Tag Archives: Michael Pieciak

Welfare for the Well-Off

Say, have I told you about my can’t-miss economic development plan for Vermont?

It’s called “The Vermont Open Redistribution of Resources Program (VORRP),” a.k.a. throwing money around. All you do is send state vehicles around Vermont, tossing handfuls of cash out the windows.

Just think. It cuts out all the bureaucracy and red tape that bedevil most government programs. It gets money into the hands of Vermonters as quickly as possible. And unlike many such programs, this one is tried and tested. The multiplier effect, a well-established idea in the world of economics, shows that when the government increases spending, it generates far more economic activity than the original investment.

Trust me. It works.

Well, it probably works at least as well as Vermont’s renowned worker grant programs. They reimburse relocation expenses to people who move to Vermont or move to economically distressed areas in Vermont. Their actual effect is completely unproven, as State Auditor Doug Hoffer has repeatedly shown.

And it remains unproven in spite of a relentlessly sunny study of the programs ordered by the Legislature and released on December 15 by the Department of Financial Regulation. VTDigger posted a story yesterday that reports the study’s findings and Hoffer’s criticism of them. (Which is remarkable in itself. Digger has a habit of ignoring Hoffer’s work.) From my point of view, not only is Hoffer right, but I thought he was a little too easy on the report.

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Phil’s Funny Figgers Factory

Well, if the governor is spouting fake optimism and citing carefully curated statistics, it must be Tuesday. This week, Gov. Phil Scott and his team had to admit that the Omicron variant is about to hit Vermont just as the holidays arrive. The combination will almost certainly trigger another several weeks of high case counts — higher than ever before — and overburdened health care workers.

So, in the face of all that bad news, Scott kicked off the presser by reminding us all of how much better off we are now than in December 2020 thanks to his administration’s wise policymaking and the innate goodness of Vermonters, who can be trusted to Do The Right Thing without any orders from above.

Sure, if you make the comparison right there. No one would dispute that Scott handled the first 15-odd months of the pandemic very well. But his convenient comparison elides the fact that his handling of the Delta variant has been woefully bad. His administration has consistently underestimated the impact of Delta, which has meant policies that have proved inadequate to the task or too little, too late.

There was hardly any mention of last week’s hot statistic: Scott’s claim that only 5% of adult Vermonters are unvaccinated. I’ve previously documented some of the holes in that figure; Middlebury College physicist Eilat Glikman exposed another one on Twitter:

I used the numbers on the Vermont vaccine dashboard to compute the actual percentage of adults >18yo who are vaccinated in the state. The answer is 81% not 95%.

On Monday morning, I emailed Health Department spokesman Ben Truman asking for an explanation of how the dashboard percentages were calculated and what figure they are using for the population of Vermont. I have yet to receive an answer. (Finance Commissioner and Chief Number Cruncher Michael Pieciak may have dropped a hint; he off-handedly referred to Vermont’s population as around 630,000. The latest Census count is 643,000.)

The magic number of 5% got no mention in the administration’s extensive opening remarks. It did arise during the Q&A, when a reporter brought up (in broad terms) the problems with it. Scott responded with an aggressive defense of his favorite statistic. Unfortunately, the reporter didn’t arm himself with enough facts to question Scott’s bold-faced assertiveness. Nor did he or anyone else query Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine on the public health usefulness of that figure: How valuable, in terms of measuring our Covid resistance, is it to count only those over 18? Why count those who’ve received as little as a single dose, when the administration is urging everyone to get the full course plus a booster? How much protection does a single dose offer?

No answers to any of that. No reporter armed themselves with the information necessary to effectively query the administration.

There were, as usual, more statistical follies on offer.

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Scott to Critics: Please Shut Up

For Gov. Phil Scott, that “freedom of the press” stuff has become awfully inconvenient. On multiple occasions during this week’s Covid briefing, he basically told critics and reporters they should keep quiet for the good of the state.

“Having the continued debate about whether [masks] should be mandated… is just making the problem worse from my standpoint,” Scott said. “It’s dividing people even further, it’s hardening people further.”

So by Scott’s reckoning, anyone who publicly disagrees with him is doing harm to the state. And if you think I’m being unfair, let’s scroll down to where VTDigger’s Erin Petenko asked Scott about an essay by former Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen advocating for an indoor mask mandate.

We judt have a difference of opinion on that. What we do share in a common goal, I think Dr. Chen would probably agree, is that we want people to wear masks when they’re indoors. So let’s focus on the area where we agree, and not keep focusing on the controversial mask mandate.

Which is a gross misrepresentation of Dr. Chen’s position. But we’ll leave that aside and get to the governor’s kicker.

