Economic downturns have a way of shaking up the way we understand our place in history. One day we're making plans for the future, thinking about all the opportunities before us. Then pfffft. Suddenly, we're grateful for whatever we can get.
The latest meltdown, ironically labeled the "great" recession, is still making itself felt in the form of high structural unemployment, meaning the increasing sense that, this time, it seems likely whole categories of jobs may never come back.
Recessions, of course, come and go. They are built into our economic DNA. I graduated from college in the 1970s. Having grown up during the go-go '60s, I suppose I thought that progress was a given, that life was like an escalator always headed up. So I went to a liberal arts college and majored in English.
A recession hit about the time I was ready to graduate. It was a doozy. They called it "stagflation," a gnarly term meant to suggest the double whammy of high unemployment and high inflation. Oil prices spiked and the American steel industry, once an engine of our economy, would never be the same.
Needless to say, it was a lousy time to be looking for a job with a liberal arts degree.
I took whatever came my way — from unloading trucks to painting people's apartments, trimming hedges and answering phones. I was beginning to wonder if my education would ever be put to use.
Then I found out about CETA. The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act was a federal program that made workers available to nonprofit organizations for 12-24 months.
In my case, this meant being assigned a job as a reading specialist in a public high school. I tutored kids who were reading at or below a third-grade level; I also created texts for these students to read. If you're 16 years old, it can be embarrassing to have to navigate your way through a little kid's book. A large part of my job involved writing things older kids would actually want to try to read.
CETA didn't just put me to work. It actually provided a way for me to use my education in a meaningful way.
I was reminded of my CETA experience the other day when I ran across an essay by a sociologist named Salvatore Babones entitled, "To End the Jobs Recession, Invest an Extra $20 Billion in Public Education." Babones points out that while the Great Recession was declared over in 2009, its deleterious impact on American employment continues. In public education alone, over 306,000 jobs have been cut across the country, with more layoffs expected.
The problem, Babones writes, isn't a lack of money, it is where the money is going.
He points out that, in the name of jobs protection, Congress is trying to preserve funding for the M1 tank. But the Army reportedly doesn't want these tanks anymore and has half its existing fleet in mothballs.
Each tank costs $8 million to produce at a plant in Lima, Ohio. That plant, according to Reuters, employs 920 people. About half the plant's output is devoted to making tanks.
But Babones quotes a University of Massachusetts study that shows that every dollar spent on education creates more than twice as many jobs than a dollar spent on defense. According to Babones, that $8 million being spent on a tank that Defense News reports the Army doesn't want could be creating 122 direct education jobs. Indeed, Lima's Shawnee Township public schools, which educate over 6,700 kids a year, maintain 949 jobs on an annual budget of $73 million — or the cost of about nine tanks. "Schools are an investment," Babones writes, "tanks are an expense."
Babones argues that if the government wants to create an effective jobs program, public schools provide a ready arena that can use the help. I would go even further and suggest that now, when so many of us seem determined to try and reinvent our schools, we should also be trying to involve college graduates with liberal arts degrees in these efforts.
For the first time, people are beginning to question the worth of a college degree. Sure, if you major in engineering, accounting, business or computer science, a degree is great. But this reduces the college experience to a glorified trade school. Worse, it belittles learning in those fields that help us better understand ourselves as individuals and as members of a larger community.
If a history major dreams of being a barista, fine. But maybe that person would like to put what they've learned about research and writing, critical thinking and analysis to work in service to the next generation — in a public school. "These jobs are better than shovel-ready," writes Babones. "Everything needed to productively employ these people is already in place: the administrative systems, the facilities, the books, the students, everything."
Too often, we think of our schools as a problem. In fact, they could be a solution encompassing generations. Schools can not only be about educating kids, they can be centers where we make the most of the educated people we already have.
