Thumbs up, thumbs down, and a poke in the eye

Yes folks, the French Toast Alert System may be on SEVERE, but vital services must be continued even in the face of the coming Disasterphecalypse. Like, er, this week's edition of Thumbs And A Poke. Truly an essential service.

Joe Benning and all the other political figures who plan to take down their campaign signs, lest they become sharp-edged Sandy-blown projectiles. As far as we know, Benning made the call first; but now, Governor Shumlin, Senators Phil Baruth and Tony Pollina, Rep. Diane Lanpher, the Vermont Democratic Party, and even Angry Jack Lindley of the VTGOP have joined the call for temporary sign removal. (I hope Rob Roper doesn't think this is a Democratic plot. Uh-oh, I just gave him the idea.)

What'd be really nice is if candidates and staffers went around and took down all the signs they could find, and then returned the signs to their respective candidates for reposting after the wind dies down. But that may be wishful thinking. Or even illegal collusion.

Our political leaders are taking the responsible course here. But leave it to Angry Jack to put a selfish spin on this selfless endeavor:

"Signs are expensive," Lindley said. "You don't want to lose them."

The Republican majority in the US House, for not allowing a vote on renewing the farm bill, thus letting it expire. Which means a halt to the milk price support system that helps keep Vermont dairy farmers going. It's a perfect example of the partisan gridlock that -- false equivalency alert -- is commonly blamed on "both sides," but is mostly practiced by the Republicans. Or, as Lisa Rathke of the Associated Press puts it:

Republican leaders in the House have wanted to avoid a fight between Democrats, who oppose cuts to food stamps, and Republicans, who want bigger cuts than have been proposed, close to the election. [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack believes the farm bill was stalled to avoid a debate about the depth of cuts to farm programs that the House leadership is envisioning.

As with so many other issues, the Republicans fully realize that their position is unpopular. So they'd rather let the whole program expire than take a stand on their alleged principles.

Of course, there'd be a lot less need for the milk price support program if there was actually a free market for dairy products. Instead, we have a system that's weighted heavily in favor of big agribusiness. And in the Northeast, we have a market that's dominated by a single player. As a result, the end of the milk price support program puts a huge additional burden on our already suffering dairy farmers. And the Republicans don't care.

After the jump: Governor Shumlin, Wendy Wilton, VerMints, the city of Barre, and a poke to the Vermont media.
Governor Shumlin, for seeking an extra $8.8 million for low-income heating assistance. The money would help make up for federal cuts (thanks again, Congressional Republicans), which would result in an almost 50% cut in the average household payment. By the time you read this, the state's Emergency Board may have already allocated $7.9 million from available contingency funds. The rest would come by legislative action in the new biennium. The Governor explains:

"There is not a Vermonter who wants to see low-income Vermonters cold in their homes, making terrible choices between heat, the medicine they need to survive, food, clothing and keeping warm."

Oh, I can think of a few Vermonters who might well say, "Hey, if you can't pay to heat your home, get a better job! Or move to Arizona!" As Mitt Romney puts it, just use the "creative destruction" of the free market system. After all, we'd hate for you to survive the winter only to develop a nasty case of dependency on government and loss of entrepreneurial spirit. Don't you know that freezing your ass off is the mother of invention?

Wendy Wilton, the increasingly desperate Republican candidate for Treasurer, for ratcheting up the ridiculous attacks on incumbent Beth Pearce. She's gotten so far out there, that even the usually cautious Vermont political media can barely suppress its snorts of disbelief when reporting her latest outrages.

Last Monday, Wilton suffered the most embarrassing debate moment of any statewide candidate this year when she had to confess being unaware that Rutland had been put on a watch list compiled by the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank. Since she's the Treasurer of Rutland, and since the listing was because of the city's unfunded pension liability when she's tried to smear Pearce over the state's pension fund, it was a deeply embarrassing moment.

So she launched a flailing counterattack, accusing Pearce of releasing confidential information (it was publicly available) that could hurt Rutland's finances (the VMBB says it won't), and, to top it all off, accused the VMBB Board of putting Rutland on the watch list in an attempt to torpedo Wilton's campaign (the Board has a long, unblemished record of objectivity).

Next thing you know, she'll be seeing black helicopters and yammering about invisible radiation.

Vermont Hard Cider Company and CEO Bret Williams for a real Vermont success story. The Middlebury-based company has, almost single-handedly, established hard cider as a viable market sector in America. Its brand, Woodchuck, accounts for 44% of domestic hard cider sales. But now the big players are entering the market -- Boston Beer, MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch. And Vermont Hard Cider is taking a necessary step toward defending its turf by accepting a buyout offer from C&C Group, the top hard-cider maker in Ireland.

I realize there's always a danger when a local firm is bought out by a much larger company. But it's often the best thing when a company gets big enough that it has to compete on a national level: you need deep pockets, and you need a partner powerful enough to negotiate the constant battles in the retail marketplace. C&C seems to be a solid partner; it plans to keep Vermont Hard Cider in Vermont, and will go ahead with a major expansion planned for next year.

