The ‘State of the County’

January 28, 2013

(For the use of the membership only)

Members of our coffee group decided that if we were going to change Washington and the nation, we must start with the local leadership. On envelopes and napkins, then, we jotted down what could be called a “State of the County” address — for any county, anywhere in Indiana.

Generally, there is a yearning for local leaders who can be trusted to advance a theme rather than the issue of the moment, who will eschew that oh-so-cleverly crafted phrase that some political pro  guarantees will win the plum of office. We need men and women who will speak for their community rather than for their own re-election.

Please know that our county (and perhaps your county) has a proud history of opportunity. Ours is where the fort was built that opened the West to settlement. It became a breadbasket and manufacturing center soon afterward, welcoming newcomers as equals. We began with the farmers of the Palatine Immigration and continued with brawny Irish railroad men, resourceful Macedonian merchants and now hard-working Hispanic entrepreneurs. It is a place where myriad inventions have sprung to reality — so many that we joked that it was in the water.

Not anymore. Trust in our political leadership has faded as that historic sense of opportunity was replaced by officially nurtured dependency. We are now bankrupt in the trust department, no longer certain that government will afford us the freedom that opportunity requires.

Somebody in our local public life needs to say that. More importantly, they need to build a political apparatus around it. They need to select precinct leaders and recruit candidates who will be true to it and proactively work for it rather than stand passively by in feudal loyalty.

What’s at stake? What does it cost if this trust cannot be restored, at least here at the grassroots?

Public Safety

The rush for pistols, ammunition and permits has more to do with personal protection than with any appreciation of the wisdom behind the Second Amendment.

David Mamet, the playwright, wraps up the point nicely:

“The police do not exist to protect the individual. They exist to cordon off the crime scene and attempt to apprehend the criminal. We individuals are guaranteed by the Constitution the right to self-defense. This right is not the government’s to ‘award’ us. They have never been granted it.”

Great numbers of law-abiding citizens in our county have come to the reasonable conclusion that the local police cannot protect them from a society gone sour. They are arming themselves to the teeth.

Local law enforcement says it is surprised. Really? Any mature, aware person, especially one trying to raise children to adulthood, cannot be but horrified at the dreamy ideas coming out of the ruling class.

We listen carefully to our mayor, the social worker and gun-control activist, explain how he imagines life works for us regular folk — and government’s role in it all. He talks as if we had not lived through five dysfunctional decades of socially re-engineered families, schools and communities, and the psychopathy that came with it. He agonizes over the root causes of it all. He is a stranger to us.

The man down the street, a 65-year-old father of three, as middle-class as they come, has within his circle of immediate friends these statistics:

The man down the street doesn’t know what the mayor is talking about. He carries a loaded, licensed, concealed semi-automatic pistol every day.

The Tax System

An economist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation recently examined what happens when citizens lose trust in their government. Specifically, she wondered what happens when citizens turn against a tax-collection system like ours that is essentially voluntary, one where comprehensive enforcement is impractical at current rates of compliance.

For a picture of what that looks like, visit any of a half-dozen Central and South American countries. Note the big lottery system and the hyperactive black market. Our local government is not nimble enough to take that kind of revenue hit. We could not protect ourselves from the federal and state usurpations that would follow.

One in our group remembers how his father would declare every penny of taxable income, whether or not his accountant considered it necessary. Few people do that these days. They don’t like — or respect — their government that much.

Democratic Institutions

Politicians in America (the Kennedys exempted) have treated the electoral process with a respect that approaches the sacred. This is changing, for as we lost trust in our politicians to make the right decisions in office, the political professionals seem to have lost trust in us to make the right decision at the polls.

Voting irregularities unheard of two decades ago are now common, especially in the high-density, one-party urban centers where the votes of low-information citizens are bought with massive government entitlements.

As a young Senate aide working on the El Salvador elections in the early 1980s, I learned how difficult it is to guarantee an honest election. The international experts we consulted considered America an anomaly. A trusting relationship between our citizens and their government allowed us to take for granted something as precious — and rare — as free, fair elections.

But we expect those irregularities to begin appearing in our county. Nobody here has confidence that our officials will find the courage to deflect the accusations of the class war to protect our electoral system.

Economic “Development”

The journalist at our coffee table, an editor, has attended two separate “grand opening” ribbon-cuttings featuring the governor and assorted dignitaries at the same still-abandoned factory. That, sadly, is testimony to the boosterish enthusiasm for cookie-cutter economic-development programs that have swept our county and the state.

This press-release economics has held sway even as the local economy failed and as independent economists offered documented skepticism that simple rebate and grant programs, not to mention publicly financed convention centers, hotels and sports facilities, are ineffective ways to attract investment and jobs at the local level.

So the local political pressure to “do something” about jobs, combined with a general ignorance about how productive investment is attracted, has produced dozens of Potemkin villages throughout the city and county.

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce here and various vested interests put their faith — or their professed faith — in officially inspired and directed wealth generation. It is what the economist at our table describes as neo-mercantilism, a policy school that has not held sway since Shakespeare was writing.

Those here who have serious business expertise, the corporate managers and MBAs, are only placeholders in key civic posts, padding resumes until their next assignment. They may or may not understand our plight. Whatever, they are not here to upset the natives.

The publisher of the local chain newspapers, for example, deftly plays every public debate as if it were a sporting event between two morally and factually equal sides. They are not so equal, and, as a result, our public discussion is frozen.

The outvoted conservatives (née classical liberals) in our local political party don’t trust the governing moderates (née Tories). The governing moderates expect ambush by the outvoted conservatives. Neither trusts government to provide necessary services in any logical priority. Nobody feels confident in raising the difficult issues — precisely the ones that must be aired before problems can be anticipated or their solutions widely accepted.

So we wait for the next crisis and choose from a list of bad alternatives. The important decisions have already been made by fiat in some bureaucrat’s office, if they have been made at all.

All of this may just be the obvious stated. Even so, nobody is stepping forward with an idea on how to fix any of it, with an idea how our little community can function absent basic civic trust.

The members of our coffee group are discouraged — rationally so. All politics isn’t local anymore. The state of the county is not good. We are out of ideas on how we can change (persuade, influence, move) even the long-serving chairman of our county political party, let alone our powerful and distant state senator.

The ideologues, though — the city-hall tyrants, the crony capitalists, the progressive editors and the small-town totalitarians — are not discouraged. They have ideas  — plenty of them. Indeed, that is all we hear about.

— Craig Ladwig



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