by Rob Roper

I recently received a copy of a email circulated among a group called Working Vermont regarding an Op-Ed I wrote, In Age of Uber, “Right to Work” Makes More Sense Than Ever. The list of people copied on the original email included lobbyists, union leaders, and legislators*.

The full content of the email, excluding a reprint of my column, reads:  “Ethan Allen institute’s president Rob Roper’s comments which appear late last week in a number of daily and weekly newspapers demands a collective response by Working Vermont, hopefully in the form of an op ed in time for Labor Day.  Given that we don’t meet until Sep 8th, I am hoping we can move on this now.  Under the guise of expanding job opportunities for Vermonters, Roper extols the virtues of independent contractor status, holds out hope for the elimination of agency fees and suggests the elimination of the concept of exclusive representation suggesting companies could negotiate separate contracts with those who choose not to be in a union, thus of course, always giving the non union employees better terms and conditions of employment and thus hasten the destruction of unions which along with eliminating the middle class, is his true goal.  This article needs to be called and labelled for the hypocritical travesty that it is and Roper’s views tied to the Republicans if possible.  It cannot go unrebutted.”

A few things here are striking.

  • The admission that if workers were allowed to negotiate their own terms of employment outside the union, non-union employees would “always” receive “better terms and conditions of employment.” Of course if workers found value in joining a union, they join of their own free will? If unions do provide such value, they have nothing to fear from my proposals. Yet, as we see, they are afraid.
  • Their venomous and idiotic accusation that the elimination of the middle class is my goal. Under Vermont’s current, pro-union policies the gap between rich and poor is growing faster here than in any other state with the possible exception of California, and middle class families are leaving Vermont because they can’t afford to live here. If we want to save the middle class, we need to change the status quo by expanding opportunities for work and entrepreneurship. (This was the point of my original article at which they took such offense.)
  • And lastly, the flagrantly false and partisan desire to tie my views to Republicans “if possible.” What a crock! But, at least it’s nice to know this is how the folks on the list below operate (and cooperate).

Can’t wait to see their Op-Ed on Labor Day! Bet it’ll be a doozie.

 

*From: “Stephen L. Finner, Ph.D.” <union-consult@finner.info>
Date: August 31, 2015 at 8:10:01 AM EDT
To: Michelle Salvador <tele.vermont@yahoo.com>, “David A. Mickenberg” <mickenberg@gmail.com>
Cc: Darren Allen <dallen@vtnea.org>, Martha Allen <mallen@vtnea.org>, “Colby, Gerard” <gcolby7777@gmail.com>, Joel Cook <jcook@vtnea.org>, “Cook, Joel” <all5cooks@aol.com>, “Davis, Susan” <sdavis@leg.state.vt.us>, “Dennett, Charlotte” <charlottedennett@gmail.com>, “johannah.donovan@gmail.com” <Johannah.donovan@gmail.com>, Jeff Fannon <jfannon@vtnea.org>, Steve Howard <SHoward@vsea.org>, Vincent Illuzzi <vincentilluzzi@hotmail.com>, “Johnson, Ben” <uppresident@upvaft.org>, “LaBounty, Dennis” <vslcafl@sover.net>, “Leyshon, Traven” <traven_l@earthlink.net>, Shelley Martin <SMartin@vsea.org>, “Matthews, Leslie” <matthews@horttech.us>, “Mayers, Matt” <mmayers@afscme.org>, “Moran, John” <jmoran@leg.state.vt.us>, “O’Brien, Ben” <bobrien@pffv.org>, “O’Neal, Mike” <president@vermonttroopers.com>, “Paradis, Emma” <emma.paradis@outlook.com>, “Potvin, Jeff” <jeff@ualocal693.org>, “Riemer, Heather” <hriemer@upvaft.org>, Colin Robinson <crobinson@vtnea.org>, “Shollenberger, Amy” <amy@action-circles.com>, “Sirotkin, Michael” <sirotkin.senate@gmail.com>, “St. Hilaire, Tony” <Tony@teamsterslocal597.net>, Kristie Ferguson <kferguson@vtnea.org>, Ben Palkowski <BPalkowski@vsea.org>, “Justin St. James” <JStJames@vsea.org>, “adam@necrasongroup.com” <adam@necrasongroup.com>, “samantham@upvaft.org” <samantham@upvaft.org>, Felicia Kornbluh <fkornblu@uvm.edu>, “Thomas.Chittenden@uvm.edu” <Thomas.Chittenden@uvm.edu>, “rebecca@necrasongroup.com” <rebecca@necrasongroup.com>

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by Frank Mazur

Sam Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere dumped tea into the Boston Harbor rather than pay a  three pence tax per pound of tea.  The total colonial tax burden was no more than 3 percent.  A century ago the total tax burden was 10 percent of income.  Today it’s 35 percent and when the cost of regulations is included it is over 50 percent.

