The Doom Parade

You know the old joke about the kid who wakes up on Christmas morning and finds a pile of manure under the Christmas tree? And he’s so optimistic that he starts digging through the shit, exclaiming “There must be a pony in here somewhere”?

Yeah, well, meet Art Woolf, the guy who sees a pony and starts looking for the manure pile.

The weekly bleat from Vermont’s Loudest Economist™, published in the Thursday Freeploid, considers the news that our unemployment rate has been plunging of late — hitting 3.4% in March, down a half-percent from January and a full point lower than October’s rate.

Good news, right?

Not so fast, says Art Woolf, Horseshit Whisperer.

It’s almost too good to be true. And it may not be.

Get that: “it may not be.” He then explains that he can’t explain the drop. And since the problem can’t possibly be Woolf’s lack of insight or imagination, the figure must not be real. He surmises that the 3.4% may be “due to sampling problems” and may be revised upward in the future.

On the basis of precisely zero evidence. Because, I guess, the world ought to have the decency to conform with Art Woolf’s expectations.  

He acknowledges that even if the rate is revised, it’ll remain pretty darn low. But even so, he insists, it must be bad news one way or another. And he offers some suggestions:

— It might be a sign of an aging demographic, with fewer people in the workforce and more benefit-sucking laggards draining our Body Politic of its life essence.

— If, perchance, 3.4% is accurate, Woolf asserts that the rate is TOO LOW for a healthy economy. It’s a sign of a worker shortage, which means higher costs for employers. Yeah, we need a steady supply of desperate job-seekers to make life easier for business.

And then Art puts it all together in the Manure Pile Of His Mind:

With higher training costs on top of a potentially higher minimum wage, and higher payroll taxes on the horizon to fund Vermont’s new health care initiative, businesses should be nervous, uncomfortable, and worried about their future.

Yeezus H. Christ, Art. That’s a helluva lot of pessimism in a brief paragraph. And all founded on your evidence-free assumption that a low unemployment rate is an evil omen.

This is all too typical of the pro-business outlook in Vermont, not just from surface-skimming “experts,” but from conservative politicians and industry lobbyists. It’s like they’re hoping for failure. This may be politically expedient — if liberal policies produce a sound economy, it puts the lie to decades of Reaganite dogma — but it’s also a constant shower of cold water on Vermont’s prospects.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the then-owner of the Detroit Tigers, renowned Catholic insane person (and founder of Domino’s Pizza) Tom Monaghan, was lobbying furiously for a new ballpark to replace the venerable Tiger Stadium. He and his chief minion, Bo Schembechler (former Michigan football coach and then President of the team), railed on and on about the decrepit ballpark and its unsafe surroundings.  At one point, Schembechler gave an angry speech which included the famous line, “It’s unfair for you to think that you can shackle us to a rusted girder in Tiger Stadium…”

Well, between that consistent drumbeat of gloom and the fact that Monaghan mismanaged the team into a lengthy period of consistent losership, attendance fell precipitously. Team officials were telling their fans that the stadium and the neighborhood were downright dangerous, and the fans rightly concluded that maybe they should stay away.

Eventually it worked: a new ballpark was built. The canyonesque, soulless Comerica Park.

Contrast that with the John Henry-era Boston Red Sox, who embraced the equally decrepit Fenway Park and turned it into a bustling temple of baseball — and an extremely profitable one, to boot.

Henry was all about the pony; Schembechler was complaining about the shit.

For all his flaws, Governor Shumlin is taking the John Henry route: emphasizing the positives about Vermont and making a case for investment and growth based on our strengths. People like Art Woolf, Phil Scott, George Malek et al., persistently talk Vermont down. Which is good political tactics, but horrible strategy. When you constantly harp on Vermont’s negatives, real or imagined, what message does it send to potential businesses and investors?

When you say “businesses should be nervous, uncomfortable, and worried about their future,” what kind of atmosphere are you creating?  Especially when, in the case of Woolf’s latest bleat, it’s fueled by speculation based on his preconceived notions and lack of insight into the real strengths of Vermont and how they might actually be creating a positive environment for business, even if it’s not via the traditional “cut taxes and regulation” route. Which is, in Art Woolf’s limited mind, the only way forward.

I realize I’m not a tenured professor of economics and creator of a $150-per-year newsletter. But it seems to me that Woolf should put his thinking cap back on and try to Say Something Good About Vermont.

I’ve even got some suggestions.

— Thanks to our relatively small population, our financial-services market is relatively unpenetrated by giant banks. Locally-owned banks and our numerous credit unions are relatively open to small-business lending, which spurs entrepreneurship.

— Our retail sector is also relatively unconquered by giants. This leaves a lot of space for small retailers. And, more importantly, it provides openings for small producers. It’s much easier for, say, a specialty food maker or a craft brewer to earn a place in locally-owned stores and co-ops. In other states, small producers are in an uphill battle for shelf space with big corporations.

— We have a strong entrepreneurial spirit in some untraditional fields. But Vermont’s entrepreneurs are inspired by the products they make, rather than turning a quick buck. We don’t have Wall Street-style sharks, but we have a lot of folks willing to work hard and make things worth buying.

— We do, of course, have a relatively unspoiled natural environment. That’s the motor for our vital tourism industry. (And our thriving local-food sector.) And it makes Vermont just a darn great place to live.

From the way people like Art Woolf talk, you’d think that it’s time for “The last one out, turn off the lights.” But in fact, a whole lot of people choose to live in Vermont in spite of the fact that they could find greater financial rewards elsewhere.

Sure, we’ve got work to do and problems to solve. But the relentless doom-and-gloomism is (a) inaccurate, and (b) not helping.  

One thought on “The Doom Parade

  1. always seem to present a breathtaking leap of faith & his rantings are also solely faith-based.

    Confused by & rejecting all facts presents a curiously based policy & is no way to go through life. Economics professor at a premier VT university, UVM???

    Beginning to look more like a crackpot w/each of his poorly presented offerings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *