Author Archives: James A. Bacon

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Anthropologists

The U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard has updated its searchable database so students can see median earnings for disciplines in which 20 or more degrees are granted. Just for yuks, I checked the data for Virginia Commonwealth University where my son is enrolled. It will surprise no one to see that students earning computer science degrees will earn more than three times as much in their first year following graduation as those who earn degrees in drama, music and anthropology.

Parents, if your kid doesn’t consult this tool, you should! See what you’re getting for your investment in his or her college education. Find out how much you’ll have to subsidize the little darling when he graduates!


Way Overdue: Cleanse the State Code of Racist Residue

by James A. Bacon

This 1956 law, enshrined in Chapter 59 of the Acts of the General Assembly, is a dead letter, rendered irrelevant by judicial rulings, others laws, and history, but it’s still on the books:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no child shall be required to enroll in or attend any school wherein both white and colored children are enrolled.

“The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law,” commissioned by Governor Ralph Northam, identified this and 97 other Jim Crow-era laws still lurking in the state code. The governor has committed to repeal the racially discriminatory language. You can view the report here.

“If we are going to move forward as a Commonwealth, we must take an honest look at our past,” said Northam in a press statement. “We know that racial discrimination is rooted in many of the laws that have governed our Commonwealth—today represents an important step towards building a more equal, just, and inclusive Virginia.”

States the report: Continue reading

Virginia’s Tech Roadmap: Space, Biotech, Cybersecurity and More

by James A. Bacon

A new study, “The Commonwealth Research and Technology Strategic Roadmap,” has identified six strategic technology clusters exhibiting the greatest potential for Virginia’s economic growth. The report, conducted by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, is not prescriptive — it does not offer legislative recommendations. Rather, the report identifies fruitful areas for collaboration between education, industry, government, and economic developers.

The most promising areas for focused research and economic development include:

  1. Life and health science
  2. Autonomous systems
  3. Space and utilities
  4. Agricultural and environmental technologies
  5. Cybersecurity
  6. Data science analytics

Collaboration should take the form of aligning investments in R&D, talent development, industry engagement, capacity building (such as venture capital), and marketing/advocacy for the purpose of globally competitive industry clusters. Continue reading

…. And a Nod to the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

by James A. Bacon

As a follow-up to my post about Stephen Moret, whose contributions to Virginia’s economic development have been amply recognized, I’d like to acknowledge the work of an important figure who has largely flown under the radar: Tom Barkin, CEO and president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

Federal Reserve Bank presidents are quoted mainly for their thoughts about Federal Reserve Board monetary policy. Presidents of the Richmond Fed, for instance, have been known over the years as monetary hawks, advocating the Fed’s role as inflation fighter. Although the Richmond Fed has always gathered data and business intelligence about economic activity in the 5th federal reserve district, which includes Virginia, previous bank presidents rarely delved into the nitty gritty of local economic development.

Barkin is different. He may be engaged in national policy debates — I don’t know — but I can state with certainty that he has reoriented the analytical and research resources of the Fed to figuring out how to promote economic growth and development within his district, which encompasses Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. He has been traveling throughout the region — not just to the big cities — and talking to local leaders. One particular focus has been rural community development. Continue reading

Mr. Economic Development as Biz Person of 2019

Virginia Business magazine has named Stephen Moret, CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, as its 2019 business person of the year. The recognition is richly deserved. In less than three years, Moret has overhauled the badly dysfunctional VEDP, directed the effort to capture Amazon’s HQ2 project, restored Virginia to a top ranked state for business climate, and launched several initiatives that should improve the state’s economic competitiveness even more in the years to come.

The magazine has an excellent profile in its current edition, telling the story of his upbringing in a small Mississippi town, his winning a Louisiana State University scholarship by playing the trumpet, his contributions as a senior member of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s administration, and then his move to Virginia as chief economic developer.

The only insight I would add to the Virginia Business profile would be to note the breadth of Moret’s interests. The VEDP has a narrow scope: recruiting out-of-state corporate investment to Virginia (with a side job of promoting foreign trade). Moret, quite rightly, understands that the key to attracting corporate investment is building and retaining human capital. He also comprehends the role of university-centered innovation ecosystems in driving economic growth. Weaving together the strands of corporate recruitment, workforce development, and higher-ed, he has emerged not only as the leading practitioner of economic development in Virginia but its most visible and articulate theoretician.


Mo’ Money for Schools Across the Board?

The Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) has published its annual report on Virginia public schools. The report catalogs numerous deficiencies in the state school system, with an emphasis on unequal educational outcomes. And it recommends mo’ money across the board — mo’ money for teacher pay, mo’ money for mo’ teachers and staff, mo’ money for poor schools. You know the drill.

The report contains an informative graphic (replicated above) that shows the changing demographics of Virginia’s school population. The percentage of white students has declined over the past decade. Whites no longer comprise a majority in Virginia’s school population. The percentage of black students has declined as well. But the percentage of Asian and Hispanic students has soared.

The number of English learners has increased from 87,000 students a decade ago to 107,000 students in 2018-19. As it happens, according to the VBOE’s searchable Standards of Learning database, only 34.7% of English as Second Language (ESL) students passed their reading SOLs last year, compared to 80.9% for other students. The disparity for writing was even more dismal.

