Health Care and Banking & Finance and Government

TOM HARTON Commentary: The twins that hold us back

May 23, 2005

Stubbornness and stupidity are twins.

I've remembered that notion from Sophocles ever since a high school friend said it to a teacher as they argued about the way she'd scored his test.

He lost that fight, but went on to become a successful lawyer. I don't know what happened to the teacher, but I'm reminded of the phrase as I observe the decisions made by our elected representatives.

Two examples come to mind, one recent and the other long ago. In the early 1980s, our state legislators stubbornly-and stupidly-refused to modernize the state's banking laws while those all around us were deregulating the industry and positioning their financial institutions to swallow ours whole.

Legislation introduced as far back as the late 1960s would've allowed Indiana banks to operate across county lines or to acquire or be acquired by other Indiana banks. But our small-town banks feared extinction at the hands of the mighty Indianapolis banks-American Fletcher, Indiana National and Merchants-and for years succeeded in convincing the General Assembly to preserve the status quo.

By the time our banking laws were modernized in 1985, Indiana was one of only a handful of states that hadn't deregulated. While we fretted about the fortunes of our small banks, our biggest banks were being set up for takeover. A year later, the dominoes began to fall. By 1992, all three of the big local banks were counted among the assets of giant bank holding companies in neighboring states.

Infighting, reluctance to change and a general failure to appreciate the significance of what was going on all around us resulted in a migration of capital, brainpower and control across state lines.

Were we stubborn? Stupid? Call it what you will, but our failure to act cost us dearly.

Twenty years later, the issues are different, but we're still stubborn, still failing to note the prevailing winds and anticipate their consequences.

While states and municipalities around us move to protect public health, our City-County Council endlessly debated and then weakened an ordinance that would, in its original form, have prohibited smoking in all bars and restaurants.

Tobacco regions-Lexington, Ky., and more recently the entire state of Georgia-are among those who've raced ahead of us on this issue. They were able to set aside their historical bias and grasp the payoff: better health, lives saved and health care spending reduced.

Our officials can't make that leap. They go to bat for mom-and-pop bar owners and the right of the minority to engage in their addiction to the detriment of the majority. They shrug at the scientific community's findings on the dangers of secondhand smoke and choose not to believe the reports that businesses survive, and sometimes thrive, where bans are in place.

The stubborn can't make the distinction between what some call the "nanny state," a government that protects us from ourselves (think laws that require seat belts and motorcycle helmets) and good government, that which protects us from others who would do us harm.

What's worse, they don't recognize that this train has left the station. Smoking bans are here to stay. As more places pass them, the public standard-and expectation-for eating and drinking establishments is evolving. Cities that cling to the past won't live up to that expectation and will be seen, accurately, as change-averse and unhealthy.

For the greater good, the City-County Council should pass a strong ban that treats all businesses the same. As it is, we're on the verge of being handed a law that regulates some but not others. For ban proponents, it's better than nothing, but the weakened law won't clear the air or the council's long-term agenda. The issue's sure to return until the council-probably not this one-takes a stronger stand.

Stubbornness and stupidity foiled our banking industry when deregulation was called for. Now they're an obstacle when regulation is the cure for what science and public opinion say ails us. Stubbornness and stupidity transcend political ideology, and they're too often with us when the tough decisions are made.
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