Category Archives: Labor & workforce

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.

EPA Carbon Rules: Ask the SCC

The SCC: An Emerald Palace?

The Emerald Palace or the SCC?

By Peter Galuszka

Last week, State Corporation Commission drew attention when its staff wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at the EPA’s request, to respond to one of the biggest proposed steps the nation has seen in cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

The report sparked considerable interest and confusion over what the SCC staff actually meant when it predicted that proposed EPA rules to cut carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The staff report, written by William H. Chambliss, SCC general counsel, said that EPA’s proposed limits would cost Virginia ratepayers from $5.5 billion to $6 billion extra. It claims that the state would have to shut down fossil-fuel, predominately coal-fired, plants producing 2,851 megawatts and replace it with only 351 megawatts of land-based wind power. This would badly impact the reliability of the state’s power supply, the staff said.

My immediate question was why so much and where, exactly? Precisely what power stations would have to be shut down? Where did the ratepayer increase numbers come from? Is there is a list of all the coal-fired plants affected? Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility, has long-standing plans to shut down two aging power stations at Yorktown and Chesapeake with about 920 megawatts of power? How does that factor in?

So, I contacted Ken Schrad, the spokesman for the SCC, by phone and email and asked some questions. He kindly provided the following answers (in italics):

Where are the affected plants precisely?

The numbers come directly from the EPA’s own spread sheets and the EPA does not identify the specific units.” 

How many plants are coal-fired?

Of the 2,851 MW, EPA predicts 2,803 MW of coal units and 48 MW of combustion turbines which could be natural gas or oil-fired CTs. Assuming Yorktown and Chesapeake are included in the EPA estimate, SCC staff knows that those planned retirements total approximately 920 MW.  The output of those units varies depending on when operating (summer or winter).”

Where does the 351 megawatt of land-based wind power, the only available replacement source for the lost fossil-fuel power, come from?

“The 351 MW figure is also direct from the EPA’s analysis which does not identify where EPA believes these undeveloped projects would ultimately materialize.  As staff noted in its comments, the SCC has approved the only request the Commission has received for a certificate for a wind project (Highland New Wind).  Approved in December 2007, the project envisioned up to 20 turbines with each turbine capable of producing up to 2MWs.  That project has not been built.   DEQ now has regulatory responsibility for permitting most solar and wind projects in Virginia. “

How do you answer criticism from environmental groups that Virginia has already attained 80 percent of the EPA’s carbon reduction already?

“Staff has no information regarding this assertion, the costs incurred to reach such a figure, how that attainment level was achieved, or the starting point from which such has materialized.”

The SCC staff recommends that the EPA adopt “an alternative carbon emission rate of 1,216 pounds of carbon dioxide per Megawatt hour of power. The EPA is proposing tighter limits of 843 of CO2/MWh for plants to attain by 2020 and levels of 810 pounds of CO2/MWh for plants to comply by 2030 because it would be more affordable. How much more affordable would the SCC’s suggested rate be?

” Staff recognizes there will be a considerable amount of expenditures to achieve the alternative emission rate.  It is a level envisioned in the integrated resource plan (IRP) filed by the utility company and reviewed every two years by the Commission.  The projected cost to achieve that level has not been quantified.  Instead, staff made a conservative analysis of the impact of the EPA proposed standards resulting in its determination that the alternate carbon emission rate would not require an additional expenditure of $5.5 to $6 billion.”

The SCC staff says that attaining EPA goals could cost ratepayers an extra $6 billion. Dominion is considering a third nuclear unit at North Anna that might cost from $10 billion to $14 billion. Wouldn’t the ratepayers have to pay for that, too?

“If built, the costs of another nuclear unit would be recovered over the expected life of the unit which could be 60-80 years.  There is a disconnect between taking a net present value figure (staff comments) and comparing it to something that is not.  Also, the added nuclear unit is envisioned in one of the IRP compliance plans. So, that was factored into the conservative analysis performed by staff which produced the projected additional $5.5 – $6 billion figure.”

