Art Woolf spews numbers, provides zero insight

In the past, I’ve given UVM economist Art Woolf two nicknames: Vermont’s Loudest Economist, for his inescapable media presence; and Vermont’s Laziest Economist, for his thoroughly conventional views. Well, now I’ve got a new one: The Human Almanac.

In addition to (Lord help us) educating the next generation of UVM students, Woolf also does a lot of corporate consulting, publishes a costly newsletter, and writes a weekly column in the Burlington Free Press. The latter is where I see his work, and it’s consistently unimpressive. The typical Woolf column includes an oversized chart or graph (to fill space), a shallow review of statistics, and/or a bit of thoroughly conventional wisdom, all served up in a few hundred words.

In his last two columns, he didn’t even bother injecting a bit o’ the old C.W. They were just bland overviews, free of any context or insight.

This week’s entry is “Vermont Fertility Rate 15% Lower Than U.S.” And, well, that title just about covers it. The column is full of shameless padding, like this:

The average Vermont woman will have 1.6 babies over her lifetime. …Of course, no one has six-tenths of a baby, but when we’re dealing with large numbers of women, and large numbers of babies, fractions and decimals do play a role.

Do tell, Art. I was picturing a landscape littered with partial baby corpses. Glad you set me straight.

He also stretches the content with a parade of irrelevant, or marginally relevant, statistics:

The fertility rate for the U.S. as a whole is 1.9 babies per woman over her lifetime, so Vermont’s fertility rate is about 15 percent below the U.S. average. By contrast, Utah, the state with the highest fertility rate, is 25 percent above the national average.

It’s like a high school student writing a five-page paper.

The “bulk” of the column is given over to a recitation of current and past numbers from the US and the world, followed by one paragraph listing possible reasons why Vermont might have a low fertility rate. That paragraph ends with:

We really don’t know the full reasons.

For this, we need an expert?

Woolf wraps things up with this thrilling conclusion: low fertility has consequences for the economy.

Last week’s entry in the Woolf oeuvre was even less meaty “Vermont Immigration patterns Differ From U.S.

Stop the presses!!!!!

Do you mean to tell me that Vermont has fewer immigrants from Latin America than, say, Florida or Texas? I am shocked, shocked.

But yes, that’s the knowledge bombshell Woolf drops on our heads: Vermont gets relatively few immigrants, and most of ’em are from Canada or Europe. No shit, Sherlock.

Woolf doesn’t even try to contextualize this nothingburger of a column. The big conclusion reads like this:

Sometimes it’s hard for Vermonters to understand why the concerns and passions about immigration run so deep. One reason is that our immigrant population, and our experience with immigrants, is very different than it is in the rest of the United States.

I really, really hope that Woolf’s own ($150 per year plus tax) newsletter has more to offer than his Freeploid blurts. For that matter, I hope he’s doing some more substantive academic work to justify his UVM sinecure. Because judging by his newspaper columns, Art Woolf is a man without substance.

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