September 13, 2013

M.D. Harmon: To better serve seniors, Maine must attract more young people

More pro-business policies will draw the firms that offer revenue-generating jobs for younger workers.

Let's say you're doing a little carpentry around the house, and the tool you're using slips and gashes your hand.

Rule No. 1 for first aid being "Stop the bleeding," you bandage the injury and go to the emergency room.

Imagine how you would feel, however, if the doctor noted you were feeling dizzy from blood loss and only gave you a stimulant to treat that symptom, not bothering with stitches or a transfusion.

But proper treatment of an injury requires 1) effective, immediate action to address the real cause and 2) forethought and preparation.

Switching metaphors, suppose you decide you want to be an apiarist, a beekeeper just like your next-door neighbor. He has a bunch of hives and makes extra money selling his honey.

So, you build some hives, but no bees arrive. You buy some, but they promptly fly next door to your neighbor's hives.

When you ask him why, he shows you his yard, which is full of beautiful flowers. "I create a good work environment for my bees," he says.

So, producers have to find conditions suitable for profit-making so they will 1) arrive and stay and 2) be productive.

Why is it, then, when our political and economic leaders hold a conference to discuss the problems linked to the state's population (including its workforce) aging and becoming less productive, the main focus is how to serve older people better?

As reported here Wednesday, a series of roundtable talks organized by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, is gearing up to face the sad fact that "lawmakers and other state officials will confront powerful demographic forces that will demand changes in systems of health care, social services, transportation and caregiving."

Economist Charles Colgan told the group's first session that Maine must attract 5,000 to 10,000 new workers annually through 2030 just to offset the number of baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) who retire each year.

"We've got to get young people to move to Maine," Colgan said. "We have to do more than keep our kids here ... It's not enough (to replace people who are retiring) because not enough of them were born here."

And while Colgan identified the problem, other participants focused on the symptoms, seeking relief for "issues of aging" that will require greater public expenditures in all the areas listed above, and more.

So why aren't people trying first to stop the bleeding, and then replace lost blood?

The "demographic forces" we face aren't mysterious. They have causes, and discerning them is not rocket science. We need sufficient business growth to provide the revenues that will then support the services our elderly require.

The solution to giving people a bigger slice of the pie is to make the pie bigger. Otherwise, you can only pay needy Paul by robbing productive Peter, and that's no way to keep Peter around.

One Maine politician, at least, seems to know that. In its story on the roundtable, the Bangor Daily News quoted House Republican Leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport, who said in a statement, "How can you continually advocate higher taxes and then wonder why people aren't moving to your state? It's time Maine examines what's working in other states, where lower taxes, responsible budgeting, less welfare and a pro-growth attitude are bringing people in."

Rankings differ, but studies of the fastest-growing states contain lessons for Maine along the lines Fredette suggested.

Barring unexpected discoveries, Maine cannot count on natural resources to fuel job creation, like top-of-the-growth-chart states such as North Dakota and Texas are doing with oil and natural gas.

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