I also asked Ken why the SCC did not issue a press release about the SCC reply to the EPA. He said that the SCC does not normally issue a press release when it responds to requests by federal agencies for comment.

Fair enough, but I have a few takeaways on the other answers. I am still not exactly sure where the 2,851 megawatts-to-be-shut-down figure comes from.

Next, the SCC staff complains that when this amount of generation goes offline (assuming it actually does), there will be pitifully little left on the renewable side to replace it. The only plant sited is a 40 megawatt one in Highland County that was approved by the SCC in 2007 (a lifetime in renewable energy terms) and has yet to be built.

What about plants for offshore wind farms, not to mention Dominion’s own plans for an experimental offshore wind station? The answer seems to be that we don’t know because another agency (DEQ) now licenses that sort of thing. If that’s the case, one wonders why the SCC staff didn’t give the DEQ a ring on their phone and ask for a seven-year update on what’s doing in wind and solar? Instead, they used seven-year old figures, apparently to minimize the importance of renewable power in rather sweeping terms.

One reason why Virginia’s renewable percent is a low 6 percent, compared to its neighbors, is that the General Assembly has refused to set mandatory renewable portfolio standards that require 20 percent or so of future generation to come from renewables.

Why so? The first ones to ask are the utilities – Dominion, Appalachian Power and the cooperatives. It seems that they don’t want any threat to their grids that they have poured billions into over the decades. Talk renewable and they’re like babies crying for the base-loaded bottles.

In any event, Virginia is not the only state to question the EPA rules. Oklahoma has as well. Big industry doesn’t like the proposed rules either. And the EPA is asking regulators like the SCC for input. One can’t blame them for responding. Forgive me if I don’t understand their response.

Could Surry Be an 80-Year Nuke?

Surry1By Peter Galuszka

Here’s a new twist on the carbon emission debate: Dominion Virginia Power is considering seeking federal approval run its 40-plus year-old Surry nuclear power station for another 40 or so years.

The arguments in favor are that keeping the two-units at Surry (1,600 megawatts) going would be a lot cheaper than building a brand new plant. Nukes do not contribute much at all to greenhouse gases and climate change compared to coal or natural gas plants.

The huge issue, however, is safety. Can you really expect a nuke whose design dates back to the 1960s to run until 2054? Surry’s plants near Jamestown were once the most heavily fined in the nation because of their repeated safety problems. Constant use can affect any number of crucial components such as making reactor metal brittle, pulverizing concrete and becoming more susceptible to earthquakes and storms.

According to the New York Times, Dominion hasn’t decided whether to apply to extend Surry’s life span. Other possible extended life reactors are Duke’s three Oconee units near Seneca, S.C. and Exelon’s Peach Bottom not that far from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Dominion is also pushing ahead with a third new unit at North Anna, but the price tag for that apparently would be many times what extending Surry would be. But there are no hard figures about the cost of the new nuke ($10 billion to $14 billion, maybe) or how much Surry would cost.

The news is curious coming just as the staff of the State Corporation Commission came out with a curious report slamming proposal EPA rules on cutting carbon emissions. Although the SCC’s opinions are murky and badly-documented, it raises fears that a bunch of coal-fired generation in Virginia will be shut down due to EPA regs. Hot flash: a bunch was going to be shut down anyway because it dates back to the 1940s and 1950s.

I don’t know enough about the current Surry operation to know what and how extending its life would proceed and whether it would be safe.

That said, I refer to my own reporting past – the 1979 when I was a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. Another reporter and I spent weeks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s archives in Bethesda, Md. poring over safety documents. This was back when newspapers had the money to do that kind of reporting.

