A Nation of Cranks?

We’ve become a nation of divided cranks. Too many of my friends have made up their mind about everything, dug in their heels, and either turned their face to the wall, as they say in hospice, or steeled themselves to fighting for their entrenched opinions.

If only we lived in a simple binary world of absolutes instead of in the complicated, nuanced world where some things can be true and false at the same time. We wouldn’t need all this troublesome education, reading, art, science, and conversation. We could just eat, drink, watch television, and give those who disagree with us the digital digit.

Friends send me anti-vax, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, anti-religion, anti-wind, anti-hunting, anti-single-payer memes… the list is endless and covers the entire political spectrum. The only consistency is “anti.” But each of these “antis” is, in fact, a complex and nuanced subject, requiring application of reason, science, human story, and civil debate.

We’ve become too comfortable and lazy. Everything’s become a “pro – anti” binary stalemate and so our democracy grinds to a halt.

Colonialism and the flight of oppressed and starving populations have diversified and complicated our world. This was how our own country was founded. Traditional communities still had to reconcile diverse opinions but had the shared benefit of intimate community contact and a shared need for survival that required debate and solutions.

The digital world has wrought many benefits to science, education, business, and communication, but its impact on community has been less beneficial. We’ve ceded personal contact and the rough-and-tumble of debate to remote name-calling, ideological safe spaces, and anti – messaging that invites no rebuttal or debate and reinforces our own righteous ignorance.

But when we stop talking to one another, we stop learning. When we choose our news based on our politics, we learn nothing new. When we create emotionally safe spaces in our schools and colleges, our children stop learning. When we take opiates, our bodies die. When we merely entertain ourselves, our spirits die.

I lay this withered wreath not on the tomb of any political party but on our democracy at large. We are all guilty of intellectual laziness.

We should each find someone with whom we disagree and talk with them and listen to them. Whether they change our mind or re-enforce our own opinions, at least those opinions will be informed by debate.

 

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Creative Invention: Plan for the future, learn from the past

Many small colleges are struggling with low inquiry, application, and admission rates, including here in the Northeast. Rising tuitions, student loan abuses, and radical change in employment patterns have discouraged many students who then choose to bypass college and just enter the workforce at a lower level of opportunity.

Now combine that thought with the fact that Vermont spends twice as much storing our social and economic fallout in jail as it does supporting its six state colleges. The chancellor and Board have begun a process to merge Johnson and Lyndon to save administrative overhead, but this is structural, and much more could be done to prepare both campuses for the new age we’re entering.

It’s widely accepted that prevention is cheaper and more effective than cure, so what if we took some of the hundred and eighty-million dollars Vermont spends on corrections and invested it in Northern Vermont University to address and ultimately lower the cost of remediating some of our past social and economic investment failures.

Imagine adding a focused diversion curriculum offering a pathway back into society and the changing economy for young offenders that meets them where they are, as well as one for released non-violent offenders. More than half of our prisoners are either past their release date or detainees awaiting trial. Each male prisoner costs fifty-thousand dollars annually and each woman, ninety-thousand, not even counting the cost of caring for their six thousand children. Compare that to the average state college tuition of fifteen-thousand.

Imagine, too, a curriculum that welcomes immigrants and refugees into Vermont’s shrinking population and anxious business community by setting up a specialized curriculum that teaches our language and culture, and provides basic employment skills as well as the fundamentals of civics, American history, and science – all designed by their future professors, employers, and resettlement professionals.

During our lifetime, technical innovation and change has outstripped our evolutionary human capacity to keep pace and, as much as we may turn to the past for comfort, we ignore the future at our peril. We understand a lot about coming change and where it may lead but we can’t effectively prepare for it with endless incremental patches. We need to project, imagine, reinvent, and act on what we foresee. Our state college system would be a good place to start.

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To Hell in a Man-basket?

Growing up in the transition from Vermont’s “Republican century” to the Democratic “sixties,” the political labels we used seemed meaningless in the many discussions I had with people of differing political ideals. I usually found commonsense and decency in their differing perspectives.

