A SUBWAY TUNNEL UNDER A MEADOW
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Even before the figures were in on Dummerston's new town-wide property reappraisal - up 81 percent! - there was something gnawing at me. Basically, it was this new house being built in Dummerston Center.
Dummerston Center is a tiny town. It doesn't have a store or a post office. It has the town offices, the historical society, the Grange for theater, music and strawberry suppers, and the church. Most of the homes - white frame houses with porches and a little Queen Anne-style decoration - have been where they are for more than 200 years.
A tragic fire a few years ago took down one of the homes, and in its stead, an Architectural Digest type of house has been going up. It's been sited to look down the valley instead of towards the town, so what faces the center is a two-car garage.
Of course this is America, where people have every right to build McMansions. And I'm sure the people building the house are lovely and will be a welcome addition to the community. But to turn your back on an 18th Century village seems so blind, so out of place and so unreal it's like a slap in the face.
But it's not as odd as what I've been told - by two reputable sources - about another McMansion being built down the road. There the owner didn't feel he had enough space with an attached two-car garage, so he built a second one that stands alone. Then, not wanting to be cold in the winter, he dug a tunnel from his house to the garage, tiled it and installed heat.
Dummerston may be worth 81 percent more, but it's a sure bet that most of the people who live here have not seen an 81 percent increase in their salaries. That means I'm not the only one who is nervous as property tax time approaches.
Crippling property taxes are a problem all over the state. It's not just gentrification - wealthy people moving in and inflating the property values. It's largely because Vermont is a small state with a small economy. There are only about 610,000 people in the whole state. Boston and its immediate suburbs have more people in them than Vermont.
Those of us who live here year round know how hard it is to make a buck. But being low on disposable income does not necessarily mean being poor. We may not have cash, but we have, in abundance, a good life with values that are not structured around an ever-escalating income and a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses attitude.
For most of us here, life is a web of friendships, favors done and returned, a support system where each of us contributes what we can and has some hope of support from friends and neighbors in return. It's why so many people have their blood tested when someone needs a bone marrow transplant, or why they donate after a house fire, or step in to share the care for some stranger with a debilitating illness. It's why we can, with some pride, talk about "community."
Community in this sense is not "the business community" or "radical left-wingers" or "vegans" or "artists," although these communities, each with their own culture, language and by-laws, certainly exist here. Instead, it's the big melting-pot sense of "we all have to get through the winters" community.
In this, we're both way ahead and far behind much of the rest of the country. According to economist Jared Bernstein, author of a new book, "All Together Now: Common Sense for a New Economy," the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years have led us to what Bernstein calls a "YOYO" economy, or "You're On Your Own." He says the guiding light of economic policy as practiced today is, "No matter what the problem is, the solution is less government and more markets.""
Cutting federal services like Medicare and FEMA, failing to support infrastructure repairs, failing to fund educational mandates, privatizing everything including prisons and war, destroying anything public like the railroad system - the "I'm all right, Jack, screw you" way of looking at the world has been institutionalized in our government and into the very fabric of most of American society.
"Underlying all of this is the biggest YOYO tactic of all: cut taxes to the point where government is forced to contract, so there's no question of an activist agenda," Bernstein says. "If you can enrich your donors along the way... well, then it's a 'twofer.'"
It's Grover Norquist's "shrink government until you can drown it in a bathtub" philosophy, writ large.
However, as Bernstein points out, "YOYOism doesn't work... It failed lethally in New Orleans. It's done nothing to stop the growth of the uninsured, the rise in poverty..." Etc., etc., etc.
Even tiny Dummerston is being YOYO'd. The infrastructure is frayed. We pay way too much for a public school that is actually losing students. We don't have town water, town sewers, or town garbage collection. The fire department is excellent, but it's a volunteer operation. True, we have a strong highway department to maintain the roads, but with the price of everything in our lives going up, from heating oil to cars to food, with the best of intentions we've been overtaxed - and that's before the reappraisal.
Because we in Vermont have created - out of common need, common sense and common decency - a tight web of community, in emotional terms we're still far ahead of the rest of the country. But the YOYO attitude can be seen creeping in, in a garage that thumbs its nose at a community center that's been around for 200 years, or in putting a heated tunnel under a meadow. It's about imposing a world-view instead of adapting to a long-standing and successful one.
The property tax bills will soon be in the mail. I hope we won't be YOYO'd right out of our homes.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, business and economics. A collection of her columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.