When voters are asked to identify the most important problem facing them they say the Obama economy and not enough good paying jobs. Voters, according to Gallup Poll data, site reducing federal spending as a top priority and think tax cuts for lower and middle-income families would stimulate our economy.

Rather than address these problems Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders are calling for increased taxes on the wealthy and boosting the minimum wage.  President Obama has already done that but his employment numbers are anemic, wages are flat, economic growth rates are limp and new business start-ups are weak.

Conservatives need to be more aggressive about the economy and tax burdens.  President Kennedy had an across the board tax cut, telling his party that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  President Reagan had a similar tax plan that ended a severe recession and in a few years he had record job creation.

Gallup Polls also show only 26 percent are satisfied with the way things are going.  Our founding patriots weren’t afraid to take action that shaped our Country’s future.  Republicans have that same opportunity.

- Frank Mazur is a former chair of the Vermont House Transportation Committee, and a former member of the EAI board of directors. 

 

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By John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

Vermont is now well into the throes of coping with a new education governance law (Act 46). The law’s stated goal is to move the State “toward sustainable models of education governance.” That is, the State wants to encourage local school districts to merge into a “preferred education governance structure” built around fewer but larger supervisory districts with unified tax bases.

The State’s carrot is reduced residential school property tax rates, which offer disappears in two years for districts that fail to act. The State’s stick is that the State Board of Education will impose a mandatory consolidation plan in 2018 if a district fails to respond to the carrots.

Underlying Act 46 is the long-standing desire of state education leaders, now headed by the Governor, to reduce the welter of school governance models into a small number of varieties of mega-districts. That’s what “sustainable” means, as viewed from Montpelier.

If or when this march toward “one big school system” concludes, there will remain at least three important questions.

With new, larger districts replacing town districts, where will the locus of political control of public schools lie? Most likely, it will lie with the education bureaucracy and the teachers union, both of which are organized throughout the mega-district. The citizens of the component towns, ill-equipped to form political coalitions throughout the mega-district, will soon become largely irrelevant. This is the “waste management district” model.

Will the preferred education governance plans, once fully installed, be likely to at least retard the steady rise of school property taxes?  The advocates for district consolidation claim efficiencies of scale, but have been careful not to promise significant net savings to taxpayers. As the new districts close underpopulated or outmoded schools, any savings are likely to be offset by increased transportation costs. The probable result: some initial efficiencies, dwindling over time as the mega-district bureaucracy increases and the teachers’ union gains more power to increase their members’ compensation at the expense of poorly-organized taxpayers.

Finally, what will become of the school choice now enjoyed by the people of ninety towns, once they are pulled or pushed into large districts with operating public schools? Agency of Education lawyer Gregory Glennon, in a four page memo that found its way to Vermont Public Radio, said of the choice issue “This appears to be a case of the legislature having spoken, but we aren’t sure what they have said.”

Rep. David Sharpe, the architect of Act 46, states emphatically that “choice districts can’t be forced to give up choice.” He can point to Sec. 4(c), which reads in part “Nothing in this act shall be construed to restrict or repeal… the ability of a school district that [now] provides for the education of all resident students in one or more grades by paying tuition on the students’ behalf, to continue to provide education by paying tuition on behalf of all students in the grade or grades…”.

Sharpe’s reading may turn out to be true, but the temptation of the State’s financial incentives to merge into the “preferred governance structures”, plus pressure from the Agency of Education, might persuade local voters to give up choice, at least of independent schools.

The state’s public education establishment tends to be skeptical of parents’ ability to make the correct choices for their children. They are aghast at the thought of government schools having to compete for student tuitions.

Instead of pushing forward with the complex and often murky provisions of Act 46, the legislature and education bureaucrats should give up on the waste management model.

They should empower parents to choose the schooling best suited to their children, from among a wide assortment of diverse public and independent providers.

They should tell public schools that they, like independent schools, have to pay their way by attracting student tuitions, instead of hitting up the taxpayers for their annual budgets.

They should offer special education vouchers to supplement tuition amounts.

They should repeal the universal preschool mandate, and limit “free” preschool programs to the 15% of children who really need them, instead of spreading the money over the remaining 85% as “free” day care.

Does that sound radical?  Yes, it does. But as none other than President Obama has emphatically said (speaking of health care), “My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition.” Let’s give it a try.

- John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).

 

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By Rob RoperRob Roper

Vermont is a tougher than average place to make a living. No secret there. One of the first questions you get from folks you meet is, “You live here full time? How do you make it work?” Some of the answers are necessarily creative.

Vermont is a great place to live, but it comes with sacrifices. There are fewer career paths, a lack of high paying jobs overall, and lower pay here for doing the same job in another state. So, lots of people telecommute. Many work multiple jobs. Some rent out their homes over the holidays to generate extra income (or, more likely, to pay their exorbitantly high property taxes).

