Shining Sunlight on the Accomack Solar Project

Shining Sunlight on the Accomack Solar Project

Amazon's giant solar power plant will lighten the environmental footprint of the company's growing cluster of Northern Virginia data centers. It won't do much to lighten the tax burden of Accomack County.

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Grid Pro Quo

Grid Pro Quo

The EPA wants to restructure Virginia’s electric grid. Skeptics argue that slashing CO2 emissions will drive electric bills higher. Environmentalists disagree. Who’s right?

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Does Dominion Win or Lose from the New Law?

Does Dominion Win or Lose from the New Law?

Virginia's biggest power company could benefit from the freeze in electric rates but it also could take a big hit to earnings from power-plant shutdowns.

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Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

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

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Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

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Richmond’s Pathetic Leadership

At the Diamond

At the Diamond

By Peter Galuszka

Richmond is going through an existential crisis. Its “leadership” can’t get anything done after wasting the public’s time and attention on the supposed possibilities of this so-called “Capital of Creativity.”

Two examples come to mind. One is the city’s and region’s utter failure to do anything about its crumbling ballpark. The other is wasting everyone’s time on pushing an independent children’s hospital and then having VCU Health and Bon Secours pull the rug out from everyone.

Mind you, you hear ramblings out the wazoo about how Richmond is all about “regionalism” and how the “River City” is just a dandy place to live. One of the worst offenders is Bacon’s Rebellion, which shamelessly crams Richmond boosterism down readers’ throats.

But what really sets me off is a full page and unabashedly revisionist editorial in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch titled “Ballpark in the Bottom? Definitely not.” The writers claim they “having listened carefully, and at great length, to all sides, we have become convinced a proposal that seemed promising at first is fatally flawed.”

Yipes! This comes after a couple years of the newspaper’s flacking Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ dubious plan to put a new $67 million stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom for the city’s Minor League AA team, the Flying Squirrels, rather than refurbishing or replacing the crumbling Diamond on the Boulevard near the strategic intersections of Interstates 64 and 95.

TD Publisher Thomas A. (TAS) Silvestri, the one-time and obviously conflicted chair of the local chamber of commerce, pushed the Shockoe idea because that was the flavor of the month with parts of the Richmond elite, including some developers, the Timmons engineering group, the Jones regime and others.

It was a bad idea from the start and had been shot down before. The Bottom has no parking and is too cramped. Even worse, it would disturb graves of slaves and other reminders of the city’s darker past such as being the nation’s No. 2 slave trading capital (this is before the “creativity” part).

The AAA Richmond Braves hated the Diamond so much that they bolted to a new stadium in Gwinnett County outside of Atlanta in 2009. A new team associated with the San Francisco Giants decided to move in. The Flying Squirrels have been an outstanding success and in the five years they have been here, their team has drawn more fans than any other in the Eastern League. In fact, their stats place them among the best draws in all of minor league baseball.

But the Squirrels had been led to believe they would get new or greatly improved digs. Instead of focusing on the Diamond (which has ONE elevator for the sick and elderly and it often doesn’t work). A couple of weeks ago, Lou DiBella wrote an open letter to the community noting that nothing has happened. Their deal with the city end next year, raising the issue of whether they will bolt as the Braves did.

Squirrels owner DiBella

Squirrels owner DiBella

I did a Q&A with DiBella for Style. Here’s how he put it:

“We have been a great asset for the whole Richmond region. Where am I looking? I’m not trying to look. You want me to look, tell me. I want to create a dialogue. I want people to be honest and open and candid right now. If you’re going to screw around with us the same way you did with the Braves, the way Richmond did under false pretenses, and there’s no chance of any regional participation or the city being creative in building a stadium — let me know now because I do have to start thinking about the future.”

He has a point. Richmond did screw around with him. Chesterfield and Henrico Counties did, too. The Squirrels get most of their spectators from the suburbs but their political leaders don’t want to spend anything to help. They neatly got off the hook when they conveyed the Diamond from the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, of which they are members, to the city exclusively.

