Two incidents touching on Maine within a larger world:

n Last spring, I had the pleasure of meeting the head of a research team at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Connecticut. In the course of explaining the nature of the research her team was undertaking, she explained that the human body is composed of approximately 30 trillion cells. And, to top even that mind-boggling number, she added that each body contains within it 40 trillion (give or take a few) non-human microbes.

Whatever we may think, it seems, we humans are not simple, discrete, separate individuals. Each of us is, rather, a thundering herd of cellular subsystems constantly interacting with separate thundering herds of microbial visitors, all of which are constantly being created, growing, changing and dying. Our individual well- (or ill-) being is the result of a virtually infinite variety of interactions that we are only now beginning to understand, interactions that we in Maine are fortunate to have world-class teams of researchers investigating.

n In early August, I was at the Wells transportation center waiting for the Downeaster. I arrived early and saw that the only other person on the platform was a short, muscularly stocky, bald black man talking animatedly on his cellphone.

After he hung up, we struck up a conversation and learned that each of us was awaiting the arrival of grandchildren – mine from New York City, his from his home in Alabama. He had, he told me, recently begun a relationship with “a new woman friend” who lived in Boston and had a summer place in Ogunquit. They both had recently retired, and were engaged in resolving the dilemma of where to live – a debate I encounter quite often here in “Vacationland.”

As we traded observations about Maine, I noticed over his shoulder the arrival of two more travelers: bearded young men smoking and busily engaged with their digital devices. After completing a phone call, one stubbed out his cigarette, knelt down on the concrete and began what I took to be his evening prayers – rising periodically on his knees and then bowing back down in what I took to be a generally northeasterly direction.

Only when the train pulled in did car doors start to slam and a dozen or so people who looked like me – elderly, white, gray-haired – wander up to the platform to greet their visitors. “Isn’t it wonderful to get a taste of some of the rest of the world here in Wells, Maine?” I thought to myself as I waved goodbye to my acquaintance from Alabama, and turned to hug my granddaughter.

Reflecting on these episodes, in light of the maelstrom of race, state identity and fear that now engulfs us, one overwhelming thought surfaces: “God spare us from the simple answer!”

We humans are – both within our skins as individuals and among ourselves as societies – enormously and unfathomably complicated. “What a piece of work is a man!” indeed. Yet, following “Hamlet” further, will all this enormous complexity in the end prove to be no more than the “quintessence of dust”?

The answer, I fear, will have to be “yes” until we can escape the beguiling appeal of answers that are, as H.L. Mencken said, “clear, simple and wrong.”

“Build a wall!” “Tax the rich!” “Abandon our allies!” “Free education, free health care!” “Blame the immigrants!” “Fiber to every home!” “Go to war!” “Don’t go to war!” The list goes on and on – complex problems matched with simple answers.

The more I reflect on the public policy challenges we face, the more I am drawn away from big problems and big solutions and toward hundreds of little problems surrounded by thousands of entrepreneurially motivated teams formulating and testing specific solutions.

Current treatments for cancer are generally accompanied by undesirable side effects such as hair loss and nausea – the collateral damage of solving a complex problem with a single solution. The research spearheaded by scientists at JAX seeks to eliminate or limit such damage by targeting treatments only to cancer cells and even to the specific genetic makeup of each individual.

The treatment for one person’s cancer will be different from the treatment for another person’s cancer. Individualized, targeted solutions will be better because they solve problems with fewer unintended consequences.

So it must be, I believe, for our socioeconomic problems. Rather than dream (and argue) about big (and expensive), one-size-fits-all solutions, we would be far better served supporting a wide variety of small, diverse, well-explained, well-designed experiments – and then following their results closely.

Humility and patience in the face of the enormous complexity of individual and cultural structures we barely understand are much more likely to produce healthy outcomes than the clear, simple and wrong solutions we fight about so ferociously. And humility and patience are possible only after we muster the courage to confront the fear that binds us so tightly to so many clear, simple and wrong ideas.

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

[email protected]