Navigating Vermont Politics in Morgan’s Yacht

by Martin Harris

Martin Harris

This column starts with two fairly-well-known quotes. One is sourced to J.P. Morgan, the early 20th century financier who has now been dead for almost a century but one whose name still holds iconic status in any discussion of class and wealth in the 21st century. As the alpha male of Glen Cove, New York, in his time the preferred upper-income NYC-suburb enclave for North Shore Long Island Sound yachtsmen, he commented on the cost-of-private-boat ownership thus: “If you have to ask about it, you can’t afford it.” The other is sourced to F.D. Roosevelt, the early 20th century politician of comparable Socio-Economic Status (but of vastly different political ideology) who has now been dead for more than a half-century but one whose name still holds equally iconic status in any discussion of class and wealth in the 21st century. While Prez #32, he commented on the relationship between legislative and subsequent economic events thus: “Nothing in politics happens by accident.” Both quotes seem (Humble Scribe opinion) quite relevant to current trends in the Green Mountain State.

The context is “cost-of-stay”, an HS label for comparable residency expense, covering every unavoidable monetary outlay from taxes and fuel(s) to food and insurance(s) useful when comparing State #14 (yes, Tennessee’s Franklin was the original #14, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject) with any or all other (Prez #44 says there are now 57) States. Put simply, it costs more to live in some States than others, just as it costs more to live in some towns than others, which explains why down-scale Sea Cliff, westerly neighbor to up-scale Glen Cove, was once (and still is) a less–pricey address for less-well-endowed residents. Neither place derived status and/or wealth from natural resources or strategic geographic location, so it’s logical to conclude that it was the political forces in play, for example town boards working under direct but hidden and unvoted, money-and-power supervision, which made sure that GC would morph from rural truck-gardening backwater to high-end commuter haven as the then-new railroads made NYC commuting feasible, and equally insured that next-door SC could and would house the essential cooks, gardeners, nannies, and restaurant waitstaff; at costs the latter could afford, and of course not inside GC. Think Stowe and Hardwick today, the contrast/disparity in SES between the two towns, and the extent to which the Lamoille Regional Planning Commission has helped to enable the different roles and standings of each place.

Progressive sensitivities notwithstanding, the instinct for competition and winning remains robust in 21st century America, which explains why the States are ranked in every attribute from house size and personal incomes to education costs and health outcomes and why even professed anti-competitive blue State Vermont would proudly claim to be, for example, #1 or close in reading test scores (even though #1, using Federal data, means that 2/3 of the tested students can’t read with “Proficiency”) while quietly ignoring some other “top” ratings, like “Small Business Survival Index”, where VT ranks 47 out of 50 (Prez #44 please note correct State number) or K-12 Spending Per Pupil, 5 out of 50, both rankings from the annual Taxpayers’ Network study. Now a new study from the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center Street lists VT as #6 for least-affordable State for seniors. If you peruse the numbers, you’ll see that incomes are merely average, but costs like housing are well above average, and health care is the nation’s priciest. The MERIC data don’t even mention taxes. Nor do the authors dare the obvious conclusion: housing, health care and taxes are priced where they are because State government made them that way by regulation and collection. Morgan and FDR: both right.

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The MERIC authors note that “…while older Americans in some States are faring better than in others, their costs exceed their income by at least $1000 per year in every State.” They don’t note, but any reader can, that the least-affordable States are almost entirely the blue-est, politically: #1 for “you can’t afford it” is Massachusetts, #2 is New York, #3 is Hawaii, #4 is Connecticut, #5 is New Jersey. In the top 10, only Mississippi (#8) is a red State. Like Tennessee and other southern States, it’s unaffordable, even though cost-of-stay is low, because incomes are also low. That’s in contrast to the above blue states, where cost-of-stay is higher than national averages (by governmental intent/design) but incomes are also higher than national averages.

The MERIC authors (and others involved, like the University of Massachusetts Gerontology Institute) discuss the data but not the response. We’re not told, for example, whether seniors are migrating out of high cost-of-stay States for affordability reasons , as juniors (younger families with children) are migrating out of adverse-business-climate States (Vermont is near the top on that list) for employment-opportunity reasons. Anecdotal evidence here in the Upper South says that there is substantial N-to-S senior and junior migration, but statistical evidence from Vermont shows modest net in-migration, more seniors moving into the high cost-of-stay State than juniors moving out. A possible explanation: the senior move-in’s are well-above-average in passive income, but they don’t push the State average up because they’re still not a dominant factor in the overall State income structure –still far fewer than active-earned or business or farm incomes, for example. For these retirees and (non-senior) trust-funders, the high Vermont cost-of-stay is comfortably balanced by the income flow from previously-earned-and-saved or recently-inherited wealth. That the high cost-of-stay derives from specific State-government policies and actions –in land use regulation, in business climate, in taxation and re-distribution– dismays them not. To the extent that land-use regulation has, by design, prevented both residential and commercial development (and with tax re-distribution has “saved” farmland for non-farming-viewer pleasure) the in-migrants doubtless find those policies and results attractive and worth the “cost-of-stay” premium. After all, passive income recipients don’t need jobs or schools which actually produce Proficient students. They do need gardeners, handymen, and waitstaff, which explains why State government policy and action – various middle- and lower-income subsidies, for example– have successfully retained and even attracted the necessary income quintiles to keep those sectors of the employment pattern comfortably filled. Morgan and FDR: both right.