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Saturday, March 04, 2006

 

Vermont Is For Lovers (On Social Security)

Vermont has a serious population problem. As Pam Belluck reports in the Saturday NYT, my state is losing its young people at an alarming rate. Echoing half of Western Europe, we have the lowest birth rate in the U.S. Everything, but particularly housing, is simply too expensive for people who are just starting out. My demographic (still, barely), 19-34 year-olds, has seen a 19% drop since 1990 as the state is slowly taken over by retirees. It's a complex, self-evidently unsustainable problem, and it certainly doesn't have a simple answer. But somehow I don't think the solution is more subtly but overwhelmingly slanted stories like Belluck's.

The story's point is clear: Vermont was once a model of growth, but then hippies moved in with their naive notions about not destroying the environment or character of the state, which crippled business and then everything went to hell. And you know, there's some truth to that. The fight against sprawl, pollution and the encroachment of box store culture has had negative consequences. Businesses have left the state for cheaper climes, like sales- and income-tax free New Hampshire. And many businesses have likely avoided the state rather than deal with its' relatively more humane and responsible—but undoubtedly more expensive and burdensome—regulatory environment.

But if Belluck was ever interested in the competing interests at the heart of Vermont's challenges, it didn't make it past her editor, because pretty much all we get from her are quotes from pro-business Republican Governor Jim Douglas, along with the ex-head of the Poultney Chamber of Commerce, some town managers, a couple of college professors on hand to relate the demographic bad news, and a handful of young people who have left for Massachusetts. The "antisprawl folks" (se also: "the back-to-the-land influx of the 1960's, 70's and 80's" i.e. hippie bastards) who are the implicit villains of the piece? What's their take? Their solution? Well, fuck if an NYT reader knows. You're gonna have to google that shit, because Belluck never gets around to asking anybody outside state government, college administrators or those who left what they think about it all.

It's easy to blame Act 250 (Vermont's stringent land-use law) and a bunch of misguided granola eaters, but Belluck avoids some of the hard questions underneath the twentysomething exodus. There's huge tension between native Vermont businesses and many of the out-of-state businesses that relaxed environmental regulations and taxation would attempt to bring in. Normally one would say to the locals, compete or die, but much of Vermont's economy is unavoidably based on 1) how pretty we are and 2) the "Ye Olde Shoppe" vibe that an open invitation to the box stores would inexorably choke to death. Clearly, we can't entirely stick to those principles if it means destroying the social contract, but neither can we—nor should we—abandon the environmental measures and localization that every state ought to adopt. To be honest, whenever I hear "Vermont hates business" my brain translates it as "business hates doing the right thing," or, to be fair, takes the path of least resistance/maximum profits. If Vermont is forced to choose between a race to the bottom or a slow march to extinction, what are we supposed to do? Where's the reasonable balance? Assuming she even considered it, Belluck seems to have made up her mind; if she hadn't, maybe she would have talked to at least one of those "antisprawl folks".

I'm one of the young people who left—right after college and getting married. I'm also one of the very few who came back, six years later, to buy a house, get a job and raise a family. Maybe I'm just enormously lucky (sometimes I feel that way) but it can be done. You have to love Vermont enough to want to.

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