EYE ON THE PIE: It’s time for Indiana to come clean

Keywords Government

“How are you doing?” Ed asks in a voice that for years has called out over the grind of the machinery that applies water, soap and heated air to thousands of cars.

“Well,” I say.

“Nice,” Ed says. “It’s nice to be doing well. It’s what a lot of folks wish they were doing in Indiana,” he says, chuckling.

“I’m not aware of new serious problems,” I say.

“No, you wouldn’t be, since you can afford one of my car washes in August,” Ed says, winking. “But more and more Hoosiers are thinking about how they spend their money. They’re worried they won’t have the money to spend tomorrow.”

“Oh,” I manage to say before Ed says, “Right. These things don’t get noticed much since they happen slowly. For example, I was reading that the number of jobs in Indiana fell by 1 percent from 2000 to 2007, while the population grew by 4.4 percent. What’s happening that we’re losing jobs and gaining people?”

“You … ” I try to form a sentence, but Ed says, “And listen to this: The average pay per job in Indiana (after you adjust for rising prices) went up only $186 over those seven years. Our pay slipped from 28th-highest in the nation (which isn’t so hot) to 34th among the states (which is even less hot).”

“It’s a long-term issue,” I manage to blurt out. “And your comparison is between the high point of the last business cycle and what may have been the low point of this one.”

“True, true,” Ed says. “We have heard it all before. The decline of the automotive industry and the need to move into other things like bio-this and life-that. But it takes time, and ordinary people don’t know how it’s going to happen or what it’s going to mean for them.”

“Look,” he continues. “I read that Indiana’s growth in GDP (which is the value of everything we make or services we sell) grew by just 6.8 percent in the past seven years. That’s the third-slowest rate in the United States. Aren’t people right to be worried?”

“Sure,” I say. “It’s just that … ”

“Just what?” Ed demands. “Are we dumber than people elsewhere? Are we lazier? Or is it that we just don’t care about ourselves and our communities?”

“Well … ”

He doesn’t let me reply. “I don’t believe it, any of it. I’ll tell you what I think. I think we get distracted. We let ourselves get wrapped up in property taxes instead of thinking about how the money is spent. We build a massive, expensive football stadium that most Hoosiers can’t afford to get into. In the state Legislature, we fight over prayer rather than good deeds.”

“It’s possible,” I say, looking to see how far along my car is by now.

“You can’t expect government to do much about the problem,” Ed says. “The politicians haven’t much more vision than the people who elect them. I say, send all the high school seniors somewhere and tell them to come back home with reports on what makes elsewhere better or worse than where they live. Don’t let it be a vacation. Make it a real school assignment. If adults don’t have imagination and energy, let’s enlist the kids.”

“And how are we going to finance that?” I ask.

Ed spies my car coming off the line and smiles. “Maybe,” he says, “we could save some money and wash our own cars.”

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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