Kevin O’Connor gets it right

It should be plain to anyone with half a brain that the explosion of state “ratings” and “top ten” lists are often not designed to further discussion, so much as short circuit it. I’m not talking about lists of clearly quantifiable metrics – obesity, unemployment, etc. Obviously, such lists can and do inform meanngful debate.

I’m talking about top ten lists of more subjective values that are arrived at too often by ideological measures, rather than anything scientific. Which states have the most “freedom” or are the most “moral,” even (especially) the “best for business.” There’s been an explosion of such lists in recent years, and the press has generally leaped at the opportunity for a canned headline and eagerly regurgitated what can be misleading, or even partisan gobledeegook into uncritical headlines.

All of this is why Kevin O’Connor at the Times Argus/Rutland Herald deserves a big gold star this week. He used last week’s buch-ballyhooed United Health Foundation ranking of Vermont as the “healthiest state” as a springboard to discuss one major metric that any meaningful “healthy” index should have included – hunger.

As O’Connor reports, “a just-released U.S. Department of Agriculture report says more than 14,000 Vermont households (one in 20, or triple the number since 2000) face hunger so severe that adults frequently go without food, while one in 10 residents now relies on donations to eat.” That’s hardly an occasion for self-congratulation. But O’Connor even goes further, talking to local activists and describing for readers what they can do to help make a difference.

I don’t want to sound like I’m knocking the United Health Foundation (well… not much). As mass ratings go, theirs is pretty comprehensive. And it does include economic factors. But for states that end up on the top of such rankings, these sorts of lists are more often an occasion for self-congratulation than self-analysis – especially among the traditional media. As such, O’Connor and his editors deserve credit for looking beyond the numbers. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a trend in the coverage of the next such lists.

45 thoughts on “Kevin O’Connor gets it right

  1. a topic of considerable importance; kudos to Kevin O’Connor

    re. rankings and self-congratulation: to say (for example) that VT is ranked high on poverty (comparatively low rates) is to ignore the scary truth; that is, after 45 years of the (failed) War on Poverty, the rates are only marginally better; so what do we gain by comparing VT to states that are even worse? we have a permanent underclass that remains largely invisible (and votes at low rates and doesn’t contribute to campaigns)

    on a related note, when will policy makers embrace alternative approaches to the problem? while income support and various subsidies are critical in the short-term, they do not (cannot) create wealth for low-income families; for example, Section 8 housing vouchers help but renting doesn’t allow families to build equity; on the other hand, the land trust shared equity model is a huge success (see the excellent report “Lands In Trust: Homes That Last” at http://www.champlainhousingtru

    again, will the Dem primary and the general election be an occasion for honest debate about actually solving problems or a fight about the size of government?

  2. I heartily agree that Kevin O’Connor, brother of Kate (I believe), deserves recognition for juxtaposing the issue of hunger in Vermont against other rankings extolling our state.  Quite frankly, I am a little tired of us folks in Vermont trumpeting these ratings of how wonderful we are; to me, it is a little bit of a chorus of “How Great We Art.”  Please, a little honest humility is overdue.

    Ever since the 1930’s, Vermont has made a conscious decision to market itself as an idyll that the rest of the nation should look to as some place apart and special.  Yes, I can enumerate many positive aspects of our home; but as the USDA report points out, all is not well.  To those who have not read it, Joe Sherman’s book Fast Lane on a Dirt Road: A Contemporary History of Vermont is worth reading; for those who have read it, it deserves a rereading.  He points out that life in Vermont for many was not so idyllic;  for instance, if I remember correctly, Vermont had the highest percentage of men rejected from military service during WW II because of health problems.  Kevin O’Connor’s piece reminds us of problems that persist and should be addressed.

    It would be good if our next statewide election could address issues such as this, but I doubt that conversation will take place.  Alas, it is too easy to emphasize our “exceptionalism” and gloss over deeper issues that will fester the longer we ignore them.

  3. You paint an image of people wandering across the state beating their chests about how “great” we are.  Funny, I never quite run into those people…neither in private life nor when running our local school board.  That said, if our poverty rates are lower than everyone else’s, it is not cause for rending clothes and tearing hair.  

    The key questions are:

    1. Are there steps we can take to reduce the levels further?

    2. What are the dynamics of those steps? (How will people react)

    3. Will the final equilibrium result be better for all Vermonters?

    4. What is the minimum reasonable poverty rate?  We can set up laws, regulations, give-aways, charities, rehab centers, assisted living facilities, etc., spending literally hundreds of millions if we wanted to…but would that keep some people from being unlucky, foolish, addicted, etc?

    5. How do you rate this spending against other desires you can find on this blog on almost every post?  (Just closing down VT Yankee would cost us more than it would if we tripled the # of rehab centers and ALFs).

    Like good schools, our relatively low poverty rates were achieved by hard work, good systems, and dedicated people…they have to continue this work and we need to support them.  But I reject the implication that this is somehow bad news, merely because the result is not “perfect”.

  4. The cost of our sickness system makes it harder to feed people.  

    The cost of our legal system does, too. Look at the time spent crafting a 2000 page health care bill, carefully designed to not solve the problem.  If it passes, legal wrangling over what it means will delay reform even more.  

    In hard times, it’s a good idea to cut what you don’t need, and can’t afford.  

    Our for profit sickess system and legal system are not cost effective.  It would be better to cut them back mercilessly, and use the savings to feed people, and encourage us to improve our health even more, and to govern ourselves better.  

