Up From Affordability
A letter from Vermont.


Running for reelection, Governor James Douglas of Vermont might be Tiger Woods making the turn on Sunday — utterly on top of his game and cruising. He campaigns ceaselessly, and while he could probably kick back and pass up the occasional ribbon cutting, he seems to thrive on it. Douglas will win and hardly break a sweat doing it.

Douglas’s success would be unremarkable — he is a lifelong politician who likes his work and is very good at it — except for a couple of things. First, he is a Republican in a year when partisan Democrats are willing — nay, eager – to crawl over ground glass on election day in order to vote their fury against George Bush.

Douglas is an affable man, and you can’t imagine anyone actually hating him. If they were all like James Douglas, we would have no more hand wringing over the lack of civility in politics. Still, he is a Republican in what we are all assured is the Democrat’s year.

Furthermore, Douglas is running in the bluest of the blue states. The office he now holds was previously occupied by Howard Dean (the antithesis of Douglas in civility and everything else), who has gone on to bigger things. Vermont is presently represented in the U.S. Senate by Patrick Leahey, who is unmistakably a Democrat, and James Jeffords, who has long been confused about his political identity. Jeffords was elected in 2000 having assured Vermont voters he was a Republican to the roots of his teeth and would be always. He quit the party a few months later in an “act of conscience.” He is the Senate’s lone Independent, and he is retiring. His seat will most likely be filled by Bernard Sanders — “Bernie,” to the voters of Vermont who have sent him to Washington as their lone member of the House of Representatives in eight consecutive elections. There is not a voter in this entire galaxy who would ever mistake Sanders for a Republican. He calls himself an “Independent,” but if you called him a Socialist, he would not challenge you to step outside.

Vermont, then, is not a hospitable habitat for Republicans.

So, what’s with Douglas?

Well, for one thing, Vermont voters seem understand the argument for divided government — that it is the most feasible way of making sure that nothing, or very little, gets done. Democrats do not have quite the numbers in the lower house of the legislature to override a Douglas veto, which many of the state’s residents consider the last line of defense.

Also, Douglas is the closest thing you will find in Vermont to an advocate for free enterprise. The state has a richly deserved reputation for hostility to business — large and small. Taxing and regulating are what it does best, and businesses respond, when they can, by packing up and leaving. Not long ago, a grocery warehousing and trucking outfit that was located in Brattleboro and did business all over New England got fed up and moved. The new location is just a few miles from the old one, but the Connecticut River and the New Hampshire line separate the two. The Granite State is as friendly to commerce as the Green Mountain State is antagonistic.

Vermont taxes its citizens remorselessly — enough to rank seventh among the states in total tax burden as a percentage of income. Not bad for a tiny rural state with no urban issues and a strikingly homogenous population. New Hampshire comes in at 50th, which accounts for why Vermonters who live close to the border do their shopping there.

Vermont spends lavishly enough on schools (about $12,000 per student) to put it close to the top in that category. New Jersey and Washington, D.C., spend more. As do New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. But no state has smaller class sizes than Vermont. The pupil to teacher ratio is the lowest in the nation at about 11 to 1. This is 30 percent lower than the national average.

Supporters of this extravagant spending claim the payoff comes in the form of smarter, better-trained adults with the skills needed to carry us into the future. Which is a nice thing, but not necessarily for Vermont, since the kids leave the state, taking their high dollar educations with them. They head out because it is just too hard to make a living in Vermont. A young couple, trying to start out here, will pay close to $900 a month for health insurance thanks to “reforms” put in place by Howard Dean. They could move to Omaha, say, and pay $200 for the same coverage. But it isn’t just health care: everything in Vermont is expensive. A Vermont hospital recently courted a physician for its staff and thought it had made the sale. After the doctor visited the state to shop for a house, he decided he could not afford to live in Vermont. When a place is too expensive for a physician.

So, because the state is such a tough place to do business and it is so expensive to live here, the young people leave and Vermont is rapidly aging. Its population is second oldest among all the states behind Maine, another New England economic basket case.

An aging population means more stress on the various social welfare programs. More people requiring benefits; fewer to pay the freight. Vermont’s economic malaise, then, is not cyclic but cumulative.

Governor Douglas has skillfully framed all these dire portents into a campaign for “affordability.” It is shrewd politics, putting Democrats on a defensive where they are backed into protesting that, hey, we’re for affordability, too. Honest. They just support a different kind of affordability. One where “the people” can afford to live in Vermont and “the rich,” who can afford them, pay the taxes.

