A letter to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb

Governor Holcomb,

Everyone said when Mike Pence began his term as Governor he had some huge shoes to fill left by Mitch Daniels. I think that was true, but I also believe you have an even bigger set of shoes to don now that Mr. Pence has left the State House.

I appreciate your work so far as Governor. We’ve met on a couple of occasions, once in your office (I was there to take photos at an event). For the first time in a while, Hoosiers think the state the is on the right track. I’m here to implore you to take your work to the next level so Indiana can leapfrog competing states.

We know from the Indiana Chamber, among others, that Indiana’s universities are powerhouses in STEM fields. Indiana’s high school graduation rate is nation-leading. Our logistics and agriculture businesses are firing on all cylinders. Tech is flourishing at a rapid pace in Indianapolis. But we also know that migration isn’t increasing. We’re barely treading water in net migration. Let’s be honest: most people don’t want to live in Indiana.

That might be because of work or family obligations elsewhere. But we know from places like Hamilton County and Kokomo that jobs follow people, not necessarily the other way around.

Let’s be honest about another point: Americans across the country think poorly of Indiana. People think Hoosiers are friendly, but not very bright. People believe that we’re too religious to a fault, too socially conservative, and incapable of being open to new ideas and societal changes.

Does everyone believe that? Of course not. Is this all a bad thing? Not necessarily. Does it matter what other people think of us? Maybe not, but net migration is significant. I think you get my point: Indiana has a severe image problem. Our brand is tarnished. People are voting with their feet and leaving for elsewhere.

If Indiana’s goal is to attract a new, modern, educated workforce, it starts with you. If we do a quick market analysis we’ll find there’s a niche not being filled by any state: “Affordable, but progressive.”

I’m not talking progressive politics in taxation or regulation. That would undo the “affordable” part, wouldn’t it? Indiana, under your leadership, can be the nation’s leader in affordability and be noticed for being truly socially welcoming, free, and contemporary. Colorado almost had this clinched, and that’s worked well for them, but their affordability is getting out of hand.

Indiana can embrace LGBT rights, responsible marijuana and alcohol laws, urbanism in its cities and towns, technology, parks, place-making, and so much more to make communities great places to live. There has to be more than just being a place to work. Like Governor Daniels said, “We have to build the best sandbox in the country.” We’ve built the sandbox, but there aren’t many sand castles yet.

Some work will require legislation. Others are simpler, like seeing you at next year’s Indy Pride festival. Your remarks on Indiana’s alcohol laws are promising, but we can’t be seen playing catch-up from a century of lousy laws.

We don’t have the best weather or significant natural landmarks like mountains or many beaches. But there’s no reason Indiana can’t have the cultural and inspirational leadership of Washington or New York and the affordability and business climate to compete with Texas. It’s a differentiation no one else is making. Will it make some people here uncomfortable? You bet. Will it be better for Indiana in 20 years? Absolutely.

I think you know that. You can set that tone for everyone to see and recognize. The House and Senate trust you, and so do most Hoosiers, to lead Indiana’s brand to the next level.

Sincerely,

 

 

Justin Harter, Indianapolis

Trump’s Brain in a Vat

There’s a philosophical argument dubbed “The Brain in a Vat”. If I can oversimplify it, the brain in a vat argument asks you to imagine the possibility that your brain is hooked up to a computer (like the Borg!). This computer can simulate all that we encounter in the world, including your body. The question goes: If you can’t be sure that you’re not hooked up to a computer, then you can’t rule out the possibility that all your beliefs are false, can you? In meme terms, “You can’t be a God-fearing Christian with a love of classical music if there is no God and music!”

That would all be very comforting to a lot of people right now. My Trump-supporting Facebook friends have gone dark over the last couple of weeks. Most have turned to non-issues like the removal of confederate monuments as a proxy for their character beliefs. My left-leaning Facebook friends are frothing at the mouth over this impeachment talk like it’s their first orgasm all over again.

It’s bad enough that I almost opened LinkedIn. It’s that bad.

The problem with impeachment is three-fold. First, it’s likely to take a very long time. People conveniently forget government works slow and the gears at the Bureau of Bureaucracy aren’t designed to work fast. The Nixon-era Watergate scandal took two years or more to fully play out. In that time the midterm elections happened and Republicans lost big and continued to do so. In 1974, Republicans lost 49 seats in the House 3 months into Gerald Ford’s term. I’m not sure what it would take for Republicans to move to impeach Trump and remove him from office, but I doubt they’re there yet. Remember, the Constitution only calls two items specifically and one broadly as impeachable offenses: “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors”. The last part is up to Congress to define.

The second impeachment problem is people think impeachment is removal from office. It isn’t. Impeachment is like indictments for mortals – it just means charges have been raised against you. Removal from office is a whole other process. Trump could be impeached and remain in office in the current environment.

