Vice President Mike Pence’s hometown of Columbus, Indiana, thrived while other cities declined, because J. Irwin Miller, its wealthiest and most prominent industrialist, remained deeply rooted in and committed to his city. He used his clout, money, and a visionary progressive approach to build up Columbus for long-term success. A new biography of him called J. Irwin Miller: The Shaping of an American Town, by Nancy Kriplen, reveals not just the story of a city but one of a lost model of American leadership that the country badly needs to recover if many of its communities are to ever turn around.
Miller’s approach was superficially similar to many of today’s public-private partnerships. The difference is that his program invested in building up public goods and services, whereas all too many of today’s partnership’s are about enriching private parties at the public’s expense.
That moderation also helped Cummins and Columbus avoid the labor strife of other Midwest cities. When national unions attempted to organize Cummins, the employees instead elected to form their own, independent Diesel Workers Union, over the objections of the United Automobile Workers. The relationship between the Diesel Workers Union and firm was much warmer than usual, with Miller given honorary union membership. As he put it, “Unions are management’s mirror. They tell you things your own people won’t admit.”
The results speak for themselves. Cummins has remained a successful global enterprise. And Columbus has prospered, never experiencing a major period of decline. Today it’s still growing in population and adding jobs faster than the nation as a whole. It’s more educated than the country at large and boasts a GDP per capita higher than Portland, Minneapolis, and Houston.
The key take away is that Columbus Indiana’s story is not one of laissez faire tax cuts and deregulation. It’s one of the private sector making use of public goods and then funding those public goods. It is one of human capital development, trade and shared prosperity.
Sadly there is no sign Pence learned anything from his home town.