Penalty for filing a tax form late

Consider a thought experiment. Suppose that you have lived in my town of Cambridge, Vermont, for many years in a house you own. One year your property tax bill from the town includes a new item: “penalty for late filed homestead declaration.” This has never happened before, and you don’t know what it is about, so you start asking questions.

You learn that the town assessed this penalty because a state tax form was filed late (you make a note to talk with your tax preparer about that). You ask if you can appeal the penalty, since you have been a long-time taxpayer in good standing. The state says yes – appeal to the town. The town says the penalty is not appealable. This seems odd, and you ask more questions. No one in either state or town government can give satisfying answers to your questions.

How would you feel? I would feel pretty darn frustrated!

This situation happened last year. The penalty was for late filing of the Vermont state tax form HS-122 “Homestead Declaration AND Property Tax Adjustment Claim.” This form is normally filed with the state income tax return, and it is used to declare one’s homestead. In Vermont, homestead property taxes assessed by the town are linked to state income taxes. This form is critical to establishing that link. When this form is filed late, it creates extra work for both state and town employees.

The taxpayer researched state law about the homestead declaration (32 V.S.A. § 5410) and found that the law says that the town “may” charge a penalty if the declaration is filed late. This implies that the town must have made a deliberate decision in the past to charge a penalty, right? Taxpayer asks: Who in town made that decision, and when and why? No one in town government knows. Furthermore, the law says that the penalty may be “up to three percent of the education tax on the property.” Taxpayer was indeed charged 3%. Taxpayer asks: Who in town made the decision to charge the maximum penalty of 3% instead of 2% or 1%, and when and why was that decision made? No one in town government knows.

I am part of town government, and we aren’t looking very good here! What’s going on?

It took some digging, but I discovered that the heart of the matter was changes in state law. The 2003 state law that originally required filing a homestead declaration also mandated a penalty of 3% for late filing of said declaration. It was not optional. So systems and software were set up all over Vermont to assess a 3% penalty if the required form was filed late. Only several years later did the legislature make the penalty optional, and only several years after that did the legislature add the language “up to” 3%.

Should the town have known about these changes in state law, and taken deliberate action once they were given options that they didn’t have before? In a perfect world, yes. But no one can keep up with the thousands of changes in state law made by the legislature every year. These changes were relatively minor and Cambridge is likely not the only town in Vermont where these changes in state law escaped notice.

What about the confusion about appeal rights? It turns out that the state gave bad advice, but the town did not know the right answer, either.

The state told the taxpayer that the penalty was appealable to the town’s Board of Abatement. The town said that the penalty was not appealable because the section of state law that lists the things that are appealable to the Board of Abatement does not include this penalty. The town was correct in this regard, but neither state nor town gave the correct advice to the taxpayer, which was to appeal to the town’s Board of Civil Authority.

Here the heart of the matter was not changes in state law, but overly complex state law. The right to appeal to the Board of Civil Authority, not the Board of Abatement, is referenced circuitously in a single sentence buried in a long and complex paragraph dealing with multiple matters at 32 V.S.A. § 5410(j). I had to read that paragraph several times myself to understand how to appeal this penalty.

Successful democracy requires citizens who respect the law. That is part of the answer to the question in the header on this blog: “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?”

What can contribute to citizens losing respect for the law? Law that is overly complex and constantly changing. This post is about just one small example.

If you are interested in more details about this example, click here for a memo that I wrote last fall about this matter for Cambridge town government. That memo includes the legislative history of 32 V.S.A. § 5410, and my analysis of the complicated language in § 5410(j) about appeal rights.

32 V.S.A. § 5410 originated in 1997 and has changed many more times over the years than I mentioned above. Originally the filing of a homestead declaration was optional, but it was made mandatory in 2003. At that time the requirement was to file a homestead declaration annually, but later it was required only if there was a change. When that caused problems, the law was changed back to a mandatory annual filing. As noted above, beginning in 2003 the penalty for late filing was 3% (mandatory) but for a time it was reduced to 1% (still mandatory). Later it was changed back to 3% (still mandatory). Not until 2011 was the penalty made optional. The language “up to” 3% was added in 2014. That section of law has been amended 14 times (as of the date of the memo).

