by Martin Harris
If the governing elites are careful in their gentrification strategy (with particular emphasis on attracting the upper-income and/or -wealth passive-income quintiles of Progressive mindset, who are most favorably disposed towards their overall socio-political objectives and least likely to vote against them in those pesky but unavoidable exercises of popular sovereignty) they’ll concurrently make sure they don’t price the lower quintiles out of the State because, in an environment of ever-rising costs, if unsubsidized eventually they couldn’t afford to stay, work in the essential service industries, and gratefully vote Progressive.
For the lower quintiles, they have already legislated subsidies of various sorts, for housing and health care, for school lunches and higher ed, for food and fuel. Now -latest small step- it’s for electric rates: a proposal just floated by Golden Dome sources in anticipation (Humble Scribe guess) of the officially-denied-but-highly-probable cost increases for Reddy Kilowatt’s services once Vermont Yankee is successfully put out of business and the State’s two largest utilities, CVPS and GMP, are successfully merged.
This two-tier strategy of favorable governance words and legislative deeds for both ends of the socio-economic scale was described decades ago by columnist Fred Jaegels of Cabot. It was he who coined the “two-tier” label. He raised a logical further point, which has received even less attention: the not-so-benign neglect (a little D.P. Moynihan lingo, slightly modified, there) which automatically arises when the two upper quintiles and the two lower ones are favored while the folks in the middle are subsidized neither financially with direct payments, tax credits, or ceilings, nor esthetically with a subjective permit process and a hostile business climate to cater to their rarified and elevated environmental, ecological, and sociological wishes. The pattern has been labeled, somewhat hyperbolically, “the war on the middle class”, a phrase which brings up more than 65 million hits on the Google search site.
It’s drawn far more attention beyond Vermont than within it; middle-class flight from Michigan, for all the usual reasons of taxes, regulation, and business climate, for example, has been the subject of Wall Street Journal op-eds. But the same stats and findings which undergird the William McGurn argument re MI also undergird the situation in VT: middle-class flight, with the directly-related shrinkage in K-12 enrollment; taxes up; business climate down; and a trio of policies, de facto and/or de jure, not evident in MI, like the environmental and regulatory efforts to attract passive-income sector in-migration; the overt governmental hostility to such commerce-and-industry pre-requisites as low-price power and highway investment; and the income/wealth re-distribution objectives in such areas as housing and power, where the middle-income. Quintile 3 (which, unlike top quintiles 4 and 5, enjoys few to no policies designed to curry their favor. For example, surveys have shown, most of them favor the big-box retail outlets despised (and often zoned out) by the Gentry-Left) and yet they are called upon to help subsidize the expenses of Quintiles 1 and 2, which seemingly can’t quite afford their property taxes (see Acts 60 and 68) or, now, their electricity bill. The cut-off point for electricity subsidy, for example, will start at 150% of the federal poverty guideline, and a household at 151%, economist Art Woolf points out, will now be tapped to help pay their bill. And then there’s the serious conversation which never happened in Vermont: the reduction of property assessment when market values decline, as is required by California’s Proposition 13 but has been conspicuously absent in Vermont when values declined significantly. That happened in the early ’90’s (they’ve declined less, percentagewise, in this down-turn) because, as a Middlebury official explained (patiently) to your Humble Scribe at the time, “the schools just can’t afford to take the hit”.
Presumably the middle-class (unsubsidized) wage-earner or small businessman could and should. After all, they’re the usual no-voters on things like school budgets; if they departed, they wouldn’t be missed. It can’t be proven, statistically, that such official policies, some overt and some covert, caused the out-migration of the age-25-44 cohort which began to draw attention in those years, but it can’t be denied, either, that no Golden Dome efforts to study and perhaps reverse the policies has ever surfaced. A State-wide “listening tour” by a couple of Rutland area legislators in those years was promised to focus on just that subject, arguably didn’t (your Humble Scribe attended the first one) and none of the above policies was ever questioned in terms of disparate impact ( a little adapted civil-rights lingo, there) on the unsubsidized middle-class which was shrinking through out-migration. McGurn explains how MI has at least tried to re-attract the ship-jumpers, but there’s no such evidence for VT, unless you count the one about “keeping college grads at home”. Meanwhile the governance class (in the modern VT mostly D with a token R presence) has neither denied nor claimed responsibility for the anti-middle-class policies first described by Fred Jaegels even well before they became so obvious as they are today. The closest to just such a statement came even before Jaegels, from Middlebury environmental/ecological spokesman/expert Douglas Burden, who has been quoted in earlier columns on this subject in this space as recognizing the unfortunate legal obstacles to legislating the middle-class down in size or out entirely, and advocating instead that they be priced out, in the same sort of economic gentrification which worked so effectively (and drew some criticism, interestingly) in places like Washington’s Georgetown and NYC’s Brooklyn Heights.
It could be (Humble Scribe opinion) that Elbert “Al” Moulton’s “Vermont, the Beckoning Country” slogan of the 60’s and 70’s was aimed at those Vermonter-wannabe’s of insufficiently upper-quintile economic standing to be acceptable today; and most likely, Oregon’s unofficial (and maybe anti-California) “Come Visit, then Go Home” slogan wouldn’t work either: too touristy; and it might be that, by default, only J.P. Morgan had a prescription for the modern Vermont, although he was speaking in terms of yacht ownership, not property tenure: “if you have to worry about what it costs, you can’t afford it”. By Golden Dome intent (HS opinion, again) only quintile 3, and maybe a part of 2, has that worry.
Pop Quiz: ask your high school history or Latin student to describe “Fabianism”. Award extra credit for mention of both the 3rd century BC Roman general and the 19th century AD English playwright.