Friday, October 10, 2014

Economic Development in Vermont

One of the very few people who have responded to my poll requested that I write about a topic that often comes up in local discussion: the shortage of well-paying jobs in Vermont. It is difficult to find them here because the state has relatively little industry compared to the surrounding states. There is a large IBM plant in Essex Junction, but the primary state industry is tourism. Some counties are agricultural; Addison County, where I live, has significant dairy and beef farming, and apples and maple syrup are produced in several counties. Wood and mining industries still flourish, and in recent years craft breweries and whiskey distilleries have been growing, but none of these employ many workers. Most of the jobs are tourism-related and don't pay well.

There are historical reasons for the current state of economic affairs in Vermont. Few came early on compared to other states, as the remote, landlocked location was not optimal for industrialization. Many of the early settlers were farmers from nearby states; they soon found out that the soil and climate are not optimal for most crops and joined the migration to the Midwest. Not many industries thrived here, and the rate of population growth significantly lagged behind that of the surrounding states. The population here has multiplied 4.1 times since 1800, compared to 33.1 times for New York, 15.5 times for Massachusetts and 7.2 times for New Hampshire.  As the economy boomed along the coast, Vermont became a vacation retreat. In the 1960's, Vermont gained a counterculture image, and wealthy people from other states began to move here, shifting state politics from conservative to liberal. As in other parts of the country, liberals emphasize protection of the environment and quality-of-life issues, while conservatives emphasize economic growth and wealth creation. To be sure, few Vermont political conservatives resemble Tea Partiers, and they don't correspond closely to the contemporary Republicans in Washington, D.C. A liberal political environment makes it harder to attract new businesses here than to pro-business states.

As a retiree transplant, I oppose wholesale economic development in Vermont. First, speaking as an individual, I came here for the low population density, the pleasant physical environment and the like-mindedness of the people. Having seen firsthand what happened when economic development hit areas such as Indianapolis, Indiana and Schaumburg, Illinois, I would definitely move somewhere else if that were to happen here. I would vote against strong economic growth purely out of self-interest. As far as the status of the unemployed or underemployed is concerned, it has been a fact of life for centuries that people go to where there are jobs, not vice versa. The breadwinners in my family, including me, have done that for generations, so I don't think of it as a punishment to impose it on others. Those who insist on living in a place without jobs are behaving like narcissists if they think they have a right to both a good job and the living situation of their choice. That privilege has been a rarity for most of recorded history.

Second, on a more fundamental level, this topic touches on what I perceive to be serious flaws in our economic and political systems. Neither democracy nor capitalism deals with the consequences of economic development on a long-term basis. Because of economic growth and population increases, the U.S. is not the same country that it was in 1776. Economic growth has historically damaged the environment and contributed to overpopulation across the globe, and the warnings of Thomas Malthus have generally been ignored only because the human race has thus far managed to survive in spite of them. Few seem willing to admit that the country and the world might be better places if they more closely resembled Vermont than New Jersey. It is certainly no coincidence that many of the retirees here moved from that state.

Most of my childhood was spent in a suburb of New York City, and though I didn't understand it at the time, I felt that I was not getting enough exposure to the outdoors. After leaving for college, I developed a sense of relief at being able to live in uncongested places with woods and fields, which, it now seems to me, more closely approximate the kind of environment to which we are adapted. I think the same is true for most people, whether they realize it or not. This takes on significance when you consider that it is a fact that has been almost ignored since the country's inception. Most of the population now lives in or near cities.

Policymakers and economists chuckle to themselves whenever someone suggests that less economic growth would be beneficial. However, economic growth is usually accompanied by population growth. Currently, the world population is projected to reach about 9 billion by 2050, almost ten times the estimated world population of 1800. Ten thousand years ago, a blink of an eye in geological terms, it is estimated that our ancestors inhabited a world with a population of only 4 million. The fact that we have survived this growth does not imply that it is desirable. Rather it has contributed to an illusion of normalcy where none should exist.

I view the world as our deteriorating habitat, with diminishing pockets of habitability. Though I feel fortunate to be able to live in a desirable state within a major economic and military power, I see no reason to support American ideology, which I have never believed. Directly or indirectly, many of the world's woes are connected to conflicting groups that have been forced into contact with each other by overcrowding. Small groups can't wage wars with people whom they don't know exist, neither can they seriously deplete world resources or create global warming. When people aren't forced to live and work in cramped quarters, they can have environments in which they feel comfortable and never encounter conflicting ideologies.

Finally, I am not opposed to all economic development. Here in Middlebury a process is in place to create a small number of jobs that do not impinge upon the existing nature of the town, which still operates much as it did in 1800.

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