When it comes to the economy, Mainers seem to have a special knack for two things: grumbling and finger-pointing. If only we could agree on who to blame, we’d have half our problems solved. Republicans fault government, deadbeats, the media and public employee unions, or what they call Democrats. Democrats, in turn, point to greedy corporations, heartless politicians and the flinty rich, by which they mean Republicans.
But it doesn’t stop there. Rural areas blame Portland. Struggling inland towns blame rich coastal ones. Coastal towns blame them back. About the only thing we all seem to agree on is that, somehow, Massachusetts is behind it all.
There are undoubtedly people in government, corporations, unions and even in southern Maine who bear some responsibility for our anemic economy. I’m not so sure about Massachusetts. But the problem with getting mad at them is that those are the same people who we need to pull together to build Maine’s next economy. All of them. So while it might be great fun to denounce all of these evil forces that are arrayed against us, it’s also self-defeating.
Maine has enormous potential to grow into a new economy, but first we’ll have to work on a few bad habits. One is the pervasive pessimism that I mentioned in my last column. The next is this inclination toward finger-pointing, which only stokes anger and encourages a kind of victimhood that has proved, over the last 30 to 40 years, to be a path to nowhere.
Here’s a radically simple idea for building the next economy that is deeply rooted in our own rich tradition. Let’s stop waiting for salvation from somewhere else and instead build prosperity from the bottom up, and with our own hands. Let’s get behind the idea of a small business, entrepreneurial economy based on what’s here now rather than what might come here from away. Let’s push ourselves to believe in what we can do together, invest in each other, invent more, take more chances, learn harder and work better.
Why can’t we make Maine a place that celebrates entrepreneurs and risk-takers, inventors, tinkerers and dreamers who are creating new ideas and products that are distinctly from Maine? Why can’t Maine become a place where small businesses are energetically supported and encouraged to deeply root in Maine soil?
It can’t be done, you say? Our resources are too meager, our soil too thin, our climate too cold and our infrastructure too weak. Woe is us and throw in a few ‘alas and alacks’ while you’re at it. If you’re infected with that particular virus, I invite you to learn a bit more about Maine history and what we have done together, through sheer tenacity, resourcefulness and talent.
You could start by reading Colin Woodard’s terrific “Lobster Coast” or any of the other excellent Maine histories at your local library.
Here’s what you’ll discover. Prosperity is part of our heritage. While Maine wasn’t the first choice for Europeans who came to America (if you had any choice between Pennsylvania or Virginia or Maine, where would you go?), and it was a hardscrabble and somewhat irascible lot that first settled here, by the late 19th century Maine had become remarkably prosperous, thanks in part to the quality of the products we produced, including some of the world’s best sailing ships, our trustworthiness and hard work.
Still can’t believe that Maine was ever — gasp — prosperous, let alone one of the nation’s wealthier states? Then trust your own eyes. Inspect the neighborhoods of virtually any town in Maine with open access to the sea. You will see magnificent homes and public buildings meant to last centuries rather than decades. You’ll see public parks and impressive schools and magnificent places of worship. How could people afford to build those structures and communities? They had a vibrant economy build from the bottom up. Rather than complain about what they didn’t have, they used what they did have wisely, including public money, raw materials, imagination, pride in their work and an appreciation of their communities.
We have those same resources today. The conditions here are still good for growing a new economy. In fact, even while we squabble about who’s at fault, that economy is already sprouting. Maybe we should start adding a little water and positive sunshine, instead of vinegar, and help it grow even faster.
Thanks to everyone who sent me ideas last week on Maine’s success stories. If you’re part of the next economy in Maine, let me know and I’ll try to share your story in future columns.
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: