May 14, 2020

By Rob Roper

VT Digger recently ran an article on Vermont’s child abuse statistics during the COVID-19 lockdown. Good news! “Abuse is down about 30% for March 2020 from the prior period in 2019, according to data from the Department for Children and Families.” But, not good news. Officials warn not to believe those numbers.

Why? Christine Johnson, deputy commissioner of the state’s Family Services Division, says… “A big cause of this is that a lot of our mandated reporters, so folks like doctors and teachers and counselors, they are, of course, not having contact with our kids and with our families,” and, therefore, incidents of abuse are less likely to be detected, reported, and prosecuted. In fact, given the domestic stresses brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown, real-world child abuse cases are probably on the rise, as are cases of domestic violence regarding adults.

So, what does this have to do with vote fraud? A similar dynamic is at work.

Advocates for a vote-by-mail scheme for the 2020 elections argue that voter fraud doesn’t happen. “There’s no evidence for it!” they say. Well, just as the “evidence” points to lower incidents of child abuse, the “evidence” regarding vote fraud is misleading. The lack of evidence for vote fraud is a result of voting being moved increasingly out of the public eye and away from the supervision of election officials.

For years, what have been billed as election “reforms” have actually been schemes to remove voting from the public square under the supervision of election officials and citizens alike – all of which make cheating both easier and more likely.  

When voting a the polls was the required norm (with exceptions for those who truly could not vote in person), all voters were checked in by an election official to ensure who they were and observed by election officials, members of both parties, and fellow citizens to ensure that the vote was made in private without undue influence. If someone tried to commit fraud under these circumstances, it would be like a child abuser beating their kid in parking lot of the school during pick-up time. Someone is going to see it and report it.

But, when ballots are filled out in the home, no such supervision can take place. No one can make sure that the person filling out the ballot is who they say they are. No one is there to ensure that the ballot is filled out without undue influence from a spouse, peer, boss, or campaign operative.

Without these safeguards it is virtually impossible to detect if voter fraud occurs. If election “reformers” take away all the tools we have to detect and prosecute voter fraud, it should come as no surprise that it doesn’t get detected and prosecuted. But, like child abuse in the age of COVID, it’s still happening, and most likely more so.  

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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May 13, 2020

by Rob Roper

As Vermonters and the businesses that employ us struggle to get back to some sort of economic normalcy, the Vermont House Ways & Means Committee is contemplating raising $167 millions in new taxes to offset lost revenue for the Education Fund. The total budget hole is expected to be over $400 million. Filling these gaps with new or increased taxes is equivalent of throwing an anvil to a drowning man. Telling Vermonters who have lost their jobs, burned through savings, perhaps gone into debt to survive the government response to COVID-19 that even more is expected of them via confiscatory taxes is unacceptable.

Here’s a list of the possibilities discussed during the Ways & Means committee’s May 7th Zoom meeting:

  1. Raise the Sales Tax. Rep. George Till (D-Jericho), proposed creating a special, temporary COVID sales tax “surcharge”. Each penny increase above the current 6% level would extract roughly $60 million from Vermonters. And, not for nothing, the last temporary increase of the state sales tax is still in place. Increasing the cost to buy things for people who have who have lost months’ worth of income seems especially cruel.
  2. Expand the Sales Tax to Services. Rep. Till also brought up the idea of expanding the state sales tax to services. Again, this would mean increasing the cost of living for people who have lost significant amounts of income. It would also mean hair salons, carpenters, landscapers, etc. trying to get customers back would have to charge more, and assume a new record keeping/reporting burden at the same time.
  3. “Cloud” Tax. Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), chair of the committee, suggested a “Cloud Tax” online software stored and accessed on the internet (such as, ironically, TuboTax), a sentiment echoed by Rep. Peter Anthony (D-Barre City). A similar proposal last year that would have raised $6 million was ultimately killed (and not for the first time) because it would clearly discourage high-paying, tech-oriented jobs from coming to, staying in, or expanding in Vermont. And we kind of want those.
  4. Tobacco tax increase. Rep. George Till (D-Jericho) suggested increased tobacco taxes by another $1 per pack (total $6.7 million increase). The state tax is already $3.85 on a pack of 25 cigarettes, raising it to $4.85 would really be a case of highly regressive of COVID tax gouging.
  5. Candy Tax. Another Till favorite, a candy tax that would extract $3 million. This is a very complicated tax for retailers as the definition of “candy” is not cut and dry.
  6. Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax. Till again… $25 million extracted from taxes on soda and other drinks.
  7. Tax on Clothing. Rep. Robin Schue (D-Middlebury) suggested taxing “luxury” clothing over $150. Currently clothing, deemed a necessity like food, is not taxed in Vermont.
  8. Raise the Beer tax. This one suggested by Rep. Emily Kornheiser (D/P-Brattleboro). Put that one on your campaign literature. I dare you!

If you’d like to hear the discussion for yourself, it takes place roughly between the 38 and 48 minute marks HERE.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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May 12, 2020

By David Flemming

A few weeks ago, Vermont legislators were optimistic they could use part of the $1.25 billion in Covid relief money they received from the feds 2 months ago to pay down an anticipated $167 million Education Fund shortfall. As this optimism fades, higher property and consumption taxes beckon.

On May 7, the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Joint Fiscal Office met on Zoom to discuss how the fed funds might be used to lessen the property tax impact. Janet Ancel (D-Calais) asked Mark Perrault, Senior Fiscal Analyst at Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office, about the restrictions attached to the relief money. Mark described how he and his team had considered three possibilities in turn.

  1. “Take that $167 million out of that $1.25 billion and put it into the education fund as a revenue source… fill(ing) that gap with the coronavirus refund $.”
  2. “Take that CRF (Covid Relief Fund) money and direct it right back to taxpayers, so they’re able to pay their bills.”
  3. Direct “this money directly to the school districts, (who would then decide how) to use the money.”

Unfortunately, the federal government issued increasingly narrow restrictions several times over the past few weeks. Perrault believes Options 1 and 2 are both out, leaving only Option 3 on the table. “I think the answer to (Option 3) is yes (we can do it), with a big caveat…any spending that the schools do has to qualify as Covid related eligible costs.”

Perrault says this raises 2 questions: 1)“Can schools identify enough money in their FY21 (fiscal year 2021) spending that would be Covid 19 eligible?” and 2) “Is it worth the “huge administrative headache? Because schools would have to keep very close records as to what they are spending money on and AOE would have to then collect that information in an application process.”

Even before Covid-19 hit, the legislature had decided that we needed to increase our education budget, despite a falling K-12 student population. While our legislators can bemoan the “what if” (…they were allowed to use the funds for whatever they wanted), they have only themselves to blame for creating this gap that has become a gaping chasm, ready to suck in taxes at an alarming rate.

After all, even if our legislators manage to pass all their favorite consumption taxes they discussed (increasing the tobacco tax- $7 million), (candy- $3 million), sugar-sweetened beverage tax ($25 million), cloud tax ($7 million), luxury ($7 million), that’s only $49 million, far from covering that $167 million education fund gap. Thus beckoning higher property taxes. It’s looking ever more likely that Vermonters won’t be able to pull a Houdini with Covid money to get out of the mess our legislators created.

If you would like to watch the committee session you can do so here:

David Flemming is a policy analyst at the Ethan Allen Institute

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May 7, 2020

By Rob Roper

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vermont Legislature passed a law banning the use of plastic bags at retail stores beginning in July, 2020. Whether or not you agreed or disagreed with that decision before health and safety concerns took center spotlight, today this policy is indefensible. The ban should be repealed, or at the very least postponed until such a time as a vaccine for the virus is readily available.

Unfortunately, legislators hellbent on pushing forward with their ideological agenda show no interest in pursuing this commonsense step. Speaking in a meeting of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, which he chairs, Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison) said, “We’re not interested in changing the law.”

The purpose of the plastic bag ban was to forcibly “nudge” Vermonters into having to use reusable bags to do their shopping. However, several studies have shown that there are health risks associated with doing so (COVID-19 related and otherwise). Asking checkout clerks to handle bags that may not be sanitary, as well as encouraging shoppers to bring bags that may not be sanitary into stores in the first place, are totally unnecessary risks when dealing with a contagion.

Ironically perhaps, many stores in the wake of COVID-19 outright banned the use of reusable bags or put restrictions on their use (customers have to bag their own groceries if they want to use them, and, in some cases, do so outside of the building) precisely because of the potential health risks they pose.

The virus is not going away before July. There is a good chance it comes back in force next fall. By most estimates, we are at least a year away from a vaccine, if we ever get one. To deny stores an option to better protect the health and safety of their employees and customers is just deranged.