The Commonwealth can increase educational spending across the board — more money for everybody and everything — or it can focus added spending on where the investment returns are the greatest. The greatest inequality in Virginia schools is between those who speak English as a native language and those who don’t. If we want to reduce educational disparities, we’ll get the most bang for the buck by focusing resources on teaching immigrant kids how to read and write English. Once these students understand what’s being said in class, progress in other subjects will follow. Just a thought…


How U.S. 15-Year-Olds Compare to Their International Peers

Source: Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

by James A. Bacon

Every three years the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administers standardized reading, math, and science tests to representative samples of 15-year-olds from dozens of countries — 79 in 2018, to be exact. Despite a decades-long effort in the United States to raise standards, the performance of American teenagers has been stagnant since 2000, reports the New York Times. (Actually, math performance has declined slightly.)

Even worse, as the newspaper summarizes the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams, “The achievement gap in reading between high and low performers is widening. Although the top quarter of American students have improved their performance on the exam since 2012, the bottom 10th percentile lost ground.” A fifth of American 15-year-olds scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared that they had not mastered the reading skills expected of a 10-year-old.

The achievement gap, which is getting wider despite the expenditure of billions of dollars to close it, is a source of consternation — and a mystery — to the educators consulted by the NYTimes. “There is no consensus on why the performance of struggling students is declining. Could it be school segregation? Limited school choice? Funding inequities? Family poverty? Continue reading

UVa Gearing Up for Another Hike in Tuition & Fees

by James A. Bacon

Later this week the University of Virginia Board of Visitors will consider increasing tuition by 3% to 4% in the 2020-21 school year and jacking up fees between 3% to 6%. Here is a copy of the PowerPoint presentation showing the arguments and data that the administration presented the board in its November meeting.

As usual, the UVA administration blames tuition increases on declines in state support for higher education.  “Responsibility for funding educational costs has shifted from the taxpayer to the student,” states one slide. “Increases in tuition have not kept pace with declines in general funds, leaving a gap of $3,648 per student in 2020-2021.”

While those numbers may justify tuition increases in previous decades — UVa bases its calculations on trends going back to 1990-91 — it overlooks the fact that between 2012 and 2018 (the latest year for which I could obtain data from UVa’s annual financial reports), state support increased by $20 million even while academic (non-hospital) spending increased by $511 million! (See support for these numbers here.) The state is to blame for higher tuition? Really? In what universe? Continue reading

Billions for Coal Ash Cleanup — for What Benefit?

Coal ash at Dominion’s Chesterfield power station. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

The cost of cleaning up coal ash at Dominion Energy’s old coal-fired power plants will run between $2.4 billion and $5.7 billion, the company said at a presentation to the State Water Control Board yesterday. Disposal costs could  add $5 to the monthly bill of typical households over the next 15 to 20 years, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Dominion’s original plan called for consolidating and capping coal ash on site at its coal-generating plants. Environmental groups criticized the plan on the grounds that underground water migrating through the coal ash would pick up contaminants and pollute public waters. Under orders from the General Assembly, the power company now is looking at a combination of strategies that include recycling, on-site landfilling and off-site landfilling.

We are getting a clearer idea of how much the General Assembly’s coal ash mandate will cost, but I have yet to see an analysis of how much benefit will come from exceeding Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disposal standards. Continue reading

Adversity Scores: Great Idea, but Flawed Execution

by James A. Bacon

The College Board, which administers the SAT college entrance exams, caused quite the ruckus recently when it published “adversity” scores for high schools across the country. The idea was to give college admissions officials information to supplement the SATs on the theory that a student who overcomes the challenges of a harsh environment might warrant more consideration than a student with comparable SAT scores who comes from a privileged background. Or, as the Wall Street Journal put it recently, “What if SAT scores could take into account whether a student went to an elite boarding school in New England or a struggling public school in Chicago’s poorest neighborhood?”

I think most people would agree that, all other things being equal, students who surmount the challenges of poverty and family turmoil should be given an edge over students who lived a life of ease and stability.

But the Wall Street Journal went a step further. It hired a Georgetown University data scientist to adjust the average SAT scores for 10,353 high schools where at least 30 students took the exam by their adversity scores. (The adversity scores incorporate 15 factors including the crime rate, poverty levels and other socioeconomic indicators from the student’s high school and neighborhood.) The result was the graph displayed above, which plots median SAT scores against adversity scores. On average, schools with lower adversity scores (more privilege) rank better on SAT scores. But different schools out-perform and under-perform the trend line. Some of the poorest schools punched well above their weight, the WSJ concluded, while some of the wealthiest performed poorly.

I have no problem with a methodology that gives snooty, elitist private schools their comeuppance. Although I attended an “elite” prep school decades ago, I have soured on institutions that have priced themselves beyond the reach of the middle class in order to pay for facilities and programs of little value beyond status signaling. I won’t give them a dime! On the other hand, in the interest of understanding how the world really works, I must take exception to the WSJ’s portrayal of private schools.

