I could see she was mad when I walked in the coffee shop. State representative Roberta Righteous was adding packet after packet of sugar substitute to her extra large macho mocha.
As I sat down with my cup of regular, she blurted, "Your column last week was another cruel attack on the General Assembly. All criticism, all sarcasm, but no constructive suggestions for progress."
"You want constructive ideas," I said, "I'll give you some.
"First, Indiana abandons partisan redistricting. When the 2010 census results come in, a non-partisan, independent commission is empowered to set congressional and legislative district boundaries. Both Iowa and Washington have moved in this direction with some success.
"It won't work," Roberta muttered.
"Second," I continued, "stop trying to do everything and start doing just a few things well. For example, direct more resources to high school education and forget about allday kindergarten. High schools are the most important institutions in every community.
"High schools with good academic records attract and retain population. Some say, 'Start with the child early.' I say that high schoolers are role models for younger children. A 14-year-old with a book will have a different influence in the neighborhood than that same youth with a knife or gun. If high schoolers are thugs, people don't want to live and invest in that community. We cannot afford to wait until kindergarten children graduate from high school to turn our communities around. High schools are the proper starting point."
"Never happen," Roberta laughed. "Too many competing interests. How about highways, prisons, health care, the environment and dozens of other important issues?"
"Focus," I said. "When resources are limited, put your money where it will do the most good. I believe that better-educated young people will contribute to stronger families and offer a better payoff sooner than spending for any other purpose."
Roberta looked me squarely in the eyes and said, "You have no idea how the Legislature works. We refuse to admit that Indiana taxes are low. We dribble away money and squander time on useless causes. Partisan bickering is our specialty; ego enhancement is our chief preoccupation; re-election is our fulltime obsession."
"Careful," I warned. "You're starting to sound like me."
She blushed. "All right, what else would you do?"
"Third, the existing population of 25- to 54-year-olds is critical to the state's future. Help these people become more successful. Transform Ivy Tech into a true community college system and let it no longer be a remedial institution. If you do not have the prerequisite skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, you go to adult education classes at the local high school, not at Ivy Tech, or any branch of IU or Purdue. Ivy Tech stops passing unqualified people because it is their 'second or last chance.' Ivy Tech becomes a place for adding to success and redirecting energies."
"Are you kidding?" Roberta asked. "Ivy Tech has been not only the employer of last resort for legislators, it has been one of the major construction boons for every district in the state. No one is concerned about their academic programs, only about their bricks and boondoggles."
"It's time for a change," I said with a total lack of originality.
"Anything else?" Roberta asked to leave.
"Yes," I said. "The state should use whatever extra funds it gets from new slot machine locations to buy the Chicago Cubs. Leave them in Chicago, but recognize that they are our spiritual cousins. We identify with their hopes and suffering. We commiserate with their futility. Buying the Cubs would give us a common, external point of reference."
"And this is what you call a constructive program?" Roberta huffed as she turned her back and left me with my coffee.
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. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.