I sit on something called the Monroe County Economic Development Commission -- a (mostly) advisory commission to the county government's fiscal body, the county council, on matters of local economic development. In fact, I'm currently the commission's president -- a title that carries no additional powers or responsibilities but, like so much born of the state legislature, exists for existence's sake.

Every year around this time the economic development commission reviews the status of all of the county's tax abatements. A tax abatement is simply a grant by the local government to rebate all or a portion of a property owner's property taxes, in the hope of fostering some degree of economic development that wouldn't exist otherwise.

And every year we try and take some measure of whether or not that spirit of development is holding.

***

I'd expected some trouble this year. After all, we're in the worst economic downturn since the great depression, and if ever there was a time when firms couldn't maintain their economic projections, this should be it. But I was happy to find that, somewhat paradoxically, most of our abated enterprises were actually doing pretty well not only keeping their heads above water, but of eeking out a bit of expansion here and there.
"If ever there was a time when firms couldn't maintain their economic projections, this should be it."
But what we haven't had are any applications for new abatements. That's because abatements are kind of like bank loans: you only get them if you don't really need one.

Personally, I'd love to have to pay a million bucks a year in taxes, it would mean I was doing pretty well. But the reality is I don't, and that goes to the basic truism that poor people, and poor companies, don't pay any taxes to begin with.

Granting an abatement on something to which you're not obligated makes no sense.

So it was good that the companies who'd already been granted their abatements were pretty much sticking to their obligations. What was bad was that no one was asking for new abatements. Why? Because no one was making the kinds of investments on which an abatement would make sense.

In other words, no one was (or is) betting on the future.

***

Which got me thinking even more, about the broader topic of economic development and what it means. What it means to think about the future and to try and get proactively out in front of it.

As Alan Kay put it: the best way to predict the future is to invent it.
"But what we haven't had are any applications for new abatements."
As it happens, I've been involved in a small way in inventing Indiana's economic future. Not only as an economic development commission member, but as what an airline magazine might describe as a "knowledge worker."

The kind of guy who worked in the next big thing, not the smokestacks of yesterday.

There's a lot of history to this stuff, most of it utterly fascinating to an econo-geek like myself. The issues regarding the role of the public sector vs. the private sector in spawning productivity increases. Issues regarding trade, capital availability, labor and resources.

And issues about our educational system, and the role that our universities can, and should play.

***

For the better part of a decade, I've been involved in and employed by a program launched with much fanfare and hope. A program designed specifically to try and address, and hopefully reverse, Indiana's "brain drain."

And this summer, that program -- at least my part of it -- came to an end. And with it, my job.
"This summer, that program -- at least my part of it -- came to an end. And with it, my job."
I'll admit that I derived a certain perverse pleasure in sitting as president of the county's economic development body, reviewing abatement compliances, while at the same time wondering when I might again find gainful employment. Chafing at the juxtaposition between the hype, and the reality.

Both of which I've always been aware of, so no surprise there.

In change, no matter how wrenching, is opportunity always found. For me, I hope to have the opportunity to embark on a venture often contemplated but not yet realized, that of writing a book on the nature of economic development from the public/private perspective.

But before I do that, I'm going to write a prequel. A self-indulgent rumination on what it means to be a white collar worker looking for relevance in a world increasingly suspicious of guys like me. Am I really just a huckster with a keyboard, or can I sell myself, make myself useful and needed, in a 21st-century world that might need two strong hands more than it needs a smoothie churning out bullshit?

I hope you'll follow my journey at The Long Day's Journey Into ... (maybe even the Alternative can serialize it). I add something new every day, and we'll see where it goes.

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