Embracing fact over fiction about Indiana

This column is for Mr. W of Columbus, Mr. R in Terre Haute, and the many readers who see Indiana exclusively as a wonderful place. They believe, however, I tear Indiana down, not appreciating its glory.

Indiana is a wonderful place because it has the opportunity to build a better future. We do not suffer from the overwhelming burdens of poverty, ignorance and indolence that afflict many places in this world. Our problem is that we refuse to use our wealth, knowledge and energy to make our state and communities better.

Complacency is a public health hazard in Indiana. We suffer serious air and water pollution, decaying infrastructure, inadequate education, low quality public services, reactionary legislation based on superstition, all in fear that a step forward will upset the stagnation of our perceived equilibrium.

The posse seeking Hoosier heretics was distressed I did not trumpet the first place ranking of Indiana’s government by U.S. News and World Report. That Indiana could not achieve better than a mediocre rank in other measures did not faze them. A crumb of something good in a bog of bilge excites these readers.

Week after week, for more than 25 years, this column presents the facts about Indiana’s economy. Sadly, we live in times where facts are ignored if they do not reinforce commonly held fictions.

Indiana’s economy has been in trouble since the late 1970s. For too long we lived off the strength gained in the post-war era. That’s the post-Civil War era. It was an advantage of geography — the railroads of the north had to go through Indiana to get to Chicago and St. Louis. The southern rails had been destroyed by the war.

Similarly, after World War II, Indiana had the transportation routes and the industrial composition to enjoy unprecedented economic advantage. But we hit a wall in the mid-’60s and saw no major public or private investment after the Bethlehem Steel plant in Northwest Indiana.

Hoosiers were comfortable with income levels above the national average, so they took a nap for a decade. Then they could not wake up when the computer and energy revolutions of the ’70s gained momentum. We fought internal battles against property taxes, took steps to degrade cities and towns, and passed power to a state legislature obsessed with yesterday’s fantasies.

As we slid relative to other states, we resisted steps forward. We did not repeal a 1933 law that strangled bank expansion until 1983. We called it progress as we failed to find meaningful education reform. We were so confused about public finance, willy-nilly, we changed our constitution to cap property taxes.

Decay surrounds us. Population growth slows. Our children leave as rapidly as the jobs of their parents. Our location does not change, but our place among the states drifts downward.

Privately we lament our condition. Publicly, in our newspapers, on our TVs, we want to celebrate whatever we can, no matter how false, how insignificant, or how self-destructive.

Morton Marcus is an economist, writer and speaker who may be reached at [email protected].