Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Mystery of the Empty Tomb

The burial of Jesus, image taken from the Chapel of Saint Joseph of Arimathea at the Washington Cathedral.

The following passage is excerpted from my unpublished novel, “The Mystery of the Empty Tomb.” The novel purports to be an annotated version of a long-lost manuscript written by Nicolaus of Caesarea, aide to Pontius Pilate, who was assigned to investigate the disappearance of Jesus’s body from the tomb. In chapters preceding this excerpt, Nicolaus describes the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem during the Passover festival, Pilate’s enmity with the high priests of the temple, the trial of Jesus, and his crucifixion.

The novel won the runner up award in the 2017 Best Unpublished Novel of Richmond award, but I have been unable to find a publisher interested in taking on the project. I am thinking of self-publishing. I would appreciate feedback from readers as to whether such a venture might be worth the effort.

The Sabbath day passed uneventfully. The laws of the Jews, which required them to observe a day of rest, precluded any activity but the observance of their holy Passover rites. Then, when the Sabbath ended at sunset, pilgrims prepared for the journey home. With the festival winding down, and with it any threat of disorder, Pilate and the Caesarea cohort readied for the march back to the coast. Having had my fill of Jerusalem, I yearned to return to my abode in Caesarea and to see my wife and children. Around the second hour,[1] my servant Menander had loaded my belongings onto a mule when a commotion occurred at the front gate to Herod’s Palace.

Joseph of Arimathea was loudly demanding an audience with Pilate. The prefect, preoccupied with preparations for the march, was not available. Then Joseph sought me out. “Jesus is gone,” said he. “He is missing from the tomb!”

“How come you by this information?” asked I.

“The followers of Jesus visited the tomb this very morning. They found that the rock seal had been rolled aside. When they entered the tomb, they saw his linen garments strewn about. But he was gone and is nowhere to be found!”

Without question, the situation warranted Pilate’s attention. Grave robbery was a crime under Roman law. Indeed, it was so common in Galilee that Herod Antipas had posted an inscription in Sepphoris for all to see.[2] The offense was known to occur in Judea and Samaria as well. Most often, thieves sought the jewelry and ornamental items buried with the dead. But it was not unknown for grave robbers to steal the body itself, usually for necromantic purposes.

I interrupted Pilate’s deliberations with the primus pilus.[3]Dominus, I beg a moment.”

“I am occupied,” Pilate said sharply. “Mind your place.”

Pilate was not moved easily to anger but when his wrath was kindled, no man would wish to stand before him. Yet he had not engaged me to act his toady. At the risk of public rebuke, I persisted: “It is Jesus of Nazareth, Dominus. His body is gone!”

The words had the same effect as if I had slapped his face. Pilate wheeled his horse around and faced me. “Get on with it, then.”

I repeated what Joseph had told me.

“Summon the priest immediately,” said the prefect. “I would hear this from his own mouth.”

Pilate held his audience while mounted upon his war horse. Even at his age, he made a formidable and warlike figure. Bowing, the councilor repeated the story he had told me. Pilate cut to the heart of the matter. “Who has done this?”

“I know not, eminence,” said Joseph.

“Whom do you suspect?”

“I have no grounds to single out any party,” said Joseph. “I can only speculate.”

“Then give me the benefit of your conjecture,” ordered Pilate.

“We angered the high priests when we laid Jesus in the tomb,” said Joseph. “Perhaps they wished to see his body desecrated and defiled. Perhaps they removed it so the tomb would not become a shrine.”

“What think you, Nicolaus?”

“That explanation is as plausible as any,” said I. “But we know so little that I cannot say with certainty.”

“We cannot let this crime go unpunished,” said Pilate. “Jesus is too well known. Word will blow through Judea like a sirocco. I cannot tolerate such an insult to Roman law. Furthermore, if there is any chance that Caiaphas was behind this criminal act, I will know of it.”

Pilate did not need to elaborate. I could read his thoughts as clearly as if he had carved them into a stele. If we could implicate Caiaphas and Annas in the robbery of Jesus’ tomb, the priests would have no more hold over him. Grave robbery was punishable by death throughout the empire by the order of Tiberius himself. Pilate could dangle the threat of arrest and execution over the priests like the sword of Dionysius.[4] They would never dare challenge him now by sending a letter to Rome.

Pilate continued: “I want you to get to the bottom of this. Conduct an inquiry. Question whomever you must. Do not rest until you have uncovered the culprits.”

At this command, I was dismayed. I had important affairs to settle with the steward of my estate back in Caesarea, and I longed to see my wife and children. Some men could happily march on long campaigns or voyage to far-off seas but I was not one of them. The luxurious apartments of Herod’s palace were no substitute for my own hearth, and no tumble with a tavern whore was as satisfying as the embrace of my loving Hestia. But I saw the sense in staying in Jerusalem to sniff out the hoodlums who absconded with Jesus’ body before the scent went cold.

“I shall do as you order, Dominus,” said I.

“Find those responsible and I will reward you well,” said Pilate. “Connect the crime to Caiaphas, and I shall make you a rich man.”


Joseph guided me to Jesus’ sepulcher. We arrived to find some curiosity seekers loitering near the doorway, too timid to enter. Pilate had granted me an eight-man detachment[5] from Longinus’s centuria – the same men who had escorted Joseph’s burial party to the sepulcher – and I put the guard to good use. The decanus, an energetic young man by the name of Sextus, chased away the onlookers before they had a chance to pilfer anything, and set a guard at the tomb so I could investigate the scene without distraction.

The sepulcher was set in a cliff of fractured, crumbling rock from which patches of brush sprouted like the hair of a mangy dog. The entrance lacked ornamentation of any kind – no columns, no entablature, not even a door — just a hole cut into the cliff and a heavy, disk-shaped stone that could be rolled aside to provide admittance. The entrance was low, requiring visitors to stoop in order to step inside.[6]

“Hardly fit for the king of the Jews,” said I.

