Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Good News Story: Richmond’s Murder Arrest Rate

Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham — winning everybody’s confidence.

The City of Richmond’s school system leaves a lot to be desired, a fact I have belabored on this blog, but the city’s Police Department is doing a great job of fighting crime — so good that the Washington Post profiled the Richmond P.D. as an exemplar in closing murder cases.

Nationally, there have been 50,000 homicides in major American cities since 2007. Of those, 26,000 have not resulted in an arrest. But of the 50 cities studied, Richmond has the highest homicide arrest rate. The police have closed 70% of all murder cases. Writes the Post:

That outcome, police officials said, is the result of persistent community outreach that has helped encourage witnesses to cooperate.

“If I’m in the city, I’m at every scene,” said Chief Alfred Durham, a former D.C. police officer who has led Richmond’s department since early 2015. “People in the community need to see members of our command staff engaging and doing everything possible to close each case. . . . We’re out there building relationships.”

Detectives said they have worked hard to gain the confidence of potential witnesses by assuring that police will do all they can to protect them if they come forward.

The high arrest rate represents a significant turn-around from 12 years ago when Richmond had won the reputation as a mini-murder capital. After an overhaul of the department, murder rates have declined and arrest rates have soared.

While Richmond is among the smallest of the 50 cities studied, it has tremendous concentrations of poverty — with all the social pathologies that concentrated poverty creates. Little has changed economically or demographically that might explain the exceptional murder clearance rate. The improvement results from good community policing.

The building of trust between police and communities also is reflected in the different tenor of politics in the city. Not to say that there isn’t a racial divide over issues like Civil War statues, but Richmond doesn’t have the same kind of hyper-polarized racial animus seen in places like Baltimore and Chicago. That makes it a lot easier for someone like African-American Mayor Levar Stoney to govern as a moderate liberal — with an emphasis on the moderate. Now… if only some of that positive mojo can rub off on the city schools.

(Hat tip: Steve Nash)

More Test Score Sleight-of-Hand

As expected, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has responded to the latest ACT college-entrance exam results with glowing comparisons between Virginia high school test takers and their peers in other states.

“The percentage of 2018 graduating seniors in Virginia public high schools who met the ACT’s college-readiness benchmark in each content area was 22 or more points higher than the percentages for public graduates nationwide,” stated the VDOE press release.

“The commonwealth’s public school students achieved an average composite score of 23.8 on the ACT, compared with 20.4 for public graduates nationwide,” the press release added. “Public school students accounted for 83 of the 95 Virginia students who achieved perfect scores on the test.”

Wow! If Virginia students are that much smarter than everyone else, that must mean Virginia schools are doing a fantastic job! … Right?

There is less to these comparisons than meets the eye. Click here to view average ACT scores by state graduating class in 2018. As ACT warns at the top of the table: “The best practice is to compare states where the same or similar percentages of graduates were tested (e.g, Alabama 100% and South Carolina 100%; or Kansas 71% and Arizona 66%).”

In 17 states 100% of high school graduates took the tests. Fifty-five percent took the exams nationally. And Virginia? Well, in Virginia only 24% partook. So, while it may be true that nearly twice as many Virginia grads are taking the exams as ten years ago, as Staples said, the percentage in the Old Dominion is less than half the 55% national average. Only in seven states does a smaller percentage participate.

Thus, while the composite score of 23.9 for Virginia students may look good in comparison to (to pick a state) 20.2 for Kentucky, bear in mind that every Kentucky student took the exams while only one in four Virginia students did. When participation is so discretionary, it is safe to assume that the Virginia test-takers are a highly self-selected group —  more serious about going to college, better prepared academically, and more likely to earn high ACT scores.

For a meaningful comparison, let’s see how Virginia stacks up against other states where roughly the same percentage of high school grads took the ACT exams.

Er… Not so great. New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Michigan all outperformed Virginia. In each of those states, students are somewhat better prepared for college than Virginia students.

Surely, VDOE knows this. But the Department chose not to provide this context in its press release. Instead, Virginians are fed happy talk about what a great job their schools are doing.

Bacon’s law of public policy: You cannot make things better if you are disconnected from reality.

Bacon’s bottom line: VDOE’s press release strongly suggests that the VDOE’s top brass is disconnected from reality. Alternatively, if VDOE isn’t disconnected from reality, it is peddling happy talk that keeps Virginia lawmakers and the public disconnected from reality. This is no way to achieve the goal of making Virginia the best educated state in the country.

Update: A previous version of this post mistakenly included quotes and graphs from last year’s VDOE press release. I have deleted them and replaced them with quotes and charts from this year’s release.

Chesterfield’s $50 Million Fiscal Landmine

Virginia and its local governments are constitutionally obligated to balance their budgets ever year. But as I have repeatedly pointed out, there are many ways to duck that obligation. One is to rack up unfunded pension liabilities. Another is to under-fund maintenance.

