September 1, 2013

Charles Lawton: Instead of entrepreneurship, let's call it customization

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds!

-- Bob Marley

Looking to the future, Maine sees a rock and two very hard places.

Our oldest-in-the-nation population grows older every day. By current projections, our traditional working-age population (18 to 64) will decline by 14 percent by 2030, while our over-65 population expands by a whopping 65 percent.

At our current rate of job growth, employment will not regain its 2006 peak until 2017, and, until our elderly die off or move away, it will never reach a rate sufficient to attract the young workers needed to reach demographic sustainability.

These hard demographic and economic realities are pushing us against a fiscal rock. Promises we have made to provide health care and retirement benefits, plus the ever-rising cost of operating public infrastructure built for young people we no longer have and the far larger rural populations of a generation ago, mean that even maintaining current levels of public services requires a greater and greater tax burden. These growing fiscal pressures are forced through a hopelessly obsolete and leaky tax system whose growing list of exemptions and credits has taken more activities off the tax table than remain on it. The resultant legislative squabbling has bred both resistance to reform and cynicism about the democratic process.

Whence shall come Maine's salvation? Of what vision for the future shall we dream?

In a word, entrepreneurship.

And I don't mean burning incense at the alter of venture capital hoping for a series of messianic heroes who will found new businesses in their garages, build them to scale and create thousands of jobs -- a new generation of Kate and Tom Chappells, David Shaws and Shawn Moodys. Yes, we want such heroes, but I'm talking about a broader cultural change, one that touches everyone, not just a select few. To bring us through the test we now face, we must seek to instill in every Maine person two qualities: First, a powerful self-fulfilling desire to do something well, and second, a sense of pride in and loyalty to the group with whom we do it.

Forget the highfalutin term entrepreneurship and its strong whiff of the rarefied air of Cambridge and Berkeley. I'm talking about the more deeply American idea of enterprise, of Ralph Waldo Emerson preaching self-reliance, of Abraham Lincoln writing with coal on the back of a shovel by candlelight, of Huck and Jim on the river, of Rosie the Riveter helping beat back fascism.

We must cease dividing ourselves into camps for and against the host of ever more complicated and confusing government programs, choosing our position not on some fundamental value but on whether "regulations" make us a "winner" or a "loser.

Instead, we must find ways to deconstruct our enormous corporate and bureaucratic institutions and link smaller enterprises. If we find ways to link schools with businesses from the earliest ages, we won't have to worry about skills gaps arising after 12 years of education. Small groups in some schools and some businesses will be part of common enterprises. And graduates will have both the skill to fill a needed job upon graduation and the courage and social support to leave it when the passion of personal interest leads in another direction.

Instead of burdening jobs with the rigidifying institutional overhead of health care and retirement, we should change one-size-fits-all "entitlement programs" into easily personalized and portable individual accounts. If we -- and the places we shop -- can personalize our music, our news and our food, we -- and our banks and physicians -- can do the same for our finances and our health.

The magic of the digital communications revolution so far has been mass customization. We need to extend that trend from products to people, from filling shopping carts to building careers. The micro-enterprises of the future will be individuals and families. And Maine will be the better for it.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

clawton@planningdecisions.com

 

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