“It was the closest sepulcher at hand,” said Joseph. “A funerary guild dug it for Jerusalemites whose families own no sepulcher of their own. We had no time to look for a more suitable place.”[7]

“How far did you progress in your burial preparations?” I asked.

“We cleansed Jesus of blood and grime and we swaddled him a burial shroud. Then, for lack of time, we left,” said Joseph.

Ducking as I entered the tomb, I stepped into a gloomy chamber where I was immediately assaulted by a stench of dust, decay and sickly sweetness. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I discerned nothing but shadows. Although reason told me that spirits did not exist, there was no knowing such a thing for certain. If lost souls did linger upon the face of the earth, it would be in a place like this manor of the dead. For a moment, a sense of such dread seeped into me that I thought of stepping back into the light. I understood why those addicted to superstition –  fearing demons and vengeful spirits –  would hesitate to enter. Or, once they had entered, why they would rush to leave.

Gradually, my anxiety lifted and my sight improved. On either side of the room, ledges were cut into the walls, forming shallow, waist-high alcoves with arched ceilings where bodies could be placed and attended to. Upon one such bench lay a burial shroud, rumpled as if it had been haphazardly deposited there, while a smaller linen lay on the floor. [8] Those were Jesus’ burial linens, I expected, and I would examine them momentarily, but first I determined to take a quick tour of the tomb. On the far side, the chamber opened onto a passageway from which radiated several dozen shafts. Some were empty; others were closed with tight-fitting limestone seals. Inside each closed compartment was a decaying body. Deeper into the sepulcher where light barely penetrated, I dimly perceived shelves lining the passageway, upon which patrons had stored several ossuaries of wood and stone. It was the practice of the Jews, once the bodies in the shafts had fully decomposed, to shift the remains to space-saving bone boxes. Only a few such ossuaries were in evidence, and I saw no sign of recent activity.

I pondered a moment how some Jews believed in an afterlife while others did not. The aristocratic Sadducees had a saying, identical to what we Epicureans believe: “From dust to dust, ashes to ashes” – just as there was nothingness before life, there was nothingness after. There was no reason to fear death, for there would be no more pain than we felt before we were born. But the mass of the people, who suffered much during their lives and yearned for something better, deluded themselves that their souls would survive the disintegration of their bodies and upon the resurrection would ascend into heaven and live in the house of their lord, Yahweh, with all manner of angels, heavenly hosts and long-passed friends and family members. They believed this with no evidence whatsoever. No one had visited this place and returned to tell others of what they had seen. It existed only in peoples’ imaginations. Such was the power of men to believe what they wanted to believe.

Returning to the front of the tomb to inspect the two pieces of burial apparel, I conceived of two theories to explain the placement of the garments. The first was that Jesus had recovered from seemingly mortal wounds and removed the linens himself. But I had no explanation of how he might have budged the stone that sealed the door  – an impossibility from inside the tomb, especially for a man who had been close to death –  nor why, had he contrived to escape, he would have left the linens behind rather than use them to conceal his nakedness. The second possibility, which I found far more plausible, is that someone else moved the stone, entered the tomb and found a shroud-covered body lying on a bench. Wanting to ascertain that the corpse was that of Jesus, the intruders first removed the napkin wrapped around his head and dropped it upon the floor, for they had no further use of it, and then they pulled back the shroud to look upon the body and face to confirm Jesus’ identity.

I thought it curious that the burglars, whoever they were, had left the shroud behind. The linen cloth was finely woven and a thing of value. Had the visitors been reverent disciples of Jesus intent upon relocating his body to a more worthy location, surely they would have taken the time to wrap him in the shroud and wind the cloth around his head, as Joseph and Nicodemus had done. But instead, the interlopers abandoned the linens. That suggested to me that the removal of Jesus’ body was an act of theft. If the robbers had been as discomfited as I was upon entering the tomb, perhaps fearing retribution from Yahweh, demons or the spirits of the dead, they would have fled with Jesus’ body as soon as they could, not caring if they left the linens behind.

I summoned Joseph into the tomb. “Just to confirm,” I asked, “are these the shroud and napkin that you placed on Jesus?”

“Yes,” said he.

“What about the perfumes and spices?” I asked. “Did you leave them here in the tomb?”

“No, Nicodemus gave them to the Galilean women outside the sepulcher on the day of the crucifixion,” said Joseph. “It was their intention to return this morning and finish the burial preparations that we could not complete.”

I was astonished that Nicodemus would hand over such a treasure to someone he did not know. “What assurance did he have that the women would not abscond with the spices?”

“You will have to ask him about that,” said Joseph. “As for myself, I did not consider the possibility. One of the women was Jesus’ mother. The others were obviously devoted to him and they were mourning. It seemed appropriate that those who loved Jesus complete the ablutions.”[9]

“What is your conclusion from seeing the burial linens lying about in this manner?” I asked.

“We did not leave them this way,” said he. “Whoever took the body of Jesus must have stripped them from his corpse and laid them aside.”

“The linens are expensive, are they not?” said I.

“Indeed, I would think so,” said he, “although only Nicodemus could tell you what he paid for them.”

“Whoever took Jesus’ body was not a friend,” said I. “If the intruders revered Jesus and were intent upon moving him to another tomb, surely they would have taken his burial garments as well. And surely they would have informed those who buried them of their actions.”

“That stands to reason,” said Joseph. “I have heard nothing in that regard.”

“If the culprits did not take Jesus for a reverent purpose,” said I, “then it follows that they removed him for a malign purpose. We are dealing with grave robbery here.”

“I cannot fault your logic,” said Joseph, “although I desperately hope that you are wrong.”