According to an analysis by the Small Business Administration, in 2011 small businesses represented 96.3% of all employers in Vermont, and of them 76.3% had no employees (other than the owner). We have a lot of entrepreneurial people working for themselves.

Given these characteristics embodied by our citizens and our employment environment, state law should do more to reflect, accommodate, and build on the dynamic aspects of this reality. How can we make it easier for the person who is a sole proprietor of a landscaping business, doing odd jobs on the side through TaskRabbit, and renting out a spare room through Airbnb in order to get ahead?

One way is for Vermont to make it easier for individuals to classify themselves as independent contractors. Right now it is difficult, as the state prefers to pigeonhole someone as an employee who work for an employer. This makes it easier for bureaucrats to enforce mandates like employer-provided health insurance and workers’ compensation, but this no longer reflects the reality of how people live, either as workers and consumers.

This was (and is) a big issue with Uber in Burlington. Uber drivers consider themselves to be independent contractors, and, as such, have a great deal of flexibility as far as work hours and schedules. They drive when they want to drive, and don’t when they don’t. Uber contends that they do not employ these drivers, but merely provide a service platform that allows the sharing of information between customers and drivers. The city, however, would rather the drivers be considered employees of Uber — as would Uber’s competitors, who are stuck dealing with the city and its old-economy, costly mandates.

The solution, of course, is to unburden the traditional taxi service model, not saddle the new, innovated, effective and highly popular sharing platform.

Another way is for Vermont to join the twenty-five other “Right to Work” states. Passing a Right to Work law would guarantee that no Vermonter could be compelled, as a condition of employment, to join or not to join, nor to pay dues to a labor union. Now, Vermonters who choose not to join a union can be compelled to pay 85% of union dues as a so-called “agency fee.”

This is an incredibly unfair policy. Unions argue that non-union workers still benefit from the collective bargaining rights of the union and legal representation under certain circumstances, calling them derisively “free riders.” The fair solution would be to make workers who choose not to join the union responsible for negotiating their own wages and benefits separately from the union, and to release the union from any obligations it currently has in regard to non-unionized employees.

In addition to common sense justice of Right to Work laws, the overall outcomes in states that have them are compelling: faster economic growth, more jobs, a growing working population, and greater purchasing power per dollar.

The way the economy functions is changing, and with it the way we live our lives, both as workers and as consumers. The new sharing economy, driven by dynamic and innovative companies like Uber, TaskRabbit, Airbnb and many others offers compelling opportunities for hardworking people, or folks with assets that are otherwise not being efficiently utilized.

Vermont is in a unique position to take advantage of this information technology revolution for a couple of reasons. One is that we should. The idea of a “sharing” economy that more efficiently uses resources is one that fits neatly with Vermont’s small, tightly-knit communities and culture. The other is that we must. In a state where jobs are hard to come by, incomes are lower, and costs of living high, we owe it to ourselves to open as many doors to opportunity as possible and to remove as many barriers to employment and entrepreneurialism as possible.

- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org). He lives in Stowe.

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By Paul Slobodian255a697

In the midst of sluggish economic growth, finding a sector of the economy growing from 15 percent of the economy up to 19 percent would normally be a cause of celebration, except that this is health care. The lack of good cheer about this growth is an indirect acknowledgment of a stark reality: We are not realizing much increased value as we spend more on health care because too much of our health dollars are going to ineffective (and often harmful) procedures.

Estimates of the waste from this overconsumption of health care range from 30 percent to 50 percent. While all of the experts talk about reducing this waste (the phrase of the day is “bending the cost curve”), the reality is that hospital administrators, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers, insurers, consultants, think tanks and government bureaucrats all are seeing their power, control and financial remuneration increase due to this medical-care consumption growth.

All of the reformers’ trendy ideas have failed and will likely continue to fail in spite of the experts telling us they will soon figure it out. Electronic health records are a hugely expensive disaster. So far, they decrease doctor efficiency, reduce quality and increasingly make patients fearful of sharing sensitive information with their doctors for fear hackers or others will access their private data. Accountable Care Organizations turn doctors into rationers, introducing a conflict of interest between doctor and patient. Price controls by Congress or bureaucrats or oligarchic insurers only reduce access to care, demoralize doctors and introduce the risk of game playing by health systems by “upcoding” (labeling a doctor visit as more complex than it is).

Too often doctors are portrayed as the source of the problem, exploiting patients with unnecessary tests and procedures. But our doctors are buffeted by demands from patients who see more “free” treatments as evidence their doctor “cares,” by administrators who like seeing health system revenues increase and by fear of malpractice lawsuits if an MRI is skipped and a 1 in a 1,000 malady appears later.

Most prescriptions of health-system experts call for replacing private-practice physicians with doctors as employees in huge health care institutions where they can be monitored (using data mining) and controlled (using rewards and punishments based on metrics extracted from electronic health records). Too many doctors are fleeing independent practice to escape the onslaught of demands from the legions of bureaucrats from above.

