Is Shirley Temple now writing under the pseudonym of "Morton Marcus?" Because that's the only explanation we can find for the ridiculously pollyannish "Let's have the bestest darn road, ever!" pro I-69 column of 1/18/03 in the Bloomington Herald Times.

And it can only be a bad case of Shirley Temple Economics that would cause a grown man to argue, while writing from Indiana's capital and a city that has more interstate highway connections than any other city in the entire nation, that a solution to Indiana's chronic economic distress is not to invest more in education, is not to invest more in natural amenities in order to attract the affluent class, is not to provide more business startup funding, is not to clean up its rotting industrial detritus and rebuild its urban centers, is not to take care of its infirm and indigent but to ... wait for it ... to build yet another highway!

And why? After all, despite its glut of highways, Indianapolis ain't exactly economic Shangri-la. If you're the outdoorsy type, we suggest a stroll out to SR37 and I-465, I-465 and I-65, or I-465 and I-69 north. Ever wonder what manmade endeavor served as the model for Dante Alighieri's Nether Hell? Well wonder no more, it was Indianapolis' big-and-always-growing-bigger automotive slums.

Now the same people who sold us NAFTA, on the failed promise that outsourcing Joe Hoosier's job would somehow benefit Indiana Joe, are trying to sell us another highway on the promise that, this time for sure, it will be an economic magic bullet for a state completely awash in pavement. But perhaps Mr. Marcus has a point -- after all, the nation is gearing up for yet another in an endless series of Mad-Max style gasoline wars, and that war will surely need ordnance. Indiana's contribution to the war could be a Chinese minesweeper (built in Mexico - or is it the other way around?) delivered over the brand-new highway for a Port Huron launch. In that case, we suggest christening her the good ship "Lollipop."

Mr. Marcus also argues that Hoosiers should put aside any critical economic evaluation of the highway's actual return on investment -- you know the kind of evaluation that any private firm would do (which explains why the private sector isn't financing the highway). Instead we should shut up and just let the unaccountable technocratic geniuses at the people's Ministry of State Trucking, AKA INDOT, concentrate on "building the most environmentally responsible road yet."

The mind boggles at the oxymoronic richness of the task. What will he next implore? That, in the interest of economic development, the Indiana Gaming Commission should promote PETA-approved cockfighting at French Lick?

Isn't, by definition, "the most environmentally responsible highway" no highway at all? Or at least a modern transportation alternative -- such as import substitution, air, rail, re-urbanization -- that can achieve the dubious advantages proponents attach to the highway, all while being far less polluting and disruptive than something that was obsolete even when General Pershing first proposed interstates eighty years ago?

What a tragic lampoon of economic leadership, and simple business sense, to advocate that a bankrupt state and federal government spend billions of taxpayer dollars for yet another highway in a state that leads the nation in existing highways and to spend it on a highway that will have no positive economic benefit but will have severe environmental and social costs.

To promote such reckless spending in a state that is fighting desperately against disappearing altogether in a generic haze of cultural and economic immolation fed by the kindling of a thousand big boxes, tract suburbs, corporate chain restaurants, parking lots, and petrochemical replenishment facilities is irresponsible. A phyrric kindling that multiplies and flourishes as the government road life-support system on which it is totally dependent also grows in size and scope.

As Shirley Temple would say, "You're a very bad boy, Mr. Marcus!"

This column is an excerpt from CIVITAS, a weekly column written by Gregory Travis that focuses on the economic and civic dimensions of local issues. It takes its name from a similar format column written by James Howard Kunstler.