Proponents of the plastic bag ban argue that the danger from reusable bags is small. Even if they are correct, our lawmakers have been demanding of us citizens that we do and don’t do many things that would involve small risk of spreading the disease – everything from wearing masks to not being able to purchase “non-essential” items in a store we’re already in. And, for the most part we have complied out of respect for the public good.

People have given up their livelihoods to help fight COVID-19 based on what these politicians have told us to do. But, asked to give up a small piece of their radical agenda, even temporarily, for the greater good, their answer is a resounding “NO.” And that, folks, is mighty telling.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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May 6, 2020

By Rob Roper

In a video interview with VPRIG, Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (D-Bradford), who is co-chair of the legislative “Climate Caucus,” promised in reference to a question about the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) and other “green” priorities, “While we’re in a pause in terms of actually advancing any legislation at the moment, we are still talking and thinking about the ways that we can come out of this at a full sprint.”

You can watch the full Video HERE

It’s debatable that GWSA was ever good policy (we would argue it is not) but following an economic shut down bringing about massive unemployment it makes less sense now than ever. Coming out at a “full sprint” to pass this law is in the current economic situation is dangerously delusional.

In her VPIRG interview, Copeland-Hanzas called the COVID-19 response a “practice session” for the GWSA. The way we’re dealing with this pandemic is, to the minds of her and her colleagues, similar to how we should deal with climate change. Indeed, the GWSA is in many ways a less drastic but still harmful version of the COVID-19 economic shutdown. Its goal is to reduce CO2 emissions by eliminating swaths of economic activities that rely on fossil fuels through restrictive regulation or outright bans. Turn off the economic switch. The only difference is with the GWSA, the plan is to leave it off forever.  

Copeland-Hanzas goes on to say that when federal emergency relief dollars flow into Vermont in response to the COVID-19 crisis, they should be spent, “in ways that are advantageous to the climate as opposed to investing them in the same of fossil fuel rut that we’ve been in for the last hundred something years…. Projects like weatherizing homes and projects building out EV infrastructure — charging infrastructure — projects like accomplishing ‘complete streets’ so that you can be a bicyclist or pedestrian along the roadway.” I’m not sure that with small businesses such as restaurants and Main Street shops desperately in need of help and state obligations to education, pensions, the state colleges under increasing financial pressure that new “investments” in bike paths are what Vermonters will be screaming for.

The world has changed since the COVID-19 economic shutdown. The mindset of these Climate Caucus legislators hasn’t.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

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May 5, 2020

By David Flemming

Just 6 months ago, Vermont had the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. COVID-19 and the federal, state and local reaction to it has vaulted Vermont past all 49 other states by most any measure, placing our economy on an unemployment precipice.

The famous “unemployment rate” is often used as a barometer to diagnose the health of a state’s labor force. Those classified as “unemployed” are calculated as some fraction of the state’s overall labor force. When this figure stays stable, it is an excellent metric to reference how well the economy is doing. That begins to get at the bad news: Vermont has the second highest ‘traditional’ unemployment rate, behind only Michigan.

But when something sudden, like COVID-19 hits, there are other metrics we should look at. The traditional “unemployment rate” lags behind claims data, giving us the false impression that Vermont is weathering the storm. That’s why we should an “Unemployment Claims Rate,” which takes into account all of those receiving unemployment insurance, as well as those who have just applied.

Vermont has the highest percentage of its labor force receiving and asking for unemployment insurance in the entire US. Using data from the week ending April 25, the most recent date available, 5000 Vermonters filed for unemployment the first time, with 76,500 already receiving unemployment on an ongoing basis. This means 81,500 workers of Vermont’s 342,000 labor force are in employment limbo. That 23.8% number is nearly twice as high as the average across the US: 13.1%.

How does Vermont compare to its New England neighbors? While 4 of 5 New England states are doing worse than the US average, Vermont’s 23.8 % is still more than double Maine’s 11.4%, 8.0% higher than New Hampshire, 7.8% more than Mass., and 5.8% higher than Connecticut. The only other New England state in the top 10 for claims rate nationwide is Rhode Island, and R.I. sits below 20%.

Vermont’s rate of new COVID-19 cases has started to level off, which we can be thankful for. Unfortunately, our economy has suffered far more than most other states on the employment front.

David Flemming is a policy analyst at the Ethan Allen Institute.

