Author Archives: James A. Bacon

Can You Say, “Virtue Signaling”?

Sharon Bulova

Top Democratic elected officials in Northern Virginia oppose the Trump administration’s practice on the Mexican border of separating children from their families and placing them in crowded and squalid holding facilities, reports the Washington Post. “Fairfax County wants no part of this heartless practice,” said Fairfax County Board Chair Sharon Bulova in a letter sent Monday to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Therefore, Bulova and other like-minded Dems oppose plans to open a shelter for unaccompanied minors in the region.

Huh?

The “Virginia Residential Child Care Facility” would be equipped with classrooms, sleeping areas and two acres of outdoor recreation space. According to the Washington Post, the facility is meant to house youths close to where they may have relatives already living and to ease crowded conditions in U.S. Border Patrol processing facilities. Continue reading

Winners and Losers Two Years After Charlottesville

The infamous Unite-the-Right rally in Charlottesville took place two years ago today. The event degenerated into a pitched street battle between white supremacists and militant leftists, culminating with the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer when a white supremacist ran his car into the middle of a crowd. The riot traumatized the Charlottesville community, the state of Virginia, and indeed the entire nation.

It is interesting to see how the nation has processed the tragedy. From my vantage point, the big loser is Governor Terry McAuliffe, whose flawed law-enforcement contributed to the breakdown in order. The big winners are the leftist radicals whose shared culpability for the violence has been virtually expunged from the mainstream media narrative.

Mac the Dull Knife. McAuliffe, who reportedly entertains ambitions of running for elected office again, has released a book, “Beyond Charlottesville,” which he purports to be “the definitive account of an infamous chapter in our history.” The former governor exonerates himself for allowing the protest to turn into a riot. Conservatives never bought McAuliffe’s story. It turns out the Left isn’t buying it either. Continue reading

Sorry, NYTimes, the South Is a Land of Opportunity

Perceived intergenerational mobility. Source: New York Times

Americans believe the United States is a land of opportunity, a country where people who work hard enough can get ahead. The faith in one’s ability to improve one’s economic circumstances is especially strong in the South. Ironically, contends Patricia Cohen with the New York Times, nowhere is the gap between perception and reality greater than in the South.

“For moving from the bottom of the income ladder to the top, the South offers the worst odds in the United States,” writes Cohen. “But it’s also the region where people are most optimistic about the prospects.”

(The gap between perception and reality is especially wide in Virginia, according to data presented in the article. Virginians estimated that 14.5% of Americans born into the bottom income quintile make it into the ranks of the top quintile as adults. The actual figure in Virginia is 6.3%.

The persistent belief in the U.S. as a land of opportunity has political implications, as Cohen observes. Liberals and progressive, who contend that the odds are stacked against ordinary Americans, argue that government intervention — from raising the minimum wage to providing free college for all — is needed to level the playing field. Conservatives, they suggest, over-estimate social mobility and under-estimate the need for palliative action. And evidence drummed up by Harvard researchers and presented in the NY Times article appears to back them up.

It will surprise no one to read that I believe the researchers who compiled the data framed their findings in such a way as to confirm pre-existing beliefs. Continue reading

Koch’s Recipe for Reforming Higher-Ed

James V. Koch’s indictment of the U.S. higher education system can be summarized as follows: The cost of attending four-year public universities has soared in recent decades, creating an affordability crisis. Lower- and middle-income students and their families have coped by piling up massive student loans to the point where indebtedness has become a major social and economic problem. Higher-ed institutions, especially those with brand names and pricing power, have extracted wealth from its students to fund institutional priorities of bolstering prestige and influence.

The underlying problem, Koch suggests in his recently published book, “The Improverishment of the American College Student,” can be traced to an asymmetry in political and market power.