I could think of little else that could be accomplished at the sepulcher. Determined to have the linens left precisely where the grave robbers had placed them, should I need to revisit the scene, I resolved to close the tomb to snoops and relic hunters. I ordered Sextus, commander of my escort, to seal the sepulcher and post a two-man guard to watch the tomb around the clock. Then I resolved to question the Galilean women as soon as I could.

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Does Anybody Notice the $300 Million Tax Increase Baked into Medicaid Expansion?

Governor Ralph Northam (left), Richmond School Superintendent Jason Kamras, and Senator Mark Warner met yesterday to discuss Medicaid expansion and school funding. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Governor Raph Northam and U.S. Senator Mark Warner hit the road yesterday with the media in tow, making the case that Medicaid expansion will free up $421 million over two years for other priorities such as K-12 schools.

“When we talk about education, we have to talk about health care,” Warner said during a roundtable discussion at Albert H. Hill Middle School in Richmond, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We’ve got to do this.”

Meanwhile Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne is making the case that enacting Medicaid expansion is necessary to preserve Virginia’s coveted AAA bond rating, which is teetering on the edge of a downgrade.

That’s quite the rhetorical jiu jitsu move. For years, Republicans have opposed expanding Medicaid under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that it would be fiscally irresponsible, running up state Medicaid expenditures even after accounting for a 90% federal contribution, and competing with other priorities such as K-12 schools, higher education, and pay raises for state employees.

How is it possible for the Commonwealth to simultaneously expand Medicaid at an estimated cost of $300 million over the next two years and free up $421 million for other programs, as the Washington Post quotes Northam as saying? Two things. First the state cost of Medicaid expansion would be offset by means of an “assessment” — in other words, a tax — on the net patient revenue of Virginia’s acute care hospitals. Surprised to hear about that? Yeah, so am I.

Second, Medicaid expansion will allow the state to reduce spending by $380 million on indigent care funding, state spending on mental health, prison inmates and various programs for the poor, according to the House version of the budget. (I can’t figure out where Northam gets his $421 million estimate.)

Voila! That’s $380 million (or $421 million if you use Northam’s figure) that can be spent on other things, such as directing money into the state’s cash reserves and/or K-12 schools. Regarding those reserves, the state has only $281 million set aside in the event of a several revenue downturn, with $154 million scheduled to be injected this year. The budget submitted by former Governor Terry McAuliffe would have added $281 million, but the proposed budget adopted by the House would add only $91 million over the next two-year budget, and the proposed budget adopted by the Senate would add only $180 million.

Bacon’s bottom line: Does the public realize that there is a $300 million tax increase embedded in this plan? I did not understand that to be the case until I read the news accounts with a fine-tooth comb. The Times-Dispatch and Washington Post coverage mentioned the tax only in passing deep in their stories. Of course it’s in the interest of Democrats to downplay the tax increase, but, remarkably, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Senate Republicans, who oppose expansion, have made an issue of it.

Let’s imagine an alternate universe in which Virginians said, (a) we want Medicaid expansion, and (b) we want to fund it without a tax increase on hospital revenues, which likely would be passed on to patients in the form of higher hospital charges. If the state is generating savings in the realm of $400 million a year from Medicaid expansion, why not just apply those savings to the 10% state share of the program? Why the necessity of adding a roughly $300 million “assessment?”

According to the numbers we’ve been given, paying for Medicaid expansion with savings to state programs would leave about $100 million left over to plunk into the state’s cash reserve. Of course, that approach wouldn’t allow Northam and Warner to tell people that “Medicaid expansion” will help Virginia schools, and it wouldn’t put as much money into the state’s cash reserves as Layne would like.

I find it astonishing that the hospital assessment has not become a hot-button issue. Health care costs are out of control as it is, and a $300 million tax on patient revenues can only make the problem worse (unless you believe that hospitals will settle for lower profits, in which case I’ve got some great swamp land in Florida I’d like to sell you.)

You’ve got to give Northam political credit. He and House Republicans are very close to pulling off the trick of expanding Medicaid and “freeing up” hundreds of millions of dollars for new spending without Virginians even noticing that they’d be indirectly paying for a $300 million tax increase on hospitals. This guy is good.

Ruling Opens Electric Competition for Big Virginia Customers

Direct Energy Services Inc., a Houston-based retailer of electricity and energy-related services, is allowed to sell 100% renewable energy to large customers in Virginia without a restriction that would forbid customers from returning to their incumbent utility without a five-years’ advance written notice, under a Virginia Supreme Court ruling issued this morning.

The Supreme Court decision upheld a previous ruling issued by the State Corporation Commission against Dominion Energy Virginia.

“This appeal is about the intersection of these two subsections: What happens when a mega-consumer wants to buy from a green-energy company? Does that switch trigger the five-years-notice requirement, or not?” writes  Steve Emmert in his blog, “Virginia Appellate News & Analysis.” 

The bottom line: No, it doesn’t trigger the requirement.

The decision follows an SCC ruling two weeks ago that allowed Reynolds Group Holdings to aggregate demand from multiple properties to meet the 5-megawatt threshold required to purchase electricity from non-utility suppliers. Together, the SCC and Supreme Court rulings expand the options for large electric customers at a time when cloud providers and other major corporations are making big commitments to solar power.

The 5-year restriction, writes Emmert, “was likely designed to prevent bargain shopping on an annual basis, something that can play havoc with VEPCO’s planning.” The proviso also acted as a deterrent for companies thinking about purchasing renewable power from a non-utility. If a company wanted to preserve the safeguard of being able to switch back to Dominion, Appalachian Power, or an electric co-op, the inability to do so for five years added an element of risk.

Says Emmert: “This is clearly a win for those who seek greater competition in this field.”

Medicaid, Pensions Kneecapping State Budgets

Graphic credit: Wall Street Journal

Take heed Governor Ralph Northam! Take heed Virginia House and Senate budget negotiators!

