Opinion and Notions

HETRICK: Hey, material girls and guys, Uncle Sam needs you!

September 11, 2010

Many years ago, I sat in the director’s office at the Indiana Department of Commerce.

I’d come to interview my friend and client David Perlini about the future of Indiana’s economy. We talked about our state’s strengths and weaknesses, its need to diversify, its prowess in foreign trade, and the importance of creating more service-sector jobs.

Still, David said, “If people ever stop buying SUVs and pickups, we’re screwed.”

Back in those days, before they saw the error of their ways and moved to Zionsville, my parents retired to Tucson, Ariz. My brother Bryan and his family lived there, too.

So, for vacations and holidays (especially in the winter!), my wife and I—and sometimes our sons—would fly to Tucson. My parents would pick us up at the airport and drive us to their home in the foothills overlooking the city.

During our visits, we got out and about a lot—in Tucson and Phoenix. En route to dinner by night or shopping by day, we invariably found ourselves on the endless grid of surface streets. Mile after mile, block after block, it all looked the same.

Sitting by the back-seat window en route to some restaurant or another, I stared out at the neon lights of countless commercial enterprises:

Hotel, motel, burgers, chicken, tacos, Italian, car repair, carpet cleaning, custom framing, tailor.

Vacuum repair, pool cleaning, cycling, skydiving, tours, clothing, shoes, lighting, housewares, kitchens, appliances, electronics, furniture.

Movies, museums, magazines, books, readings, girls, girls, girls, groceries, doughnuts, drugs, doctors, toys, gas.

I marveled at the materialism. I pondered a place where no one seemed to manufacture much—where the visible commerce was providing goods and services to one another.

And I wondered if David had it wrong about the SUVs and the wonders of the service economy.

I wondered what would happen if, someday, we started fending for ourselves instead of hiring others.

If we decided to live simply instead of living large.

If we saved more and splurged less.

Ate in instead of dining out.

Stayed home instead of traveling.

Played Scrabble instead of seeing plays.

Listened to has-beens’ albums instead of attending has-beens’ concerts.

In other words, what if we found ourselves—of mood, choice or circumstance—focused on necessities instead of niceties?

Would our economy creep and crawl?

Would the housing business collapse?

Would the auto industry ache?

Would businesses close?

Would others get by with less?

Would unemployment rise?

Would tax coffers dwindle?

Would demand for services grow?

Would our malaise multiply?

Would that make matters worse?

Are we there yet?

(Yes.)

In our polarized, point-the-finger, shift-the-blame society, we search for scapegoats and saviors.

We blame Bush for digging the hole.

We blame Obama for too much stimulus or not enough stimulus (depending on your point of view) to help us climb out.

We demand less government, but cringe when shrinking government raises unemployment, threatens our favorite officeholder, or reduces our preferred services.

We march for smaller deficits, but demand prolonged wars and extended tax cuts that leave deficits looming larger.

We offer incentives for local jobs, then buy from faraway firms with better deals we find online.

The guy who can get us out of this mess is not the guy in the Statehouse or the White House. It’s the guy in your house.

The woman who can get us out of this isn’t your friendly neighborhood congresswoman. It’s the woman in the mirror.

The confidence we need is not in Washington, but in one another.

So, come on. Let’s give it a go. This is all about attitude. The more business you do with me, the more business I’ll do with you.

You go first.•

__________

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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