The Outstater

July 1, 2022

SOME YEARS AGO I witnessed the rarest of phenomenon — a politician admitting he was wrong. The former mayor of my Indiana town, a Democrat who had been faced with an economic crisis in the closing of an auto manufacturing plant, told me privately he would do things differently now. Republicans should listen to him.

The mayor was one of the first here to turn away from the so-called rust-belt industries toward the high-tech ones. Silicon Valley was all the talk then and our city invested heavily in a sexy-on-paper start-up. It lost a million bucks, which was big money back then and something of a civic scandal (we still had functioning newspapers).

What the mayor would have done instead was promote Indiana’s home-grown workforce of skilled machinists, men and women with family values and a strong work ethic. “We could have become the Switzerland of America,” he said.

That was before Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence perfected what came to be called “press-release economics.” They discovered that you don’t have to agonize about whether an economic prospect is genuine or fits Indiana’s workforce or infrastructure. You don’t even have to worry about costs to future taxpayers. Just get a deal signed and a press release mailed.

Do I simplify? Maybe, but not much. The GOP establishment has adopted this strategy as its new mercantilism. Eric Holcomb took it global with trips to China and Europe. Indiana’s economic policy seems to be to replace workers here with workers from somewhere, anywhere else.

It is no accident that Indiana is not mentioned in Joel Kotkin’s article, “Heartland Manufacturing Renaissance: Why Middle America is poised to lead an industrial comeback.”

A former columnist for the New York Times, Kotkin is the author of several books on the subject. He stresses supporting the middle class and families with traditional suburban development, which may explain why he is a former columnist for the New York Times.

He is particularly impressed with our neighbor to the east. It turns out that Ohio went in the direction that my Democrat mayor had suggested decades before. “The technology may be new,” Kotkin says, “but what’s drawing these manufacturers to Ohio is something more traditional: its central location, business-friendly atmosphere and long-standing industrial culture.”

He notes that Ohio is listed in the leading group of states for the fastest industrial growth. Indiana is not.

The manager of an Ohio-based maker of natural-gas compressors that employs 1,400 in little Mount Vernon is quoted saying this: “We are still at the edge of the farming areas, and people have a strong work ethic. People here think building stuff is better than selling insurance. On a decent salary, you can live a good life in central Ohio.”

If that makes sense to you, it is discouraging that the leading and only Republican candidate for Indiana governor is a master of that ersatz press-release economics. He is considered an expert in developing urban properties with other people’s money, applying a formula of public-private partnerships that has the hapless taxpayers as the “public” part and special interests as the “private” part.

Moreover, he was director of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation at the time that similar Ohio institutions were outstripping us. And a point scored by Ohio promoters during that time was that Indiana retained a tax on business property, a tax the GOP gubernatorial candidate has fought to maintain.

Again, discouraging.

Yes, the candidate himself sees it differently. “I have spent the last decade focused on tackling Indiana’s greatest challenges and implementing conservative solutions that get real results for the people of Indiana,” he said in his campaign kick-off last month.

You’ll have to make up your own mind whether his campaign is sincere or merely more of the same, whether it will lead to a midwest manufacturing renaissance. Me, I’m trying to talk my old mayor into making a run for it. — tcl


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