Undergraduate students come and go. They and their families usually focus intently on college costs for a period of one to six years. After this, their attention dissipates. There is no permanent constituency of interested parties or victims. … Hence it is difficult to organize student or parent pressure groups that might address tuition and fee issues…

By contrast, the institutional interests of colleges, universities, and their bureaucracies endure. Boards of Visitors, set up to provide oversight of ambitious administrators, are routinely captured and dominated by university presidents. Board members adopt the goals and priorities of the administration rather than those of largely invisible students and families. Continue reading

Going Nowhere Fast: Virginia’s Transportation Dialogue

Northern Virginians are complaining again about their inadequate transportation infrastructure, and I can’t blame them. Traffic is terrible, especially on transportation arteries like Interstate 95, and I avoid going up there, or even through there, if I possibly can. NoVa is transportation hell — a point that was reiterated Wednesday during a forum sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. As usually happens, however, participants defined the problem as not enough money.

“We are in the position (where) we don’t have more money,” said panelist Monica Backmon, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, according to Inside Nova. “We have an open call for projects right now, but the reality is that’s for Fiscal Year 24 and 25. If you need more money on previously funded projects, I really don’t have it.”

Where will the money come from? Ed Mortimer, a U.S. Chamber official, said the federal government needs to do more. Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine argued that Virginia is relatively undertaxed and should boost its gas tax.

Given the paralyzing political polarization in Washington, D.C., these days, I don’t expect any solutions coming out of the nation’s capital. But Richmond hasn’t reached the same level of dysfunction. What about a higher gas tax? Does that idea make sense? Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Mostly Good News for a Change

Energy efficiency done right. After investing $2 million over three years to update the energy and water infrastructure of Clark Hall, the University of Virginia calculates that it is saving $75o,ooo a year in electricity bills and $22,000 in water bills — a payback in less than three years. The university replaced 5,000 interior and exterior fixtures with LEDs, put into place an electronically controlled HVAC system, and installed low-flow toilets and faucet aerators, among other changes. Since 2010, Office of Sustainability projects have avoided $35 million in energy fees, reports the Cavalier Daily. Building automation kills two birds with one stone: It dampens runaway higher-ed costs, and it reduces energy consumption.

Wytheville as winner. The Brookings Institution has highlighted Wytheville, population 8,000, as a successful example of community development in a rural town. Step one: Invest in downtown place-making through streetscape renovations, improved sidewalks, lighting, and crosswalks. Step two: Create a self-sustaining entrepreneurial ecosystem. With a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Urban Development, Downtown Wytheville launched a competition to recruit local businesses and build partnerships with property owners. Inducements such as reduced rent, mentorships, and $75,000 in prize money were used to recruit the businesses downtown. As a result Wytheville has two (not one, but two) breweries, a Vietnamese bakery, and an art school id didn’t have before. In 2018, downtown received $800,000 in public investment and $5.7 in private investment. Continue reading

VCU Study Jumps to Unsubstantiated Conclusions

Richmond-area schools suspend black students at four times the rate of white students, a gap that exceeds the national average, a study by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education has found. The findings have been duly reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

One in five black students in the region received an out-of-school suspension during the 2015-16 year compared to 5% of white students. Nationally, the numbers are closer to 15% and 5%, according to a study by the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC), a research arm of the VCU educational school that gives special emphasis to “social justice, equity and diversity.”

“This is a long-standing problem with deeply rooted causes, and it’s going to take dedicated leadership and policy to resolve it,” the RTD quoted Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a VCU education professor and one of the study’s authors, as saying.

To drive home the point, the RTD also quoted Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras: “We have a moral obligation to end racial inequity in school discipline — particularly here in the Richmond region given our history as the former capital of the Confederacy. Continue reading

Tuition Stable but College Costs Still Up

Increase in tuition & Fees for full-time in-state undergraduate students in 2019-20. Source: SCHEV

Thanks to an increase in state support, Virginia’s four-year colleges and universities held tuition mandatory E&G (education and general) fees stable this year for in-state undergraduates. However, according to the latest Tuition & Fees report from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the total cost of attendance including room, board, and fees for auxiliary services will increase 2.2% for the 2019-2020 academic year.

