Baron von Munchausen, famous spinner of tall tales

Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Jonnie Williams' trial testimony about a critical meeting with the former governor was contradictory, implausible and sometimes incoherent. But the jury bought it anyway

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Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

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The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode.

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Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community -- with no government subsidies.

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Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Putting the Garden in Rain Garden

Soon Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough storm-water regs. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to show how we can save the bay – and look really good doing it.

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Bringing Big Data to the Poverty Debate

Here is a positive development in state government that will never get the attention it deserves: The Virginia Department of Social Services is joining four other state agencies in contributing data to the Virginia Longitudinal Data System (VLDS).

VLDS is a system for accessing data maintained by the Virginia Department of Education, the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, the Virginia Employment Commission and the community college system. The program allows researchers to gain insight into what public policy initiatives will most cost-effectively prepare Virginians for a modern, 21st-century workforce.

The Department of Social Services brings new data to the mix and allows researchers to ask new questions, such as:

  • How does participation in public assistance programs (e.g. child care, WIC, Head Start, SNAP, TANF, Medicaid) in Virginia impact school readiness, school achievement, health, family cohesion, future employment and wages?
  • What is the return on investment from public assistance programs in Virginia? Are there patterns that suggest different program delivery models that may yield greater effectiveness or cost savings?
  • What are the most critical health, safety and community factors that contribute to children’s school readiness and school achievement?
  • How does investment in early childhood health and education impact future need for and cost of public assistance?
  • Are participants in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work skills training programs employed and earning a living wage one or two years after completing the program? Which work skills programs have the greatest success rates?

These are all excellent questions! I am heartened to know that people in Virginia state government are asking them.

So many debates about public policy issues occur in a data-free vacuum. People advance arguments based upon preconceptions and ideology. VLDS holds out the promise of allowing us to reach conclusions based on hard data. This is one wonk who looks forward to the research coming from this initiative — even if the conclusions contradict some of my own pet theories.

– JAB

Dulles Gets High Scores in at Least One Metric — Frustration

Washington Dulles International -- the wow factor ends with the architecture

Washington Dulles International — the wow factor ends with the architecture

by James A. Bacon

Washington Dulles International Airport is the Brazil of U.S. airports — it’s the airport of the future… and always will be. Unfortunately, that future is looking further and further off as both passenger and freight traffic decline precipitously. Peaking at 27 million in 2005, the number of passengers declined to 22 million last year. Peaking at 767 million pounds in 2007, air freight dove to 524 million in 2013, according to airport statistics.

It is dogma in Virginia’s political class that Dulles, along with the ports of Virginia in Hampton Roads, is one of the economic development “crown jewels” of the Old Dominion, and that whatever is good for Dulles is good for Virginia. Hence, proposals are working their way through the state’s transportation funding system to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in highway projects to make Dulles freight cargo more economically competitive — and that’s on top of more than $7 billion to extend the Washington Metro system to Tysons, Reston and Dulles.

Now comes the Airport Frustration Index published by Bloomberg, which ranks Dulles as the third most frustrating of 36 major North America airports, trailing only LaGuardia and Newark.  What are the factors that go into compiling the frustration index?

One is the length of the commute to get to the airport. The rush hour drive time, at 67 minutes, is the seventh worst in the country.

Another factor is the passenger experience at the terminal. Based on survey scores, Dulles scored 5.6 on a one-to-ten scale for security, the worst of any airport but Miami. Its restrooms, with a 6.3 score, ranked seventh worst. Shopping, at 5.1, also ranked seventh worst. Interestingly, competing Ronald Reagan Washington National and Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall outscored Dulles in all of these passenger-amenity ratings by wide margins.

Finally, Dulles scored 9th worst in on-time flights (tied with three other airports); only 75% of its flights took off on time.

Bacon’s bottom line: When the Silver Line service opens at Dulles in several years, its airport commute time may improve. (For $7 billion, it had darn better improve!) But the Bloomberg survey suggests that there are some fundamental management issues at work here. What excuse is there for poor security or dirty bathrooms? What excuse is there for a second-rate shopping experience?

Dulles is a tremendous economic development asset for Virginia, at least potentially. But if the Dulles airport lobby wants to soak Virginia taxpayers for hundreds of millions of transportation dollars in subsidies to make its air cargo business more competitive, I’d have a lot more confidence that the money would be invested effectively if I saw evidence that the airport was being run really well. But if airport management can’t keep the restrooms clean, how can it be trusted to build a world-class air freight business?

