Wow. My column last week headlined “culture of negativity” really struck a chord. Some readers applauded, decrying, as one said, “a handful of obstructionists (who) masquerade under a misleading title to achieve a perpetuation of the status quo.” Others objected, saying – to quote one – “I’ve learned to fear and distrust … unbridled greed, growth for growth’s sake, and the destructive result of gross materialism.”
There, in a nutshell, we have both sides. On one side, those who see the chorus of “nos” to all manner of proposed change in Maine as a desperate grasping onto a precarious status quo threatened from all sides, as a reflection of the fundamental belief that – to borrow Einstein’s dichotomy – we live in a hostile universe.
On the other side are those who say that the “nos,” at least their “nos,” are not purely inward and selfish, not just the manifestation of the “I’ve got mine and I’m not going to let you take it away” attitude. Their “nos,” they insist, are not solely negative. Yes, they say, we are against “unbridled greed,” “growth for growth’s sake” and “gross materialism.” That may come across as negative in the context of any particular issue, but the other side of that “no” is the “yes, we are for frugality and stewardship, yes we are for a quality of life here in Maine that far exceeds that of other places where the economy is growing more rapidly.”
“It is not the universe we believe is hostile,” they say, “but the effects of much of contemporary culture and the abject failures of so much of the change ‘the experts’ told us we could count on.” These “nos” are supported by evidence all around us. Just look at the wars in the Middle East dragging on with no apparent “victory” in sight; just look at the recession dragging on with no apparent job recovery for most of us; just look at the catastrophic disaster of the Obamacare rollout. “My old insurance policy wasn’t great,” millions have said over the past few months, “but it sure was better than the mess now offered (or ordered) as the alternative.” That could be the mantra for many of the “nos” in Maine. And these “nos” deserve serious consideration. I do not intend to give them short shrift. They must be brought into the public policy conversation if we are to get beyond the dynamic inaction that now condemns us to bear the consequences of doing nothing.
Our current policy is simply dithering. It is backing away from serious tax reform while wringing our hands about choosing between revenue sharing to keep property taxes down and expanding services for the low income. It is backing away from serious reconsideration of how we provide education, of how we link it more directly to the acquisition of 21st-century life skills required for productive employment, while wasting our time fighting the consolidation/deconsolidation wars. Our current policy is neither “no” nor “yes.” It is kicking the can down the road while hoping for fairy dust.
The reason for my calling attention to “the chorus of nos” is that without a powerful, concerted “yes” to something, Maine is condemned to a very obvious future – the slow depopulation of our rural areas and the gradual transformation of our prettiest villages and liveliest urban neighborhoods into seasonal habitats for visitors and part-time residents with non-Maine sources of income. Maine will become a naturally evolved 21st-century theme park, and our predominant source of employment will be serving our visitors. Some of us will get rich running the restaurants, hotels, construction companies, hospitals and nursing homes and others of us will wear plastic name tags, wave smiling hellos and earn enough to live on the outskirts of our quaint villages and sleek urban centers.
This is the future the current logjam of “nos” is creating, whatever their underlying motivations. My hope, in this season of Advent, of looking expectantly, hopefully into this future, that we may come to see the universe as at least potentially friendly.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at: