On February 19, 2020

Shrinking smart?

By Sen. Dick McCormack

“Half-baked idea” usually refers, insultingly, to an idea that hasn’t been thought through. But I offer an idea that I admit is half baked. Because no one in Vermont is talking about it, because the idea contradicts the largely unchallenged assumption that folks, regardless of ideology, party or cultural background, consider self-evident. I’m not ready to advocate for this idea, but I’d like to have a conversation.

I’m not convinced of the conventional wisdom that we need more people in Vermont. Population shrinkage creates problems. An aging population creates problems. Worker shortage, reduced tax revenues, fewer consumer dollars in circulation. There’s no denying these problems, but I doubt the conventional wisdom that these problems can be addressed only by reversing population shrinkage.

Have we fully explored the possibility of addressing these problems directly?

For example, how does Japan handle an aging population? If a shrinking population reduces tax revenues, does it not also reduce the demand for government services?

Conversely, doesn’t increased population increase the demand for government services? Can increased government revenues and services ever keep up with population increases?

Is it not possible to adjust to changes in scale?  Are there benefits to shrinkage? Is there a downside to growth?

Vermont’s loss of population isn’t unique or even unusual. Rural areas throughout the country are losing population. And such loss creates for them the problems with which Vermont is now dealing.

But some communities seem to negotiate those problems better than others.

Researchers at Iowa State University are investigating whether “communities can still thrive as they lose population?”  The answer seems to be yes. Sometimes. The sociology of shrinkage indicates that people thrive amidst shrinking population if they have strong citizen involvement in healthy community institutions.

I’ll continue baking this idea, and report further in future legislative reports. I must admit that for me the wish is father to the thought here. I rather like, indeed I love, Vermont as the thinly populated place it is. Connecticut is a very nice place, but it’s no Vermont.

Richard McCormack is one of three state senators for Windsor County.

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