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By John McClaughry

On November 3, 1927 Vermont took a hell of a shellacking. October had been extremely rainy. Then in two days nearly a foot of torrential rain fell on most of Vermont. The soggy mountain forests couldn’t hold it.  Down it came in gushing brooks and wild brown rivers, sweeping away nearly two hundred years of settlement and improvement.

The flood waters made nine thousand people homeless, damaged or destroyed 1,258 bridges, washed out 250 miles of the Central Vermont Railroad; and claimed the lives of 84 people. 

“The low-lying farms suffered the greatest disaster. Where topsoil was not carried away, layers of gravel and sand three feet deep had buried it, and when the flood subsided, fields and pastures were strewn with half-buried cattle and other livestock…In a few hours of violence Vermont had suffered a property loss of some thirty million dollars in farm, industry, highways, private and public buildings,” according to historian W. Storrs Lee. That’s the equivalent of $445 million today.

Bear in mind, in 1927 there was no health or unemployment insurance, no small business loans, no farm disaster payments, no Social Security or welfare checks, and no Federal recovery programs. The only Federal money Vermont got from Washington was $2.5 million for rebuilding major roads and bridges. The Red Cross played a noteworthy role in disaster relief, but “most of the mopping up was done by Vermonters themselves” (Lee).  

Now move forward 93 years. Vermont’s population has grown by 74%, to 623,000. Our state is tied together, and to New England and the world beyond, by a network of major highways, railroads, air freight and internet. The village-based agricultural economy of 1927 has become an economy strongly dependent on trade. 

Now we have been shellacked by another natural disaster, COVID-19. But where in 1927 the unflooded parts of Vermont kept the economy running, and brought relief to the people of the flood damaged areas, this time the whole country has taken the shellacking. Even if our death toll (35 as of 4/16) remains below the 1927 level (84), the shutting down of the economy for fear of virus transmission has produced  still uncalculated  millions of dollars in lost incomes, closed schools and colleges, and tottering businesses. 

Not the least of the catastrophic effects is the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues over the next two or three years. The Federal CARES act and its successors will help individuals and businesses stay alive in a way inconceivable in 1927, but Washington will not supply much or any of the lost millions in tax revenues needed to sustain state and municipal governments. 

Just one example: The consumption taxes that provide a third of the Education Fund revenues are expected to shrink by $89 million by the end of the 2020 fiscal year two months from now. After spending all of its reserves, the Education Fund will likely come up $40 million short by that date. Voters have already approved school year 2020-21 elementary and secondary school budgets $73 million larger than this year’s, even as the school population continues to decline. 

Our school finance law makes residential school property taxes the last resource to cover shortfalls. Absent dramatic changes in spending and/or taxes, that fact points to shocking increases in school property tax rates – at a time when many thousands of Vermonters won’t have enough income or savings to pay their property tax bills.

If there is any silver lining to this dark fiscal cloud, it is that it should cause wise policy leaders to reason thus: “We’re already spending $17,873 per K-12 pupil, fifth among the states, 51% above the 50-state average. We can’t possibly increase local education spending when the taxes to finance it are tanking, along with income and other taxes.  We must reexamine what Vermonters are getting for their billion and a half dollars of education spending.”

“This will require knowledge, imagination, and especially courage. Our high-spending K-12 education system got that way by 50 years of decisions heavily influenced by special interest (“stakeholder”) pleading. The economic shock of the pandemic forces us to do things differently. We can maintain today’s educational quality, and probably improve it, but it will have to be done over the fervent resistance of those interests.”

That will require not just wise policy, but a strengthened civil society in our towns and cities where, as after the 1927 flood, citizens  come together to improve the education of our children, the wellness of families, the care of old people, the economic strength of our small businesses, and every other aspect of mutual aid and flourishing community life. 

 – John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute

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by Rob Roper

Rob Roper

Given the potential COVID-19 health risks associated with standing in line at polling places there are understandably more calls for a move to voting by mail. This may turn out to be necessary, but, if we are going to change the way we vote, we also have to ensure that the new ways are just as secure as the old. Otherwise citizens cannot have faith that that the outcomes of elections are fair, accurate, and therefore, valid.

The bedrock principle that ensures public confidence in the outcomes of elections is “one person, one vote.” In a polling place, the secret ballot ensures that Warren Buffet’s vote carries exactly the same weight as his secretary’s. But, voting by mail as presently practiced cannot guarantee that the secret ballot and one person/one vote is actually taking place.