The social compression of Vermont’s small towns, both in daily life and annually at town meeting, didn’t inhibit diversity of opinion on any topic. But the fact that we depended on one another in hard times, attended the same churches, traded in the same stores, and buried our dead in the same cemeteries meant we generally spoke civilly to one another, considered opposing opinions, and often found common ground.

I don’t know whether it’s the inherent distance of digital communication, a general decline in life’s imposed exigencies, our obsession with “things” over values, or whether we’re just Amusing Ourselves to Death as Neil Postman wrote in 1985, but the loss of civil engagement that has paralyzed Congress for years has apparently now spread to the White House – though for now at least, the Supreme Court still seems to be capable of occasionally rendering coherent decisions.

But setting politics and ideologies aside, I find myself increasingly wondering what to do when leadership at the top falters.

Once the hope of the world, we’re fast becoming a disappointing puzzle to many and a source of fear to others. The very values that made us a beacon are under attack and growing dimmer.

There’s increasing concern that inexperience and confusion in the White House are doing irreversible harm and polls show that many voters who believed campaign promises to “make America great again” are also having doubts, as they see their own interests being tabled. This president and his closest advisors dictate, but appear incompetent to govern themselves, let alone our country. Even those who aspire to wealth or power from their proximity to this president are showing signs of anxiety. The process of impeachment is again being mentioned – impeachable offences usually being described as treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. But only two presidents in U.S. history have been impeached and both were acquitted.

So my question today is… where to draw the line, who should do the drawing – and how much longer we can afford to wait.

Ethics Meltdown in Legislature

The Legislature is at an impasse trying to decide whether to establish and adequately fund a statewide ethics commission that has real enforcement capability. There’s been considerable favorable testimony by Vermonters, ethicists and our secretary of state, Jim Condos, who has been a relentless champion of government transparency, inclusion and establishing such a commission. Each time VTDigger runs a story on ethics legislative testimony or ethical lapses by state officials, comments from Vermonters run almost universally in favor of establishing such a commission.

Legislative arguments against it are unconvincing:

  • In this year of budget constraints, we can’t afford another government bureaucracy ($330,000 of $3.5 billion); (less than 1/100th of a percent)
  • Financial disclosure of possible conflicts will discourage Vermonters from government service;
  • We’re all good people and we all know each other;
  • What if an ethics commission ran amok and looked for self-serving behavior where there was none?
  • An ethics commission would not have prevented any of the recent malfeasance, etc.

Vermont is one of only three states with no central ethics infrastructure. The Center for Public Integrity, in partnership with Global Integrity, has conducted a comprehensive assessment of state government accountability and transparency. The project uses extensive research by reporters in each state to grade and rank the states based on existing laws and analysis of how well they are implemented. This is a carefully researched report with a comprehensive explanation of each of 13 categories.

In 2015 (from data gathered in 2013 and 2014), Vermont got an overall grade of D-:

  1. Public Access to Information F
    2. Political Financing B
    3. Electoral Oversight D-
    4. Executive Accountability F
    5. Legislative Accountability F
    6. Judicial Accountability F
    7. State Budget Processes A
    8. State Civil Service Management F
    9. Procurement C-
    10. Internal Auditing C-
    11. Lobbying Disclosure C-
    12. Ethics Enforcement Agencies F
    13. State Pension Fund Management D

Vermont ranks 50th of all states on the Ethics Enforcement Agencies category.

For the third time in six years, Vermont has been named No. 1 in America … as the riskiest state for major embezzlements. And Vermont has some of the shorter prison sentences for those caught dipping into the till, according to the latest annual report by Marquet International. A six-year snapshot shows Vermont is the most likely to lead the list for embezzlements among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

While we are mostly good people, we’re also fallible. We’ve seen a spate of recent embezzlements in the municipal sector. We’ve seen government officials pirouette from their office to earn more, working for those they oversaw. The alleged McAllister scandal trudges toward trial, the EB-5 Jay Peak scandal is the largest in our 225-year history and one of the largest in the SEC’s own history.

A few examples in the executive, legislative and municipal arenas:

  • Coventry: $876,000 missing.
    • Hardwick Electric: The largest municipal embezzlement in Vermont history, more than $1.6 million.
    • Vernon: recent allegations and state police investigation.
    • Former Sen. Norm McAllister sexual allegations.
    • Jay Peak EB-5 scandals.
    • Brent Raymond, Vermont’s EB-5 director resigns and takes a job with Mount Snow, where he will manage two EB-5 immigrant investor funded projects.
    • Becky Fu, the manager of international trade and investment for the state and a former member of the Vermont regional center staff, left to take a job with Trapp Family Lodge, which is a recipient of EB-5 immigrant investor funds. The Von Trapp family has sought $22 million in EB-5 funds.
    • Alex MacLean’s leap from Shumlin aide to Jay Peak employee in a matter of days would have been prevented were there an ethical code in place and an adequate enforcement arm.
    • Executive branch efforts to impede the press’ FOIA requests for emails about MacLean’s transition might have been appealed to an ethics commission for review. VTDigger’s lawsuit to obtain public records, supported by the ACLU-VT, might not have occurred.
    • SenDick Mazza’s failure to report rental income.
    • Possible unaudited expense accounting fraud.

As a commentator who has addressed ethical issues in prior VPR and press commentaries, I was asked to testify in Senate Government Operations and was challenged as to how an ethics commission could have prevented the $200 million EB-5 fraud perpetrated on 836 investors from 74 countries. Had we had a real ethics commission, the immigration lawyer working on behalf of suspicious investors in 2014 would have had a place to go to ask for help. At first, the state denied any responsibility and the scandal metastasized. Two governors, a senator and an agency secretary might have been warned not to represent that the investors’ funds were being audited appropriately by the state agency that was, at that time, also charged with promoting the program. The following year, the state learned that the SEC was waist-deep into an examination of massive fraud.

The “moi?” response when elected and appointed Vermont officials are deemed tainted by this scandal that took an SEC investigation to uproot is an embarrassment. At the least, an ethics commission would have been a point of entry for those with questions about oversight.

An effective ethics commission backed by an ethics canon is foremost a metaphorical conscience, secondly a practical resource for those elected to serve Vermonters, providing leaders with clarity on acceptable behavior, and, lastly, it is an enforcer of its guidelines, adjudicating the difference between public service and self-dealing. Like most preventive actions, it would pay for itself many times over. Can we honestly say that in the myriad state contracts and employee expense vouchers there is no self-dealing? The cost of defending or remediating ethical lapses certainly exceeds the cost of an effective ethics commission.

Legislative waffling on establishing ethical guidelines and a body to interpret and enforce them is, in itself, suspect. People, businesses and institutions all have laws and precepts they must follow. It should be no different in a citizen legislature where the people’s business is conducted. We’re not special. We’re imperfect beings, trying to make our way in a complex and challenging world. We need guide posts.

Although most Vermonters favor establishment of an ethics commission with investigative and enforcement powers, the current bill (S.8) largely ignores what Vermonters are asking for, doing little more than providing legislative cover for inaction. It calls only for a part-time director and someone in human resources to draft ethical guidelines. There’s no enforcement capacity. Malfeasance is referred to the Senate or the House for peer action, even though our elected leaders have not fared all that well historically in policing themselves.

A real ethics commission should not cost more than $350,000, a small price to pay to assure Vermonters that their elected officials are serving them and not themselves. It must have jurisdiction over the Legislature and executive branches as well as elected municipal officials. It should have investigative and prosecutorial authority, referring criminal matters to the state Attorney General’s Office.

In a time of widespread citizen mistrust of their government institutions, what could be more important than re-establishing that trust? Trust in American institutions is eroding. The approval rating for our highest legislative body is under 18 percent. Our highest judicial body has wrought havoc with the democratic electoral process. The projected budget for an election 18 months away is estimated at five plus billion dollars, or what the Legislature is planning to pass for Vermont’s 2018 budget.

We’re supposed to be a nation of laws. Statutes, regulations and governance conventions codify the continuum of Americans’ ethical beliefs and guide our decisions as we work to maintain civility. When things fall apart, it’s usually due to arrogant abuse of power or the naive “gee-whiz, we’re all honest” mindset – which is uncomfortably close to willful ignorance. The former was exemplified at the outbreak of the EB-5 scandal, which we still pretend didn’t happen.

