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EYE ON THE PIE: Can we handle Obama's truth?

April 21, 2008

This is not a political endorsement. It is, however, a cry of outrage that a candidate for president is attacked for speaking the truth.

Barack Obama has been quoted as saying, "You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And it's not surprising then [that local residents] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

This is a brilliant description of what is certainly true of places in the Midwest where I have traveled in the past quartercentury. Obama did not sugar-coat the story. He told it as it is, as most local politicians would not dare.

Then along comes Sen. Hillary Clinton, who ignores the reality of these remarks and goes on to accuse Obama of attacking people of faith. Worse, the media labels Obama's words a "bungle." Nonsense. The senator from Illinois knows exactly what is happening.

Manufacturing jobs that gave citizens good wages also provided identities to hundreds of towns. "This is the place where they make ABC or FGH." I was proud of a Ford meter box from Wabash in a sidewalk of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Folks from Bedford take pride in their limestone contributions to buildings and monuments nationwide. We don't forget that CDs come from Terre Haute. We know that Hoosier steel and its many transformations are vital to cars, trucks, homes and offices. Shelbyville residents remind you that Old Hickory furniture originates in their town. Who can separate Columbus and Cummins? New Castle sees itself as the abandoned child of Chrysler, while Kokomo prays it does not suffer the same fate.

Much of our struggle as a state is our mental distress. Just as it was finally sinking in that Indiana was not a farm state, we started to think our pre-eminence in manufacturing was ending. There are still Hoosiers, in and out of the General Assembly, who do not see that manufacturing is the heart of our past 100 years and the essential core of our next century.

Part of the problem is that RCA quit Marion and Bloomington, that General Motors and General Electric have cut back their Indiana production facilities. But we don't understand how the state is advancing in the essence of manufacturing: the embodiment of human knowledge into material goods.

People working with BioCrossroads or the Indiana Health Industry Forum know what is going on. Thousands of Hoosiers are finding ways to transform what we know about biology and chemistry into products that help protect humanity from disease and debilitation. This is manufacturing.

Most communities now understand the need to attract new firms and to retain existing manufacturing facilities. Few, however, are prepared to assist existing companies in the necessary migration to new approaches.

This is more than job training for line workers. Indiana's success depends on reassessing ourselves rather than blaming external forces. Owners, executives and managers need to see where their old ways are proven paths to failure in the marketplace. They have to understand how to thrive in tomorrow's world.

If we are to escape the sad reality pictured so accurately by Obama, Indiana must embrace its highest aspirations, rather than settling for the malignancy of mediocrity.



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. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.
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