Half Past the Month: The Ficus Syndrome

August 12, 2013

When a corporate chain bought our home-owned newspaper many years ago it undertook a renovation of the office space. New carpet was put down. Potted plants were sat around — lots of them.

The carpeting, though, succumbed to a mold that persists in these parts. Nor did the potted plants, a variety of Ficus, do well in Indiana light, dropping a few yellowed leaves every week until they stood almost bare — pathetic sentinels of our corporate occupiers.

Apparently, little thought had been given to what might fit here or even survive here. It was assumed that whatever was in Indiana would be improved by importation.

This came to be referred to as the Ficus Syndrome. It played out in editorial and news decisions. Circulation dropped as steadily as the Ficus leaves, and long before the Internet. This, sadly, was accepted by the staff as progress, an acceptance that revealed a Hoosier character flaw.

In the years after Indiana’s derogation as a “Rust Bowl” the state developed an inferiority complex. Hoosiers became resigned that some expert needed to tell them they needed to be like someone else, in any other somewhere else.

We now read that our large state schools are increasing the percentage of out-of-state and even out-of-country applicants accepted. And the mayor of Indianapolis recently proclaimed, “When people around the world think of cricket, I want them to think of Indianapolis.” Subsequent news reports mentioned — ominously to the underemployed among us — attracting “talented overseas workers” by offering them a home for their favorite game.

The trouble, as Popeye would say, is we “am what we am.” The solutions from the coasts (or from half way around the world) never quite work here. The somewhere-else boosters eventually give up on us. They retire to wherever they found so admirable, complaining to the neighbor across the Camellia shrub that the rubes back home would never listen.

It is as if Hoosier leaders have decided they can no longer work with the Hoosier citizenry. They seem determined to replace us with a more agreeable, more appreciative, even prettier citizenry — a civic divorce, if you will.

Our membership does not need to be told that this runs counter to our governing philosophy not just since the Declaration of Independence but since the Middle Ages, e.g., before Edward the Confessor. Regardless of the actual or supposed genius of our kings, the governments of Western Civilization are expected to reflect at least generally the desires of their subjects.

If modern leadership were sincere it would be a simple matter for it to determine what public services citizens need and are willing to fund. Any of Indiana’s private marketing service could get that done. It is our guess that the list would not include cricket or a hundred other pet projects bouncing around inside officialdom these days.

If, though, international cricket entrepreneurs and the like wish to privately direct funds here, our officials should stand ready to help. No tax money (including cleverly constructed tax increment financing, rebates, tax credits or bond assurances) should be involved. Building infrastructure in the hope that it will evolve into an international or even regional market hub is a risky proposition far removed from core government function.

Some states understand all of this. They are, surprising to the geographically bigoted, in the Great Plains, a section of the country where fancy government and grandiose economic development are as scarce as cricket matches.

For starters, public schools there are not union-dominated; that is, they are organized to teach students rather than hire teachers. Consequently, all graduates are expected to be ready for college. Joel Kotkin, writing in the Daily Beast, reports that the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas have among the highest graduation rates in the country. North Dakota ranks third and Minnesota fourth (after Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts) in the percentage of residents between 25 and 34 with college degrees.

So, they do all this without fancy tax-financed investment schemes or big-time consulting firms. They merely capitalize on a natural resource — themselves. Here is Kotkin with a defining anecdote from Fargo, N.D., the Hollywood epitome for nowhere:

“Doug Burgum, from nearby Arthur, N.D., founded Great Plains Software (in Fargo) in the mid-1980s. Burgum says he saw potential in the engineering grads pumped out by North Dakota State University, many of whom worked in Fargo’s large and expanding specialty-farm-equipment industry. ‘My business strategy is to be close to the source of supply,’ says Burgum.”

Indiana, please know, is a wonderful place full of wonderful people with wonderful ideas and an admirable work ethic. They would be better served, though, and might have a chance to survive this economic crisis, if their legislators, college administrators and even mayors could quit acting as if they were an embarrassment.

Think of it as the cure for the Ficus Syndrome.



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