Drivers of the cost increases are a 3.5% increase in the cost of room & board, accounting for about 44% of the total cost of attendance, and a 4.1% increase in mandatory non-E&G fees. It’s hard to see how those increases are justified, given the fact that the Consumer Price Index has increased only 1.6% over the past 12 months.

Did Virginia’s college administrators shift costs — perhaps in the form of administrative charges and overhead — to those line items so they can say they held the line on tuition and mandatory fees? Perhaps SCHEV could look into that question.

Raising All the Money They Can, and Spending All the Money They Raise

There are two broad theories explaining why the cost of higher education has increased at roughly four times the rate of inflation over the past two decades. One is the Baumol cost-disease hypothesis. Economist William J. Baumol used the example of a chamber orchestra to explain why it is so difficult to increase productivity in the service economy. It takes the same number of musicians and same length of time to perform a Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor as it did in 1826. By analogy, the job of transmitting higher-order knowledge from teacher to student is as labor intensive as it was a half century ago. Yet to recruit and retain faculty, colleges must pay their professors far more.

Howard Bowen. His “law” explains about half of all increases in higher-ed tuition and fees.

The other theory, known as “Bowen’s Law,” was articulated by former college president Howard R. Bowen. He laid out five axioms:

  1. The dominant goals of institutions are excellent, prestige, and influence.
  2. There is virtually no limit to the amount of money that an institution could spend for seemingly fruitful educational ends.
  3. Each institution raises all the money it can.
  4. The institution spends all it raises.
  5. The cumulative effect of the proceeding four laws is toward ever-increasing expenditure.

Together, the two theorems explain about two-thirds of the increasing the cost of college attendance in the United States, says James V. Koch, author of “The Impoverishment of the American College Student.” While he gives credence to both theories, his research suggests that Bowen’s Law has twice the explanatory power as Baumol’s cost disease. Continue reading

WaPo Stokes Fear Campaign against Feral Hogs

The Washington Post is ramping up its hate campaign against wild pigs. Labeling the highly intelligent, highly social animals as an “invasive species,” the newspaper describes them as “marauding” across the southern United States,  “eviscerating crops, gobbling up sea turtles, and tramping archaeological sites in a rampage showing no signs of letting up.”

The newspaper invokes their Hispanic origins — “brought to North America from Europe by Spanish conquistadors” — and makes an issue of their high fertility rate: “They produce large litters.” Invoking harmful and negative stereotypes, the newspaper quotes an Arkansas Game & Fish Commissioner spokesman as saying that the animals leave a “trail of diseases and parasites.” And without citing any evidence that wild pigs have attacked humans, it warns, “Their razor sharp tusks combined with their lightning speed can cause serious injury.”

Describing feral hogs as a pest to be exterminated, WaPo writes approvingly of the use of camera-enabled traps, night hunts using infrared scopes, and “helicopter squads rifle-toting sportsmen.” It quotes a Texas wildlife official as suggesting that an AR-15-type firerarm may not pack enough punch to pierce the pig’s tough hide. “The best caliber rifles should be a .243 of greater to prevent wounding and loss of the animal.” Continue reading

The Microgrid Option

Microgrids would make it easier to integrate more rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources into the electric grid.

By Jane Twitmyer

Building a clean electric system takes more than switching from fossil fuels to renewables. To make good use of wind and solar power, Virginia needs a modern, flexible electric grid that can exploit and optimize the unique attributes those resources bring to bear. And it needs new rules — laws and regulations — that can allow such a system to develop.

A more flexible electric system will be built in part around microgrids. The Navigant consulting firm defines microgrids as networks incorporating a variety of distributed energy resources, such as wind and solar, that can be aggregated, can balance loads and generation with or without energy storage, and can function whether connected or not to a traditional utility power grid.

As distributed renewable energy resources replace large central generation plants — more rooftop solar, more community wind and solar — electricity generation becomes more localized. Localized generators, particularly photovoltaic solar, require less supporting infrastructure. For instance, local generation doesn’t require transmission lines to wheel electricity across long distances (leaking electricity in the process). And unlike natural gas, it doesn’t require pipelines to deliver fuel to the generating site. Continue reading

Dominion Seeks First Battery-Storage Investment

Battery storage racks used in a data center.

