Category Archives: Economy

The Narrow Parameters of Acceptable Debate

So how many political parties do we have in Vermont? Two? Three? Umpteen, if you count Liberty Union and whatever Cris Ericson and Emily Peyton have going on and the Mad Hatter of #vtpoli, H. Brooke Paige?

(I know, he’s a Republican. But any day I can mention Mr. Paige is a good day.)

Well, looking at recent policy debates in the Statehouse, you might just conclude that we have a grand total of one: The Moosh Party. Because on a whole range of issues, there’s little disagreement on the fundamentals; the discussion is confined to the details. At a time when Vermont faces some huge challenges, there’s a complete lack of bold thinking in the executive and legislative branches. We’re All In The Box.

The most basic area of consensus is on state finances. There’s no serious talk of raising taxes, cutting taxes or even significantly reforming our tax system. There’s no serious talk of raising or cutting spending. Streamlining or reforming government seems as unattainable as ever.

(When Phil Scott was running for governor in 2016, he talked a lot about “Lean management” as a way to make government more efficient and free up money to pay for new programs without raising taxes. He rarely, if ever, brings up that idea anymore. His state website touts his PIVOT program (Program to Improve Vermont Outcomes Together, and someone was paid taxpayer dollars to come up with that pukey acronym) but — deep into the third year of the Scott Era — doesn’t cite any cost savings. It does boast of 44 PIVOT projects underway and the training of hundreds of state managers and employees in Lean practices. Which makes me suspect that spending on PIVOT has outweighed any actual savings.)

When times are good and the state is enjoying unexpected revenue, the broad consensus is that we shouldn’t spend it — or at least not very much of it. The Republican governor and the four Democratic money committee chairs are in agreement on that. Except perhaps at the margins.

There’s also broad agreement that the state shouldn’t be borrowing any more money. Remember Sen. Michael Sirotkin’s ill-fated proposal to launch another $35 million housing bond this year? He’s a powerful committee chair, and his idea went nowhere. One of the loudest voices in opposition: Democratic Treasurer Beth Pearce, who’s fiercely protective of the state’s bond rating.

All this broad consensus leaves room only for piecemeal action. Take, for example, the legislature finding $6 million in this year’s budget to boost child-care subsidies. Nothing to sneeze at, but advocates will tell you that it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the actual need — for parents trying to keep their jobs and for child-care workers trying to make a living.

And it’s one-time money. That’s what passes for significant accomplishment in 2019.

Here’s another. Universal broadband is widely seen as a necessity for rural Vermont to become economically competitive. This year, the state enacted Act 79, which produces $1.2-1.4 million per year for broadband grants and creates a revolving loan fund for existing and startup internet service providers. A nice step, but nothing like a game-changer.

Meanwhile, the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature whiffed on three signature issues: paid family leave, minimum wage and a tax-and-regulate system for cannabis. What’s notable about those three, besides the whiffing, is that none of them would have cost the state much money. Paid leave? A new tax. Minimum wage? Employers would foot the bill. Cannabis? Would have brought new revenue to state coffers.

Not even on the table: Climate change, housing, education, the tattered mental health system, economic development, seriously addressing income inequality and health care reform, among others. No effort, through increased state aid or some sort of student debt forgiveness, to confront our affordability crisis in higher education. Nothing to address Vermont’s demographic crisis — except for the Scott administration’s dink-and-doink grant programs that only benefit a handful of employers and workers. On climate change, leaders of both parties acknowledge the crisis and our lack of progress toward established climate goals. But propose or approve a truly game-changing agenda? Not on your life.

Literally.

For years, politicians on all sides have talked about ending our reliance on out-of-state prisons. But actually doing something about it? Spending money on facilities or enacting new programs to reduce the inmate population? Nah.

Any effort to close the ridiculously large and still growing wealth gap, either through boosting benefits or job training or education affordability — or through increasing taxes on top earners? All talk, no action.

Health care reform would seem to be a critical need, considering that the Green Mountain Care Board just approved whopping insurance-rate premiums. But do you hear anything besides the gentle shuff-shuff of hand-wringing? Nope. I think elected officials of all stripes are still scarred by then-governor Peter Shumlin’s disastrous reform efforts. Nobody wants to call that monster out from under the bed.

The biggest exception to this depressing parade of cromulence was Act 76, which establishes a revenue source and administrative structure for waterways cleanup. Nice. But it only came after years of ducking the issue as long as humanly possible — even as toxic algae blooms make an annual joke of our alleged commitment to environmental purity, not to mention killing dogs and maybe causing Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And action only came under threat of federal intervention. Yep, we can thank the Trump EPA for forcing Vermont to clean up its water.

