One of the problems we have with growing Maine’s next economy is that we have too few people thinking about it. We’ve got many folks who are talking about how to slow down, avoid mistakes, stop projects, spread the wealth or protect the status quo. But we’ve got precious few focusing on the practical difficulties of growing prosperity for all.
Some people don’t even know why it’s important. I invite them to spend a little time with any of the tens of thousands of families in Maine who are struggling to make ends meet and who deserve better than dead-end jobs or another handout.
We need a big conversation in Maine about where we’re headed and how we get there, and it can’t be left to Augusta or suffer from being too timid. By almost any measure, what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked. Part of the problem is that too many Mainers think that the economy is someone else’s concern. It isn’t. It’s everyone’s best hope.
We could start by working on a common understanding of the problem. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a big difference between growing the economic pie and cutting it up fairly. There’s an equally large difference between growth that serves local customers — and recirculates the money we already have — and growth that brings new resources to the state.
The confusion between these two kinds of growth is most easily seen in the term “economic development,” which is used to describe virtually any activity that allows a politician to cut a ribbon. A new store opens that kills off another two doors down. A house is built to replace one that burned. A supermarket goes up and a few years later three small groceries turn the lights off. All called economic development.
To the guy building those places, or the town hungry for new property taxes, that’s great. But those aren’t generally the things that put more money into people’s pockets or increase the buying power of a community. The point is that all growth is not equal. There’s growth that replaces things and growth that fits Maine and raises the economic tide.
To see the difference between local and income growth, take a ride to any mill town that lost its mills. The people who worked there built products for the world and brought dollars into their local economies, where they were recirculated multiple times. Without those jobs, people still need food and houses and services, but they have less to spend on anything else.
What those towns teach us is that if we’re not producing goods and services for export to others then we’re only circulating the money we already have, which isn’t exactly the expressway to a new prosperity.
We’ve been losing some of those jobs where we make things and we haven’t been replacing them fast enough. That an ongoing process. In our earlier days, we built prosperity through the things we harvested, like lumber, potatoes, fish and even ice. Thanks to our natural air conditioning in the summer, we’ve even harvested tourists. We’ve also built things like ships and clothing and rubber boots, and other fine products from Maine, like earmuffs and bee wax products and specialty foods that people love.
We still have good jobs in most of those older industries, and everyone wants to hold on to them, but thanks to mechanization, federal budget constraints and global competition, we’re not likely to see substantial new job growth there, with the possible exception of tourism. So if prosperity comes from making things and there isn’t substantial or foreseeable growth in the traditional products of Maine, where do we begin to look for a new prosperity?
We look to new products and new ideas that we can sell around the world. We focus on growing the jobs of tomorrow, and preparing ourselves for them. And we refocus our economic development priorities away from replacement development and toward the rise of new companies and innovation.
Maine people have what it takes to build the next economy, and they’re already doing it every day all across the state. We’re a resourceful group. We’re inventors, hard workers and, despite our tendency to griping gloom and doom, risk takers. I suppose it’s all in the water somehow.
But even while we hold on to our past, it’s time to push into the future. That’s the pathway to Maine’s next economy and to the prosperity that Maine people deserve.
Alan Caron is a principal of the Caron & Egan Consulting Group in Freeport. He also serves as the President of Envision Maine, a nonpartisan organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. He can be reached at [email protected]