Our result was a big investigative piece that made banner headlines on the front page one Sunday with two full pages inside. I’d include the cite since it is too old to have one. We found a multitude of issues at Surry ranging from faulty radiation monitoring for workers to faulty snubbers which are rod-like shock absorbers to mitigate earthquake-like movements.

Dominion, then Vepco, hated the story and tried to tear it down. But Vepco was undergoing a corporate sea-change away from its institutional arrogance related to some extent by the former Navy submarine officers were not used to being questioned by outsiders. Vepco was getting hit by Wall Street because its sloppy nuclear program resulted in extended outages. They ended up hiring a ringer engineer who cleaned up their act and later the company transformed into something more modern.

Even so, a decade after we did our story, there were still plenty of concerns about safety at Surry.

The big question is how can you keep a car designed in the 1960s going strong nearly 100 years later? Maybe they have the answers in Havana.

More Coal Industry Propaganda

coal woman By Peter Galuszka

If you read a blog posting just below this (the one with the coal miner with an intense look on his grit-covered face), you will see how hyperbole, confusion, misunderstanding, ignorance and one-sided arguments twist something very important to all Virginians – how to deal with carbon dioxide and climate change – into a swamp of disinformation..

The news is that the State Corporation Commission has responded to the federal government’s proposed rules that carbon emissions be cut 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 by complaining that it would cost ratepayers up to $6 billion.

This is because Virginia utilities may have to shut down 2,851 megawatts worth of electrical generation with only 351 megawatts (at present) of “unreliable” wind power to replace it.

The image one gets from the presentation of the blog post is that it is “The EPA’s War on Virginia” with the haggard-looking miner thrown in, we are given the impression that it is more of the “War on Coal” that the coal industry has been promoting in recent years to blunt much-needed mine safety laws and moves to police highly destructive mountaintop removal practices.

The author does not address any of this. But since he’s handing us the “War on Coal” propaganda line, let’s take his arguments apart. This won’t take too long.

  • The author fails to note part of the Richmond Times Dispatch story upon which he bases his opinions. There is a very important comment: “It appears the staff has misread the rule,” said Cale Jaffe, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Virginia office. “Analyses that we have reviewed show that Virginia is already 80 percent of the way to meeting Virginia’s carbon pollution target under the Clean Power Plan. “Almost all of those reductions are coming from coal plant retirements and natural gas conversions that the utilities put in place long before the Clean Power Plan was even released,” Jaffe said.
  • That said, let’s take a look at coal-fired plants in the state which are the biggest carbon offenders. For starters let’s look at Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility. It has already converted three coal-fired plants – Altavista, Southampton and Bremo Bluff – to biomass. The 50-plus-year-old Yorktown plant (335 megawatts) is due to retire in 2015. Another aging plant – Chesapeake (609) megawatts — is also due to retire by 2015. The point here is that these plants are being closed because Dominion realizes that it is just too hard to keep 50 or 60 year plants operating efficiently and cheaply. It would be like keeping that 1960 Corvair because you don’t want to put oil workers out of work.
  • Dominion’s biggest problem and the biggest single air polluter in the state is the Chesterfield station with 1380 megawatts. Yes, it does need more controls. Then there’s Clover (882 megawatts) and Mecklenburg (138 megawatts). That brings us up to 2400 megawatts that might need upgrades. Let’s see. The two nuclear units at North Anna put out a little more than 1,700 megawatts just so we get some scale here. Dominon also has Virginia City (585 megawatts) which just opened, uses coal and biomass and has advanced fluidized bed burning methods.
  • Out west, Appalachian Power has 705 megawatts at Clinch River and 430 megawatts at Glen Lyn. Two of those three units there were built in (my God!) 1944 so I guess the blog author wants to keep those great granddaddies running to save miners’ jobs. Actually they are so unneeded that they have been on extended startups.Besides these Cogentrix has a couple small, modern plants in Portsmouth and Hopewell.
  • One reason there so little renewable generation (6 percent) is that the utilities do not have mandatory renewable portfolio standards to force them into wind and solar, etc. Virginia’s neighbors do.

All of this gets back to Jaffe’s point that the blog author so easily ignores. A lot of the carbon cuts are going to come from plants that are aging and are going to be closed anyway.

The SCC may complain about the $6 billion but guess what, you beleaguered electricity users? If Dominion puts a third nuke at North Anna, that’s easily $10 billion. Is that going to raise rates sky high? Where’s the outcry? It’s almost double what helping save the planet from carbon dioxide will cost.

The blog author’s hyperbole about the poor coal industry shows his ignorance of the topic. Virginia’s rather small coal industry (No. 12 in production) reached its peak in 1991. Natural gas has displaced a lot of expensive coal. Gas prices would have to triple to make Central Appalachian coal competitive again. There’s lots of metallurgical coal for steel, but the Asian economic slump has dropped prices maybe 60 percent.

I won’t comment on the author’s lame and misunderstood point about climate change not happening.

The blog author may want to blame that on Obama and the EPA but that would be almost as ridiculous as his blog post. I decline to name him because I don’t want to embarrass him.

Virginia Tech: What a Difference a Decade Makes

Tech_robotics_lab

Virginia Tech robotics lab

It’s probably been a decade since I’ve been to Virginia Tech. I spent a year living in Blacksburg about 30 years ago and I visited with some frequency during my tenure as editor and then publisher of Virginia Business magazine, but I haven’t had much cause to return to Hokieland recently until this weekend when the Bacon family visited to expose the Bacon male progeny, who has expressed an interest in pursuing an engineering career, to the top engineering school program in Virginia. (Sorry, Wahoos, but it’s true, Tech engineering is No. 1 in Virginia.)

It is remarkable what has transpired in Blacksburg in a mere decade — both in Virginia Tech and the surrounding town. Slowly but surely Virginia Tech continues to gain ground against other engineering schools in the hyper-intense competition for resources, cutting-edge programs and prestige. Tech ranks in the top 50 nationally for total R&D expenditures but the College of Engineering ranks among the Top 10 undergraduate engineering programs in the country.

The College of Engineering also has generated considerable spin-off economic activity. We’re not talking Boston or San Francisco-style impact, but Tech’s Corporate Research Center — in essence, a corporate park for companies interacting with the university — has grown to 31 buildings employing 2,700 employees. That’s small potatoes compared to, say, Northern Virginia, but it’s pretty darned impressive for Southwest Virginia. Indeed, the performance is all the more impressive considering the fact that Tech is not situated in a major labor market, is geographically remote and has lousy airline service.

One benefit of Tech’s isolated location is that the physical setting of the New River Valley is stunningly beautiful. And I’ll say this about Tech’s campus: It may not have the world-heritage quality of the Thomas Jefferson-designed Rotunda and Lawn of the University of Virginia, my alma mater, but university leadership has done a superb job of maintaining architectural continuity over the years — all buildings are built of Hokiestone. I hesitate to say so but the Virginia Tech campus overall is more aesthetically pleasing than the hodge-podge of UVa outside of the Rotunda-Lawn core. Furthermore, the Hokies have paid close attention to the art of “place making” over the past couple of decades. The campus is much more inviting in many small ways than it was when I saw it last.

Another virtue is that the town of Blacksburg has been evolving in a positive way. County planners have permitted developers to increase the density of buildings around the perimeter of the campus. Far more apartments and commercial establishments are within walking and biking distance of the Virginia Tech campus than there were when I last visited. The town has replaced two busy signalized intersections with roundabouts, and I spotted a couple of tandem buses rolling through town.

My main concern is that Blacksburg’s prosperity is built upon a mountain of student indebtedness. But rising tuition is hardly unique to Virginia Tech.  Indeed, the College of Engineering probably could do just fine catering to out-of-state students willing to pay significantly more than in-state students do. The College of Engineering does not charge what the market would bear, to the benefit of thousands of Virginia students. All things considered, I’d be delighted if the Little Porker ended up at Virginia Tech.