The Jones administration, meanwhile, wasted everyone’s time (except that of the Richmond Times-Dispatch) by pushing the Bottom idea. The business elite sponsored trips for so-called local leaders to fly around the country and look at other stadiums.

Then, nothing. A development firm called the Rebkee Co. came up with a plan to build a new stadium near the Diamond with private funds. But the city refused to even review the plan. They did not accept formal written copies of the idea.

The Jones team did manage to come up with a summer practice area for the Washington Redskins that is used about two or three weeks a year. It hardly draws anything close to what the Squirrels do, but they had little problem pushing with their idea.

Bill Goodwin

Bill Goodwin

Next up is a stand-alone children’s hospital, an idea backed by a group of pediatricians and Bill Goodwin, a wealthy philanthropist and one of the most powerful men in Richmond. He and his wife pledged $150 million for the project and many, including the RTD, talked about it to death. Goodwin’s idea would be to create a world class hospital on the level of the famous Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia.

Then, without warning, non-profits VCU and Bon Secours health system pulled the rug out from under Goodwin and everyone else. They said an independent children’s hospital wasn’t needed, there was no market for it and pediatric care is moving more towards out-patient service, anyway.

The real reason, says Goodwin, is that a stand-alone children’s hospital would mean that other local hospitals would have to scale back their money-making pediatric units.

Also for Style, I asked Goodwin for his thoughts. He was flabbergasted at shutting down the idea without warning. He said:

“We were planning for an independent children’s hospital that was regional and would provide more comprehensive coverage than what VCU and Bon Secours are currently providing. This effort would have been a heck of an economic driver for our community and would provide significantly better medical care for children. Better medical education and research were also planned. We would be creating something that was creating good jobs, and it would be something that the community would be proud of, which we haven’t had recently.”

So there you have it, sports fans – a moment of truth. With its current leadership, Richmond couldn’t strike water if it fell out of a boat. You know it when the editorial writers on Franklin Street start revising history.

Coal Business

For those looking for something to do on a hot Sunday, have a look at the business section of today’s New York Times. On the first business page there is a very “interesting” article concerning Richmond based Massey Energy and Don Blankenship . The story told is not a pretty one and led to the Upper Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 men in 2010.

— Les Schreiber

New Lease on Life for the Death Penalty

Dylann Roof -- the face of evil

Dylann Roof — the face of evil

I’ve been wavering in my support for the death penalty in recent years — repeated stories of people wrongfully convicted ending up on death row wore me down. Once the state has executed someone, there’s no going, whoops, we made a mistake, so sorry about that. But, then, along comes an incident like the murder of nine African-American church goers in Charleston, S.C., and I think, there are crimes so heinous and unforgivable that death is the only appropriate redress.

We’re finding out now that the suspected killer, Dylann Roof, was a loner. He had emotional problems. He was taking a drug, suboxone, which has been connected with sudden outbursts of aggression. I’m sure he’ll find some lawyer who will plead that it wasn’t his fault, the drug made him do it.

Now, Roof deserves his day in court to present a defense, but based on what we know now there are no facts that can possibly mitigate the horror of the crime he committed. Roof had been delving into racist ideologies and ranting about injustices to the white race. He then took it upon himself to go to a black church and sit in a bible study class for an hour before shooting and killing nine people. “I have to do it,” he allegedly said. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

If the act transpired as portrayed in the media, it could not possibly have been more calculated and premeditated. While Roof may have been emotionally disturbed, he displayed total clarity of mind. The appropriate response to such a crime is to expunge him from the face of the earth.

Update: Heart wrenching beyond words: “The man suspected of killing nine people at a historically black Charleston church told police that he ‘almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him,'” reports MSNBC. The statement demonstrates that he clearly knew right from wrong. No excuses. Definitely time for South Carolina to warm up the electric chair.

— JAB

“Spankdown” at Woodlake

S&MBy Peter Galuszka

Homeowners Associations are double-edged swords. They can preserve home values by enforcing covenants but sometimes  morph into Neo-Nazi privatized governments that make life miserable by meddling.

One HOA in suburban Richmond is in something of a unique situation.