 

Middlebury Student Meltdown

Many young people are, by nature’s design, rash and impulsive and in loco parentis educators must often deal with the fallout from their students’ lack of experience. Real-life consequences and good mentoring, mature them over time or they become infantilized adults.

The recent protest that turned violent at Middlebury College is likely to be a hard lesson for those students who succeeded in preventing Charles Murray from having to defend his questionable philosophies – at the price of injuring one of their own.

Middlebury President Laurie Patton and Allison Stangar, the faculty member in charge of the event, had sought to promote – not the views of the controversial guest – but a diverse and open learning culture; to encourage civil discourse and support the First Amendment – all fundamental to education.

As a community of learners and scholars, it was entirely appropriate for Middlebury to support the free expression of ideas with which many in their academic community disagreed. Being exposed to ideas one finds ethically or intellectually flawed is intrinsic to learning. In life, we often learn more from abject failure than we do from triumph.

And I understand that the student protesters saw themselves as defenders of their own truths. But in the end their behavior more closely resembled that of jack-booted enforcers and the very archconservative ideologues they so passionately revile.

Of course, the real test of Middlebury’s educational rigor will come in the weeks ahead as the campus and the community try to make sense of these events – and determine how to hold accountable those who broke either college rules or civil law – including a number of outside demonstrators, so unsure of their rectitude that they hid behind masks, who joined the college students and contributed to the chaos.

To imagine that obstructing free expression or censoring ideas one finds repugnant will make us a better community is naïve and in itself repugnant. Mob behavior is fascistic, and violence, once ignited, is all but impossible to contain.

Anyone doubting this may recall Kent State, when the turbulent ‘60s reached an ideological climax as twenty-eight members of the Ohio National Guard fired on students protesting the Nixon’s Cambodian policies, killing four and wounding nine.

Ideas are not dangerous, but people who suppress them – with or without violence –  are.

The Death Throes of the “Trickle-Down” Mantra?

We may be finally witnessing the death throes of the conservative “trickle-down” mantra that advocates for lower taxes on “job creators” and “hands-off” government regulation.

This philosophy enthralled Reagan’s “moral majority,” who also challenged the rights of women and many non-whites by opposing abortion, birth control, gay marriage, voting rights, and immigration.

More recently, ultraconservative factions have championed the unfettered right to carry guns anywhere, isolationism in an international world, limiting voting rights to themselves, and opposition to an inclusive health care plan. No wonder we’re seeing suicide by lifestyle and declining life expectancy among disadvantaged white men and women seduced by this hollow belief system. The question is… what will replace it?

If, as Calvin Coolidge says, “the business of America is business,” we’re pretty much there. Under the guise of “free market capitalism,” business now owns a major share of the legislative branch of our democracy. Corporations have been accorded the same rights as citizens and many are concerned that with a narcissistic bully in the White House, the policies of his administration may soon dominate the executive and judicial branches as well.

Reducing taxes on the richest Americans has created the greatest wealth-gap since the Depression. Historically, such inequality has been a precursor to revolution –either armed or peaceful. It’s also accelerated the deficit and dashed hopes for needed infrastructure investments.

Corrupt lobbying against regulation has led to virtual monopolies in telecommunications, Pharma, airlines, energy, retail and other industries – leaving them free to focus solely on share value and profits, ignoring consumer satisfaction and public safety.

Deregulation has wrought havoc in for-profit college education, burdening students with inadequate education and crushing debt. In the energy sector, it’s destroyed whole environments and killed workers. It’s allowed our food supply to industrialize around sugar, nicotine, and chemicals, and in healthcare, it’s casually watched Pharma addict and kill thousands, profit by patent manipulation, and deny government agencies any right to negotiate pricing. America is 5% of the world population and consumes 80% of its opiates.

I’m an optimist. I believe we may finally be ready to let go of lowering taxes and reducing regulation in favor of investing in resilient, healthy communities by adopting new government priorities, like access to healthcare, education, jobs, housing, childcare, and infrastructure investment. In so doing, we’ll be heeding other words from Silent Cal, reminding us that “We’re all in the same boat.”

