ECONOMIC ANALYSIS: Parting thoughts on Indiana’s strengths, weaknesses

The nice thing about economics is that we never really figure anything out.

That hasn’t stopped folks like me from writing about economics and papers like this one from printing what we have to say. As I often have said to those who have remarked on these writings, nature abhors a vacuum.

Someone else will be filling that vacuum next week, because this is my last column-for Indiana readers, at least. I am happy to leave you in the capable hands of Michael Hicks, the new director of the Bureau of Business Research at Ball State University, who will take over this space while I ply my trade west of the Continental Divide. I recently joined the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

But that still gives me one last shot at solving all the problems and challenges facing the Indiana economy in the last few hundred words or so I have left.

That’s a joke, of course, but so is the idea that any one person stands at the helm of the ship, steering us all to safety or to ruin. It may be reassuring to think there are smart people someplace thinking very hard about how to make the economy stronger-and there are, of course-but in truth it is problem-solving at the micro level, in individual companies and even households, that gives the economy its spark.

And it is gratifying to see that problemsolving mind-set arriving in government in Indiana as well, even with its occasional setbacks. This governor may pay a political price for disturbing the comfort of a few tollbooth collectors, but the generations of Hoosiers who will enjoy more bang from the public buck should thank him.

Yet Indiana faces serious challenges in the coming years. Some of those challenges are at our doorstep right now. Economy.comconsiders Indiana to be one of four Midwestern states in recession.

That judgment is wrong, in my opinion. But the national economy has become more fragile of late, and the industrial sector isn’t done evolving yet. So we aren’t done with the seismic shifts in our economy that have caused so much worry.

As I leave Indiana, I see plenty of reason for optimism despite these challenges. Indiana has an outstanding business climate. We are a state that works in partnership with business. There is high-quality leadership in so many companies, in cities and state government, and in our universities.

But there are roadblocks to progress as well. The biggest one I see is our collective attitude toward education and training, by students and parents, and workers and managers. There is a strong, loud message coming from the labor market. It’s telling us that skills and training, and yes, college, are very, very important for earnings and economic security.

Yet too many of us have our heads in the sand. We don’t want our children to move away, or our workers to leave for better jobs. We treat education as a frivolous luxury instead of the vital building block it actually is. And individually and collectively we pay a price.

I’m not sure we’ll ever figure that problem out, either. But let’s never stop trying.

Barkey can be reached by e-mail at

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