Update: The densification of downtown Blacksburg continues apace. Town Council approved 4 to 3 yesterday (Oct. 15) construction of a 37-bedroom, four-story condominium on the edge of downtown. The project had stirred controversy because it bordered a neighborhood of single-family houses. The developer argued that the condo would be located within walking distance of Virginia Tech and downtown.

There’s plenty more room for Blacksburg to densify without impinging upon old neighborhoods — just up-zone the Main Strip commercial strip. Vast acreage there is dedicated to parking lots and low-rise shopping centers. If the town council encourages mixed use and runs those tandem buses down Main Street, it can accommodate the town’s population growth for many years to come.

– JAB

Virginia Tech campus -- very bike friendly

Virginia Tech campus — very bike friendly

Why We’re Being Railroaded On “STEM”

 csx engineBy Peter Galuszka

When it comes to education, a constant mantra chanted by the Virginia chattering class is “STEM.”

How many times have you heard that our students are far behind in “STEM” (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)? We have to drain funding from more traditional areas of study (that actually might make them better human beings like literature, art or history) and give it to STEM. The two types of popular STEM are, of course, computer science (we’re all “illiterate” claims one journalist-turned computer science advocate) and biotechnology.

But how important is STEM, really? And if Virginia joins the STEM parade and puts all of its eggs in that basket, will the jobs actually be there?

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what jobs will be around in the future and like the famous generals planning for the last war, we may be stuck planning for the digital explosion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that is like, so, 25 years ago.

To get an idea where markets may be, look at today’s news. Canadian Pacific is making a play for CSX railroad (headquartered in Richmond not that long ago) because of the unexpected explosion in fracked oil.

CP handles a lot of freight in the western part of Canada and U.S. where some of the most impressive new fracked shale oil are, namely the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Alberta. CP wants access to eastern U.S. refineries and transshipping points, such as a transloading spot at the mouth of the York River. CSX is stuck with dirty old coal where production and exports are down, although it has an extensive rail network in the Old Dominion.

The combined market value of the two firms is $62 billion — a far bigger potential deal than the $26 billion Warren Buffett paid for Burlington Northern Sante Fe in 2010. There are problems, to be sure. CSX isn’t interested and the Surface Transportation Board, a federal entity, nixed a matchup of Canadian National and Burlington a little while back.

But this isn’t really the point. The point is that the Old Steel Rail pushed by new sources of oil and to some extent natural gas has surprisingly turned domestic economics upside down. Many of the new oil fields are in places where there are not pipelines, so rail is the only answer. In 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, six or so American railroads generated $25.8 million in hauling crude oil. Last year that shot up to $2.15 billion.

So, what does that mean for students? A lot actually, especially when we blather on about old-style STEM that might have them inventing yet another cell-phone app that has a half-life of maybe a few months. Doesn’t matter, every Virginia legislator, economic development official and education advocate seems to be hypnotized by the STEM genie.

A piece I just did for the up-and-coming Chesterfield Observer on vocation education in that county:

“The recent push to educate students in so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) may be case in point. The goal is to churn out bright, highly trained young people able to compete in the global economy with their counterparts from foreign lands.

“A subset of this area of concentration is computer science, which goes beyond knowing the basics and gets into the nitty-gritty of learning code and writing computer languages. By some accounts, such skills will be necessary to fill more than 2 million jobs expected to become open in the state by 2020.

“Critics question, however, if overspecialization in technology at earlier ages prevents students from exploring studies such as art and literature that might make them better rounded adults. And, specialization often assumes that jobs will be waiting after high school and college when they might not be.

“Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about such problems of academic overspecialization in national publications such as The Wall Street Journal. He recently responded to questions from the Chesterfield Observer via email.”

