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EYE ON THE PIE: Indiana being stamped with wrong image

January 14, 2008

Blessed be our friends at the U.S. Postal Service. They do a great job of collecting and distributing the mail. They face strong competition from private carriers and from the Internet, but they continue to serve the public well.

Then, too, USPS always looks for new ways to honor America and Americans through the issuance of new stamps. If a particular series catches on, they can make a pretty penny by selling stamps that are never used. That's why USPS is going to issue a new series featuring state flags.

That's nice. But have you seen the design for the Indiana stamp? In addition to the blue and gold state flag, there will be, in the words of the USPS, "an everyday scene or activity." And what is that "everyday scene or activity" for the Indiana stamp? It is a farm tractor pulling a chisel plow through a field with a cityscape in the distance.

How did this happen? Did the governor's office sign off on this? Which of our U.S. senators or representatives let this get through committee? Or does USPS do these things without consultation with the states involved?

Does Arizona want to be represented by a cactus? Is Illinois best depicted by an oldfashioned windmill? Maybe Iowa still wants to be known for its corn and Kansas for its barns. But should Hoosiers feel comfortable with a farm scene?

How long will it take to escape the myth that Indiana is a farm state? It is a tale told to perpetuate the interests of a few at the expense of the many. It provides comfort for those who do not want to face today and would rather withdraw behind the heavy curtains of yesterday.

In 2006, agriculture-including farm support services, forestry and fishing-was just 1.1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the nation's economy. In this state, agriculture was 0.9 percent of our economy. Agriculture was more important in 31 states than it was in Indiana.

The Hoosier state hosts the nation's 15th-largest economy, but only the 28thlargest agricultural sector. Indiana's share of U.S. agriculture has declined from 2.0 percent in 1997 to 1.4 percent in 2006. This is because our agricultural sector (adjusted for inflation) had a 3.2-percent average annual rate of change, while the nation advanced 3.5 percent between 1997 and 2006. Our growth rate in agriculture was the 10th-slowest of the 50 states.

Yes, agriculture is important to Indiana because it brings in money from the rest of the nation and the world. But let's not overdo it.

Remember that special benefits for farmers continue to distort investment in this state. For example, farmland is assessed differently than any other type of land. This is done not to prevent urban sprawl, but to subsidize the owners of farmland, who may not be farmers. In addition, governments are heavily involved in subsidizing ethanol plants, not for the benefit of the environment, but for the benefit of corn farmers.

A better representation of Indiana would be from manufacturing, which is 33.4 percent of Indiana's GDP, compared with just 15.6 percent in the country as a whole. We rank first in the nation for specializing in manufacturing.

It's time to stop perpetuating nostalgia and to begin advancing a vision of progress. If you were to pick a scene representing Indiana's preparation for tomorrow, what would it be? Let me know your choice at mmarcus@ibj.com.


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.
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