My New Year’s Wish for Vermont
I don’t want any one thing in the New Year but rather a new way of understanding leadership and governing from our executive, legislative, and judiciary branches.
I don’t have a checklist of tweaks, quick fixes, or systemic overhauls that will revolutionize our endless but futile repair work. Nor do I have an idea for yet another nonprofit council of innovators who will, through their elevated belief systems, make everything better.
I want a new governing vision for leadership and action ̶ one that understands Vermont’s gradual descent into this troubling array of interwoven complex systems that plague us. I want leaders who can imagine a new set of values focused on the common good and who have the courage to lead and enact change that lifts the average Vermonter.
In my 45 years observing Vermont politics, I’ve seen two types of politicians, managers who view politics as a business career ̶ a way to make a living and garner respect as a person of influence ̶ and those who see politics as service to those who elected them. Sadly, I’ve seen more of the former than the latter.
Managers respond to problems as they present themselves. Leaders seek to understand the systemic origins of the problems and reenvisage and deploy a system that generates fewer problems.
A friend was talking with a politician of significant rank in Vermont politics and the politician asked my friend, “So, what should I run for next?” Disheartened by the subtext of the question, my friend shook his head and left the discussion.
Service means a deep intellectual and emotional connection to those served not noblesse oblige. It is born of shared experience and empathy.
Leaders listen carefully to diverse points of view, derive consensus (not total agreement), honor and record dissent, and act. She or he clearly articulates the path forward and the rationale behind it to those served, then forcefully counters the inevitable headwinds that oppose change for fear of losing their privilege. They then engage the legislature ̶ and, if needed, the judiciary ̶ to forge and realize change. If need be, they acknowledge any miss-steps, and then back-up and amend in order to move forward. Their dominant human characteristics are humility and courage.
Most important, they understand that our challenges are interwoven and that addressing the whole is the most cost-efficient means of driving positive change. They know that investing in the early wellbeing of people will significantly reduce costs downstream ̶ that it’s cheaper to educate, care for, and prevent harm to people in real time than to try and fix them later on after the damage is done.
The following initiatives are all interconnected in their impact on people:
- Public education (not “childcare”) located in our communities from shortly after birth, staffed by early educational specialists who understand human development including the value of play (of which 500 are currently in training at Community College of Vermont (CCV) as well as regional life-long learning opportunities.
- Early intervention in response to adverse childhood experiences (ACES) using trauma-informed counseling (TIC) and robust local family support systems;
- Integrated experiential learning, job-shadowing, and internship opportunities in high school, and access to higher education through a public system of government-financed community and state colleges with flexible pathways into higher education or employment. Lifelong-learning access for those who seek new educational or vocational opportunities at any age.
- Universal and affordable local access to primary care as needed/when needed. This includes physiological, mental health, dental, and substance-abuse disorder treatment options with acuity-driven escalation to regional secondary and tertiary care if needed as well as affordable access to safe housing and healthy food, both intrinsic to good health.
- A criminal justice system grounded in an understanding of human development ̶ one which offers a redemptive path to young people who often make impulsive bad choices and one which prioritizes safe re-entry, restorative justice, and local support systems over incarceration except in the rare cases where the public needs protection from violent or deviant behavior.
One of the great ironies underlying this connectedness: some 9000 Vermont children have a parent under the care or oversight of the VT Department of Corrections (DOC) while “having an incarcerated parent” is a defined as an “adverse childhood experience.”
Above all, I want a new culture of leadership that retires for good the aging Milton Friedman doctrine of maximizing shareholder value at any cost ̶ one that makes the unfettered accretion of wealth a revered socio-economic prize.
I want new leaders who are informed and guided by the emerging governance philosophy, supported by solid research that the wellbeing of the commons produces a more stable society, economy and an environment that will sustain diverse human, animal, and plant life.
With our one-time, outsized $8+ billion budget and our majority political alignment, Vermont is well-poised to lead other states in this humane and practical change in governing philosophy.
My friends and colleagues at “True North” will assail this point of view, citing man’s innate freedom to earn unlimited wealth through his own endeavor, the need to minimize taxes and government regulation and let wealth grow to any extreme. But unrestricted freedom to acquire wealth ignores the wellbeing of all but the 1% and the damage to the country becomes more evident by the day.
Endeavor and invention do drive an economy. Regulated capitalism can drive personal, family, and community prosperity, but we still need government regulation focused on the wellbeing of all its citizens and on sustaining our natural world to survive and thrive as a civilization.
I’ve often wondered if there’s any significant difference in quality of life for those whose assets are $80 million or $7 billion? What’s left to spend money on? What does one do with such wealth? One can always buy more things, but more material possessions has never been shown to enhance a sense of wellbeing.
One can spend money on campaigns, lobbying, or bribery in an effort to affect the course of government policy to one’s own class advantage. One can donate to causes that further one’s privilege, with a goal of shrinking the established role and size of government.
One can also choose to donate altruistically to reduce community suffering. But a progressive and equitable tax system will preserve and fund the agreed-upon roles of government and generate income to support the wellbeing of all Vermonters and their natural environment.
Imagine if Vermont leadership were to focus on and measure success based on the safety, comfort, opportunity, and happiness of all its citizens, understanding that our level of wellbeing and not our level of wealth is the best measure of opportunity.
Vermont started down this path in 2015 with Act 113, establishing Vermont’s Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) metrics. The statute defined GPI as “the net contributions of economic activity to the wellbeing and long-term prosperity of our state’s citizens, calculated through adjustments to gross state product that account for positive and negative economic, environmental, and social attributes of economic development.”
Its clearly stated mission is to “Improve the economic wellbeing and quality of life of Vermonters while maintaining our natural resources and community values.”
The goal is to “not only grow jobs and wages and increase our Gross Domestic Product, but also to improve the Genuine Progress Indicator – a measure that takes into account economic, social, and natural assets and impacts – by 5% over baseline over the next five years.”
We started down this path, so how did we do?
My hope for the New Year is that a new generation of executive and legislative leaders will have the courage and fortitude to instill a new philosophy of governing, one that is driven by the wellbeing of all Vermonters, our world nieghbors, and our natural environment.