One in five tax dollars collected by state and local governments across the United States go to Medicaid and public-employee health and retirement costs. Of the $136 billion growth in inflation-adjusted taxes collected by state and local governments between 2008 and 2016, two-thirds went to funding Medicaid and pensions, according to the Wall Street Journal:

The picture will get worse as Medicaid expenditures metastasize and pension backlogs build. Medicaid’s annual cost, which was $595 billion in 2017, will exceed $1 trillion in 2026. States pay about 38% of that tab, although the percentage varies from state to state. A relatively affluent state, Virginia pays a higher percentage than average.

As Medicaid and pensions crowd out other spending, states have cut back on higher education, infrastructure, and aid to localities. Across the country, state cuts in support for higher education have prompted public colleges and universities to jack up tuition and fees, thus transferring costs to students and their families.

“The more we stare at the data, the more we realize all roads lead back to Medicaid and pensions,” says Dan White, a director at Moody’s Analytics, of the top three credit rating agencies.

Many localities are just one recession away from bankruptcy. The finances of Illinois, Connecticut, and New Jersey are in particularly perilous condition. Connecticut’s state capital, Hartford, narrowly averted bankruptcy last year. These high-tax states are caught between a rock and a hard place. Increasing state income taxes raises only a fraction of the anticipated revenue because they encourage wealthy taxpayers to leave for lower-tax climes.

States and localities shouldn’t expect much of a bail-out from Uncle Sam. As a different Wall Street Journal article today notes, interest payments on the national debt are doing to the federal government what Medicaid and pensions are doing to state governments.

To be sure, the U.S. federal government enjoys an unparalleled capability to borrow more money. And borrow it will. Interest payments swallowed 8% of federal revenue last year, the highest share of any AAA-rated country. Moody’s thinks that figure will triple to 21.4% by 2027.

“As interest is rising, that crowds out other spending,” says William Foster, a Moody’s analyst.

Many observers point to Japan as a nation with a national debt burden per capita twice that of the U.S. as a reason to be sanguine about the national debt. Japan may have lost its AAA rating, but it still has no problem borrowing. That analysis overlooks something that Japan has that the U.S. does not — a high personal savings rate. The U.S. personal savings rate was 2.4% in 2017. The savings rate in Japan fluctuates wildly from month to month but averaged out to 18% last year. In December, Japan’s personal savings hit the insane rate of 50%. Accordingly, as a percentage of tax revenue, Japan’s interest payments were only 5.3% — lower than the U.S. rate of 8.3%. Also, thanks to massive domestic savings, Japan does not rely upon fickle foreign creditors like the U.S. does.

Regardless, Republicans have pushed through a tax cut that, despite punching up the economic growth rate, will reduce revenues. Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats have joined to enact a budget that boosts both defense spending (a Republican priority) and non-defense spending (a Democratic priority), while refusing to touch entitlements.

“We’re in a full-blown era of free-lunch economics where no one says no to anyone anymore,” Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee a Responsible Federal Budget, told the Journal.

Virginia’s economic and tax revenues seem manageable for the next year or two, but budgets can unravel with horrifying speed. Very few foresaw the 2008 recession, much less its severity. Very few will see the next recession. Even fewer will be prepared. Will Virginia?

Sign of the Times…

The Herald-Progress and the Caroline Progress, community weeklies serving Hanover and Caroline counties, are going out of business. The final editions will be distributed today.

The Herald-Progress has been publishing for 140 years, the Caroline Progress for nearly 100 years. The two weeklies were staffed by six full-time employees. The newspapers were no longer commercially viable, said R. Jack Fishman, president of the Tennessee-based Lakeway Publishers Inc., according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Is Mo’ Money the Solution to the STEM Job Shortage?

Governor Ralph Northam. Photo credit: Daily Progress

Speaking at the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Governor Ralph Northam enumerated the main challenges he sees for Virginia’s business environment: diversifying regional economies, creating more opportunity in rural communities, providing dedicated funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and reforming state taxes and regulatory structures. Reports the Daily Progress:

The Democratic governor tied most of these problems to two solutions — well-funded schools at all levels and Medicaid expansion, arguing the federal Medicaid funding would allow more state money to be spent in other areas.

“We need to diversify our economy by understanding what the jobs of the 21st century are,” Northam said, citing biotechnology, data collection and data analysis.

“We do that through having excellent colleges and universities that are affordable to all Virginians, but also through supporting and marketing community colleges,” he said. “There are thousands of good, high-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year education.”

Medicaid expansion might pay for itself, but let’s just say I’m skeptical that it will actually save the state money. How many other states that have enacted Medicaid expansion make the claim that they have freed up spending for other priorities? But that’s a side issue.

Of greater interest is Northam’s observation that there are “thousands of good high-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year education.” He is absolutely right about that. He seems to be suggesting — although it’s not entirely clear — that Virginia needs to spend more money to help ameliorate the problem.

As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I tend to be skeptical that waving the magic money wand fixes many problems. I’d like to see an analysis of why Virginia’s educational/workforce training system has been unable to meet the demand for STEM jobs.

It is widely known, for example, that there are widespread job shortages in the IT sector. One plausible explanation is limited teaching capacity — there just aren’t enough college and university courses in which to enroll, and existing classes are so full to the brim that would-be IT practitioners are being turned away. Is that, in fact, so?

If there is a capacity shortage, why is there a shortage? Are colleges, universities and even for-profit career schools too dim-witted to see the business opportunity and expand the course offerings? Or, alternatively, do they see the opportunities but are having trouble recruiting instructors to staff the courses?

What if the supply of students is the problem? It is widely acknowledged that STEM programs have high drop-out rates because many American students can’t handle the work. What if the problem is that high schools are not preparing students for college-level STEM work? What if American students don’t have the self-discipline to perform demanding work with right-and-wrong answers?

