Author Archives: James A. Bacon

The Market Speaks, and It Likes Reston Town Center

reston_town_center
Reston Town Center got a half-century head start in creating the kind of community where enterprises want to do business in the 21st-century knowledge economy. The original developers were planning for and building walkable, mixed-use development before walkable, mixed-use development was cool. And today property owners are reaping the benefits.

According to Cushman/Wakefield, offices in Reston Town Center are near full occupancy and command among the highest rents in Northern Virginia. The business district’s big competitive advantage? A strong amenity base. Summarizes Virginia Business:

The report notes that in addition to 2.8 million square feet of office space, Reston Town Center is home to 50 retail shops, 30 restaurants and three residential high-rise projects. Even with a suburban location 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C., and a lack of Metro accessibility until at least 2018, the center’s density, mixed-uses and walkability give the center an urban feel that attracts tenants and residents.

Reston achieves high occupancy despite the fact that tenants pay a 30% rent premium to be there. The situation in Reston stands in marked contrast to the other major business centers, Tysons and the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor. Spurred by the arrival of the Metro Silver Line, Tysons is desperately trying to reinvent itself from a case study in suburban sprawl into a paragon of Transit Oriented Development. But the transition to a coherent, walkable place will take place over years, if not decades. Property owners in Arlington’s Ballston-Rosslyn corridor have Reston-style amenities and have been demanding Reston-style rents but have been afflicted by the departure of large government tenants.

Bacon’s bottom line: Could the marketplace be speaking any more clearly? People are demanding walkable urbanism. It doesn’t have to be located in the core of the metropolitan area. It doesn’t even have to have Metro service. People like compact, walkable, mixed-use development. Developers who deliver that product will make money. Localities that foster its development will see their tax base grow.

– JAB

ALEC: Virginia K-12 Performance, Policy Mediocre

Image credit: ALEC

Image credit: ALEC

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization promoting conservative legislation at the state level, has issued its 19th annual Report Card on American Education, and it places Virginia in the muddled middle for school performance and policy.

On performance, ALEC gave Virginia a 26th ranking based on the gains made by low-income students on 4th and 8th grade reading and math exams between 2003 and 2013. On the policy front, ALEC graded Virginia an F for its pitiful charter school laws and a D for state academic standards but a B- for digital learning and a B for retaining effective teachers. All other categories rated in the C range. (See Virginia score card.)

ALEC deems Indiana to have the best K-12 public policy in the United States. Among other virtues, the Hoosier state is emphasizing career and vocational education for non college-bound students and provides targeted pre-school programs for disadvantaged children. The report also singles out North Carolina for its aggressive school reforms, especially the emphasis on expanding charter schools and school choice for lower-income Tarheels.

The report’s conclusion:

Economically disadvantaged inner-city children would face more than enough challenges in life it they had abundant access to the nation’s most effective schools. Instead, we find districts still largely wedded to unionized industrial factory models. Spending is up, but low achievement remains common. Dropout rates remain high, and waiting lists at the still far-too-scarce high-quality charter schools remain long. Policymakers have been making changes and showing progress with them, but the average urban student may have yet to notice that anything has changed.

Bacon’s bottom line: Conservatives have a great story to pitch for school reform. While liberals wed themselves to the tired, old 19th-century industrial model and call for mo’ money, mo’ money, conservatives argue that money isn’t the problem. The United States spends more money per student on education than almost any country on the planet, with precious little to show for it. With state, local and federal governments strapped for cash, states need to focus on getting more from the ample investment we already make.

Every other segment of the American economy has restructured over the past half century. Education is the main holdout. Parents — especially parents in lower-income families — need more options about where to send their kids. Virginia needs more charter schools, more school choice and more home schooling.

– JAB

Which Calls for More Regulation, Sprawl or Smart Growth?

How do you get more development like this -- with more regulation or less?

How do you get more development like this — with more regulation or less?

by James A. Bacon

One of the more potent criticisms of the Smart Growth movement is that smart growthers implement policies that restrict development, create housing shortages and make housing unaffordable for the poor and working class. The critics present ample evidence that metro regions with the tightest restrictions on development and re-development have higher housing prices overall than regions with fewer restrictions.