The only way to reduce the waste of overtreatment is to free patients and doctors from the onslaughts of the “reformers” and allow patients and doctors to work together in a trusting relationship to improve the patient’s health. This will happen only when we patients can directly reap financial benefit by reducing the billions being wasted via overconsumption of health care services.

All of the experts, however, seem to postulate that patients are too dumb or too unsophisticated to wisely consume health care. The reality is that these are fat times in the health care sector, and the giddy insiders don’t really want patients to bring about an end to the party. The next time you hear an “expert” talk about “bending the cost curve,” your first instinct should be to check your purse or your hip pocket to make sure your wallet is still there.

- Paul Slobodian, Ed.D, has served as a mental health provider and administrator, corporate purchaser of health plans and board member of a nonprofit medical insurance company.

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by Chris Campion

Since Democratic presidential nominee hopeful Bernie Sanders – youthful, engaged, energetic – has a Twitter presence, I figured I’d take a

look at what young, hip-hop-happenin’ Socialists do in their free time on social media.

As it turns out, Bernie’s all over the map on Twitter, enough to make even a relatively young man delirious in trying to parse out the contradictions.  But here we go:

  1. Bernie loves the Pope!  Or he does, only when the Pope talks re-distributive utopias:

It's moral to hand over monies to a central government that increases their control over the purportedly "free" people is also just and moral?

In other words, Bernie’s OK with using the Pope’s pontifications (ha) about allowing a moral excuse for the confiscation of wealth, but where are Bernie’s re-tweets regarding the Pope’s position on abortion?  Bernie is pro-choice, and support funding for Planned Parenthood, but I don’t see a Tweet from the Pope saying he supports those positions.  Bernie claims to oppose corporate welfare, but is OK with subsidies for Planned Parenthood.

Bernie also seems to miss the difference between philanthropy, which is the voluntary giving of money, time, and resources, versus the confiscation of money, time, and resources, to be put to use in furthering the expansion of a centralized government, one that has the nice side-effect of keeping Bernie in comfy shoes for the rest of his days.  I guess part of the “just distribution” means Bernie’s going to get just what he deserves?

If I decide to work 60 hours a week instead of 40, is it “just” that I get taxed at a higher rate for those additional hours?  Why should my additional labor be confiscated at higher levels than those who choose not to work more?  Is that “just”?  How “just” is it that those who choose to only work 20 hours get money from me?

2.  Fundamental changes:  Corporation Style!

Agreed. Let's lower the corporate tax rate so we're not the highest in the OECD. How's that for a start, Bernie?

First of all, “disastrous trade policies” has nothing to do with the cost of labor in China versus the US.  It is cost that drives decision-making in corporations, and if a component of a product or service is lower, then it is more competitive, and likely to win business.  This is true when the individual consumer buys an apple pie at the grocery store, as it is when a corporation buys components built in China or in Des Moines.  It’s a market, it is choice – and granted, Bernie tells everyone he’s pro-choice, but apparently only for certain things.

A critical line here:  “allowed corporations to shut down in America”.  In other words, Bernie, at the point of a federal gun, wants to disallow corporations from making decisions based on the company’s and their customers’ best interests.  This isn’t because Bernie’s a fan of Big Labor – nope, that couldn’t be it, at all.  Bernie’s simply in favor of increasing the price of all goods by making sure they are all domestically-produced, with all of the inherent costs associated with doing business in the United States.

Which will have the eventual effect of reducing demand for the product, because as price goes up, demand goes down – which means there will be job layoffs due to reductions in demand.  The good news for Bernie is that because the Fed allows for unfettered spending, he can vote to increase unemployment benefits for 3 years instead of two, ensuring that at least a few of the unemployed will be receiving federal checks during one of several of Bernie’s upcoming election cycles.

Oh, and since we’re at it:  Former countries in the USSR, like the Ukraine, having some first-hand experience with centralized economic planning, know that lowering and simplifying taxes will increase economic growth:

A group of experts wants to cut payroll taxes on employers, exempt reinvested corporate income from taxes and reduce the involvement of government officials in tax collection.

These are some of the ideas that may emerge in the final recommendations on Aug. 27 of the advisory National Reform Council, which is tasked with helping parliament draft legislation to ease one of the worst tax systems in the world. Ukraine’s taxes are punitive and bureaucratic, prompting massive evasion and a shadow, off-the books economy that may rival the official one.

A panel of experts held a press conference on Aug. 25 to talk about competing versions.

According to Volodymyr Dubrovskiy of Reanimation Package of Reforms, the problems run deep — from the way the value added tax is administered to an excessively high 42 percent payroll tax.

The corporate income tax, as structured, encourages companies to conceal at least part of their profits.

