South Bend Tribune



Governor's disdain for Hoosiers all too apparent


Over the Memorial Day weekend our governor, Mitch Daniels, published an op-ed piece in The New York Times, titled, "For Whom the Road Tolls." It was a revealing exercise of authorship on Daniels' part -- even though when a politician publishes anything one wonders which member of his or her staff actually wrote the thing. But I'm willing to believe it was Daniels' work alone, because of its tone, which seemed entirely genuine: smug, contemptuous of the folk he has to govern, happy to be talking to the swells on the East Coast, his people.

I've always been amused by Daniels' invented campaign persona -- decked out as one of the hicks, wearing wool, plaid or flannel and some ridiculous hat, looking like some character out of a "Saturday Night Live" skit poking fun at Canadians, usually accompanied by many shots of his RV rolling through the Indiana hills. Mitch Daniels, man of the people, not, as he proudly puts first in the Times bio, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget for Bush in 2001 and 2002, before admitting he is governor of Indiana.

Now that the former Eli Lilly executive has put most of the state on Eastern Standard Time's daylight-saving time (Eli Lilly time!), and Hoosier parents experience the fun of trying to put their children to bed while it's still light out, Daniels gets to boast to the readers of The New York Times how he was able to privatize the Toll Road despite the misguided objections of more than half of his fellow citizens: "public sentiment" ran "almost two to one against the deal," Daniels wrote. He goes on to say, "... the animosity in Indiana was as genuinely grassroots as it gets. Many Hoosiers convinced themselves either that our proposal borrowed from the future, or that it gave away a part of America to 'foreigners."

But Mitch showed the benighted the way, while not taking too much offense at the mob's obtuseness: "Their hearts were in the right place, but not their logic." Daniels extols the wonders of privatization: "The economic case is ironclad: Indiana has scored a multibillion-dollar financial gain." He does admit, humbly, that he should have done more to educate the uneducated: "As governor, I should have done much more than I did to walk Indiana through, in advance, both the business case and the realities of today's global economic competition."Oh, well, the burdens of leadership are great, especially when the grassroots are so starved of knowledge, the sort that the governor possesses in such abundance. When Daniels was still a run-of-the-mill corporate executive, first as head of the libertarian Hudson Institute and then a V.P. at Lilly, he and his buddy Steve Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, were the state's biggest cheerleaders for privatization. Goldsmith did manage to privatize a number of city services, though he lost his race for governor because of the mess it all made.

But what is "ironclad" is that the Toll Road takeover is a triumph of ideology over economics. The money behind the Spanish-Australian consortium Cintra-Macquarie's purchase came from some of the same capital sources as a lot of American capital: from workers' pension funds, in this case the Australians. But Daniels wouldn't let the Indiana Public Employees Retirement Fund buy the Toll Road -- however sound a deal it would be. It would still involve government and the people as owner if he had.

Privatizers see profit, whereas the public sees taxes. Not raising the tolls on the Toll Road, as Daniels talks about in his op-ed piece, came about "because it was run by politicians, who are rarely businesslike and deathly afraid to annoy anyone."

Now, Daniels is certainly businesslike and not afraid to annoy people, so why didn't he have the courage to present a sensible schedule of toll increases? Well, not because he is a politician, but because he is an evangelizer for privatization.

As Daniels notes in his Times piece, "As clear as the business case was, politics intruded; in fact, Indiana very nearly tore up its equivalent of a Powerball check. ..." It's an apt comparison, echoing the casino capitalism Daniels is so proud of. Some make good bets, others make bad ones. The short term brings big money to Indiana, but not just to the state. As in the stock market era of irrational exuberance, those who are in on the IPO, the beginning of things, profit mightily. There are large transaction profits to be spread around to the financiers who arrange the deal, all friends of the governor, or soon-to-be friends of the governor. This sort of casino capitalism has winners and losers. And Daniels was certainly a winner in 2001 when he sold his $1.45 million in Indiana Power & Light Company stock just before the stock tanked.The business case that is so ironclad is the same one that has seen the salaries of CEOs balloon so obscenely over the last decade. Many copy it. In fact, Daniels couldn't have railroaded through the privatizing of the Toll Road if Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley hadn't sold off the Skyway to the same foreign capital consortium. If a toll road is a public good, an example of public wealth, the responsibility for it remains with the people. When public goods become the source of private wealth the nature of society changes. It's a change Daniels desires. In the old days plutocrats like Andrew Carnegie used to give the public libraries, museums and other benefits; these days the transfer goes the other way: The rich sell what the people own for their personal benefit and that of their friends.

Mitch Daniels is hardly the man of the people he styles himself to be. He looks out for the few and considers the rest buffoons to be buffaloed. As he has done -- though he shouldn't have preened about it so much in the New York Times. Look out when he wants to take over the Senate seat Richard Lugar must someday vacate.

William O'Rourke, a former columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, is a professor at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is "On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir." He lives in South Bend.