Tag Archives: Art Woolf

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?


The new, tone-deaf, voice of the Free Press

This past Sunday, Burlington Free Press Publisher Al Getler grabbed the keyboard out of the hands of longtime editorialist Aki Soga, and penned an opinion piece of his own.

Bad idea. Because in the process, he revealed himself to be a lousy writer, a shallow thinker, and a doctrinaire Republican.

His thesis statement is that Vermont is in need of a “strong leader” to lift us out of our alleged doldrums. Those doldrums he discerned, Lord help us all, in the collected writings of Vermont’s Laziest Economist Art Woolf. His offenses against logic and his explorations of convenient statistics have been frequently chronicled in this space; if you want to check it out, just scroll down to my search box and enter “Woolf.”

Herr Perfesser’s stock in trade is statistical measures of Vermont’s shortcomings. He rarely, if ever, mentions the many ways in which Vermont is a great place to live, or the ways in which our woes are widely shared across the region or the entire country.

And this is the fragile foundation of Al Getler’s knowledge of Vermont. Sheesh.

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Our favorite Taxation Imp strikes again

As is customary on Thursdays, yesterday’s edition of the Burlington Free Press* once again was graced by the comedy stylings of Art Woolf, Vermont’s Loudest Economist. This time, Art was letting us know just how difficult it is to be rich.

*Newsstand price now a DOLLAR-FIFTY!!! for a few pages of wire copy and recycled USA TODAY “content.” I’d like to see Professor Woolf’s cost/benefit analysis of that little bargain.

No, seriously. The One Percent have it rough. Here’s how it starts.

Rich get richer, pay more taxes

In 2014, the state collected $650 million in income taxes from Vermonters. High income Vermonters continue to pay a very large share of that.

Well yeah, because they make most of the money.

He goes on to break down tax collections by income bracket in a way that emphasizes just how much we peasants are benefiting from the forced largesse of Our Betters. Which, if you consider state income tax in isolation, is true; the more money you make, the more taxes you pay.

But when you consider the entire burden of state and local taxes, you flip the script. Here’s a handy chart from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), showing Vermont’s total tax burden.

ITEP chart

That’s right. In Vermont, the rich get off easy and the middle class takes it in the shorts.

See, our income tax is reasonably progressive, but our other primary taxes are not. Sales taxes are strongly regressive, hitting the poorest people hardest. Property taxes slam the middle classes. Add ‘em all up, and that chart is what you get.

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Woolf’s Duplicitous Delicatessen

Our Motto: “Where There’s Always a Thumb on the Scale”

It’s been a while since I chronicled the dishonest commentary of Art Woolf, a.k.a. Vermont’s Loudest Economist. Every Thursday, he blesses us with a few hundred words of pro-business bumpf salted with carefully chosen figures designed to conceal the flaws in his reasoning.

Heck, I could easily write a riposte every week, but that gets old after a while.

However, the two most recent entries in the Woolf oeuvre merit scrutiny, because they touch on significant public policy debates: taxes and health care reform.

His November 5 missive revisits one of his favorite themes: Vermont’s taxes are too damn high. Well, he doesn’t say so exactly; but he presents an array of misleading statistics to bolster that popular conservative argument.

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Editorializing by Photograph, Free Press style

It’s Thursday, which means the Burlington Free Press brings us the weekly excretion from the mind of Art Woolf, Vermont’s Leading Economist On Retainer. Woolf’s column is the usual stuff: a handful of statistics and some shallow speculation on What It All Means.

This week’s subject: statistics that show Vermont has a relatively high rate of people receiving federal disability benefits. He points out that this is a drag on the economy, because thousands of potentially employable Vermonters are sitting on their asses collecting gummint checks. Well, he doesn’t say that, but the implication is clear. He begins from the unspoken assumption that we have more than our share of freeloaders. Not that there might be actual reasons for it, or maybe it’s just a statistical fluke; nope, if we have more disability recipients than average, there’s something funny going on.

But that’s not what I’m writing about. No, I’m writing about the photograph that accompanies the column on the Freeploid’s website. Which, as of this writing, is the featured article on the home page. Screenshot below.

