Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Sometimes the forces of change appear both impersonal and irresistible. Maine is getting older. Short of joining Ray Kurzweil in downing 157 pills every morning and recording our every thought in the chemical and digital quest for immortality, what can we possibly do about that?
Job growth in Maine is slower than it was 20 years ago and slower than in most other states in the nation. Short of adding 20,000 of us to the cast of North Woods Law and racing Duck Dynasty to the top of the reality TV charts, what can we possibly do about that?
Maine's civic institutions were established in the days of Jeffersonian democracy when households and businesses were largely the same thing, when new towns were established a day's ride from the last town and when government was when the "town fathers" got together every March to decide what public decisions needed to be made.
Today such local control has left us with far too many governmental institutions, each becoming more expensive as it struggles to maintain its place in a world where the lives of households and businesses extend far beyond 19th-century municipal boundaries. Short of undertaking yet another futile round of institutional "reorganization," what can we possibly do about that?
Well, given a little thought, maybe this force isn't so irresistible.
Most Maine communities consist of a selection of large entities, what some call anchor institutions -- major employers, municipal governments, schools, hospitals -- and a collection of small entities -- Main Street business enterprises and a wide variety of civic organizations, ranging from church groups to historical societies to fraternal organizations. The central challenge for Maine, I believe, is revitalizing the links between the large and the small institutions. Such community building, I am convinced, is the best way for Maine to address not just the problems of an obsolete, uneconomical system of government, but also the apparently unrelated demographic and economic problems.
Maine's quality of place is a world-class resource. Thousands of relatively young "retirees" come here every year, even if only for part of the year, to establish new or extended lives in safe, amenity-filled communities set within a breathtakingly beautiful natural environment. Hundreds of young, bright, educated, potential employees would leave their traffic-clogged, expensive, dangerous urban centers if they could find good jobs in communities with first-rate schools.
Maine's traditional "major" employers have suffered huge job losses over the past generation as the toll of globalization has undercut our formerly low-cost manufacturers. At the same time, our new "major" employers (including both for-profit corporations and nonprofit hospitals, research institutions and universities) desperately search for the same bright, educated workers who would love to move here.
So what's the link? Where is the matchmaker? Who's going to be the straw that stirs the drink? Who's going to play Lily Tomlin's Ernestine and plug in the lines that just need to be connected? Who's going to make the first "one ringy-dingy"?
I don't know, but replacing both the resentment directed at outsiders "from away" and the scorn directed at insiders "stuck in obsolete traditions" has to be the place to start. We need employers to become engaged in schools, and selectmen to welcome seasonal residents as valued constituents and Main Street businesses to see municipal officials as colleagues rather than obstacles.
We need to look on new residents not merely as taxpayers and potential donors but as successful participants in the global economy whose experience and wisdom are welcome additions to the way we hope life will become.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at