I was listening to the local AM talk radio show a few weeks ago when a topic near and dear to my heart came up. The topic was Indiana's "brain drain," the fact that Indiana every year loses a sizable proportion of its college graduates to other states, other places.

According to the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, a third of all native Hoosiers leave the state upon college graduation. A full two-thirds of engineering and technology students end up leaving.

This has not been lost on our political and educational leaders. Despite having two world-class institutions of higher education, Indiana also has the second-lowest level of college graduates in the nation.

The politicians have responded to this by, essentially, trying to bribe people to stay here after they graduate. The radio hosts talked about the governor's latest initiative, offering low-interest student loans to those who would pledge to remain here after they graduate.

They were skeptical, I might even say a bit cynical, about the prospects for success. And I agreed with them.

Why? Because when asked why they plan to leave Indiana, the two reasons most often given are a) availability of employment (duh) and b) quality of life. Neither one of those is going to be changed by financial inducements.

A sense of place

Ecologists talk about two essential qualities of land. The first is its exchange value, namely for how much can a particular piece of land be sold. The second is its use value, what human value derives from the use of a piece of land.

Use value, also called place value, is largely sentimental. It's composed of the memories that a landscape evokes, it's the sense of goodwill in a community and the mosaic of shared experiences collected in a place. It's the kind of thing that brings us to write poetry and song about home. Indiana's state song, "On the banks of the Wabash," and IU's fight song, "Indiana, Oh Indiana," are songs about the human value of place.

This place.

Exchange value isn't sentimental. It's pecuniary. It's what can be got not by using, or appreciating, land but by selling it for something else. People stay in a place because of its use value. They get rich because of its exchange value.

Our economic development efforts in Indiana, in Monroe County and in Bloomington, have focused on increasing the exchange, not the use, value of our land. And because exchange is almost always the synonym of liquidate, our efforts to increase exchange value have done irreparable damage to our use value.

But what gets people to come to or stay in a place has everything to do with the use value, the quality of living in a place, and almost nothing to do with its exchange value.

The geography of nowhere

The radio hosts approached something I didn't think possible. While dissing the governor's "please stay here, we'll pay you to!" approach to Indiana's brain drain, they asked why anyone would want to stay here. What intrinsic value did Indiana offer that other places didn't also boast?

I knew what they were getting at.

Generica. In our quest to enhance exchange values, in our government's zeal to extend infrastructure where it should never have gone, in our drive to pave paradise and put up a parking lot, we've destroyed our use value.

Take a look at Whitehall Crossing, the College Mall, Criderville. South Walnut street (which one wag described as looking like what an invading army would do to demoralize a conquered people).

Can anyone really say, with a straight face, that although the monetary value of those lands has increased multifold, that value as place hasn't been destroyed? What Hoosier could be expected to return from Seattle, from Raleigh, from Boston for the memories of time spent in those places?

It's yet another political season. Listen hard to the candidates, particularly for mayor. When they talk about the need to grow Bloomington, ask why? Ask if they aren't just parroting Chamber of Commerce talking points, promoting an increase in land values, at the expense of the values of place.

Ask if they aren't just wishing to live in a bigger city, yet are too lazy to move to one.

Home from nowhere

Thomas Michael Power, in his Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: The Search for a Value of Place, talks about the economic folly of increased exchange value. His thesis involves the promotion of extractive industries (see "CIVITAS: Leaking Income and Money"), like mining. But he could just as well be talking about other extractive industries, including the kind of capital extractive corporate colonialism embodied in the locations I mention above.

As Power points out, people move to and stay in places because of scenic and other amenities, not because they can make a fast buck land flipping. In fact, as he notes, people are willing to accept lower cash wages in those places that remunerate them with greater degrees of use value.

Solving Indiana's brain drain problem doesn't involve bribing people to stay here. It involves coming face to face with the fact that we are systematically liquidating the very things that would make us sentimental about our place. We are liquidating the very things that cause people to want to stay here.

We are liquidating this place.

We have to give people a reason to stay here in the first place. We have to give them something other than highways, strip malls and endless suburban sprawl.

We have to give them something else. We have to give them something they're proud, and want, to call home.

Gregory Travis can be reached at greg@littlebear.com.