This around-the-middle consensus isn’t only frustrating for those on the left. It’s got to be just as galling for conservatives, who believe the answer to Vermont’s problems lies in cutting taxes, spending and regulation. You’re not getting any of that from Team Scott, much less the legislature.

It’s funny. Vermont is widely seen as bluer-than-blue Bernie Country. But our current crop of elected leaders is comfortably at home in a narrow band of non-threatening incrementalism.

 

 

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Art Woolf, Random Access Almanac

I have been very mean to former UVM economist Art Woolf in the past. I’ve dubbed him Vermont’s Loudest Economist and Vermont’s Laziest Economist, and once referred to him as The Human Almanac for his ability to produce a rash of statistics in lieu of actual insight. I once summarized his output thusly: “Generally, Woolf’s columns present a distasteful combination of lazy analysis, careless oversimplification, conventional thinking, and free-market dogmatism.”

Sad to say, nothing has changed. Well, nothing except Woolf’s media outlet — formerly the Burlington Free Press, now VTDigger.org. I don’t know how much Digger is paying Woolf, but they’re not getting their money’s worth.

Woolf’s most recent essay, to use the term loosely, is a particularly half-hearted effort entitled “Understandably, electric-car conversion is highly charged.” Hardy har har, get it? “Charged”? “Electric cars”? Quite the kidder, that Art.

The entire piece is 15 paragraphs long. The first six are what my editors used to call “throat-clearing” — an overly discursive way of boosting the word count before actually getting to the point. Those paragraphs include a bunch of random facts about automobiles including their invention in 1879, their popularization by Donald Trump’s favorite anti-Semite Henry Ford, context-free statistics on the number of cars and trucks in Vermont and number of miles driven per year — and, as a bonus, the tone-deaf upper-middle-class observation that “today, just about anyone who wants a car can afford one.”

Gosh. Tell that to the folks who struggle to get to work every day or bite their nails to the nubbins whenever it’s annual inspection time. Or the organizers of Good News Garage.

Finally, in paragraph seven, Woolf begins to address his point: the state’s policy goal of shifting personal transportation to electric vehicles. Woolf is concerned about “a number of implications,” including the higher cost of EVs, the relative lack of charging stations and the time it takes to recharge an engine. All of which, it must be pointed out, are being addressed through market forces — a concept that a professional economist might be familiar with.

But those are mere warmups. Woolf’s real concern is the need for much greater supplies of electricity and how those kilowatt hours will be generated. He dismisses solar and wind as impractical to meet the demand — which is true enough, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be significant contributors. It also doesn’t mean that all the turbines and panels need to be sited inside Vermont.  Woolf then switches to Trump Mode, pointing out the need for backup power “on cloudy and windless days and windless nights.”

His only other idea for renewable power: Hydro-Quebec. No consideration of other potential sources, no mention of the ever-improving state of battery technology. No apparent awareness that EVs can be conveniently charged overnight, when power demands are much lower and can be easily met without massive new sources.

He then spends one paragraph on the problem of de-carbonizing our heating systems, again slamming the shortcomings of wind and solar. And that’s about it.

Here are two words you won’t find in the essay: “Climate change.” Woolf makes no effort whatsoever to address the massive costs of dealing with the carbonization of our atmosphere — which far outweigh the relative annoyances of transportation and heating electrification and boosting non-fossil-fuel power production.

You also won’t find any consideration of changing technology. Our energy system is apparently in stasis according to Woolf, with limited renewable options and power storage technology and unacceptably higher costs all around. Which is nonsense; technology is improving all the time and costs are coming down.

All in all, it’s a tiny unappealing bowl of intellectual gruel. Which is a shame, because Woolf occupies a place of some distinction in the realm of public thought. Is he really the best that Digger can do?

 

Buy Local: It’s not just for pandering anymore

One of the more persistent strains of Philpuckey is his advocacy of Buying Local. He’s made it a regular theme of his Lite-Guvship, memorably captured in a front-page article in the Burlington Free Press last November that featured Phil Scott with his famous “Buy Local — It’s Not Just for Hippies Anymore” slogan.

(Which, first of all, “Buy Local” was never “just for hippies.” And second, it misunderstands the movement. Hippies were less concerned with where they bought their stuff, than with not buying stuff at all. It was an anti-consumption worldview. But hey, it’s just convenient shorthand for “long-haired weirdos”, right?)

“Buy Local” is an attractive pitch for Scott. It’s politically appealing, it reinforces his “real Vermonter” image and his status as a local business owner. It’s no-lose all the way around.

