Just as Vermont farms are under threat from forces outside their control, so too are many of our sacred cows. Among them are post-employment benefits for teachers and state employees, pension systems as we knew them in the latter half of the last century, academic tenure, local control as we imagine it, journalism as we remember it, for-profit health care and perhaps democracy itself if we continue to equate money with free speech.
Some of these have served us well in their time and some will continue to do so, but all will come under scrutiny as we try to absorb external economic shocks and restore fiscal balance to our state institutions and prosperity in our communities.
The real question facing us will be whether we have the strength of will and leadership to ask ourselves this hard question. Which sacred cows are indeed sacred and which are ready to be led to slaughter?
Will all sides on these issues have the courage and wit to come to the table with useful ideas, knowing that solutions will mean compromise and change or will they simply dig in their heels and defend the past because change involves risk or, to over extend the metaphor, because their own ox may be gored?
Most agree that we cannot sustain the current pension systems and post-employment benefit packages for state employees and teachers. Most also agree that a deal is a deal and that changes must only be prospective. That is a good basis for discussion.
Most agree that the escalating costs of Vermont’s public education system with a declining student population is unsustainable and that we must forge a new balance between local communities and the small community we call Vermont with its 96,000 students, smaller in fact than many urban school districts, while improving the quality of education. This is also a good basis for discussion.
Can we have the best educational system in the country and academic tenure? There are no guarantees in life. Has academic tenure outlived its purpose of indemnifying intellectual dissent? No tenure exists in the real world about which professors and teachers purport to teach us.
Where will the new models of journalism come from? Will the paper require a cell phone or laptop? Will it mimic TV and deliver only peremptory sound bytes? Who will investigate the furtive ills of our society and economy? More important, who will read about them and how?
How will insurance companies reconcile their inherent and respectable profit motive with our goal to provide healthcare coverage to the growing number of Americans with no current access or to those with pre-existing conditions?
Finally, will the vast infusion of money into politics continue to be protected under the rubric of free speech? Is it free speech? If so, then how will the poor speak to us?
These are not easy questions. We’ll need courage and wise leadership not simply to defend the past, but to work together to envisage a better future.