Root Causes? No Official Interest

by Martin Harris

For a now-proudly-Progressive State like Vermont, recent patterns in economics and demographics (both on negative trend-lines, except that some in-State zero-population-growth advocates have greeted middle-class departures with applause) haven’t received the usual “root-cause” explication for which national Progressivism has long been famous. Typical examples: poverty is the “root cause” of crime; parental failure to pre-K is the “root cause” of dismal Reading and Math Proficiency levels in grade school (except that we 60’s-era parents were severely reprimanded by educators for doing just that pre-K chore, thus trespassing ignorantly on their professional turf); and gun ownership is the “root cause” of gun crime. Root-cause theory has no explanation for such known historical data as the low rates for low-income urban crime and disruptive classroom behavior in the past, compared to today’s statistics, and the low rates for gun crime today in the politically red and sociologically rural (and high gun-ownership) regions of such larger States as Kansas and Nebraska, as well as such recently-blue but still predominantly rural States as Vermont. A very few Vermont writers have, in the past, opinionated eloquently on what is now widely recognized, with Vermont’s continuing middle-class departure rates, as an emerging pattern of a “two tier” socio-economic-governance structure: think Fred Jaegels of Cabot nearly a generation ago. And a few are now opinionating in print on these trends: think teacher Peter Berger of Weathersfield, who writes heretically of current doctrines (and their results) in public education; and think Tom Watkins of Montpelier, who recently raised the root-cause flag to target changing demographics, the aging-boomer phenomenon, as the basis for current stagnation, or worse, in sectors ranging from overall governmental reach-and-spending to housing values and savings patterns. The recent (17 September) Watkins piece in The Rutland Herald was particularly note-worthy for its use of (mostly) national data to correlate with his arguments that “…Vermont has one of the smallest and oldest populations in the entire US and will see more people retiring earlier than most States. Our unique demographics magnify this pattern of [governmental] spending and make us more sensitive to the effects of lower tax revenue and higher medical costs from the retiring boomers.”

You’ll note that he doesn’t theorize on why (root-cause-theory) such recognized VT phenomena as low unemployment rate and shrinking k-12 enrollments might reasonably be correlated back to middle-class flight, nor on just why middle-class and business flight might reasonably be correlated back to governance tax, regulatory, and favors-for-friends (think energy) policies. These, in sum, make up the “State business climate” which consistently gets poor ratings, compared to all other States, in such national surveys as those from the American Legislative Exchange Council. In March, the Tax Foundation ranked Vermont #47.

In-State think tanks don’t, either: think the Public Assets Institute, which was interviewed by The Herald recently in the context of recent Federal Census data showing “State’s median income dropping” (in inflation-adjusted purchasing power, not in nominal dollars) about 1.6% over the last dozen years. Executive Director Paul Cillo is quoted as opining that “…low- and middle-income Vermonters are being pushed back in two ways. One is that their incomes aren’t keeping pace for (sic) inflation. And the other is that their costs for essentials are going up faster than inflation: things like food and fuel, health care, college education.” He’s not quoted on, because he avoided them, two parts of the data: one is that low-income individuals and households are always insulated from rising costs in various ways from Food Stamps to housing, and the other is that fuel costs were recently raised by Montpelier action with a new gasoline tax, so that Golden Dome cost-of-stay actions affect primarily the unsubsidized middle class.. He mentions “an exodus of higher-paying manufacturing jobs overseas…” with an implied criticism of national policy, but doesn’t mention Vermont’s own business climate, and governance responsibility for, say, the inter-State departures of such firms as Standard Register and OMYA.

On the broader national scale, Watkins’ root-cause –demographics– isn’t much different from that of Harry Dent, who analyzed the subject in far more detail in “The Great Depression Ahead”, written in 2008 and making the same shrinking-post-boomer-cohorts argument; and Watkins, like Dent (who can be excused because his focus was national, not local) and like Cillo, (who could have, but chose not to, tie present Vermont trends back to Vermont governance) avoided the opportunity to do some real “root-cause” theorizing. Meanwhile other national figures –think economist Tyler Cowen, whose 2011 “The Great Stagnation” argues that the root-cause for national economic distress is the vanishing of once-continuing and-predictable productivity inventions and improvements– likewise choose not to make the governance connection. By some accounts, the once-nearly-Socialist nation of Israel is now the new global locus for invention, in everything from sea-water de-salinization to computer programming. Cowen argues in his newest book, “The Average is Over”, an even-more intensive two-tier socio-economic structure than ever envisaged by Fred Jaegels, but even Cowen avoids forbidden territory: how the phenomenon of ”…ever more rich people than ever before, but also more poor people…” nicely fits into the Progressive electoral calculus, a symbiotic relationship between a permanent elite dispensing contracts, jobs, and “free-stuff” and both high-end- and low-end socio-economic-status voters who gratefully keep them in office for just that set of reasons. With that background, it becomes more understandable why, particularly in Montpelier, there’s zero interest in any serious root-cause analysis of Vermont’s own situation.