Thursday, July 16, 2009

Which comes first - the chicken or the egg?

One often ponders such profound existential conundrums. As a wise Germano, with a richness and diversity of life experiences, I believe I can provide a better answer to this question than a typical white man might.

So here it is. The answer to the question “which comes first” is that it really doesn’t matter, as long as you have one or the other. Because if you have one, you have the means to obtain the other.

It’s when you have neither that you’re up against a brick wall if you want to be in either the egg or the chicken business.

Those who’ve heard the old “Freddie Fulcrum” story will recognize a similar morale to that story.

I attended an MHPC luncheon today at DiMillo’s in Portland. The speaker was Mr. John Dorrer, of the Center for Workforce Research and Information in the Maine Department of Labor. His presentation was titled: "Labor Market Dynamics and Workforce Trends: Formidable Challenges for Maine."

The story he presented is not a pretty one, especially when compounded by Maine’s awful demographics. Dismal as Maine’s economy might be, the outlook for providing the necessary work force with the skills employers need is even worse.

I’ve already read enough on Maine population trends to know we are the oldest state in the nation, and that we are seeing a devastating out-migration of our youth and of adults who are at prime family/household formation ages. Those are the population segments you need to build a sustainable future (or should I say life) for the state. And the very small in-migration can be explained by incoming retirees who are not coming to fill vacant jobs in businesses.

Some of the interesting observations by the speaker are that on average, 2 ½ years of the typical 4 year college degree is now being spent in remediation to compensate for the shortcomings of the government K-12 schools, and that the greatest job growth is in the health care field. That latter factoid probably has as much to do with the aging population as anything else. It’s akin to the fact that in Brunswick, two of the three Funeral Homes have undergone major expansions in the last few years. And that, loyal readers, is not a good sign.

Much of the debate in Maine over this general subject revolves around government involvement, regulations, and funding. One side says the reason we don’t have a more vibrant economy is because we aren’t educating enough people with the right skills to bring business here to grow. The other side says the reason our youth and thirty-something adults are exiting the state is because there is no economic growth to offer them a desirable future.

The chicken and the egg conundrum, you might say. As I was driving home from the event, it occurred to me. We have an economic climate and hostility towards growth that is conducive to producing neither eggs nor chickens.

This is in large part due to a chronic smugness borne of cluelessness. “Quality of place” and the glories of a “creative economy” are two examples. The former talks to those “natural” characteristics of Maine which have so far proven immune to destructive government policies, while the latter talks to things like art galleries, etc, which feed a sense of cultural elitism, but is most often known for the “starving artist” syndrome.

And then there’s the nearly universal conviction that one’s town has the best schools, and that all the teachers are above average. Couple that with an education bureaucracy that prioritizes constant increases in pay and benefits without any performance measures or accountability. The result is a system of government schools that imposes very few expectations upon students, and that has lost its commitment to instill the basics of human knowledge, responsible behavior, and critical thinking skills.

Looking through the prism of Brunswick, I assert that the most vocal segment of the town is almost without exception averse to nearly any concept of economic development, and to almost any residential growth patterns that would be part and parcel of such development. Borrowing money to buy “Land for Brunswick’s Future” is just one very visible indication of such resistance, as is the namesake program at the state level.

Maine’s circumstances are arguably Brunswick’s writ large. What we have here is hostility towards chickens, and an aversion to eggs. We have loathing of financial capital in the form of capitalism, and we’re showing human capital out the door.

As Mark Steyn said in “America Alone:”

“There is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital – and that’s before anyone invented unsustainable welfare systems.”

If you haven’t read the book, you really should.

It’s widely accepted that ‘demographics is destiny,’ and Maine’s unique factors coupled with the transition of the boomers into retirement creates a double whammy. When all factors are considered, including the steady decline in birth (fertility) rates, we are fast approaching the point of irreversibility.

Chickens and eggs: you can’t have one without the other. Maybe it’s time to put out welcome flags for both. And somebody better do it soon.


1 comment:

  1. The "creative economy" fad originates with Prof. Richard Florida and was embraced by the comely governess of Michigan. Maine held a Blaine House Conference on the Creative Economy a few years back.

    The demographer Joel Kotkin pointed out that the cities held up by Florida as stellar examples of creative economies had all experienced negligle or negative rates of employment growth.

    Michigan now has 15% unemployment.

    The creative craze has subsided somewhat.