The law is also more complex than I described above. There are circumstances, fortunately not applicable here, where the (now optional) penalty is not up to 3% but up to 8%. Whew!

This example holds lessons for our democracy. One of the weaknesses of democracy is that government officials are prone to make complex laws and constantly tinker with them, albeit often in response to requests or complaints by citizens, but thereby contributing to loss of respect for the law.

Alexis de Tocqueville noted these weaknesses of democracy more than 175 years ago in Democracy in America.

He wrote about the dangers of constantly changing laws in Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 7: “On the Omnipotence of the Majority in the United States and Its Effects.” An excerpt:

Legislative instability is an evil inherent in democratic government…

He wrote about the dangers of overly complex laws in Volume 2, Part 4, Chapter 6: “What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.” An excerpt:

[T]he sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way…

Our democracy would be stronger if both citizens and government officials more diligently guarded against these weaknesses.

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Tweets from Kanye West

Kanye West said something interesting on Twitter this past week:

I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought. … I don’t agree 100% with anyone but myself.

That is similar to something that I occasionally say to my wife and others: “I’ve never found anyone that I disagree with on everything. And I’ve never found anyone that I agree with on everything. Even myself.” The qualifier at the end is because I know I’m not completely consistent in my views (few people are), and because I wish to preserve the flexibility to occasionally change my mind, and probably also because I don’t have Kanye’s level of self-confidence.

Kanye’s comments are related to the question in the header on this blog: “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?” One requirement of a proper relationship is citizens who think for themselves. If you find yourself letting some other person or group always do your thinking for you, then I question if you are free.

Of course, it is natural to consider what others think – to learn from them, and sometimes to outsource our thinking because we ourselves cannot be fully informed on every issue. But it is essential to think for ourselves as much as possible. Don’t fall for groupthink.

If like me you don’t know a lot about Kanye West, see Wikipedia. Apparently he has 27.9 million followers on Twitter, and he follows exactly one person: his wife. Smart man. For the source of that information, and the above quote, see this post by blogger Ann Althouse, a professor of law emerita at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

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Town Meeting Day 2018

Town meeting day in Vermont is the first Tuesday in March. Town meeting in my town of Cambridge was better this year than last year, and much of the credit is due to the Community Engagement Team (CET) created by the selectboard following last year’s town meeting.

Several changes were made this year as a result of the CET’s recommendations. More microphones were used, and a podium was provided for the moderator. More and better food choices were offered. The meeting start time was changed from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. The old start time was appropriate when many citizens were dairy farmers and had morning chores to do, but few citizens are dairy farmers now.

The CET provided civic information with new material in the annual town report, a series of posts on Front Porch Forum in the weeks leading up to town meeting, and a new brochure on the chairs at town meeting.

For the first time, the meeting was live-streamed. You can watch the recorded video here. This is real democracy and local community engagement in action!

Changes were made to the warning for the meeting (i.e., the agenda). The goal was to simplify and clarify the warning, and also to put substantive issues before the voters. People are more willing to engage when they know that they can make a difference.

Some of the issues that were decided on Tuesday:

  • To increase the size of the selectboard from 3 to 5. Two additional selectboard members will be elected at town meeting next year.
  • To increase the budget to hire a town administrator. Cambridge has not previously had a town administrator, a position that many towns our size have long had.
  • To continue to fund the town’s share of a local commuter bus.

All of those issues generated considerable discussion. All of those issues passed by wide margins, but only after said discussion.