Finally, what kind of workforce credentials are needed to fill these STEM jobs? Do employers crave workers with certifications that can be obtained at community colleges or for-profit career schools? Or do they need employees with B.A.-, M.A.-, or Ph.D.-level degrees obtainable only through advanced programs? Presumably, both are needed. But what is the proper mix? If more funding is the answer, what is the proper distribution between community colleges and four-year institutions?

I’ve not seen any of this analysis. And I have no confidence that we truly understand the nature of the problem or how best to invest public dollars. Virginia doesn’t have the luxury of throwing dollars at problems we don’t understand. We need to act upon hard evidence, not conjecture.

Chart of the Day: Household Income Distribution by Region

Our friends over at the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia continue to display data in interesting ways. The chart above breaks the state into eight demographic regions and then plots the median household income by locality. As can be seen, there is significant variability within regions — particularly in Northern Virginia and Central Virginia, both of which in this schema include some outlying rural counties. But even the poorest Northern Virginia locality has a higher median income than the richest localities in Southside and Southwest Virginia.

As with all income comparisons, this does not adjust for the considerable differences in the cost of living, particularly housing, so it does not accurately reflect disparities in living standards. If the Demographics Group could adjust for cost of living, we’d really have something interesting to examine.

Lies, Damn Lies, and CNN Statistics

So, I listened this weekend to some of the speeches in the “March for Our Lives” protest against guns, and heard a lot of criticism of the National Rifle Association for buying votes through its enormous campaign contributions. Then I saw this article published on the CNN website that purports to explain why the NRA holds so much sway in Congress. States CNN:

While large industries such as defense, health care and finance give more to federal candidates, so-called “single-issue” groups have always been a bit different. For them, it’s not necessarily as much about outspending and outflanking other industry powers as it is how they compare with the other side — those advocating the opposite position.

By that measure, the NRA and its allies aren’t just winning, they’ve been dominating for years.

In the 2018 election cycle so far, gun rights groups, including the NRA, have outspent the competition more than 40 to 1.

Gun rights groups have made nearly $600,000 in direct contributions and independent expenditures on behalf of congressional candidates, the data shows. Gun control groups? Barely $14,000.

Graphic credit: CNN

I don’t have a (hunting) dog in this fight. I don’t own a handgun; indeed, I have never shot a gun but once in my life. I don’t have a problem with enacting measures to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals, crazy people and wife beaters. On the other hand, if I felt the need to defend myself, I’d want to make sure that my right to purchase a Dirty Harry-worthy .44 Magnum wasn’t infringed in any way. Call me a middle-of-the-roader on this issue.

So, when I heard the refrain that the “gun lobby” spreads around far more money than gun control advocates do, I had no reason not to believe it. What else would explain their political power?

Then I came across this article published by Radio IQ. Virginia public radio is hardly part of the NRA fan club. But, drawing upon data from the Virginia Public Access Project, Radio IQ drew a radically different conclusion regarding money in Virginia politics.

During last year’s state election, gun rights groups and firearms dealers gave more than $160,000 in campaign contributions. That’s according to an analysis from the Virginia Public Access Project. It’s a good chunk of change, and it was directed largely at members of the General Assembly who sit on committees that routinely stop gun control legislation. But groups that advocate for gun control donated more than $2.4 million, mostly to statewide candidates.

“One of the myths of politics is the idea that NRA money is decisive,” according to Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington. He says the real power of the NRA is not the campaign contributions. It’s the activists who show up at rallies and contact lawmakers and are, essentially, single-issue voters.

(Last year wasn’t a fluke, by the way. VPAP records show that gun control advocates have outspent gun rights advocates in Virginia political races since 1996-97 by $8.1 million to $1.3 million.)

Quoting national statistics, CNN says the NRA outspends opponents 40 to 1. Quoting state statistics, Radio IQ says opponents outspend the NRA by 15 to 1. That’s quite a discrepancy.

I consulted the database to see if I could explain the diametrically opposed results. For the 2017-2018 election cycle, OpenSecrets says that gun rights groups contributed $808,000 to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups, while gun control groups contributed a mere $152,000. That’s a spending gap, but closer to 5 to 1 than 40 to 1.

Delving a bit deeper, we see that the Giffords PAC, named after shooting victim Congressman Gabbie Giffords, was the only major contributor listed for the gun control groups. It turns out that the big gun-control groups — Everytown for Gun Safety, the Giffords PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence — contributed heavily to Virginia state races — primarily  Governor Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. I would conjecture that the same groups have spent heavily in other state groups as part of a strategy of influencing state elections rather than federal elections.

In other words, CNN told only part of the story. Its article focused on federal elections exclusively, ignoring the vast sums poured into Virginia and possibly other state elections. I don’t know if CNN was consciously manipulating the truth, or if it was just incredibly sloppy. But I do know this: Far from being “the most trusted name in news,” CNN is rapidly establishing itself as the least trusted name in news.

Virginia Tech Tuition & Fee Increase: 2.9%

The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors have voted to raise tuition and fees 2.9% — the 17th straight year of increases. In-state undergraduates will pay an additional $390 per year, reports the Roanoke Times.

In other action, the board voted to construct a $15.2 million student-athlete performance center funded by an anonymous donation, to allocate $10 million to an ACC Network television studio, and to spend $3.2 million to renovate the Commonwealth Ballroom in the Squires Student Center.

By way of comparison: The Consumer Prince Index increased 2.2% over the past 12 months.

How to Control Health Care Costs: Prune Useless Tests, Speed Recovery from Surgery

Daniel Carey. Photo credit: The News and Advance.

It comes as no surprise that Virginia’s new Secretary of Health and Human Resources, Dr. Daniel Carey, supports Governor Ralph Northam’s push to expand the Medicaid entitlement. But he’s also got some ideas on how to squeeze costs out of Medicaid — and Virginia’s health care system generally.