Woodlake, a 2,800 home, 1980s-styled PUD in Chesterfield County, has been having problems. The realty firm that owned its extensive swim and recreational facilities sold them to the HOA in 2010 which ended up $700,000 in debt.

It has caused lots of gnashing of teeth because no one wants a special assessment. I don’t live there but I play tennis there and hear a lot about it from my friends.

The board is new, the old community manager left and they hired a new manager who has an extensive professional background in the field.

The manager, Bethany Halle, also has another life. She’s the author of about 70 erotic fantasies specializing sado-masochism, bondage and other delights, including ones involving the paranormal. She enjoys exploring “murder and mayhem” at HOAs in her literary life.

Here’s my story about it in the Chesterfield Observer.

Halle’s books have been published by such houses as “Naughty Nights.” She blogs and has radio shows about erotic literature. The HOA board supports their decision to hire her , saying they knew about her other life but she was the best qualified to run the HOA.

Halle writes under her own name or “Cassandre Dayne” and “Dakotah Black”

One of her titles is “Spankdown.” Maybe that’s just what Woodlake needs.

Shining the Light on Tax Cronyism

cronies

Image credit: The Economist

Virginia has one of the least transparent systems in the country for reporting tax carve-outs for special interests, reports the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in a report on tax cronyism, “The Unseen Costs of Tax Cronyism: Favoritism and Foregone Growth.” While five states report nothing at all, Virginia is one of eight that ALEC classified as “infrequent or incomplete” in its reporting.

The most recent report was in FY 2009. Individual and corporate tax breaks in Virginia amount to $791 million, or more than two percent of the budget, ALEC reports.

ALEC also cites a New York Times study of targeted business incentives, which typically entail tax breaks, that identified 1,125 Virginia grants to companies. While Virginia’s tax carve-outs pale in comparison to, say New York’s (more than 50,000 grants to companies), it is massive compared to Wyoming (only 8) or even neighboring Maryland (260).

“Cronyism,” writes ALEC, “refers to the use of public policy to benefit a specific industry, firm, or individual, as opposed to setting broad and generally applicable rules and polices that apply to society as a whole.” While tax preferences can be used to induce corporations to invest in a state, the cumulative result is to shift the tax burden to existing companies with less political clout, thereby, inhibiting their growth of those firms — and the state economy as a whole.

Government does not know which firms will provide innovation, employment growth and tax revenue growth for the state. Empowering government to cater to a few high-profile firms while not fixing underlying problems in the state tax code is poor policy, as policy makers and bureaucrats are unlikely to outperform diversified market performance relative to their narrow picks.

ALEC advocates eliminating special tax carve-outs in a tax-neutral fashion by decreasing general corporate tax rates. If cronyism cannot be eliminated entirely, inducements should be restructured from the tax breaks (which tend to be permanent and rarely subject to review) to budgetary outlays (where the spending is subject to annual review). At the very least, tax cronyism should be subject to rigorous reporting standards to ensure transparency.

Bacon’s bottom line: Yeah, yeah, I know, ALEC is a tool of the evil oil-guzzling Koch Brothers and, therefore, everything it says and does is ipso facto tainted and illegitimate. But can we, for once, focus on the merits of ALEC’s arguments instead of the provenance of its funding? I think ALEC’s tax principles are sound, and the evidence suggests that Virginia’s practices fall far short of openness and transparency.

At Last: Objective Criteria for Scoring Transportation Projects

weighting_frameworks

by James A. Bacon

After lengthy study, the Commonwealth Transportation Board yesterday approved new metrics for prioritizing transportation funding in Virginia. The new metrics are designed to create objective criteria for evaluating the selection of road and rail projects. It remains to be seen how the metrics will be applied in practice, but in theory they represent a big step forward.

As seen in the chart above, the metrics will be assigned different weights for different parts of the state. For instance, Category A, which assigns the greatest weight to congestion mitigation, consists primarily of the highly congested Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads transportation planning organization districts. Category D consists mainly of lightly traveled rural districts. (View the classifications here.)

The different weights reflect the different priorities of different parts of the state. The classifications and methodology can be amended as needed to reflect changes in priorities and advances in technology, data collection and reporting tools.

