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander.

The sure-fire Cy Young award winner isn’t actually traveling with the governor – he’s busy helping the Tigers contend for the American League pennant. But Snyder has been chatting about Verlander and his team’s success with his Japanese counterparts before meetings turn to the subject of bringing business investment to Michigan. He’s been giving gifts of Detroit Tigers hats.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

“I presented several of them to different people today,” he tells “I gave one to the Japanese commissioner of baseball. And they love the Tigers. They know all about Verlander and how the season’s going.”

Will Snyder and his entourage find similar success on his overseas visit? The Detroit Free Press reports Wayne County officials are pitching a 1,000-acre site that straddles Plymouth and Northville ownships to battery suppliers in hopes of creating a “cluster of high-tech battery makers and suppliers” in western Wayne County.

“There’s a lot of emphasis this trip on battery development and energy,” Robert Ficano, the county’s CEO, told the newspaper.

Snyder sold the virtues of a revamped tax structure to his Japanese hosts on Sunday and Monday, saying it has made Michigan’s business climate friendlier to outside investment, and that a two-year balanced budget has increased the state’s fiscal stability.

Continue reading “Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder Courts Asian Investment in Energy, Battery Development”

Lessons Learned From The Japanese Earthquake

It’s been five months since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The human toll from the disaster has been well documented, along with the ongoing nuclear safety issues. And, Japan is seeing a food safety issue, as well.

As I reported back in March, the economic ties between Japan and the Midwest are strong. Governors from Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota are attending the 43rd annual joint meeting of the Midwest U.S. – Japan Association in Tokyo next month, the Japan External Trade Organization reported in its most recent newsletter.

Just a few miles inland from Japan's coastline, months after the disaster (Kasper Nybo via Flickr Creative Commons)

Most recent manufacturing output data shows that the U.S. auto industry has been able to bounce back from disruptions because of the earthquake, Reuters reports.

But it’s not just the auto industry. Also in the JETRO newsletter: the story of healthcare giant Abbott Laboratories, which has its global headquarters just north of Chicago, and how it dealt with the earthquake. Continue reading “Lessons Learned From The Japanese Earthquake”

Midwest Memo: Cook County’s Foreclosure Crisis, and How a Debt Default Could Affect Michigan

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Cook County’s foreclosure crisis. Despite proclamations that the recession is over, officials in Cook County, Illinois are nonetheless concerned about the 70,000 outstanding foreclosure cases within their borders. They held an emergency summit Thursday to discuss possible responses, according to our partner station WBEZ. Community organizer Leon Finney says the group will consider “home-ownership counseling, tighter bank regulations and stronger courts.”

2. Debt concerns reach Michigan. The state of Michigan receives approximately $400 million per week in federal funds, receipts that make up 44 percent of its $45 billion budget. John Nixon, the state’s budget director, isn’t sure how Michigan will continue to make payments next week if the federal government defaults, according to the Associated Press. Gov. Rick Snyder is concerned. “We’re prepared for a number of scenarios,” he told the AP.

3. Japanese manufacturing rises. Japanese manufacturing activity, which has strong ties to the Midwest economy in the U.S., saw activity increase at the fastest pace since the March nuclear disaster in July, according to Reuters. The Markit/JMMA index rose to a seasonally adjusted 52.1 in July, up from 50.7 in June. It’s the third straight month the manufacturing sector expanded, and an expert says if the trend is sustained, it will be “a vote of confidence in the economic outlook.” Earlier this year, Changing Gears examined the ripple effects of the Japanese economy throughout the Midwest.

Midwest Memo: Monday, May 16, 2011

Rahm Emanuel's inauguration as Chicago's newest mayor is today. Photo by Micki Maynard.

It’s inauguration day for Chicago’s newest mayor, Rahm Emanuel. His predecessor, Richard M. Daley took his last walk out of City Hall on Friday. WBEZ Chicago took a look this morning at Emanuel’s campaign fundraising technique, his personal side and his political side. It also looked back at the best and worst moments in Chicago’s mayoral inaugurations,  and wondered how long Emanuel’s honeymoon period will last.

One group of industrial Chicagoans is hoping to put the cities vacant industrial buildings to good use through aquaponic farms — or indoor fish farms. But current zoning law prevents these fish farms from really taking off.

Continue reading “Midwest Memo: Monday, May 16, 2011”

Chicago Chefs Gather for Japan

Monday night is usually chefs’ night off. But this week, a flock of Chicago’s top chefs worked on their day off to support Japan.

Takashi Yagihashi, back to camera, supervises his chef-crowded kitchen.

There was so much fire power in the kitchen, and on the restaurant floor, that one guest called it “a meal cooked by the 1927 Yankees.”

The Chicago benefit dinner took place at Takashi, a modern Asian restaurant in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. It is owned by Takashi Yagihashi, a Japanese native who Detroiters will remember as the executive chef at Tribute. Within hours of hearing about the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Takashi decided to hold a benefit dinner.

Continue reading “Chicago Chefs Gather for Japan”

Japan’s Economic Ripples and the Midwest

It’s been more than a week since Japan was ravaged by the first of a series of earthquakes as well as a tsunami. The harm from those natural disasters is still unfolding, as the world watches what happens to several damaged nuclear reactors in Japan. But in the Midwest, companies are trying to figure out what the events in the island nation will mean for businesses here.

Caterpillar headquarters, Peoria Journal-Star

Continue reading “Japan’s Economic Ripples and the Midwest”