Daily Archives: January 20, 2015

Shumlin Administration Dumps Ballast

Frontrunner for Least Surprising Personnel Move of the Year:

Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson is stepping down from his post in March and will be replaced by Deputy Commissioner Lori Collins on an interim basis, the Shumlin administration announced Tuesday.

First of all, I don’t know how much blame Larson deserves for the disastrous rollout of Vermont Health Connect, or in the fundamentally flawed oversight of its development. What I do know is that last September, when the VHC website was finally taken offline so it could be patched together, Larson was the only administration official to pay a price. He was benched from any involvement in VHC, but allowed to keep his job and perform other, undefined duties.

And as you may recall, when Gov. Shumlin announced his abandonment of single-payer in December, Larson was relegated to a seat across the room from the phalanx of officials backstopping the governor. Didn’t want him appearing in any press photos, I guess.

Either he was a scapegoat, or he failed. In any case, he got to keep his job and his salary, even though one of DVHA’s chief operations was no longer in his control. Nice work if you can get it.

Shumlin issued a statement on Larson’s departure, praising the soon-to-be-former Coffee Boy.

“Mark has worked as hard as anyone on my team over the last four years,” Shumlin said. “Mark led the Department through some challenging times, but no one cared more or tried harder to overcome those challenges so Vermonters could access affordable health care than Mark.”

I don’t doubt that he cared deeply or tried hard. The question isn’t how dedicated he was — it’s how effective he was. From all outside appearances, the answer is “not very.”

And yet, by the time he leaves, he will have occupied his position and drawn paychecks for a full six months after one of his primary responsibilities was removed.

One of Governor Shumlin’s best qualities is his loyalty. He builds a team, relies on them, and rewards them for their service. It’s also one of his worst qualities: he sticks by his people whether they objectively deserve it or not. Failure rarely results in punishment or removal; at most, there’s a mutually agreed upon parting of the ways. Shumlin’s been in office for four years now, and I believe the only high-profile person he’s ever fired is Doug Racine — his longtime #1 political rival, and definitely not a Shumlin insider.

In announcing Larson’s departure, both he and the governor noted that, during his tenure, the number of uninsured Vermonters has dropped by half. Which is true; but is that a matter of causation or correlation?

Available evidence suggests the latter.

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The microfruits of capitalism

The decrying of “burdensome regulation” is often heard in our land. It discourages entrepreneurship; it’s leaving us behind in the global economy; it raises prices on everything we buy.

All true, to some extent.

But regulations don’t just happen. They are responses to excesses in the marketplace. They are necessarily imperfect responses; bureaucracy is not a precision instrument. Dodd-Frank, whatever its flaws, would not exist if the Wizards of Wall Street had a smidgen of foresight or conscience, if they’d been able to resist the temptation to make a quick billion off toxic derivatives and Collateralized Debt Obligations.

And now we have a new exhibit in our Gallery of Free Market Excess. It’s completely unnecessary, it’s hazardous to the environment, and even industry leaders acknowledge they don’t need it.

Mmmm, fish food!

Mmmm, fish food!

I’m talking about nonbiodegradable microbeads, “barely visible plastic scrubbing grains used in personal care products.” There’s a bill before the state legislature to outlaw them. John Herrick at VTDigger:

Environmentalists and water quality advocates want them outlawed because the non-biodegradable plastic waste is washed down the drain and slips through nearly all of the state’s wastewater treatment plants.

… No studies measure quantities of microbeads in Vermont’s waterways. But scientists who study Lake Champlain say the beads can be spotted along the shores.

Marine animals consume the microbeads, which can cause internal blockages. Scientists also say that toxic pollutants “attach themselves to the plastic beads like a sticker,” and then head up the food chain.

Who the hell thought it was a good idea to put teeny-tiny nonbiodegradable plastic bits into consumer products? Why do Vermont lawmakers have to spend their time debating a bill to ban them?

Well, now you know where regulations come from.

What’s worse, the microbeads are completely superfluous, according to Martin Wolf of Seventh Generation, a Vermont company that uses natural alternatives.

“Microbeads are nonessential. Substances exist that are mineral or biodegradable, perform the same function, and have no meaningful impact on the economics of the products in which they are used,” he told the Fish and Wildlife Committee.

Mike Thompson, who put his soul in escrow to take a job representing the Personal Care Products Council, says “the industry is committed to phasing out microbeads on a timely basis.”

Of course, his definition of “timely basis” may not be yours. The Vermont bill would ban microbeads on January 1, 2017. That’s too fast for Thompson; he wants December 31, 2017, to match a law already on the books in Illinois. And Jim Harrison, the ever-vigilant head of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, “prefers a bill that gives retailers time to sell existing inventories.” What, two years isn’t enough?

How many bazillions of microbeads would be flushed into our rivers and lakes during the year 2017? Can’t the industry manage to make the change in two years, instead of three?

Government regulation is, at times, wasteful, inefficient, and counterproductive. The only thing worse than regulation, thanks to the madly-spinning engines of commerce, is no regulation.