Civitas’ title is also that of a 2005 monograph by James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler’s thesis was simple: as a species we are reluctant to abandon any path we’ve set down, once we’ve made the commitment to set down the path.

And no matter how clear it becomes that the path leads to nowhere.

Indeed, we’ve romanticized the image of the stick-to-it hero who, damn the torpedoes, forges full-speed-ahead. And we’ve demonized those who, once committed to a path, subsequently choose another -- John Kerry wasn’t lionized for keeping his head up and alert, he was criticized for being a “flip-flopper.”

Which is nonsense, of course. The flip-side of staying the course is bullheaded stubbornness. Once, when criticized for changing his position on monetary policy, the great economist John Maynard Keynes shot backl, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Sunk costs

Way back in the halcyon 1990s, a brilliant plan was conceived: Monroe County could achieve urban greatness if only its blighted greenfields, filled with nothing but soybeans, pasture and cornfields, could be paved over in the name of growth. And that greatness would be accomplished through an artful bifurcation called Tax Increment Financing (TIF) in which the property taxes paid by an owner of a once-greenfield-now-shopping-mall were constrained to pay for only those things, roads, sewers, buildings, that made the shopping mall even more “mally.”

And that made the owner even more rich.

So came an artifice known as “Criderville.” The stretch of open land between Ellettsville and Bloomington that once hosted nothing but pastures and limestone quarries and that now hosts a brand-new “commercial arterial” scar of a highway, a highway whose purpose was to link the cheap residential areas of Richland Township with the cheap big-box shopping areas of Bloomington’s anomic “College Mall.”

And whose purpose is to increase the value of the open land on either side of the highway, land just coincidentally owned by the same firm, Crider & Crider, that built the highway.

For therein lies the rub, the nexus of the growth machine and its enablers in the public sphere. Crider & Crider gained the highway concession, being paid north of $50 million to build the unnecessary new arterial between Bloomington and Ellettsville, just because Indiana’s Department of Transportation (INDOT) said “traffic flow” must rout.

And, in gaining the concession, also gained control of the land -- over 400 acres of prime commercial greenspace on either side of the highway.

Which Monroe County’s government said was “great!” Appealing both to the planning technocrats among the County Commissioners, as well as the clueless sycophants on the county’s Redevelopment Commission, Criderville became a shining beacon of what should, what could, be done -- if only the investment were made.

And so it was made, as the county bonded out millions of dollars of private capital, underwritten on the full faith and credit of county taxpayers, to build Crider the roads, the sewers, the fire stations and everything else necessary to make sure that a) sprawl was ensured and b) that the dividends of sprawl accrued to the appropriate pockets.

Too big to fail

“If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has.” -- John Maynard Keynes

When the U.S. government bailed out the moribund Chrysler Corp., in the late 1970s, the excuse given was “Chrysler’s too big to fail.” Fast-forward to today, when the development dreams of Criderville are in similar jeopardy as a double-whammy of overbuilt real-estate collides with the reality of $4-on-the-way-to-$10 gas.

Indeed, despite being launched nearly a decade ago, Criderville has never achieved the tax increment necessary to pay off its millions-dollar-bonds. In a state of somewhat poetic justice, the landowner, Crider, has been forced to foot the bill for the interest payments -- although we shouldn’t feel too sorry for them, given the terms of the payments.

I’d love to have had a home improvement loan for my house, guaranteed by the government, that I could write off against my income taxes until that time when my property taxes caught up and serviced the loan.

Tomorrow will be just like today, only more so

And so we find ourselves today, where I can’t put it any better than one elected official did when he said:

“In short, ‘our community, not-for-profit’ hospital leadership that pleaded to the community for support (they actually asked us to legislate to prohibit Monroe Hospital from getting a foothold) seems to now be doing what they can to avoid rousing the rabble (the same ‘community’) that might now have an interest in expressing some opinions about the hospital's plans to merge with Clarian (part one) and then move the entire operation (yes-the hospital) from Second and Rogers to NorhPark/Criderville (part 2). They are talking within the next couple of years. Yes - with peak oil upon us, they think it is a great idea to move our downtown urban hospital to a greenfield outside the City that isn't even served by Bloomington Transit. Of course with it will go the doctor's offices and other services existing around the current hospital, new crap will spring up all around Criderville, Crider will make another killing from public subsidy, and on and on. You know the story.”

In other words, too big to fail. Despite all of the evidential evidence to the contrary, despite the fact that the world is shrinking, not growing, the leadership at Bloomington’s second-largest employer is taking the community down the path of the psychology of previous investment.

A hospital not downtown, but in the suburban asteroid belt. Why? Because that’s where the county made the investment decision, 10 years ago. Why do we have to follow that investment decision? Because of the psychology of previous investment that says: “No matter what the facts, no matter what the change, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.”

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