A “Campus Culture of Rape” or a “Culture of Drunken, Hook-up Sex”?

Watch it, buddy, make sure you read the University of Virginia's "Definitions of Prohibited Contact" before you touch that woman!

Watch it, buddy, make sure you read the University of Virginia’s “Definitions of Prohibited Contact” before you touch that woman!

by James A. Bacon

In the wake of gang rape allegations aired last week by Rolling Stone magazine, University of Virginia officials declare themselves to be angered by the incident and determined to prevent anything like it from happening again. “I write you in great sorrow, great rage, but most importantly, with great determination,” wrote President Kathleen Sullivan in a letter to the University of Virginia community. “Meaningful change is necessary. … This will require institutional change, cultural change, and legislative change, and it will not be easy. We are making those changes.”

If past is any precedent, we can look forward to a more verbose Student Sexual Misconduct Policy replete with legalese of the sort one might read in an Apple App user agreement, the hiring of more administrators to enforce the policy, the occasional drumming out of sexual offenders and… virtually no change to the “culture of rape” that led to the gang rape in the first place.

The reason that change will not occur is that the University of Virginia, like colleges and universities across the country, are caught between conflicting moral imperatives which Baby Boomer administrators are incapable of reconciling. On the one hand, Boomer administrators are appalled by sexual violence against women, which appears to have reached unprecedented proportions on their watch. On the other hand, they are unwilling to do anything to curb the licentiousness and promiscuity of the drunken hook-up culture that pervades the student culture and creates an ethical gray area regarding what constitutes a woman’s “consent” to sexual activity.

The only way that university bureaucrats know how to deal with this inherent conflict is to put into place stricter rules and procedures that students will ignore, just as they’ve ignored all the past rules and procedures. Even if the new regime of campus justice does succeed in bring more sexual transgressions into the maw of administrative review, students may well respond in unexpected ways. Already, male students are using videotapes to successfully refute charges of rape, according to the Women for Men blog. The net effect could well be to spur young more students to surreptitiously videotape themselves and their paramours in the act.

The problem is human nature. Young men and women, who are at the peak of their sex drive during their campus years, are obsessed with sex. This obsession is hard-wired into the species. Different civilizations and cultures over the eons have devised various mechanisms to channel and control the sex drive. In the United States the prudish “Victorian morality” prevailed for many years. That system stressed premarital abstinence and the strict policing of college campuses to limit the opportunities of couples to engage in sex. The system of Victorian morality was far from perfect, even on its own terms — it was, after all, fighting against human nature. Some women did get pregnant. Rapes did occur. As correspondent Gerald Cooper reminds me, in the so-called “Lawn Scandal,” three young men from prominent Virginia families were implicated in the gang bang of a young woman in a room on the Lawn around 1954. But there was no “campus culture of rape” in which 20% of all women were raped during their four years in college.

Victorian values were swamped by the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism. Few people who grew up in the 1960s or later regret the overthrow of the ancien regime. Most people, even many cultural conservatives, accept the proposition that single people should be free to express their sexuality. (Victorian morality still prevails when it comes to respecting the vows of matrimony; not everyone lives up to the moral norm but almost everyone accepts it.) On college campuses, the floodgates opened. When colleges ceased policing students’ sexual activities, students were free to pursue their primal instincts. Residential colleges like UVa threw together thousands of young people at the peak of sexual desire and looked the other way as a new culture arose that mixed heavy drinking with sexual license.

The Baby Boomers who dominate the ranks of college administrations today shocked their parents with their cavalier attitude toward sex before marriage. A few Boomers engaged in “swinging,” or the swapping of sexual partners, but that behavior was relegated to the fringe. The prevailing ethos among Boomers, even among singles, was to restrict sex to monogamous relationships. Boomers had more sexual partners than their parents did, but their morality still frowned on sexual promiscuity.

Now it is the Baby Boomers’ turn to be shocked by their children. Prevailing feminist theory on college campuses, reinforced by pop culture figures like Madonna, deemed it chic for women to be as sexually “empowered” as men, in effect to have sex with whomever they wanted whenever they wanted. For many men, this development was a dream come true — women offered sex without the encumbrances of emotional commitment. Whereas Boomer women bartered sexual access for emotional commitment, many  (not all, of course) Millennial women demanded nothing in return. Young people in college today live in a state of moral anarchy, some retaining vestiges of traditional morality, while others abide by no discernible sexual morality of any kind. The only recognized standard is the admonition that women must “consent” to sex.