One strategy is to decrease the use of procedures and tests that provide little value. Writes Amy Trent with the News and Advance:

He points to routine echocardiogram and routine stress testing before noncardiac surgeries as well as routine vitamin D testing, all of which can offer little value, he said. It’s more cost effective to treat most people with a vitamin D supplement rather than routinely testing vitamin D levels except in very specific circumstances, according to Carey. Physicians need to stop giving tests that are unlikely to change the care patients receive, he said.

“We need to eliminate that because it’s not cost-effective care,” Carey said.

Carey advocates implementation of the Choosing Wisely principles, launched by the American Board of Internal Medicine, which consults 100 medical specialty groups to maintain a library of overused tests and treatments.

While the state cannot mandate these measures, Carey said in a statement, “What we can do is work with the state plans, [The Department of Medical Assistance Services], and the Virginia Center for Health Innovation to not cover low-value care.”

Meanwhile, Carey wants to expand a Virginia Commonwealth University initiative that speeds recovery from surgery.

In the online publication OncLive, Dr. Traci Hedrick, co-director of the Enhanced Recovery Program at the University of Virginia Health System, writes that since her system’s implementation of enhanced recovery protocols in patients undergoing major colorectal surgery in 2013, the hospital has seen an average reduction of two days for hospital stays, an 80 percent decrease in opioid use and a 50 percent reduction in complications. In addition, “there was a $6,567 per patient reduction in total hospital costs,” Hedrick wrote.

Enhanced recovery after surgery makes sure patients are as healthy as possible prior to surgery, thereby reducing the effects of surgery on the body.

Both initiatives sound promising. The trick is implementing them in an industry notoriously resistant to change. It’s one thing to identify ways to spend health care dollars more efficiently, and it’s quite another to persuade hospitals and physicians to adopt measures which, if successful, will cut into revenues and profits.

One thing we know: Hospitals and doctors won’t implement the changes out of competitive pressure. There is no competitive pressure. Virginia health care is increasingly dominated by a handful of monopolistic health systems and giant physician practices. Moreover, there is no price transparency, so it’s not as if a hospital could gain market share by touting its lower-cost services. Virginia does have some control over the way it designs its Medicaid programs, so perhaps there is some hope in that sub-market. Otherwise, Carey will have to rely mainly on moral suasion. However, I can’t remember the last time moral suasion ever convinced anyone to act against their self interest.

Amazon-ification and Vehicle Miles Driven

I visited my daughter Sara the other day and was amused to note that delivery services had dropped off two cardboard boxes in front of her house. When I stepped inside, there was a third box, still unopened. Three packages delivered in one day. Wow, thought I. My wife and I might average one delivery per week. Upon my further inquiries, Sara revealed that she also had begun ordering her groceries online and having them delivered to her doorstep as well.

Sara is the mother of a three-month-old infant, so running errands is a serious chore. I understand why she might be willing to pay a modest delivery fee in exchange for greater convenience, especially when she’s juggling baby care with handling the administrative work for her husband’s law practice.

There’s a lesson here for public policy. The rise of e-commerce and home delivery is changing America’s driving habits, especially among younger people less entrenched than carmudgeons like me in their customary way of doing things. Instead of driving to the grocery store and perhaps combining it with one or two other errands, such as depositing a check or picking up a prescription, more and more people are opting for online delivery.

Online-delivery option takes people like Sara off local streets and roads. In the argot of transportation planners, it reduces the number of trips per household. For decades, the propensity for Americans to take an increasing number of trips per day fed the increasing number of cars on the road. According to Federal Highway Administration data, the average number of trips per household increased from 2.3 in 1969 to 3.3 in 2009, and the number of daily vehicle-miles driven per household increased from 34 to 58.1.

Conversely, more e-commerce means there are more delivery trucks roaming around our metropolitan regions and dropping off more packages than ever.

Here’s a big question for public policy wonks: Are we as a nation experiencing a net gain in vehicle miles driven or a net loss as a result of e-commerce? My hunch is that the trend is bringing about a net reduction in driving. While the typical American stops at one or two retail/service locations on average for each trip, I’m surmising that delivery trucks are stringing together long chains of drop-offs, using computer algorithms to plot the shortest, most efficient routes. (This may be true even for grocery store deliveries by refrigerated trucks.)

In sum, I would expect the net result to be positive for society — fewer vehicle miles driven, fewer vehicle emissions, and less congested streets. (But more cardboard boxes in the landfill.)

While positive overall, one might argue, this trend does not help our biggest headache: rush hour congestion caused by people driving back and forth from work. But even here, I expect there will be a modest benefit from home deliveries. Working people typically tack errands onto their commutes home — picking the dry cleaning, stopping at the grocery store, whatever. Insofar as home deliveries displace those rush-hour errands and shift the trips to non-rush hour times of the day, they might alleviate rush hour traffic to a modest degree.

The truisms that have underpinned our transportation planning are shifting under our feet. Smart planners will take into account the impact of e-commerce and home deliveries before investing billions of dollars on new roads, highways and mass transit projects on the assumption that the trends of the past 30 years can be confidently projected into the next 30 years.

How the U.S. News Ranking Skews University Behavior

Data source: U.S. News & World-Report 2018 Best Colleges

And here they are, the rankings that everybody loves to hate… the U.S. News & World-Report 2018 Best Colleges ranking.

There are numerous other rankings, but the U.S. News publication seems to carry the most clout. I list the rankings here not so much as an objective indicator of the quality of Virginia’s 15 four-year institutions of public education but as a gauge of their relative prestige. Prestige matters because the endless quest for status is one of the primary drivers of college and university priorities and spending.

The aspiration to higher rankings, hence greater prestige, is an endless treadmill. While Virginia’s public institutions strive to climb the ladder, so is every other college and university, both public and private. It’s difficult to rise in the rankings when every other institution in the country is trying to do the same.

Many institutions game the system by applying scarce funds to line items that influence the ranking metrics. Accordingly, it is especially useful to see what U.S. News counts and how institutions might invest resources to improve their scores.

Graduation and retention rates (22.5 percent). U.S. News gives 80% of this measure to the six-year graduation rate and 20% to the first-year retention rate. One can predict that institutions will invest resources to create programs that will influence both of these metrics. Likewise, one can predict that a disproportionate share of resources will be devoted to improving the first-year retention rate.

Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5 percent): U.S. News uses two measures here: academic peer ratings and high school counselor ratings. These are purely subjective, of course. One cannot help but wonder the degree to which the high school counselor ratings are influenced by… previous U.S. News & World-Report rankings. I would hypothesize that institutions intent upon improving their rankings would make efforts to increase visibility among high school counselors. Likewise, I would expect colleges to invest in recruiting star faculty who might bring renown to the institution.

Faculty resources (20 percent): Class size accounts for 40% of this measure. The most points are given to classes with fewer than 20 students, a decreasing number of points are given to classes with 20-29, 30-39, and 40-49, and no points are awarded for classes over 50. I would hypothesize that institutions would respond to this incentive by structuring class sizes to admit the maximum number of students within one of U.S. News‘s brackets. Thus, we would expect to see many more classes enrolling, say, 19 students than 20 students because 19-student classes earn more points under the U.S. News methodology than 20-student classes.

Student selectivity (12.5 percent): Two of the three metrics used in this category are average SAT score and acceptance rate. I would hypothesize that colleges and universities dedicate considerable resources to recruiting high-SAT students, and also that they also dedicate resources to ginning up lots of applications in order to generate the best possible acceptance rate to foster the image of popularity and selectivity. Also, one would expect institutions to dedicate resources to the kinds of assets — newer buildings, cushier dormitories, better food choices — that provide a quick, visceral appeal to high school students visiting campus.

Financial resources (10 percent): U.S. News rewards average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditure. It does not count spending on sports, dorms and hospitals. One would expect universities to adjust their accounting classification of expenses to maximize spending in the favored buckets. Among wealthier institutions, I would predict, there is no practical limit to money spent on student “enrichment” programs such as semesters abroad.

Graduation rate performance (7.5 percent): Adjusting for SAT scores, high school standing, and Pell Grants, U.S. News measures the difference between “expected” and actual graduation rates. If the school’s actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the college deemed to be enhancing achievement and over-performing. This strikes me as a useful measure, and one that is not easily gamed. I would love to see the data.

Alumni giving rate (5 percent): The percentage of alumni who donate to school is used as an indirect measure of student satisfaction. Of course, this is easily gamed. I would hypothesize that we will see greater resources and creativity expended over time to solicit donations. Even small donations will enhance an institution’s ranking..

What Is a College Degree Worth?

Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan doesn’t just think outside the box when it comes to higher education. He stomps on the box and mashes it into the ground.

How much of what college students learn in class do they retain later in life?

Remarkably little, says Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University. And thereupon lies a tale with massive implications for higher education policy in Virginia and nationally.

Students are subject to “fade out,” the diminishing memory of facts, figures, theories, and languages learned in the classroom that receive no reinforcement in life after school. The fact is, the vast majority of what students learn — whether history, English lit, psychology, calculus, French, or astronomy — is irrelevant to their workplace preoccupations as employees, and it is soon forgotten.

In other words, argues Caplan in his book, “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time,” from a societal perspective the vast majority of college-level schooling represents squandered time and money.

The primary value of earning a college degree is to send a signal to the employment marketplace that the bearer of a sheepskin is intelligent enough, diligent enough, and conformist enough to undergo the multi-year trial of completing the requirements. “For the individual, higher ed helps get you a job and make more money,” said Caplan in an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion. “But for society, the benefits are very overstated.”

Some colleges and universities teach advanced vocational skills such as engineering or law. Students in those fields do learn skills they will apply in their jobs, but Caplan argues that most disciplines teach little that’s relevant in the world outside the ivory tower. A degree in history, for instance, trains the student to become a historian but not much of anything else. By his spitball estimate, 80% of the career-preparation value of a college education comes from signalling, only 20% from content they master.

Reflecting upon my personal experience, I would have to acknowledge that I have forgotten the vast majority of what I learned while earning B.A. and M.A. degrees in history. I recall only the barest of details from my courses in the history of China, Japan, Latin America, the West Indies, Africa, and European overseas expansion. Forty-plus years later, I know more about these topics than the average Joe, but what I’ve forgotten could fill an encyclopedia. Why? Because in my journalism career in Virginia, I never called upon that knowledge and it faded from memory. By contrast, even though I took only a single college course in American government, I retain a storehouse of knowledge about state and local government in Virginia because I call upon it constantly.

I depart from Caplan in my belief that I did learn something of enduring value at the University of Virginia — how to think rigorously and analytically. But then, I must concede, that skill came mainly from two honors courses in historical methodology co-taught by two extraordinary professors and from the experience of writing a senior thesis, not the vast majority of my courses. Most UVa history majors did not take the honors courses and never benefited from the exceptional give-and-take of that particular program.

Caplan would concede that, yes, college students do learn something of enduring value that benefits them later in life, just not much. If the goal is preparing people for the workforce, as so much of the emphasis is today, most Virginians could learn a lot more during four years on the job than they could in four years of college.

“In the real world, most of what you learn is on the job,” Caplan says. “People get good by doing. … Nobody gets good at anything by taking critical thinking classes. They get good by doing.”

Why, then, do millions of Americans collectively spend tens of billions of dollars to attend college? The main reason, Caplan says, is to get a good job. Higher-ed institutions are adept at sorting applicants by intelligence by using such measures as SAT scores and class rankings. But if that were the only value colleges supplied, businesses would select employees on the basis of IQ tests. The ability to complete a four-year program of 40 or so courses also tells employers about a student’s diligence, self-discipline and willingness to conform to institutional demands. Students who fail to complete a college degree — whether because they are not smart enough, are too lazy, or reject institutional norms — are significantly less likely to make good employees.

