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Short Relief: Maine must use its natural advantages

Opinion

Short Relief: Maine must use its natural advantages

It took me about four years of trying to get a job in Maine. So long that I had given up hope of ever getting one. At the time, I had been living in Washington, D.C., for about 12 years. I had been married for about five.

I was daunted by the prospect of trying to raise our children in D.C. Everything was more difficult there. It was crowded, expensive, and tense. Maine seemed to offer a more appealing style of life: the chance to live in a beautiful place with time to enjoy it.

But time was passing and my dream did not seem to be coming true, so I began to consider other alternatives closer to home. When the Maine job offer came in May 1999, I was taken by surprise.

We abandoned the plans we had begun. I accepted the offer and we made the move. We have no regrets. Every time I drive up and down the coast, I am reminded why.

As I travel south, the roads become more congested. I notice how the sky turns a dirty-hazy shade of blue. The air gets thick and warm and heavy. More of the landscape is paved-over and developed. By the time I get to New Jersey, there isn’t much open space left.

There are things about those southern places that I like, beginning with my friends and family who live and work there. They are big, lively places with lots of people doing lots of exciting things, many of them profitable.

On the way north, I notice the opposite effect. Once we get above Boston, traffic thins out. Pine trees begin to predominate. The air clears, cools and smells sweet. Once we cross over the bridge to Kittery there are only a few cars. I like it that way.

But it’s not easy to make a living here. There aren’t as many opportunities as other places. Too many of our people are unable to support themselves and have to depend on government.

The challenge is to improve conditions for them without ruining the things that make Maine appealing. We need to identify our natural advantages relative to other states, and figure out how to use them to improve our situation.

Government has a legitimate role in this effort. It should create and maintain conditions that enable markets to operate and businesses to succeed: simple, clearly stated and consistently applied rules, and the freedom for businesses to innovate and enjoy the fruits of their labors within the confines of those rules.

The rules do not have to be neutral. They can embody social values, such as a concern for the environment and the disadvantaged. But they need to be realistic and reasonable, not one-sided and unsustainable. They need to be adaptable to changing circumstances.

In the past, Maine’s economy was primarily based on wood products, textiles, fishing and ship-building. Maine was a good place for those industries. It had the natural resources they needed: thick, tall forests, abundant clean, flowing water, an ocean full of fish and a coastline with protected bays, coves, and inlets. Those industries have declined for a variety of reasons, including changing sensibilities, increased regulation, overuse, and foreign competition.

Looking ahead, I have a few suggestions.

The first is that we refurbish and recycle the Maine brand. In the midst of the current economic trouble, Maine can lead the rest of the country to recovery. One of the beauties of our state is that, because we are relatively small, it is easier for us to change than other, larger states.

We should reorganize ourselves so that we reduce and consolidate our units of government. Multiple, overlapping units of state, county, municipal and local government are terribly inefficient. We should change the focus of our government from maximizing the benefits it provides to maximizing the opportunity for people to provide for themselves.

We should develop our distinctive regional specialties, and promote and celebrate them: lobster, blueberries, potatoes, hunting, fishing, hiking, boat-building, canoeing, sailing, camping. In Canada, every week there is a festival celebrating something. We should do the same.

We should concentrate other activities in our cities. The sprawl-and-mall approach of our neighbors to the south is wasteful and unattractive. We have several very serviceable cities that could be restored nicely. They have sturdy buildings and infrastructure that can be adapted for new use so that they become hubs of a revitalized state economy.

Such reorganization would facilitate changes in the way we transport ourselves. If we redevelop our cities, then most activities will occur there and mass transportation between and within them would make more sense. We could rebuild our train system. It’s a comfortable, efficient, sociable way to travel.

We should attract and develop businesses that fit into this vision, such as an environmentally friendly packaging industry for consumer goods. It could bring together the remnants of our forest-products industry, our emerging composite materials industry, and our creative economy to design colorful, appealing containers for consumer products.

We could use those containers to bottle our water and sell it to the rest of the world. Nothing better epitomizes the essence of Maine than good, clean water to drink.

And the profit margin would be greater than Moxie.