The great question is how to interpret consent. The overwhelming majority of “rapes” on college campuses occur in a party context in which men and women alike are intoxicated. Sometimes the lines are clear. When a man plies a woman with a date rape drug and has sex with her, everyone would agree that that’s a case of rape, even if there was no violence involved. Everyone would agree that the gang rape at the University of Virginia, if it occurred as described, was horrific. No one sympathizes with the rapists in either case.

But the lines become blurred in an instance, say, in which a women gets drunk, starts making out with a guy, who also happens to be drunk, has sex with him and at some point along the line changes her mind. Is that “rape?” If so, do we place that in the same category of moral and criminal culpability as a case in which, say, a man stalks a woman and rapes her at gunpoint? Feminists might argue that in an oppressive, patriarchal society such a distinction is meaningless. Most people see a big difference.

Further blurring the lines is the rise of the exhibitionist “sexting” culture. Baby Boomers find themselves prudishly aghast as they hear of Millennials emailing photos of their their genitals to love interests. Do the kids have no sense of privacy at all? Then there is the phenomenon of “revenge porn.” Men create videotapes of themselves having sex with girlfriends and then post the videos online to get back at them for some perceived offense. Those trends have made it into the news, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Google “college sex party” and browse the results. You will find dozens, if not hundreds, of videos posted of college kids stripping, walking around nude, engaging in oral sex and copulating without embarrassment in front of their peers. This kind of behavior may be extreme and unrepresentative of the general student population but its very existence is indicative of how thoroughly the old sexual norms have been obliterated.

I offer as a hypothesis the proposition that the college rape epidemic is deeply rooted in the drunken hook-up culture of the Millennial generation. Liberal Boomer college administrators, who make a fetish of being non-judgmental, have allowed this culture to arise without contesting it. The consequence is that as a matter of routine every Friday and Saturday night, young men and women are thrown into situations where the lines between consensual and non-consensual sex are blurred beyond recognition. It should come as no surprise that the victims of sexual transgressions and their friends are so often morally ambivalent about whether to report incidents or not.

Given the tenor of what takes place in college frat houses, dormitories or the bushes behind the Rotunda, how likely is it that the University of Virginia’s “Definitions of Prohibited Conduct” will have any effect upon students’ behavior?

The party desiring to initiate sexual activity is responsible for obtaining Effective Consent. In order to obtain Effective Consent, permission must be given prior to or contemporaneously with the sexual activity in question. Effective Consent should never be assumed. Lack of protest or resistance does not constitute Effective Consent. “No” means no, but nothing (silence, passivity, inertia) also means no. A verbal “No,” even if it sounds indecisive or insincere, should always be treated as a denial of Effective Consent. If there is confusion as to whether Effective Consent is present (e.g., words, gestures or other indications of hesitation or reluctance), the parties should stop the sexual activity immediately.

Surely they jest.  As reasonable as all of this may sound to a 55-year-old university administrator, it’s not likely to have much impact on 20-year-olds in the throes of passion. President Sullivan asserts that the University is working on making the institutional, cultural and legislative changes needed to end the college rape epidemic. I’d laugh if it weren’t so tragic. The only way to change the culture of drunken hook-up sex is to impose a regime so stifling and oppressive that the college students would rise in revolt. It will not happen.

My Drive Through Two West Virginias

A natural gas well fire in nothern West Virginia

A natural gas well fire in northern West Virginia

 By Peter Galuszka

It was a biting eight degrees when I hit the road in Beckley, W.Va. last Wednesday morning having held a book signing and given a talk in Charleston the night before.

I wanted to drive two hours up to Harrison County, where my family lived from 1962 to 1969, and see what had changed. I hadn’t been there in a few years.

Harrison and neighboring counties Doddridge and Lewis had long been coalfield areas along with natural gas. Coal had pretty much played out after the 1980s but there are still some big mines. Its real claim to fame is the underground rock formation ideal for glass-making. In the 1890s, it had attracted hundreds of craftsmen from Italy who made Clarksburg an important glass center and home to the locally-famous “Pepperoni Roll” – a small loaf of bread with a long stick of pepperoni inside.

As I drove up Interstate 79, I noticed the first signs of the area’s most recent transformation. There were plenty of oversized truck rigs with oddly-shaped machines. A number carried long steel pipes.

When I drove on familiar roads, I noticed that small lots that might have stored strip coal mine gear were all now filled with bright-orange wellheads. Davisson Run, a small creek where we used to hunt for frogs, is now near a large new building for Dominion Transmission — yes, that Dominion based in Richmond — which plans a $5 billion natural gas pipeline from the area through Virginia and North Carolina.

Welcome to Fracking Central. This part of northern West Virginia is booming thanks the Marcellus Shale formation rich with hard-to-get natural gas. In just a few years, hydraulic fracking, using high pressure water and powerful chemicals to fracture underground gas pockets and pump them out, has revolutionized the U.S. energy industry.

My mission (which failed) was to find a woman living in a rural house in the rolling hills and dairy farms of western Harrison County. She had been on YouTube two years ago complaining how her neighbor had sold gas rights and turned pleasant pastureland into an obnoxious industrial site with all-night floodlights and diesel generators roaring 24/7. Huge trucks carrying water for high pressure injection clogged narrow county roads.

I drove through Salem, a tiny college town, and noticed signs reading “Antero Resources” that reminded truck drivers supplying rigs to drive slowly and not to “Jake Brake” – use brakes on some trucks that make a loud, machine gun sound as they tap engine exhaust to slow down.

Antero Resources was a big clue. They are an independent gas and oil firm based in Denver that has hit the fracking craze in a big way. They have rights to something like 384,000 acres of gasland in the surrounding area. Having gone public only recently, the company has revenues that have zoomed from $195 million in 2011 to $259 million in 2012 to $689 million last year.

Antero has had its problems. In July 2013, “flowback” material from a Doddridge Count well exploded, badly burning five workers and killing two. Earlier this year, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a case operations order to Antero because of tank ruptures. The firm has also been accused of released methane into the private wells of 12 individuals.

I couldn’t find out if some are enjoying the economic benefits of fracking. One reads of people suddenly drawing $1 million a year in royalties. I did notice was that there was a lot more drilling support activity and more shopping malls.

My road trip was in marked contrast to one I had taken the day before in the southern part of West Virginia.

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

I was on my way to give a talk in Charleston about the paperback edition of my book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” I had the time so I chose to head up fateful Route 3 through the Coal River Valley where I have spent a lot of time in the past four years.

Route 3 in Raleigh County is a lot different from any road in Harrison County. The peaks are taller, steeper with more distinct hollers. Rock outcrops jam out at you, unlike the gently rolling hills of the north. The late fall sun is dramatically restricted.

This is the road that suddenly became flooded with ambulance and fire trucks on April 5, 2010. A huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch deep mine owned by then-Richmond-based Massey Energy killed 29 miners. Before then, it had been Ground Zero in the environmentalists’ vigorous war against Mountaintop Removal, which is strip mining on an obscenely large scale. Hundreds of feet of mountaintops are lopped off by gigantic drag lines. The leftover dirt and trees are dumped into creek beds destroying habitat.

I headed north along Big Coal River, which is anything but. Its valley provides just enough space for a road and a CSX rail line in some areas. I went past the new Marsh Fork Elementary School that Massey Energy was forced to build to replace one a few miles away that was threatened by its mine operations.

There was Jarrett’s store (new sign) where bystanders watched all the police cars and ambulances that fateful April day. Soon, the old Marsh Fork school appears. It had been a focus of yet another battle over coal but today it is abandoned and fenced in. Its playground is close to huge coal storage towers. Soaring above them is an earthen dam holding back a lake with about 3 billion gallons of toxic sludge.

There was very little activity – odd since the coal of the valley is the best in the world. Then it came – Upper Big Branch mine – lifeless. It was sealed after the disaster. Past roads with signs reading “Ambulance entrance” there was the portal where the UBB miners came and went. There is a lonely memorial of 29 black helmets at the base of a steel tower. Another memorial to them is a few miles north at Whitesville – a classic coal town filled with empty stores, although the florist shop is still busy.

No coal trucks, no pickups, for miles. The only activity was at the Elk Run deep mine at the very top of Route 3.

Why? One reason is that fracked natural gas from Harrison County and its region is stealing electric utility market share away from coal.

The other reason is Asia’s economic slowdown. Coal River and UBB provide metallurgical coal used for export to smelt steel in foreign mills. (They don’t anything to do with “Keeping Our Lights On” as the pro-coal propagandists say.) Met coal can be enormously lucrative but its prices are down two thirds from three years ago.

