Forecaster Forum: It's time for Maine to accentuate the positives

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I admire Steve Woods’ success as a businessman, and enjoy many of his columns. But a recent piece offered a perfect reminder of why its seldom a good idea to write a column when you’re having a bad day.

Steve made the argument that “Maine cannot afford to ignore basic math” when thinking about how to grow the economy. He is, of course, right. But there is more than one kind of math to pay attention to.

The math he’s focused on concerns the cost of providing services and roads to a large state with a small population. But there is other math that we also need to pay attention to, and that we cannot any longer ignore. That includes the math of new start-ups and entrepreneurs in Maine and of the many positive things that are happening in parts of our economy, like farming and food, technology and energy.

It’s not as though none of us understand the negative math of Maine. Our problems are well known and serious. Our population is aging and too spread out. Our rural economy, once thriving with big families and vibrant communities, has been declining for two generations, as yesterday’s labor-intensive jobs in farming, forestry, paper-making and fisheries have been replaced by more efficient machines. That has left a rural landscape with more people than jobs and, in too many cases, without the skills the remaining people need to fill today’s jobs.

This problem of “math” has been the subject of countless studies and arguments for decades. It was also a main topic of something I co-authored in 2010 called “Reinventing Maine Government,” which compared Maine’s spending on government services to other similar rural states across the country. That book is chock full of the kind of math that Woods claimed we don’t understand. The math of Maine is also a topic in my new book, “Maine’s Next Economy,” which includes some of the “hard truths” that Steve urged us to confront.

Maine’s problem isn’t that we ignore the math; it’s that we spend too much time focusing on the negative math and hardly any on the positive math. We’re becoming obsessed with negativity and, in some ways crippled by rampant pessimism. Nobody can succeed that way. Nobody can get out of bed in the morning overwhelmed by negative thoughts. And no business can only look at the cost side of the ledger while ignoring the other side. We’ve focused for so long on the down side of our math that we hardly know anything else.

I’d guess that by now virtually every second-grader in Maine can recite some version of our litany of woes: we’re cold, remote, expensive, disorganized and discouraged. That’s all we’ve been hearing for years, and it’s been blaring at us since the election of Gov. Paul LePage. The last thing Maine needs now is to ridicule those Mainers who dare to have hope for Maine’s future and who are out there every day building that future.

Recently, well over 200 of those folks gathered in Portland, as part of the Envision Maine Summit, to celebrate the good things happening in Maine today. The foundations of our next economy are under construction. I wish you could have been there to hear David Shaw, the founder of IDEXX, talk about Maine’s unique innovation assets (math). Or to hear Colin Woodard talk about our long history of entrepreneurship and the power of our brand (math). Or see the new short film that includes interviews with entrepreneurs around the state, narrated by another of our state’s incurable optimists, Sen. Angus King. And perhaps to sit in on a few of the workshops on new trends in rural Maine and how we’re reinventing education from the bottom up.

The last thing those people deserve is to be dismissed as people who can’t do math and be optimistic at the same time. We can do both. Indeed, we have to do both.

Steve Woods has a lot to offer Maine, as an inspiring success story and an example for others. But what we don’t need is more negative and defeatist scolding, or the suggestion that we somehow don’t get it. We get it. That’s the easy part. What to do about it is what we’ve struggled with. We can’t just order people in rural Maine to leave their homes, communities, history and memories to come to the cities, because that would make some part of the state’s “math” work better. That’s not the way that change happens in democracies.

We don’t need a bigger dose of negative “math.” We’ve had enough of that already. What we need is more positive ideas that bring people together to solve problems.

Freeport resident Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit whose goal is to support sustainable entrepreneurship and business innovation.

  • SteveWoodsME

    It’s a false argument to say that the author’s “optimism” is should be preferred over “negativity” when my words and intent were/are clearly is support of “realism” over any other approach. The fact that in Maine’s case – economic realism has a number of negative dimensions inherent to our reality is incidental, not central, to the case.

    I am reminded of this quote by British author Julian Baggini, “The optimist underestimates how difficult it is to achieve real change, believing that anything is possible and it’s possible now. Only by confronting head-on the reality that all progress is going to be obstructed by vested interests and corrupted by human venality can we create realistic programs that actually have a chance of success.”

    Finally, it’s in Alan’s penultimate paragraph that I find his most important – and damaging perspective; “We can’t just order people in rural Maine to leave their homes, communities, history and memories to come to the cities, because that would make some part of the state’s “math” work better. That’s not the way that change happens in democracies.”

    The false defense against “ordering people in rural Maine to leave their homes” is such a dangerous, common and misleading perspective that is central to the problem and critical in regard to finding meaningful solutions. You see, just as no one should ever “order” people from their homes, others (residents of other communities, businesses, etc.) shouldn’t be “ordered” to fund an ever increasing tax & economic policy that demands greater, and greater resources spent to support areas of Maine with very little opportunity for economic viability.

    The government should not “order” someone from their home – but the same government should not perpetuate tax policy that demands someone else (lots of someone else’s) in other parts of the state continue to support people and infrastructure in “old economy” areas with little chance of reversing their economic opportunities – to the detriment of the entire state. That is our reality today.

    I am optimistic. But, my optimism is filtered through a clear and focused lens of realism.

  • Chew H Bird

    I remember my grandfather telling me as a very young boy that unless we understand the actual cost of something we are unable to figure out a price. With a large older and working class population, a high dependency on natural resources (forest products, farming, and fishing), and normal human stubbornness, (resistance to change), I am seeing a clash of cultures that goes way beyond previous generations.

    As a person in the technology industry for more than 25 years, and a Maine native, I know a few things about about our people (in general) in respect to technology.

    Many Mainers want to actually have a box with a CD when they purchase software.
    Many Mainers want nothing to do with “the cloud”.
    Many Mainers would rather pay me to drive to their location than remotely work on their systems.
    Many Mainers would rather buy something outright rather than buy a subscription.

    My out of state clients would rather have me download software on to their systems remotely. My out of state clients do not want boxes or CDs to keep track of. My out of state clients would rather pay a subscription than buy software outright. my out of state clients love “the cloud” even when it is to their detriment.

    And so here we are, with different cultures that often mirror the “two Maine’s” I hear spoken of in political discussions. The bottom line is comprised of costs, efficiency, value, quality, and price. This is balanced by reality, compassion, fairness, and respect.

    We first need to understand the costs regardless of whose math we use. We then need to understand the impact of all costs and weight that against the price. Our government (in my opinion) has done a very poor job of this for decades (the problem is far bigger than LePage).

  • Bowdoin81

    The first step in getting the math right while empowering real people:
    Change state education funding to a straight, per pupil subsidy that follows the student.
    Just imagine what positive changes might ensue.