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Time to Resume Teaching Civics and Begin Teaching Media Literacy

If current political events have taught us anything, it’s how vulnerable we all are to misinformation and innuendo. And if 80% of us don’t trust our own government, we must then ask how many Americans even understand how their government works or their own role in a vibrant democracy. Three quarters of Americans can’t name the three branches of government and one third can’t name even one branch. An electorate that condemns its own government without understanding its functions and purpose can hardly be counted on to participate with informed voting and advocacy.

In Morrisville Junior High, we had a civics course that gave us a rudimentary sense of how government worked and instilled in us a sense of our responsibility to participate. Since we got all our news then either from Walter Cronkite or WDEV, we largely trusted what we heard. This formed the basis of how we thought about world and local affairs.

But today, everything has changed and if participatory democracy is to survive, we must get serious about the importance of civics and media literacy in the public-school curriculum. Our democracy depends on citizens understanding how their government works and knowing how to evaluate the myriad sources of reliable information and misinformation available to them.

We’re now at a historic turning point. Young people are experts when it comes to using social media, but they’re dangerously ignorant about the consequences of their own use of it. Cyber-bullying, revenge porn, stalking, and fake news are all dangerous consequences of our misunderstanding of social media. Active on Facebook and other platforms, young people pay little attention to privacy and its importance in a world of relentless and malfeasant hacking and misinformation.

There are many corrosive elements weakening our democracy: corruption, equating money and free speech, but also ignorance of government’s purpose and function and an inability to differentiate fact from political propaganda which could be our democracy’s death knell.

We’ve been warned by writers like Orwell and Huxley in fiction, and by historical figures such as Stalin, Hitler, Putin, and Berlusconi.

The question is: Will we heed the warnings?”

Vermont’s Ageing Legacy Systems

Vermont’s Ageing Legacy Governing Systems

How we understand our complex systems affects the quality of our discussion about them, as well as any agreements we might make toward progress. Too often, we are myopic and imagine decisions we make in Vermont are the sole determinant of outcomes, when in fact our geographic boundaries mean less and less. As a friend recently pointed out, the decision by the Saud royal family to sell Aramco may have a greater impact on Vermont than all our energy management efforts combined. We are buffeted by regional, national, and global winds that have more impact on us than we understand. We are 620,000 people living on 10,000 square miles. To make progress on the challenges presented by Vermont’s complex systems, we’ll need to remember we exist and interact in a larger social, cultural, legal, economic, and ecological universe. That cognitive humility will help us make wiser and more effective plans.

We will have to abandon or at least question our long held mythologies and acknowledge the reality of change: If we market Vermont more effectively people will come. Economic development, lower taxes, and less regulation will create jobs. More laws will make us safer and so on…

Beyond trusted leadership’s bully pulpit, the only toolsets of government are financial (taxing and budget authority), legislative and regulatory (making new laws and regulations) and judicial, (interpreting existing law), whereas many of our problems are beyond the reach of these tools – cultural, technical, macroeconomic, health-related, ethical etc.

A craftsperson, however, uses what they have at hand, so our complex and dated legacy systems are relentlessly tweaked in an effort to solve every quotidian or acute problem that presents itself. Many of our laws and regulations now on the books set up legal or administrative conflicts that defy their intent.

To further complicate matters, our shortsighted two-year leadership terms defy long-term goal setting and accountability and propel the turnstile of agency leadership. We have no strategic planning resource, so our executive and legislative arms must govern over the stern of the ship of state. How can we set future goals if we have no glimpse of what the future might bring? A resource that studies economic, social, demographic, commercial, environmental, medical, and commerce-related trends would provide give our leaders and law-givers a weather report on Vermont’s future. We have nothing.

The complex systems, that have evolved over decades, are wearing out and breaking down in the face of accelerating change. Government tends to react reflexively to acute breakdowns rather than asking the bigger question of whether chronic breakdowns might indicate endemic failure. We invest in repairs rather than pre-emptive redesign, ballooning our costs as we sidestep the challenges of acknowledging reality and investing in reinvention and prevention. The $200 million spent in a failed enterprise-level healthcare transaction management system is one example. The $2.2B or 40% of Vermont’s budget we spend on Human Services to remediate the basic social and economic injustices with which we live could be much better spent.

