BY WILL PATTEN | DECEMBER 7, 2019
At the end of World War II, the United States began to build an economy based on consumerism. It started with modest homes in the suburbs, refrigerators and automobiles. Then came television, which acted as electronic billboards that showed us everything we needed to buy to “keep up with the Joneses.” Stuff that we didn’t need for money we didn’t have. But then came credit cards and the feeding frenzy took off. We could buy today and pay tomorrow.
A consumer economy sounds like this: more and more people buying more and more stuff more and more often. And paying for it later. Gross domestic product is the measure of how successful we are at doing that.
It is no surprise that we are now a nation built on debt: mortgage debt, credit card debt, student debt, government debt. And that is why we are so frantically pursuing economic growth. We are dependent on tomorrow’s dollars to pay for today’s consumption.
But, alas, today there are not more people buying more stuff more often and economic growth eludes us.
The Boomers, who control 75% of our wealth, are not buying: they’re down-sizing. The millennials, Gen Xers, Gen Yers, and Gen Zers know what the Boomer consumers have done — and the damage it inflicted on the earth — and want no part of it. Climate change is making it hard to believe in tomorrow. Birth rates are down.
Those that argue that lowering taxes, or raising taxes on the rich, or increasing our state population to 700,000 are not confronting the fact that the consumer economy is dying and we have to change all of our 60-year-old assumptions.
The obstacle to reordering our assumptions and adopting strict priorities is the difficulty of abandoning the old ones. So, we continue to talk about creating jobs when there is no one to fill them instead of talking about transitioning people into more promising economic sectors. We introduce hundreds of new laws and programs in the legislature every year instead of clearing out the old ones. We talk about growing the economy instead of figuring out how to live with the one we have.
Here are some things we can do right here in Vermont.
• Establish a permanent strategic planning office and board that is independent of our political calendar and market forces in order to define and articulate shared values and priorities. We have spent vast amounts of money studying problems and issuing reports only to see them disappear in the rush for reelection or the crush of lobbyists.
• Establish a means of measurement that reflects the all-around health and happiness of our citizens and tracks our progress toward accomplishing our priorities. Gross state product does not do that.
• Optimize our governments. Vermont has 733 local governments as of 2002: 14 counties, 47 municipal governments, 237 townships, 283 public school districts and 152 special districts to deal with fire or solid waste or other needs. They are all funded by tax payers. Meanwhile there are more than 100 counties in the U.S. with bigger populations than Vermont.
I believe the public is very aware of the urgent need for changes. I want to believe that something will be done about it. Real change never happens from the top down.