Daily Archives: January 21, 2015

Art Woolf To The Rescue!!!

Throughout the history of its big pipeline project, Vermont Gas has been its own worst enemy — alienating landowners, indulging in ham-fisted PR, and repeatedly raising its cost estimates for pipeline construction.

Nonetheless, the odds are still in VG’s favor. Well-meaning protests notwithstanding, if VG can make a plausible economic case, the thing’s gonna get built.

And who’s helping them build a plausible economic case, according to VTDigger?

The construction of the project will create as many as 444 direct and indirect jobs, according to a report by the Vermont consulting firm, Northern Economic Consulting, Inc.

That’s the consulting firm co-owned by our least-favorite economist Art Woolf, he of the reliably awful “How We’re Doing” column in the Burlington Free Press.

Yes, Art’s a professor at UVM, but I suspect he makes a lot more money from NEC than he does for his academic work. His consulting firm has a number of revenue streams:

— Consulting to a variety of high-paying clients, mostly of the corporate persuasion.

— Providing expert witness services for civil suits of all kinds. (“Have you been hurt in a slip and fall accident? Dial 1-800-CALL-ART for expert testimony on your financial losses.”)

— Running an annual Vermont Economic Outlook Conference. The most recent conference was a five-hour affair, with admission priced at a cool $170/person.

— Publishing a monthly Vermont Economy Newsletter, subscription a mere $150/year.

In short, Woolf is more hired gun than objective expert. Which might explain why his weekly columns, more often than not, come across like they were written on behalf of the Associated Industries of Vermont. George W. Bush once told a roomful of wealthy supporters that they were his base; well, the Vermont business sector is Woolf’s base.

So, about his rosy estimate of the pipeline’s economic impact. Without doubt, the vast majority of those 444 “direct and indirect jobs” are temporary, construction-related jobs.

TransCanada has claimed that the Keystone Xl pipeline would create tens of thousands of jobs. But almost all of those are temporary, appearing and disappearing during the projected two-year construction cycle. Operating the pipeline, once it’s built, would take about 50 workers.

As far as I can tell, nobody’s asked Woolf about the quality or duration of those 444 pipeline jobs. But if his math is similar to Keystone’s, then we should expect no more than a handful of permanent positions at Vermont Gas.

Don’t blame Woolf; he’s only doing what bespoke experts do for their money: putting forth the best possible case for his client.

One more thing. The identifier that accompanies Woolf’s column in the Freeploid mentions only that he’s a faculty member at UVM. Nothing about his corporate clients, nothing about the subscriber base for his costly publication. Considering how many business interests are paying Woolf, how often do you suppose there’s been a direct or indirect conflict of interest that’s gone conveniently undisclosed?

Oh, one more one more thing. There’s a typo in the title of last Thursday’s “How We’re Doing.” In the TITLE, for God’s sake. It’s spelled “minuscule,” not “miniscule.” Any copy editors left at the Freeps?


Kill the Task Force

Vermont politicians are addicted to studies. At the drop of a hat, or a tough issue at least, they’ll seek the shelter of the nearest consultant or think tank, or assemble their own commission, committee, task force, or (the Nuclear Option of Political Procrastination) Blue Ribbon Panel.

All of ’em, I say, should be dubbed “Hogans” in honor of Vermont’s Greatest Living Centrist, Con Hogan, who could always be counted on to provide a nice bipartisan sheen to any study effort.

The appointed experts scurry away to do their work, and then return with the fruits of their labors.

Which are immediately shoved in a desk drawer, never to be seen again.

Can you think of a single time when a Hogan actually moved the needle on an issue? In rare cases, a Hogan confirms conventional wisdom and prudent politics; then it can get a little traction. This may turn out to be the case with the RAND study on legalizing marijuana: it promises a rich revenue stream that may prove irresistible to lawmakers.

But if a Hogan’s conclusions are inconvenient or flout conventional wisdom, fugeddaboudit.

The most recent case in point: There were not one, not two, but three separate studies of the Department for Children and Families last year. All three came to very similar conclusions: In order to beef up child protection, DCF needs “better training, more social workers, more transparency and a stronger focus on opiate addiction’s impact on family dynamics.”

The legislature, not content with three studies, appointed its own special committee. Its highest-profile proposals: hang the threat of felony conviction and prison time over the heads of social workers.

That muffled “thud” you hear? Those three studies landing in the nearest recycle bin.

There are many examples; here’s a classic. One of the highest-profile Hogans of recent years was the Blue Ribbon Tax Structure Commission, whose recommendations would have created a fairer tax system, mainly by changing the rules on taxable income in a way that would have raised the effective tax rate for top earners. Who, I remind you, pay far less than their fair share.

But its findings would have ruffled innumerable feathers. So, as VTDigger’s Anne Galloway reported in early 2011:

…state leaders have relegated the Commission’s report to the back burner. The commission’s 18 months of research, efforts to gather a full range of testimony and public debates on policy options didn’t warrant a footnote in the governor’s budget address.

That would be newly-elected Governor Peter Shumlin, who placed a higher priority on not raising [certain] taxes than on creating a fairer system.

Not that I place all the blame on him; it seemed like everyone in the legislature treated the Commission’s report like a snake in the underwear drawer.

Oh well, it wasn’t their 18 months of hard work being flushed down the drain.

Sadly, this outcome is the rule, not the exception. Most of the time, a Hogan is nothing more than a way to kick the can down the road while looking sober and responsible: “We need more information before we can decide this contentious issue.”

Trouble is, the more contentious the issue, the less likely it is that a Hogan Report will actually change anyone’s mind. People like their preconceived notions, and are loath to abandon them just because of some ivory tower “evidence.”

But perhaps my thoughts are themselves too contentious to address head-on. Perhaps what we need is a Hogan Commission — a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Blue Ribbon Task Forces, to determine the efficacy of Hogans once and for all. Only then can we make an informed decision on whether to abandon or constrain the creation of future Hogans.