Doug Hoffer is at it again, pissing in the cornflakes of conventional wisdom. His latest report offers a detailed picture of something we already knew: The value of Vermont’s Remote Worker Grant Program is essentially unquantifiable.
The program offers up to $10,000 to people who relocate to Vermont and work remotely for employers elsewhere. It has generated a ton of publicity and very little in the way of actual returns. Scott administration apparatchiks boast of attracting new residents — a grand total of, um, 110 grantees and 290 new residents.
To quote my favorite comics character, Big Nate: “Whoop-de-dang-do.” That’s basically a rounding error in Vermont’s demographics.
There are other problems with the program’s performance, in addition to the paltry numbers. Almost half the grantees have settled in Chittenden County, which doesn’t need the boost. And the Commerce Agency’s own figures shows that most grantees would have moved here anyway. At best, the grant was only one factor in their decisions, and there’s no way to tell how many of those new residents would have decided against Vermont if the program didn’t exist.
Hoffer also points to the deliberately lax standards for awarding grants, established by the legislature on the principle of “keep it simple and get the money out the door.”
See, we must expect rigorous documentation and enforcement in social service programs, but Heaven forbid we should bother well-educated, white-collar recipients of economic development initiatives. Or businesses that draw on incentives for job training or expansion.
Because pretty much all of Commerce’s highly-touted programs are basically emperors with no clothes. Or, as Hoffer put it, “there is little reliable performance data about some of the State’s largest economic development programs.”
He closes the introduction to his new report with the destined-to-be-ignored clarion call: “When considering funding for Vermont’s economic development programs, we strongly encourage decision makers to take an evidence-based approach.”
Yeah, right. When pigs fly.
Economic development is an area where conventional wisdom reigns supreme. Even though real evidence is lacking, the old assumptions go unquestioned — by policymakers and lawmakers alike, irrespective of party affiliation.
There are two reasons for this. The more forgivable one is that Vermont’s challenges seem so big — and its resources so limited — that our leaders are, well, kind of paralyzed. So they fall back on familiar ideas, even when those ideas are (a) lacking in actual results and (b) far too small-bore to have any tangible effect on the course of our economy.
The other reason is that our leaders are addicted to conventional wisdom, which is the Old Yeller of our politics. Not the book or movie “Old Yeller,” but the dog: A comforting presence that’s become beloved over the passage of time.
But there comes a time when you just gotta take the old guy out back and put a bullet in his head.
The Remote Worker Grant Program will require reauthorization by the legislature in the upcoming session. If conventional wisdom holds sway, lawmakers will talk themselves into an extension. There’s heartwarming anecdotal evidence in the program’s favor, the legislature’s commerce committees are basically shrines to conventional wisdom, and it’s hard to kill a program once it’s gotten started. And the money isn’t huge; lawmakers can always spare a few hundred thousand bucks when they want to.
Hoffer suggests that the money be spent “on programs with demonstrable and quantifiable long-term benefits.” But he suspects that, if anything, the program will be extended. Indeed, there’s a lot of talk about a parallel program for people who work for Vermont employers — the argument being, “Why are we rewarding outsiders who work for out-of-state businesses when we don’t offer the same thing to actual Vermonters?”
That would be doubling down on a strategy that’s questionable, unproven and unprovable. C’mon, folks. It’s time to shoot Old Yeller.