“Not many science grads are getting jobs in their field,” Cappelli says. “The evidence suggests that about two thirds of the IT (information technology) grads got jobs in their fields, about the same for engineering. There is no guarantee in those fields. It’s all about hitting the appropriate subspecialty that happens to be hot. There are still lots of unemployed engineers and IT people.”

So there you have it. In my opinion, the over-emphasis on STEM training has the unfortunate effect of producing young adults who have one goal in mind – getting a job and making money, not helping humankind. And, if you insist on STEM, why not branch into something where there are actually jobs namely petroleum engineering, geology and transportation engineering.

I’ll leave the dangers of added petroleum cargoes in trains to another post.

Burbs Beware: Office Jobs Moving Back to D.C.

dc_office_spaceNot only are Millennials migrating to the Washington metropolitan region’s urban core, it seems that businesses are, too, in a reversal of the decades-long trend of businesses moving out of the central city to outlying counties.

Vacancy rates have risen in Washington, D.C., due to the contraction of legal services and government contracting tied to federal government spending. But according to commercial real estate firm JLL, private-sector tenants from Maryland and Washington accounted for 300,000 square feet of new leasing activity in the District. Reports Virginia Business magazine:

Doug Mueller, a senior vice president at JLL, noted that the migration is heavily populated by associations, technology companies and professional services firms. “The quality and location of office space with easy access to mass transit, abundant amenities and housing options also has a visible and tangible impact on attracting and retaining top talent,” he said in a statement.

According to JLL’s Office Insight report for the third quarter, since the start of 2014, a total of 21,200 private-sector office jobs have been added to the metro D.C. economy.

In an office market with tens of millions of square feet of space, 300,000 square feet is a rounding error. What’s significant is not the volume of space being occupied — although 21,200 office jobs is nothing to sneeze at — but the trend: jobs migrating back to the urban core. For decades, Virginia enjoyed a huge competitive advantage over the District with its dysfunctional government, poverty, crime and decaying neighborhoods. Now, despite bad schools, high taxes and expensive real estate, D.C. has something that educated Millennials and the businesses that employ them are looking for — walkable urbanism.

Next question: Is this trend unique in Virginia to the Washington metropolitan region or is it occurring in Hampton Roads, Richmond and the smaller metros as well?

– JAB

How to Revive a Lagging Regional Economy

Graphic credit: James V. Koch and Gary W. Wagner. Click to enlarge image.

Graphic credit: James V. Koch and Gary W. Wagner. Click to enlarge image.

by James A. Bacon

Dr. James V. Koch’s “The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2014” report probably won’t get much attention outside of Hampton Roads, but it should. Not only is Hampton Roads the state’s second largest metropolitan economy, which means that its fortunes and misfortunes send large economic ripples across the state, but Koch’s observations about the region’s antiquated approach to economic development apply to many places in Virginia.

The message delivered by Koch and co-author Gary A. Wagner to an audience of more than 1,000 at the Norfolk Waterside Hotel was none too encouraging. After getting clobbered during the recession of 2007-2008, the Hampton Roads economy has been slow to bounce back. Employment growth has trailed state and national averages by a wide margin, as shown in the graph above. The stagnation in job growth can be explained in large measure by the impact of defense cutbacks on the region’s largest industry, the military. Comparing Department of Defense procurement awards 16 months pre- and post-sequestration (March 2013), Hampton Roads was down 24.4%. Moreover, sequestration will continue to squeeze as the military downshift continues and the Pentagon shifts its strategic focus to Asia.

“I think the Hampton Roads region is just starting to feel the effects of sequestration,” Wagner said in his presentation, according to an ODU recap.  “And as bad as things are (because of forecast freezes in DOD spending for the next two years) it could get worse. It’s a bumpy couple of years ahead for Hampton Roads.”