Dominion Energy has filed with the State Corporation Commission for approval to invest in 16 megawatts of battery-storage pilot projects costing $33 million. As the company expands its solar fleet, currently the 4th largest of any utility holding company in the country, Dominion said, it is looking for “new and innovative ways” to store renewable energy and maintain reliable electric service.

“Energy storage is critical to providing continued reliability for our customers as we expand our renewable portfolio,” Mark D. Mitchell, vice president-generation construction, said in a press release. “Battery storage has made significant strides in recent years, in both efficiency and cost. These pilot projects will enable Dominion Energy to better understand how best to deploy batteries to help overcome the inherent fluctuation of wind and solar energy sources.” Continue reading

Hey, Why Not Satellites for Rural Broadband Access?

Everyone can agree, I think, that broadband Internet service is an essential utility for Virginia’s rural areas. There appears to be a wide base of support for the commonwealth to expend modest sums of money to help extend broadband to rural Virginians where the population density is insufficient to attract fiber-optic and wireless investment by private telecom companies. But I do have one question: What’s wrong with satellite broadband?

My question is prompted by an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today by Evan Feinman and Courtney Dozier, the point persons in Governor Ralph Northam’s bid to expand rural broadband access. They describe programs that use public dollars to grease partnerships between localities, internet service providers, and electric utilities. Since the beginning of the Northam administration, they note, state-funded programs have helped establish 71,000 connections to homes and businesses. And that’s just the beginning of what they have planned. They are asking for tens of millions of dollars more.

That all sounds great. When it comes to rural economic development, investing in broadband may be the most effective way to spend public dollars. Still, what’s wrong with satellite technology? Continue reading

More Evidence of Excessive Tuition Increases

Click for more legible image

An enduring debate in higher education, especially here in Virginia, is the extent to which cuts in state support are responsible for skyrocketing tuition & fees at public universities. In his book, “The Impoverishment of the American College Student,” James V. Koch has tackled that question on a national basis, and in so doing has provided some interesting data on five Virginia universities.

For 20 flagship institutions, 20 urban institutions, and 20 “typical” institutions, Koch performed a series of calculations tracking changes between the 1999/00 school year and the 2014/15 school year:

  • The percent change in published tuition and fees (T&F) adjusted for inflation.
  • The percentage change in published net T&F — adjusted for inflation and financial aid — per full-time equivalent student.
  • The percentage change in state appropriations, adjusted for inflation, per full-time equivalent student.
  • The net change in revenue available to the institution resulting from changes in tuition, fees, financial aid, and state support.

Continue reading

UVa’s New Strategic Plan: Lofty Goals, New Programs… Mo’ Money

UVa’s new president, Jim Ryan, starts to leave his mark on the institution.

The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors has adopted a new strategic plan, The 2030 Plan — the first under the leadership of President Jim Ryan. If UVa achieves its goals, says Ryan in the introduction, “We will be the leading public university in the country in 2030 and one of the very best in the world, whether public or private.”

The 2030 Plan expresses many high-minded goals — among them, to recruit “talented, diverse and service-oriented” students; recruit and retain excellent faculty and administrative staff; prepare students to be “servant leaders” in a diverse, globally connected world; establish leadership in critical areas of research; and offer one of the best values in higher education.

The plan is devoid of details on how the university will attain these goals, but it appears that the board will be delegating much of its authority to Ryan and his staff. The Daily Progress notes that the board “will approve three-year funding plans at a strategic level” but leave “line-item allocations” up to senior officials. “Previously board members would have approved those expenditures as well.” Moreover, UVa’s administration will have the authority to adjust the funding plan by as much as $15 million without full board approval.

While illuminating institutional goals to boost UVa’s national standing as one of the nation’s great universities, the strategic plan is silent about an issue of vital interest to Virginians — affordability. Rather than emphasizing affordability, the strategic plan emphasizes “value”: Continue reading