And Williams deserves a huge amount of credit for taking Vermont Hard Cider from near-bankruptcy in 2003 to its current prosperity and growth. As the Freeploid reported:

Williams mortgaged his home, liquidated his 401(k), and "pulled the change out of the ashtray" to buy the company with a small group of investors, mostly college buddies. He declined to say how many original investors there were, but said the group did not include any family members, private equity companies or banks.

"When you're broke and hemorrhaging cash, banks don't return your phone calls," Williams said.

Kudos to Williams and all the folks at Vermont Hard Cider for turning a failing company into a prosperous market leader. And somehow doing it all in a state that, according to Randy Brock, is fatally unfriendly to business.

VerMints, for selling a deceptive product and whining about getting caught. The ingredients come from elsewhere; the mints are manufactured in Canada; and, according to the company website, its headquarters (formerly in Burlington) are now in Massachusetts. VerMints were labeled "Vermont's Organic Mints" and are often sold in Vermont-oriented specialty and gift shops.

CEO Gary Rinkus claims he didn't know about Vermont's labeling laws and defense of the "Vermont" brand until getting a letter from the Attorney General's office last year. And since then, he's relabeled the mints to remove the actual "Vermont" name. Now the AG is suing VerMints for years of deception, and Rinkus is complaining that the AG is "going after small businesses and beating them up for money." No, Gary; they're enforcing a law that every food producer in Vermont should know backwards and forwards.

Oh, and he now claims that the name "VerMint" has nothing to do with the state; he says "Ver" is a reference to the Latin root word for "truth," relevant because his mints contain no artificial ingredients. Uh-huh, sure thing. There may be a lot of "ver" in your mints, Gary, but precious little in your defense.

The city of Barre, finally celebrating the completion of its extensive Main Street reconstruction project. For those unfamiliar with Barre, Main Street is pretty much the only east-west route through the city. It badly needed a makeover, but the actual project was painful for an already-struggling community.

Now it's done, and there are other signs of life in the city: the City Place project, the planned move of a few hundred state workers downtown, a classy new pub about to open in a long-abandoned building, and a bunch of hardy retailers old and new who weathered the closing of Main Street. Barre's turnaround has been forecast over and over again, but this time, it might actually be happening.

The Vermont media, for once again giving far too much coverage to a tiny protest movement. This time, it's the battle to "save Bill and Lou," mounted by a small number of misguided animal-rights activists. For those just emerging from their spider-holes, Bill and Lou are the unofficial mascots of Green Mountain College: a working team that's about to be split up and sent to the slaughterhouse, with the meat destined for use in the college cafeteria.

This has resulted in a global online petition drive that has gathered more than 45,000 "signatures" from those seeking to save Bill and Lou. Which, in the world of the Internet, isn't really that fabulous a total. But what was even sadder was last Friday's protest at the GMC campus, lavishly covered by Vermont's print and broadcast media.

A protest of approximately 15 people. Fifteen. Which was fewer than the number of counter-protesters from the college community, and may well have been fewer than the number of reporters and camera crew on hand to document this "outpouring" of support.

I've been around long enough to remember the civil rights struggle and the anti-Vietnam protests, which were studiously underplayed by the mainstream media until they got too big to ignore. That's been the fate of virtually every left-wing protest since then, up to and including Occupy. But there's something about homegrown Vermont protests, especially when they seem to harken back to simpler times, that draws our media like moths to a flame.

The anti-wind movement is another example. The numbers, when you look at them, really aren't impressive. But every time there's a gathering of six, or 20, or 50 anti-wind protesters, it's all over the news.  And when less than 200 people gathered in Montpelier, VTDigger entitles its story "Protesters throng to Statehouse lawn in opposition of (sic) industrial wind."

"Throng"? Really?

As in "a multitude," "a large, densely-packed crowd"?

Conventional wisdom has it that there's growing controversy over large-scale wind. The main source of that "wisdom," I would argue, is the news coverage that's been consistently out of proportion to the size of the movement. Every little protest, every activity -- and now, every movement of turbine gear into the state -- is vigilantly chronicled. And when you see lots of articles and reports on anti-wind protests, it's natural to assume that there are lots of people involved.

There's no real objective evidence of that. The polls consistently show significant majorities in support of ridgeline wind. Annette Smith got less than 400 write-in votes in her bid for the Progressive nomination for Governor, and there's certainly no sign of a groundswell of support for her current write-in bid.

The truth about the anti-wind movement: it's a very small group of very committed, very vocal people who have benefited from overindulgent coverage by the Vermont media. And that coverage has resulted in a distorted view of the movement's importance. Which, in turn, feeds more coverage, and you get a vicious cycle.

So, a poke in the eye, and a plea for a bit more discernment, when it comes to protest movements of all kinds.  

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