The third issue is a Theseus paradox. If you replace all of the components of an object, is it still fundamentally the same object? In other words, if you replace Trump with Pence, is it still the same White House? With exception of a few close aides, it’s hard to imagine Pence replacing the entire cabinet. Jeff Sessions would still probably be sitting there. It’s not hard to argue that the current state of affairs is bad for the country, but it’s also bad for getting things done domestically. In some ways, we have a blissful moment of inaction because Trump is so mired in scandals all the time. Pence is much more adept at handling and deflecting that. He could move legislation.

Eric Holcomb may be the second coming of Mitch Daniels

Mitch Daniels’ long shadow over Indiana politics doesn’t seem stunted by Mike Pence’s cloud of gloom. Now that Eric Holcomb seems to be firmly in the middle of his first legislative session, he’s hitting all the right notes to say that he’s nothing like his immediate predecessor.

Holcomb seems to be skating right around social issues that consumed Mike Pence in a flaming blaze best reserved for the most fabulous attendees at Indy Pride.

Today alone Holcomb has reversed Pence’s dumb decisions on a bunch of stuff. He issued a pardon for Keith Cooper; a man arrested nearly two decades ago for a crime everyone now recognizes he did not commit. It was also a campaign promise. Pence ignored that, along with every other duty of his office, while he was off pretending to look Vice Presidential.

Holcomb also announced a disaster declaration for East Chicago around their water-contaminated Superfund site, which by itself doesn’t do much yet. But he did ask the Mayor there for a report of what’s needed, and the disaster declaration frees up parts of the Bureau of Bureaucracy to make things happen faster. The order currently prioritizes moving people out the contaminated area.

Holcomb has also suspended a contract with Agile Networks and the Indiana Finance Authority, a move that Pence thought would bring a real boat full of money to the state to pay for his Bicentennial projects through leased wireless towers in state parks for rural Internet coverage. That, of course, didn’t happen, just like everyone said it wouldn’t. Some people operate in reality and not blind faith.

Holcomb has also expressed support for double-tracking the South Shore line in northern Indiana. Trains! I wouldn’t be surprised if Holcomb doesn’t fear buses either! And he’s clearly open to expanding needle exchanges in an attempt to do something, anything, more than what Pence’s “I’ll pray for you” approach was to drug abuse.

It’s almost like Holcomb’s not masquerading as Governor to someday become President.

If today is any indication, Eric Holcomb is going to be a conservative with a slight libertarian angle to him like Mitch Daniels. I know for a lot of people that brings a sense of dread, but there are Republicans, and there are Republicans and Daniels – and hopefully Holcomb – are the former.

I have not been shy about my support for Daniels over the years. Yeah, we got Daylight Saving Time out of it, but lest we forget Indiana was doing relatively well overall. We were reducing expenses, balancing budgets, got our first AAA bond rating (which saves state and local governments millions in financing costs), and we were most improved in state efficiency, environmental permits, job growth, and – come on people – do we remember what the BMV was like? Have you tried going to a motor vehicle department anywhere else?

A lot of low-hanging fruit was picked between 2004 and 2012. Maybe Holcomb can find the stuff that Pence missed – and he missed a lot.

Mike Pence is not “Indiana nice”

I’ve always heard this claim about the Midwest being “Midwest nice.” More locally, “Hoosier hospitality” and “Indiana nice” might as well be on our license plates. But then a guy like Mike Pence comes along, and he’s just not a very nice man. He seems downright mean.

My grandmother used to say some people “had a lot of meanness in ‘em.” No one was safe from her scorn – Democrat, Republican, young, old, didn’t matter. Her litmus test seemed to be if you caused someone harm, damage, or were otherwise uncouth, you were mean. I feel the same way about Mike Pence. More broadly, it’s starting to feel that way about the entire Republican party.

When Pence was still Governor, I began to realize why a generation of people had begun to shift to the left and continue to stay there: everyone in my generation was taught more than any other to “just be nice to people.” I can’t prove it, but I’d bet 50% of Indiana’s brain drain problem is directly related to the politics of our State House. I’m not even talking about bag bans and Tesla sales. I’m talking about all the social cruft that strikes an entire generation as somehow mean, like a bully.

The Republicans aren’t doing a superb job of framing their agenda as “being nice.” And when someone isn’t “nice,” they’re probably being “mean,” and that’s very off-putting. The Democrats may just be better at hiding their meanness because the government can certainly be a bully to a lot of people the more it expands.

“Justin, this is ridiculous. Just because a bunch of sissy millennials can’t handle some toughness is no reason to coddle them,” you might say. If you did say that I would say you just proved my point by being a dick.