When citizens go to the polls to cast their ballots, each vote is cast under the supervision of election officials. Each voter presents his or herself and is checked off to ensure they only vote once. Not only is each voter ensured privacy for filling out his or her ballot, away from any influence or witness as to how he or she votes, but the community at large is ensured that the votes cast were made without the undue influence of other parties. This is every bit as important.

At a polling place, if election officials check off 500 voters as they pass through but find 600 ballots in the box, a red flag goes up that something is fishy. But, if those same election officials receive 600 absentee ballots in the mail, one hundred of which were fraudulently “stuffed,” the likelihood of that red flag going up is minimal. (In fact, you’d probably get a self-congratulatory press release praising the “fact” that voter participation was up twenty percent over the last cycle.)

Secrecy and singularity cannot be guaranteed with votes done through the mail. Election officials have too few and too weak tools for ensuring that the voter to whom “one vote” is being attributed is actually the “one person” who filled out the ballot. Or, if it is the correct voter, neither election officials nor the community at large has any idea whether or not inappropriate pressure was being applied by a spouse, caregiver, boss, landlord or campaign operative looking over the shoulder of the voter as he or she filled out the ballot.

We can’t know in this case, for example, that Buffet didn’t use his power and wealth to bribe his secretary to vote a certain way or threaten to fire her if she didn’t. The more we rely on absentee ballots, the more inequity we build into the system as it allows for the rich and powerful, either individuals or organizations, avenues and opportunities to buy or bully votes. The poor and elderly are the most likely to be victimized under such a system.

This is what happened in the North Carolina 9th, a U.S. congressional district with a bigger population than the entire state of Vermont, when the 2018 results were nullified by a court due to the decisive level of “vote harvesting” of absentee ballots. Vote harvesting is when campaign operatives show up on someone’s doorstep who has just received an absentee ballot (sometimes requested by that same campaign operative without the knowledge of the voter) and offers to “help”, threaten or bribe the voter fill out the form in a pre-determined way. In some cases the operative would just steal the ballot right out of the mailbox. In the NC-9 race, not only were fraudulent absentee votes for the cheating candidate turned in, legitimate votes for his opponent were collected destroyed before they every got into the hands of election officials.

If Vermont is going to rely increasingly on absentee ballots in elections, Secretary of State Jim Condos and members of the legislative Government Operations Committees need to be able to demonstrate that the kind of vote harvesting schemes that took place in North Carolina, and other districts to less dramatic effect, cannot happen here. And they need to show in detail exactly how the safeguards work in practice to ensure that they don’t. If reliable safeguards are not in place now, they need to be by the August primary and November general elections.

It’s not enough to scoff and say it’s not an issue and “our elections will be safe and secure.” It is an issue. We’ve seen it happen. The reason so few people are prosecuted for vote fraud isn’t because elections are secure, it is because the rules have been loosened to the point where it is practically impossible to detect, and, if detected, to catch and prosecute offenders. Just look at how many tax/identity fraud schemes pop up targeting senior citizens every year. Do you really think people who would steal an old lady’s social security check would draw an ethical line at stealing her vote when control over millions, billions and trillions of tax dollars are at stake?

Yes, we want everybody to be able to vote and to do so as safely and conveniently as possible. But these goals must be met in concert with maintaining the security of and confidence in the one person/one vote standard. Otherwise, we have lost, or rather throw away, the democratic bedrock of our republic.

– Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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April 29, 2020

by John McClaughry 

The Social Security pension system is currently projected to pay benefits that exceed its income in 2021 for the first time in nearly 40 years. The Fund will stay solvent until 2035 by paying out its accumulated reserves. Then there will be an automatic 24% reduction in benefits unless Congress steps in to shore up the program. But officials said the depletion date could be earlier than 2035 if employment levels, and thus payroll tax revenues, suffer a significant or sustained drop from the pandemic.

The only good news is that the disability fund will  run out in 2065, 13 years later than projected in last year’s report, due to a continued decline in new disabled-worker applications and lower-than-expected disability incidence rates.

Taken together, the two programs would only be able to pay 79% of scheduled benefits after the trust funds are depleted in 2035.

A new analysis from the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist Washington think tank, suggested that the economic fallout from the pandemic—if similar to the 2007-09 recession—could deplete the retirement program’s trust fund by about 2028, and deplete the disability program by about 2024.