That’s bad news for Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought out Massey for $7 billion after the disaster. Alpha is in such bad straits that hedge funds are lining its stock up for shorting trades, according to this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

Well, that’s my road trip. Not to worry, though, I’ll be back soon. The criminal trial of Donald L. Blankenship, former Massey CEO and otherwise known as “The Dark Lord of the Coalfields,” starts Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Beckley.

Virginia Metro Brain Gain

brain_gain

Joel Kotkin and Mark Schill at the New Geography blog have devised a different way of looking at which metro regions are winning and which ones are falling behind in the competition to build an educated workforce. By this set of metrics, most Virginia regions score in the top 50% of the nation’s 380 metropolitan regions, but none are standouts. Overall, our regions are doing OK, better than average, but no one is setting the world on fire.

What does this chart, extracted from ranking of all 380 regions, measure? I’ll let Kotkin and Schill explain:

To determine the metro areas that are gaining brainpower in the 21stCentury, we scored the nation’s 380 metropolitan statistical areas based on three criteria. We started with the growth rate in the number of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree from 2000 through 2013 (25% weighting in final score). But since the places that post the highest growth rates tend to be those starting with low levels of educational attainment, we gave greater weight to the percentage point increase in the share of the population that is college-educated over that span (50%), and we factored in the share of educated people in the population in 2013 (25%). We also separated out results for the 51 MSAs with over a million residents.

Not surprisingly, metro regions with a large college/university presence tended to do better over the 13-year period studied, but industry mix played an important role as well. Government and high-tech industries attracted educated workers. The Washington metro has the best educated population in the country.

After following the debate for more than a decade now, I have to say, it’s still not clear to me what, if anything, metro regions can do to recruit and retain educated workers. Employers are the driving force — they are the ones who recruit employees to a region. Regions with industries that are profitable, growing and pay well enjoy a big advantage over regions dominated by shrinking, low-paying industries. But there’s more to the story than that. Regions also have to hold on to their employees. If costs are too high, if life is boring, if the community isn’t welcoming to outsiders, talented young people will leave.

There are no quick fixes here. It can take literally generations of effort to build an employment base of dynamic employers with the clout to recruit talented workers and to create the kinds of amenities that keep those talented workers in town. Regions that view the challenge clearly and sustain their efforts over the years will prevail over those that don’t.

– JAB

Who Will Inform the Electorate? What Would T.J. Say?

TJby Gerald L. Cooper

It’s sad to see The Virginian-Pilot go slowly down, like the first ironclads Monitor and Merrimack, in this sea-bound community. The old gal’s final voyage has probably begun — at least the vessel that “serve(d) the public with such skill and character … and … exercise(d) First Amendment freedoms with vigor and responsibility,” as the late publisher, Frank Batten (died at 82 in 2009), is still quoted on the masthead of the opinion pages of the shriveling newspaper.

It was distressing to learn last week that readers would lose the words and insights of Bob Molinaro and Bill Sizemore, both mainstays at The Pilot. The newspaper won’t be the same without Bill’s high-level of investigative reporting and Bob’s column of down to earth sports comments — often questioning the commercial excesses of big-money athletics. Others are  rumored to be leaving, too, but we readers with long-term loyalties are being fed the departure facts piece-meal, like barnyard hens. So we peck through the grain as it’s scattered in front of us, hoping our favorites will survive another cut.

Even the most faithful University of Virginia alumni in Tidewater might wonder if Batten should have withheld the $100 million he gave to UVa in 2007, instead endowing The Virginian-Pilot. Wisely invested that  $100 million could yield $8 million annually at 8% and pay a good hunk of operating costs — at either the university or the newspaper.

In Charlottesville, the University got the $100 million and created the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy — “the largest single gift in the history of the University,” said a news release. It quoted Batten, “Talented public leaders are needed from a range of professional backgrounds. It is critical to get younger people excited about the responsibilities and opportunities of public service in all its manifestations.” Thus emerged a mission statement for a School of Leadership and Public Policy.

One may wonder which would do more to keep Virginia’s citizens informed and its public servants honest — a vigilant, independent newspaper or a highly selective college of public policy. To confuse the choice, we read how Thomas Jefferson, writing to his friend, Col. Edward Carrington in 1787, cited his preference for newspapers as a means to keep well-informed “the opinion of people.” At that time a state-supported university was but a gleam in his 44-year-old eye.  Fast-forward to 1810 – 1819: When Jefferson labored to create the University of Virginia, he searched for funds to build its grounds and compensate its faculty.

