MARCUS: Grandson learns facts of Hoosier life

December 5, 2009

My grandson, Nathaniel, recently had his first birthday. Soon thereafter, I took him to a doughnut shop to teach him the facts of life. If he is to become an adult Hoosier, there are things he must learn.

With sugary icing on his little fingers, he gave me that smile that softens the most curmudgeonly of senior citizens. I, however, would not be deterred from my course.

“Young man,” I said, “you may not understand all I say to you today, but you will recall and value my words in the future.” Nate continued to smile.

“Soon,” I went on, “the Indiana General Assembly will meet. They are our representatives in state government. They are not our voices. They are elected to do what is right for our state, even (and particularly) if we do not have the willingness to do it ourselves.”

Nate reached for a jelly-filled doughnut with strawberry icing. After an initial exploration, this caloric bomb exploded and I wiped up the debris. He then went for a plain cake doughnut and I proceeded.

“You will hear,” I said, “that the Legislature wants to cut taxes, particularly property taxes. Your task as a citizen is to ask, why? What services will you reduce? If no services are to be cut, where will you get the money to keep them operating? If you need no offsetting revenue, how would you change government operations?

“These questions will make you unpopular and disqualify you for public office. The greatest uproar will come from asking, why? You will be told that Indiana’s taxes are too high, that old people are suffering and losing their homes because of our inequitable tax policies. Maybe no one can name any such old people, but that is beside the point. In politics, claims do not have to be substantiated. Fear, not fact, stimulates action.”

This was the moment Nate decided to demonstrate how he plays the bongos. With both hands, he struck the tray of his high chair in a series of complex rhythmic motions. I grabbed his hot chocolate and looked about to see if others were enjoying the concert as much as I was.

“Yes, my little friend,” I said. “Your generation will have its hands full of goo left over from the legislative sessions of my generation. Each year, these 150 good men and women meet in Indianapolis and leave a web of conflicting, unstructured instructions (laws) that no self-respecting spider would weave.

“They talk of reform, but they never achieve simplification. They pontificate about fairness and set up complex practices that are discriminatory in favor of this group here and that group there.”

Nate made a face. I could not tell if he was in agreement with me or had to burp. Unfazed, I went on. “The worst of it is that they believe in their own wisdom and superior morality. In their eyes, no local government, no school corporation, no library district, not at the city, town or county level, is their equal. That is why, in each legislative session, the powers of these “lesser” governments are reduced. There is no trust in or respect for local democratic institutions.

“At the same time, our state government officials complain bitterly about the restrictions and measures of accountability required by the federal government. Because localities cannot meet their own needs from their own revenue sources, they must depend on the largess of higher-level governments. The result of being treated as incompetent is childish behavior at the local level.”

Nate gave me a thoughtful look. “The problems we face together through government are serious and complex. Often, only a few people know enough to resolve them. Yet we cannot marginalize those who are closest to the problems.”

Nate now was sending signals to my eyes and nose that told me our conversation was over.•

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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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