The report also said Medicare’s hospital insurance fund would be depleted in 2026, unchanged from last year’s report, as program costs continue to exceed the trust fund’s income. But it noted that depletion could occur as early as 2023 in an adverse scenario of lower-than-expected revenues and higher-than-expected costs.

This news will surely make everyone over 50 nervous – on top of the pandemic.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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April 28, 2020

by Aimee Stephenson, Ph.D.

In Vermont, not unlike other states and countries, the justification for the economic shutdown and stay-at-home order was to ‘flatten the curve’ in the name of ensuring our hospitals and healthcare system were not overrun by a predicted tidal wave of COVID-19 patients. The  purpose of social distancing is to spread out cases, preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed, and in turn, avoiding deaths from COVID due to lack of available medical care.

As the reason for the shutdown was to avoid a particular cause of death (lack of hospital capacity), it would follow that the only relevant metric for deciding on whether to re-open the economy is hospital capacity. The key question our leaders should be asking themselves with regard to re-opening the economy is whether we currently have an issue with hospital capacity? The answer to this question is a resounding ‘no’.

The Vermont Department of Health has shared data on hospitalizations through their COVID-19 data dashboard. In the past three-week period, the number of Vermonters hospitalized due to COVID, which was not a large number to begin with, has since fallen precipitously. On April 7th, there were 29 hospitalized with COVID, and by April 24th this number was 12. Even if we add in those cases under investigation (suspected, but not confirmed, of having COVID) this number has fallen from 80 on April 7th to just 32.

It is important to keep these data points in mind, as well as the actual number of hospital beds available in Vermont (856), when considering the State’s wildly inaccurate models used to justify the current shutdown. Though not presented in any kind of consistent or straightforward manner, the following is a summary of the State’s modeling of hospital beds needed for COVID patients beginning in early April.

  • April 6 – The State predicted on April 26th Vermont would need, in the worst-case scenario, 2,405 beds for COVID patients and 828 in the “likely” scenario.
  • April 10 – The State slightly downgraded its estimate for the worst-case scenario on April 26th to somewhere between 2,083 to 2,212 beds, and the likely scenario also decreased to 200.
  • April 17 – A week after the first prediction of 2,405 beds needed, the State made a huge course correction in their modeling and predicted the worst-case scenario to be 200 beds on April 26th. It was this same number that just a few days prior was considered the likely scenario.
  • April 24 – A week later, the State maintained the worst-case scenario prediction of 200 beds needed, very different from the prediction three weeks prior of 2,405 beds.

One might ask at this point, what is going on here?! Why have the State’s predictions about the number of beds needed for COVID patients changed so radically in a three-week period? The answer lies in the actual data…the massive surge they were expecting, both in COVID cases and COVID hospitalizations, never occurred. At no point in the past three-week period have more than 34 COVID patients been hospitalized at any given time.

This scenario demonstrates why it is so dangerous to base sweeping policy decisions on modeling rather than real data. As a scientist, I am pro data-based planning and decision-making, but only if true, verifiable data exists. In Vermont and nationally, our leaders have not been making decisions based on data, but rather on models driven by fear and panic, inflicting huge costs to society, the economy, and millions of people’s lives.

Currently, Vermont has 856 hospital beds, far more than enough to accommodate the current worst-case scenario prediction of 200. So why are we still on lockdown? Why hasn’t the Governor lifted the restrictions that are taking a huge toll financially and personally on every single Vermonter?

I believe our leaders have lost sight of the original intent of the lockdown, which was to flatten the curve and preserve hospital capacity. Instead, politicians appear to be pandering to the collective psyche of fear and panic that have morphed into a new, misguided reason for keeping the lockdowns in place – preventing the spread of an airborne pathogen. No matter how long, how stringent, or how austere the lockdown measures are, it is completely irrational and unreasonable to believe we can actually prevent the spread of COVID-19.

What Vermonters and the nation need to come to grips with is the fact we coexist with viruses, both known and unknown, every day and have done so since the beginning of human life on earth. We are no more likely to be able to prevent the spread of an airborne illness such as COVID-19 than we are able to prevent the rising and setting of the sun. Yes, social distancing and lockdowns can slow the spread, but eventually a large proportion of Vermont and the world population will come in contact with COVID-19.