But there is more than one way to achieve Smart Growth, at least in theory. One way is is libertarian in inspiration: rolling back the suburban-inspired zoning codes that segregate land uses, cap density restrictions and impose minimum parking requirements on property owners. Undoing the massive government intrusion in local land use would go a long way to reversing the so-called “suburban sprawl” that is the antithesis of Smart Growth without imposing restrictions on new development. A different approach to Smart Growth is more activist: encouraging mixed use development and re-development, seeking more density and curtailing parking in order to push people out of cars.

Suburban zoning codes and regulations are almost universal across America in places developed since World War II, and even in some traditional urban cities. To what extent have activist city governments offset suburban mandates with Smart Growth and environmental mandates? Michael Lewyn and Kristoffer Jackson set to find out. You can read their conclusions in “How Often Do Cities Mandate Smart Growth or Green Building?” in a paper published by the Mercatus Center.

Lewyn and Jackson examined the zoning regulations of 24 medium-sized cities across the United States with a focus on parking, density and “green building.”

Parking. They found that Smart Growth regulations are not nearly as ubiquitous as sprawl-inducing regulations. Fifteen of the 24 cities had restricted parking supply, but only three had restricted the supply citywide for all land uses. The others limited their restrictions to certain parts of the city or to particular land uses.

Density. While restrictions on maximum density are almost universal across the United States, mandates for minimum density are rare, and when they exist, they are largely irrelevant. For example, San Jose, Calif., imposes a minimum density of one house per acre. But the demand for housing is strong and prices are so high that no one is asking to build at lower densities. Indeed, most cities continue to limit density and mixed-use development — the antithesis of the Smart Growth vision.

Green building. Cities have been willing to experiment with “green building” regulations designed to increase energy efficiency. Only four of the 24 cities surveyed compel developers to meet green building standards. Six others give builders incentives to adopt green building standards, while another eight impose the requirements only upon city-owned buildings.

“Government regulation designed to force smarter, more environmentally friendly growth may face a difficult tradeoff,” the authors write. “If regulations are only slightly more restrictive than what an unregulated market might produce, they may not do very much good. But if regulations are significantly more restrictive, they may encourage development to shift to less environmentally sensitive municipalities.”

Writing in the Market Urbanism blog, Emily Washington provides a useful gloss on the Lewyn-Jackson paper.

Lewyn and Jackson’s study shows that rather than embracing the deregulatory tenets of Smart Growth, regulators in some cities have layered Smart Growth rules on top of their traditional zoning rules, creating a complicated web of regulations. … This paper demonstrates that today Smart Growth policies are unusual relative to traditional zoning rules that restrict density. However, Smart Growth is in some cases complicating the policy landscape rather than providing more freedom for developers to respond to consumer demand.

Bacon’s bottom line: The only thing I would add to Lewyn, Jackson and Washington is that it would be useful to study transportation policy. The Smart Growth movement is also enamored with walkability, bicycles, mass transit and complete streets. The pursuit of these policies is not seen as much in city zoning codes as in their capital investment programs. This is the area, it seems to me, where the Smart Growth movement has made its greatest mark.

Virginia College Enrollments Decline, SCHEV Wants Higher Tuitions

by James A. Bacon

Yesterday, when asking how long Virginia universities could defy the national decline in student enrollments, I spoke just a hair too soon. I quoted 2012-2013 data to the effect that Virginia public higher education institutions were holding their own. Unbeknownst to me, the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) was releasing updated enrollment numbers at a board meeting the very same day.

Turns out that enrollment at state colleges and universities fell below 400,000 this fall for the first time since 2008. In her Times-Dispatch article, reporter Karin Kapsidelis does not tell us how big of a tumble that was percentage-wise, but it was sufficient to cause considerable consternation among SCHEV board members.

The council then proceeded simultaneously to (a) bemoan the 78% increase in the number of students requiring financial aid since 2011, and (b) endorse tuition increases that would make college even more unaffordable. SCHEV estimates an average tuition increase in 3.7% will be needed to just to support its priorities of paying for faculty raises and covering maintenance costs of new buildings coming online in fiscal year 2016.

pc_incomeLet us ask ourselves if there might be any connection between rising tuition and the increasing need for financial aid. Let’s see now… Real per capita incomes in Virginia have barely budged since 2011, yet tuition, fees and other college-related expenses have ratcheted ever higher at a rate considerably faster than inflation. If public colleges follow SCHEV’s recommendations and continue jacking up tuition by 3.7% annually, and if wages continue to stagnate, then college attendance, already unaffordable for many, will become even more unaffordable. As college becomes even more unaffordable, enrollments will continue to drop. This is not rocket science, people!

It is true that the decline in state support is partly to blame for the increasing cost of going to college. But so has the growth in administrative overhead, student fees (much of which goes toward athletic programs), and the cost of fancy food courts and new dormitories. Moreover, public colleges have continued to build new physical facilities, raising the question of whether they have over-built. Indeed, one of SCHEV’s highest priorities for increased revenue is to cover the growing cost of building operations.

If you build more buildings in anticipation of ever-rising enrollments and those enrollments don’t occur, what happens? You still have to pay the bonds used to finance the building construction, and you still have to pay to maintain the buildings. Either you raise tuition to cover the higher costs, which makes your institution more unaffordable… which drives down enrollment… or you scrimp on maintenance, which means your facilities go to hell… which drives down enrollment.

Virginia’s system of higher education is nearing a crisis but the educational and political establishment is unwilling to face to underlying economic realities.

Virginia’s Business Tax Climate: Down to 27th Best

tax_climate
Governor Terry McAuliffe is traveling overseas at the moment in search of foreign investment in Virginia. His job of selling the Old Dominion is made none the easier by a new report issued by the Tax Foundation. In a ranking of which states have the most competitive business tax regime, Virginia tumbled to the lowest level in living memory, 27th place.

As Tim Wise observes in his Growls blog, Virginia’s business tax climate has eroded each year from 2012 when the state ranked 23rd.

I’m old enough to remember when Virginians could debate whether or not it was fair to describe the commonwealth as a “low tax” state. I think that argument is over. A better question now, given the trajectory of our political economy, is how many years will it take to join the ranks of Maryland, New Jersey and New York as a high tax state.

For what it’s worth, Virginia scored best for its corporate tax rate (6th best) and sales tax (6th best); worst for its personal income tax rate (39th best) and unemployment insurance rate (37th best); and in the middle of the pack for property taxes (26th).

To respond to the obvious retort to this news, yes, there’s a lot more to a state’s business climate than its tax rate. If high taxes are invested productively and provide a high level of amenities and services, the net result can be beneficial to economic growth — a very big “if.” Another caveat is that the primary determinant of a state’s economic performance in the short run isn’t its business climate but its business mix. Every state with a major oil-and-gas industry right now, for instance, is doing well regardless of other considerations. But the evidence shows that over the long run lower tax states out-perform higher tax states on average.

At present, it’s easy to blame Virginia’s economic woes on sequestration and the squeeze on federal employment and contracting in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. But the loss of economic dynamism preceded sequestration by a decade or more. Virginia has lost its mojo. And the decline in performance, coincidentally or not, has overlapped with a decline in tax competitiveness.

– JAB

Bringing Transparency to Transportation Project Selection

The intersection from hell... on a good day

Grrrrr.The intersection from hell.

I have concrete reasons to bitch and moan about the new prioritization process for Virginia transportation projects under House Bill 2. A major project near my home — $14 million in improvements to the hellish intersection of Patterson Ave. and Parham Road — was scheduled for 2019 but has been put on hold to be subjected to the kind of strict cost-benefit analysis that, er, uh,  I have been calling for over the years.

That miserable intersection is the bane of my existence. I have to drive through it on half or more of the trips I take. During rush hour, Patterson/Parham can stack up for four or five cycles of the traffic signal. I curse it. I shake my fist at it. I loathe that intersection with every fiber of my being. That single intersection makes me want to move from Henrico County back to the City of Richmond, which has nothing to compare.

However, I do see the virtue in ranking transportation projects according to rational criteria such as congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety and environmental quality. Every transportation project will receive a score, that score will be made transparent to the public, and the Commonwealth Transportation Board will use it when selecting projects, as Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne explains in a Times-Dispatch op-ed today.