There is evidence to suggest that the Founder might have, in his typically enigmatic manner, urged a donor such as Frank Batten to endow a respected Virginian-Pilot newspaper instead of sending a small fortune to central Virginia to establish a new department in the government-supported prototype of the elite eastern universities. This same founder of the University of Virginia had written in 1787, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” — newspapers — as the best vehicle by which to keep the people of the new democracy well informed.

Will newspapers continue to have major influence in the cause of nurturing and defending democracy in the United States, or is the influence of print journalism in irreversible decline? What would best insure that our government “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” as we face 21st century challenges? Would a time-tested, independent newspaper, dedicated “to serve the public  with skill and character” be most useful to democracy, or would a college curriculum designed “to get younger people excited about the responsibilities and opportunities of public service” reap greater benefits for the public good?

Jefferson, the explorer of dichotomies, might have believed that our 21st century democracy, still searching for balance and integrity in governance, needs both public universities and independent newspapers. And he might still “not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Gerald L. Cooper (BA, MEd, UVa) spent his 43-year career in education as an administrator, counselor and teacher. His final assignment in 1994-2000 was as executive director of the college access program, founded by Frank Batten and Josh Darden, that served ten public high schools in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach.

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Daughters Grow up To Be Co-Eds

Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at UVa.

Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at UVa.

When I visited Virginia Tech a few weeks ago, the lead story in the campus newspaper was a take-out on the supposed “campus rape culture.” The number is widely touted that 20% of women are the victims of sexual assault while at campus. My instinct is to dismiss that figure as a figment of the feminist fringe, in which transgressions of any kind, from unwanted touching to real rape, are conflated as “sexual violence.” Many incidents are fueled by the combustible combination of rampant drunkenness and the casual sex of the hook-up culture, in which all normal standards of behavior are obliterated.

That said, rape that everyone recognizes as rape does occur. One such incident, which allegedly occurred at the University of Virginia, is profiled in Rolling Stone. The story of a first year student gang raped in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, if accurate, is absolutely horrifying. What allegedly followed (or didn’t follow) is a travesty. Writes author Sabrina Rubin Erdely:

At UVA, rapes are kept quiet, both by students – who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture – and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal. Some UVA women, so sickened by the university’s culture of hidden sexual violence, have taken to calling it “UVrApe.”

Maybe that’s a fair take on what’s happening at UVa and other colleges, maybe it’s not. There are a lot of conservatives like me whom, I suspect, get turned off by the blather associating campus sexual violence with “patriarchal attitudes” and other such nonsense, as if society ever condoned rape as a “boys will be boys” thing to be swept under the rug. It was social conservatives, after all, who warned that the mixing of genders in college dormitories, the relaxation of visitation rules and the collapse of traditional moral values would lead to precisely the phenomenon we’re discussing today. Such fears were dismissed at the time, of course, as the hilariously antiquated thinking of prissy, tea-sipping old bitties.

But here we are. Feminists have discovered a “culture of rape” in what are arguably the most thoroughly enlightened and liberal institutions in the entire country, our colleges and universities. While I don’t think the Rolling Stone article has captured the entire truth of what’s happening on college campuses, I think it has captured part of the truth. And even that partial truth is ugly enough to take very seriously.

I would ask Virginia newspapers, why did Rolling Stone break this story, not you? If there is a campus rape epidemic on college campuses, are you going to continue to ignore it, highlighting only the cable news spectacles, like that of missing UVa student Hannah Graham, that are unrepresentative of the college experience? Conversely, if there’s not a campus rape epidemic, are you going to ignore that story, too? If the whole problem is wildly exaggerated — analogous, say, to the satanism scare of a couple decades ago — worried parents of college co-eds would like to know.

My suspicion is that there is a widespread problem but that it’s not as white-and-black as portrayed. College kids are… how shall I put this politely…. incredibly horny. The old social mores that held horniness in check have been obliterated. Concentrate thousands of males and females of the same age in a college campus, tear down the moral inhibitions against promiscuous sexuality, and dissolve inhibitions and judgment in a haze of alcohol, and you’re going to have a lot of sexual encounters, some percentage of which, in retrospect, are worthy of criminal punishment and some percentage of which participants simply regret. There is a cultural problem here. It’s not one of oppressive “patriarchy.” But it’s very real.

(Hat tip: The Nutshell by Frank Muraca. Check out Frank’s newsletter — it’s a short but punchy round-up of Virginia news, well worth reading.)

