Art Woolf’s arguments of convenience

Welp, Vermont’s Loudest Economist is at it again. Art Woolf’s latest dispensation of wisdom in the Thursday Burlington Free Press is chock full of half-baked research, lazy reasoning, and politically convenient conclusions.

The main conclusion, as is often the case: Vermont sucks.

The topic of Art’s latest “How We’re Doing” effort was outmigration – the fact that Vermont’s population is roughly stable (or stagnant if you prefer, as Art does) and a lot of people are leaving.

This week’s entry in the digital Freeploid is entitled “Ex-Vermonters Vote With Their Feet.” (The print edition had a different title.)

As if every decision to move is a “vote” against Vermont. Every birth, a “yes” vote; every death, a “no” vote. (The Medical Examiner ruling: Death By Taxes.)

popchgsept25The accompanying chart shows three factors in population change: births/deaths ratio, immigration (from outside the US), and Net Domestic Migration. It shows immigration as a constant: we have a relatively small trickle of foreigners setting here. The births/deaths ratio was healthy until 2008, when the birthrate began to drop. But the biggie is Net Domestic Migration, which has been negative since about 2004.

(The chart is, of course, scaled to dramatize the net-migration plunge.)

Woolf chalks up the declining birthrate to our aging population, which is reasonable (although I wonder how much the Great Recession played into it): we do have more people beyond the usual child-rearing age. Woolf speculates that our birthrate will continue to fall as our population ages.

But later, when he’s expounding on the causes of our negative Net Migration, he completely ignores the aging population. Did it occur to him that a lot of our outmigrants are senior Vermonters heading for the Sun Belt? Not to judge by his column:

When people vote with their feet, they are saying something about the desirability of a state.

Those people are saying that despite its many attractions, Vermont is not a popular place for people to live and work.

For some that’s true, but not for an 80-year old who’s tired of hauling firewood and shoveling snow.

Woolf uses our aging population as a cudgel when it’s convenient; he ignores it when it’s not.

Also, as usual, Woolf doesn’t bother to compare Vermont to similar states. The outmigration of young people is a common problem for small, rural states; is Vermont’s better or worse than, say, Maine’s or Wyoming’s? Or northern New Hampshire’s?

Finally, let’s bring up a sacred cow that Woolf would never touch: the role our employers play in making Vermont undesirable. Generally speaking, Vermont’s pay rates are on the low side. Even if you’re talking about comparable jobs, the pay is often lower in Vermont than elsewhere.

Two examples I have some familiarity with: medicine and academics. Pay scales at UVM (and Dartmouth) are lower than at similar institutions elsewhere — sometimes substantially lower. Like, 50% or more. Our institutions get away with that because (a) Vermont offers such a high quality of life that many professionals will settle for a lower salary, and (b) our cost of living is relatively low compared to, say, Boston or New York or even Albany.

Many Vermont employers, especially in technology fields, complain that they can’t find enough qualified workers. Well, maybe they aren’t paying enough. Maybe they’re not recruiting hard enough.

No, that’s not it. Must be the taxes.

To be fair, Woolf doesn’t come out and blame taxes and regulation for Vermont’s outmigration. But he omits a lot of factors that lead to other conclusions: that we have built-in disadvantages, that our employers skimp on pay and aren’t aggressive enough in attracting new residents. And that our aging population is likely a major factor in growing outmigration.

This week’s entry, like many of his columns, is meant to undergird the business point of view — that we need to fling open the door to growth by cutting taxes, regulations, and those pesky environmental laws. As a thorough, honest look at How We’re Doing, the best grade you can give is Incomplete.

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