The Port of Virginia is a bright spot. After losing market share following the recession, the port reversed course and regained market share for three years running and now commands 17.2% of the East Coast market, a new peak. The expansion of the Panama Canal, which will encourage the use of more big ships, will confer a competitive advantage to the deep-channeled Virginia ports for a few years at least. But another traditional industry, tourism, remains stuck below its 2007 apex, as measured by hotel revenue. And housing prices have recovered less than a third of the value lost during the housing bust; the number of distressed homes, while improved,  remains historically high.

There are no “quick fixes” for what ails the Hampton Roads economy, Koch said. The region needs to adopt a long-term perspective.  “The bottom line is that economic development is a long-term process.” The region needs to invest more in projects with a long-term payoff like K-12 education, infrastructure and research and less in high-visibility projects like convention centers, hotels, arenas and entertainment centers. “We delude ourselves if we think we can short-cut [the economic-development] process by constructing flashy facilities that primarily redistribute income within our own region.”

The conventional wisdom on economic development “is no more,” he declared.  For decades, “economic development” in Hampton Roads, as across Virginia,  focused on attracting new firms and to do what it took — offering land, tax incentives, etc. — to attract them. But abundant research indicates that 80% to 85% of locational decisions are not influenced by such give-aways. “Incentives” amount to a wealth transfer to businesses that would have made the same decision anyway.

The hot idea in economic development today is growing businesses locally — economic “gardening,” to use a term coined by David Birch in the 1980s. Make life easier for small businesses by giving them access to high-speed Internet connections, providing cheap or temporary space, and connecting them to academic, financing, engineering and marketing resources. While most small businesses stay small, some become growth stars that account for immense investment and job creation.

Hampton Roads, always a laggard, recorded the lowest level of business start-ups among nine Virginia regions from 2010 to 2012. Rather than subsidizing selected businesses, Koch advocates an approach of identifying impediments to growth and helping firms overcome those impediments. “What would it take for one of our new, small microbreweries to grow and access new markets? For Liebherr to develop and implement a new cost-saving technology? For BAE Systems to become a major player in off-shore wind generation? Let’s find out! Let’s garden our regional economy.”

Among other ideas Koch explored: creating “innovation districts,” where knowledge-based start-ups are clustered geographically, often in proximity to a research university, where easy interaction stimulates innovation;  promoting university Research & Development at ODU, Eastern Virginia Medical College and the College of William & Mary; and supporting job and skill development programs and apprenticeships.

Bacon’s bottom line: Koch is spot-on about the need to think differently about economic development in Virginia. At the top of the list of bad public investments — let’s call a spade a spade… of stupid public investments — are glitzy convention centers, arenas and sports centers. For the most part, all they do is redistribute entertainment dollars within a region at great public cost. If a region is prosperous and a market exists, the private sector will build those facilities on its own. Second on the list of bad public investments are “incentives” for attracting new businesses. Most of that money is wasted. Better to invest in helping citizens gain the education and skills they need to compete in a knowledge-based economy.

Now, if only we could persuade Koch to apply his keen analytical insights to understanding the pervasive effect of human settlement patterns on a region’s economic competitiveness. Then we’d really be getting somewhere.

Health Insurance as Driver of Income Inequality

Road to serfdom

If you want to address increasing income inequality in the United States, a good place to start would be to bring runaway health insurance costs under control. Health care costs — not globalization, automation or corporate greed — are the biggest driver in income inequality today, argue Mark J. Warshawsky and Andrew G. Biggs in the Wall Street Journal today. Warshawsky is a visiting scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

Here’s what the usual media analysis doesn’t tell you about the growing income gap. If you compare total compensation — wages/salaries plus benefits — low-income workers actually fared better than high-income workers between 1999 and 2006. Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Warshawsky and Biggs note:

For low-income workers, total pay and benefits rose by 41% from 1999 through 2006. But those workers’ wages increased only by 28%, barely outpacing inflation.  The reason: Employer costs for those workers health costs nearly doubled. …

Total compensation for [those earning $250,000 or more a year] rose by 36% from 1999 through 2006. That’s actually less than for low-income workers. But the one-percenters’ health costs rose from just 4% of compensation in 1999 to only 4.3% in 2006.