Dubrovskiy and others want to decrease the payroll burden to a single, flat rate personal income tax of 20 percent and eliminate the social security payments paid by employers. At the moment, the high taxes discourage employers from legal employment and “punish them for paying salaries,” Dubrovskiy said.

In other words, increasing costs via trade barriers – not “policies” – doesn’t help anyone, because it increases the price people pay for goods, so it hits the people at the low end of the income spectrum the hardest.  Ironically, Bernie’s arguments for erecting trade barriers impacts the people he’s selling this idea to the hardest, because they are least able to absorb the inevitable price increases.

This is the fruit of the thinking that surrounds centralized planning and control of businesses.

3.  Bernie takes on The Evil Wondertwins – aka, The Koch Brothers:

I also believe both brothers want Luke Skywalker to join Darth Vader in moving to the Dark Side of The Force.

The billionaire class “wants it all”?  What does Bernie Sanders want, and what idea does he regularly sell on the campaign trail?  Money.  90% of it.  That’s just shy of 10% of “all”, Bernie –  but the Koch brothers are the bad guys?  Bernie wants to replace someone else’s supposed greed with his actual own greed.  Interesting, and shameless.

Here’s how economic works, Bernie, so pay attention:  The Koch brothers don’t gain a thing by people earning $3/hour.  Why?  Because that means those people then have less money to spend buying things.  If demand for a product goes down, fewer items are purchased, resulting in reduced profits.  And Bernie claims to think this is what the Koch brothers want?

See how easy that math was?  It’s in nobody’s interest to have less money, unless, of course, you’re a hack politician who uses class division memes to keep yourself in a job that doesn’t require any actual work.

I’ll just leave alone the assumptions Bernie’s making regarding the Kochs wanting all poor people to be rounded up and jettisoned into a lake of fire, because it’s patently stupid and insulting.

4.  And finally, who doesn’t need a lecture on morality from a man who supports funding of an organization that sells baby parts?

But I guess we're OK with the immorality of saddling unborn generations with trillions of debt that they didn't get a vote on.

Yeah, let’s talk about “moral responsibility” – as if any American needs a lesson on morals from a politician.  How about the fact that the “moral” effects of clean energy subsidies enrich the wealthy and not the poor?  18 billion dollars sounds like a lot of money to me:

There’s a new study out, under the imprimatur of the Energy Institute of the Haas School of Business in Berkeley, California, entitled The Distributional Effects of U.S. Clean Energy Tax Credits.  As the title implies, it looks at who actually profited from the various “green energy” tax credits across the United States. SPOILER ALERT! It wasn’t the poor folks.

How much money are we talking about? Well, the paper says that from 2006 to 2012, the taxpayers have been on the hook for $18 BILLION DOLLARS to fund these subsidies, money that would have otherwise gone into the General Fund.

Look at all those morals, trickling up to the evil 1%.  So the government’s efforts to live up to its moral responsibilities have in fact saddled the poor with debt that the rich are benefiting from.

Morality takes a holiday, courtesy of Big Government.

Even a consistently inconsistent Socialist like Bernie Sanders can’t escape the inherent fallacies present in all the ideas he espouses.  Nothing is free.  Morality isn’t earned by spending other peoples’ money.  Creating generations of dependents robs people of their independence.  Which seems not to matter to Bernie, as long as they re-elect him.

Oh, and since Bernie seems to think that there’s an endless supply of money – his advocacy for increasing social security benefits doesn’t seem to match the ability of the program to pay them.

By all means, then, we should increase benefits.

Only in the socialist utopia can a politician argue for increasing benefits at a time when the program is going to be unable to pay out existing benefits as early as one year from now.  But when you’re riding a magic unicorn, like Bernie Sanders is – one paid for by taxpayers – logic is on an eternal holiday.

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by John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS Syria continues to descend into the inferno while the international community stands transfixed. A political solution seems elusive as ever, the civil war grinds on having killed over 250,000 people, and more than twelve million people have fled their homeland. Alarmed by these developments, the UN Security Council has affirmed its support for finding a durable political settlement to a crisis which after four years of fighting not only threatens Syria, but dangerously has morphed into a regional threat.

“The Security Council stresses that the only sustainable solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” a consensus statement says. The French-led initiative was the first time in two years that the Council specifically issued a political statement concerning the conflict.

Significantly Russia has agreed to this nebulous political process along with the USA and UK.

In other words, besides treating the humanitarian symptoms, let’s try to solve the problem.

Importantly the Council focused its attention on terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Al Nusrah front, as well as Al Qaida affiliates. The fifteen member Council, “condemns the ongoing and multiple terrorist” acts by these groups which “destabilizes Syria and the region with a devastating humanitarian impact on the civilian population.”

Let’s review the circles of Hell into which Syria has descended.

