by Martin Harris
It’s more fun than an adult (even with potable-ethanol beverage in hand) should be allowed to have, watching the Great Rift Valley of Vermont’s Gentry-Left open up beneath their feet as they pursue divergent evolutionary tendencies: one clan within the tribe seeks green energy and the other seeks no-visible-human-presence for its generation. Case in point: the debate over the (in retrospect aptly named) Green Mountain Power Company’s proposal to install a score of wind towers on ridge lines in Lowell. Those of us not in the tribe (using the Biblical clan v. tribe linguistic hierarchy) have seen this movie before, although we have so far missed the final reel: rain-based hydro is OK, but dams aren’t; solar panels are OK, but placing them in high-solar-gain desert areas isn’t; ethanol is OK, but food prices shouldn’t rise for any corn-diversion reason, while other reasons, see below, are OK; wood pellets are OK, but killing trees isn’t; oceanic wind-towers are OK, but not where Gentry yachtspersons might be forced to see them, one of several view questions which might be resolved in the old-fashioned way: with money.
It’s Vermont’s official position that the State, in its ineffable wisdom, doesn’t tax views; but it’s also the official position that property taxation (when not constrained by such contemporary social justice evolutionary advances as income sensitivity) is based on property Fair Market Value; so that, inevitably, two physically identical properties, but one with a view and one without, will be valued differently by the real-estate marketplace and therefore taxed differently by Montpelier. This is similar, but not equal to, the windfalls-v-wipeouts phenomenon, wherein some lucky (or politically-connected) land-owners benefit from government land use decisions, while some are fiscally harmed, and planners have long debated extracting a bit of revenue from group a. to reimburse group b. Like the negative income tax of Richard Nixon fame, a negative view tax to Peter Shumlin’s credit could enable those enviro clans seeking renewable energy, to smoke the peace-pipe (without inhaling, of course) with those enviro clans rejecting visible ridge-line-sited tower construction (except when, on their de rigeur European Grand Tours, they admire the ridge-line-sited medieval castles-with-towers there).
Lest you think that visions of a negative view-tax are uniquely economically illogical, consider the foundation arguments for the alternative-energy universe. Nowhere are they described better than in this Heritage Foundation review: “…none of the favored alternative-energy sources is becoming any more economically viable…which is why it clamors for…subsidies and tax credits…Americans pay twice for green energy…subsidies…and bigger bills…for the pricier energy…they are relatively [to fossil-fuel and nuclear] labor-intensive…requiring more man-power to produce a given amount of energy…than it does from conventional sources…this inefficiency is perversely regarded as a good thing…for politicians, the value of an energy source is not the power it produces but the [voter] jobs it creates…the American Wind Association understands this, and boasts that wind produces more jobs per unit of energy than any other source…” and so on. Authors Loris and Scissors continue with an agricultural analogy which I summarize thus: to create more ag jobs, park tractors and issue hoes. Note: in pre-tractor days, Americans spent half their income on food. Today’s it’s less than 10%, although a recent political-mindset mutation enables its (mostly Gentry-Left) holders to argue that higher food spending for more labor-intensive organics and locals is a desirable objective, which explains why up-scale Whole Foods Corp is profitable while A&P is in bankruptcy.
In this brave new world of innovative (post-scarcity?) economic theory and practice, where reducing productivity (and increasing cost) by adding jobs without improving output has long been deemed beneficial for education and now for energy (and for no-tractor and/or local-vore farming) some remarkable stats are being lofted for voter endorsement: one is GMP Chairwoman Powell’s assertion that the 20 Lowell towers will provide the kilowattage for 20,000 homes (on windy days). By this logic, dividing State population of 621,760 by median household size of 2.44, we get 254, 820 households, for 20,000 of which the Lowell wind farm will provide the juice. That’s about 8% of the total. It would take only a dozen more Lowell’s, according to Ms. Powell’s calculus, to segregate all of residential Vermont entirely from the 49-State outside world of energy production and from its own producing modes ranging from the little Otter Creek hydro project at Middlebury (if it can ever be born) to the mid-sized Vermont Yankee project at Vernon (if it can ever survive). To achieve total official green-ness, business and commercial ratepayers might be told to get off the grid, go “local-volt” and generate their own, get out, or go extinct (the new Guv’s outlook for IBM, coincidentally). She chose not to recite her projected numbers -output per tower, usage per household, no-wind back-up– so we know not whence cometh her estimate.
Vermont Yankee re-licensure denial (I suspect it started out as a rhetoric-only environmentalist talking point, drew such wide voter support that the new Guv saw fit to agree with it, and he is now seeking an escape route from his campaign commitment) has been tagged as the trigger for IBM’s departure, a prospect not displeasing to those whose vision for Vermont doesn’t include corporate commerce and doesn’t exclude a higher-cost-of-in-State-stay derived from such realities as taxes, jobs, and power costs. In that respect -VY as an existing-generation symbolic shut-down effort which wasn’t supposed to gain traction and instead drew serious enviro support– it’s the opposite of Lowell, a real new-generation start-up effort which was supposed to gain traction but instead drew serious enviro opposition. The new Guv is in favor, but if past behavior is a guide to future conduct, he’ll soon reverse course. You might describe this manuever as “voting against it after having voted for it”. Either way, it’s a survival contest worthy of Darwinian recognition. And the last reel of the movie hasn’t even been seen.