Maine taxpayers just got held up by a gang of “job creators” in pinstriped suits, who are making off with $16 million of our hard-earned taxes. They promised to rebuild the mill in East Millinocket. We gave them a check without requiring them to deliver. They said, “Thank you very much” and walked. Now we’re all on the hook.

Unfortunately, what happened in this case is just the tip of the iceberg. We lavish Wall Street with a banquet of tax breaks amounting to about a half-billion dollars each year.

Some of those incentives are good investments because they actually produce jobs. Most of them probably aren’t. We don’t know because nobody is monitoring them. We just hand over a check to anyone who says the magic word – jobs – and then we launch the celebrations.

It’s a heck of a way to run a bank, folks. How did such an idiotic system get set up, and why can’t we fix it? It is the creature of a long line of politicians, in both parties, who like to give things away, are enchanted by the rich and powerful and are afraid to demand results.

Here are five political traits that created this mess:

SMALL THINKING

If you’ve ever sat through a local public hearing at budget time, you may have noticed that the big-ticket items – the things we’ve been doing forever – hardly ever get talked about. Instead, most of the energy goes into the smallest stuff.

Augusta is now consuming itself with the little things that make people mad, like welfare cheats and immigrants, and spending almost no time on where the big money is going, or what we really need to do to move the state forward.

Think of all the energy that is devoted now to welfare, for instance. How important is that issue? In over five years of cases involving MaineCare fraud, the state has recovered less than a million dollars. That’s not even the interest on this one corporate fraud case in Millinocket, let alone the $2.5 billion we’ve given away in tax credits during that same period.

WALL STREET WINS

Most people in politics are well-meaning but overmatched when it comes to dealing with highly sophisticated lawyers and lobbyists. Small states like Maine are the favored targets of gray-suit syndicates that make their money from tax giveaways handed out by awe-shucks locals.

POLITICS OVER ECONOMICS

You couldn’t fill a sticky note with what most politicians know about the economy. They know how to win elections and repeat slogans, but if the entry exam to politics were a paper on what actually makes economies grow, the majority would flunk out.

IDEOLOGY COMES FIRST

Sound bites and ideology regularly win out over facts and results.

The right is so anxious to please the rich that it long ago stopped asking hard questions. Whatever business says it needs is unquestioningly granted, including blank checks from the vault.

The left, meanwhile, just wants the pie to be cut up better, without much concern with how the pie got baked in the first place, or who’s going to bake the next one.

POOR NEGOTIATORS

Most politicians focus on the next election and on building monuments. They want quick results and ribbon-cuttings, and they’re too willing to pay a steep price for any promising lottery ticket. That makes them miserable negotiators for taxpayers.

What can be done about this problem? We could start with a little bipartisan outrage.

Where are the fiscal conservatives who are railing against welfare cheats and waste, fraud and abuse? Real fiscal conservatism requires that we subject powerful and well-connected hucksters to the same scrutiny that powerless people on welfare get.

There’s nothing wrong with tax breaks, if they actually produce jobs. But that requires paying less attention to promises and more to actual jobs created. It also requires us to get over this absurd notion that we should lower taxes for every rich person because they’re “job creators.” We’ve got to lower taxes for people who actually create jobs, or get our money back.

That will require us to do something we don’t do now, which is to take politics out of decisions about tax breaks and measuring compliance. That will require an independent and competent agency that can not only cut through big promises about jobs but also follow through to see if those promises are met.

In other words, we need to trust but verify. And we need an economic strategy that is more than the current give-away-and-hope system.

Alan Caron is a partner in the strategic consulting firm of Caron and Egan. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]