Like it or not, admit it or not, fight it or not, Maine has, for a generation, been caught in the throes of an all-encompassing social transformation. All things that used to be commonplace in Maine, both the good and the not-so-good, are changing. Jobs that supported hundreds of communities have disappeared by the thousands. Tens of thousands of people born in Maine have moved away – both eagerly and reluctantly. The number of deaths in Maine now exceeds the number of births, both statewide and in 13 of 16 counties. Maine is the oldest state in the nation and outpacing its nearest competitors – Vermont, New Hampshire and West Virginia – by leaps and bounds. Each year our school enrollment and labor force decline, and the fiscal pressure on our public budgets rises.
The first principle for public policy under these conditions, is, I believe, the old saw that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Personal progress individually is almost always the result of shedding the skins of mythical selves we have created to build and protect our identities in the past but have now outgrown. These created identities were formerly true and were often useful, but have now become barriers to insight and transformation. Old habits that cease to work need to be changed or we risk falling into the insanity of repeating the same mistakes while expecting, or at least desperately hoping for, different results. Too often, we are indeed our own worst enemies, our own persecutors.
Two such “skins” that Maine needs to shed if we are to transform our economy into the successful, post-industrial future that stands before us are:
• The myth of “The Two Maines,” two economically different regions of the state that exist in competition with each other.
• The myth that people “from away” represent a threat to the “real” Maine character; that “too much” or “uncontrolled” immigration will dilute and thus kill Maine’s “real” character.
The central dysfunction of the “Two Maines” myth is the belief that anything that helps Greater Portland hurts the rest of the state. In actual fact, Greater Portland is the economic engine that keeps the state from suffering even greater economic decline.
In 2015, Cumberland, Sagadahoc and York counties – the federal definition of the Greater Portland Metropolitan Area – accounted for over 50 percent of Gross State Product and over 44 percent of total state employment. More importantly, since 2011, employment in the Greater Portland area has grown more than twice as fast – 4.9 percent – as employment in the rest of the state.
All Mainers – real and whatever other kinds there may be – must divest themselves of the idea of two competitive Maines and come to see Greater Portland as the common economic engine that will both diminish our state’s loss of talented people and provide the sales and income tax revenue needed to invest in the physical and social infrastructure that will enable the non-Portland region to participate more fully in the economic benefits Greater Portland is now providing for all of Maine.
The central dysfunction of the second “skin” we need to shed – the “people from away are toxic” myth – is that it undervalues the appeal, attractiveness and ability to shape newcomers that Maine – both the place and the character of its people – possess.
One of the central facts of the era of globalization is that it has concentrated economic activity in large metropolitan areas. As those areas struggle with the massive congestion such urbanization has created, enormous opportunities are opening for their more livable peripheries. In Silicon Valley, tech giants have created their own bus lines because their workers can’t afford nearby housing and the companies cannot afford the productive hours lost to auto commutes.
Just as the peripheral areas around Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle in North Carolina and the Austin area in Texas are growing economically, so can the equivalent areas around Metropolitan Boston.
The major difference with Boston is that equivalent commuter sheds cover not just 50 to 100 miles but two or three states.
Between 2011 and 2015, Greater Portland attracted more than 6,800 migrants from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. We owe it to ourselves not to sneer at these newcomers but to welcome them and confidently share with them the best that we have come to know of Maine.
Only by building a stronger “we” can we escape the slow, angry decline of an ever-diminishing “us.” Maine’s commitment to nature, community and hard work are qualities of which we can be rightfully proud and qualities we can be confident are attractive to those wanting to come here.
We should welcome them to share our experience, rather than fear they will destroy it.