HB2 is potentially the most significant change to transportation funding priorities to come along in years. The hope is to bring more accountability to transportation-funding decisions when the initiative is fully implemented by 2016. If the CTB chooses to fund a project with low scores, it will have to answer for its decisions. We’ll see how things work out in practice. The new process assuredly will be an improvement over current practice but I’m skeptical that it will do much to bridge the transportation-land use mismatch that underlays transportation dysfunction. Furthermore, never underestimate the power of ideologues and special interests to work the system to their advantage.

I, for one, will be watching. And if that stinkin’ Patterson/Parham project doesn’t get its funding on schedule, there will be hell to pay!

– JAB

How Long Can Virginia Colleges Defy the Enrollment Turndown?

US_population_distribution

Source: StatChat. Click for larger image.

How will Virginia colleges and universities fare going forward against a national backdrop of declining college enrollment? Luke Juday offers an interesting perspective at the Stat Chat blog, noting that the post-18-year-old age cohort is expected to shrink over the next two decades. Writes Juday:

If we think about the graduating high school seniors who might be entering college, there would have been close to 4.6 million 18 year-olds in 2009.  Five years later, there are only 4.2 million – And the 17 year-olds preparing for college are the smallest age cohort younger than 35 – at 4,176,000.  The next set of them (current 16 year-olds) will be even smaller. In fact, we should expect a slowly declining pool of college-aged students for the foreseeable future, as illustrated by the graph [above].

So far, Virginia’s public and private universities seem to be bucking the trend, experiencing a small enrollment increase overall during the 2012-2013 year, according to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia. However some universities — most notably Virginia Commonwealth University, Norfolk State University and Virginia State University — saw significant declines. It’s dangerous to draw conclusions from one year’s worth of data, however, so those numbers may or may not reflect longer-term trends.

Juday also notes that Hispanic and African-American children will constitute a growing share of the college-bound population. Insofar as those two demographic groups have been less likely to attend college than non-Hispanic whites, whether due to lower average income or other reasons, the changing racial make-up of the student population may crimp enrollments as well.

Combine declining enrollments with relentlessly increasing tuition, fees and other college expenses, and it’s hard to see how even Virginia’s vaunted undergraduate higher-ed system will be able to maintain its numbers. Norfolk State and Virginia State have been experiencing well-publicized difficulties. Don’t be surprised to see problems surfacing at other institutions, especially those that have borrowed heavily to build new facilities.

Update: The National Center for Educational Statistics projects that enrollment growth at American colleges and universities will increase by three million between 2012 and 2022. That represents a considerable slowdown from the past, but an increase nonetheless. The projections do not account, however, for “the cost of a college education, the economic value of an education, and the impact of distance learning due to technological changes.” (Hat tip: Matt Thornhill.)

— JAB

Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Baron von Munchausen, famous spinner of tall tales

Baron von Munchausen, famous spinner of tall tales

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

Peter G.’s skeptical response to the op-ed I co-authored with Paul Goldman and Mark Rozell is exactly what I would have expected, given the fact that we had to boil a complex argument with abundant support documentation down to 750 words. Accordingly, what follows is an expanded version of that column. However, I take the argument further than Goldman and Rozell may be comfortable taking it, so I assume sole responsibility for this piece. — JAB

In closing statements of former Governor Bob McDonnell’s August trial, lead prosecutor Michael Dry made a remarkable statement. McDonnell had flat-out denied key testimony of star witness Jonnie R. Williams, a suspected con man under federal investigation who had agreed to testify in exchange for a generous immunity agreement. Dry acknowledged that jurors might suspect that Williams had lied. But then he argued, “Who cares?” The jury could “discount everything, every single word uttered by Mr. Williams,” he said, and it wouldn’t matter. There still remained a mountain of evidence to prove the government’s case that McDonnell and his wife had used their status to obtain $138,804 in gifts and loans from Williams.

“Who cares” if Mr. Williams lied? The jurors apparently did not; they found the governor guilty on all counts, his wife on nine. But Virginians should care. When Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell are sentenced for their convictions early next year, they may well be sentenced to jail time, and the amount of time will be determined in part by the number of counts for which they were convicted. If some of those convictions were obtained from tainted testimony, they will be punished excessively and unjustly.