Racial Disparities in SOL Pass Rates Getting Worse

Bacon’s Rebellionmath_data
More SOL data from Lynchburg numbers cruncher Jim Weigand… The chart above expresses the Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rate for blacks and Hispanics as a percentage of the pass rate for whites between 2005 and 2014. The good news is that blacks and Hispanics consistently improved their educational performance through 2010, with Hispanics passing at 90% of the rate as whites in that year.

Then something happened. Minority SOL pass rates tanked. White pass rates declined (a trend not reflected in these charts) but minority pass rates fell even steeper. What happened in that period? Weigand notes that downturn coincides with tighter standards for the math SOLs  in 2012 and for the English SOLs in 2013. The impact of more demanding math tests can be seen in this chart:

SOL_data

 

Virginia school systems have made tremendous efforts to help minority students reach educational parity with whites (and Asians, who out-perform whites). But these charts call into question the effectiveness of those efforts.

If the tests were harder, then why weren’t all groups effected equally? Why did black and Hispanic scores decline relative to white scores? One possible explanation is that minority students are enrolled disproportionately in classes that “teach to the test.” Teachers in these classes got better at instructing their students to answer the kinds of questions that appear in SOL tests. (An analogy: My son is taking an AP course that explicitly, no-bones-about-it, is geared to helping students answer the kinds of questions that appear in AP tests.) But teaching to the test has a big drawback. Make the test tougher, and it doesn’t work.

Just a theory. It doesn’t fit the data perfectly. Perhaps readers can help me refine the theory or present better ones of their own.

Update: At the suggestion of Don Rippert, Jim Wiegand portrayed the same data as the chart above in a different way. Here’s the raw data for each ethnic/racial group, not normalized to whites as above. This shows clearly that whites suffered a decline in SOL pass rates, too.

SOL_pass_rates

Update: These numbers may be skewed by changes in Department of Education questionnaires that allowed students to select more than one race, says Hamilton Lombard with the Tayloe Murphy Center for Public Policy. As a result, for instance, the number of students identifying only as black dropped by 20% to 30% in some divisions. “With the changes, the SOL results by race are really for different populations in 2010 and 2012,” he writes.

– JAB

Arlington Scraps Streetcar Projects

Rendering of a Columbia Pike streetcar.

Rendering of a Columbia Pike streetcar.

by James A. Bacon

Arlington County’s surprise decision yesterday to cancel proposed streetcar projects for Columbia Pike and Crystal City should not be seen as a rejection of the concept of streetcars but a rejection of the funding mechanism chosen by the board that asked taxpayers to bear the fiscal risks while property owners enjoyed the benefits.

Arlingtonians, who voted John Vihstadt to the County Board earlier this month in an election that had become a referendum on the streetcar projects, questioned whether the $550 million price tag justified the purported economic development benefits. Board Chair Jay Fisette cited the decisive election results in canceling the project for which he and other board members had spent 15 years shepherding through the planning and fund-raising process.

One big problem for streetcar backers was defending the Columbia Pike project in the face of escalating cost estimates. The $358 million price tag was up $48 million from a federal cost estimate last year and up $100 million from a previous county estimate. County officials, with years of planning invested in the project, maintained that the benefits still outweighed the costs. A substantial majority of citizens were skeptical, and they said the county’s transportation needs could be met more cost-effectively with improved bus service.

Streetcar advocates said that the investment in fixed streetcar assets would encourage property owners along Columbia Pike to invest in upgrades and infill along the route. In theory, rising property tax revenues would more than offset the county’s $170 million share of the capital costs as well as ongoing operating costs. Moreover, the county’s share of the funds would come from a special commercial real estate tax dedicated to transportation projects.

That is not an unreasonable argument to make, although the forecast of rising property values does require a leap of faith. In effect, county officials were willing to to invest local funds for both streetcar lines in the belief that the revenue from increased property values ultimately would exceed the costs. In effect, they were saying, “Trust us. Build it and the development will come.” It became harder to maintain that the project would be a net fiscal benefit when the estimated cost jumped $100 million.

County officials could have changed the political dynamic if they’d embraced the logic espoused here on Bacon’s Rebellion – moving to a system in which users and beneficiaries pay for the project. In previous columns, I advocated funding the project through a special tax district on property owners along Columbia and a separate district in Crystal City.