But coming from him, it’s effectively meaningless. Phil Scott may verbally support Buying Local, but if push comes to shove, he’ll opt for expediency. Proof: More than half his campaign’s total expenditures have gone to out-of-state firms and individuals. Latest example: a series of mass media buys since October 20, totaling $85,000, all going to out-of-state companies. That includes:

— $40,000 to D.C.-based Optimus Consulting, which has managed the Scott campaign’s media buys.

— $54,000 to Spectrum Marketing of Manchester, NH for “Media — Postcards.”

— $11,000 to SCM Associates of Dublin, NH, also for “Media — Postcards.”

Perhaps he needed some Washington Big Boys to buy spots on WCAX, but did he really need to go to New Hampshire for direct mail services?

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On the VPR Poll

Must have been some soiled britches at VTGOP headquarters when the news came out: a new poll shows the race for governor is a statistical dead heat.

If it’s accurate, of course. Usual caveats apply. Doesn’t help that this is the only pre-election poll we’re going to get, since VPR is the only media organization putting up money for surveys this year.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s reasonably on target.

There were reasons to believe the race would be close, but the almost universal assumption (me included) was that Phil Scott was the front-runner because of his name recognition, his inoffensive image, and Vermonters’ presumed post-Shumlin fatigue with liberal policymaking. Minter, by comparison, was known (to the extent she was known at all) mainly as a Shumlin underling, which meant she would struggle to create a profile of her own.

Instead, here we are, with Scott at 39 percent, Minter at 38, and a rather surprising 14 percent undecided.

So why is this race so close? Assuming, again, that the poll is accurate.

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Lost in the weeds

Sue Minter seems to be spending a lot of time lately trying to out-ethics Phil Scott. After he announced he would sell his stake in Dubois Construction if elected governor, she continued to pound on potential conflicts of interest. Now, she’s returning campaign donations from a lawyer connected to the scandal-plagued EB-5 developments ni the Northeast Kingdom.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think this is a waste of time and unlikely to resonate with voters. It’s the kind of stuff that political insiders (and us outsiders who obsess about politics) care about, but I seriously question whether the voters do.

Besides which, trying to blacken Scott’s reputation is a mug’s game. He’s such a familiar figure with such a positive image; you’re not likely to change people’s minds unless there’s an October Surprise lurking in Scott’s closet.

Better, in my mind, to focus on the issues, where Scott is weakest.

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Hey kids! It’s time for Uncle Phil’s Funny Math!!!

So far, our political media has seen fit to abdicate its responsibility to fact-check the gubernatorial campaign. Instead, it has simply reported without comment the cornucopia of questionable numbers endlessly repeated by Phil Scott.

I do give ‘em credit for reporting Scott’s frequent non-answers and failures to give specifics on his own damn policy proposals. But they need to go farther. Especially since the Scott campaign has apparently decided not to respond to my own inquiries for substantiation.

Some of Scott’s figgers need a better man than I to assess, me not being a budget expert. But others are so transparently phony that even a muggle like me can see through them.

In this post, I’ll sometimes stand on the shoulders of Vermont’s number-one budget expert, Private Citizen* Doug Hoffer. In the absence of any oversight by the media, Hoffer has begun a projected series of essays examining Phil Scott’s favorite numbers.

*He’s also State Auditor, but he’s writing these pieces outside the auspices of his elected position.

First, let’s take Phil Scott’s constant claim that taxes and fees have risen by $700 million during the past six years of Democratic governance. Team Scott has failed to provide any documentation, but there is a little something in his economic plan.

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Big Greenwashing

Dartmouth College has announced a new, lavishly-funded institute to study energy issues. Or, as the PR bumpf puts it, the institute’s purpose is “ato advance the understanding and knowledge of a resource that powers modern life and is directly related to society’s standard of living and success.”

Great news, right?

Well, not everybody thinks so. As the Valley News reports, “environmentalists within the Dartmouth community described [the institute] as a ‘horrific’ example of influence-peddling.”

See, the full name of the new body is the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society. That’s “Irving” as in Irving Oil, one of New England’s leading distributors of fossil fuel. The Irving family donated $80 million — roughly half the estimated cost of the thing, including a shiny new building to be erected on campus — in exchange for the naming rights and, some fear, a measure of influence on what exactly is studied.

This is a growing trend on college and university campuses: rich people with axes to grind putting up scads of dough to establish “institutes” devoted to studying questions of their choosing. And churning out “research” that, mirabile dictu, supports conservative and pro-business points of view.

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