Virginians also should care about the lengths to which a Democratic Attorney General’s office was willing to go to win a conviction against a popular Republican governor. Prosecutors put forth as a witness a man whose narrative evolved over some ten meetings with the FBI and federal prosecutors, whose story about a key encounter with McDonnell changed within the trial itself. Indeed, law enforcement officials had every reason to question his story themselves. If they won their convictions through tainted testimony, is that really the way Virginians want the rule of law to work?

Government’s key witness

Serial entrepreneur and Star Scientific Inc. founder Jonnie Williams had been fined in the 1980s by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and he remained on the federal government’s scam radar. At Star Scientific, he peddled the promise of developing a “safer cigarette.” When that futile quest collapsed, he claimed to have discovered a miracle compound, anatabine – as big as penicillin — that potentially could fight Alzheimer’s and other diseases linked to inflammation. But he faced a steep climb to gain acceptance. Virginia’s secretary of health and human services, among others, dismissed the product as “worthless.”

Unbeknownst to the public, the First Couple was struggling financially with crushing credit card debt and underwater real estate investments in Virginia Beach. Prosecutors argued that the McDonnells engaged in a conspiracy to trade the prestige and support of the Governor’s office for Williams’ gifts and loans. The McDonnells hosted a luncheon praising Anatabloc in August of 2011 at the Governor’s Mansion. The First Lady spoke at Star investor conferences across the country.  The Governor popped Anatabloc at official meetings and helped set up meetings with state government officials.

For all the documentation the feds had gathered, however, they lacked “smoking gun” proof of a quid pro quo.  McDonnell argued that he did no more for Star Scientific than he would for any promising Virginia company. Prosecutors needed Williams to provide evidence of a tacit conspiracy to trade favors for gifts.

The first time investigators interviewed him, Williams described the McDonnells as friends. He denied trying to buy influence with his loans. He praised the Governor’s integrity. But the government ratcheted up the pressure, probing into potential insider trading transaction involving Star Scientific stock. The second time he met with investigators, they granted him “use” immunity, which prevented his testimony from being used against him. Williams then said there was a “wink and a nod” agreement to exchange gifts and favors. In a meeting shortly before the trial, the government offered “transactional” immunity that protected him from other offenses, including the insider-trading probe. His story changed yet again. This time, he said, he was never friends with Maureen and Bob McDonnell. Their dealings were business transactions, and they knew they were exchanging gifts for favors.

Accordingly, prosecutors made the following keystone charge, upon which much of the rest of the case would hinge, in its indictment:

Before agreeing to provide the requested financial assistance to the defendants, JW [Jonnie Williams] spoke directly with ROBERT MCDONNELL about the $50,000 loan. In that conversation, ROBERT MCDONNELL explained the defendant’s financial difficulties. ROBERT MCDONNELL informed JW that the rental income from the defendants’ rental property in Virginia Beach was not covering the bills for those properties. JW agreed to provide the $50,000 loan with a two-year term at 5% interest. JW also informed ROBERT MCDONNELL that loan paperwork was not necessary.

Williams later admitted in court that the deal freed him “from worrying about going to jail.” Legal experts were hard pressed to remember other instances of prosecutors granting such broad immunities in a corruption case.

Shifting story

May 2, 2011, was a key date in the prosecution’s conspiracy timeline. The prosecution alleged and the defense did not dispute that Williams and Mrs. McDonnell met at the Governor’s Mansion. Mrs. McDonnell revealed the family’s credit-card and rental-property issues to Williams, and Williams agreed to give her a $50,000 personal loan and to cover $15,000 in catering costs for daughter Cailin’s upcoming nuptials.

The other key date was May 23, 2011, the day that Williams delivered the two checks. It happened to be his wedding anniversary, and he and his wife Celeste were planning to have lunch at the Jefferson Hotel. Williams dropped by the Governor’s Mansion on the way to deliver one check for the catering company and another made out to Mrs. McDonnell. Williams and his wife stayed about an hour and fifteen minutes, he testified at one point. “We went upstairs and had a salad.”

Why, the defense asked, did he make out the $50,000 check to Maureen McDonnell? Because, he testified, that’s to whom she said to make it out to.

Federal anti-corruption law applies to elected or appointed public officials. As First Lady, Mrs. McDonnell was neither elected nor appointed. She was a private citizen. While it was wildly inappropriate in the eyes of the public for her to offer Williams her services in exchange for the $65,000, it was not illegal. To demonstrate a conspiracy that involved McDonnell, prosecutors had to show that the Governor knew about the arrangement at the time. Continue reading

Did McDonnell Prosecutors Knowingly Use Tainted Testimony?

mcdonnellPublished this morning in the Roanoke Times:

By Paul Goldman, James Bacon and Mark J. Rozell

Did Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sanction using tainted trial testimony against Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell? In closing argument, the prosecution said jurors could “discount everything, every single word uttered by” Star Scientific founder Jonnie R. Williams and still find the McDonnells guilty of public corruption. Yet Williams had been the government’s chief witness and sole accuser. He spent nearly a week on the witness stand. Determining “who is most believable about the interactions between the governor and Williams” had been called the key to the case.

The Virginia native had appeared on Uncle Sam’s scam radar since the 1980s, after the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated false claims by an earlier Williams company. When Williams met Gov. McDonnell, he hawked “Anatabloc,” a nutritional supplement based on a curative “discovery” touted as more important than penicillin. The indictment charged Williams had given $138,804 in gifts and loans in exchange for the governor’s agreement to help Star promote the product.

Williams initially defended the First Couple but testified against them pursuant to a rare immunity deal shielding him from prosecution for crimes not related to the McDonnell case. Prosecutors promised jurors he would be completely truthful.

Indictment paragraph 28 remained key to the government’s corruption conspiracy timeline:

“Before agreeing to provide the requested financial assistance to the defendants, JW [Jonnie Williams] spoke directly with ROBERT MCDONNELL about the $50,000 loan . . . ROBERT MCDONNELL informed JW that the rental income from the defendants’ rental property in Virginia Beach was not covering the bills for those properties. JW agreed to provide the $50,000 loan . . . .”

Prosecutors conceded Maureen McDonnell had personally asked Williams for the loan on May 2, 2011. She promised to reciprocate by helping Star. Williams testified understanding she spoke solely for herself, not her husband. Virginia’s first lady is not a public official under federal anti-corruption laws. While disgraceful, this two-way deal did not break the law.

The Star pitchman personally delivered a $50,000 check payable to her on May 23 when they met at the Executive Mansion. Gov. McDonnell swore he didn’t learn about the check until two weeks afterwards. The prosecution self-evidentially believed it crucial to show his knowledge prior to her accepting the money.

During testimony, Williams said he couldn’t remember when he spoke to the governor, or even whether he had spoken by telephone or in person. But he remained adamant, saying, “I am not writing his wife any checks without him knowing about it.”

The prosecution trumpeted this “evidence,” declaring, “What does this tell you about who the loan was really to?”

But his testimony crumbled. During cross-examination, defense counsel asked Williams:

Question: “Before those checks were cut, between the 2nd of May and the 23rd of May, you never talked to Bob McDonnell about those checks, did you?”

Answer: “No.”

He then insisted the conversation occurred while delivering the checks on May 23.

Prosecutors proffered no corroborating phone record or eyewitness account. Furthermore, while Williams claimed the governor said he needed the money to keep his Virginia Beach rental properties afloat, Maureen McDonnell put the $50,000 in her account and used most of the sum to purchase Star Scientific stock, not to cover beach property expenses.

In closing argument, the prosecution told jurors, “Who cares?” whether Williams might have lied since the government had “more evidence than necessary” to convict. Read more.

Goldman is a Richmond lawyer and Democratic Party activist. Bacon publishes the Bacons Rebellion blog covering public policy issues in Virginia. Rozell is Acting Dean of the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.