The discussion about the commuter bus illustrates, in my view, town meeting at its best. The discussion at last year’s town meeting was confused. The discussion this year was MUCH better. We had our facts straight. Citizens asked good questions and made good comments. Last year no one from Green Mountain Transit, the regional transit authority that operates the bus service, was present to answer questions. This year Chapin Kaynor, the chair of GMT’s board of commissioners, was present. He spoke and answered numerous questions. He also heard several thoughtful suggestions from citizens about how the bus service could be improved.

The vote was by show of hands and it was approved by such an overwhelming majority that there wasn’t even a count; there was no need. I personally voted against the bus because for me the level of ridership does not justify the expense. (See this post from last May for information about ridership and costs.) But I am greatly pleased with the process we went through to make a decision, and I fully support the outcome. This is how town meeting should work! You can’t get community engagement like this with just a ballot box. This level of community engagement only happens by having a true town meeting where people come together face-to-face, talk to and listen to each other, and make decisions.

The video shows the discussion and vote about the commuter bus from 2:12 to 2:37.

Contrast the community engagement on the commuter bus issue with the elementary school budget, which was voted on at the ballot box on Tuesday. Polls were open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. in the same room as town meeting (the gymnasium at the elementary school). There had been an informational meeting about the elementary school budget on Monday evening. A total of 4 members of the public attended that meeting: the town clerk, the spouse of a school board member, my wife and me. A total of 318 people voted at the ballot box on the elementary school budget. Yes, that was more than attended town meeting, but I don’t believe they were as engaged.

There were two paper ballot votes during town meeting this year, and the highest number of ballots cast in those two votes was 213. Last year there was one paper ballot vote and the total number of ballots cast was 216. So attendance was about the same as last year, but that’s not a bad result. Last year there was an open seat on the selectboard which generated considerable interest. There were no similar open positions this year to draw people to town meeting. I expect there will be good attendance next year when there are two new positions on the selectboard.

Another factor that adversely affected attendance this year was the weather. It was a beautiful day, and I know several farmers who did not attend or who left early. Not dairy farmers, but maple sugarmakers. The sap was running! It’s possible that a few people chose skiing over town meeting, too.

Not all of the CET’s recommendations for town meeting were implemented this year. Childcare was a top recommendation of the CET, but we were unable to resolve issues involving liability insurance. Beyond town meeting, the CET’s recommendations for an improved town website and a comprehensive guide to town government remain future projects.

The citizens of Cambridge should feel good about their town meeting this year. To people who were unable to attend: I encourage you to watch the video. And put next year’s town meeting on your calendar now – the first Tuesday in March. Town meeting day is such a strong tradition in Vermont that the first Tuesday in March is a state holiday (1 V.S.A. § 371).

(For an explanation of the image at the top of this post, see this.)

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The Enlightenment Is Working

Steven Pinker had an interesting essay in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal:

The Enlightenment Is Working

Dr. Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. The essay is adapted from his new book out today: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Steven Pinker was referenced indirectly in my previous blog post: Holocaust Scholarship. He was the subject of the New York Times op-ed that I mentioned in that post: Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A. (Subscriptions probably required to access the NYT and WSJ links. Sorry.)

I’ve only read Dr. Pinker’s WSJ essay, not his book. The first paragraph of the essay:

For all their disagreements, the left and the right concur on one thing: The world is getting worse. Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both sides see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the West. They look back to various golden ages when America was great, blue-collar workers thrived in unionized jobs, and people found meaning in religion, family, community and nature.

Dr. Pinker says both the left and the right are wrong. He says that in every material respect our country and the world are vastly better than even 30 years ago, and that the comparison to 200 years ago is so overwhelmingly in favor of today as to be almost two different worlds. He cites many impressive statistics. He suggests that we would do well to recognize and appreciate the progress that has been made and continues to be made, and to let go of our pessimism.

I agree with Dr. Pinker, who goes on to say that the source of our good fortune is:

a continuation of a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century that has brought improvements in every measure of human flourishing.

This prompts a question. My education was in engineering and business, not liberal arts and certainly not history. Just what was the Enlightenment, anyway?

