EYE ON THE PIE: Writers require clarity or risk calamity

May 15, 2006

Last night, I had a dream. I was standing on the ledge of a tall building. People down below were shouting, "Jump!" They were angry because they thought I misrepresented the various and diverse meal-delivery programs in Indiana in my column last week.

One woman was yelling, "You're trying to take away my job!" "No," I tried to explain. I was just saying that such programs should be coordinated better and that no oversight agency exists to monitor not-for-profit agencies. But my words were not reaching her.

A man cried out, "Know something about a subject before you write about it." His intensity made my knees buckle. A friend in the crowd was throwing cookies up to me, but I could not seem to catch them.

"They're good facts," she appeared to say, although I could not hear her words.

I woke, as you might imagine, humbled by my experience. My simple message had opened wounds and touched nerves I did not know existed. While I do not suspect major malfeasance, I would suggest that this and other programs to serve the most needy among us deserve more than casual attention by the philanthropic community.

Which brings us to another program about which I expect to have nightmares: "Indiana's Strategic Economic Development Plan." This is a well-written document with many good, specific ideas, but with a "vision" that is useless and unnecessary.

To be "with it," the authors have chosen numeric goals. What they want is "to meet the national average in per-capita income and average annual wages by 2020." Incorrectly, the report states that, "This goal may not seem particularly bold or aggressive." To the contrary, it is a very bold goal and aggressive to the point of being hostile.

Any goal that extends beyond the expected life of an administration, shall we say 2012 in this case, is fantasy. It is a challenge to successors without assuming responsibility for itself. If this administration has goals, let them state those goals in terms that are measurable within the time frame of its tenure. Let's have ways to see if the administration is doing what it intends to do.

For Indiana to reach the national level of per-capita income by 2020, we would have to grow an average of 4.7 percent per year. This would exceed our 3.8-percent growth rate of the past 10 years. It would also better the nation's growth rate of 4.1 percent over the last decade. In fact, only three states had a 4.7-percent average annual rate in the past 10 years. These are Wyoming, Massachusetts and South Dakota.

Do you know why these three states look good in terms of per-capita income growth? They were among the slowest-growing states in terms of population (0.5 percent in a nation growing at 1.1 percent). If we could just get more non-earning or low-earning Hoosiers to leave the state, we, too, could do well in per-capita income growth.

Let's try this: If Indiana is to catch the nation by 2020, then by 2010, our percapita income would need to be $39,576, or 94.4 percent of the national figure. We would need to make some adjustment for inflation, but that can be done later. By midyear 2012, we should have those 2010 figures from the federal government. Then we can tell if this state administration is on track.

The goals in the rest of the strategy deserve to be made more explicit. This is an exciting plan worthy of immediate reconsideration rather than hasty attempts at imprecise implementation. Otherwise the authors, if they are still around, will be out on the ledge with me facing an angry crowd.

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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