Monday, July 20, 2009

The Rain in Maine

The rain started in early June and stopped a few days ago. At least that’s how it seems. And it has been much colder than normal, with temperatures touching 80 only a few times, even though we’re through most of July. The water table is high, and the Saco River looks like the Mississippi. The sump pumps are working overtime to keep cellars dry, and for some cellars it’s a losing battle.

Maine’s economy depends – far too much, I fear - on tourism, and the tourists don’t like rain. A smarter state would work hard to attract manufacturing, but Maine people are ambivalent about manufacturing, especially when it means big plants owned by big companies. We are all for small business, so that’s the only kind we have. We have thousands of small businesses catering to tourists. If a big company threatens to build a plant that might employ two or three thousand workers, there will be a referendum, a mighty battle between good and evil. A greedy out-of-state company presumes to come into our beloved state and upset all that we hold dear. Yes, there will be jobs, but there will also be more traffic, more crime, and the first thing you know we will be on the road to – I say, on the road to depravation. Our River City is Augusta.

That’s the way it is in Maine, which is almost defiantly proud of its poverty. The politicians will tell you that we are disadvantaged by geography, being at the end of the distribution chain. That might have been true a century ago, but in the age of the internet, no one is at the end because there is no end. No, Maine’s economic distress is self-inflicted. We have high taxes, a business-unfriendly legislature, and an apathetic electorate. Our brightest graduates emigrate because they are bright enough to know the score.

The people up north, in “the County” (Aroostook) know the score, too, but there aren’t enough of them. So their attempts to develop some of their abundant land are stymied by the passionate preservationists in Portland, who may never visit the north woods but say they want to save them “for our children and grandchildren.” But their children and grandchildren will be living in Austin or Atlanta, because there weren’t enough good jobs in Maine.

Maine is a beautiful state, and I am very happy to live here (except in winter). And I would not like our coastline to resemble the stretch around Fort Lauderdale or Miami. So I tip my hat to past preservationists who kept growth rational. But things are tough right now, and it is time to put out the welcome mat. Small business is nice, but big business – the kind that can hire people by the thousands – is better. The only kind of small business worth having is one that aspires to be a big business. What would Maine be like today if Bob Noyce or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates had decided to pitch his tent in Portland? It would be different, and to many Mainers it would be worse. But they are wrong. It would be better, with or without all that rain.