In my own mind, I used to confuse the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but they were two different periods of history. Following is a brief overview.

The Renaissance (French for “rebirth”) occurred mostly from the 1400s to the early 1600s. It was prominent in Italy, especially Florence. The Renaissance featured humanist themes in art, literature and philosophy. Two individuals especially come to mind:

The Renaissance may have been, in part, a rebirth from the Black Death, which hit all of Europe and especially Florence in 1348-1350. Another major event was the fall of Constantinople (current day Istanbul) in 1453. The Byzantine Empire (Christian) fell to the Ottoman Empire (Muslim). “The fall of Constantinople generated a wave of emigre Greek scholars bringing precious manuscripts in ancient Greek, many of which had fallen into obscurity in the West.” The humanist themes of the Renaissance were consistent with “the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, such as that of Protagoras, who said that ‘Man is the measure of all things.’” (quotes from Wikipedia)

Going back further in European history for additional perspective, the Roman Empire split in 395 AD into the Western Roman Empire headquartered in Rome and the Eastern Roman Empire headquartered in Constantinople. Rome was sacked in 410 and 455, and the Western Roman Empire is considered to have fallen by 476-480. The Eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire and continued for another millennium until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 noted above.

The religion of the Roman Empire is relevant to understanding this history. Ancient Rome had many gods, substantially adapted from ancient Greece. Zeus became Jupiter (or Jove), Athena became Minerva, Ares became Mars, Aphrodite became Venus, and so on. While the Romans persecuted the early Christians, the Roman Empire began to look favorably upon Christianity during the reign of Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD), and it became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380.

The period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance is sometimes called the Dark Ages or Middle Ages or Medieval Period of Western Europe. The Renaissance was a “rebirth” after that period.

The Enlightenment (also known as the “Age of Reason”) occurred later in Europe – in the 1700s. It was especially prominent in France and Great Britain, and also included Germany and the United States. Major themes of the Enlightenment included increasing reliance on science and reason, and increasing questioning of the authority of church and crown. The Enlightenment led to the American and French Revolutions. The painting at the top of this post is the Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States in 1787 by Howard Chandler Christy.

A few of the many individuals who contributed to the Enlightenment:

Major revolutions in science and religion occurred in the period leading up to the Enlightenment, and laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment. A few of the many people who contributed to the scientific revolution in this period:

Copernicus changed our conceptualization of the heavens from geocentric to heliocentric. Galileo, Descartes and Newton increased our mathematical understanding of nature.

The revolution in religion in the period leading up to the Enlightenment was known as the Reformation and it split Christianity into Catholics and Protestants. The Reformation is considered to have begun with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517 and ended in 1648 with the conclusion of the Thirty Years War (the Peace of Westphalia).

Many people of the Enlightenment did not consider themselves either Catholic or Protestant, but embraced a belief system called Deism. As with any philosophy or religion, there were many variations, but common themes included: belief in a deity greater than ourselves; belief that we cannot know much about this deity other than by observing nature and exercising our ability to reason; and skepticism of any organized religion that claims privileged knowledge of this deity.

In his Wall Street Journal essay, Steven Pinker wrote:

The Enlightenment is working. Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.

The Enlightenment is working. Let us strive to keep it working.

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Holocaust Scholarship

The following recent news release is about Holocaust scholarship at the University of Vermont (UVM):

Two UVM scholars earn fellowships at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

This is good news. Congratulations to UVM, Associate Professor Susanna Schrafstetter, and Professor Alan Steinweis.

