What caused the financial collapse? Are we ruining Mother Nature drilling for oil and pumping carbon into the air? Is Mother Nature getting back at us with earthquakes and volcanoes? Dare I venture into Times Square? Have housing prices hit bottom? Should we pass tax reform? What’s this tea party stuff about? Who should be governor?

The world is a frightening and very confusing place. Is it any wonder that more and more of us are just throwing up our hands and saying, “I don’t know?”

The most striking finding throughout the spring 2010 tracking survey of Maine residents conducted by the opinion research firm Critical Insights is the remarkable increase in the number of people answering, “I don’t know.”

A year ago, 59 percent of Mainers thought that things in the nation as a whole were “generally headed in the right direction,” while things in Maine were “generally headed in the wrong direction.”

This spring, we’re more pessimistic nationally — only 37 percent of us say things are going in the “right” direction — and less pessimistic about Maine — only 49 percent of us think things here are headed in the “wrong” direction. But the biggest change of all is in the “I don’t know” response.

A year ago, only 6 percent of us had no opinion on the general direction of things nationally, and only 7 percent of us had no opinion on the general direction of things in Maine.

Today, that response has jumped to 16 percent about the national direction, and has tripled to 21 percent with no opinion about the general direction in Maine.

Clearly a lot more of us are dazed and confused. And this attitude carries over to other issues.

Nineteen percent of us aren’t sure about Question 1 regarding tax reform on this June’s ballot. “Don’t know” is by far the leading candidate for governor with 42 percent name recognition, far outpacing Les Otten with 30 percent and Libby Mitchell and Peter Mills with 16 percent each.

Fifteen percent of us neither support nor oppose the newly passed health reform bill. This total is more than double the national total of 7 percent who aren’t sure about that one.

The number of us uncertain about the promotion of wind power has jumped from 4 to 6 percent just since last fall. And the number of us undecided about urging our senators to vote for national climate change legislation has jumped from 10 to 15 percent since then.

Nationally, we hear more and more every day about voter anger, about a bipartisan fury intent on throwing out all incumbents. In Maine, we — at least a growing minority of us — seem to be taking a more measured step back and saying, “Wait a minute; maybe we don’t have all the answers.”

Perhaps it’s our skeptical, laconic Yankee heritage coming to the fore. The health care, financial bailout and energy evangelists have had their day.

The steepest economic fall in three generations put a good scare into us, and we’ve stood by and watched as the Federal Reserve and Congress have built an enormous levy of borrowed greenbacks to hold back a rising tide of the unknown.

But now that another spring has arrived and the sky has not fallen, we’re a little less sure about the inner workings of the actual programs passed in the name of such noble goals over the past two years.

To my mind, this attitude augurs well for Maine. “I don’t know” is far better than “I’m angry; throw the bums out.”

Awareness of what we don’t know is the first step toward learning and progress.

If we truly embrace the fact that the world is a scary and confusing place and that simple answers are probably wrong, we’ll be well on our way to engaging our selves in the far more satisfying and equally bipartisan process of building our community.

 

Charles Lawton is a senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at.

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