Erin, you could be very helpful in this regard.

Oh, so now it’s the press’s duty to support administration policy? Is that what you’re saying? Really?

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Is It Blind-Squirrel Time?

This week’s gubernatorial Covid briefing had a different feel to it. There was, dare I say it, a bit of hope in the air. Not because Gov. Phil Scott’s Covid policies are finally paying off, but because vaccination for children ages 5-11 will soon arrive to pull his fat out of the fire.

So that was the message, repeated ad nauseam. The children’s vaccine is coming! Any day now! Please get your kids jabbed ASAP!

The message was hammered home by guest presenter Dr. Rebecca Bell, president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She delivered a thorough, well-supported endorsement of vaccines in general and the Covid shot in particular. The development and testing process, she said, had produced “safe and effective” vaccine regimens for children. For parents on the fence about kiddie jabs, she noted that the uncertainty isn’t with the vaccine; it’s with the virus.

The only downbeat note came from DFR Commissioner and Statistical Soothsayer Michael Pieciak, whose crystal ball was once again pretty damn foggy. “Things could potentially improve significantly,” he said, before adding “They could get worse as well.”

Gee, thanks.

Scott and his minions laid out their plan to immediately vaccinate as many kids as possible. If federal approval came tonight, they said, vaccinations could start as soon as Thursday. (UPDATE: It appears that final approval will come tonight. The CDC’s vaccine advisory committee voted unanimously in favor; CDC director Rachelle Wolensky is expected to follow suit.)

There’s good reason for all the haste. Kiddie-vax may be the key to finally bringing down case counts to acceptable levels and, dare I say, actually turning the corner on the coronavirus.

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Scott Preaches ‘Personal Responsibility,’ Refuses to Accept Any

Even by the usual dismal standards, this was a doozy of a weekly briefing. Gov. Phil Scott acknowledged that his policies haven’t been effective against the Delta variant, he had no idea why, yet he would keep doing the same things he’s been doing and just hope it starts to work. Definition of insanity, anyone?

His opening remarks were heavy on “personal responsibility,” which sounds like good old Vermont plain talk. But the underlying message is that it’s our fault his policies haven’t worked. If only we’d all take personal responsibility, everything would be just fine and his genius would be revealed for all to see.

Pushing vaccination was the sum-total of his policy. Vaccines and boosters. Boosters and vaccines. No hint of a fallback policy if we never achieve herd immunity because even in Vermont, some people are anti-vaxxers or Covid skeptics and some will never become eligible. Good public policy doesn’t depend on every single person being personally responsible; it tries to make up for and/or rein in our weaknesses and misbehaviors. I mean, if everyone took personal responsibility, we wouldn’t need prisons or police. Or laws.

That’s why vaccination plus a sensible masking policy has worked so much better than vaccination alone. It would work here too, but Scott is too stubborn and/or beholden to business interests to even consider any mask mandates or limits on travel or public gatherings.

His administration proudly trumpets the percentage of eligible Vermonters who’ve gotten at least one vaccine shot. It’s now an impressive 88.9%. Which obscures the fact that the percentage of all Vermonters with at least one jab is more like 70%. You never, ever hear that figure at the Tuesday pressers.

In fact, a recent tweet from Scott’s official account completely obliterated that key difference:

That, children, is what we in the business call “a lie.”

Meanwhile, take a gander at this map from the New York Times.

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Scott to Vermont: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

After weeks of staunchly denying that there was a monster in the attic, the tactic is finally becoming untenable. The pounding, stomping and grunting is just too loud to ignore. So now we’ve switched to “Yes, there’s a monster and we don’t know what his intentions are, but we think it will go away on its own. No need to do anything.”

Yeah, the Scott administration’s carefully posed optimism was on short supply in the latest gubernatorial Covid briefing. After several days of case counts between 200 and 300, a rising test positivity rate, dozens of hospitalizations and a high death count, Gov. Phil Scott and his top officials have retreated from their Happy Place.

Still, despite the bad numbers and failed projections, he still insists that there’s no need for any additional action. It’s all about the vaccine, baby. Get your shots and you’ll be fine.

Well, maybe. At least you’ll be less likely to end up in a hospital or a grave.

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Sh*t My Governor Says

The topline of yesterday’s Covid presser was all about the schools. Id est, how the Scott administration is imposing policies and expectations on the schools but refusing to lift a finger to help them handle the additional workload.

But there were several other statements we shouldn’t allow to pass unmocked. So here’s a sampler, a Children’s Treasury if you will, of dumb stuff said by the governor plus a couple of entries from Finance Commissioner and Number Cruncher Extraordinaire Michael Pieciak.