It doesn’t make a generation of people weak to be nice. It just means we don’t see a reason to push large groups of individuals away. Pence’s, and now Trump’s, Muslim ban, the wall, Sessions, the Supreme Court nominees, etc. are all just mean dick moves. Their downsides are worse than the potential purported benefit.

Don’t get me wrong – everyone’s kind of a dick some of the time. Left-leaning folks love shows like The Daily Show and Full Frontal precisely because they’re mean. They poke at people in a way that you’d never do to someone’s face. Bill Maher is mean. Sean Hannity and others on the right are mean.

Pence, and certainly Trump, come across as that kind of person. A sort of faux-niceness that’s him just pushing people in ways they don’t want to be. That is against the grain of what it means to be “Indiana nice” where we stay out of the way, help when people ask, and kindly say hello and smile when interacting with others.

As an aside, I find anyone who blindly supports a specific party, votes straight ticket, doesn’t question everyone and everything, and anyone who lacks some level of empathy to be psychopathic. That can’t be healthy. In what other endeavor do we do that? Do you only drink one beer? Do you only ever always and forever buy one brand of batteries or toilet paper?

I can support a lot of reform efforts that Democrats largely don’t like. I can get behind a lot of issues that Republicans generally don’t like. And I can feel at home with a good chunk of the Libertarian party because they’re increasingly just, “Leave people alone, and be nice.”

Don’t be mean. Leave people alone when they want to be left alone. Be Indiana nice.

What is bold leadership for Indiana?

I keep hearing and reading stories of people clamoring for “bold”, “new”, and “innovative” leadership for national and state leaders. When it comes to Indiana politics, I don’t think it’s so unwieldy or difficult to think about deeply and with purpose.

So when I hear “bold leadership is needed” by the likes of Governor Mike Pence and his upcoming Democratic challenger John Gregg, I don’t always hear much bold anything. It’s usually a twist on some existing policy or announcement. Like Tuesday’s announcement from Pence that we’d magically make $1B appear over the next three years to fix some state roads, but not all, and not with much gusto, and not with anything for local governments where people actually tend to, you know, live.

I had some ideas rattling around in my head on what I’d consider to be actually “bold” leadership ideas to fix what is arguably one of America’s worst states in a variety of areas that aren’t that hard to fix:

  • Double the cigarette tax over the next three years, pulling Indiana to about the 3rd place for highest cost per pack in the nation and reducing us from the dubious position of having one of the highest smoking rates in the nation.
  • Require all restaurants with more than 5 locations to display calorie counts on menus. Indiana’s obesity rate is 9th in the nation.
  • Tie the gas tax to the rate of inflation so we stop getting in this crunch of road funding before we get too far behind.
  • Pence says “if you’re going to call yourself the Crossroads of America, you’d better have the roads to back it up.” Well, if you’re going to call Indiana one of the best business climates in America, you’d better have the workforce to back that up. And ours sucks. Hoosiers are overweight, poorly educated, and in poor health. So declare no new roads (looking at you, Kentucky bridge to nowhere), and divert new roads’ funding to the construction of trails, parks, multi-use paths, and invest heavily in local governments. No one was asking for roads around small towns.
  • Finally eliminate township government. No one knows who those people are anyway and their work can just as well be done by Counties.
  • Guarantee access to library service for every Hoosier through a statewide rural library service system. We have one of the highest numbers of Carnegie libraries in the country, yet 41% lack coverage and some pay for it and don’t even get to use it.
  • Vision 0 for the whole state. We rank 23rd for pedestrian deaths. Mostly because we’re too cheap to build some tiny little sidewalks.
  • Get a handle on why there are too many cities, towns, and counties sharing police protection. In Indianapolis alone, who do you think is our “top cop”? The Sheriff, the Public Safety Director, or the Mayor? If you guessed the Mayor, you’re weirdly right. Yet the other two positions also exist. In rural counties where Sheriff’s deputies patrol rural areas, small towns end up picking up the slack outside their jurisdictions all the time, just because they were slightly closer to an emergency. It’s time to establish a mechanism to let cities, towns, and counties have merged police departments with a clear person in charge at the top.
  • Add statewide non-discrimination protection of gays, lesbians, and transgender Hoosiers (John Gregg has proposed this).
  • Recommend the establishment of 4 or 5 year term limits for a variety of offices, including Governor, mayors, sheriffs, representatives, and councilors. There’s decreasing value in having a lawmaker spend 30 years in an office.
  • Independent, non-partisan, districting commissions. To our credit, we have one of the least-gerrymandered maps in the country (2nd to Nevada) … for federal offices. State offices are a disaster.
  • Child welfare services, such as advocates, investigators, foster care, child advocacy centers, and protective services, should all be under the umbrella of the State’s funding.

That’s bold.