IBM and Economic Development

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(Host) Commentator David Moats expects that the recent job losses at IBM will play a major part in the political discourse of the election season ahead.

(Moats) Ask Vermonters what they dread the most when they think about the future of their state, and you’ll get two kinds of response. Some people will say they fear suburban sprawl, with its antiseptic housing tracts and its shopping malls. Others will say they fear economic decline, poverty, dwindling opportunity.

News that IBM is laying off nearly 1,000 workers has opened a new chapter in the story of Vermont’s economic angst. All of us who hate the idea of suburbia have to admit that IBM as much as any single business has turned parts of Chittenden County into a suburban enclave. At the same time, the trouble at IBM is terrible news. People are losing their jobs. Families are being uprooted. Businesses are losing customers.

A lot of my friends are instinctively against economic development. Every time a farm field gets turned under for a shopping center, we feel the loss. That sense of loss is understandable, in part because those of us who have moved here in the last 20 or 30 years came with an idea of Vermont as a place apart, where people in their villages and on their farms had a respectful relationship with the natural world and the pressures to pave had not gotten out of hand.

Still, it isn’t helpful to live in some kind of bucolic 19th century dream world. For one thing it’s not the 19th century. It’s not even the 20th. For another, there is no such thing as stasis in this world. The opposite of economic development is economic decline.

You can get in your car, and within a day’s drive you can pass through plenty of cities and towns where decline has left its shabby imprint. Houses are not well tended. Villages are falling apart. People are sitting on their porches with nothing to do.

A lot of Vermont has escaped that kind of decline. People are sprucing up their villages and their downtowns. New shops cater to customers who work at new businesses. Restaurants are full. People are out in the woods and on the lakes. They’re buying boats and canoes, tractors, lawn mowers, cars, bicycles, razor scooters. And we owe a lot of our prosperity to IBM and other engines of growth.

There is no escaping the tension between the desire for a prosperous economy and the desire to avoid the kind of heedless development that turns the natural world into a commodity. This is a paradox. We have to get used to it. We may not like suburbia, but we have friends and family who live in our suburban neighborhoods and we certainly don’t want them losing their jobs.

The job losses at IBM will shape the political debate in the coming months. Beware simplistic answers. Trashing Act 250 won’t do the job. Neither will a refusal to look at ways to improve Act 250. There is no escaping this debate. The debate itself is a product of what Vermont is – a beautiful place where people care about the way they live.

This is David Moats in Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

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