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for two generations, as yesterday’s labor-intensive jobs in farming, forestry, paper-making and fisheries have been replaced by more efficient machines.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.