Category Archives: Agriculture & forestry

Modern Day Sharecroppers

 tyson_chickBy Peter Galuszka

One book on my to-read list is Christopher Leonard’s “The Meat Racket” which looks at how food production in this country is being absorbed by large, vertically integrated companies that combine indirect federal government support with anti-free market policies to control much of the chicken, pork and beef we eat.

The book, published by Simon & Schuster, has gotten favorable reviews in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Leonard, who covered the food industry for a decade as an Associated Press reporter, writes that the 95 percent of Americans who eat chicken are supporting a top-down corporate structure and culture that keep “farmers in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.”

This might have been an over-the-top statement from the conservative and pro-business Journal, but the reviewer actually says that Leonard has carefully built his case.

His evidence is Tyson Foods, a firm that grew out of the poultry belt of Arkansas into a global agribusiness giant. Early on, Tyson’s executives decided that it was too risky for them to grow their own chickens, so they farmed it all out (“out sourced” in that term we all love).

The problem is that Tyson’s rules its contract system like a ruthless plantation owner exploiting old-time sharecroppers. Pay is based on fatter chickens. If a grower goes bust, the federal government, not the banks, picks up the tab. Tyson is not at risk, the taxpayer is. It neatly dodges problems to boost its bottom line.

Growers are dependent upon Tyson for just about everything from tiny chicks to money. The author tells the stories of farmers who ran into disease issues and ended up bust. Calls for help to Tyson went unanswered until the bankruptcy papers went through. Then company men in blue anti-contamination suits would show up to gather the carcasses and birds that they still owned.

The company, of course, owns the process, from the hatchery, feed mill and the slaughter house that it often bought from locals. Leonard says the rest of Big Farming is being “chickenized.” It happened a while back with pork producers controlled by Smithfield Foods and now by its new owners, Shuanghui International which bought the venerable Virginia firm last year for $ 7 billion. Beef is next.

Virginia is a big poultry producer ranking No. 10  nationally.  More than 13,000 people are employed directly in the industry dominated by a half a dozen or so huge players like Tyson’s or Perdue or Pilgrim’s Pride. Drive in the Shenandoah Valley or in Southside and you will see lots of lengthy chicken coops with Tyson or other corporate logo written on them.

Ditto hog farms, which are operated on a massive scale. Smithfield got in trouble some years back for waste pollution and in the mid-1990s, the Raleigh News & Observer won a Pulitzer for exposing pork megafarms that produced more waste than entire cities yet were handling it in a rudimentary fashion.

Things are not likely to get much better with the new Chinese owners. Apparently Shuanghui has had issues with cutting corners, putting banned chemicals in feed and have a loose oversight structure.

This isn’t exactly the glory of the free market we hear so much about. I gather re-creating that will be up to green or organic farmers. For instance, the Virginia Association for Biological Farming promotes small farms of 10 acres or less that can network sales to local groceries.

I was in New York last weekend and was surprised at the number of green farmers selling their wares at Union Square. Prices seemed pretty steep but it looked good. The food came from a growing grid of organic farms in New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The issues raised by Leonard’s book are worthy of exploration especially since they show the very factors you see raised so much on this blog – the evils of government subsidies and the lack of free markets.

N.B. I’d link to the Journal story but I can’t get past their pay firewall. More capitalism. Sorry.

McAuliffe Peruses Tobacco Commission

tobacco leafBy Peter Galuszka

What’s going on with the Tobacco Commission? Gov. Terry McAuliffe wants to know and is asking for a detailed accounting of its finances over the past five years.

The Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission, created in 1999 with a $1 billion endowment from lawsuit settlements with four major tobacco companies, has been under the gun for years.

The idea was that Virginia would take its settlement from a $206 billion nest egg 46 states won from Big Tobacco and put it to good use. Some states allocated their share solely for health concerns and to convince people, especially children, not to start smoking.

Virginia used part of its funds for this, but also created a slush fund supposedly for economic development in counties affected by changes in the tobacco economy from Southside to Southwest Virginia that grew bright leaf and burley tobacco.

The commission has always operated in a kind of “Andy of Mayberry” fashion without much oversight and that has caused some big problems. The worst was in 2010 when former state Finance Secretary John W. Forbes and later commission head was convicted of using $4 million in tobacco money for personal purposes, like fixing his house.

