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?


Another conveniently incomplete explanation from Art Woolf

Just in time for Christmas, Vermont’s Loudest Economist has left a flaming bag of conventional-wisdom poo on our doorsteps. (At least he didn’t try to come down the chimney.)

He’s scribbled out a column entitled “Explaining Demise of Single-Payer.” Which, of course, does virtually nothing to explain the demise of single-payer. I mean, this is Art Woolf we’re talking about here.

The good professor spends most of his time on a shallow meander down Memory Lane, explaining that despite the efforts of the last three Vermont Governors, our percentage of uninsured Vermonters has remained basically the same.

Of course, Woolf’s entire argument falls apart right there, because his beloved statistics end at 2013 — before the Affordable Care Act had gotten off the launchpad. So he’s telling us that Shumlin has failed to reduce the uninsured population, even though Shumlin’s reforms hadn’t begun to work.


Woolf goes on to the only useful part of his “analysis.” In recent years there have been efforts to expand Medicaid eligibility, and they have worked. However, there’s been a corresponding decline in coverage through employers, so it all washes out.

Us liberals would blame this on a worldwide, concerted effort to drive down wages and benefits — the race to the bottom, as revealed in the stagnation of buying power for all but the very top earners, the persistent crappening of benefits such as employer-provided health insurance (and the steady cost-shifting to employees by way of worker contributions, high deductibles and copays) and the virtual disappearance of defined-benefit pension plans.

Woolf, good capitalist lackey that he is, blames the loss of employer health insurance on the expansion of Medicaid.

What apparently has happened during the past 15 to 20 years is that some employers who formerly provide insurance to their workers no longer provide that benefit. Most likely, it’s because their employees can get a better coverage plan at no or low cost from the state.

“What apparently has happened,” my ass. Woolf might be justified in making that evidence-free assumption, if not for all the other evidence that employers are squeezing their workers and transferring responsibility for their well-being to the government. (See: all the Walmart employees on some form of public assistance. I guess Woolf would blame that on welfare, not on a greedy corporation.)

The toxicity of Woolf’s presentation becomes clearer in th;e ensuing paragraph:

Their employers can therefore afford to pay their workers higher wages instead of providing health insurance benefits. This is one of the unintended consequences of government policies that are all-too-often overlooked by policymakers.

Well, sure, they CAN afford to pay higher wages. But they DON’T. And Woolf knows damn well that they don’t. He must be aware that working Americans’ wages have been stagnant for decades.

And he must be deliberately excluding that fact from his presentation so he can preserve his dubious conclusion: government largesse is to blame for private-sector miserliness. If not for Medicaid expansion, he is effectively saying, working Americans would still be getting health insurance from their employers.

Working Americans can only respond with a bitter laugh.

He also blames Medicaid for the rising cost of health care: because Medicaid offers low reimbursement rates to providers, they have to charge more to private insurance carriers. Which is true, but again, it leaves employers out of the equation.

Finally, in the last paragraph of Woolf’s column, we get to “Explaining the Demise of Single-Payer.” Sort of:

The state’s Medicaid expansion now provides a backstop for lower- and middle-income Vermonters who might lose their private health insurance. This means the third goal, the fear of becoming uninsured, might have lessened over time for many Vermonters.

Perhaps that’s one reason why there wasn’t greater support for single-payer in Vermont, and why there wasn’t more opposition to the governor’s recent announcement.

Oh, so we should blame the demise of single-payer on the patchwork success of Medicaid? Nothing else at play here, Art?

To be fair, Woolf doesn’t necessarily write the headlines, so maybe he’s not responsible for the vast overpromise of this one. But he is responsible for the incomplete, one-sided “logic” that resides beneath.

Art Woolf’s weekly words of wisdom usually come to us on Thursdays. This one was published on Wednesday. Perhaps tomorrow, on Christmas Day, Woolf will favor us with his reasoned defense of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how the government’s generous provision of prisons and workhouses helped drive down wages in Victorian England.

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.

Art Woolf spews numbers, provides zero insight

In the past, I’ve given UVM economist Art Woolf two nicknames: Vermont’s Loudest Economist, for his inescapable media presence; and Vermont’s Laziest Economist, for his thoroughly conventional views. Well, now I’ve got a new one: The Human Almanac.

In addition to (Lord help us) educating the next generation of UVM students, Woolf also does a lot of corporate consulting, publishes a costly newsletter, and writes a weekly column in the Burlington Free Press. The latter is where I see his work, and it’s consistently unimpressive. The typical Woolf column includes an oversized chart or graph (to fill space), a shallow review of statistics, and/or a bit of thoroughly conventional wisdom, all served up in a few hundred words.

In his last two columns, he didn’t even bother injecting a bit o’ the old C.W. They were just bland overviews, free of any context or insight.

This week’s entry is “Vermont Fertility Rate 15% Lower Than U.S.” And, well, that title just about covers it. The column is full of shameless padding, like this:

The average Vermont woman will have 1.6 babies over her lifetime. …Of course, no one has six-tenths of a baby, but when we’re dealing with large numbers of women, and large numbers of babies, fractions and decimals do play a role.

Do tell, Art. I was picturing a landscape littered with partial baby corpses. Glad you set me straight.

He also stretches the content with a parade of irrelevant, or marginally relevant, statistics:

The fertility rate for the U.S. as a whole is 1.9 babies per woman over her lifetime, so Vermont’s fertility rate is about 15 percent below the U.S. average. By contrast, Utah, the state with the highest fertility rate, is 25 percent above the national average.

It’s like a high school student writing a five-page paper.

The “bulk” of the column is given over to a recitation of current and past numbers from the US and the world, followed by one paragraph listing possible reasons why Vermont might have a low fertility rate. That paragraph ends with:

We really don’t know the full reasons.

For this, we need an expert?

Woolf wraps things up with this thrilling conclusion: low fertility has consequences for the economy.

Last week’s entry in the Woolf oeuvre was even less meaty “Vermont Immigration patterns Differ From U.S.

Stop the presses!!!!!

Do you mean to tell me that Vermont has fewer immigrants from Latin America than, say, Florida or Texas? I am shocked, shocked.

But yes, that’s the knowledge bombshell Woolf drops on our heads: Vermont gets relatively few immigrants, and most of ’em are from Canada or Europe. No shit, Sherlock.

Woolf doesn’t even try to contextualize this nothingburger of a column. The big conclusion reads like this:

Sometimes it’s hard for Vermonters to understand why the concerns and passions about immigration run so deep. One reason is that our immigrant population, and our experience with immigrants, is very different than it is in the rest of the United States.

I really, really hope that Woolf’s own ($150 per year plus tax) newsletter has more to offer than his Freeploid blurts. For that matter, I hope he’s doing some more substantive academic work to justify his UVM sinecure. Because judging by his newspaper columns, Art Woolf is a man without substance.