The authors do not explain why they cite data only through 2006 when data is available through June 2014. Whatever the reason, it appears that the cost of benefits continues to outpace wages/salaries. According to the BLS, for the quarter ending June 2014, “wages and salaries (which make up about 70 percent of compensation costs) increased 0.6%, and benefits (which make up the remaining 30 percent of compensation) increased 1.0 percent.

In other words, much if not most of the perceived increase in income inequality in recent years is an artifact of the tax code. Employer-paid health insurance is not taxable, thus not reported as income, while wages/salaries are taxable and reported as income. Eliminate the tax break for employer insurance and the growth in the wage gap disappears.

If we are sincere about wanting to reduce income inequality, the first place we should be looking is at inflation in health care costs. Here’s a real irony that Warshawsky and Biggs do not explore: Insofar as Obamacare shifts the cost of health care to employer-sponsored health insurance plans — I have a friend, a small business owner, whose health insurance is scheduled to go up 35% next year — it doesn’t just destroy job creation, it shifts compensation from taxable income to non-taxable health insurance, thus aggravating the reported income gap.

Meanwhile, the low interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve Board rewards the Top 1% by pushing up the price of stocks and bonds and punishes small savers by depressing interest rates. It is no accident that income inequality is worse under Obama than Bush. Perhaps Obama acolytes can cite the Warshawsky-Biggs research as evidence that the administration’s policies haven’t been as unfair to the poor as they seem to be.

– JAB

Petersburg’s Renaissance

PetersburgBy Peter Galuszka

Petersburg has been a special place for me.

Years ago, when I’d pass through, I always felt I were driving onto the set of a 1950s or 1960s movie set in the South such as “Cape Fear” starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. A somnambulant ease pervades the place as does the down-home friendliness you don’t get in pretentious Richmond 30 miles to the north up Interstate 95.

I got to know Petersburg a lot better when my two daughters went going to high school there at the Appomattox Regional Governors School for the Arts and Technology. Drawing from localities from Richmond to Isle of Wight and Franklin, the school body was bright, diverse and creative.

Driving my children if they missed the bus from Chesterfield was a pain but the effort was worth it since they had some fine teachers and avoided the White Toast trap of entitlement one gets into in more affluent suburban schools.

That’s when I was introduced to Petersburg’s nascent arts community. I went to plenty of “Fridays for the Arts” celebration and hung out at Sycamore Street with the kids.

Returning again recently, I found that the arts scene is really taking off. They  seem to be at a sustainable critical mass.

It is due primarily to the city’s policy of remaking itself by setting up an arts district that is nationally recognized as historic and offering tax credits and abatements for newcomers to renovate properties they buy from the city. The big expansion at the Fort Lee military base in 2005 really helped (although it’s due for a cut).

I wrote about it in a cover story in Style Weekly. The heroes and heroines are far-sighted city officials, arts willing to risk a lot remaking some truly historic buildings and the next wave, restaurants that aren’t owned by franchises, coming in.

Not everything is wonderful. Petersburg still has a weak public school system and a poverty rate of 28 percent, a point higher than Richmond’s. But it also doesn’t have the in-fighting among powerful interest groups that far bigger Richmond does. There’s no endless debate over building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom (to line pockets of developers) or keeping it at the Boulevard.

There’s no high level brinksmanship about where to put a Children’s Hospital.

In Richmond, you see, ball fans and sick children are the last ones to be worried about. What matters is Mayor Dwight Jones, Bill Goodwin, Michael Rao, the Timmons Group and the editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch. They are important and you are not.

You don’t get that in Petersburg. The little city (population 32,000) that has a historical richness than rivals Richmond’s doesn’t think it is better than anyone else.