Intentionally Unreasonable: Do the math; Maine is broken

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LAS VEGAS — I am sitting in a gaudy hotel room and everything and everyone around me feels broken.

The plane I flew in on was broken and had to be replaced in Detroit, causing a four-hour delay.

A taxi driver spent 10 minutes over-sharing excruciating details ranging from divorce, bankruptcy, health crisis and a long and seemingly endless list of personal calamities that ended with, “I just feel broken.”

In Las Vegas, most hotels strategically locate the hotel check-in desk at one end of their massive casino, with access to the guest rooms on the opposite side, forcing you to run the gauntlet of sensory overload (slot machine bells, flashing lights, bad lounge music, smoke – yes, most Las Vegas casinos still allow smoking) just to get to your room.

Along the way at 1:30 a.m., it was hard to avoid colliding and intersecting in a pinball machine kind of way, with dozens of human interactions, some positive and happy, but many connected to broken promises, forsaken dreams and lost hope – people stumbling around holding on too tightly to a fading nightlife, if only to avoid the day.

In reality, Las Vegas would not exist if not for the “big lie” that serves as its operating system, and for the fools who believe it: that math can be beaten by human will and a little luck.

With few exceptions, casino gaming involves odds, statistics and probability rolled up into various math equations that all end up earning casinos billions of dollars each year. In short, it’s impossible to beat math over a period of time; math always wins and the gambler always loses. Yet millions of people each year attempt to challenge math with some trick, some technique, some special belief system. And ultimately they fail.

But this column isn’t about Las Vegas, it’s about our community and state, so let’s shift the discussion to Maine’s own irrational and illogical battle against math.

Maine, like Las Vegas, is broken.

As I’ve said before, when Maine was first settled, our economy was resource-based, with 10-mile trade zones allowing our population to spread out over more than 35,000 square miles and to form 488 municipalities – a statewide infrastructure engineered and continually funded to support approximately 8 million people. (Math.)

Now that “new economy” rules and realities are upon us, population density and efficiency are essential for us to be competitive, while our physical structure (43.1 persons per square mile) is impossibly suited for today’s economy. This reality puts unbearable (and growing) financial pressures on our 1.3 million residents and the companies that operate in Maine, in the form of enormous tax burdens, high operating costs, and non-competitive financial paradigms. (More math.)

Three central pillars of contemporary social order and civilization are health care, education, and human enterprise (i.e., jobs.) And for each and every mile of distance and minute of time that exists between an individual and a concentration of those elements, cost inefficiency, time urgency and quality of service are all negatively impacted. (Math, math and more math.)

In Maine, more than 93 percent of new jobs over the last five years and 94 percent of outside capital investment dollars have gone into one of our three metro clusters: Portland, Lewiston-Auburn, and Bangor. This compelling trend is less about government policy and more about global economic and social factors –companies prefer to invest in areas with a critical mass of human and structural density. (Like water and electricity, money seeks its own natural path.)

We must recognize the prevailing math and realign the actual structure of Maine according to economic realities, and not waste any more valuable time idly watching much of our state decay through attrition, crippling fiscal policy, and blind political inaction.

Most of Maine’s old-economy resource-based jobs, and many rural communities, will never come back. That’s a reality that exists in natural conflict to the powerful political currency of  “elect me and I’ll work to create jobs and help your community.”

That doesn’t mean Maine can’t be a thriving state with great opportunities, it just means we need to start being honest with ourselves while facing a fair degree of short-term hardship in favor of long-term sustainability.

The day before coming to Las Vegas I received an invitation to attend an all-day event in Portland called “Conversations on Six Key Challenges Facing Maine.” The Nov. 20 event is organized and presented by Envision Maine, a wishful collective led by local author and civic leader Alan Caron. I must confess to being a fan of Caron, his thoughtful writings, and his passionate enthusiasm for all things Maine.

But I generally disagree with him and his merry pranksters as exporters of blind idealism and purveyors of false hope when it comes to Maine’s economic challenges. Just as Las Vegas thrives through the suspension of math, Maine will never recognize the much-needed hard truths and uncomfortable policy actions required to turn around our state in “… a room full of optimism about the future” as advertised by Envision Maine.

With our nation’s oldest population, more deaths than births each year, a weak economic engine, and a massive crumbling infrastructure, Maine cannot afford to ignore basic math.

Gov. Paul LePage and most of our elected leaders remind me of the desperate gamblers downstairs in my hotel’s casino, stuffing money (our money) into a wall of slot machines and arguing about who has the best “system” to produce “winning” results for Maine’s economy – while ignoring numerical facts, simple truths, and painful realities.

At least in Las Vegas an argument can be made that math-defying casino games offer some measure of entertainment and fun – even against irrefutable odds. But, with Maine’s decaying economy and crushing tax policies, there is nothing fun or entertaining about homelessness, hungry kids, and thousands of vulnerable seniors. (Math and painful truth.)

It’s time for our government leaders, policy makers, and citizens to stop gambling with Maine’s future. No combination of happy talk, empty political promises, slot machines, lottery scratch tickets, or wishful thinking will solve our challenges.

While positivity, optimism and idealism are emotive and pleasant sentiments, the root of our problems and the path to meaningful solutions lives in one word: Math.

Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.