The Political; UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated yet again that there can be no military solution to the Syrian conflict and calls for a political solution. Opposition to the Assad Family regime which exploded during the Arab Spring in 2011 has evolved from a quasi-democratic opposition movement into a plethora of terrorist groups intent at topping the authoritarian Assad with the intent of installing a radical theocratic Islamic regime.

Both the Al Nusra front, and the ISIL form the leading edge of a lethal opposition which if they triumph, would create a fundamentalist Sunni state which borders five countries, all of them American allies, and including Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. Naive attempts by the Obama Administration to recruit and support “moderate” resistance fighters have turned out to be a sad and costly joke.

The Military; ISIL’s stunning military sweeps across northern Syria and Iraq has concentrated attention. The thousands of foreign fighters from Western Europe and even the USA which have joined the “Jihad Internationale,” fighting in Syria have added a dangerous ingredient to the conflict. While the Syrian government forces and regime-allied militias have been bloodied and battered, the fact remains that weapons from Russia and Iran have been sufficient to maintain a perilous balance in parts of the country. Moscow and Tehran have respectively supported Assad’s Syria for both strategic and religious reasons.

Syria’s multi-ethnic once secular society has now descended into a vicious sectarian conflict as much as a political one. The Muslim Sunni majority are battling the ruling Shiite (Alawite ) sect for power; ISIL Sunni terrorists target the country’s ancient Christian community as well as the Kurds. Realistically Syria could split and harden into religious/ethnic enclaves.

The Humanitarian; Twelve million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes; that’s about half the pre-war population!   Four million have become refugees and are flooding into neighboring states especially Lebanon and Turkey.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Turkey hosts 1.8 million displaced persons, tiny Lebanon 1.2 million, Jordan 629,000, and Iraq 250,000.

Many of the fleeing Syrians are trying to sneak into Europe by makeshift and dangerous means to seek political asylum. Germany is a favorite destination.

The Archaeological;  ISIL’s wanton pillage and looting throughout northern Syria and Iraq has deliberately targeted an important and irreplaceable artistic heritage. Besides smashing statues and looting museums, without question some stolen art is being secretly sold to the lucrative international art black market. ISIL recently beheaded a prominent archaeologist Khalid al-Asaad in Palmyra, the ancient city seized by these thugs in the Spring.

So can the world community really convince the Syrians to stop fighting and destroying their historic homeland ? Or is the cult of death and violence, the lure of power, sectarian hatreds, and competing geopolitical rivalries, too strong a toxin as to stop the conflict?

- John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He’s the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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by Chris Campion

Several years ago, when Peter Shumlin and a crowd of adoring sycophants raised their tiny, shrill voices in a chorus of acclaim for single-payer in Vermont, a few people were raising their hands and asking questions about how to pay for it, regardless of the merits of a single-payer system itself.  Those people who had the temerity to ask impertinent questions were routinely shouted down, and found themselves in league with those awful people who wanted to shove Grandma off a cliff.

As the reality of the single-payer implementation materialized, even Shumlin had to finally concede that there was, indeed, no way to pay for it.  He delayed his plan to finance single-payer, and only released the plan after his last election, which he won by only a few thousand votes, over a last-minute challenger who had little to no campaign funding and support behind him.  Then, well past the November election, Shumlin announced single-payer was dead in December 2014, and finally presented his financing plan as evidence of its death, almost 2 years after he was mandated to do so.

So what’s happening now with Vermont’s defective “single” payer website?  The administrative costs are ongoing, and going up, well beyond the scope of what was originally promised to not cost Vermonters anything.  From VT Digger:

The Shumlin administration has placed a partial dollar amount on state staff costs stemming from manual processes and workarounds associated with Vermont Health Connect’s messy open enrollment period earlier this year.

The amount? $800,000 per month. That’s for the costs incurred for “staff augmentation” needed to process renewals manually “this winter and spring,” according to Vermont Health Connect spokesman Sean Sheehan.

The renewal and open enrollment period was from November 2014 to March 2015, which would mean the state paid at least $4 million to work around the incomplete IT system.

“Staff augmentation” is code for “additional unanticipated payroll spending for a website that was promised to work easily for all Vermonters at no additional cost to Vermonters, because it would be paid for by federal monies.”  As it turns out, implementing your own version of an exchange website is expensive, will incur costs not anticipated in the original scope, and will impact Vermont’s overall state budget negatively when it’s already operating on razor-thin margins.

So another $4 million is paid out of pocket to process routine, standard, run-of-the-mill changes made to health care plans that used to be done entirely outside of the state’s control.  Now, in order to provide health care to Vermonters, these changes are now being ably handled by the same people who once said it wouldn’t increase the budget by a dime, and would, in fact, save money.