Our Legacy Systems:

 

I. Health Care: Quality, Cost, Network infrastructure, and access: Ageing & Dying, Chronic Disease Management, Mental Health Care, Addiction Treatment

Considerations:

  1. Cost for outcomes inadequate, yet most expensive in world.
  2. Stranded cost of failed Health-Connect initiative vastly exceeded entire Vermont budget shortfall for 2016.
  3. Need to engage in creative destruction or repurposing to reduce the number of competitive hospitals, while increasing the number of primary care clinics. Need to increase number of primary care and pediatric practitioners.
  4. Need to redesign provider compensation and radically reduce transactional costs.
  5. We need regulated open architecture in electronic medical records (EMR) to reduce cost and enhance utility
  6. We need to eliminate for-profit insurance and move to a regulated ROI monopoly such as BC/BS
  7. Pharma must be re-regulated nationally for both quality, price, access, and consumer marketing.
  8. Need to better educate doctors and patients about end-of-life options that don’t automatically involve “heroic measures”: require advance directives, expand palliative care, in-home hospice, and death-with-dignity
  9. Need to increase public mental health treatment infrastructure and options.
  10. Need to increase public addiction treatment infrastructure and options.
  11. Need to implement less addictive pain management drugs and monitor noncompliance (“Dr. Feelgoods”)
  12. Need to eliminate the “guild mentality” of dentists protecting their franchise and force them into mainstream healthcare where they belong.

 

II. Social Safety Net: We must understand this area as completely inter-related at human scale. Homelessness, Youth-at-Risk, Child Protection, Hunger, Step-Up and Training, Addiction Services (Education and Recovery) must be seen in the context of families at risk.

Considerations:

  1. Government Sector: Don’t disassemble Agency of Human Services into dysfunctional silos.
  2. Non-Profit Organizations: Competition vs. Collaboration, Results-based State Contracting, & Philanthropic education about needs and accountability.
  3. Integrate efforts between the government, non-profit and business sectors to work together to solve problem rather than competing for solutions.

 

III. Public Education: Quality, Equity, Cost, Access and Administrative and Infrastructure Efficiency

Considerations:

  1. Cost for outcomes inadequate – most expensive in world.
  2. Is it “education” or “child-management” with 760 special ed professionals and 3200 teachers in kindergarten through elementary school?
  3. Do we need 250 school districts and 62 supervisory unions for 86,000 students?
  4. Eliminate the term and concept of “childcare” and call it what it is “public education.” Avoid another silo to regulate childcare.

 

IV. Vermont State College System: VSAC and the five colleges

Considerations:

  1. Should we re-purpose one or two of our four stressed state colleges and make them into regional economic hubs in partnership with area businesses and non-profits?
  2. Can one of the colleges help forge a path to re-entry for non-violent offenders?
  3. Can one of the colleges specialize in a curriculum for Vermont immigrants including ESL, job training, civics, and acculturation?
  4. Can we reduce student tuition costs by reducing residency somewhat and reparsing pedagogical methods online?
  5. Should be discussing free or first two-years free tuition?
  6. Is tenure still relevant?

 

V. Public Safety: Police, Fire and Emergency Services, Firearm Regulation

Considerations:

  1. We have nine independent police forces and fire departments within 15 miles of downtown Burlington without central dispatch. Is this cost effective?
  2. We have over 70 levels of police hierarchy in VT and little or no citizen oversight. It is virtually impossible to decertify a corrupt or under-performing policeman. Is this effective or accountable management? Police licensing, citizen oversight?
  3. Can we create a firearm policy that encourages hunting, discourages violent crime, abuse, suicide, and carriage by those with mental health issues?
  4. Are our traditional volunteer and professional fire response and safety infrastructures appropriate to the steep reduction in residential fires?

 

VI. Criminal Justice: Incarceration costs Vermonters $188M a year

Considerations:

  1. Corrections:
    1. Mission should be to return offenders to society as safely and as rapidly as possible.
    2. Current cost is disproportionate to poor recidivist outcomes.
  • Has become surrogate holding facility for addicts and mental health – both health issues, not criminal
  1. Expand restorative justice and court diversion options in lieu of prison
  2. Overly aggressive prosecution, underfunded public defender system.
  3. Forge an offender re-entry path back to family, community, shelter, and the economy. (see 6. b)
  4. Legislature: criminalizing too many behaviors in new proscriptive laws. Administrative laws are adding to recidivism and occupancy.

