Is Maine the greatest state in the country? Is America the greatest country?

In its debut episode a few years ago, the television show “The Newsroom,” written by Aaron Sorkin, featured an opening scene where a fictional cable TV news anchor played by Jeff Daniels is asked by a college student to say “why America is the greatest country in the world.”

After first attempting to answer the question with humor and political correctness, the Will McAvoy character is forced into giving a real answer and launches into a powerful and truthful rant:

“There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, No. 4 in labor force, and No. 4 in exports.

“We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what … you’re talking about.”

After pausing and shifting gears from high-volume anger to a tone of thoughtful and quiet despair, he continued to address the stunned audience of college students and faculty:

“We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest.

“We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy.

“We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

Every time I watch that iconic scene I inevitably convert the words and context from “America” as the subject to “Maine,” with the question: Is Maine the greatest state?

Unlike Will McAvoy, I always answer “yes,” without giving it a lot of thought. I love Maine. My family loves Maine. And when you love someone or something, you default to an emotional filter before doing any critical analysis. But until we recognize our challenges and unite in addressing them, we are merely pretending that all is well in Vacationland and that our “greatness” will solve our problems.

First, we must balance our love for this great state with the critical thinking needed to effect desperately needed change. Young people are leaving, older citizens are more vulnerable than ever, our economy is stagnant, and we’re facing more than $3 billion in statewide infrastructure needs over the next five years. These challenges are insurmountable – if we ignore them.

But instead of tackling the hard work needed with the short-term sacrifice demanded, a virtual army all around Maine is attempting to develop our way into future economic stability and prosperity under the guise of “economic development.” There are more than 50 groups on the state level and within many municipalities that have departments and executive-level positions dedicated to bringing business to our state, and its towns and cities.

These well-intentioned groups get together for coffee, lunches and “think-tank” sessions, with lots of charts and Post-It notes scattered around meeting rooms all across Maine. They produce optimistic reports that say nothing and go nowhere, with the greatest beneficiaries being the hotels that host the meetings.

Maine does not need any more economic development groups, commissions, gurus or think-tanks. We don’t need to invest in “hunters” to bring capital and companies to Maine. What’s needed are skilled “gardeners” to create an optimum business environment based on components including education, tax policy, energy and health care.

We already have 1.3 million people who love Maine and believe that we live in the greatest state in the country. That chorus is full. Now is the time to put all of our focus and energy into solving our urgent challenges.

Like water and electricity, capital will always seek out the most efficient path and it can’t be forced by Post-It notes, economic development gurus, or signs that say, “Open for Business.”

Sidebar Elements

Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week.

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