Governor Douglas’s hapless Democratic opponent, Scudder Parker, was reduced, in a recent debate, to whining about a campaign ad in which he had been labeled, “Mr. Property Tax.”

“Your ads,” he complained to Douglas, “criticize me and call me a name and that is unfair to the political process.”

Can you imagine? “Unfair to the political process.” For shame.

Plainly, Mr. Parker doesn’t want to be thought of as a man who likes taxes and wouldn’t mind raising them. Unless, of course, it is on “the rich.” But that was what the Vermont statewide property tax scheme — of which Parker was a legislative architect — was supposed to do. This was a mechanism whereby “gold towns” would pay more in property taxes than they could spend on their schools. The balance would go to the state which would then redistribute the money according to a formula that even Stephen Hawking could not cipher, but that was supposed to make things better in the “poor towns.” The consequences of this legislation — Act 60, which, in Vermont, has turned out to be about as successful and loved as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was — have been pretty much what any clear eyed economist might have predicted. Eventually, more and more jurisdictions found themselves a “gold town,” and everyone’s taxes went up.

And Scudder Parker thinks it is just awful.

“We don’t stop working together until the problem is solved,” he says in one of his commercials. “So, at a time when families can’t afford their health care insurance, their energy bills and their property taxes, why does our governor keep focusing on politics instead of people and solutions.”

Could it be because the reason people can’t afford to pay their property taxes is that they are, you know, too high?

So Douglas is having an easy time of it.

Still, the whole argument seems, to use the vernacular of the kids, so lame. “Affordability” sounds like a call to save string and turn down your shirt collars. If you have trouble affording the things you need, or simply want, then you have two choices — cut back and do without, or make more money so you can afford them. For Vermont, only one alternative is possible.

The public sector in Vermont is not going to tighten its belt in order to make life more affordable for the people who support it. It is exceedingly unlikely that Vermont, or any other state, is going to reduce spending on education. Vermont, in fact, continues to spend more even as enrollments go down.

So then, how about the other alternative. Could we, perhaps, make more money? Which is to say, instead of talking about “affordability,” why not wage a campaign for “prosperity.” Couldn’t Douglas, or someone, make the argument for economic growth; for an ever expanding pie so that the state can get the large slice it considers its due and still leave something for the rest of us?

In Vermont, where the gnosis of the 60s still reigns, a voter would find it oddly jarring to hear a candidate for office announce his unequivocal support for economic growth.

What, the citizen would fret, about our “quality of life”?

The assumption here has always been that growth means pollution, congestion, and all the other woes the modern world is heir to. It is a vision of smokestacks and factories and the ruin of our rural arcadia.

To which one says:

First: Get real; the factories are never coming back. It is a measure of Vermont’s economic delusions that it could imagine any company capable of polluting the air or water locating here under anything less than a threat of death.

Second: the beauty of the state, the pace, the village ambiance — that famous quality of life — makes it attractive to the kind of people who prosper, not by operating machine tools, but by pushing electrons around. Vermont could seduce clean, high tech enterprises to the state and claims to be trying, but:

The infrastructure is not there. You can’t get cell phone service in many parts of the state. Imagine the digicapitalist who comes to Vermont with the idea of locating his little startup here. He likes the mountains, loves the trout streams, and has his eyes on a house that was built before the Revolution that he can spend millions fixing up. He pulls out his cell to call the office and tell them to start packing. No service, because the local citizens don’t want towers on their ridgeline.

People don’t go where they can’t communicate.

Broadband is, likewise, only spottily available.

So the state continues to be a nice place to visit and a good place to own a second home — if you can afford it. A sort of theme park for 60s nostalgia where it actually seems daring for a politician to run on an agenda of “affordability.”

But Vermont, one thinks, could be the Ireland of America. A place that is both lovely and economically vibrant. Ireland went from being the economic basket case of Europe to the “Celtic Tiger” in just a few years.

It could happen here. But not as long as “affordability” is the goal. Affordability is just a fearful hope, the vision of someone who thinks Social Security will get him from retirement to the grave. You can’t build a dream on it. One hopes that Governor Douglas will crank it up a notch and argue that if affordability is good, then prosperity is even better. And possible, too.

Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.