So Indianapolis is $65 million in the hole. Our mayor, who got himself elected by running against taxes and crime, now finds himself in the awkward position of trying to fill a big hole in the city's budget without looking like ... well, like a guy who's just been hit in the face with a reality pie.
So what does he do? Among other things, he backtracks on a promise he made to give cops and firefighters raises. Oh, and it looks like there won't be a new class of recruits joining the police force in the next 12 months because the city can't afford to pay them.
The Indianapolis police force is already understaffed. Last year we added park police to the rolls so we could make our numbers look better than what they actually were. As current cops retire or quit for greener pastures, the number of officers patrolling our neighborhoods is likely to decrease.
You've heard of the thin blue line? It's getting thinner in Indianapolis.
But don't worry about that. Think of this as an opportunity. Indianapolis is known for its volunteer spirit, so go out and buy yourself a gun. Or two. Or three.
What else are we supposed to do? If, like me, you've been trying to make sense of the national hemming and hawing about the most recent spate of gun violence — shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin and Texas, not to mention the daily death toll piling up in Chicago — it seems the course of action being recommended to everyday, law-abiding citizens is to head for the nearest gun store so that all of us can start amassing our own personal arsenals.
Apparently what went wrong at that movie theater in Colorado or that Sikh temple in Milwaukee was that no one in either of these places was packing heat. In the case of that shooter in Texas — one of his victims was a cop, so we can forget about that. You've heard about how, sometimes, an exception proves a rule? Just think of what happened in Texas as one of those times.
America is so smitten with guns that, rather than talking about what we should be doing about guns, the American media has spent weeks now talking about how we can't talk about guns anymore. Joe Klein wrote a cover story in Time called "How the Gun Won." I read it because I wanted to know how this happened. But Klein's title was misleading. It turns out Klein is as flummoxed as any of the rest us unarmed folks. He sees Americans killing each other with guns at a mind-boggling rate. He sees us accepting this as business as usual. But as to how we got here — your guess is as good as his.
Personally, I think our love affair with guns has to do with our national obsession with youth. When I was a kid I loved nothing better than to play what we simply called "guns." Every boy I knew owned a box full of toy guns: Fanner 50s and faux .45s, plastic M-16s and takka-takka Tommy guns. We whiled away the hours, happily slaughtering each other in backyards and vacant lots.
A large part of our economy is dedicated to congratulating young people on their lack of age. And if you aren't young yourself, there is a never-ending stream of products designed to make you think of this as nothing but an oversight, a trick of the light.
America itself might be thought of as a kind of adolescent country, oversized and moody. The way we elect politicians from the left and right, you'd think our national voice was constantly changing. We want things simple and direct. We love our heroes and hate our villains.
So guns make sense to us, I guess. The rich may be getting richer and the poor poorer. The middle class may be getting screwed. Perhaps you find yourself with a college degree in philosophy — good luck with that! — grateful to be making the minimum wage.
But if you have a gun, it doesn't matter how old you are or how poor or misguided. You have an answer for any question or slight.
This, at any rate, seems to be the message we're now getting about guns. Gun control laws don't work. Owning them is a right, since each of us apparently counts as our own militia. Any attempt to constrain the sale or use of guns equals a certain step toward tyranny.
Since Indiana has become known as a gun salesman to the rest of the nation (and parts of Mexico), it follows then that Indianapolis is better prepared than most cities to deal with a shrinking police force. Neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, household by household, let the guns bristle! Make weapons training part of the school curriculum, the way driver's ed used to be. Let boys and girls compete to see who can be the best shot.
Our streets will be safe because no one in their right mind will want to step outdoors.
And if the mayor needs to raise revenues, he can put a tax on ammunition.
I had my eyes opened last week.
My wife and I and a couple of friends went on a road trip. We started in Michigan City, Ind., and drove up the Michigan coast to the point where Lake Michigan meets another of the Great Lakes, Huron, at the Straits of Mackinac.