The idea that we might keep the lockdowns in place until we have a vaccine is a similarly misguided notion. This approach is completely unsustainable from an economic and societal perspective. Additionally, there is an important argument to be made for lifting the current restrictions as soon as possible as an important strategic next step in reducing harm from COVID-19 and protecting our most vulnerable populations. 

What is known from real data – not models – is the novel coronavirus does not pose a huge problem for the vast majority of Vermonters. They will either experience no symptoms because their immune system effectively fights the virus off, or they will experience mild symptoms.

Another fact we are learning from real data is only a portion of the population is likely to be severely, adversely impacted by COVID-19. As of April 10, 78% of COVID-related deaths in the United States were in people 65 and older, and nearly all were comorbidities where the presence of another chronic disease or condition contributes to death. This is the population we need to protect and focus our efforts on. The current lockdown is not the best way to protect vulnerable Vermonters.

Long before a vaccine is ever developed, herd immunity will occur and protect our most vulnerable from COVID-19. Herd immunity is the phenomenon whereby the novel coronavirus is no longer able to readily spread once a certain percentage of the population has been exposed. Keeping the lockdowns in place, and in particular school closures, prevent the natural progression of the novel coronavirus through the population and delays the development of herd immunity. Many are terrified of lifting the restrictions and further spread of the novel coronavirus. But in truth, it appears the virus has already spread more than we previously thought. We are learning from recent antibody studies done in Santa Clara, Los Angeles, and New York City that a much larger portion of the total population has already been exposed to the novel coronavirus.

While there is understandably trepidation about lifting restrictions, it is also important to remember that for most of us, COVID-19 is not going to be a problem. For those among us who are vulnerable, I would argue Vermont should be focusing its public information campaigns, testing capacity and healthcare resources on this population specifically. Doctors and other healthcare professionals who test positive for antibodies, indicating they have developed immunity to the virus, are the ones best suited to care for these vulnerable populations as they pose no risk of passing the coronavirus on.

With this perspective, lifting restrictions now is the most responsible action Vermont can take to develop herd immunity as soon as possible. Not only is this an important step in protecting our vulnerable populations, but it will potentially prevent the very real possibility of a second wave of the pandemic. If we delay the development of herd immunity much longer, the virus will go dormant over the warm summer months only to rear up again in the fall. Do our leaders not see that merely delaying the inevitable is to our extreme detriment?

Federal and state governments are obsessed with tracking the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. While it is important to monitor the spread of the novel coronavirus, these numbers are not relevant to the decision to open the economy. The only relevant metric here is hospital capacity, which is currently in over-abundance in Vermont as evidenced by recent hospital furloughs. Citing millions of dollars in lost revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bennington-based Southwestern Vermont Health Care furloughed 100 of its 1,400 workers. The Rutland Regional Medical Center also recently put 9% of its staff on unpaid leave.

It would seem from these furloughs that Vermont has an overabundance of healthcare capacity, yet the real tragedy here are the Vermonters suffering from life-threatening conditions, such as cancer, who have been denied so-called “elective surgeries.” Why are the lives of these patients less important than those who get COVID-19? And why does the State selectively ignore important and real data concerning the staggering unemployment numbers (over 70,000 claims) and lost revenue to Vermont (estimated at over $170 million)? These numbers aren’t based on “models,” but reflect real consequences for every Vermonter, not just a portion of the State’s residents.

I could go on about flawed data, such as the New York City death toll that has been inflated with “presumed” and unconfirmed case numbers, or the long history of such experts such as Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in generating outrageously apocalyptic forecasts, but is it necessary? 

It is time, now, to abandon misleading and detrimental models and act on what we know with certainty. We need to immediately open Vermont’s economy with a full and generous turn of the spigot. It’s worth pointing out that even without government interference, Vermonters are not likely to suddenly abandon common sense in using hygienic practices such as social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and staying home when sick. Many Vermonters have suffered such panic and anxiety they are not likely to gratuitously come out of hiding any time soon.

But for the vast majority of Vermonters who have suffered greatly under the lockdown, there is no other conscionable decision but to immediately re-open the economy and liberate Vermont from restrictions that are also counterproductive to protecting our most vulnerable from COVID-19. We desperately need our politicians and leaders to make rational decisions based on real data to lead Vermont out of this crisis.

Aimee Stephenson has a doctorate is in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from the University of Vermont (2001)

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