Here is a breakdown of the measures that go into the weighting framework:

measure_breakdowns

These metrics will provide CTB board members unparallelled insight into the relative benefits of different transportation options. It should be much more difficult now for any administration to gain approval for “highway to nowhere” road and rail projects.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have long called for tools that make it possible to measure projects based on their “Return on Investment,” reflecting congestion mitigation, safety improvements and environmental benefits. This methodology goes beyond that by incorporating additional measures, such as economic development and accessibility, but falls short by providing no mechanism for calculating ROI. Given the complexity of the evaluations, it may be impractical to boil down all these metrics to a single ROI figure, so CTB board members will retain considerable discretion.

Some of the criteria look really fuzzy. How does one evaluate “land use consistency?” How does one measure “project support for economic development”?

Despite modest reservations, the new approach appears to represent a big step forward by limiting the potential for ideology, politicking and log rolling in transportation funding decision-making. I look forward to seeing how the new methodology works in practice. While one can rarely go wrong by taking a cynical view of human nature and the political process, I am hopeful that the transparent use of objective metrics will curb the worst instincts of the political class.

Issues Crystallize in Gas Pipeline Debate

pipelineby James A. Bacon

The battle over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is intensifying. Foes of the project, residing mainly in picturesque Augusta and Nelson counties, have raised about $500,000, halfway to a $1 million goal, to rouse opposition to the planned 550-mile natural gas pipeline, reports the McClatchy News Service.

The “All Pain No Gain” group has set up a website with splashy graphics, videos, a blog — even an original country & western-style song. The website provides sympathetic profiles of affected landowners and advances economic and environmental arguments against the pipeline. It’s an impressive showing for “rural” Virginia, but perhaps not so surprising given the popularity of the area as a resort or retirement destination, especially around the Wintergreen resort, among high-powered professionals.

Backers include Phil Anderson, president of the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Navigators Global, whose family has long owned a farm in the area, and Tom Harvey, a former national security official whose nonprofit group works with corporations on global environmental initiatives. Co-chair Charlotte Rea is a retired Air Force Colonel with considerable management experience, while co-chair Nancy Sorrells served two terms on the Augusta County board of supervisors.

The website raises a number of substantive issues:

  • Loss of property values. Construction of the pipeline would require cutting a 125-foot swath (the width of an Interstate highway) along the length of the pipeline. Trees cannot be planted within the easement, which means even a grassed-over pipeline route would be highly visible. Although landowners are compensated for land taken, they receive no loss for the damage to their viewshed. Dominion, the managing partner of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, encountered similar objections when it proposed building a high-voltage transmission line through Virginia’s northern Piedmont several years ago. There are legitimate questions as to whether Virginia’s eminent domain law provides landowners adequate compensation for lost value. It’s a legal and philosophical question worth exploring.
  • Safety. By comparison to other transportation modes, pipelines are a safe way to transport natural gas, but they are not risk free. The website cites four gas pipeline accidents across the country since 2005, including a 2008 incident in which a Williams Transco pipeline exploded in Appomattox, Va., destroying two homes and injuring five people. That pipeline was fined $1 million for failing to address the dangerous corrosion that caused the accident. Could such an incident occur with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or have regulations, technology and/or business practices rendered it unlikely?
  • Water contamination.  Blasting from pipeline construction could contaminate water quality, while excavation around streams, wetlands and riparian groundwater could disturb groundwater flow and damage springs. Moreover, asserts All Pain No Gain, Dominion pipeline construction in West Virginia in 2012 caused sediment pollution to several adjacent waterways. What’s not clear from the website is how lasting and significant any damage would be, or the likelihood of it occurring at all.
  • Impact on local craft agriculture. Craft agriculture is becoming a pillar of the Shenandoah Valley economy, with companies like Blue Mountain Brewery and Miller’s Bake Shop supporting local jobs. “Any contamination to the local water supply as a result of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could cripple a business that is quickly becoming an institution in the Shenandoah Valley,” asserts the website. How realistic is that fear? Have other pipeline construction projects contaminated water supplies severely enough to impact jobs?
  • Future of energy prices. All Pain No Gain disputes Dominion’s argument that the pipeline will mean lower electric utility costs. The price of natural gas is likely to rise as the U.S. begins exporting gas overseas. Virginia could do better, the group contends, by shifting instead to renewable energy sources and emphasizing energy efficiency. This is the same argument made by Virginia environmental groups, but it is disputed by Dominion and the State Corporation Commission. Definitive answers are not easy to come by.
  • Job creation. More than 800 construction jobs will be created, but they will be temporary and many of the jobs will be filled by out-of-state workers, and there will be only 39 full-time permanent jobs when the pipeline is in operation.  Those job gains could be negated by the adverse impact on agriculture, tourism and other industries, the website says. On the other hand, All Pain No Gain does not consider the economic-development benefits to other regions of the state, particularly the southern Piedmont and Hampton Roads, which would be better positioned to compete for industry that uses natural gas as a fuel or feedstock.

