I like to say it: there's no such thing as a free lunch. But I gotta tell ya, yesterday I got a free lunch.

The occasion was the annual release by the Bloomington Economic Development Corp. (BEDC) of its comparative survey of the local economy. On the menu were chicken, pasta, broccoli, salad and enough numbers to keep a policy wonk like myself fat and happy.

Lunch was the excuse, but the survey was the story. Done in conjunction with the Indiana Business Research Center (IBRC), the survey has, since about 2000, attempted to benchmark our economy - to see how qualitative and quantitative issues have changed and to compare our changes to those of other, similar areas.

A noble cause. A Good Thing. Without studies such as this, people are left to their own prejudices and preconceptions. Bloomington is unfriendly to business. There is no parking downtown.

The IBRC, and the BEDC to a lesser extent, try not to politicize the study. They don't make conclusions or sweeping generalizations regarding the data. They just say, "Here's what we measured, and how it measured." It's up to the rest of us to make the conclusions, and the sweeping generalizations.

That's what I bring to the (lunch) table.

Doughnut Nation

The most interesting statistics in the survey, as always, were the ones on commuting patterns. There are 82,000 jobs in Monroe County. There are 65,000 workers in Monroe County. In other words, there are 17,000 more jobs than people in Monroe County.

The difference is made up via imported workers. Every morning, according to the IBRC, 15,500 workers commute into Monroe County from the surrounding counties. Every evening they return back home to Greene, to Lawrence, to Owen and to other counties.

This might not sound like such a bad thing, it might not sound ominous that there are far more jobs in Monroe County than people to fill them. And it might not be, except for one thing: politics.

Political divisions exist. The city of Bloomington is defined by lines on a map. So is Monroe County. You either live inside the lines, or you live outside them. Those on the inside can vote for their representative in that political division. Those on the outside, cannot.

What's more, representation implies taxation. You pay taxes where you live, not where you work. Which means you pay taxes where you sleep at night, not where you shop and earn during the day.

Monroe County is one of 13 "donor" counties in Indiana - counties in which far more people commute into them to work than commute out. Those counties are, literally, life-support systems for the counties that surround them.

Atlas should shrug

One in every five Monroe County workers does not live in Monroe County. The county collects not a dime from them, in either county income tax or property taxes. Those taxes are paid to the counties where the workers spend their nights, not their days.

This results in massive income leakage, again the life-support system for the surrounding counties. Wealth is pumped out of Monroe and into the surrounding areas, with tragic results.

Across the Midwest are countless examples of donor counties, and cities, in the advanced stages of jobs-based necrosis. Detroit is perhaps the iconic example, but others, like Indianapolis (in the 1980s) abound.

And we may be next. Another key finding of the IBRC report was that the population of the city of Bloomington actually declined between 2000 and 2005 - a classic harbinger of decay, especially when it is accompanied, as it is here, by an overall population increase in the county and the area surrounding it.

In other words, the core has begun to rot. It has begun to necrotize as demands made by ever-increasing employment (roads, police, etc.) are not being offset by ever-increasing tax receipts - those taxes are going outside the city and county.

It might sound a bit hysterical, and it would be, if it hadn't happened to so many other places, so many other times, in a script that doesn't appear to have had a word changed from the one we're now following.

Lip service

The BEDC's new president, Ron Walker, understands this better than did his predecessor. But that doesn't change the material fact that it's heresy to chant anything but "jobs, jobs, jobs." Walker made a half-hearted attempt at heresy, pointing out that he did not think "growth" meant increases in size or population. But that his organization would focus on "job creation."

The problem with "job creation," in a county at full employment already, is that it is synonymous with either increased commuting or a population increase. Creating a job means someone to fill it, and there are no people available to fill new jobs from the existing county population. Therefore every new job means either someone has to move here, or they have to commute here.

And it's not clear that either option is a good one for existing residents. It seems there still is no such thing as a free lunch after all.

Gregory Travis can be reached at .