Demographics, Economics, and the State of the State

by Martin Harris

The dictionary definition of the verb “to disconcert” offers “to cause to feel uneasy” and “…taken aback”, which makes its use appropriate to describe an old trend in pronouncements by politicians and a recent one for academics in Vermont. Yes, there’s a long international-to-local tradition of pols saying things which ain’t so (a little Will Rogers lingo, there) ranging from England’s Prime Minister Chamberlain “peace in our time” guarantee to Vermont’s Education Commissioner Vilaseca “our schools are excellent” guarantee, but such bland and statistically-unsupported assertions are about what we’ve learned to expect from such political figures. The long-ago Chamberlain verbiage ultimately caused more casualties than the recent Vilaseca one, even though the former couldn’t be factually disproven at the time of utterance while the latter easily could have been, and still can be, using the same stats the Ed Comm chose to ignore. They’re not what we’ve (until recently) come to expect from academic figures (think the “Veritas” motto of Harvard University, or the “in numeri veritas” motto of medieval European university origin; even today it brings up 48 million references on a Web search. That’s why it’s so disconcerting when a relatively important academic figure in Vermont makes some pronouncements (factually unsupported when spoken) which, upon subsequent easy investigation, turn out to be “what ain’t so”. Perhaps (we can’t know political intent as surely as we can know historical fact) they were intended to induce a level of voter comfort, regarding the State’s socio-economic condition, conducive to voter approval for the now-in-place governing establishment which pays, in part, the speaker’s paychecks.

Here are two such quotes.

One asserts that “we have some of the highest income compared to the rest of the country.” Sounds good, except that, in Table 6 of the 2012 50 State Comparisons published by the Taxpayers’ Network (using Federal data) you can see that VT ranks #20 out of 50, with personal income at $40,098. That’s barely above the US 2010 average of $39,945, and while there may be some millionaires and billionaires hidden in the State average, the same would be true of the national average. A no-spin income statement by an academic researcher might more objectively observe that reported income levels for this recent-rural-gentrification State (see the newly-released Federal studies with maps showing counties with recent sharp increases in passive income) seem fairly low (in comparison with retail sales per capita, for example, which are well above national averages) and might possibly contain trust-fund-type reportable-income-shifting.

The second asserts that “Vermont’s birth rate is good.” Sounds good, except that, on the StateHealthFacts website, you can see a ranking-by-States showing Vermont near the bottom at 9.9 per 1000 of population, lower than 47 others and higher than only Maine and New Hampshire, with each at 9.8, well below Zero-Population-Growth levels. The birth rate needed to maintain population is shown on Federal studies to have been breached in 1972 when it dropped below 15 per 1000, and US population growth since has derived from international in-migration, both legal and otherwise. In November of 2011 Vermont Business Magazine reported that, for the 2000-2010 Census decade, “Vermont’s total population growth was the 7th slowest in the nation, at only 2.8% against a national rate of 9.7%,” and that “from a total population growth of 16,914 over the past 10 years, nearly all of it (13,568 or 80.2%) was in people 65 or older.” A no-spin demographic statement by an academic researcher might more reasonably observe that a State dependent on migration, not births, to maintain taxpayer/revenue levels, might consider a below-ZPG birth-rate ‘good’ but that strategy implies a commitment to either or both of continuing out-of-State in-migration and continuing new-revenues source-search.

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The above assertions, from a recent WCAX-News report quoting Jane Kolodinsky, Chair (person?) of The Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont, shouldn’t be taken out of context as a challenge specific to Ms. K. First, there’s the theoretical possibility that WCAX got the quotes wrong. And second, there’s the theoretical possibility that one or two super-high-income-earners might indeed be Vermont residents, thereby validating observation 1, and that a governance strategy targeting revenue growth via the encouragement of Upper-Income-Quintile in-migration growth is actually (and quietly) evaluated by some in Montpelier and Burlington as more “good” than natural-increase birth-rate-based growth, thereby validating observation 2. Third is fact, not possibility: many figures in Vermont governance have made, and now make, similar assertions. For one historical example, consider the public assurances by Herb Farrington, State Highway Department rep for route-design for the incoming I-89 between White River Junction and Burlington in the late 50’s and early 60’s. “Destruction and fragmentation of highly-productive Winooski Valley flood-plain crop acreage will be held to an absolute minimum by locating the new highway on the side-hills,” was his approximate quote. It didn’t quite work out that way, perhaps because Mr. Farrington ultimately had less control over route design and cost-per-mile than Federal Bureau of Public Roads engineers.

Two more: consider the earlier one where the WWII-era farm-commodity near-full-parity law was under attack at the national level by the late 40’s as “too expensive for urban taxpayers” and was sunsetted in 1952. More than a decade later, Vermont dairymen, then a major (but shrinking) voting bloc, were still telling anyone who listened (like your Humble Scribe) how the key Senator for expiration was the same VT ex-Guv George Aiken who had been campaigning back home on his loyalty to dairymen. See the accounts of the shift to “floating” parity via expiration of the Steagall Amendment, P.L. 77-144, in “Unforgiven”, by Charles Walters, and, interestingly, on the Web page of Willie Nelson Earth Economics. And consider the later one, where State Agency environmental assurances based on actual Federal regulation, the Clean Waters Act, were trumped in actual (government) construction: the Mahady County Courthouse, built in a now-filled-in “summer-meadow” wetland in downtown Middlebury in the mid-90’s. For those of us then in private construction, no such permits were ever offered. It’s getting ever more difficult, apparently by intent, for us disconcerted folks to know the real “State of the State”.

One thought on “Demographics, Economics, and the State of the State

  1. Vermont ranks 36th in median household income, which is often a better metric of how households are doing, since so many households have more than one person working.

    That data, coupled with what can only kindly be described as an “onerous” business climate, shows that we’ve long been heading in the wrong direction. Higher taxes and more regulations do not lead to greater prosperity, nor do they raise the incomes or living standards of Vermonters.

    But our political class doesn’t let a few things like numbers or data get in the way of doing more of the same that put us here in the first place. Vermont’s demographics, unfortunately, almost guarantee that the same types of policies that have put us here will continue, considering those who Vermonters regularly elect to office.

    I wish there was an upside here. I’m just not seeing it.

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