Sunday, May 26, 2013
One of the pillars of conventional wisdom in economics is that "you can't get rich taking in each other's laundry." The point of this old saw is that the only effective way to wealth and employment growth is to find or create a regional advantage, specialize in doing that and sell it to the rest of the world. For the last several hundred years, certainly, that has proven to be true.
One example of the exception that proves the rule in this case, at least for Maine, has been the local fair or festival. From Boothbay Harbor's Windjammer Days to the Rockland lobster fest to the Yarmouth Clam Festival and the Windsor fair, many Maine communities have found a substantial, if not primary, economic engine in making a public spectacle of whatever specialty they choose to celebrate.
There has been a long debate in the tourism industry about the nature and definition of visitors. Is "tourist" revenue only the money someone "from away" brings? Or is tourism any travel spending regardless of the origin and destination of the traveler? From the standpoint of advertising and promotion, of course, these questions are very important. From the bottom line of the individual motel or restaurant owner, they are irrelevant – as long as the money keeps flowing.
And therein lies the value of the local fair or festival. Yes, neither a Yarmouth resident buying a lobster in Rockland nor a Rockland resident buying a clam in Yarmouth adds net spending to the Maine economy as does a Massachusetts resident buying anything in either town. But if the residents of both Rockland and Yarmouth are motivated to clean up and decorate their streets, bring out their bands and have a grand old time, both communities benefit in ways they would not otherwise. While taking in each other's laundry may not be the fountain of perpetual wealth, it is certainly better than not doing your laundry.
John Maynard Keynes famously said that the source of investment is, at base, "animal spirits" – a perhaps irrational and otherwise inexplicable optimism, a willingness to undertake risks in hopes of future rewards. Indeed, the primary reason for today's sluggish economic growth is the absence of such "animal spirits," a sense of pessimism and fear that leads consumers and business and government to resist risk, resist investment, resist making the extra effort in expectation of an extra reward.
And it is in just such a pessimistic, risk-averse, nay-saying, fear-dominated environment that community fairs and festivals can make a major difference, if only symbolically. If we don't have raging individual animal spirits at least we can have celebratory collective community spirits. All fairs and festivals are intended to make money for local merchants and fair attractions. But they are universally organized and brought to life by hard-working volunteers whose only reward is their commitment to community, to their sense of continuing a tradition that was important in their younger days and that they hope can be important in the youths of their children and grandchildren.
In this sense, the purely financial return to local businesses from their fairs and festivals is less important than the psychic return to a community that cares enough about itself to take the risk of undertaking a venture that is difficult and whose success is uncertain. In communities where that spirit is waning and, indeed, in our nation as a whole, where fear and uncertainty have ruled the day for at least a decade, we have seen the results of an environment of fear and pessimism.
So here's to animal spirits and community festivals. Go out and enjoy a lobster roll and a plate of fried clams.
Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public-policy research firm. He can be reached at: