Category Archives: Entitlements

Fracking Our Pristine Mountain Forests

GW forestBy Peter Galuszka

Is nothing sacred? Of all groups, the U.S. Forest Service should protect the lands it controls, but today it introduced a plan that would allow limited hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest which straddles Virginia and West Virginia.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had opposed lifting the ban, although he supports other proposed gas projects in the state, such as the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would stretch from the fracked gaslands of Northern West Virginia over the mountains and southeastward to Southside and Hampton Roads and North Carolina.

Forest lands help supply drinking water to 4 million people including those in Richmond and Washington. Some of the forest land has so-called “Karst” topography made up of rock formation that can be dissolved. In those conditions, any leakage of methane, or the toxic, powerful chemicals used in fracking would be more, rather than less, likely to poison drinking water.

The only good news out of the new USFS plan is that before some 995,000 acres could be available for drilling and that amount will now be limited to 177,000 acres.

But what can’t they let it all be? If you head west where the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation has become one of the mega-meccas of fracked gas, you hear of impacts of all types from drilling. These have included fire, explosions, diesel generators roaring 24/7, drinking water effects, bright floodlights and so on. In fact, I am embarking on a drip in about an hour that will end up in frack-land and will report when I get back.

To be sure, natural gas drilling has been going on for decades in the Appalachian Plateau of the western slopes of the Appalachians. Few pipelines crossed eastward over mountains and it was rare to find many drilling rigs in those areas.

But the fracking craze continues unabated and is now a $10 billion industry in the Marcellus Shale formation. One potential new target could be a different formation that starts from Fredericksburg and slips under the Potomac northeast into Maryland. A Texas firm with a letter drop address has been talking about leasing rights for fracking. One assumes that if the leases are in place, they’ll be quickly flipped to an actual drilling company, but you won’t know who. Virginia is only in the very early stages of setting up state rules for fracking.

Environmentalists say natural gas can be an even worse carbon polluter than coal should methane be released. Some others believe that the biggest damage comes not from the actual fracking process with millions of gallons of water and chemicals but from faulty wells.

One can make an argument that gas is good because it has completely reorganized the global pecking order in terms of energy. It means the U.S. need not be beholden to machinations of the Middle East, Central Asia and the likes of Vladimir Putin.

What bothers me is the rush to frack. I remember back in the 1960s in West Virginia when mile after mile of mountain side had been ripped apart by surface miners. It was a cheap way to get at coal. Mystery companies were supposed to reclaim the mine site but rarely did because they’d bankrupt one alphabet soup firm merely to create a new one.

The fracking craze, if not properly regulated, could yield even worse environmental disasters.

Takeaways From the GOP’s Big Win

gillespie warnerBy Peter Galuszka

The night of Tuesday, Nov. 4 was an ugly one for the Democrats and a big win for Republicans. Here are my takeaways from it:

  • U.S. Sen.Mark Warner clings to a tiny lead that seems to grow slightly, still making it uncertain if opponent Ed Gillespie will ask for a recount. The surprisingly tight race is an embarrassment for Warner. It likely takes him out of consideration to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016 although Democrats Tim Kaine and Jim Webb are still possibilities.
  • Ed Gillespie ran a smart campaign and came off as a solid candidate. Of course, we are comparing him against Kenneth Cuccinelli and that’s a very low bar but Gillespie’s projection of being relaxed and confident helped him. Gillespie did very well despite being dissed by the national Republican money machine. Look for him in the gubernatorial race of 2017.
  • Barack Obama takes his lumps — again. The country’s on the mend and things are going fairly well (despite what you may watch on Fox), but Obama is incapable of cashing in on that. His cool, detached style is a big minus and makes him seem careless and incompetent, especially when crisis like ebola come up that are not of his making.
  • The Republican wins on Capitol Hill are more significant than the Tea Party inspired once during the 2010 midterms.But the earlier races brought in a kind of mindless negativity and gridlock by both parties that truly hurt the country. Will that happen again? Or will older, wise heads prevail?
  • Increase in coverage my Obamacare The New York Times

    Increase in coverage by Obamacare
    The New York Times

    You might get some bipartisan action on taxes and the budget, but deadlock remains for Affordable Care and immigration. The fact is that Obamacare is too far along to change much and people actually like it, despite what you hear in the right-wing echo chamber. This chart from the New York Times shows that the ACA has boosted health coverage in some of the poorest parts of the country, such as the Appalachian coal country, the African-American belts of the Deep South; and poor parts of the Southwest like New Mexico and parts of Arizona. This alone is a big success.

  • Immigration. Look for Obama to use executive authority to come up with an immigration plan. It is an emotional, hot button issue that reveals lots of ugly attitudes. But something needs to be done fast. The GOP has no plan, except for George W. Bush who actually pushed a workable solution that was compassionate. That got soaked by the Tea Party, but then Republican Mitt Romney came up with a health care plan for Massachusetts that looks remarkable like Obamacare and was a precursor. If the GOP can get back to those helpful ideals, there may be hope.
  • Warner lots big swaths of voters who had been with him, like Loudoun County and parts of rural Virginia. This is alarming for the Dems and shows they need to project their messages a lot better. Warner’s poor performance in debates didn’t help either.

It is a big win for the GOP, but somehow I don’t feel as bitter as I was in 2010.

Steve Nash’s Important Book

Nash bookBy Peter Galuszka

Stephen Nash, a former journalist who teaches at the University of Richmond, has written an important new book about how climate change could affect Virginia. His detailed reporting is impressive and I think he shatters the arguments of global warming deniers.

Here is a book review I did for Style Weekly:

“Imagine it’s a fall day in 2114. You get ready for a jog down by the James River.

It’s pleasant by the towering palm trees, but you must keep an eye out for alligators and the venomous cottonmouth moccasins as big around as your thigh. It’s best to exercise early because the rest of the day will be typically steamy and windless.

This is what Richmond very well could be like within 100 years if carbon-dioxide emissions stay at the same levels as today. Virginia’s climate could warm up to something like that in northern Florida, according to Stephen Nash, a part-time journalism professor at the University of Richmond in his new book, “Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests” (University of Virginia Press).”

To read more, click here.

Brat’s Strange Immigrant-Bashing

BratBy Peter Galuszka

It must have been an interesting scene. Congressional candidate David Brat had been invited to a meeting of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce along with his Democratic rival Jack Trammell to outline his views on immigration and undocumented aliens.

Brat, an obscure economics professor who nailed powerhouse Eric Cantor in a Republican primary for the 7th Congressional District in June, danced around the topic, according to a news account.

It took several attempts to get him off his spiel on just how wonderful free market capitalism is to actually address the issue at hand. Before him were a couple dozen business executives, many of them Hispanic.

They, naturally, were interested in Brat’s views because of his over-the-top Latino-baiting during the primary campaign. One of Brat’s ads trumpeted: “There are 20 million Americans who can’t find a full time job. But Eric Cantor wants to give corporations another 20 million foreign workers to hire instead.”

Finally, Brat claimed, “I have never said I’m against legal immigration.” He later said, “nations that function under the rule of law do well.” Brat also said he wants to “secure” the U.S. border with Mexico. Trammell said he supports the DREAM Act that could provide a path to U.S. citizenship for some of the 11 million undocumented aliens in this country.

Brat’s immigrant-baiting and his “rule of law” smacks of a lot of ugliness in American history. “Know–Nothings” of white Anglo Saxons beat and harassed Catholic immigrants, primarily from Ireland. Chinese were harassed on the West Coast and Japanese-Americans were locked up in concentration camps during World War II. Jewish newcomers were met with restrictive covenants and college quotas.

In Richmond during the 1920s, efforts by Catholic Italian-Americans to build a monument to Christopher Columbus were fought by the Ku Klux Klan, which insisted that any such statue not dirty-up Monument Avenue and its parade of Confederate generals. Columbus had to go elsewhere in the city.

There’s a new twist and judging from Brat’s behavior on Tuesday. He seems uneasy by getting so out front on immigrant-bashing. He’s not the only Republican to take such strident stands. Look at New Hampshire, where Scott P. Brown, a Republican, faces Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, in a closely-watched race for the U.S. Senate.

Groups backing Brown, such as John Bolton, the surly former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, have run anti-Shaheen ads showing throngs of people clambering over a border just before showing Islamic militants beheading James Foley, a journalist and New Hampshire native, according to the New York Times. The ad was pulled after the Foley family complained, the Times says.

A major coincidence is that the Times‘ description of New Hampshire almost matches that of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. Neither seems a hot bed of immigrant strife and threats.

The Granite State has one of the smallest populations of illegal immigrants in the country, the Times says. Of the state’s 1.3 million residents, only 5 percent are foreign-born and 3 percent are Hispanic.

The Virginia district has a population of 757,917 of whom 12.7 percent are foreign born and 4.9 percent are Hispanic. Most of the residents, 74.3 percent are white.

The district runs from the largely white and well-off western Richmond suburbs in Henrico and Chesterfield Counties and scoots northwest across mostly rural farmland to east of Charlottesville and up to Madison. With only 7.6 percent of the people living below the poverty level, it isn’t exactly a barrio of Los Angeles.

It is hard to imagine hordes of brown-skinned people swarming from up Mexico or Central America displacing the managerial executives, small business people and farmers in the Seventh. People that Brat seems to be worried about are employed in other nearby areas, such as the poultry plants of the Shenandoah Valley. But those workers are there because of local labor shortages. One wonders where Brat gets his ideas that illegal immigrants are going to steal true-blue American jobs in his district.

Last June during the primary, there was plenty of news about thousands of young Hispanic children coming across the southern border from Central America. At the time, there were estimates that up to 90,000 such children might come illegally into the U.S. this year. Many are fleeing gang violence in their homelands.

This is apparently what Brat is running against – a bunch of poor, 12-year-old Nicaraguans out to steal jobs and provide cover for Islamic terrorists. Their plight is a serious issue, but it is a humanitarian one. Brat chose to make it an odd classroom lesson in economics. He says the U.S. should not put up “green lights” and “incentivizing children from other countries to come here illegally and at their own peril.”

The news from the border seems to have calmed down since June. Brat may have found that now it is likely he’s going to Washington, playing the Hispanic-baiting card may not work as well on the national scene as it apparently did in his mostly-white district. It could be why he was hemming and hawing so much before the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Illegal immigrant Ayn Rand

Illegal immigrant Ayn Rand

Perhaps other Republican politicians are having the same epiphany. As the New York Times writes: “Republicans have long relied on illegal immigration to rally the conservative base, even if the threat seemed more theoretical than tangible in most of the country. But in several of this year’s midterm Senate campaigns — including Arkansas and Kansas, as well as New Hampshire — Republicans’ stance on immigration is posing difficult questions about what the party wants to be in the longer term.”

There’s another strange contradiction with Brat. He’s a former divinity student interested in probing how unfettered free market capitalism can magically make the right choices for the betterment of mankind.

He draws a lot of his thinking from Ayn Rand, the famous thinker, refugee from the Bolsheviks and backer of her own brand of anti-government capitalism.

It may interest Brat that by today’s standards, Rand would have been an illegal immigrant.

Et Tu, McAuliffe?

mcauliffeBy Peter Galuszka

Sure, parents want to help their children but in the case of former State Sen. Phillip Puckett, it is getting ridiculous.

And the latest disclosure in this morning’s Washington Post makes the Terry McAuliffe administration look just as sleazy as their Republican counterparts.

Puckett, of course was a Democratic senator who held a key vote when McAuliffe, also a Democrat, was desperately trying to get past a GOP road block in the General Assembly to somehow expand Medicaid health coverage to some of the 40,000 low income people who might be eligible.

GOPers knew that Puckett’s daughter, Martha Puckett Ketron, wanted a job as a District Court judge but could not be appointed as long as she had a relative in the Senate. So, they pitched a deal where Puckett would resign on the eve of the key Medicaid vote, throwing the decision the Republican way.

In exchange, Puckett might get a six figure job with the infamous Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, thanks, in part to the influence of the powerful Terry and Jerry Kilgore brothers. That would clear the way for Puckett’s daughter’s judgeship.

It all came out and the FBI is probing.

Now, it turns out that, Paul Reagan, McAuliffe’s chief of staff, left a curious voice mail on Puckett’s phone on the eve of the vote. It suggested that Puckett’s daughter could get some kind of high profile state job if he stayed in the Senate and voted McAuliffe’s way.

So much for McAuliffe taking the high ground on ethics reform following the spectacular corruption conviction of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.

Tobacco Commission Needs Huge Makeover

tobacco leafBy Peter Galuszka

One more glaring example of mass corruption in Virginia is the grandly named Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission formed 14 years ago to dole out Virginia’s share of a $206 billion settlement among 45 other states with cigarette makers.

I’ve been writing for years about how millions of dollars are doled out with little oversight to economic development projects supposedly helpful to the former tobacco-growing parts of the state from the bright leaf belt around Dinwiddie out west to the burley leaf land of the mountains.

There have been no-strings giveaways to absentee tobacco quota holders, a board member sent to prison for siphoning off grant money and the shenanigans of the extended Kilgore family which is very politically powerful in those parts. The commission even figured in the McDonnell corruption trial starring the former and now convicted governor and back-slapping witnesses for the prosecution, entrepreneur and tobacco-believer Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

I revisit the issue in Sunday’s Washington Post and I ask the obvious question of why no one seems to watching the commission. I raise broader ones, too, such as why the commission  serves only people in the tobacco belt. That doesn’t seem fair since the Attorney General’s office represented all of the state in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement against four major tobacco firms. People in Hampton Roads, Arlington, Onancock and Winchester should be benefit but get nothing from the settlement. They didn’t  because tobacco road legislators pulled a fast one back in 1999 when they set things up.

There needs to be a thorough disassembling of the commission’s current governance structure with many more people far from Tobacco Road included. There’s far too much family and friend back-scratching as it is. It is like watching a vintage episode of the Andy Griffith show but it really isn’t funny.

(Hat tip to James A. Bacon Jr. who spotted the commission as a great story back in the year 2000 when he was publisher of Virginia Business).

So, please read on.

Boomer….Wha?

a-bomb peace signBy Peter Galuszka

Remember the federal deficit that lurked behind the corner? Where did it go?

Al Kamen of The Washington Post asks that question in a column today. He writes:

“Not long ago, the federal deficit was projected to destroy the country, our country’s future and just about everything else. The politicians and the news media regularly fretted about what to do. Budget battles shut down the entire government for a couple of weeks.”

He continues: “So, what happened? The simple answer, of course, is that the deficit is way down and, for now, is no longer a big problem.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last week that the deficit for f/y 2014 is $492 billion or 2.8 percent of GDP. That puts us back in the early years of the George W. Bush administration.

Hmm. Kinda of makes you wonder where all this out-of-control spending is coming from that the Tea Party types talk about so much.

It is off the media radar screen. The Post has a graphic showing that the words or mention of the “national debt,” federal debt” or “federal deficit,” reached a high around the first half of 2010. The conservative Washington Times the most at 18; The Post with 13; and the New York Times with 10. Now it’s around three.

This isn’t to say that federal spending doesn’t merit watching. But where is Jim Bacon when you need him?

Chart of the Day: Virginia’s Aging Population

aging

This graph comparing Virginia’s age between 1980 and 2013 comes from Luke Juday’s latest post over on the Stat Chat blog, published by the demographics shop the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. I urge you to check out the opening chart in his post to see an animation of the changes year by year. It’s fascinating to watch the bulging Baby Boomer generation crawling up the age ladder.

I would love to see a projection of Virginia’s demographic profile over the next 20 years. We would see the big Boomer blob move up, out of the workforce and into retirement age. The implications of that massive shift cannot be over-estimated. Virginia’s working-age population won’t be increasing in size — indeed, it probably will begin shrinking within a decade. Extrapolate that trend nationally, and you’ll understand why the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) maintains that the structural U.S. budget deficit — “only” $583 billion this year, according to the Obama administration’s updated forecast, will march relentlessly higher within a few years as the growing ranks of seniors put increasing stress on the Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs.

America still faces a Boomergeddon scenario, although we may have bought ourselves a few years’ grace. The CBO thinks that the slowdown in the growth rate of medical spending experienced since the 2007-2008 recession is a lasting phenomenon and will slightly bend the spending curve downward — enough to keep the Medicare Part A trust fund solvent through 2030. In February, the non-partisan budget shop had projected that the trust fund would run out of money in 2025, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The good news is that Congress has five more years to dither and procrastinate about reforming Medicare. The bad news is that Congress probably will take full advantage of that five years before making hard choices.

– JAB

Is the End of America’s Culture Wars in Sight?

Lind

Michael Lind

by James A. Bacon

Have the Culture Wars peaked? Is the national debate over God, Gays and Guns on the downward slide? Michael Lind, a conservative thinker and cofounder of The New America Foundation, thinks the end is foreseeable. Just as the Civil War didn’t end after Gettysburg — the Confederate states still had a lot of fight left in them — the controversy over abortion, gay rights and gun rights will generate headlines for years to come. But there isn’t much doubt who will win the war.

Look at the views of the Millennial Generation and you can see which way popular sentiment is heading. Millennials are far less likely than their elders to say religion plays an important role in their lives, and they are more likely to define themselves as social liberals. They are less likely to own guns and more likely to support gun control. They are the only demographic cohort in which a majority — 70% — support gay marriage.

As liberal Millennials replace conservatives from the G.I. Generation and the Silent Generation, will political power swing decisively to the Democratic Party? Not necessarily, writes Lind in “The Coming Realignment,” an essay in The Breakthrough. But there will be a massive shift in the fissures dividing the nation. How that will play out in terms of partisan politics is difficult to predict but rest assured that the Republican Party, a coalition of disparate and often fractious groups, will reinvent itself.

Lind analyzes contemporary U.S. politics along two great dividing lines: economics (free markets, regulation, inequality of wealth) and culture (guns, God and gays). Democrats represent the economic and cultural liberals; Republicans represent the economic and cultural conservatives. But there are many economic liberals/social conservatives (often called populists) and economic conservatives/social liberals (often labeled Libertarians) who don’t fall easily in either camp. As the social conservatives are slowly eased out of the picture, Lind argues, political coalitions will reorganize around two new poles: Liberaltarians and Populiberals.

Liberaltarian, a term already in use, describes “a broad camp including neoliberal Democrats skeptical of government in the economic sphere along with libertarian Republicans and independents who recognize the need for more government than libertarian ideologues believe to be legitimate.”

Populiberal, Lind’s coinage, describes “social liberals who share the liberal social values of liberaltarians, but who tend to be more egalitarian and to favor a greater role for the government in matters like social insurance, business-labor relations, and redistribution of income.”

Lind then boldly suggests that these two new coalitions will align themselves geographically between “Densitarian” and “Posturbia.” By Densitaria, he refers to the higher-density urban precincts, both downtowns and suburban villages, where higher-income Americans increasingly prefer to reside along with the service class that caters to their needs. Posturbia is comprised of lower-density suburbs and rural areas where the working and middle classes live. Residents of Densitaria and Posturbia will tend to disagree about the nature of the social safety net (should it be tailored to the needs of the most vulnerable, or should it structured more like universal social insurance?), the tax structure (soak the rich?) and the nanny state (using government power to combat obesity).

Though fascinating, Lind’s argument is not entirely convincing. He is entirely correct that the national sentiment is becoming more liberal on some Culture War issues, most notably gay rights. But I don’t believe the needle has moved much on abortion. And, as medical science advances, I think we will see entirely new ethical dilemmas arise. It won’t be long before genetic engineering allows people to create “designer kids” or before the use of manufactured limbs, hearts and organs on the one hand and the rise of robots imbued with Artificial Intelligence raises questions of what it means to be human. It is not hard to predict a growing revulsion against what some deem to be progress. Some of that revulsion may be religion-based, but much of it could be secular.

One additional point: Millennials are culturally liberal now. But will they stay liberal when they get married, settle down and have kids? Look what happened to the Baby Boomers. Who would have thought in 1968 that a majority of the generation would wind up voting Republican in 2012?

Still, I think Lind is right about some things. The shift toward equal rights for gays is likely to be permanent and, within a decade, no longer will be controversial. I also think Lind is right that the last remnants of racial prejudice are dying out with the passing of the older generations. As young “people of color” see race as less and less of a factor affecting their lives, they will be less attached to the Democratic Party and more open to appeals by Republicans.

In my spare time, I am working on a novel set in 2075. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking what the United States will look like in 60 years. I’ve concluded that the world is so complex and the interactions of technology, economics, politics and culture so impossible to predict that the future is unknowable. With that caveat, I postulate the break-up of the Republican Party into two entities — the Enterprise Party (which is economically conservative and culturally liberal) and the Faith Nation (which is first and foremost culturally conservative). In my scenario, the Enterprise Party hives off some people who call themselves Democrats today, and the Democratic Party shifts so far to the populist-redistributionist left that it rebrands itself as the Social Democratic Party. (In my novel, the Social Democrats predominate. I guess you could call it a dystopia!)

Such idle speculation aside, America has seen dramatic political realignments before, and it will see them again. Lind makes a provocative case and he identifies key dynamics that will influence the outcome. Popular dissatisfaction with Americans political institutions is so intense today that it’s hard to believe that the current two-party duopoly can long continue in its current form. Lind’s essay is as good a place as any to start thinking about what comes next.

More Defense Cuts Plague Virginia

Special deliveryBy Peter Galuszka

Virginia continues to see painful military spending cuts in the aftermath of the years’- long U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the latest news is that the Army may cut 3,600 jobs at Ft. Lee, ironically the site of a recent and large expansion, by 2020. That could result in a decline of 9,000 residents near Petersburg which is close to  the base.

Plus, the Air Force plans on cutting 742 positions at its Air Combat Command headquarters at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton although some of the positions are already vacant and won’t be filled.

These are just some of the changes that are affecting Virginia, which is the No. 2 defense industry state after California. Many of the cuts involve active duty personnel whose vacancies are not being filled or are being asked to take early retirement.

Defense industry jobs are likewise taking cuts. A report by the National Association of Manufacturers states that in 2014, California will lose the most military-related jobs (148,400) followed by Virginia (114,900) and then Texas (109,000). Maryland will lose 40,200 jobs, the report says.

Many of the jobs are in heavy manufacturing, such as aerospace and ship building, and search and navigational services, but general business and other services will also be affected.

The news is especially hard on Petersburg and nearby Ft. Lee which just a few years ago enjoyed a major boost after a Base and Realignment and Closure round consolidated many multi-service logistics and supply functions. The influx of thousands of soldiers, contractors and their families boosted the city and surrounding areas.

Hampton, the location of Langley Air Force Base, doesn’t seem to be in store for such heavy impacts since the cuts involve some jobs already being lost to attrition. Other bases and areas hurt by the Air Force cuts include Washington, D.C.; San Antonio; Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and Belleville, Illinois.

Newport News Shipbuilding, now owned by Huntington Ingalls Industries, could lose a deal to build one submarine and might delay another to build as Ford class nuclear attack carrier, if automatic defense budget cuts return in 2016. Another potential hit: refueling the nuclear-powered carrier George Washington but may mothball the ship if the budget cuts kick in. About 24,000 people work at Newport News Shipbuilding, making it the largest private employer in the state.

Besides the Washington area, Hampton Roads is greatly dependent upon defense spending. Some 47 percent of the regional economy depends on it. Anticipating more defense cuts, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell formed a commission to come up with ideas before he left office this year. One of them is to be pro-active and recommend cuts of its liking before the federal government acts.

One of its recommendations cuts both ways on environmental issues. It recommends against offshore oil and gas drilling in watery areas where the military trains, thus making them available over the long term. It likewise recommends against wind turbines in the same areas.

These are interesting, but very difficult choices.