 

VII. Communications Infrastructure: Broadband, Telecom, Satellite, Terrestrial Broadcast, Cable – Public and Private Systems

Considerations:

  1. Consumer content moving to Internet streaming away from terrestrial broadcast, cable and satellite and terrestrial broadcast spectrum being re-allocated more efficiently.
  2. Confusion in the consumer/wholesale relationships and pricing
  3. Net neutrality policy still under debate and intense lobbying
  4. Broadband build out is progressing but needs a plan for financing and completion.

 

VIII. Economic Development:

Considerations:

  1. What do emerging companies really want? Low taxes and deregulation or a healthy socioeconomic environment with good housing, education, recreation, healthcare, and participatory options for their employees?
  2. Consumer (tourism) – focus on niche tourism, cultural, eco-, agri-tourism, wild game, canoeing, cycling, climbing, hiking, history etc.
  3. The traditional economic development “tool kit” is empty.

 

IX. Transportation:

Considerations

  1. Road and bridge Infrastructure – no room for “deferred maintenance”
  2. Public Transportation: bus, rail, and air – needs reanalysis
  3. Consumer: Cars, cycling, walking – public fleets in urban areas?

 

X. Vermont Tax Code and Fee Structure:

Considerations:

  1. Fairness – Is it fair to all individuals and businesses?
  2. Competitiveness – Does it negatively impact competiveness?
  3. Simplicity – Is it comprehensible and useable by non-professional filers?
  4. Transparency – Is the code and its rationale accessible to all?
  5. Neutrality – Is it policy-neutral, or does it dissuade and incent behaviors?
  6. Interoperability – does it mesh with other tax domains i.e. federal?
  7. Sustainability – does it produce adequate revenue on a sustained basis to fund government?
  8. Executive and Legislative Accountability to Taxpayers – do legislators and tax department officials periodically review the code to ensure current relevance to original intent, especially with regard to “tax expenditures” and “carve-outs?”
  9. Compliance & Enforcement – is it consistently and fairly applied and enforced?

 

XI. Governance:

Considerations:

  1. Public:
    1. Gubernatorial & Legislative Terms – move to 4-year terms
    2. Ethics – establish an independent Ethics Commission
  • Transparency – reduce public meeting exemptions and make transparency and openness the norm rather than the exception
  1. Strategic Planning – The State must look ahead at what is coming not backward to see what might need fixing.
  1. Non-Profit:
    1. Board roles and responsibility – to many VT Non-profit boards have little or no understanding of their roles and responsibilities
    2. Redundancy – too many non-profits competing for limited government contracts and philanthropy rather than collaborating to accomplish missions.
  • Accountability to Mission – not enough mission alignment between budgets, staffing and programs
  1. Business:
    1. Regulation – business needs strategic regulation, not micro management or deregulation
    2. Taxation – Business taxes need review

 

XII. Environmental Protection:

Considerations:

  1. Water Quality – diminishing rapidly, needs real time monitoring.
  2. Invasives – may not be controllable
  3. Wildlife Management pretty good it would seem given habitat growth
  4. Waste Management – reduce source packaging and put recycling cost burden on manufacturers.

Hearing loss? Speak up ! Stop mumbling!

Real men don’t have “hearing loss.” Their spouses just mumble as they get older. It was true for my grandfather and father, and it’s true for me.  My wife keeps telling me to go to Costco and get my hearing checked. I explain that Costco is for red meat and toilet paper.

I hear perfectly well, despite 55 years waving a chainsaw around, three years of concert-sound reinforcement for rock bands, and another ten years in a recording studio control room when I was young. If people just spoke clearly, hearing loss wouldn’t be such a relentless and annoying topic of conversation.

For example, my wife asks, “How ‘bout a little snuggle?” to which I answer, “Sure, if the snow blower starts.” Or, “You want fish for supper?” to which I answer, “She’s nice, but I’m sick of her gossip.”

