Intentionally Unreasonable: Perception, reality and the elephants in the room

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There exists a Grand Canyon-esque gap between the general perception of our challenges here in Maine and the various realities we’re facing as a state.

If you listen to most politicians, you hear only theatrical rants, hypnotic sound bites and rote promises relating to the symptoms – and never honest analysis of the root causes.

“I’ll work to bring more jobs to Maine … I’ll make sure everyone has health care … I’ll make education a priority.” They’re all wonderful campaign statements that target genuine and desperate needs.

But the rhetoric is also an itinerary of aspirational destinations, backed with little insight about the journey and sacrifices needed to get there.

Regrettably, with just one week before a critical election in Maine, not a single candidate is addressing the two giant elephants in the room: the state’s vast, unsustainable, physical infrastructure, and an electorate that is mostly uninformed and disengaged.

Every other issue (health care, education, jobs, energy, etc.) is subordinate to these two core realities. Address these, and everything downstream immediately improves.

When Maine was first settled hundreds of years ago, our economy was resource-based, with 10-mile trade zones allowing for our population to spread out over 35,000 square miles and to form 488 municipalities. That’s a statewide infrastructure engineered and continually funded to support millions of non-existent people.

Now that much of the world is operating under “new economy” realities that favor population density and efficiency, our physical make-up (43.1 people per square mile) is impossibly suited for today’s economy. This reality puts unbearable financial pressure on our 1.3 million residents and the companies that operate here: enormous tax burdens, high operating costs and economic paradigms that simply are not competitive with those of other states.

The three pillars of contemporary social order are health care, education and human enterprise (e.g., jobs). And for each mile of distance, each minute of time that separates an individual and those pillars, the efficiency, timeliness and quality of service suffer.

In Maine, more than 91 percent of new jobs over the last five years, and 93 percent of outside capital investment dollars, have gone into our three metro clusters: Portland, Lewiston-Auburn and Bangor.

This trend is less about government policy and more about the global economic and social factors that are linked to commercial success. Companies gravitate to investment in areas with a critical mass of human and structural density. (Like water and electricity, money seeks its own natural path.)

On a micro scale, imagine a family of four here in southern Maine, living in the Cumberland County Civic Center, with each member’s living space in a different corner of that vast building. Think about the associated infrastructure and cost burdens. Time/space inefficiency? Social constructs? The need for their neighbors to pay most of their expenses?

While the adults in this hypothetical scenario perpetually struggle to meet impossible fiscal and operational pressures, the two kids move out to Boston the moment they turn 18, seeking greater environmental opportunities and less burdensome economic challenges.

At the same time, down the street, another family of four, living in a quaint, 1,340-square-foot condo, is struggling to pay their bills. They’re picking up much of the mountainous tab for the Civic Center dwellers through astronomical taxes. And soon, their kids move out too.

Can either family really succeed in this scenario?

That is Maine – one aging segment overwhelmed by an irreversible slide in economics and the steady decay of opportunities, and another segment suffering like a Himalayan Sherpa from carrying too much (fiscal) baggage for too long. Both suffering, neither to blame.

We must reimagine and realign Maine’s structure to today’s economic realities, and not waste any more valuable time watching our great state decay through attrition, crippling fiscal policy and blind political non-action.

Most old-economy, resource-based jobs, and many rural communities themselves, will never come back. That’s the reality, and it exists in conflict with the powerful political currency of “elect me and I’ll bring jobs to your town.”

That doesn’t mean Maine can’t be a thriving state with great opportunities for every resident. It just means we need to start being honest with ourselves, while facing some short-term hardship in favor of long-term sustainability. And we must break the counter-productive, time-wasting cycle of assigning political blame for what is in essence a natural, albeit painful, economic phenomenon.

We can do better. We must do better.

(In my next column, I’ll address the shame that is our electoral process. Your fault, my fault, and our fault – we the people own our great democracy, and we the people need to fix it.)

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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.

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