This is a failed project, by any project management standard.  The scope, cost and schedule have all slipped, multiple times, and there is no solid date in place for recovery, nor any kind of a finalized recovery plan.  In fact, a large-scale IT project that switches software vendors in the middle of the project is an air-horn klaxon-esque indicator that the requisite requirements work was not done up front, which is what any project manager knows is critical to success.  The state cannot escape the triple constraint any more than it can escape the reality of gravity, or, apparently, the reality of Vermont’s politics.

Vermont Health Connect’s implementation was a political vehicle for Shumlin, not a project to actually provide health care.  Even if you issued every Vermonter an insurance card, magically, insurance that was paid for out of a unicorn’s lockbox of gold coins hidden deep in a cave in Buel’s Gore, that in itself does not provide one second’s worth of health care to any Vermonter.  It is access to health care, not an insurance card, that should determine whether or not Vermonters have what Peter Shumlin has called a “right” to health care.

Vermonters have access to health care.  They had it before the state decided to spend several hundred million dollars failing to create a website.  The mix of payers was available to every Vermonter, regardless of income level – commercial insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, VHAP, etc – every Vermonter had access to one of the payers, and had access to care.

The website itself is meaningless.  It’s just an enrollment vehicle, and even in that it fails.  It also fails because it’s not integrated with Medicare, or military health plans, and can’t handle plan changes without laying out hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional spending, monthly, to process the changes manually.

Would health care costs decrease if the dollars spent to implement a website were spent on care instead?  If we spend $200 million on a website, and the state’s largest hospital’s budget is $1 billion (in net patient revenues), then Shumlin threw 1/5 of a year’s worth of budget away on an unneeded failure.

As Shumlin’s own website states, he’s “determined” to get tough things done:

As Governor, Peter is determined to get tough things done. Since his inauguration, he has been working hard to create jobs for those who need them and raise incomes for those who have jobs, control skyrocketing health care costs, expand broadband and cell service to every corner of the state, reduce recidivism, invest in quality education opportunities, and rebuild our roads and bridges. Taken together, these and other key goals represent an ambitious agenda to create a brighter economic future for Vermonters. 

I guess Shumlin’s definition of “control” means something entirely different to him than it does for the rest of us.  If anything, Shumlin increased the cost of health care, by:

  1. By deciding to create a Vermont version of a health care enrollment website when the federal version was available, he’s incurring millions in additional costs in the creation, maintenance, and manual support required to keep the site operational.
  2. Increased the financial reporting and regulatory compliance burdens on all the state’s hospitals, which in part means additional staff hours required to maintain unique budget reporting to the Green Mountain Health Care Board.

Not one of the things done by the Shumlin administration has provided care to a Vermonter that needs it.  Not one thing.  And instead of getting tough things done, Shumlin is now quitting the office, and the Vermonters he was so “determined” to help.  While the Green Mountain Care Board awarded Blue Cross/Blue Shield a 5.9% increase, this was lower than the request rate increase of 8.6%, which will mean that there may or may not be monies available for reimbursement at the lower, approved rate.  Kind of like how Medicare only reimburses a certain dollar amount for any procedure, regardless of actual hospital costs.

It turns out that helping himself to a several governorships was Shumlin’s most successful achievement, considering that all of his determination has not changed the reality on the ground that hospitals, insurers, and patients have to live with, on a daily basis.

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by Rob Roper

When Vermont Speaker of the House, Shap Smith (D-Morristown) announced his run for the governorship, a small crowd of fellow house lawmakers was on hand to lend their support. Who they were and what they said provide some good insights as to what a Governor Smith’s policy choices for Vermont would be, and what they would mean for the state.

Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier) is chair of the house Energy and Natural Resources Committee. According to Vermont Digger, Klien endorsed Smith “… because he ‘knows firsthand what Smith stands for,’” which, presumably given his support, is in line with what Klein stands for.

In 2015, Klien ushered through legislation (Act 56) that mandates Vermont get 75% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2032. This will, according to David Blittersdorf of All Earth Renewables, require the development of 200 miles of Vermont ridgelines (Vermont is only 154 miles long at its widest point) with industrial wind towers. An equal or greater amount of power will have to come from thousands of acres of solar panels. And, if Klein has his way, this is only the beginning of a plan that will mandate Vermont get 90% of its power, including home heating and transportation, by 2050. This policy will radically alter the signature landscape of Vermont, as well as drive our electric bills through the roof.

In 2015, Klein and his committee also laid the groundwork for a $500,000,000 state Carbon Tax, which would in part be used to subsidize this radical “green” agenda. The tax would add over a dollar to the price of each gallon of gasoline and home heating fuel.

Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne), the Majority Whip, said, again according to Digger, “Smith knows how to negotiate with gun rights advocates and gun control activists, labor groups and businesses.” Given that Webb was one of the legislators on the anti-Second Amendment group Gunsense Vermont’s donor list and was endorsed by both the VTNEA and the Vermont State Employees’ Association, it’s not hard to figure out where she’d like to see those negotiations to go.

Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais) chairs the House Ways & Means Committee – the chief tax-writing committee in the House. This is significant as Shap Smith has been a vocal advocate of expanding the Vermont sales tax to include services since 2012. A sales tax on services would, of course, make things like getting a haircut, having your house painted and lawn mowed, hiring a lawyer or an architect, etc. more expensive for everybody. It would also create an accounting and liability nightmare for many Vermont small businesses.

One of Smith’s selling points is that, as Speaker, he has never brought a vote to the floor of the House that didn’t pass. This is testimony to his ability to build consensus (or to twist arms and break kneecaps — one recalls Rep. Bob South in tears after being “consensused” by Smith and Co. to cast the deciding vote for same sex marriage). But one of the most famous examples of this came in 2009 when Smith orchestrated the override of then Governor Douglas’ budget veto – a policy decision that has in great part led to Vermont’s now structural deficit, and annual spending increases that are consistently double or triple the rate of inflation.

- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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by John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

What follows is the story of one of the most thoroughly disgraceful special interest schemes ever brought into being in these United States. It is also one of the most fiendishly intricate government programs ever conceived, and its name is Ethanol.

Back in the Nixon years scientists discovered that tetraethyl lead used to improve combustion in gasoline led to serious environmental and health damage. Adding lead to gasoline was banned. That was a good thing.

But gasoline needed an oxygenating additive to turn poisonous carbon monoxide into harmless carbon dioxide. For a while a petroleum-based compound called MBTE filled the bill, but if it escaped into the water supply, it produced seriously negative effects.

Meanwhile the Arab oil embargo of 1973 raised the cry for “energy independence”. Let’s produce our own motor fuels! This cry combined with the need for an oxygenating compound other than MBTE focused attention on another compound, ethanol, also known as “grain alcohol” and, when produced by moonshiners, “white lightnin’”.

Ethanol can be made efficiently from sugar cane, but corn is a far more readily available and politically attractive source. So in 1974 Nixon and Congress began their long love affair with corn ethanol. By the late 1970s Congress had added a host of subsidies, tax benefits, insured loans and other incentives to stimulate ethanol production.

In 1980 Congress added a fifty four cents a gallon protective tariff on ethanol imports, principally from Brazilian sugar cane. During the Reagan years the Agriculture Department actually gifted tons of government-acquired corn stocks to the ethanol industry, for free.

But overproduction during the Reagan years forced many ethanol refiners out of business. To rescue the survivors, Congress provided more tax breaks in 1990, more EPA blend mandates in 1992, and more corn growing subsidies in 2002. In 2005 and 2007 came the Renewable Fuel Standard that now mandates oil companies to blend 36 billion gallons of ethanol into E10 (10% ethanol, 90% gasoline) by 2022.  E10 enjoys a 54 cents per gallon motor fuel tax exemption.

But ethanol comes with problems. One is that it takes almost as much energy to plant, fertilize, harvest, process, and transport corn ethanol, as the resulting ethanol produces when burned. (Gasoline delivers about ten times the energy used to produce and refine it.) Another is that since ethanol is not as energy-rich as gasoline, it takes significantly more E10 than gasoline to propel a car.

In addition, E10 takes a corrosive toll on engines, especially two cycle engines. For an explanation, ask your local lawnmower, snowmobile, and chain saw mechanic.

Midwestern farmers have raced to plant more corn to feed the ethanol plants, until as much as forty percent of the U.S. corn crop is diverted from food to fuel. The conversion of more farmland into corn for ethanol has unwanted consequences. The mandated demand for corn ethanol directly increases the price of food, including beef, pork, and poultry raised on corn feed. The renewable fuels mandate of course drives up feed costs for dairy farmers.

While E10 counteracts carbon monoxide, it also increases production of nitrogen oxides and ozone precursors, both air pollution problems.  It also spurs planting of marginal farmland that would better be left in conservation reserve. Even many environmentalists have turned against the ethanol mandate, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Then there’s the “blend wall” problem. Given current levels of gasoline demand, refiners cannot meet the 14 billion gallons of E10 mandated for 2015, let alone the 36 billion gallons mandated for 2022. EPA faces an enormous task keeping track of every gallon of ethanol produced (each with a 38 digit Renewable Identification Number!) and tracking down counterfeiters. Ethanol made from cellulosic switchgrass, so highly touted by President Bush in 2007, has yet to materialize.

Driving the ethanol program forward is the political muscle of the corn growers and ethanol producers. They and the corn state members of Congress are currently battling to raise the blend percentage mandate from E10 to E15 or even E20 to get the current ethanol surplus off the market and into gas tanks

In terms of costs and consequences, the ethanol subsidy, tax exemption, and mandate program is perhaps the worst single program carried out by the federal government – and that’s saying a lot. The time is long overdue to repeal the ethanol and biofuels mandates and close this embarrassing chapter in costly special interest politics.

- John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).

 

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