That’s how I learned Latin. She told me my non-sequiturs were proof of my hearing loss. Too proud to ask what a non-sequitur was, I looked it up and found it means “a response that doesn’t follow from the question.”

Now firmly on the defensive, I relaunch my tirade against mumblers, explaining that all conversations would be easier if people just spoke clearly. “We’ve become a nation of mutterers,” I generalize, so as not to make it personal.

“You need hearing aids,” she yells at me and walks away.

In truth, I’d begun to worry. Sitting in a crowded restaurant, I can’t hear the person sitting across from me, but hear every inane word coming from a wine-soused woman at the far corner table, carrying on about her poodle’s silly hairdo. At meetings, I ask people to speak up repeatedly, though others seem to hear them okay. So, I sneak off to get tested.

A young woman settles me into a foam-lined closet and fits me with headphones. “Raise your hand when you hear a tone,” she says, closing me into the hermetically sealed chamber. “This’ll be easy,” I think, “Finally put an end to this “hearing loss” nonsense.” After a while, I ask when she’s going to start the test.

“It’s over,” she says, popping into the room. “You have serious hearing loss.”

“Serious?” I ask, not sure I heard her. “Not deaf, am I?”

“It’s a relative term,” she responds. “Let’s try some hearing aids on you and see what happens.”

Suspicious, I ask, “How much they gonna cost?” having seen ads for them costing several hundred dollars.

“They’re normally $4800, but we discount them and offer low-interest financing.”

I look around in a panic, convinced my mind’s failing along with my hearing and I’ve wandered by mistake into a car dealership.

“$4800?” I gasp, forgetting a half-century’s elapsed inflation.

Judging me a geezer, she chirps, “Medicare may cover some. You can finance the rest over five years – if you live that long,” she thinks, but is too polite to say.

I skulk home with my new earrings, which cost more than my first seven cars, a year’s worth of batteries too small to see, and a sheaf of financing documents signed under duress.

The sound of my car starting sounds like a Euclid diesel dump truck firing up on all six cylinders. Passing cars sound like I’m the target of a drone strike. I hear birds chirping as I enter the house. My patient wife congratulates me on my new hearing aids.

“Don’t have ta yell at me,” I sulk. “I wasn’t yelling,” she answers with a smile.

The Plague of Willful Ignorance

Let me start by saying that “ignorance” is a meaningless word. It’s a judgment that lacks any clarity. I grew up among many under-educated people who had more wisdom and common sense than later friends who graduated from Ivy League schools and, forty years hence, find themselves lost in a random and complex world.

Nor do intellectuals have any more claim to absolute right than a wise elder, imbued with common sense and living a curious and contemplative life. So, I don’t use the term ignorant, but I consider willful – or determined – ignorance both arrogant and destructive – especially when it manifests itself as a comprehensive distrust of education, science, history, and the arts. It’s often said that “ignorance is bliss.” Don’t believe it for a minute.

Willful ignorance comes from inchoate fear, anger, and victimhood, nothing more. And it feeds on itself, admitting only self-justifying facts and judgments that confirm calcified belief systems.

I’ve known fear and anger, but they don’t make me a victim. They energize introspection, self-doubt, inquiry, and curiosity. I reject victimhood; I’m a human being, subject to all life’s randomness and the good and bad behaviors of those around me.

The problem with willful ignorance – one’s own, and that imposed on children and family – is that it solves nothing and perpetuates itself. By nature, it’s stagnant and cornered. All blame lies outside the self and relief is beyond one’s control. The disdain for education, engagement, and differing viewpoints becomes an emotional and intellectual prison in which victimhood is the only sustenance.

The most effective antidotes lie in a civic-minded educational system and the culture of our own homelife, since we know that the single largest determinant of educational success is the home we’re born into. Parental bias, anger, fear, and distrust all pervade the atmosphere our children breathe. But we also hear of children overcoming such beginnings through the intervention of a wise grandparent, teacher, or friend.

Liberals are quick to condemn “the ignorant” who vote against their own interests, who dance to the fiddle of someone whose intentions are ultimately harmful. But that’s overly simplistic, because fear and anger occur among all of us, on all political and cultural sides. What determines our future is what we do with that anger and fear. Willful ignorance only guarantees more of the same…or worse.

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