Christmas Wish List or New Year’s Resolutions?

It’s the end of what has been for many a devastating year. 2020 has magnified and amplified the damaging toll that our persistent socio-economic and environmental inequities have exacted on Vermonters.

As the nation’s bluest state, Vermont is still near the bottom for food security and affordable housing. Vermont performs better in comparative unemployment figures, although “unemployment” data are subject to political manipulation in how they are defined. In a recent VTDigger article, economist Art Woolf notes that “Vermont currently is experiencing the second worst labor force decline in the nation over the past 12 months.” Compared to other states, we’re slightly better in access to healthcare, but only as measured against 49 other states that collectively have no national healthcare plan for universal coverage. Measure Vermont against any European country for healthcare access and we fail here as well.

The New Year perennially affords hope, and there’s good reason to be hopeful as it relates to the pandemic, but will we muster the leadership, legislative, and policy change needed to confront our preexisting conditions or will we just settle into the “old normal”?

I’ll be blunt; I want new leadership in all branches of government – Vermonters who focus on the well-being of Vermonters. As in any period of intense hardship, we can emerge stronger and wiser, or we can settle back into the “old normal” where Vermonters continue to struggle to find employment that pays enough to afford housing, food, healthcare, and education.

Several initiatives are looking through various lenses at “the future of Vermont.” We’re a studious lot, but less adept at making change than studying it. We spend time and ink recording what needs change but then lack the political courage to drive those changes through the headwinds of opposition rallied by those whose privilege is threatened.

Time to embalm the Friedman/Reagan/Thatcher/ “trickle down” orthodoxy… now in tatters. This durable myth has vastly enriched the ten percent and left tens of millions of Americans (and Brits) in penury. Even the venerable National Business Roundtable is white-washing its former commitment to Milton Friedman’s definition of profit and share value as the sole appropriate goal of business and the driver of citizen well-being.

In my 70+ years in Vermont, I’ve had little reason to doubt that most Vermonters still believe in the capacity of their small, accessible government to initiate change that betters their lives. Yet little substantive change has occurred in the last few gubernatorial terms or legislative sessions.

Here are some ideas.

In order to afford and initiate change, we will need to revise Vermont’s tax law for even more progressivity than detractors claim we already have. We’ll need to expand sales and use tax to include consumer services. I. E. most Vermonters buy and pay sales tax on a lawn mower and snow shovel, mow their own lawn and shovel their own snow. Well-heeled Vermonters hire someone else to do it and pay no tax. Including services would increase revenue that could be used to buy down the sales tax which is, in itself, regressive.

We will need to fund public education, not solely on property tax, but also on income, and possibly even an asset tax on intangibles, such as stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. We live in a nation where the CEO/founder of one company, Amazon, has a net worth 26 times Vermont’s annual budget. A .0025% asset tax would cost a Vermont millionaire $2500 a year.

We need to peg the minimum wage to a fundamental like cost of living and remove it from political debate.

We’ll need to reimagine the public school system. Schools need to be open year-round, extending from soon after birth to career. Public education will subsume “childcare,” adding to it the richness of early education, and not least, integrating, healthcare and trauma-informed counselling. Teachers must be rewarded for working eleven months instead of nine, and a program to deploy universal broadband access will be critical.

We must reprioritize competing interests and bureaucracies such as affordable housing, zoning, and historic preservation, forcing compromise rather than allowing stasis. One’s interest in each often depends on one’s privilege.

In healthcare, we will need to move our considerable investments upstream to achieve long-term savings – that means focusing on prevention, primary care, and chronic disease management rather than emergency room and invasive care. The very ethics of healthcare demand this. We must understand that unemployment, homelessness, hunger, pollution, emotional trauma are essentially pre-existing medical conditions that invariably lead to the emergency room and the most expensive healthcare. In time, spending money upstream will lower our astronomical downstream medical costs.

We’ll need to focus on the development of a less-industrialized and more regional food supply chain, one that encourages regenerative agriculture in a local economy. We must stop funding the chemically-dependent monocropping food industry that has monopolized and poisons our food chain.

We may need to underwrite our regional food producers until we achieve price equity. Perhaps Agriculture Secretary-elect Tom Vilsack will consider moving some of the $22B annual farm subsidy – much of which is used to subsidize lethal junk food components such as corn, corn syrup, cornstarch and soy oils and price-supporting a massive dairy oversupply – into supporting lower-impact, regional farming such as we see blooming in New England.

We’ll need to be relentless in our pursuit of environmental quality. Air, water and soil are the elements of our survival. The comfy consumer trade-offs we’ve made are coming back to haunt us in weather events, immune system compromise, chronic disease blooms, and lowered human longevity. We must impose a modest carbon tax to further induce change.

Finally, we will all need to rebalance our personal interests against those of our community and be open to change.

And we all need to understand that the human race is one species regardless of religion, gender, age, or racial origin. Whatever “higher power” we believe in sees us as one. Perhaps the greatest sin we can commit is to use our various religious orthodoxies to imagine that some of us are more deserving of being loved and respected than others.

A dear Moroccan friend, an observant Muslim, was guiding us through the courtyard of a large mosque in Fez some years back. We rested in the exterior garden and courtyard on the edge of a bubbling white fountain next to a huge parking lot of shoes, and just sat quietly.

Finally, I broke the silence, asking Saida about religious tolerance in Morocco. After a few moments of thought, she smiled and said, “Like everywhere, it’s mixed. But I believe that all those in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism who advocate for the slaughter of infidels will all burn equitably in the same hell.”

We let her wise words sink in as we followed her through the labyrinthine Souk Bab Jiaf. We’d still be there today, were it not for Saida’s guidance.