The Outstater: ‘Canute, a Man for Our Times’

August 22, 2012

We all know there’s been a shift in political posture from vision to reality. Hard times do that. The question, though, is whether your councilman or legislator will make the turn.

Most sitting Hoosier politicians, Republican or Democrat, were elected on “the vision thing,” as George H. Bush once called it. Now they’re trying mightily to learn this new “reality thing.” The transformation can be awkward.

For example, legislators are being urged to consider a college funding formula that rewards higher graduation rates (the vision thing). There is the real possibility, however, that they will inadvertently encourage lower standards (the reality thing).

Here’s a memo from a college official that crossed my desk yesterday:

“If the formula goes through and our student graduation metrics don’t change, (the college) may lose up to $11 million in state support. The formula rewards graduating more students, in four years, from disadvantaged groups, and in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. Various proposals at all levels of the university are being discussed to ensure that students graduate in four years. Students need to take at least 15 credits every semester and may lose federal financial aid (along with their colleges, incidentally) if they do not stay on track.”

This is exactly the type of issue that trips up the visionary. He’s not in the habit of thinking through a problem clear to its unintended consequences. Ergo the conclusion: If there aren’t enough students graduating maybe we should give their colleges more money to graduate them.

The scholars of our foundation, who may or may not be smarter than the typical legislator, are practiced at thinking through problems (if only to find additional problems). They can confidently predict, though, that college administrators faced with losing millions of dollars will figure out a way to muzzle the faculty and dumb down the curriculum.

Here’s another example. My city council recently took on the challenge of economic development (the vision thing). It isn’t working; specifically, tax abatements have proved intractable (the reality thing).

The councilmen, most of them elected as visionaries, are having trouble squaring that. They lack modern economic principles. For instance, they want to tighten the rules awarding abatements but don’t know how to say — or are unwilling to say — that wealth cannot be created by fiat, not at least since the reign of the Tudors.

So the council seems on the verge of making it illegal for a business to fail or for the economy to worsen — yes, like King Canute ordering the tide to recede.

Only the truth is that the great Viking was trying to make the opposite point. He sat on his thrown at water’s edge to demonstrate that kings — governments — can’t simply command things like tides and economies.

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” he pronounced as the waves mocked his order. “For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey.”

That makes a good model for the new politician.

— Craig Ladwig


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