Today, as much as ever, we need to understand how a civilized people can commit such a horrible atrocity as the Holocaust. The amount of anger, intolerance and hate in today’s world is alarming. Here is a recent example from Cornell University, a small example but one of many, especially on today’s college campuses. We need to control our emotions so that they don’t escalate into violence. It was small acts of violence that escalated into the Holocaust. And unfortunately social media makes the problem of controlling our emotions even harder today than it was 75-80 years ago during the Holocaust and World War II: Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A. (New York Times op-ed, subscription may be required, sorry)

It is perhaps not widely known that UVM was the long-time home of one of the world’s preeminent Holocaust scholars. He is not mentioned in the news release above. Dr. Raul Hilberg was a professor of political science at UVM from 1955 to 1991. From Wikipedia:

He was widely considered to be the world’s preeminent scholar of the Holocaust, and his three-volume, 1,273-page magnum opus, The Destruction of the European Jews, is regarded as a seminal study of the Nazi Final Solution.

In addition to scholars, sometimes novelists can help us understand our world. Two excellent novels of historical fiction about World War II are The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. The books were published in the 1970s. Two TV miniseries based on the books were produced in the 1980s.

Wouk, a Jew, wondered how a good and gracious God could allow such evil as the Holocaust. He answered that question in War and Remembrance, in a sermon by his character Aaron Jastrow in the Theresienstadt ghetto. The title of the sermon is “Heroes of the Iliad,” but Jastrow (and Wouk) did not find the answer in the Iliad. The title of the sermon was intentionally misleading, to avoid the attention of the German authorities.

Jastrow (and Wouk) found the answer in the Book of Job in the Old Testament. Wouk reprinted that sermon and further explained it in his non-fiction book The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion, published in 2010 (image above).

Wouk consulted with Hilberg at UVM when he (Wouk) was writing his WWII novels. Wouk attended and spoke at Hilberg’s retirement party in 1991. Raul Hilberg died in 2007 at age 81. Herman Wouk is still alive at age 102.

(This post draws on material from this earlier post.)

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Backcountry Recreation, Part 2

Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I wrote about the growing popularity of backcountry recreation in northern New England, especially in Vermont, and including in my home town of Cambridge. See Backcountry Recreation, Part 1.

This growing interest in backcountry recreation is exciting! It is exciting for Cambridge. And I am part of Cambridge town government. What are the implications for government?

My hope is: not much.

In Backcountry Recreation, Part 1, I linked to many organizations involved in backcountry recreation. In fact, I was surprised at how many organizations there are. None of the organizations mentioned in that blog post are part of government. They are all either for-profit or not-for-profit organizations, although some of them receive a portion of their revenue from government.

My vision of community is people doing things for themselves as much as possible, and asking their government to do things for them only when absolutely necessary. That is how the Long Trail was started. That is how most of the organizations mentioned in Backcountry Recreation, Part 1 were started. When people do as much for themselves as possible, not necessarily individually but in groups, it builds strong communities. When people ask government to do too much for them, it weakens communities. That is one answer to the question in the header: “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?”

Most of the organizations mentioned in Backcountry Recreation, Part 1 are not-for-profit organizations, and we certainly need them. But we also need for-profit enterprises. Without profits, there is no money for people to donate to not-for-profit organizations. Nor is there any money for people to pay taxes to run government. Government should encourage for-profit enterprises.

Consider the founding of the Green Mountain Club and the creation of the Long Trail. As a result of hiking several sections of the Long Trail with Nancy last year (details here), I became interested in the Proctor family. The Proctors were wealthy from profits earned in for-profit enterprises, and they were early benefactors of the Green Mountain Club. Without the Proctor family, the Green Mountain Club and Long Trail as we know them today may not have been created.

Here’s an interesting twist on that story. I blogged about the Proctor family and the Green Mountain Club here, here and here. In those posts, I referenced several books about the history of hiking and the Green Mountain Club. But there is one significant book that I did not mention: Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trail Blazing, and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains, by Laura and Guy Waterman, an 888 page book published in 1989 with a second edition in 2003. This is truly a classic reference, and indeed Mark Bushnell referred to Forest and Crag in his article about hiking pioneer Alden Partridge. (See Backcountry Recreation, Part 1 for a link to Mark Bushnell’s article.) Why didn’t I mention Forest and Crag in my several posts about the Proctor family and the Green Mountain Club? Because there is not a single reference in that book to anyone named Proctor, even though there is a long chapter about the Long Trail and the Green Mountain Club.

