Don’t Worry, Be Happy

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(Host) Commentator Jeff Wennberg believes that Vermont’s elected leaders should be more concerned about the recent job losses across Vermont than most of them appear to be.

(Wennberg) Vermont’s reaction to the current state of our economy reminds me of an alcoholic who complains that his friends believe he drinks too much. We can’t recover as long as we deny that the problem rests in us and not in the perception of others.

Like the recent earthquake, the non-stop wave of manufacturing layoffs has been felt in nearly every Vermont community. People are understandably upset, and even fearful. But the governor has passed it off as a consequence of the national recession, and his economist, Jeffrey Carr, has added that we are “probably going to see more of this.”

The Legislature hasn’t exactly spent the session obsessing over the economy. Rather than participate in the economic stimulus enacted by the federal government, bipartisan majorities in both houses have sought to exempt us from any potential benefit. The decision to de-couple the Vermont personal income tax from the federal tax is a good example. The attitude of many of our leaders seems to be, “don’t worry, be happy, this too shall pass.”

But a sober look at what’s going on reveals a much more troubling picture. According to Commerce Secretary Molly Lambert, we’ve lost 4,000 manufacturing jobs in the last twelve months. And these figures don’t include the recent announcements of hundreds of layoffs and shut downs in Poultney, Randolph, Orleans, Brattleboro, Springfield and elsewhere. From the first quarter 2001 to the first quarter 2002, one out of every twelve Vermont manufacturing jobs disappeared. The last time our manufacturing employment was this low was July of 1995.

More startling is the speed with which these losses have mounted. Just sixteen months ago ­ in December of 2000 ­ Vermont hit its peak manufacturing employment for the last ten years.

But isn’t Vermont just passing through the same economic trough as the rest of the nation? Well, during the same period that Vermont lost one in twelve manufacturing jobs, nationally manufacturing employment shrank by one out of 57.

But isn’t this just part of the business cycle? I mean, IBM cut jobs because sales are off, so there really isn’t anything we could do about it, right? Wrong. While some of the cuts are clearly the result of a slow economy, many of the recent decisions to move manufacturing out of state were made to accommodate growth. Ethan Allen is not shrinking, neither is C&S Wholesale Grocers, nor is Wedeco. These represent not only lost jobs, but the lost opportunity for Vermonters to benefit from the growth of these businesses.

The reasons for so many out-of-state relocations are as varied as the companies themselves, but the pattern is frightening. Vermont’s taxes, regulations, infrastructure and education make us increasingly non-competitive for growing businesses. But before we can address these problems, our leaders must first admit they exist.

This is Jeff Wennberg, in Rutland.

Jeff Wennberg is a former mayor of Rutland.

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