The broadest measure of economic well-being is personal income. And over the decades, it has been the carrot that has perpetually dangled just out of our reach. Sometimes we get closer to the national average in personal income – either in rate of growth or total per person – and sometimes we fall back. But we never seem to catch up. Like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s elusive football, we forever fall short, but never give up trying. Whatever the list of failures and our place in the national rankings, we can never let go of the glorious dream of putting the game winner between the cross bars.

This magnificent obsession is unfortunate in the sense that it diverts our attention from examining the components of that income whose changes may contain good or bad news that we never even think about. For example, between 2009 and 2013, personal income in Maine increased from $48.9 billion to $54.5 billion, an increase of 11.3 percent. This growth was less than the national increase of 16.6 percent, thus showing that we had slipped further behind in the national income race. But because our population has been basically stable over the period, our income on a per capita basis has fallen behind the national average less rapidly. Our $41,000 figure now stands at 92 percent of the national average – pretty close in our long history of playing catch up.

But these gross measures hide far more interesting details. For instance, the net earnings of cross-border commuters (the earnings of Maine residents working outside Maine and of non-Maine residents working in Maine) has increased from $966 million to more than $1.1 billion over the period, an increase of 19 percent; far more than the national increase of only 11 percent. For those inclined to the glass half empty disposition, this leads to bemoaning the fact that so many Maine workers have to go to New Hampshire and Massachusetts to get work. Well yes, but how much of that earning is really just checks coming from businesses in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Raleigh, Palo Alto or Mumbai to workers who have convinced their employers to let them work at least some of the time in Maine? Formal and informal telecommuting is certainly a possible explanation for some of this increase, and thus an opportunity to try to build on.

The same can be said about the $4.2 billion income of non-farm proprietors. This income – going to sole proprietors and S corporations – increased by 22 percent over the 2009 to 2013 period and represented the equivalent of 17 percent of total wage and salary compensation in Maine in 2013. This trend also holds promise for Maine and deserves policy attention to small business mentoring and support programs rather than more hand-wringing about our lagging income totals.

Finally, income in Maine derived from dividends, interest and rent increased by more than $1.6 billion over the period. This amounted to an increase of 20 percent and brought our share of our total income derived from this source to nearly 18 percent, virtually equal to the national average. Clearly, this reflects Maine’s position as a desirable place for retirees, and thus another avenue for potential economic development initiatives. How can we build businesses to serve our growing retiree population? How can we find ways to engage our new retirees in their adopted communities? How can we bring their experiences to benefit local businesses and local schools?

In short, the devils – but also the angels – are in the details, and we owe it to ourselves to try diligently to find them all rather than simply continue to fixate on our dreams of yesteryear.

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

[email protected]