In a recent interview, Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott lamented Vermont's (correct or not) image as a state that is not friendly to business. He cited New York and New Hampshire as examples of forward acting business-friendly states with a better approach. One of the sources for this oft repeated opinion is Forbes Magazine's annual listing of the best states for doing business. The metrics of this survey have everything to do with dollars and virtually nothing to do with living. For Forbes, anything that generates economic activity is automatically deemed "good" and thus desirable. That includes shale fracking -- like the frenzy underway in North Dakota -- that devastates a region's ecology, threatening its water supplies and seismic tranquility, adding to surface pollution congestion and rising crime rates.
If we are to be so concerned about massaging the bottom line of any business to encourage them to consider locating in Vermont, it's only fair to ask what the business community advocates on our behalf. Not so much, it turns out. U.S. business pits states against each other just like multinational businesses pit impoverished countries against one another in order to find the cheapest labor. Spending Vermont development dollars begging businesses to cast a shadow on our door simply puts us into the race to the bottom.
Repeatedly this year, when the statehouse was considering legislation to benefit Vermonters, the business community did its best to work against it. Whether it was the law to require labeling of toxic materials in products used by children (too big a risk to manufacturers' profits, not a big enough risk to the children); the debate over raising the minimum wage (with the nation's second lowest employment rate to the contrary, Vermont will surely suffer a significant rise in the unemployment rate if jobs are required to pay more than they do now); or the right to know what's in our food (infringement on corporate proprietary information and too costly to be worth whatever value people think there is in knowing what they are eating) business groups like the Chamber of Commerce have freely voiced their disdain for the average Vermonter and their unabashed loyalty to the profit uber alles credo advocated by corporate America.
So Forbes puts Vermont in 45th place and Vermont politicians gnash their teeth in despair. As the lieutenant governor put it, "We need more tools to entice people here than just our incredible quality of life." But just what is more important than quality of life? Certainly, economic security is a factor in deciding the quality of our lives, but to the business advocates, it seems that accumulation of money is really the most important factor. Would most Vermonters agree? It's not only the relatively well healed urban transplants that value the non-monetary qualities of living in Vermont. Multi-generation Vermonters also value their tranquility, privacy and freedom to do and be as they wish. How many Vermonters would hold that our "incredible" quality of life is precisely why we stay and why we've come. The goal for our state shouldn't be to entice business leaders here with tax giveaways and subsidies. Our focus instead should be to give every Vermonter a shot at enjoying the quality of life that Lt. Gov. Scott mentioned. While our unemployment rate is low, so are wages. If we want to keep people from leaving the state, then we adopt a livable minimum wage. If we want to encourage business investment, we should implement public investment in local business bonds and explore the economic benefits of a a well-planned state bank or a Vermont credit card. These are business-friendly ideas that strengthen the values we cherish, not ones that slowly erode them and make us indistinguishable from any other state.
We need to invest in our citizens. Universal health care is an important start. So are the governor's proposal to reimburse one-quarter of college tuition to students who stay in Vermont to work in needed jobs, and the call for universal pre-kindergarden for all Vermont children. The legislature should follow suit and stop shortchanging the Vermont university/college system by decreasing funding. Vermonters are not gazing wistfully outside of our borders waiting for a CEO to come riding in on a white horse. Vermont will prosper with a healthy economy to go along with our healthy quality of life if we invest in ourselves and our children. Universal health care, competent public schools and an affordable state university/college system would do much to erase the gap between the haves and the have nots in our state. Nationally, inequalities in wealth are contributing mightily to a decline in the U.S. standard of living. If Vermont invests in the commonweal and curtails the redistribution of wealth that is destroying our economic lives, if we shed our slavish devotion to money and wealth as the only true markers of success, then we have a chance to grow a 21st century economy on our terms, where the quality of our lives takes primacy, and jobs are created by a well-educated populace.
Dan DeWalt writes from Newfane.