Those of us living in Central Indiana can easily forget that part of this state's northern edge is bordered by an inland sea. For us, the Indiana landscape tends to be flat, all the better for planting acre-upon-acre of corn and soybeans. Most of our water comes from rivers and streams, or manmade reservoirs and wells.
It's no wonder, then, that so many of us, upon first laying eyes on Lake Michigan, are liable to blurt out something to the effect that this sure doesn't feel like Indiana.
Lake Michigan gets its name from the Ojibwa Indians; it is believed to be a derivation of mishigami, or great water. The lake has a surface area of 22,400 square miles, making it the fifth largest lake in the world, and the most expansive to be found entirely within one country. Its deepest point is 923 feet and it offers 1,640 miles of shoreline.
Our friends, being new to the area, had thought they could drive around the lake — it was just a lake, after all — in an afternoon. They got as far as the suburbs north of Chicago before realizing they were overmatched.
I, on the other hand, spent a large part of my growing up on Lake Michigan beaches. I'd seen 12 and 14-foot waves, heard the stories about shipwrecks. I thought I understood something about the lake's scale. But I had never seen the lake from its uppermost point. This was a revelation.
In Central Indiana, when we want to feel a sense of space, we tend to look up. The sky provides us with evidence of something more expansive than ourselves. On Lake Michigan, you not only look up, you look out. The sheer vastness of it, the distance to the horizon, where the water meets the sky, is breathtaking.
At the Straits of Mackinac, where an elegant suspension bridge connects the northern tip of Michigan's mitten with the Upper Peninsula, you experience this by looking either west, across Lake Michigan, or east toward Lake Huron. On the map, this point looks like a punctuation mark. Maps, though, often bear little resemblance to the landscapes they are meant to describe. In person, the magnitude of the strait is at once humbling and exhilarating. It can change the way you think about being a Midwesterner.
The most beautiful view we found was from atop a 400-foot bluff along the Sleeping Bear Dunes, about a 30-minute drive west of Traverse City. The day we were there, sunlight turned the lake into massive bands of aquamarine and indigo. On the beach at Sleeping Bear Point, looking out to the islands of North and South Manitou, the rocks were rounded smooth and the bright, clear water shimmered around our ankles.
The lake, of course, is not only a wonderful spiritual presence. It is a valuable resource. As Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers told Forbes magazine's Ken Silverstein last May, "Water is the new oil." If those of us living in Central Indiana didn't know this before, we do now. This summer's historic drought has underscored the dependence of our state's way of life on its water supply.
As Silverstein wrote: "Energy production is water-intensive and the vast supplies that are needed to run every type of power plant — natural gas, coal, nuclear and renewables — is not well understood." According to the World Policy Institute, coal-and-oil-fired power plants, like the ones we are so reliant upon in Indiana, consume twice the water of gas-fired facilities, but use less water than nuclear plants. Corn-based bio-fuels like ethanol consume greater amounts of water than drilling for traditional oil.
It's no wonder there's a large coal-burning plant beside the harbor in Michigan City. Or that oil giant BP has one of the nation's largest oil refineries located on the lake in Whiting, Ind.
On July 25, the Save the Dunes Foundation posted an alert to the effect that Enbridge, a multinational oil pipeline company, is preparing to expand existing oil pipelines in Indiana in order to move tar sands oil from Canada to BP's Whiting refinery. Save the Dunes has requested public support for a hearing in order to learn how the State of Indiana plans to monitor and regulate this work, which will run across the Lake Michigan watershed. To learn more about this project, go to savedunes.org.
It behooves Hoosiers, in whatever part of the state they live, to think of Lake Michigan as part of who they are. It's our freshwater legacy, something that helps give shape to an understanding of what it means to be from this part of the Midwest.
But it may also prove to be our state's most important asset. How we treat Lake Michigan, and whether we are willing to stand up for its health and preservation, could determine what kind of state Indiana will be for years to come.
