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October 23, 2011

MORTON MARCUS: Wasted effort, wasted lives cannot be ignored

TERRE HAUTE — Somewhere in rural Indiana is a banker who can not see good in any proposal put before him unless he saw it previously. His posture is as rigid as his mind.  How can his town expect to move forward with his hand on the money spigot?

Elsewhere is a woman who talks too much yet says too little. Her incessant conversation interferes with her job because she does not transfer information efficiently. Despite their tolerance and best efforts, her employers no longer can accept her poor performance.

Another two Hoosiers are well-educated people whose skills are not in demand in these hard times. One is waiting tables while attempting to change his career path; the other has accepted an apprenticeship to take her career in a different direction.

All of these people have college degrees and are considered professional service providers by those who classify occupations. None is unemployed. Each is underemployed: the banker and the talkative woman by habit, the other two by choice in hope of better opportunities.

Many other employed Hoosiers operate below their capabilities. In a state often obsessed with “worker-training,” what is being done about those under-employed by habit or by aspiration?

The talk in Indiana is about training where psycho-analysis may be more appropriate. The excessively cautious banker relies on his experience to guide his actions, but he does not seem to assimilate contemporary trends into his understanding of the business environment. What will it take for him to accept new information?

The all-too-talkative woman has been so for thirty years of her adult life. Can her behavior be modified when it is so ingrained in her personality? The other two delayed career changes because they were already mature, experienced professionals.

They, along with the rest of us, did not, could not, accept the structural changes of the past five years. Economic waste characterizes these examples as it does for other people who fit these descriptions. Owners, managers and laborers who resist change and reject information harm themselves, their families, companies and communities. But how do they know their behaviors are harmful?

You or I may tell them so, but how well can we communicate what we know imperfectly. Motivational speakers and career counselors may have temporary influence. Newspaper articles and TV programs may offer convincing evidence. However, we are talking about fundamental changes in habitual conduct, self-image, and professional identity, whatever you call it. Unemployment compensation is one means of providing aid to those in need of changing jobs. But what assistance do we have for impassive bank presidents? When the talkative woman is dismissed from her job, where can she go for behavioral modification she does not know she needs?

These issues are not normally considered in the discussion of economic development. Wasted effort, wasted lives, however, cannot be ignored, even if they are not easily addressed by government or private programs.

Yes, community mental health programs may be a key to accelerating prosperity.

 Morton Marcus is an independent economist, speaker, and writer formerly with IU’s Kelley School of Business.

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