We’ll start with Scott playing pure politics, something he likes to accuse other people of doing. As he continues to resist calls for tighter anti-Covid measures, he was asked what he’d do if the Legislature passed such measures and sent them to his desk.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said. “If they want to come back into session and they want to introduce a mask mandate, they want to limit travel, they want to shut down bars and restaurants, they want to limit gatherings, they want to cancel Christmas, I mean, that’s up to them.”

The deliberate exaggeration of opposing views is classic passive-aggressive Phil Scott. But cancel Christmas? When did the governor start watching Fox News?

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Gov Sends Thoughts, Prayers to Public Schools

“It’s unfortunate, the number of deaths,” he said. Yes, he did.

If the Scott administration were devising a pandemic strategy meant to put maximum pressure on our schools, it couldn’t do much better than this. At his weekly Covid presser, Gov. Phil Scott made it clear that he expects school officials to do everything they can to keep kids in the classroom, but they’re on their own for staffing an ever-evolving, incomplete regimen of Covid testing.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

After brief statements from Scott and others, including the customary parade of carefully curated statistics from Finance Commissioner and CovidMeister Michael Pieciak, Education Secretary Dan French took to the podium and made it clear that the administration expected school systems to “maximize in-person learning” by any means necessary. His latest brainfart, “test to stay,” is a regimen of testing done at the beginning of the school day. Students who test negative can stay in class.

This policy, which is still being rolled out more than a month into the school year, puts the onus on school staff to conduct quick tests first thing in the morning. As for how the understaffed and overstressed schools should handle the additional work, French said, “I expect schools will add staff or reassign existing staff.”

But don’t think the state will kick in a single damn dime to cover the cost. French helpfully suggested that the schools use federal Covid relief funds to pay the freight. “Funding shouldn’t be the problem,” he said. I wonder how many districts have gobs of uncommitted federal dollars sloshing around right now.

But wait, it gets worse!

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Pay No Attention to the Pandemic Behind the Curtain

Wow. Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press briefing was a nonstop festival of blame-shifting, convenient rationalization and, well, telling us a shit sandwich is prime roast beef.

Scott took the podium amid a blizzard of bad news — high case counts beyond his administration’s projections, unclear forecasts of Covid’s near future, high numbers of hospitalizations, inadequate contact tracing, and outbreaks of cases in public schools. He had explanations for all of it, few of them convincing.

He began by doubling down on his policy of encouraging vaccinations and little else. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” he said, pointing to numbers that show the vast majority of severe cases are among the unjabbed. True enough, but just because the odds are better for the vaccinated doesn’t mean the risk is acceptable.

Scott’s message: The blame shouldn’t fall to administration policy, it’s with the stubbornly unvaccinated. If you all would just get your shots, everything would be peachy. There’s truth in that, but he’s doing nothing to get more people vaccinated besides the same old earnest advice. IF he’s putting all his chips on vaccination, he might want to enact policies that incentivize vaccination and disincentivize stubborn resistance.

Scott again insisted that any tougher measures would require a state of emergency, which he again refused to consider. This, despite the fact that rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are equal to or greater than levels last seen in the winter of 2021 — when Scott was happy to continue a state of emergency.

He also dipped a toe into the murky waters of surrender. “Covid-19, like the flu, is going to be here for a while,” he said, ignoring the fact that Covid-19 is far more dangerous than your average flu. Unless he meant the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918.

After the jump: Please ignore the facts.

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We Seem to be Turning the Wrong Corner

A startling admission came Friday from Finance Commissioner and Lord High CoronaDamus Mike Pieciak. After weeks of confident predictions that the Delta variant would peak and then decline, Pieciak told Seven Days’ Anne Wallace Allen that actually, he has no idea what’s coming next.

It’s too early, he said, to predict whether Vermont’s COVID-19 infection rate will decline, remain stable, or rise.

Pieciak’s agency produced a chart that underlines his statement.

Yeah, that just about covers the available turf. And leaves completely in the dark about the near future.

I hope Pieciak isn’t in too much trouble with his political masters for this belated bit of honesty. And I hope he faces some tough questions at this week’s gubernatorial press briefing. I’d suggest something along the lines of “WTF, Commissioner?”

Really, there’s too much evidence to the contrary for Pieciak to keep on the sunny side. But it’s a dramatic volte face for the administration. It remains to be seen whether Gov. Phil Scott will finally acknowledge that maybe, possibly, he might have failed to take Delta seriously enough.

There’s abundant evidence that the Scott administration has been far too confident in its Delta policy – or should I say, lack of policy. Let’s start with the weekend Covid counts, which are downright depressing. Three straight days over 200? Dramatically higher 7-day rolling count and weekly total? Ugh.

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