What does it take to turn a skeptic into a believer? In the case of Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the answer is research.
Muller had pooh-poohed the claims of other scientists about climate change. In fact, his climate change skepticism was so robust he attracted the support of the infamous Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, bankrolled by the right-wing billionaire, which reinforced Muller's skepticism through grant-funding.
But, to his credit, Muller's interest in learning about life on earth trumped his opinions and, along with a team of researchers, he ran the numbers on what's been happening to the earth's temperature over the past 250 years. "I concluded that global warming was real," wrote Muller last week in the New York Times, "and that prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I'm now going a step further," he added. "Humans are almost entirely the cause."
Bravo, Professor Muller. It may have taken you awhile to get with the hundreds of other scientists who have found that evidence of the human impact on our climate is beyond a reasonable doubt, but, once the evidence was coughed up in a way you could appreciate, you were willing to change your mind. That's a step in the right direction.
But this column isn't about climate change. It's about the arts. That's right, the arts.
Americans For the Arts has been studying the economic impact the arts have on communities. They traveled around the country and crunched numbers in 182 regions to learn how the arts business affects the places where it lives.
I call it the arts "business," because business is what it is. Yes, the arts that were the focus of this research operate in what we call the "not-for-profit" sector of the economy. But that doesn't mean they don't provide people with jobs, or that the ripple effect they create doesn't put money in the pockets of a host of other workers, from parking lot attendants to bartenders.
According to the Americans for the Arts research, the Indianapolis nonprofit arts and culture industry generated $384,244,432 in total expenditures in 2010. It supported 13,136 jobs.
These are serious numbers, particularly when you consider that this city's annual budget for arts support is a comparatively paltry $1.3 million.
Like the vast majority of scientists who have been warning us about climate change, many of us so-called "arts supporters" have been waving our hands and jumping up and down about the positive impact public investment in the arts brings to Indianapolis. We've talked about how every dollar spent for the arts generates even more dollars that get translated into revenue for state and local government, as well as local businesses and, last but not least, the workers who actually make dances and plays and paintings.
This positive return on investment has existed for years. As a matter of fact, I wrote about it when Americans for the Arts released its last economic impact study in the pre-recession year of 2005, when the numbers were even better.
The trouble is, the people who make policy around here either ignore these numbers, or flat-out deny them. This is odd, since these people are supposed to be trying to find cost-effective ways to spend public money. Ways, that is, that bring Indianapolis the biggest bang for its buck.
These are the people now stumping for Indianapolis to host another Super Bowl. Man, oh, man, they say, that Super Bowl was the best. Indianapolis looked great on national TV. The talking heads on ESPN raved about our walkable Downtown, and it was a blast seeing celebrities like Lance Bass and Alyssa Milano — if that's who they were — outside Buca di Beppo. How major league can you get?
Look, if it takes a Super Bowl to get the city to finally address a previously neglected neighborhood like East 10th Street, that is truly great. If throwing another Super Bowl in 2018 gets us something like a halfway decent public transit system, I'm all for it.
In the end, though, according to The Indianapolis Star, the Super Bowl actually lost the city $1.3 million — the equivalent, ironically, of what it allocates for the arts.
This, however, is not a problem. "It's not just numbers, it's the city's brand," said Ann Lathrop, president of the Capital Improvement Board. She told WISH-TV that the loss still managed to be "a pretty good return on investment."
OK, fine. I guess you have to spend money to make money — or maybe that's lose money. Whatever.
The thing is, year after year, in study after study, research shows that the arts return more on investment than almost anything else we spend our money on. This fact, however, has not prevented Indianapolis from investing less in the arts than almost any other city of comparable size in the nation.
When it comes to the arts, Indianapolis is like those people who keep saying climate change is just a myth. How much longer will we deny the research before we do something that actually makes things better?
Read more about the Arts & Economic Prosperity IV study at .AmericansForTheArts.org.