If the Columbia Pike streetcar will do as much to stimulate increased property values as claimed, the property owners along the route will be the main beneficiaries. Why should property owners enjoy a massive windfall without contributing anything directly toward the project? (The special commercial tax that would pay for the project comes from all over Arlington, not just the area affected.) If property owners believe that the value created would exceed the projected cost, they should be willing to bear that cost themselves. The county could add sweeteners in the form of increased density allowances, as needed. Using special tax districts to finance the streetcar projects would place the burden and the risk where it belongs: on the property owners who collectively stand to gain hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in economic value, not the general taxpayers.

If the County Board had structured the deal this way, taxpayers would have had no cause to bellyache. The projects never would have been politicized in the way they were.

Of course, structuring the projects around special tax districts would create a political risk that property owners would not support them. But if the chief beneficiaries refused to support the project, what signal would that send? It would send the signal that the projects won’t have the wealth-creating effects claimed for it, that the projects cannot be economically justified, and that the projects shouldn’t be built.

Instead of giving up,  the Arlington Board should restructure the deal as a special tax district in which the local funding share is paid for by property owners affected by the project (rather than commercial property owners throughout the county). If the property owners bite, they’ll have a project. If the property owners balk, then it’s time to acknowledge that the putative benefits aren’t there.

Proposed CO2 Regs Will Harm Virginia’s Economic Competitiveness

Image credit: Department of Environmental Quality

Image credit: Department of Environmental Quality

by James A. Bacon

Proposed federal regulations to cut future carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants would put Virginia at a significant competitive advantage by giving the state no credit for its progress in reducing CO2 over the past ten years, asserts the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in a letter response to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Even back in 2005, Virginia power plants emitted less CO2, a greenhouse gas, per unit of energy produced than those of other many states, thanks to the state’s reliance upon nuclear power. Since 2005, Virginia power companies have phased out older coal-fired plants and substituted natural gas. Although natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits CO2, it is much cleaner burning than coal and produces less CO2 per unit of energy.

In 2005, coal accounted for 46% of Virginia’s electric generation; by 2012, coal had fallen to 20%.  Virginia reduced carbon “pollution” by 39% between 2005 and 2012, the seventh best performance nationally. In 2012 Virginia ranked 15th among the 50 states for the rate of carbon “pollution” from all electric generating sources.

Rather than credit Virginia for recent progress or how much citizens spent to get there, argues the DEQ letter, the EPA Proposed Emission Guidelines bases its performance targets on a state’s electric generating system as it exists now. States the letter:

EPA’s approach fails to recognize the achievements made by many states, including Virginia, that have reduced CO2 emissions by making significant investments in zero and low carbon emitting generation, such as nuclear power, and rewards states that have not done so by giving them substantially higher CO2 emission reduction targets.

carbon_goals

Source: Division of Environmental Quality

All of Virginia’s neighboring states have electric generating systems that are more carbon-intensive than Virginia’s, but all have emission rate goals substantially higher than Virginia’s final goal of 810 [pounds per Megawatt house]. In fact, the Proposed Emission Guidelines would require greater reductions in megawatt hours or carbon intensity from affected units in Virginia than from similar units in either Kentucky of West Virginia, even though those states generated approximately twice the amount of electricity on a megawatt hour basis from fossil fuel than did Virginia in 2012.

“The disparity in state goals,” writes the DEQ, “leaves Virginia at a competitive disadvantage to its neighbors and numerous other states because they will be able to comply with the Proposed Emission Guidelines more cost effectively. … Such states could use their competitive advantage over Virginia to keep their state electric rates or taxes relatively lower in order to lure away existing Virginia businesses and render Virginia less competitive in the quest for new business.”

Governor Terry McAuliffe says he supports the EPA’s goal of reducing carbon emissions to combat global warming. But he says the proposed regulations could be “more equitable,” according to the Times-Dispatch.

Bacon’s bottom line:  Not only are onerous new environmental regulations being imposed by executive fiat, not based upon anything contemplated by Congress when it enacted the Clean Air Act… Not only are these regulations being enacted  on the basis of claims that runaway global warming (a) is occurring, (b) will prove to be an unmitigated catastrophe and (c) that re-engineering the U.S. economy by reducing CO2 emissions is the best way to deal with it… but the state-by-state implementation of the regulations will punish Virginia for its previous efforts to be environmentally virtuous.

Virginia, like the United States, faces many environmental challenges. As a society, I believe, we should steadily increase our investment in environmental protection. But we also need to prioritize that investment to accomplish the most good per dollar spent. I’m far from convinced that spending billions of dollars — the proposed EPA regs could cost Virginians an estimated $5 billion — will generate anything tangible for Virginia or its environment. If these regulations go through, they will be a tragedy of the first order.