VPR Commentary

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 …
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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 …
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The Local and National Political Dialogues: a study in contrasts

I missed the opening day of the legislature and the inauguration of our new Governor. But I caught much of it on radio and read more in the dailies. Contrasting events in Montpelier with those in our nation’s capital should make Vermonters proud. Although there’s significant turnover and we’ve elected a Republican Governor and a Democratic legislature, we’ve every reason to believe we’ll be governed by thoughtful, mutually respectful people focused on the needs and wishes of all Vermonters, despite different philosophical and economic viewpoints. They’ll talk together and exhibit comity in their decision-making, as they’ve already done on several issues, including the clean-up of Lake Champlain and economic development. Contrast this with the three-ring circus playing out in Washington …
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Religions of God and of Men

There are three catchment areas for the broken among us: hospitals, public schools, and jails. Healthcare is a third of our state budget, public education another third, and jails cost twice what we spend on higher education. We must rethink our preventive investments to rein in this staggering cost of remediation. We know the “ounce of prevention” axiom but too often fail to observe it under the pressure of balancing budgets or absent courageous leadership. We must ask vexing questions about whether what we’ve been doing works – whether our investments make us stronger or simply forestall chaos. Only by analyzing and possibly redirecting our current social and economic investments will we lighten the remedial cost and, in time, lower …
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Did the traditional media really fail us?

I’ve tuned out of the endless forensic analyses of how news media failed the electorate. In fact, other than having misread the political and cultural pulse of many Americans, I’m not sure the serious news organizations failed us at all. Many were just absent. Watching a Trump supporter on the PBS Evening News say that she’d liked the idea of a woman in the White House until she learned from her sister’s Facebook page that five people Hillary knew had recently been murdered, I was curious about the news item and found its source in an article in the The Guardian. The fake news story was generated by pay-per-click entrepreneurs in Denver. They develop fake news they hope will go …
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Consensus or Democratic Stasis?

Vermont has a “consensus” problem. We don’t understand the concept. This confusion manifests itself especially when leadership is weak. For example, there’s broad agreement that we need more affordable and market-rate housing that’s environmentally efficient, affordable, and more compact than last century’s housing. But ask housing officials what impediments they confront when planning new projects and they’ll tell you about the tens of thousands of dollars in approval and regulatory costs and the years that accrue prior to any construction. If housing is indeed a priority, we need to revisit the consensus process that finally allows us to put shovel to earth. Consensus doesn’t mean universal agreement. Democracy runs amok when individual rights impede community good. Neither democracy, business management, …
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Corruption at Home

We call out corruption in our partner nations yet are myopic to how corruption threatens our own. It’s time for us to acknowledge how deeply corruption is taking root here at home. Our seventy-four thousand-page tax code has become a collection of special favors to powerful interests, incomprehensible to all but costly accountants and tax attorneys. To add insult to injury, three hundred and sixty-seven of the Fortune 500 operate tax subsidiaries in foreign tax havens. Apple has booked nearly two hundred and fifteen billion dollars in sales offshore to avoid slightly more than sixty-five billion in U.S. taxes. Pharma has flooded the nation with opiates, making illegal drug cartels look like amateurs. Law enforcement hunts down street dealers and …
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The Right to Vote is Also a Responsibility to Vote

The right to vote becomes a moral obligation when voting is understood as fundamental to the functioning of our democracy. In Australia, voting is mandatory – and failure to vote is punishable by a fine or community service. But here, as many as 40% of eligible voters will stay home on Election Day. Apart from voter apathy, the next biggest threat to the democratic experiment is our historical and current efforts to make it more difficult for certain racial and political blocs to vote – especially when voter fraud is a statistical myth. Only in the last century did we fully enfranchise women and African-Americans. But discredited practices designed to favor partisan votes – like gerrymandering and voter competency and …
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Nonprofit Boards and Leadership Failures

Some 20% of Vermont’s economy and much of our social safety net depend on Vermont’s nonprofits. Yet the governance principles that help them achieve their missions are widely misunderstood or ignored by the 6000 largely unregulated organizations licensed to operate in Vermont. Recently, we’ve seen several nonprofits falter, followed by charges and counter-charges with the blame falling on the Executive Director – or E.D. – when it’s the board which bears responsibility for the performance of their chief executive, their organization’s effective delivery on mission, and its fiscal and ethical integrity. An E.D. serves solely at the will of the board and when he or she has failed, by definition it’s a board failure. The annual performance review of the …
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Ethics and Strategy

Whomever we elect to lead us for the next two years, we’ll need to confront two gaping holes in our governance: strategic planning and ethics. Our last few decades ought to have alerted us to the need for both. Lacking these essential guardrails, we fall prey to the egos and legacy whims of our political leaders and are left to choose from their menu of needs rather than our own. Strategic planning looks through the lens of known facts at real trends affecting Vermont and its people – economic, demographic, social, and environmental. It quantifies current challenges and opportunities, measures them against known trends and data and offers scientific rather than ideological solutions. Ethics establishes sensible guidelines for what is …
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