Continue reading

Reasonable Regulations for Scooters

Is “scooting under the influence” a thing?

by James A. Bacon

So, I was sitting at a stoplight the other day, and some guy came hauling butt through the intersection on a scooter. Like a bicyclist or motorcyclist, he leaned hard left as he took the left-hand turn. I can’t say how fast he was riding, but if he took a spill, I’m pretty sure he would have wound up as road kill. Needless to say, the scooterist (or whatever you call a scooter rider) was a young male with a much higher tolerance for risk than the average Henrico County resident.

With this image still vivid in my mind, I now read how Arlington County and Fairfax County have enacted ordinances regulating the use of scooters on public streets and sidewalks. While I err toward a light hand of regulation for the business side of scooters — not imposing excessive taxes, fees, levies, and restrictions, etc. — I find it perfectly reasonable to regulate their use to ensure safety on public byways.

In Arlington, “micro-mobility devices” will be required to have speedometers, reports (Hat tip: Rob Whitfield.) Motorized scooters and skateboards will have a top speed of 15 miles per hour, and e-bicycles of 20 miles per hour, on streets and trails. On sidewalks, top speeds are restricted to six miles per hour. Continue reading

More PC Drivel from ___&___ University

by James A. Bacon

Triggered by the slave-owning past of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, a group of Washington & Lee University law students are clamoring for the option of being awarded diplomas stripped of the portraits of the university’s namesakes, reports the Washington Post.

I guess you could say that I’m triggered by the fact that they’re triggered. My reaction: Get over it. If some W&L grads are so bent out of shape by the university’s historical association with former slave owners, regardless of their other accomplishments, maybe they should have thought of that before they enrolled.

Here’s my solution: whiteout.

With just a few dabs, your Washington & Lee diploma could look like this:

Continue reading

Happy Turkey Day

Everything’s better with bacon!

The Inherent Flaw in “Opportunity Zones”

Map credit: Econ Focus

by James A. Bacon

The City of Norfolk is gearing up to take full advantage of tax breaks contained in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. City Council has designated the St. Paul area, home to three 50s-era housing projects, as an “opportunity zone.” Plans call for demolishing the three projects and replacing them with mixed-income development. The city will receive $30 million in Housing and Urban Development funds to jump-start redevelopment, but the bulk of investment is expected to come from the private sector.

More than 8,700 such opportunity zones have been designated across the country; about 10% are located within the 5th Federal Reserve Bank district, which includes Virginia. Through a mix of incentives, investors in opportunity zones can defer, reduce or in some cases eliminate capital gains taxes in the zones.

While the tax breaks may prove effective at channeling investment capital into the designated zones, it is an open question if it will actually help the poor people living there, writes Jessie Romero in the current issue of Fed Focus, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

The size of the potential tax break is what could lure new investment, but it depends on how profitable the investment is — which depends in part on rising property values and rents. So some observers fear that in many places, the opportunity zone designation will create or hasten a process of gentrification to the detriment of lower-income residents who don’t own their homes and instead are forced out by rising rents.

This strikes me as a legitimate concern. Indeed, the criticism goes to the heart of almost every government-subsidized redevelopment project. The more successful a project is commercially, the more likely it is to displace the very people it is meant to help. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Hemp, Housing and Solar

NIMBYs against hemp. Farmers across Southside Virginia have turned to growing hemp (the THC-free version used in industrial applications) as a replacement crop for tobacco. But at least one Dinwiddie County neighborhood has risen in revolt. A hemp farm near the Lake Jordan neighborhood emits an offensive odor. The smell is so bad that it’s getting into peoples’ houses and permeating their clothing, reports the Progress-Index. “We’re worried that they’re going to continue planting around, which would basically mean [that] people will have to leave or just tolerate unbelievable skunk-like odors,” said Jarrod Reisweber, a director of the homeowners association. Daniel Lee, vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors held out the hope that, if solutions could be found to control the odor of hog farms, a remedy could be found for hemp as well.

Amazon offers $20 million toward affordable housing. Amazon is offering $20 million to the Arlington County Affordable Housing Investment Fund in exchange for permission to build a bigger headquarters complex than county zoning allows. The sum would amount to the greatest single infusion of money into the fund, reports the Washington Post. Amazon wants to increase the size of its proposed 22-story office towers from 1.56 million square feet to about 2.15 million square feet, reduce the number of parking spaces, and increase penthouse height. If we assume an average of $50 per square foot for office space in Arlington, Amazon’s concessions are worth about $30 million. That’s gross value. Once construction costs are excluded, Amazon would net significantly less. By that comparison, the $20 million offer seems pretty generous.

Virginia Schools turn to solar. An increasing number of public and private schools in Virginia are utilizing solar power. The number of schools with solar has nearly tripled since 2014 — from 20 to 86, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. A niche industry has evolved in which entrepreneurs package solar Public Purchase Agreements (PPAs) in which schools put no cash down and start generating positive cash flow from the first year. Pete Gretz with the Middlesex County school system says that ground-mounted solar saved just under $50,000 at its elementary school site. “There’s no drawback to this,” he said. “It’s completely a win-win.” Continue reading