Here’s a quick quiz: How many of Maine’s major employers were lured here with big tax breaks and sweetheart deals like the ones that Gov. Paul LePage announced last week? Tick, tick, tick, tick. Time’s up! If you guessed “none,” you win.
If you look at the top 50 employers in Maine today, none of them was lured here with a basket of goodies and promises to fight labor unions. All but the national retail firms like Walmart and Home Depot, which are in every state, were home grown.
The problem with LePage’s plan isn’t that it’s too ambitious, as some Republicans have argued, but that it wastes more of our time chasing dead-end strategies to attract companies from away, rather than investing in ourselves to build a new economy.
There’s a concept in business called “opportunity cost.” It’s the value of what you didn’t do because you were busy doing something else. The opportunity cost of LePage’s plan is the problem. We’ve spent a half-century chasing fanciful dreams involving General Motors or Daddy Warbucks dropping a major manufacturing plant on us and solving all our problems.
It’s gotten us nowhere except into an ever-deepening hole. So naturally, LePage’s solution is to get a bigger shovel, all nice and shiny-new and dig harder. I expect that his next big idea will be to pitch us like some giant used car lot, with the world’s longest string of red, white and blue streamers along the New Hampshire border. Hey, while we’re at it, how about a bunch of those nifty gyrating air-guys?
Is this the best we can do? Have we sunk so far that we’re looking to the deep South’s economic strategies for inspiration?
LePage’s press conference undoubtedly included a packed room of reporters, campaign aides and skulking junior spies. What nobody noticed were all the ghosts of past governors trying to tell LePage, “We all tried that. It never worked.”
The last time we had a wave of big companies flock to Maine had nothing to do with low taxes and everything to do with abundant cheap river power. When that advantage was offset by dirt-cheap labor in the south and in Asia, most of them ran off in the night, leaving us to clean up the mess.
The simple truth is that the kind of companies that troll the country looking for giveaways and rock-bottom wages aren’t coming here. If they did, we wouldn’t be happy with them. What they’re looking for are places where poverty is high, the environment is something to make jokes about and the politicians are desperate to be liked. What Mainers want is employers that pay their bills and are good neighbors.
The third worse thing a politician can do is to push a bad idea. The second worse is to push it loudly. But the top prize goes to a politician who does both, ineptly. That’s exactly what LePage did last week when he tacked an anti-union provision onto the rollout of his one economic idea. He stepped on his own story.
The predictable result was muddled news coverage that split between his incentive plan and the attack on labor. All of which might be fine with the Fox News crowd, but it also made his plan dead-on-arrival. It’s important to recognize extraordinary talent when you see it, folks, and that is a perfect illustration of the art of brilliant incompetence.
What should we be doing to grow Maine’s economy?
Here’s some good advice from the folks who wrote what is probably the best plan for Maine’s economy that we have, the 2006 Brookings report, “Charting Maine’s Future.”
The author of that report, Mark Muro, recently published a new study called “Job Creation on a Budget.” It offers a stunning indictment of the luring-businesses-from-away idea. Here’s what it says: 95 percent of all new jobs are created by growing existing and new companies within a state, not by attracting companies from away.
Here’s something I wish this governor would understand: Good companies don’t relocate to a state because of tax deals and freebies but because they find trained and skilled workers and quality communities. Mostly, though, they want places where the political leadership is intelligent, competent, dependable and not constantly teetering on the edge of instability.
Our best hopes are right here, with Maine’s small businesses and entrepreneurs. I look forward to the day when a governor holds a press conference that celebrates investing in them.
Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy, and co-author of an upcoming book titled “Maine’s Next Economy.” Email at [email protected]