Freeps front page, VWCThe image is a file photo showing a kinda scruffy-looking guy in a red T-shirt holding up a sign. The photo is cropped so you can’t see the full context, but there’s enough to tell me this much:

The photo was taken at the Statehouse. That T-shirt is the unofficial uniform of the Vermont Workers’ Center. When VWC people go to the Statehouse to lobby lawmakers, they always wear that shirt.

So what are you saying, Free Press? That the Vermont Workers Center should really be called the Vermont Shirkers Center? They’re layabouts, spending their days at the Statehouse while collecting disability? They’re lobbying for more welfare, so they can live more comfortably at the taxpayer’s expense?

Or was the photo just a quick grab out of the file, no slight intended?

I’m sure the photo will be taken down without explanation sometime soon. And I’m sure that if the Free Press chooses to explain (which they almost certainly won’t), they’ll say it was a mistake. But this is the kind of thing that makes people mistrust them.

Update, late Thursday night: The image is no longer on the Freeploid’s home page, but it still accompanies Woolf’s column. For shame. 

Slicing the baloney with Art Woolf

Expert-for-Sale-or-Lease Art Woolf has outdone himself in this week’s Burlington Free Press column. And that’s saying something, because just about every emission is a small shining jewel of cherrypicked statistics and unexamined dogma.

This week’s, though, hoo boy.

Herr Doktor Professor Woolf. Not exactly as illustrated.

Herr Doktor Professor Woolf. Not exactly as illustrated.

Maybe he’s been reading this blog, because today’s column is a 300-word attack on the idea of taxing the rich. His argument relies on the unlikely, and irrelevant, assertion that rich folks’ incomes are too volatile to be a dependable source of tax revenue.

Which may be true for individual taxpayers, whose incomes shuttle between well-off, rich, and filthy stinkin’ rich depending on the stock market, the purchase or sale of costly assets, and the convenient laundering of wealth to screw the taxman. (Woolf doesn’t mention the many, many tax advantages of being wealthy, and how they might cause volatility in rich folks’ tax payments.)

Woolf spends most of his column puttering around the definition of “rich,” and showing (with carefully chosen numbers) that these folks pay an impressive share of our total income tax revenue.

Well, of course they do. They earn an even more impressive share of our total income.

Not to mention that while our income tax system is fairly progressive, our total tax system is not. Sales taxes hit hardest on the poor and working classes; property taxes hit the middle class. And the income tax isn’t as progressive as it should be.  The rich may pay 40% of Vermont’s income tax revenue, but they sure as hell don’t pay 40% of our total (state and local) intake.

Now, if you look at statistics that Woolf conveniently ignores — total taxation as a percentage of income — you see that the rich pay lower effective tax rates than everybody else in Vermont. Here’s a chart from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy that I’ve posted before, but it’s relevant here:

ITEP 2014 tax chart


Take all of our state and local taxation together, the richest Vermonters pay a smaller share than anybody else. Woolf conveniently ignores these figures. And he evades the obvious question they pose:

Did they pay their fair share? That’s a question a philosopher, not an economist, can answer.

Wrong, Perfesser. It doesn’t take a philosopher, or even an economist, to look at that chart and conclude that they don’t pay their fair share.

Woolf’s actual premise, that the state can’t depend on revenue from top earners, is irrelevant. Nobody is arguing for confiscatory taxation. Nobody is arguing that soaking the rich should be the foundation of our tax system. The real argument is fairness: are the rich paying enough? The answer, clearly, is no.

The revenue volatility is one of many serious problems caused by income inequality. The solution to the volatility is a fairer economy — one that doesn’t concentrate the wealth at the top end. A fairer economy would also be a stronger and more stable economy, since supply and demand would be in balance.

Why have our economy and our public finances struggled since the Great Recession? Because there are too many people who can’t afford to buy stuff, and consumer activity is by far our strongest economic driver. That’s why programs like food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit provide more economic stimulus than any corporate tax break or across-the-board tax cut: when working people get a little extra cash, they immediately fritter it away on things like food, housing, and heat.

But I digress. Woolf’s argument is misleading and intellectually dishonest. His conclusion is irrelevant to the actual public policy question in play. He also leaves us without a hint of an alternative solution to wealth inequality, unfair taxation, and an economy slumping due to a lack of consumer demand.

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?