Bell-Wether? Maybe Not

by Martin Harris

A story from Korea had an infantry patrol wending its way across the rice-paddies on the raised dikes between the flooded mini-fields, and when the young lieutenant in charge realized he was going, alone, in the wrong direction on the wrong dike, he splashed across the intervening paddy to re-assume the lead and holler “follow me.” It was widely told in the artillery units I knew, my own and others. As allegory or metaphor, it’s applicable to present-day Golden Dome and/or Executive Suite behavior as politicians become ever more involved in deciding which private-sector initiatives or economic trends in their State they approve or despise (and, sometimes, switch their opinions) as they read the electoral tea-leaves.

Such leadership (or not) falls into a few easily-recognized categories, perhaps identifiable as yea, nay, and duh. Or maybe as the “bell-wether” leading his flock to better things, versus the “judas-goat” doing otherwise.

Under “yea” consider the recent prime example: politico support for “new-ag”, the small-scale, mostly organic, sometimes niche-market, locally-grown and sold range of products, mostly table crops but occasionally including dairy and even meats, in markets which range from producer-to-consumer through farmers’ markets to dedicated aisles at conventional supermakets and even, in some States, the new big-box retailer, Whole Foods. For the targeted 20% (nationwide estimate) or so of the total urban-consumer food-purchase market, “new-ag” offers, at higher-than-commercial prices, various qualities ranging from purity to taste which, for that 20%, justify the price differential. Now, Montpelier is offering grants to fund technical assistance, processing facilities, distribution aid, and so on, so as to, in theory, enlarge the “new-ag” sector as the “old-ag” dairy sector continues to shrink, from more than 20, 000 operations in the ‘60’s to less than 1,000 today.

Under “nay”, consider that, if it works, the “Working Lands Bill” will encourage the sub-division of traditional 100+ acre large farms into mini-farms in the 5-10-acre range and the wider adoption of grow-your own on back yards and front lawns, both concepts in direct opposition to that other set of Montpelier objectives: “saving” large-acreage farmland from supposedly non-economic subdivision; and preventing “sprawl” defined as individual home-owners owning and using any more in lot size than they need to fit their house footprint on. It’s called “smart-growth” and enjoys official policy approval, as was illustrated a few years back when the once-popular 10-acre lot option dating from the early years of Act 250 (technically, it was an on-site sewage disposal provision) was deemed a “loophole” and then cancelled. Call this pair a combined “yea and “nay”.

Under “duh” consider recent gubernatorial pronouncements in favor of policies which “…grow wealth and grow jobs…” and encourage the “…Internet and…high-tech..” industries. The Guv also wants to address, locally, the “nation’s evolving job market”, which economists describe as moving past agriculture and industry towards information and services, so of course he proposes government control of health care, more progressive taxation of income, and new taxes on remotely-served computing and locally-sold services. To increase local wealth he proposes to close the State’s only nuclear power plant and require the purchase of the replacement one-third of State kilowatt demand at one-third higher prices from, mostly, nuclear plants elsewhere. Duh. But consider the source; here’s the State CEO who also declares that Vermont’s public education system is “…a quality system that is the envy of the country” even though, as the Guv and his Ed Commissioner well know, Vermont’s K-12 has been shown by Federal tests to be capable of bringing only about a third of its students to “Proficiency” (ability to function at grade level) in Reading and Math.

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For those of us grounded, via Economics 101, in the price-demand curves of Adam Smith, understanding the national-economy-expanding success of the Kemp-Roth Tax Reduction Act of 1981wasn’t difficult. The Fed-Chairman Greenspan phrase: “whatever you tax more, you get less of “ stated the principle in reverse. So is Montpelier wrong in its plans to put new taxes onto new and declared-beneficial economic sectors like high-tech and services? Maybe not: after all, in a phenomenon your Humble Scribe has already dubbed “the Vermont anomaly”, we’ve seen statistical evidence that economic policies which, in all other States, lead directly to upper-income quintile flight, in Vermont don’t. Yes, there’s been middle-class and business out-migration in a more predictable response to difficult taxation and regulation policies and political climate, but Census data show that Vermont’s population is a. growing (albeit slightly) and b. aging; and c. wealthing (HS neo-logism for showing a significantly higher median household income) in recent years even as employment levels have gone down and resident costs-of-stay, both governmental and private-sector, have gone up. Elsewhere – consider California and Maryland—such policies have triggered resident-taxpayer flight proven by shrinkages in Census count and tax receipts, but not here. Apparently there’s a more-than-counter-balancing force at work, encouraging in-migration of somewhat older, heavily-passive-income, newcomers into the State in numbers sufficient to balance, and exceed slightly, the resident count and tax-revenues shrinkages caused by all the well-known departures of younger age cohorts and a lengthening list of businesses and industries. That force may well be esthetic rather than economic, as rising levels of passive income, retirement and trust-fund, pretty much immunize their recipients against such mundane questions as job availability and overall business climate. Its let’s-raise-the-cost-of-stay side is exemplified by the recent grass-roots uprising against low-cost retail (previously exemplified by the long-standing campaign against “big-box” outlets like Walmart) which is now expanding to include an equally visceral rejection of Dollar Stores, a low-price fairly-small-store-size chain catering to purchasers of less-than-upper-middle-class economic standing. The Guv may yet, like the young lieutenant, cross a policy paddy to claim leadership of an already highly-directional electorate on this one.

On the esthetic front, to read the rhetoric on viewscapes and preservation, working lands and smart-growth, it’s clear that the new majority, in electoral terms, envisions a seemingly rural-bucolic-nostalgic landscape long on farms and quaint villages (small), natural lands and preserves (large) and short on large-scale commerce, industry, multi-lane highways, major development projects, large-acreage parking, even a coherent broad-band system, and is quite willing to pay the premium to erect economic barriers against those who might disagree with their own votes, whether presently-resident or wannabe-in-migrant. The Guv hasn’t yet chosen to identify with this sentiment overtly, although his support for the raising of power prices suggests a covert enthusiasm. Again, like the young lieutenant, he may yet openly acknowledge where they’re going, run to the head of the line, and holler “follow me.”

2 thoughts on “Bell-Wether? Maybe Not

  1. I have almost always had a garden and nothing beats the flavor of garden to table in a matter of just a few hours. However, I also realize that there is not enough arable land on this planet to feed the world’s population using organic gardening techniques. Balance is always critical.

    • There are conflicting stats on this subject. One set shows that organic acreage is more productive than conventional, and the other set shows just the opposite. The stats don’t say so, but I suspect than the labor intensity for organic explains the higher small-acreage productivity, and the various tech-boosts for the latter explain the higher yields for larger acreage.
      MH

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