Caplan makes a prediction fraught with significance for public policy. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) has set a goal of making Virginia the “best educated state” in the country by 2030, which means putting the public education system on a trajectory to produce thousands of degrees more than it would have on its previous path. If the supply of Virginians with a college degree exceeds the demand, the workforce won’t become any more productive Caplan suggests. But employers will separate the wheat from the chaff by increasing the educational criteria they require — credential inflation — thus requiring Virginians to devote even more time and expense to obtaining those credentials.

Caplan has another concern about setting arbitrary goals for the number of degrees and workforce credentials. Too many students are ill prepared for higher education as it is. American colleges are already full of students who aren’t capable of college-level work. Many of them are taking remedial classes, re-learning what they should have learned in high school. The fact that Americans have more educational credentials than ever says nothing about the quality of education they are receiving.

“If you could actually get schools to turn out people who can read or write, that would be an accomplishment,” Caplan says. “There are plenty of college graduates whom you’d be shocked by how poor their literacy or numeracy is.”

I asked Caplan if he saw any value in higher education as a consumer good — not just earning a degree but enjoying the residential campus experience, including everything from football games and dormitory bull sessions to ample opportunities to indulge in alcohol, drugs and sex. Instead of giving their kid money to backpack around Europe for a year, are parents paying their kids to enjoy four years of maximum freedom and minimum responsibility before embarking upon a lifetime of toil?

Some parents may be motivated by nostalgia for their own college experience, Caplan conceded, but he doesn’t think it’s an important factor in why they insist their kids get a degree. Most people attend college to advance their prospects in the job market. “Suppose college grads didn’t earn anything extra, how many people would still go? … College would be just for rich kids.”

Caplan sees considerable value in on-the-job training such as internships and apprenticeships — programs in which employees gain knowledge that they apply directly to work. I asked if he subscribed to the idea of “just in time learning” —  taking courses and mastering skills as they are needed. 

“From the point of view of taxpayers, that makes a lot more sense,” he says. Even then, he’s guarded about the value of acquiring knowledge by taking college courses. Say an aspiring manager wants to learn project management. How can he or she learn the discipline most effectively — by attending lectures and doing homework, or by shadowing someone on the job? Still, taking courses as needed is less wasteful than sending someone to college for four years and “consuming this giant buffet of stuff they’ll never need again.”

Dominion Files to Recover Undergrounding Costs

Key metrics for Phase 2 and Phase 3 of Dominion’s Strategic Undergrounding Program

Dominion Energy Virginia has filed for a $73 million rate increase to cover the cost of Phases 2 and 3 of its Strategic Undergrounding Program (SUP). The two phases of the program, designed to limit outages from severe weather events and shorten recovery times, will bury 660 miles of tap lines between them.

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) had permitted a trial of the undergrounding program advocated by Dominion but limited expenditures to $4o million in Phase 2. In the recently approved Grid Transformation and Security Act, however, the General Assembly declared undergrounding to be in the public interest. Now Dominion is filing to recover the full $105 million it has spent on Phase 2 plus another $179 million for Phase 3.

Legally, the law removes the “rebuttable presumption” that the conversion of overhead lines to underground lines will provide local and system-wide benefits, and declares that the costs associated with new underground facilities “are deemed to be reasonably and prudently incurred.” The legislation contains two limits: The cost should not exceed $20,000 per customer, and the average cost per mile should not exceed $750,000 (exclusive of financing costs).

Said Alan W. Bradshaw, director of Dominion’s undergrounding program, in testimony included as part of the filing:

The Company remains firm in its belief that the targeted undergrounding of the most outage prone tap lines will continue to improve the resiliency of the Company’s electric distribution system. The Company believes that a targeted SUP will result in an annual reduction of the total number of outage events and a reduction of repair locations. When outages do occur, it will lead to a reduction in the time required to restore power, particularly as to outages resulting from severe weather events.

According to data provided in the filing, the two undergrounding initiatives would allow Dominion to bury 1,769 tap lines dispersed across the state for a total cost of $284 million. The cost per customer and the cost per mile are well below the limits defined in the legislation.

There are tangible benefits to this investment, but Dominion documents only some of them in the filing. The buried lines accounted for 9,368 outages over the past 10 years — or about $30,3000 per outage avoided. Assuming that a comparable number of outages would have occurred in the future without the undergrounding, how much will the company save in restoration costs? How much outage time will customers save, and what is the economic value of the time saved? Perhaps rate payers will see those numbers in the hearing so they can judge the value of the undergrounding program for themselves.

A More Uplifting Narrative about Race

Booker T. Washington

No sooner had I posted the previous op-ed about the battleground of race and memory, I came across this story in Charlottesville Tomorrow about Freedom and Liberation Day in Charlottesville.

Historians gave a series of presentations at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center earlier this month highlighting how freed slaves in the Charlottesville area took action after the Civil War to improve their condition in life.

Ex-slaves participated in politics and fought for public education. They agitated for the redistribution of land (which they never got, although many freed slaves managed to purchase land themselves). Perhaps most notably after the end of Reconstruction and the onset of Jim Crow segregation, they picked up and moved north to cities offering greater economic opportunity.

There is a great tradition of self-improvement among African-Americans, epitomized by the great Booker T. Washington who called for black progress through education and entrepreneurship. Washington was eclipsed by W.E.B. Du Bois, who called for political change to end segregation and discrimination. Sadly, the crusade for equal civil rights has morphed into a crusade for equal economic outcomes, and Washington’s philosophy of self-improvement seems a quaint anachronism.

Perhaps it’s time for a Booker T. Washington revival. Given all the discussion about the history of race and racism these days, it would be more helpful and inspiring to celebrate the positive accomplishments of black Americans in the face of adversity than nourishing the narrative of victimhood in the face of abundance.