On a long drive Down East last week, I listened to a radio interview with a pair of food scientists/cooks. They recounted the tribulations of trying to create the perfect (or even marginally acceptable) gluten-free sugar cookie.
In pursuit of their healthy goal, they tried more than 60 recipes, rigorously testing scores of ingredients, in various combinations of quantities and with different baking times and temperatures. They doggedly consumed each miserable batch trying to find the combination that would produce a cookie whose taste, texture and consistency would meet their standards.
Suddenly through the ears inside my head emerged the voice of Eric Clapton at the Bob Dylan anniversary concert wailing (from “Love Minus Zero”): “She knows there’s no success like failure; and that failure’s no success at all.”
That’s it! Entrepreneurship and economic development are like cooking or singing or writing poetry. They are innately creative. They arise from the uniquely individual vision of some maker, some doer, some enterpriser, who stubbornly and optimistically insists over and over again to get it – whatever “it” may be – right.
That’s why there is no single formula, or recipe, or set of policy directives that can assure economic development success. Every combination of people and place is unique. There is no universal formula, no one-size-fits-all product. What works (tastes good, sounds right) in one place may not in another. And that’s why arguing about policy absolutes – cut taxes, reduce regulations, equalize incomes – is so counterproductive. It takes energy away from experimentation. If the two test cooks on the radio had simply kept arguing – “More xantham gum and butter!” “No, more sugar and potato flour!” – and trashing each other’s cookies each time they opened the oven, their only success would have been to remain both hungry and ignorant. Sound familiar?
All this is a long way of setting the context for two bits of good news in Maine this week. The first is the announcement of Maine Startup and Create Week, and the second is the announcement that Harvard Pilgrim Health Care will enter Maine’s health insurance market next year. Both show that while we may bemoan the gridlock that seems to possess our institutions of government like a demon, we have much experimentation to celebrate in our marketplace.
Maine Startup and Create Week – organized by a variety of nonprofit organizations and backed by local and national sponsors – builds on and expands last year’s successful Maine Startup Week. It will bring together local startups (actual and would be), nationally prominent entrepreneurs and experts on business development. From June 12 to 20, it will turn Portland into a veritable entrepreneurial test kitchen where all manner of cookies and recipes will be discussed, tested, altered and developed. Whatever the outcome for individual enterprises (some cookies will pass the taste test, others won’t), the fact that lots of goulash is bubbling in Maine’s pot is good news for our economy.
Probably no topic illustrates the contrast between policy deadlock and entrepreneurial experimentation than the Affordable Care Act. But while politicians lock horns trying to ram it through or kill it, success or failure rides on the willingness of insurers like Harvard Pilgrim to experiment. Whatever becomes of the act itself will be less important than how its effects survive in the real world. And that’s where Harvard Pilgrim’s offerings will make a difference. The more that individuals come to view health insurance as their own choice, the more businesses will be able to concentrate on business, and that will be good news for our economy.
Overall, the more Maine comes to understand that there really is no success like failure, the more likely it will be that we won’t continue to fail at creating the prosperity we want.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at: [email protected]