Forget old-fashioned maps, focus on comparisons beyond neighbors

Americans love regions — aggregations of contiguous counties or states. Corporations, governments, trade associations, sports leagues and more divide themselves into groupings of such units.

Yet in today’s world, regions need not be made up of contiguous units. (Election districts are subject to rules set down explicitly or implicitly in the federal constitution and interpreted by the Supreme Court; they are not discussed here.)

The names of the regions or groupings are not necessarily descriptive. Clearly, university leaders are not bound by conventional, 20th century orthodoxy. The Big Ten has 14 member universities. Universities in Arizona, Colorado and Utah are members of Pac-12 (formerly the Pacific Coast Conference). Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame each participate in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Geography is of less importance in a world of decreasing costs for the transport of people, goods and information. Connectivity is the essence of today’s region.

Indiana is included in the Great Lake states (U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis) and the East North Central states (U.S. Bureau of the Census). Other than the fact that the originating agencies are different, the same five states are in each region.

But should Indiana be in the Great Lakes region? If economic composition replaced geography as the criterion, we might be in the “manufacturing” region. There we would rank second after Oregon in percent of gross state product originating in manufacturing. We’d be looking over our shoulders at Michigan with Alabama, Kentucky, Wisconsin and South Carolina pressing from behind.

Three Indiana metropolitan areas (Kokomo, Elkhart-Goshen and Columbus) led 339 such areas nationally in dependence on manufacturing. Perhaps the idea of considering our place should be based on the rate of change we experience in economic composition.

Are these slowly or rapidly changing metros? Perhaps our attention should be on those metros most like us and how they are prospering. Our geographic neighbors may not be our peers.

Indiana began as part of the Northwest Territory that was subsequently divided into states, counties, townships, villages/towns/cities and various subsections for legislative and administrative purposes.

Our state has a history of multi-county regionalism. We delight in rearranging counties with the glee of a toddler moving alphabet blocks.

We’ve had no shortage of districts or regions for diverse institutions (libraries, hospitals, banks) and professional groups that have been successful in little other than supporting congeniality. However, Indiana high school athletic conferences, which used to be based on geographic proximity alone, are now grouped by enrollment as well.

But look around. There are 13 Economic Development Regions, 12 Economic Growth Regions, but only six regions of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. for our seven regional cities. All of these involve contiguous counties.

Instead of devising old-fashioned maps of neighbors, maybe our thinking should be focused on how similarly situated communities and populations are faring in today’s world.

Morton Marcus is an economist, formerly with the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Send comments to [email protected].