Editorial: The huge difference between ‘affordability’ and ‘prosperity’

As Vermont’s legislators define their priorities for the session ahead and slip into a mindset that seeks to solve all of society’s problems, let’s review a recent commentary by Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison County. In that commentary, published in the Addison Independent last week, Bray artfully drew the distinction between the governor’s “affordability” platform and an alternative vision that instead seeks “prosperity.”
The difference is significant.
“Affordability,” Bray notes, “rests on the philosophy of not just avoiding new taxes and fees, but on reducing both. This may sound attractive, and it is certainly winning rhetoric for those thinking in the short-term timeframe of two-year election cycles. We need to think through the long-term the implications… What kind of state will this approach create?
“… In a country and state in which inflation generally increases average costs 2 to 3 percent each year, the affordability approach means starving the vast array of services we purchase for ourselves collectively: public education and job training; Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and public health services; public roads and bridges; environmental programs to provide safe drinking water and clean air; police, fire and rescue services; public assistance to individuals and families in need through poverty, disability, injury, drug addiction and job loss…When we starve these programs, we starve ourselves now, and we undermine the opportunities for prosperity for our children and grandchildren.”
Bray then defined prosperity: “The course to prosperity involves steady long-term investment — in ourselves and our communities. The knee-jerk reaction will be to say that we do not have the capacity for such investment, but our own history demonstrates that this is a false narrative. From 2006 to 2015, health care spending in Vermont increased by $800 million, and somehow we “found” the money. Even our small state has a vast economy, currently totaling $32 billion; finding the money is a matter of making wise, steady and intentional choices.
“The funds for these ‘prosperity investments’ can be found in two principal places: (1) the increased, appropriate, and targeted use of bonds — such as the creation of Freedom and Unity Bonds, a modern-day crowd-sourced fund built on Vermonter-to-Vermont lending; and (2) increased revenues generated by a stronger local economy.”
Bray goes on to outline the state’s commercial strengths and areas in which we need more investment. In sum, he creates a positive vision of how the state can prosper that is counter to the seductive narrative that “affordability” offers.
Let’s pick up with Bray’s second point, above, which ironically mirrors a Republican tendency to bet the farm on a growing economy as a result of policy choices (usually tax cuts for the rich and a misguided belief in trickle-down economics). Bray’s approach, however, is a generally accepted business principle — that investing in worthy assets yields a stronger long-term outcome. The key words are: investing in “worthy assets.” That is, limit the funds you spend on assets that aren’t productive. Let’s go a step further to add: “investing wisely in worthy assets.” We can’t spend money we don’t have; we have to be frugal while being bold and strategic.
What are our most worthy assets? Certainly, it’s our people. The goal then is to equip them with the best education possible, so they can be highly productive at work, and generate an environment that stimulates economic growth. But we also have to keep them from moving elsewhere — that is, do those things that make the jobs come to them, not vice-versa.
To get there we have to create an affordable place to live, provide for a livable wage and affordable education or vocational training. We need a pre-school and childcare system that allows parents to excel, while stimulating our children at that critical point in their lives. We must eliminate hunger in school-age kids so they get the most out of each classroom hours, invest in our educational systems, and join the country in reducing drug abuse as best we can. And we need broadband connectivity throughout the state so no area is without the basic building tool of the new economy. If we can provide those basic needs, we will likely create a net gain, year after year, in our workforce — that’s the bottom line. And we have the budget to make that possible if we keep focused.
There are other assets that are also key to the state’s prosperity.
Our pristine environment and outdoor recreational opportunities work hand-in-hand, yet are distinct. We already chalk up more than 4.2 million skier days every year, ranking us a consistent third (and sometimes second) in the nation. Mountain biking is booming, as is winter fat biking. Snowmobiling, hunting, fishing, boating and many other forms of recreation help define Vermont as one of the healthiest states in the nation. And, for much of the state, we’re authentic — a characteristic in short supply in many other touristy areas of the world, and in that way we have a uniqueness that we must studiously protect and value. To that end, we must be wary that we don’t spoil this golden goose.
Several assets go unmentioned here, as do many obstacles. What we can’t do as a state is invest tiny amounts in a thousand different policies that dilute the state’s ability to make an impact. Nor can we make it a spending priority to solve every social problem of our era.
The legislative challenge, then, is to first agree on strategies that address just a handful of the state’s most pressing issues each year, and limit the resources spent on issues that aren’t critical to those goals.
What we can’t do is spend a little here and there in a myriad of policies that dilute the state’s ability to focus on our best assets. We need a disciplined approach to managing our $32 billion economy. That’s hard enough to do with just a handful of top priorities; it’s impossible when the Legislature is pursuing dozens, all of which are deemed crucial. And it’s particularly a challenge when 180 legislators and the governor’s team are coming at the issues from different perspectives and varying goals.
But a good start would be to agree on one premise: We can’t cut our way to success. That’s the false narrative. The best long-term strategy, as Sen. Bray suggests, is to embrace prosperity — to invest in our wellbeing, consistently and wisely.

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