We have seen yet another closure of a Maine industrial giant, as Verso Paper announced its Bucksport mill will cease operations Dec. 1. As is not uncommon in these situations, the announcement came with no warning to local, state, or federal officials that 570 workers — or, at least, a large majority of them — were soon going to be out of a job. This has rekindled the always-ongoing discussion about the state of Maine’s economy. However, much of that discussion is sadly superficial, seeking to place blame rather than find solutions.
The decline of the paper industry in Maine is not primarily due to globalization, as some will claim. This is simply an easy scapegoat for problems they don’t wish to truly analyze. Rather, it is due to modernization and technology, which has inevitably reduced the need for paper in our lives. As people have begun to read on tablets, computer and phones instead of buying books, magazines and newspapers, the paper industry has suffered.
This was inevitable, unavoidable, and blatantly obvious decades ago. The moment the Apple I hit the shelves, it should have been clear that the home computer revolution would have an enormous impact on a number of industries, but especially the paper business.
The only way the government could have changed this is if they enacted strict trade laws that made it impossible for American technology companies to have devices made overseas, or for overseas firms to sell those products here. Even these measures, though, wouldn’t have halted the computer revolution: they would have just slowed it, and perhaps shifted the location from Silicon Valley to India or China.
What was avoidable, and was not inevitable, was the complete inability of Maine government to plan for this transition. Rather than merely reacting to each mill closure as though it was a galloping shock that nobody could have ever foreseen, Augusta could have planned for this by acting to diversify Maine’s economy. They could have done so by easing regulations and the state’s tax burden, making it easier for new businesses to relocate here. Instead, they stuck their head in the sand, failing Maine’s workers in the process.
Maine cannot subside solely on tourism in lieu of manufacturing, either. While it is a good sector for the state, tourism cannot serve as a silver bullet to fix our economy — no matter how many national parks we add or casinos we build. Our economic issues cannot be fixed with a simple rebranding effort. They go much deeper than that and will require a concerted effort from policymakers to address.
Our state needs a diversified economy, so that we’re not too dependent on any one industry or any one company for jobs. Individual companies can always go out of business, and whole industries can be transformed into something unrecognizable.
Government should not be in the business of picking winners, but should work to make it easier for all kinds of businesses to operate. We can do this by reducing health care costs, energy costs, and taxes. We can do this by reducing the size of state government and by lifting burdensome regulations.
We can’t do it by keeping Democrats in power in the Legislature, or handing them the keys to the Blaine House. It was their short-sightedness over 30 years of power that got us where we are today. It’s not yet too late to fix our economic problems, but if we return to the old status quo, we just might be missing our last chance.