In the depths of the great depression, President Roosevelt made hundreds of speeches to get the economy going again. The phrase we remember best had nothing to do with the rebuilding infrastructure or keeping banks open and everything to do with hope and courage.: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Roosevelt knew that when fear and despair grip societies, essential and bold action becomes all but impossible, as people cling to a safer past and resist change. He understood that the first step in attacking the most difficult problems may not be to promote detailed plans, policies and positions. The first step is to help people regain confidence in themselves and in each other.
The lesson is a useful one for Maine’s economy. We have no shortage of plans and ideas to build an innovation-based economy. We have plans to refocus government, to become a magnet for young entrepreneurs who want the Maine life, to redesign education and invest in research and development for tomorrow’s jobs.
Despite those plans, however, we seem unable to act in any concerted way. Instead, we’ve resorted to the predictable actions of a family in distress, expending energy arguing among ourselves over small matters instead of focusing on how to attack the underlying problems.
How we got to this place isn’t a mystery, particularly for those who have lived outside of southern Maine. Whatever the statistics show or the politicians say, our economy has been flat for a generation. Some areas of the state are in a permanent recession.
It wasn’t always this way. In my extended family, from the end of WWII to the early ’70s, hard-working people with little education but strong will were able to climb into the middle class because of good jobs in the mills.
They worked hard, as Maine people do, supplementing their incomes with farming or hunting or by holding multiple odd jobs. They saved, built houses and camps, bought new cars and appliances and enjoyed the security of good times. Along with millions of others across the country they rode a wave of prosperity that brought a good life and even greater hopes for the future.
Today, the children and grandchildren of that confident generation have been left to wonder and worry about what comes next. Competition took some of those good jobs and mechanization took even more. Low skill jobs that pay well are scarce and becoming scarcer. Opportunities have declined and hope has become harder to hold onto. All of this has left Mainers discouraged, frustrated and sometimes angry, which we can now see loudly reflected in Augusta.
The majority of Mainers are living today without a positive picture in their minds of a more prosperous future. Instead, we have only images of the past and a fractured sense of the present. And without a hopeful picture of what can be, we can never get behind the job of making change happen.
So let me suggest that the first step for a renaissance in Maine’s economy isn’t being taken with the negative drumbeats in Augusta or Washington or even in the plans from think tanks and advocates, but in the confidence and the hearts and minds of Mainers.
Our first step is to overcome ‘fear itself’, and the pessimism that holds us back from imagining a new future. We have to challenge the widespread and well-rooted idea that this is the best we can do, or that the deck is stacked against us.
Let’s imagine a new Maine economy that grows from the cracked foundation of the old. Some of that is already sprouting around us. New businesses are springing up around new ideas and products that are well suited to Maine. Entrepreneurs are hard at work.
The economy of tomorrow won’t fit perfectly into the picture we have of yesterday’s economy, but it makes sense for Maine and has enormous potential to raise the standard of living of Mainers everywhere.
Imagination is a wonderful and uniquely human power. Without it, little is possible. With it, the limits of what we can do together expand to match our dreams. Maybe we should start there, by allowing ourselves to imagine a brighter future for Maine so that we can get to work to make it happen.
Of course, imagination is only the door to action. But it’s a door that has to be opened. I’ll have more on the action steps in coming weeks. Meanwhile, send me your ideas on what you see happening in Maine’s next economy, or what we can do together, and I’ll try to share as many of them as possible.
Alan Caron is a principal of the Caron & Egan Consulting Group. He also serves as the president of Envision Maine, a non-partisan think tank based in Freeport. He can be reached at: