Category Archives: Labor & workforce

The Parental Backlash Against SOL Tests

SOL LogoBy Peter Galuszka

Although their numbers are small, more Virginia parents are refusing to have their children take the state’s Standards of Learning tests, saying that test preparation takes away from true education.

In the 2013 -14 school year, 681 SOL tests were coded as parent refusals out of the nearly three million given, with Northern Virginia, Prince William County in particular, having the highest number.

Some parents are annoyed that teachers in public schools spend so much time teaching how to take the SOLs, which are used to measure a child’s educational standing and also rate how well school districts are performing.

“Students can spend up to one-third of their time of the school year preparing for the tests and that is wrong,” says Gabriel Reich, an associate professor of teaching and learning at Virginia Commonwealth University. Last year, he refused to allow his fifth-grade daughter to take the tests.

It isn’t really clear if parents and their children have the legal right to take the tests or not. If parents refuse, the child gets a “zero.” That might go against the school’s overall rating.

How it affects the student isn’t clear. Continual refusals could keep children out of special programs, such as ones for gifted students. But students from private schools, where SOLs are not usually taken, regularly transfer to public schools with little problem.

In different parts of the state, parents have formed grass roots groups to educate and support parents who have concerns that the mania for standardized testing is hurting true education.

Throughout the state, ad hoc groups are forming where parents can meet and plan refusals. In Richmond, RVA Opt Out meets every third Monday evening of the month and has tripled its attendance in the past several years.

Confronting standardized testing is in part a reaction of politicians who insist that standardized testing is a primary – if not the only – way to make sure that students are being educated properly. Such tests have been around for years but got a strong boost in former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program of 2002.

Standardized testing has also been used as a weapon against teachers’ unions. Some politicians have suggested that data from SOLs and other tests be collated and configured to give individual teachers ratings that could be made public – something teachers associations bitterly oppose.

What’s more, SOL and other similar data have been used for purposes that have little to do with education. Realtors often collect schools’ performance data to push home sales in certain neighborhoods to give for sale prospects snob appeal.

Critics say that multiple-choice testing doesn’t always reflect a student’s ability to think or show what he or she really understands. It also doesn’t reflect creativity to draw, paint or perform or write music.

The anti-testing movement is growing nationally. In one case in New York state, about 1.1 million children in grades three through eight typically take reading and math tests. Last year, about 67,000 children skipped the tests.

The push-back is growing.

Finally, Tobacco Commission Gets Reforms

Feinman

Feinman

By Peter Galuszka

Virginia’s infamous tobacco commission appears to be finally getting needed reforms 15 years after it went into existence.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced today that he was appointing a new executive director, Lynchburg native Evan Feinman, ordering a slimmed down board of directors and requiring a dollar-for-dollar match on grants the commission doles out to support community development in Virginia’s old tobacco belt.

In another break with the past, McAuliffe is renaming the old Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission as the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

That might sound cosmetic, but any change is welcome given the commission’s history.

Since its formation after the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between 46 states and four large cigarette makers, the commission has been spending millions of dollars won from the tobacco firms supposedly to help tobacco growers in a region roughly following the North Carolina border wean themselves off of the golden leaf toward economic projects that are far healthier.

Instead, the commission has been racked by scandal after scandal, including the conviction of a former director, John W. Forbes II, for embezzling $4 million in public money. He is now serving a 10-year jail sentence.

The commission also figured in the corruption trial of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell since it was suggested my McDonnell as a possible source of funding for businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. during McDonnell’s trial for corruption. Williams, who was the star prosecution witness against McDonnell, got help from McDonnell in promoting one of his vitamin supplement products. McDonnell was convicted of 11 felonies and is now appealing.

The old commission also has been criticized by a major state audit for funding dubious projects and not keeping track of whether the money it has doled out has done much good. It had been criticized for acting as a slush fund for projects favored by Southside and southwestern Virginia politicians.

McAuliffe’s reforms include reducing the commission’s board from 31 to 28 members and requiring that 13 of them have experience in business, finance or education.

Feinman has been deputy secretary of natural resources and worked with McAuliffe’s post-election team.

It’s too soon, of course, to know if these changes will bring results, but anything that moves the commission away from its past and the grasp of mossback Tobacco Road politicians is welcome.

Measuring Educational Value Added

Lexington -- national center of value-added education.

Lexington — national center of value-added education.

by James A. Bacon

What are the top colleges and universities in Virginia? We know the usual roster, based upon the annual survey by U.S. News & World Report: The University of Virginia, College of William and Mary, and Virginia Tech. Essentially, U.S. News measures the prestige of an institution. But how well do colleges and universities actually actually prepare students to earn a living? That’s a very different question, and it’s one that that the Brookings Institution has set out to answer with a very different kind of study in “Beyond College Rankings: A Value-Added Approach to Assessing Two- and Four-Year Schools.”

A university can have immense prestige based upon factors such as the star power of its faculty, the size of its endowment or the average SAT scores of its student body. But if the faculty stars delegate much of their teaching to graduate students and the endowment underwrites the building of magnificent edifices, and if students spend more time partying than studying, prestige may not translate into effective learning. Conversely, an institution whose faculty members excel at teaching rather than, say, publishing books and winning research grants might actually do a better job of preparing their students for the world beyond.

eva

In the Brookings rankings, 100 is the highest score.

Based upon Brooking’s methodology, Washington & Lee University provides the most educational value added in Virginia, followed closely by Virginia Military Institute. Virginia Tech surpasses the University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary looks decidedly mediocre. The performance of Virginia’s community colleges looks especially dismal. It’s a very different profile than the U.S. News rankings that allow Virginians to proclaim that the Old Dominion provides the best undergraduate education of any state in the country.

Brookings compares actual economic metrics such as mid-career earnings, occupational earnings potential and repayment of federal student loans to the “expected” level based upon race, ethnicity, family income and academic preparation. The greater the gap between actual and expected, the greater the value added. It is important to note that this methodology does not capture all value from a college education, such as a person’s intellectual, artistic or spiritual development or a person’s preparation for civic or political participation. However, insofar as the primary justification most people give for attending college is to prepare for a career and increase their earnings potential, Brookings arguably captures the most important data.

Due to its immense prestige, Harvard University attracts some of the brightest students from across the country. Many of those students would be successful in life no matter where they attended college, or even if they dropped out. It’s no surprise that Harvard graduates earn a lot of money. As it turns out, Harvard still performs better than most institutions in adding value, giving a bigger edge to already advantaged students. But in terms of creating economic value added, Washington & Lee in Lexington, Va., out-performs Harvard, while VMI, also in Lexington, almost equals it.

A fascinating aside: One could argue that tiny Lexington is a national center of excellence for economic value-added education. One small Virginia town is home to two of the highest ranking institutions in the Brookings list.

Bacon’s bottom line: Brookings’ calculus is terribly complex and, truth be told, I have not had time this morning to do any more than skim the surface. I am in no position to evaluate the methodology, and I’m sure that many institutions (especially those who fare below expectations) will take exception to it. But I will say this: Brookings is asking the right questions. Educational institutions should be judged not on their prestige but upon their ability to deliver tangible value to students. If there are flaws in the Brookings approach, let’s fix them and keep moving.

Blankenship’s Incriminating Tapes

don-blankenship By Peter Galuszka

It may sound like something out of the Nixon White House, but embattled coal baron Donald L. Blankenship regularly taped conversations in his office, giving federal prosecutors powerful new ammunition as he approaches criminal trial in July.

According to Bloomberg News, the former head of Massey Energy taped up to 1,900 conversations that often go to the heart of the case against him. Blankenship was indicted last Nov. 13 on several felony charges that he violated safety standards and securities laws in the run up to the April 5, 2010 blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners.

The revelation of the tapes came about in a circuitous way. The tapes were given to federal prosecutors in 2011 by officials of Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Richmond-based Massey Energy in 2011 for $7.1 billion.

After reaching a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors, Alpha hired a powerful New York law firm to investigate Massey for any possible violations.

Alpha, based in Bristol, was required as part of a non-prosecution order it signed to surrender all evidence, including the tapes.

Earlier this year, Alpha declined to continue paying Blankenship’s legal bills since he was under criminal indictment. Blankenship, claiming Alpha was required to indemnify, him, sued Alpha in a Delaware court. The existence of the tapes was revealed in that venue.

According to court documents filed in Delaware, Blankenship seemed to know that his disregard and hardball management practices could hurt him.

The tapes show Blankenship’s disdain for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which regulates mines but also reveal Blankenship knew Massey’s practices were risky.

According to testimony, a tape has Blankenship stating, “Sometimes, I’m torn up with what I see about the craziness we do. Maybe if it weren’t for MSHA, we’d blow ourselves up. I don’t know.”

“I know MSHA is bad, but I tell you what, we do some dumb things. I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have them,” Blankenship said on tape in the Delaware case.

So far, little has been revealed about what evidence the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston, W.Va. has against Blankenship. Irene Berger, a U.S. District Judge in Beckley, W.Va., issued a massive gag order forbidding lawyers and even family members of the 29 mine victims from discussing the case, now scheduled for July 13 in Beckely.

The gag rules were order modified after the Charleston Gazette and the Wall Street Journal among other news outlets challenged them before the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

In some cases, apparently, the tapes cut both ways. In Delaware, Blankenship’s lawyers played a tape from 2009 which has Blankenship urging executives to tighten up on safety. “I don’t want to go to 100 funerals,” he is quoted as saying. He allegedly told Baxter Phillips Jr., then Massey’s president, that if there were a fatal disaster, “You may be the one who goes to jail.”

According to Bloomberg, Alpha initiated the internal probe after reaching a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors. It hired Cleary Gottleib Steen & Hamilton of New York to handle it.

Since Alpha refused to continue paying Blankenship’s legal bills, Blankenship reportedly has paid his lawyers $1 million himself.

The writer is the author of “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” 2012, St. Martin’s Press. Paperback , West Virginia University Press, 2014.

If Automation is Destroying So Many Jobs, How Come Labor Productivity Sucks?

productivity

by James A. Bacon

What accounts for persistently sluggish United States employment growth in the sixth year of an economic expansion? Some blame it on the Obama administration’s economic policies, others on broad economic trends such as robotics, artificial intelligence and the automation of jobs. The latter explanation has broad intuitive appeal because we can all see what ATM machines have done to bank teller jobs, and it doesn’t take much imagination to foresee the impact of, say, self-driving vehicles on the truck-driving professions a decade from now. Technology is obliterating entire occupations. While new jobs such as the manufacture of ATM machines or the writing of driverless vehicle software may arise from the new technology, according to this line of thinking, fewer jobs will be gained than lost.

People have made the same argument since Ned Ludd went around England smashing textile machines that were putting spinners and weavers out of work. Yet somehow, the most dire of forecasts never panned out. That’s true, acknowledge advocates of the automation hypothesis, but things are different this time. Technological change is accelerating and the economy is displacing workers faster than the economy can create new jobs.

That hypothesis is certainly one that I take seriously. But I’m not yet persuaded. Here’s why. If accelerating automation is behind the decimation of jobs, we would expect to see two things: (1) an increase in the number of jobs destroyed (as opposed to a failure to create new jobs), and (2) an increase in productivity, reflecting the fact that it takes fewer people (and more robots/AI) to produce a given unit of economic output.

The first matter is difficult to answer given the spread of part-time and contingent employment. We may be creating more jobs, but if they are part-time jobs or contract gigs, that’s not the same as full-time jobs. It’s all very hard to measure, so we can’t draw firm conclusions. But we can address the second issue. Productivity, rather than shooting through the roof, as one might expect if technology were automating millions of jobs, is lagging severely. From today’s Wall Street Journal:

U.S. worker productivity fell in the opening months of 2015, extending a poor track record since the recession and underscoring longer-term risks to American workers’ wages.

The productivity of nonfarm workers, measured as the output of goods and services per hour worked, decreased at a 1.9% seasonally adjusted annual rate in the first quarter from the previous period, the Labor Department said Wednesday.

That marked the second consecutive quarter productivity has declined, something that has happened only three times in the past quarter century.

Look at the chart above. Productivity performance in this economic recovery lags that of the three previous business cycles. If automation is destroying millions of jobs and increasing economic output per unit of labor, it’s not being reflected in the productivity numbers. It’s all but impossible to make the case that automation is accelerating.

Here’s another way to look at the issue. If robot/AI automation is decimating more jobs than in the past, one would expect to see the effects in other countries such as Japan and the Euro zone where job growth has been even more listless than in the United States. Surely productivity must be soaring in those regions of the world. But it’s not. Also from today’s Wall Street Journal:

productivity2
Productivity growth in the United States, as anemic as it is, exceeds that of Japan, the United Kingdom and the Eurozone. At least productivity has risen measurably here in the U.S. since the Great Recession; it has flat-lined in the other advanced economies. Unless you want to argue that U.S. businesses are slower to embrace new technology than the businesses of other countries are — and maybe there’s a case for that, but I haven’t seen it — then it would appear that factors other than accelerating automation would best explain the great productivity stagnation both here, in Japan and in Europe.

What might those other factors be? My hypothesis: The rise of the rent-seeking state in which the political class allocates an increasing share of society’s resources to entitlements, the protection of special interests and the commandeering of resources for environmental goals. That rent-seeking process has increased in the United States — I warned about it in “Boomergeddon” — but is even more advanced in Japan, the U.K. and the Eurozone. If we have an employment problems, our policies, not technology, is primarily to blame.

Private Immigrant Jail May Face Woes

Farmville jail protest

Farmville jail protest

By Peter Galuszka

Privatization in Virginia has been a buzzword for years among both parties. In this tax-averse state, contracting off public functions is seen as a wise and worthy approach.

But then you get debacles such as the U.S. 460 highway project. And now, you might have one brewing down in Farmville.

The small college town is in Prince Edward County, which gained international notoriety from 1959 to 1964 when it decided to shut down its entire school system rather than integrate. Many white kids ended up in all-white private schools and many African-American children were cheated out of an education entirely.

About six years ago, another creepy project started there – a private, for-profit prison designed exclusively to imprison undocumented aliens. It’s a cozy little deal, as I outline in a piece in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Farmville gets a $1 per head, per day (sounds like slavery) from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Immigration Centers of America, the private firm run by Richmond executives Ken Newsome and Russell Harper, gets profits. Then, in turn, also pay taxes to Farmville and the county.

The ICA facility, whose logo includes an American flag, pays taxes as well and provides about 250 jobs locally. The project even got a $400,000 grant from the scandal-ridden Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission for water and sewer works.

What might sound like a no-lose operation, except for the mostly Hispanic inmates who might have entered the country illegally, overstayed their visas, or had other bureaucratic problems, may face problems.

The census now at the jail is about 75 percent of what it could be. President Obama has issued an executive order that could free some five million undocumented aliens. It is being challenged by 26 states but Virginia Atty. Gen Mark Herring has filed an amicus brief in favor of Obama.

So what happens to Farmville if Obama wins? It could affect 96,000 aliens in Virginia. Could there someday be no prisoners? Wouldn’t that be too bad for Farmville?

Recent history is instructive. Back in the 1990s, Gov. George Allen, a conservative darling, was pushing private prisons in Virginia as he successfully got rid of parole in part of his crime crackdown. Slave labor was part of the deal.

Executive Intelligence Weekly wrote in 1994:

“Slave labor in American prisons is increasingly being carried out in what are called “private prisons.” In his campaign to “reform” Virginia’s penal laws, Gov. George Allen pointed to prison privatization as the wave of the future, a moneymaking enterprise for the investor, and a source of good, cheap labor for Virginia’s municipalities. Indeed, after taxes, pay-back to the prison, and victim restitution are removed, the inmate earns an average of $1 per hour in these facilities.”

Well guess what happened. Allen pushed for more public and private prisons. They were overbuilt. Demographics changed. Crime rates dropped. Prisons had to be shut down.

So, if immigration reform ever comes about what happens in Farmville? Don’t forget, the private jail came at a time when a construction boom, especially in Northern Virginia had drawn in many immigrants especially from Latin America. Their papers may not have been in order.

Neo-racists like Corey Stewart, chairman of the board of supervisors of Prince William County, ordered a crackdown on brown-skinned people who spoke Spanish. But when the real estate market crashed, fewer Latinos arrived. And, if they did, they avoided Stewart’s home county.

Wither Farmville?

Big Data: the New Wave of Wealth Creation

apt

by James A. Bacon

We’ve all been hearing more and more about “Big Data,” which arises from the ability of computers to collect and process unimaginably huge gobs of data and sophisticated mathematical equations to detect patterns and anomalies that can be used to drive business decision-making. Capital One used Big Data before it had a name to revolutionize the credit card business, and it’s one of the biggest, most profitable companies in Virginia. Now comes Arlington-based Applied Predictive Technologies, which just sold out to MasterCard for $600 million.

That’s a remarkable valuation for a 16-year-old company of 300 employees and revenues approaching $100 million. Humongous pay-offs like that are routine for Silicon Valley but they’re rare in Virginia.

“We will stay Ballston-based, but we will be growing faster,” APT chief executive Anthony Bruce told the Washington Post in an email. “Our opportunity to grow and expand will be accelerated by this partnership, in Arlington and elsewhere.”

Here’s how the company describes its product: “APT’s Test & Learn software is revolutionizing the way leading companies harness their Big Data to accurately measure the profit impact of pricing, marketing, merchandising, operations, and capital initiatives, tailoring investments in these areas to maximize ROI.”

An illustration can be seen in the graphic above. Drawing from data on retail and restaurant sales at more than 100,000 locations nationwide, APT charted the impact of the 2015 NCAA Final Four basketball tournament on restaurant sales in Indianapolis. The APT Index also integrates weather and demographic data to allow retail executives to ask an even broader range of questions. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how MasterCard could use its relationship with retailers globally to sell this as a value-added product.

Read “Data Crush” by Chris Surdak to get a feel for how Big Data will transform industry after industry in ways we mortals can barely comprehend. Big Data will blaze a path of creative destruction easily equal to that of the Internet.

Bacon’s bottom line: Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be lawyers. Engineers and computer programmers will make a decent living in the economy of the early-mid 21st century, but if you want your kid to have a shot at becoming the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, tell them to major in any branch of mathematics that lends itself to Big Data analytics.

If you want an argument in favor of STEM education (the “m” stands for mathematics), this is it. The Big Data revolution may have started in the United States, but the industry will move to wherever there are pools of mathematically gifted employees. We neglect mathematical instruction at our peril. (So says the guy who couldn’t tell you the difference between sines, cosines and tangents, much less between integral and differential calculus, much less actually compute anything requiring a retention of anything beyond 8th-grade algebra. I’m a dinosaur but at least I know it.)

The Microtransit Revolution Has Arrived

Oren Shoval and Daniel Ramot, founders of New York's Via private transit system.  “Our goal is to transform public transit from a regulated system of rigid routes and schedules to a fully dynamic, on-demand network,” they say.

Oren Shoval and Daniel Ramot, founders of New York’s Via private transit system. “Our goal is to transform public transit from a regulated system of rigid routes and schedules to a fully dynamic, on-demand network,” they say. What does it take get these guys to come to Virginia?

by James A. Bacon

The smartphone-engendered revolution in urban mobility may have a new name: microtransit. At one end of the transportation is our old friend, the automobile. At the other, we have trains and buses, collectively labeled mass transit. But there is an emerging in-between option, which Lisa Nisenson, writing in the Strong Towns blog, dubs micr0-transit.

Eric Jaffe, a senior associated editor at CityLab, picked up the term in an article last week headlined “How the microtransit movement is changing urban mobility.”

This, of course, is the same phenomenon that I’ve been blogging about on Bacon’s Rebellion for years. As soon as Uber demonstrated that (a) it was possible to connect riders with vehicles through smartphones and (b) algorithms could optimize the number and locations of vehicles in the fleet to accommodate consumer demand for Uber’s car rides, it was only a matter of time before competitors figured out how to do the same thing.

Following Uber’s lead, there have been literally dozens of start-up enterprises — Bridj, which has started service in the Washington region, is the one I featured recently on the blog — that provide flexible new transportation services. To quote Jaffe:

Commuter buses like Leap Transit or Chariot in San Francisco or Bridj in Boston (and now Washington). Dynamic vanpools like Via in New York. Carpool start-ups like Carma. True cab-share options like UberPool (now claiming millions of trips) or LyftLine (now with fixed-point pick-ups). Company and housing shuttles like the Google bus belong in the mix, too.

What you might not appreciate is just how crowded this microtransit space has become. The start-up platform Angel List’s “public transportation” page, currently with 177 projects, seems to grow daily. Its general “transportation” page lists more than 1,000 ventures, and some services like Uber that insist on being labeled “technology.” Plenty of local entrepreneurs don’t bother with the list at all (like a new Omaha bar shuttle). One company, TransLoc, is even building an entire flex-transit platform to help public agencies to join the fray.

Jaffe describes three ways in which microtransit might be a good thing for the world. These fleets of networked cars, vans, minibuses and other vehicles might lure people out of the single-occupancy vehicles. They might identify and serve new niches markets of under-served populations. And they might function as feeders to existing mass transit enterprises, bolstering passenger volume and revenue.

Alternatively, suggests Jaffe, microtransit might not be so good. It might compete with mass transit, “poaching” bus and rail riders in dense transit corridors, requiring more public funding to keep the mass-transit enterprises afloat. While microtransit undoubtedly would take automobiles off the road, microtransit vehicles would be running non-stop — conceivably generating more Vehicle Miles Traveled. Finally, microtransit might “drift into the sort of exclusivity that violates public transit’s equity mission.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Anyone interested in the future of transportation should read Jaffe’s piece. It provides a cogent summary of key issues surrounding microtransit. However, I beg to differ on a couple of key points.

First, an omission from Jaffe’s list: We may not know whether microtransit will result in more or fewer Vehicle Miles Driven, but the phenomenon almost certainly will require fewer cars to deliver the same amount of miles traveled. Fewer idle cars sitting in parking lots means less space — potentially thousands of acres less — for the storage of cars will be required. Anything that allows the nation to recycle parking lots into economically valuable property will stimulate urban economies across the country.

Second, I don’t worry about a move to “exclusivity.” The momentum is in exactly the opposite direction. Uber started out providing a luxury ride service, competing with limousines as much as taxicabs. The company has moved decisively toward the mass market. And if Uber doesn’t make the jump to less affluent riders, others will. In business revolutions like this, start-ups almost always target the most lucrative market slices first — they go for the biggest, fattest profits they can get while they can get it. As long as there are low barriers to entry, as in the case of microtransit, the upscale markets quickly get saturated and businesses migrate to under-served market segments.

My prediction: It is only a matter of years before microtransit begins providing vastly superior transportation services to the poor, as measured by cost of service and flexibility of routes, than they are getting from many municipal bus companies. Public mass transit will bleed customers and face an existential threat. Many will not survive. But the riding public will be better off.

Obessions of Inequality

Graphic credit: "Geographies of Opportunity"

Graphic credit: “Geographies of Opportunity”

by James A. Bacon

Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, authors of “Geographies of Opportunity,” provide a state-by-state and congressional district-by-congressional district measurement of “well being” across the United States. Overall, Virginia fares reasonably well in the report, scoring 11th overall. Well being is determined by a set of measures for life expectancy, education and median income. But state averages can mask a lot. Indeed, Virginia stands out for the inequality of income and well being inside its borders.

The premise of the report is that there other ways to measure progress than by the usual metrics of economic growth. The study draws upon the United Nation’s Human Development Index to measure three “fundamental human dimensions” — a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living. “There is a broad consensus that these three capabilities are essential building blocks for a life of value, freedom and dignity.”

The Index score for the United States as a whole is 5.06. Connecticut is the best off, with an index of 6.17, and Virginia comes in at 11th at 5.47. Mississippi (no surprise) comes in last at 3.81. (Play with the data here.)

Burd-Sharps and Lewis also break down the numbers by congressional district. Virginia has three of the top 20 districts in the nation ranked by well being — the 8th (Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax), the 10th (Manassas to Winchester), and the 11th (Reston to Quantico). And it has one of the poorest — the 9th, in the far Southwest.

OK, what does all this tell us? I’m really not sure. Other than obsessing about what we all know to be true — there are huge wealth gaps in the United States — the study doesn’t tell us much. Gee, there’s a link between education level and health? Who would have figured? And there’s a link between income and health, too? Gosh, tell me more.

In a sidebar, the study notes how the ethnically pluralistic residents of the 8th district in the affluent Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., live eight years longer than the predominantly white residents living in the isolated mountains of Southwest Virginia. Longevity in affluent U.S. congressional districts exceeds that of Japan. Longevity in the poorest districts, like the 9th, compares to Gaza and the West Bank.

So, what do we do about it? Improving human development outcomes in Appalachia, the authors opine, “requires greater investment in peoples’ capabilities to thrive in the new economy” — specifically, a high-quality pre-school experience.

But elsewhere we read that the higher the proportion of foreign-born residents in a congressional district, the longer the district’s life expectancy. In sunny California, there is a “surprising” 3.2-year life expectancy gap in favor of foreign-born Latinos as compared to their U.S.-born counterparts. Surprising — really? It’s only surprising if you think that the only meaningful determinants of public health are education and income levels, and that culture has nothing to do with it. As it turns out, the longer poor Latinos live in the U.S. and adopt fast food-heavy diets, the greater their risk of obesity-related illnesses.

Now that would have been an interesting angle to pursue. When affluent populations have better health outcomes than poor populations, the assumption is that the difference can be attributed to superior access to health care. Surely some of it is. But how much is due to different diets and lifestyles? Are there strategies that attack health problems more directly than, say, by increasing spending on pre-K?

Another thing that irritated me was the failure to adjust incomes for cost of living. If the purpose is to compare well being, the cost of living is a major consideration. The authors contrast Connecticut and Wyoming, states with similar GDPs per capita, in the $65,000 to $68,000 range. “Does this mean that the people living in these two states enjoy similar levels of health, education and living standards?” the authors ask. “It does not. Connecticut residents, on average, can expect to outlive their western compatriots by nearly two and a half years, are 40 percent more likely to have bachelor’s degrees, and typically earn $6,000 more per year.”

Here’s what the study doesn’t bother to tell you. According to CNN Money’s cost of living calculator, earning $50,ooo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is the equivalent of earning $64,900 in Hartford or $76,600 in New Haven. Incomes are lower? Yes, but the dollar stretches 30% to 50% further. The question I would ask is this: How is it that the residents of Wyoming, who aren’t nearly as well educated as the residents of Connecticut, manage to earn higher incomes on a cost-of-living-adjusted basis?

As an aside, let’s talk about income disparities within congressional districts. Which state do you think has greater disparities of vast wealth and poverty in close proximity — Wyoming, a state of cowboys and coal miners, of Connecticut, a state of inner-city poor and hedge-fund billionaires?

For a document entitled, “Geographies of Opportunity,” this study has almost nothing to say about the economics of opportunity. It has nothing to say about strategies that poor people can pursue to lift themselves out of poverty or lead healthier lives. All recommendations call for an activist and interventionist government. Promote health by cracking down on smoking. Regulate food advertising. Invest public dollars in recreational facilities and (a remedy I actually agree with) in more walkable neighborhoods. Expand pre-school programs. Keep teens in high school until they graduate. Raise the minimum wage. The list goes on with a host of suggestions that have absolutely nothing to do with the data presented. As for the one sure-fire way to wage raises for the poor — create conditions conducive to economic growth so that companies hire more workers, drive down unemployment and bid up wages — it doesn’t warrant a mention.

The numbers in this study are potentially useful. The analysis and recommendations are not.

Dave Brat’s Bizarre Statements

 By Peter Galuszka

Almost a year ago, Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor at Randolph- Macon College, made national headlines when he defeated Eric Cantor, the powerful House Majority Leader, in the 7th District Brat Republican primary.

Brat’s victory was regarded as a sensation since it showed how the GOP was splintered between Main Street traditionalists such as Cantor and radically conservative, Tea Party favorites such as Brat. His ascendance has fueled the polarization that has seized national politics and prevented much from being accomplished in Congress.

So, nearly a year later, what has Brat actually done? From reading headlines, not much, except for making a number of bizarre and often false statements.
A few examples:

  • When the House Education and Workforce Committee was working on reauthorizing a law that spends about $14 billion to teach low-income students, Brat said such funding may not be necessary because: “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and the Plato trained Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”
  • Brat says that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a step towards making the country be more like North Korea. He compares North and South Korea this way:  “. . . it’s the same culture, it’s the same people, look at a map at night, half the, one of the countries is not lit, there’s no lights, and the bottom free-market country, all Koreans is lit up. See you make your bet on which country you want to be, right? You want to go to the free market.” One problem with his argument:  Free market South Korea has had a single payer, government-subsidized health care system for 40 years. The conservative blog, BearingDrift, called him out on that one.
  • Politifact, the journalism group that tests the veracity of politicians’ statements, has been very busy with Brat. They have rated as “false” or “mostly false” such statements that repealing Obamacare would save the nation more than $3 trillion and that President Obama has issued 468,500 pages of regulations in the Federal Register. In the former case, Brat’s team used an old government report that estimated mandatory federal spending provisions for the ACA. In the latter case, Politifact found that there were actually more pages issued than Brat said, but they were not all regulations. They included notices about agency meetings and public comment periods. What’s more, during a comparable period under former President George W. Bush, the Federal Register had 465,948 pages, Politifact found. There were some cases, however, where Politifact verified what Brat said.
  • Last fall, after Obama issued an executive order that would protect up to five million undocumented aliens from arrest and deportation, Brat vowed that “not one thin dime” of public money should go to support Obama’s plan. He vowed to defund U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services but then was told he couldn’t do so because the agency was self-funded by fees from immigration applications. He then said he would examine how it spent its money.

The odd thing about Brat is that he has a doctorate in economics and has been a professor. Why is he making such bizarre, misleading and downright false statements?