A 2011 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission gave the commission mixed reviews, noting that some projects it funded made sense but others did not.

JLARC praised the commission for its worker training programs and helping expand high speed broadband to rural areas. But it said that the commission needed a better and more sophisticated way of tracking the impacts of projects it funded. Two years earlier, a commission headed by former Gov. Gerald E. Baliles had come up with some similar findings but the commission adopted only eight of 22 of them. One of the Baliles’ recommendations was to have a JLARC study made of the commission but it was not pursed at the time.

One area of concern for the McAuliffe administration is the $20 million in grants provided to Liberty University’s Center for Medical and Health Services spent over the past two years when the commission was making less than $60 million on interest payments.

One could argue that having a medical center in Lynchburg would help residents in Southside but another issue is that Liberty, founded by fundamentalist Protestant preacher Jerry Falwell, is a religious institution. The late Falwell was a major political player. The school is starting an osteopathic medical school which is interesting since it chose not to found a traditional one, although osteopathic doctors receive much the same training as medical doctors.

Speaking of politics, the co-chairman of the tobacco commission is Terry Kilgore, a Republican politician. By coincidence, his twin brother, Jerry, is a former attorney general, gubernatorial candidate and a lawyer for Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the former head of Star Scientific and the man who paid or gave now-indicted former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen more than $160,000 in gifts.

At one point, Williams who has not been indicted in the GiftGate matter and is expected to be an important prosecution witness against the McDonnells, tried to push for tobacco commission help with his nicotine-based dietary supplements.

There could be a political motivation with McAuliffe’s query but the tobacco commission has always been a ripe target for good reason.

N.B. Maurice Jones, McAuliffe’s nominee for Commerce Secretary and the former publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, has been targeted by a probe by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for possible improper lobbying while he was a HUD deputy secretary. It appears there will be no criminal charges but the Jones matter will be part of a Capitol Hill hearing today. Republicans are certain make some political hay out of the matter. Full disclosure, I worked part time for Richmond’s Style Weekly (still do) when Jones was Pilot publisher and oversaw Style. I know him personally.

Chart of the Day: Virginia’s Land Inventory

Virginia_land

Disappearing..

Disappearing..

This 2010 Natural Resources Inventory data was published back in October but I haven’t seen anyone do anything with it, so… here it is. Key stats: Of Virginia’s 27.1 million acres of surface area, 1.3 million were developed between 1982 and 2010. Dig into the details, and you’ll find that cropland and forest are declining the fastest, while pastureland saw a small increase.

The silver lining is that — nationally, at least — the conversion of land to developed uses peaked in 1992-1997, and has been slowing ever since. As Payton Chung observes in Greater Greater Washington, “suburban sprawl” (i.e. scattered, low-density development) may have peaked 20 years ago. The slowing of sprawl may have contributed to the leveling off of Vehicle Miles Traveled in the mid-2000s. And there is every indication that land conversion and VMT have slowed even more in the current decade.

slowdown

– JAB

What E-Cigs Mean for Tobacco-Happy Virginia

e-cig adsBy Peter Galuszka

A couple of weekends ago, RVA Vapes, brightly lit with colorful lights, held its grand opening in Richmond.

It’s one of a rising number of new outlets that cater to “vapers” or people who use electronic cigarettes. There are plenty of such stores, many decorated in a 1960s head shop style from Arlington to Virginia Beach not to mention the rest of the country. I was there for a Style Weekly cover story which ran just as Business Week (ironically, my old employer) ran its cover piece on e-cigs.

E-cigs look like tobacco cigarettes and offer the same addictive kick of nicotine. But there’s no smoke, just vapor made up of water, nicotine and flavorings from bubble gum, to mango to cookies and cream. There is no tar and other deadly chemicals that allow tobacco smoking to take 480,000 lives a year. But it’s not quite certain just how safe unregulated e-cigs are.

This trend has enormous implications for Virginia which has genuflected before the Golden Leaf since the days of Jamestown. When the predecessors of today’s General Assembly sat down to do business, one of their first items of legislation was setting tobacco price supports.

Today, Altria and Philip Morris USA have their headquarters in Richmond as well as a huge manufacturing facility that is the last place in the country that makes Marlboros, the nation’s best-selling traditional cigarette.

Altria is a major player in philanthropy, giving to arts, municipal groups, sports and other causes throughout the state not to mention the District. Since 2000, Altria has given $3.8 million to Virginia political campaigns, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

E-cigs popped up from Asia and their growth has come organically up from the bottom with the help of small, independent entrepreneurs many of whom fit a counter-culture style. Big Tobacco is just catching up in a business that overnight has grown to about $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion. One expert I spoke with, Bonnie Herzog at Wells Fargo Securities, says that within a decade there will be as many e-cig “vapers” as there are tobacco cigarette smokers now.

So why is Altria so late in the game with e-cigs? Competitor Lollilard beat it by buying the “Blu” e-cig brand. Altria just started test marketing MarkTen e-cigs in Arizona and Indiana last year and is shelling out $110 million for another e-cig brand called “Green.”

One problem is that no one knows whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will regulate e-cigs as tobacco products. Doing so is problematic because the only related product is nicotine and one can get that from non-tobacco sources such as potatoes, eggplants and peppers, not to mention marijuana.

Altria employs nearly 4,000 in Virginia and many of those jobs depend on how well their employer can deal with the unmistakably downward trend on tobacco use, roughly about 4 percent less year over year. Altria has tried to diversify into wine and non-tobacco products but cigarettes still make up about 88 percent of its $23 billion in revenues.

Tobacco critics are not certain what to make of e-cigs yet. Matthew Myers, head of Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, says that e-cigs do not have many of the fatal ingredients of regular smokes but there’s still cause for concern. Nicotine, the central ingredient in e-cigs, is addictive and can be harmful, if not fatal, if ingested in sufficient quantities. It can cause birth defects if used by pregnant women and can hamper adolescent brain development. It boosts blood pressure and causes the heart to beat faster.

Plus, Myers says, there isn’t much quality control at places that sell e-cigs now, “so, you really don’t know what you’re getting.” Another problem he sees is that e-cig sellers are drawing from Big Tobacco’s tried-and-true advertising to make their products seem sexy and sophisticated. The problem is that young people mesmerized by Humphrey Bogart bedecked in a rumpled trench coat puffing away on a stogie might see the entire smoking experience as ultra-cool.

That positive vibe might be transferred from a e-cig to a real cig, revitalizing Big Tobacco’s lethal image. It could happen if Big Tobacco somehow dominates the e-cig trade and then uses it to expand its old product line rather than seeing e-cigs as a healthier replacement product.

A lot depends on what the FDA does and, for much of Virginia, how Altria responds.

Tar Heel Grief Just Down the Road

By Peter Galuszka

It’s sad to see mccrorytwo states to which I have personal ties – North Carolina and West Virginia — in such bad ways.

The latest raw news comes from the Tar Heel state where we are seeing the handiwork of hard-right- Gov. Pat McCrory who has been on a tear for a year now bashing civil rights here, pulling back from regulation there.

The big news is Duke Energy’s spill of coal ash and contaminated water near Eden into the Dan River, which supplies Danville and potentially Virginia Beach with drinking water. Reports are creeping out that the McCrory regime has been pressuring the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to pull back from regulation.

According to Rachel Maddow, DENR officials had stepped in with environmentalists as plaintiffs on two occasions in lawsuits to get Duke Energy to clean up coal ash. But when a third suit was filed, McCrory, a former Charlotte Mayor and career Duke Energy employee, influenced a third lawsuit settlement against Duke to be delayed.

Also, not long before the Eden spill, the City of Burlington released sewage into the Haw River which flows into Lake Jordan serving drinking water to Cary, Apex and Pittsboro. DENR allegedly did not release news of the spill to the public.

Late last year, Amy Adams, a senior DENR official, resigned to protest the massive cuts McCrory and Republican legislators were forcing at her department, notably in its water quality section.

McCrory’s been on a Ken Cuccinelli-style rip in other ways such as cutting back on unemployment benefits in a top manufacturing state badly hit by the recession and globalization. He’s shut down abortion clinics by suddenly raising the sanitation rules to hospital levels, much like former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell did in Virginia.

A reaction to McCrory is building, however. Recently, I chatted with Jason Thigpen who served in the Army and was wounded in Iraq in 2009. When Thigpen returned to his home in southeastern North Carolina, he was upset that the state was sticking it to vets by making them pay out-of-state college tuition in cases where some had been state residents before deploying. So, he started an activist group to protect them.

Next, Thigpen decided to run for Congress. His views fit more neatly with the Republican Party but he simply could not take what McCrory was doing in Raleigh so he became a Democrat and is a contender in a primary this spring.

Why the switch? “I just couldn’t see what the GOP was doing with my state in Raleigh,” He told me. “Also, I didn’t like what they were doing with women. I had served with women in war and they come back to North Carolina and they are treated like second class citizens,” he said.

West Virginia, meanwhile, is still struggling with its drinking water issues from a spill near Charleston. Although drinking water for 300,000 is said to be potable, children are reporting rashes.

Somehow, this conjures up another story involving a Republican governor – Arch Moore.

Back in 1972, Moore was governor when Pittston, a Virginia-based energy firm, had badly sited and built some damns to hold coal waste. After torrential rains, the dams burst and a sea of filthy water raced down the hollows, inundating small villages and killing 125 people. The state wanted a $100 million settlement from Pittston for the Buffalo Creek disaster, but Moore interceded and they settled for a measly $1 million.

Moore was later convicted of five felonies after he was caught extorting $573,000 from a coal company that wanted to reduce its payments to a state fund that compensated miners who got black lung disease.

Does anyone see a pattern yet?

Meanwhile, we in Virginia should breathe a sigh of relief considering just close it was dodging the bullet last election.

Yet Another Coal-Related Mess

dan river spillBy Peter Galuszka

More and more, “The War on Coal.” seems like “The War On Us.”

Just a few weeks after 300,000 people in the Charleston, W.Va. area were without drinking water because of a coal preparation chemical leaked into the Kanawha River system, another spill involving coal could threaten the drinking water of Danville and, even worse, the cities of Tidewater which get their drinking water from Lake Gaston.

On Sunday, Duke Energy found that 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water had leaked from an obsolete coal-burning power plant into the Dan River at Eden , N.C.

The Dan flows to nearby Danville and supplies it with drinking water. To be safe, officials in Virginia Beach stopped drawing water from Lake Gaston which is also fed by the Dan.

Officials can’t seem to say for certain just what the danger is from the spill. The Waterkeeper Alliance, a national environmental group, has done its own testing and reports:

“Laboratory results of Waterkeeper’s samples, also show that, compared to the levels found in a “background” water sample taken upstream of the spill, arsenic levels immediately downstream of the spill are nearly 30 times higher, chromium levels are more than 27 times higher, and lead levels are more than 13 times higher because of Duke Energy’s coal ash waste.”

As BusinessWeek points out, the two spills involving coal materials seem like a bad joke.

An even bigger joke is that activists have been warning Duke for 40 years of the dangers from coal ash, which is the waste from burned coal. There’s plenty of it in Virginia, too.

Where are the Koch brothers when you need them?

The McDonnell Track Record: Incremental Improvement

So long, farewell, adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehen, shalom.

So long, farewell, adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehen, shalom.

by James A. Bacon

Governor Bob McDonnell’s four-year term in office is drawing to a close. Sadly, it appears that the governor will be remembered mainly for his atrocious judgment in accepting more than $150,000 in gifts and loans from a Richmond businessman. While the Giftgate scandal deservedly dominated the headlines in his last year or more in office, it obscured the many accomplishments, mostly positive, of his administration.

I’ll let others re-hash Giftgate, if they are so inclined. I’ll focus instead on McDonnell’s legislative and administrative track record. With one very big exception — restructuring taxes to raise more money for transportation and pushing mega-projects of dubious merit — he did well. Perhaps his most unsung achievement, despite his reputation as a cultural conservative, was governing as a pragmatist. While there was no ducking the culture wars entirely during his tenure, he downplayed them.

McDonnell focused on pocketbook issues. He kept a tight lid on General Fund spending. He reduced unfunded liabilities $9 billion by restructuring state pensions from a defined-defined benefit program to a hybrid, defined-contribution program. He enacted sweeping reforms of the K-12 educational system. He did more to restore the civil rights of felons than any governor in state history, and his policies drove down the recidivism rate to the second lowest in the country. He invested heavily in environmental clean-up. Finally, he demanded significant reforms to the state Medicaid program before approving expansion of that program under the Affordable Care Act.

For whatever reason, most of these accomplishments garnered little attention. Virginia’s truncated press corps and shrunken editorial hole simply doesn’t allow for the kind of journalistic coverage the issues warrant.

I won’t dwell on the abominable transportation-funding package, which shredded any vestige of the user-pays principle in order to transfer wealth to drivers from non-drivers. And I’ll omit any commentary about the Charlottesville Bypass and the Bi-County Parkway, ill-conceived projects by any measure, and the U.S. 460 connector, a speculative economic development project coupled with Hampton Roads port expansion. Regular readers know that I am no fan of McDonnell’s transportation policy.

Upon entering office in 2010, McDonnell inherited a horrendous budgetary dilemma from his predecessor Tim Kaine. Rather than increase taxes, as Kaine had proposed, McDonnell reined in spending and resorted to a series of budgetary gimmicks — short-changing VRS contributions, accelerating tax collections on retailers — that he has mostly wound down. Since then, he has done a reasonable job of allocating resources within tight General Fund budgetary constraints. He had critics on the left who charge that he has not spent enough on education, mental health, Medicaid expansion, whatever. But those voices will never be satisfied. For the most part, he stood on the side of the taxpayers.

McDonnell has done a commendable job on the environmental front, investing $430 million in water-treatment and combined-sewer-overflow projects and reducing pollution runoff from agricultural and urban areas. Water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, still lamentably bad, turned the corner; oyster and blue crab populations rebounded. The Old Dominion posted a record number of clean air days in 2013. Under McDonnell, Virginia was the first state in the country to convert its vehicle fleet from gasoline to natural gas. And here’s a story you probably never heard: Virginia re-established its native elk herd population in Buchanan County; the goal is to reach 400 animals.

The governor’s most unheralded reforms came in education. Virginia increased the percentage of educational money going into the classroom from 61% to 64% of budgeted resources. The state doubled the number of K-12 STEM academies, enacted scholarship tax credits to facilitate school choice for poor families, established a transparent A-F grading system for schools and set up a failing-school takeover program. McDonnell also effectively eliminated teacher tenure and streamlined the grievance procedure.

The administration did a competent, if not inspired, job on the economic front. Despite sequestration and a slowdown of the federal-spending growth engine, Virginia added 193,000 net new jobs and unemployment fell 1.8 percentage points to 5.6% over his four years in office. Although McDonnell made job-creation a clear priority, he was satisfied to work largely within the antiquated institutional framework — agriculture, tourism, corporate recruitment, overseas trade missions — that has been in place for decades. He did push long-term reforms in workforce preparation, steering funding to programs in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines. And, using innovative public-private partnerships, he allocated billions of dollars to relieving transportation bottlenecks for Virginia’s ports in Hampton Roads. Less successfully, he tried to open up transportation access to the air cargo sector at Washington Dulles International Airport. McDonnell did very little to support smart growth; indeed, the administration back-pedaled on reforms implemented by the Kaine administration.

All in all, McDonnell will be remembered for his tweaks to existing priorities and institutions. One big reform — setting up the Office of Transportation Public Private Partnerships — likely will lead to innovative financing arrangements for all manner of projects, from toll roads to air rights over rail lines and interstates, from privatizing operation of the state’s traffic management centers to leasing out public right-of-way to cell-phone towers. Otherwise, the record has been one of cautious, incremental reform. In the final analysis, McDonnell will leave the state somewhat better than he found it but he did little to increase its long-term competitiveness as a place to live and do business.

Redneck Chic

duck_dynasty-620x412By Peter Galuszka

One of this country’s most popular past times is the constant spinning and re-spinning of cultural stereotypes for profit. I’ve actually only seen snippets of “Duck Dynasty” and have noted the cheap goods on sale under its brand in convenience stores. But it fits the bill.

The supposed patriarch of the A&E show (partly owned by Disney) is Phil Robertson, who told a magazine he regards homosexuality as “bestiality” and his subsequent suspension has been seized by the social right wing as evidence of government takeover.

Let’s get rid of that now. Robertson has the right to say whatever he wants. A&E, a private company, has the right to ditch or suspend the people it employs.

Both entities, however, are cashing in on stereotyping. One example of such profiling is Jersey Shore, which insults Italian-Americans everywhere by casting them as crude, chain-wearing idiots with lots of cleavage. The other beloved stereotype is that of the “Southerner” which takes certain regional and Scots-Irish traits and massages them into a blend of folksiness, racism, independence and pig-headed stubbornness.

For a Virginia version, go no further than former U.S. Sen. and Gov George Allen who affects cowboy boots and Dixie-fried down-hominess when he really grew up in Southern California.

Cable TV is littered with this genre. It includes the duck-call making family, rattlesnake hunters who drive all night from Tennessee to South Carolina to Texas and so on. The only one I have bothered to watch and do like (since it rings true and doesn’t stoop to rank patronization) is the one about the Eastern North Carolina loggers who brave cottonmouths and mud while ruining swamp forests.

Poking fun at Southerners and their supposed characteristics has been around for centuries. The sad part is that people actually believe what’s being portrayed.

Author James Dickey, a former ad writer turned professional Southerner, exploited this in his novel “Deliverance” where four coddled Atlanta guys have a bad canoe trip. They want to brave nature but one ends up dead and the other raped by cretin-looking mountain men.

The reality was that Dickey wrecked his canoe in a Georgia mountain stream and was actually rescued by the mountain folk who made sure he was all right and got him home. He apparently wasn’t raped. But when they filmed the popular movie they carried the stereotype even further. To depict a mountain child rendered to imbecility by in-breeding, they actually went to a local school’s special ed class, gave his family a few bucks and ducted his face with flour. But he did play a mean banjo.

Stereotype sustained and money made.

Now we have right wingers Sarah Palin, the failed presidential candidate, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal seizing the gauntlet thrown down by a thickly bearded reality tv star.

This is what social conservatives regard as important — a person’s absolute right to bash gays.

If you want to see where it leads, look no further than Vladimir Putin’s Russia where he has freed businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsy and members of the Pussy Riot punk band from prison to squelch opposition to his extreme policies against gays before the Sochi Olympics.

I don’t know Pussy Riot but I do know Khodorkovsy, having interviewed him back int he 1990s. He’s been in jail for 10 years for, among other things, trying to bring Western-style financial transparency to an oil firm.

No matter, let’s support Duck Dynasty’s right to bigotry in the name of freedom.

Sunday Morning Coming Down

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Peter Galuszka

With apologies to Kris Kristofferson, this Sunday morning presents a grab bag of interesting morning newspaper stories and positions. To wit:

GiftGate Update, Getting the Stories Straight: According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, Star Scientific boss Jonnie R. Williams Sr. told federal prosecutors he insisted on meeting personally with his then-buddy Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to make sure that McDonnell understood that Williams was lending Maureen McDonnell, the First Lady, $50,000 in 2011.

At the time the McDonnells were having serious debt issues because of some bad investments in vacation property. McDonnell paid back the loan, among to hers, but has consistently claimed he didn’t know about the loan to Maureen. His staff backs the claim in today’s TD story.

The Times-Dispatch also suggests that we’ll learn sometime after the election and before Thanksgiving if there will be federal indictments. Star Scientific has posted news releases saying it is in the clear. The Washington Post has reported that McDonnell’s defense has taken a blow because a judge is allowing prosecutors access to certain emails.

And, with today’s story, you have Williams and McDonnell directly contradicting each other. According to federal law, one doesn’t need a clear-cut, signed sealed and delivered “quo” for an indictment, just an attempt at doing something in exchange for something else. Some people on this blog keep saying “there’s no smoking gun,” which is a hackneyed and confusing phrase. What is the test for a “smoking gun?” It seems as if the feds are moving closer and closer to indictments.

 RTD Won’t Endorse Either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe: That’s even bigger news, showing how the staid old grey lady is changing for the better with Warren Buffett. Had J. Stewart Bryan still been publisher, you can bet they’d be for the Cooch, but maybe too much gay bashing got to the editorial board. It writes: “We find it impossible to endorse any of the 2013 candidates with even a minimal zeal.” The TD even went on a chose Democrat Ralph Northam over whack-job E.W. Jackson, another outrageous social conservative. They did go with Republican Mark Obenshain for attorney general, however.

Pouring Cold Water on the School Reform Craze: When one reads Bacons Rebellion, he or she is confronted with certain premises, Fox News style, that America’s public schools are in absolute shambles that only some weird combination of funding cuts, free market capitalism, terrorizing and shaming teachers and making a MOOC-age of our classrooms can correct.

Spin over to The Washington Post for a book review. The book, “Reign of Error” by Diane Ravitch, an education historian and adviser to both Bush I and Bill Clinton, pushes the idea today’s view that the problems of public schools are greatly exaggerated and solutions are being pushed by self-serving free-market types who want to make a profit somehow by “correcting” the schools.

There are problems, to be sure, but she writes: “The transfer of public funds to private management and the creation of thousands of deregulated, unsupervised, and unaccountable schools have opened the public coffers to profiteering fraud and exploitation by large and small entrepreneurs.”

Important stuff when you consider that some 90 percent of American’s children are in public schools. Only four percent are in charter schools. Come to think of it, Virginia has only five charter schools, which is rather incredible when you consider how much buzz they get in the right-wing echo chamber like this blog.

What “Boomergeddon?” Another common theme among conservatives that shows everything is coming apart is the general downgrade of the U.S. and not just its credit. True we had a hell of a mess this week, but it is wrong to assume that the U.S. is in some kind of death spiral, write Ely Ratner and Thomas Wright in the Post.

As the U.S. continues to recover from a terrific economic disaster, it is still making significant and steady progress. That is, compared to other companies. Anyone remember Jim Bacon’s book? It outlined the emergence of BIC (Brazil, India and China) to show just what chumps we Americans are. Turns out that Brazil’s growth is going from 7 to 1 percent, India’s economy has greatly slowed and China faces slowing growth and big inflation.

Now, that could be the real “War on Coal.” Now I’m not talking about EPA carbon dioxide regs; I’m talking about metallurgical coal exports from southwest Virginia to BIC steel mills. If their economies aren’t booming any more, maybe they aren’t using as much steel and don’t need as much met coal.

Let’s tell Jim Bacon. Anyone got his number?

“Near Certainty” on Humans and Global Warming

cooch-ageddonBy Peter Galuszka

Here’s some red meat for global warming deniers: A draft report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says there’s “near certainty” that humans cause global warming.

This is the group of hundreds of scientists and other experts who review global warming data under the auspices of the United Nations and are the ones deniers, especially gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Cuccinelli  and some ‘local bloggers,” love to attack.

In their latest draft, the scientists retreated “slightly” from their earlier predictions. They had said that the planet could rise by a low number of 3.6 degrees. Now they say it is 2.7 degrees.

That’s the low. If the number is closer to 5 degrees, there will be enormous consequences for planet earth by the start of the next century.

Climatologists, including former University of Virginia professor Michael Mann who figured in Atty. Gen. Cuccinelli’s witch hunt for emails, have criticized the report saying that experts have been bullied by politicians into softening their estimates. Mann said that the IPCC “has once again erred on the side of understating the degree of the likely changes.”

The larger point is that global warming is real and that humans are the most recent cause – however politicized the reporting process is.

Cuccinelli, meanwhile, seems to have gotten a lot more hay out of playing tough guy with Mann. His gubernatorial platform for Virginia’s economy is going nowhere, The Washington Post says.

In an editorial today, the Post notes that Cuccinellui’s slender plan does call for cutting business taxes by one third and personal income taxes by 13 percent. That would mean $1.4 billion lost in state revenue.

Sounds great. Also less filling. What Cuccinelli does not really say is what happens after you cut the revenue. Obviously services would have to be cut, but what businesses would want to move to Virginia if their workers have to contend with crappy schools and roads. Cuccinelli doesn’t address the problem.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, meanwhile, took time out yesterday to announce a $600 million plus budget surplus. Sounds great. But then, the government and his wife Maureen were also spending part of their day talking to federal prosecutors about whether they should be charged in connection with the Star Scientific case.

(Image from Style Weekly)