Yes, I know there are bad actors in the for-profit sector, and some level of government regulation is needed. But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of people in the for-profit sector are good people and they deserve our appreciation. There are bad actors, as well as many good people, in the not-for-profit and government sectors, too.

And yes, I also know that not all not-for-profit organizations will thrive. Some will fail. There will be rivalries. That’s life. It’s best if they work those things out themselves, with as little government involvement as possible.

And finally, yes I know that government does have a role to play in some circumstances. We wouldn’t have many roads or parks without government involvement. But I prefer to let the private sector do as much as possible, and involve the government only when absolutely necessary. Not everything needs to be a road or a park.

The photo at the top of this post was taken yesterday at the West Farm in Cambridge.

Like many people, I enjoy and appreciate backcountry recreation. I do not wish for it to become government country.

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The Switchel Traveler

Introducing my new blog:

The Switchel Traveler

OK, it’s really an old blog that I am renaming today. Henceforth my two blogs are:

  • The Switchel Philosopher – this blog
  • The Switchel Traveler

“The Switchel Philosopher” is for adventures in the world of ideas. The tag line is:

What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?

“The Switchel Traveler” is for travel adventures in the physical world. The tag line is:

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

The tag line for “The Switchel Philosopher” is meant to serve as a muse for the blog, where a frequent topic is government and citizenship. The tag line for “The Switchel Traveler” is Hamlet’s reminder that we can never know everything. Philosophy alone is not enough; we also need to explore the world.

Why switchel? Because I like it! Also because switchel has a yin and yang aspect to it, and much of life is like that. Even my two blogs have a yin and yang aspect, with one about the physical world and the other about the world of ideas.

Switchel is a non-alcoholic beverage dating back to Colonial times. My mother made switchel for our family when I was growing up on the farm, and we drank a lot of it in the hayfield.

The main ingredients in switchel are sugar, vinegar, ginger and water. The sweet and sour of sugar and vinegar are the yin and yang of switchel. In my part of the world (Vermont), the sugar is usually maple syrup and the vinegar is almost always apple cider vinegar. But variations are allowed. Honey and pomegranate vinegar are also good. Sometimes additional ingredients are added such as lemon juice (or even rum!). Today, commercial versions of switchel are available, for example Vermont Switchel and Up Mountain Switchel.

Oh, another thing about switchel. The ginger tends to settle out, so you have to shake it before drinking. Sometimes life is like that, too.

My blogging history

“The Switchel Philosopher” – this blog – is my most recent blog. I started it in February 2017, after retiring in December 2016. It has always been about adventures in the world of ideas, including government and citizenship. Being elected to the town selectboard in March 2017 has contributed to some of the themes on this blog.

“The Switchel Traveler” is an older blog and has had two previous names. I started that blog in 2007 as “George’s Home Blog” to distinguish it from my “work blog” which I also started in 2007. After retiring, the work/home distinction was not applicable any more, and I renamed it to “George’s Other Blog” to distinguish it from “The Switchel Philosopher.” Today I am renaming it again, this time to “The Switchel Traveler” to more clearly indicate how my two personal blogs complement each other.

Post retirement, my two personal blogs have different and distinctive themes:

  • The Switchel Philosopher – adventures in the world of ideas
  • The Switchel Traveler – travel adventures in the physical world

Prior to retirement, I blogged about both themes on both my “work blog” and my “home blog.” Examples of both themes on my “work blog” included Trip to China and Values. My “home blog” has always included travel adventures. Prior to retirement it also included adventures in the world of ideas, some of which are captured by the labels culture, money, reality and slow.

There are also some earlier adventures in the world of ideas on “George’s VAFPDB Blog.” I published ten posts there in 2012-13 before resigning from the Vermont Agricultural and Forest Products Development Board.

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