    We aren’t going to escape our current problems without daring to take from those who take without giving back.  The sense of entitlement of the right is breathtaking. (Have you kept up with the Joseph Bruno trial?) But, they spend their PR money much more effectively than the left.  

    Fundamental change, that gets at the causes of our problems, from war to economics to health and hunger, will only come from people at the bottom, and we need to reach them, not patronize them with rosy statistical scenarios.  

    A sense of evangelism among the left would make a world of difference. If nobody shouts the truth, the right wing noise machine will continue to win.

  5. Kudos to Kevin O’Connor as well.  I only had time to skim the article.  Dire poverty in Vermont is not difficult to find.  Just head out beyond the cities or the ski towns and it is all over the state — rusty trailer parks, towns with half their houses falling in (saw a town like this in the Kingdom), towns where “incest is best” and the guys are in jail or on parole and the girls pregnant at 15.  God, you can see it in places like Barre or at the unemployment or social service offices, where the parade of misery is never-ending.

    There are two Vermonts.  One is the Norman Rockwell kind of small villages nestled in the mountains or quaint ski towns.  But the other is starving, mired in dire poverty, where you go to a family reunion to pick up a date, and people are starving.

    America the beautiful loves this, though, since starving people make great sources of cheap labor.  

  6. The answer to our economic problem is this:  We must methodically manage an orderly reduction in our standard of living.  We have lived beyond our means, and while there are ways to ameliorate this reduction – which I will touch on later – let me explain to you just how sobering events really are.

    A September 2008 Harvard Business Review article showed that “in 1980, the total value of global financial assets was roughly equal to world gross domestic product (GDP).”  In 2007, these same financial assets increased to 356% of world GDP; most of the increase from private and government debt.  According to Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, “the ratio of U.S. public and private debt to GDP reached 358% in the third quarter of 2008.”  The previous all-time high of 300% was reached in 1933, during the Great Depression.  Most of this debt is private, reaching nearly 300% of GDP in 2007.  U.S. household debt service (as a percent of disposable income) is at its highest level since the Great Depression.

    What are the implications of these numbers?  Simply put, there is not enough money – by consumers, businesses or governments – to back up all this debt.  Many parts of Europe and Asia are witnessing social unrest, as the implications of this financial reality takes hold.

    We are not in the midst of a recession, which is part of a normal “business cycle,” we are closer to a depression.  Households and businesses are deleveraging, meaning they are attempting to reduce this debt.  This “deleveraging process” can occur in four ways:  the sale of assets; consuming less and saving more; restructuring of debt; or bankruptcy (where we’ll see enormous increases).   This “deleveraging process,” in turn, is aiding deflation, meaning that prices will generally fall.  Slack demand and the “bursting of the bubble” from inflated asset prices – due to the easy credit policies of the past – are also fueling this deflation.

    As our Federal Reserve Bank fights both deflation and the bailout of our banking, corporate (think GM), commercial real estate and residential mortgage markets, they do so – literally – by printing money and issuing more debt.  As other central banks around the world follow suit, we’ll find ourselves in a spiral of currency devaluations and competition in the credit markets on our roughly $10 trillion of U.S. taxpayer bailout programs now going on.  Interest rates will rise.

    The Vermont Business Round Table recently hosted a forum by the Concord Coalition, a “non-partisan, grassroots organization advocating generationally responsible fiscal policy.”  Among the disturbing trends presented in their presentation was this: an $82.6 trillion Medicare and Social Security cash deficit.  This cash deficit begins in seven short years and ominously grows with our aging, baby-boom generation.

    David Coates, a member of the VBRT and retired KPMG partner recently released an analysis of Vermont’s rising “mandatory expenditures.”  It shows approximately $2 billion in unfunded liabilities from Vermont state employee and teacher retirement and healthcare liabilities.

    Nearly two years ago, as founder of Vermonters for Economic Health (, our organization began a series of “Town Meeting Forums” to educate and alert our legislators and the public on these financial matters.  VEH identified another $3 billion in unfunded liabilities, for a total of $5 billion in Vermont unfunded liabilities.

    A society cannot consume and not produce.  During this decade, Vermont government and education spending rose roughly 70%, while Vermont private-sector job growth rose 0%.  Growing the economy and creating jobs are the best ways to ameliorate the impact on inevitable cuts in government, education and ultimately our standard of living.

    Not only are meaningful regulatory, government, education and tax reforms needed in Vermont, but a reform of culture is needed;  a culture that can find its roots in Vermont’s 1778 motto of “Freedom and Unity;” a culture that values the human sprit’s thirst for freedom, whether that freedom is in the form of the individual, property owner or entrepreneur.

  7. Yep, but those newspapers are fed by the rich families that make their fortunes off of those dirt poor communities by keeping them dirt poor.  It is the law of the land — in Vermont and every other state.  The legislators and the governor want to keep things that way as well, as the hands that feed them and allow them to get more nice things than they need want this poverty to keep the wages low so their profits are high.  

    I did a lot of driving around the kingdom last year.  I’ve seen American poverty before, from Harlem to Indian Reservations, butI was startled at the extent of it in the kingdom. It was sad.  

  8. It should be plain to anyone with half a brain that the explosion of state “ratings” and “top ten” lists are often not designed to further discussion, so much as short circuit it.

    In an ironic twist, my son attended a “lecture” at a kids’ program at MIT last weekend titled: “49 Reasons Why California is Better than Your State.”

    They took one good feature from each state, then discussed a “better” parallel from CA. The whole point of the lecture was to show the students how statistical information and subjective data could be combined to create fallacious arguments.

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