So far, media attention has focused mainly on the complex of issues surrounding property rights and eminent domain. They’re important but, as can be seen by All Pain No Gain’s website, there are many others. Time permitting, I will look into all of them.

Map of the Day: Disconnected Youth

youth_disconnection

Source: Social Science Research Council

A new report by the Social Science Research Council, “Zeroing in on Place and Race,” defines “disconnected youth” as Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school. Disconnected youth, who consist disproportionately of minorities and the poor, are at higher risk for a variety of social pathologies such as criminal activity and teenage pregnancy. Their delay in acquiring workforce skills and experience portends ill for their longer-term earning prospects. Here are the numbers for Virginia’s largest metros (listed by their ranking among the nation’s 98 largest metros):

disconnected_youth

— JAB

Dubious Oil Lobby Bankrolls Dubious Poll

CEABy Peter Galuszka

In a recent post, Bacons Rebellion extolled the findings of Hickman Analytics Inc., a suburban Washington consulting firm hired by the Consumer Energy Alliance, which found that according to a survey of 500 registered voters, the vast majority of Virginians support Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The $5 billion project would take natural gas released by hydraulic fracturing from West Virginia southeastward through Virginia into North Carolina. Dominion has taken some strong-arm tactics to force the project through, such as suing property owners who declined to let surveyors onto their property.

Having reported on the controversy in such places as Nelson County, I was surprised to note the Hickman results showing such a strong support for the pipeline.

Maybe, I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Let’s start with the so-called “Consumer Energy Alliance.” For starters, it is a Texas based lobbying group funded by such fossil fuel giants as ExxonMobil and Devon Energy, perhaps the largest independent oil rim in the country plus as host of utilities.

It has been traversing the United States drumming up support, often through dubious polls, against initiatives to cut back on carbon emissions. It supports the Keystone XL and other petroleum pipelines.

Says SourceWatch, quoting Salon.com, “The CEA is part of a sophisticated public affairs strategy designed to manipulate the U.S. political system by deluging the media with messaging favorable to the tar-sands industry; to persuade key state and federal legislators to act in the extractive industries’ favor; and to defeat any attempt to regulate the carbon emissions emanating from gasoline and diesel used by U.S. vehicles.”

The group was created in the late 2000s by Michael Whatley a Republican energy lobbyist with links to the Canadian and American oil sector.

The alliance’s modus operandi is to use “polls” presumably of average voters on key energy issues.

In Wisconsin, the CEA got involved in a battle over an attempt by electric utilities to hike rates if individual homeowners used solar panels to generate power. The state is dominated by coal-fired power and hasn’t done much with renewables. The utilities claim that they paid for the electricity grid and therefore home-power generators must pay extra for its use and the cost should be shared by all through rate hikes.

Many ratepayers opposed this blatant attempt to push back at solar power. Then, all the way from Texas and Washington, the Consumer Energy Alliance jumped in with the names of 2,500 local ratepayers who backed the rate hikes. It wanted to give their names to Wisconsin regulators.

The Grist asked: “What dog does CEA, a trade group from Texas, have in Wisconsin’s fight, anyway? Well, CEA represents the interests of mostly fossil fuel companies, so it is engaged in a nationwide campaign to slow the spread of home-produced renewable energy. It has a regional Midwest chapter, which pushes for fracking and for President Obama to approve the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline.”

I was likewise puzzled by the Virginia pipeline survey that CEA paid for by Hickman Analytics, a Chevy Chase, Md. firm that does a lot of political polling. The firm is powerful and its principals were heavily involved with disgraced Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

There was a poll by Hickman for CEA showing that New Hampshire vote just love Arctic offshore drilling. That’s off because the Granite State isn’t anywhere close to the Arctic despite its cold winters.

There was another Hickman/CEA poll showing how much Coloradans love the Keystone XL pipeline – another curiosity because the last time I checked that pipeline doesn’t run through Colorado.

And, fresh with a “five figure” sponsorship from Dominion, Bacon’s Rebellion publisher James A. Bacon Jr. starts writing about this dubious poll from a dubious source showing that Virginians are tickled pink with the ACL pipeline. When questioned, he says it’s nothing different from a poll funded by the Sierra Club.

Maybe, on another matter, it is curious that Bacon’s Rebellion’s sponsorship deal with Dominion which Jim posted online is signed by Daniel A. Weekley, vice president for Dominion corporate affairs.

The very same Mr. Weekley signed an informational packet sent out to Virginia homeowners impacted by the proposed pipeline route telling them what a great thing the pipeline is.

Am I connecting the dots correctly?
 

A New Metric for Under-Employment

underemployment

Source: Chmura Economics & Analytics. Positive numbers represent the degree to which supply exceeds demand for three levels of educational attainment. High = B.A. or higher. Medium = Associate’s degree or some college. Low = high school graduate or lower.

by James A. Bacon

It is common knowledge that the official United States “unemployment” figure needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It does not include discouraged workers who have dropped out of the workforce. It does not reflect the increase in part-time employment, some of it involuntary. And it does not reflect underemployment in which Americans work in occupations beneath their level of educational qualification.

My friends at Chmura Economics & Analytics have developed a fascinating technique for measuring under-employment by comparing educational attainment with the skill requirements demanded by the region’s occupational mix. It’s not perfect, as the Chmura team is the first to acknowledge. But it provides a defensible estimate of the amount of slack in the economy nationally, and in each of the U.S.’s 381 metropolitan statistics areas (MSAs).

The underemployment number is a two-edged sword. On the downside, the higher the level of underemployment, the greater the extent to which the nation’s (or a region’s) human capital is not being put to work. Just as investment in buildings, capital equipment and infrastructure represents economic waste if it is under-utilized, it is an economic waste if human capital is under-utilized. As Chmura puts it, “Workers who are underemployed and not necessarily contributing as much as they could to the labor market, represent potential lost productivity, wages, and tax revenue for the region.”

Ironically, underemployment tends to be higher in MSAs with the higher-performing economies, such as Washington, San Francisco, Boston, Raleigh and Boulder, Colo. Why would that be? Perhaps, Chmura suggests, it’s because these are MSAs are desirable places to live where workers are willing to trade off the full utilization of their skill sets in exchange for lifestyle amenities. Thus, the MSA with the highest underemployment in the country turns out to be Barnstable Town, Mass., with its scenic Cape Cod waterfront.

On the upside, a high underemployment rate can be an economic development bonus — it represents a deeper labor pool available to new employers than is evident in the unemployment number alone. If under-employed workers can be to work utilizing their most remunerative skills, they can give a big boost to a regional economy.

To my mind, the most remarkable figure in the table above is the high level of underemployment for higher educated workers in the Washington metro. Does that 12.5% under-employment mean that, even after factoring in higher housing prices and hideous traffic congestion, better-educated employees consider Washington to be a more desirable place than anywhere else in Virginia to live and pursue a career? Perhaps. It also could reflect momentary slack in the labor market due to sequestration-related cuts in federal spending. Perhaps the economy hasn’t been depressed badly enough or for long enough to drive people away.

Either way, the Chmura data provides considerable insight and raises lots of fascinating questions.