My wife and I can’t seem to drive by a Marden’s store without looking over at each other and checking the dashboard clock. Next thing we know, and usually without so much as a word, we’re pushing a cart through narrow aisles finding fantastic bargains on things we never knew we needed.
I was thinking about Marden’s the other day while listening to Gov. Paul LePage’s latest State of the State address, where he promised to crack down on drug dealers and explained that the compassionate thing to do was to leave 70,000 people without health insurance, even though the federal government is picking up the tab. The centerpiece of any governor’s speech, though, is his plan for the economy.
LePage started his speech on a most encouraging note, and seemed to be getting the idea that Maine’s best economic hopes are right here, right now, in the thousands of small businesses and entrepreneurial startups happening around the state.
“We are a state of entrepreneurial doers,” he said. “There are 40,000 small businesses in Maine. Our state has roughly 130,000 microbusinesses. They employ 170,000 people. They drive our economy. If they could each add one more job, that would transform our economy.”
Imagine my delight in discovering that, at long last, LePage and I are in complete agreement about something. Pay attention to the little guys! Focus on the small and beautiful! Invest in ourselves! I waited breathlessly to hear how he was going to build Maine’s next economy, with entrepreneurs and creative “doers” as the engine.
Instead, we got this: “Tonight I am proposing a bold new idea to attract companies that will invest more than $50 million and create more than 1,500 jobs. My proposal will offer valuable incentives for companies that choose to locate in certain areas. They are called â€˜Open for Business Zones’.”
Where are the “valuable incentives” for the can-do entrepreneurs and microbusinesses to help them transform our economy? Where’s the big idea for the little guys?
To government-watchers, LePage’s economic “plan” will sound comfortingly familiar. It’s exactly what we’ve been doing for decades since the mills began to move south. It’s called smokestack chasing, where we put all our hopes and energy into trying to attract big companies that will save us with their great jobs and benefits. It has been a spectacularly unsuccessful strategy that has produced more false hopes and lost opportunities than jobs. So now, according to LePage, we should just keep doing what doesn’t work until it doesn’t work better.
LePage says we need to compete with southern states that have low taxes, low wages and massive poverty. By all means, let’s emulate the roaring prosperity of Mississippi and Louisiana, where the average income is even lower than Maine’s, everyone lives a shorter life and schools are among the worst in the country. All we have to do, apparently, is acquire their bad habit of giving away the farm to get a tomato.
Here’s the problem: We will never succeed by promoting ourselves as a cheap date. We won’t lift ourselves up by setting our sights low. We cannot win races to the bottom with southern states filled with despair. And while I love Marden’s, we can’t “Mardenize” the Maine economy by chasing bottom-feeding companies that move to an area for lower taxes.
If our core economic strategy is to outbid other states for companies chasing sweetheart deals, we have to be ready when those businesses drop us for the next infatuation, and probably leave us with a lot of unpaid bills while they’re at it. Haven’t we seen this show enough, already?
LePage says that “liberal politicians are taking us down a dangerous path — a path that is unsustainable,” but throwing money at big corporations to entice them here is also a dangerous and unsustainable path, and an example of conservative economic theory run amok.
Here’s a truly bold but simple idea: Why don’t we stop doing things that don’t work and expand things that do work? We could start by putting more of the taxpayers’ limited resources into small businesses, entrepreneurs and startups who are creating locally grown businesses, rooted here and able to grow quickly. That strategy may not give politicians the chance to cut ribbons and generate headlines, but it will put more Maine people to work than smokestack-chasing has ever done.
How about building Maine’s next economy by lavishing all of our love and attention on the little guys for a change?
Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan Consulting Group, which advises businesses and organizations on strategies for growth and the president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy. He can be reached at email@example.com.