Attack the Demographic Underpinnings of Poverty

birth_controlby James A. Bacon

There is a case to be made for family planning and access to abortion services as a way to improve the lives of poor women. If you lean liberal in your politics, you’ll probably be comfortable with the arguments advanced by Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell (published yesterday morning in the Times-Dispatch). If you lean to the right politically, you’ll probably find her loftier-than-thou attitude — “America has decided: Sex is for rich people” — and her inaccurate swipes at conservatives — “pundits [refer] to advocates of affordable birth control as ‘sluts’ — to be so off-putting that you’re likely to reject the nuggets of sound reasoning buried in her column. But, then, Rampell isn’t writing to conservatives, she’s writing to liberals.

I’m a libertarian/conservative writing to conservatives, so I shall endeavor to make a case for family planning and abortion services that most conservatives will find palatable. (I know I’ll never convert right-to-life conservatives who oppose abortion under nearly all circumstances, so I won’t even try.)

Between government welfare programs and not-for-profit programs, American society devotes trillions of dollars to ameliorate the condition of the poor. Millions of poor Americans manage to surmount the disadvantageous circumstances of their birth, get an education and rise into the middle class. Yet American society has made very little progress in eradicating poverty over the past 50 years. Why is that? I believe that the root cause is demographic.

As I noted two weeks ago in my column, “The Uphill Climb for Virginia Schools,” low-income women bear 10% to 15% more children than women in higher income categories, and they have their children at younger ages with the result that a 36-year-old woman in a lower-income setting can become a grandmother by the time a college-educated, career-oriented woman becomes a mother. Thus, the progeny of poor women, who are financially and culturally less equipped to form stable, two-parent households conducive to academic learning and the inculcation of values required to be successful in the knowledge economy, tend to be over-represented in the next generation of children. Likewise, the social problems endemic to the American brand of poverty — out-of-wedlock birth, substance abuse, domestic violence, dropping out of school, etc. — are transmitted to the next generation at a higher rate.

There are two ways to deal with this problem. One way is to ramp up education and social welfare spending in the hope that politicians and bureaucrats can figure out how to improve upward social mobility. If more poor people rise into the middle class, we might hope to conquer poverty in four or five generations. The track record of this approach has been none too encouraging, however. And given the parlous condition of government finances these days, the “spend mo’ money” approach is unaffordable.

The other approach is to encourage poor young women to delay childbirth until they can complete at least a high school education, attain stable job prospects and, perhaps, even marry. As Rampell notes, more than half of all pregnancies are unintended — 70% for single women in their 20s. (I would conjecture that the percentage of unintended pregnancies is even higher for single women in their teens.) In other words, pregnancy is not something that most young, unwed mothers seek.

Rampell avers that government spending on family planning offers a huge return on investment. “In 2010, every $1 invested in helping women avoid pregnancies they didn’t want saved $5.68 in Medicaid expenditures.” I would add that the ROI probably would be a lot higher if other forms of welfare support and social services were included.

Investing in family planning, to my mind, is a no brainer. Abortion is a more more complex issue. I oppose late-stage abortion except when the mother’s life is in danger but I see early-term abortion as a less undesirable outcome than bringing an unwanted child into the world. I acknowledge that others will disagree. But I look at the scourge of the American brand of poverty — particularly the pathological form it has taken in the United States with widespread family breakdown, child abuse and child neglect — and I see family planning and abortion services as the only way out.

Why not teach abstinence? Teaching abstinence is fine. The longer teenagers wait before they become sexually active, the better. But let’s not kid ourselves — I actually agree with Rampell on this — we’re fighting against human nature. The number one thing on teenagers’ minds is sex. If we count on abstinence alone, we’re going to lose this battle. Society, preferably through the mechanism of non-profit organizations, needs to provide birth control to poor kids. If evangelical Christians find the idea morally reprehensible, I would invite them (a) to ponder the relative ineffectiveness of the abstinence strategy in environments where no one is practicing it, and (b) redouble their efforts to teach abstinence to their own children.

Most conservatives I know are deeply troubled by the cancerous spread of a severely dysfunctional sub-culture of poverty and the misery it engenders among the children born to it. Would they prefer to pay higher taxes to support the children of poor women who became pregnant by accident, or would they prefer to give those women access to birth control and/or early-stage abortion services so they could avoid having those children in the first place? It’s an easy choice for me, and I suspect is is for many conservatives.