Today we discover that even a highly reputed county with a AAA bond rating can engage in fiscal sleight-of-hand. From today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Chesterfield County needs $50 million for school maintenance problems that could keep kids out of schools if they are not addressed soon.”

The county issued $300 million in bonds after a voter-approved referendum in 2013 to replace and renovate county schools. Apparently, there’s only $13 million left for fixing facilities — far short of what’s needed.

Dan Champion, a program manager for the firm EMG, said there are schools across the county with serious electrical, air conditioning and roofing problems. If not adequately addressed over the next two decades, the cost of the repairs could rise to nearly $1 billion, he said.

The Times-Dispatch article delves into the riff between the county administration and the school system. There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on. Regardless of who is to blame, it is clear that Chesterfield schools have run $50 million in maintenance deficits over the years. And now the county is on notice that, absent corrective action, the maintenance deficit could reach $1 billion over 20 years.

How many other Virginia school districts have engaged in deficit maintenance spending? How many other agencies and localities have piled up unfunded liabilities for deteriorating roads, highways, bridges, mass transit systems, water and sewer plants and pipelines, libraries, administration buildings, courthouses, jails, prisons, municipal gas systems, IT systems, automotive fleets, and the rest of the state’s vast infrastructure?

Administrators and elected officials have no interest in knowing the truth that might make them look bad. So, nobody tracks this information until it becomes an explosive issue. What’s that noise we hear in Chesterfield? Kaboom!

Dominion Files to Extend Surry Nukes

Surry Nuclear Power Station

Dominion Energy has filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to renew operating licenses for its Surry Power Station for an additional 20 years, the company announced today.

Like all nuclear units, the three-loop Westinghouse pressurized water reactors, capable of generating 1,676 megawatts each, were originally licensed to operate 40 years. Under its current licenses, the two nuclear units are allowed to generate electricity through 2032 and 2033. A second re-licensing would extend their lives through 2052 and 2053. The units account for about 15% of the electricity consumed by Dominion customers.

Dominion also has applied to re-license its two units at the South Anna power station. Between the four units, the utility estimates that it could spend as much as $4 billion on the re-licensing program.

Critics are certain to attack the proposal on the grounds that the power company should not make a long-term commitment to an expensive electric generating source even as the cost of solar power, wind power, and battery-powered backup continue to decline. Dominion argues that the nuclear units will provide a reliable, CO2-free source of base-load electric power. In essence, the critics are advocating a zero-nuclear, renewables-intensive energy policy similar to Germany’s energiewende, which has resulted in high electricity rates and burns CO2-intensive coal to replace the lost nuclear power.

It will make a fascinating debate.

Taxes, Innovation and Virginia’s Lost Mojo

In 1940

In 1940, technological innovation in the United States was concentrated overwhelmingly in the Great Lakes states, the Northeast, and California. The powerful economic force known as agglomeration — in which geographic proximity boosts the productivity of inventors and researchers — acted to perpetuate those states’ lead. Yet over the following six decades, the propensity for innovation, as measured by patents per 10,000 state residents, diffused to Texas, the South Atlantic states (including Virginia), and the Rocky Mountain states. What drove that change?

One likely factor was tax rates — primarily for corporate income taxes, but for personal income taxes as well. And that should be a wake-up call to Virginia. The Old Dominion’s 6% top marginal tax rate for corporations gives the state a crummy 31st rank in the Tax Foundation’s business tax climate index, and its 5.75% top tax bracket contributes to the state’s 9th highest rank for state-and-local income taxes paid per year.

A new study by Ufuk Akcigit, a University of Chicago economics professor, and three colleagues has found that corporate and personal income tax rates have a profound effect over long periods of time on technological innovation. States their paper, “Taxation and Innovation in the 20th Century“:

Taxes affect the amount of innovation, the quality of innovation, and the location of inventive activity.

The effect of taxes on innovation is a consuming question in modern-day economics. Heavily dependent upon anecdotal evidence and incomplete data, the debate has been impossible to resolve decisively. However, Akcigit and his co-authors have set a new evidentiary standard by compiling three new datasets. First they constructed a database of inventors based on historical patent data since 1920, which allows them to track innovations over time, industry, and location. Secondly, they built a database of corporations’ R&D labs and research employment. Thirdly, they created a dataset of state-level corporate and personal income tax rates.

The authors find that personal and corporate income tax rates have “significant effects” at the state level on patents, citations (a measure of the significance of a given patent), the prevalence of inventors in a state, and the share of patents produced by firms compared to those produced by lone inventors.

Corporate inventors are the most “elastic” — economics speak for “sensitive” — to tax rates. Corporations tend to be unsentimental about where they invest. They have less loyalty to a given geographic area. They look to maximize their return on investment wherever they can find it. By contrast, individuals may have strong personal and sentimental attachments to a location. However, when inventors do choose to move, Akcigit has found, they are “significantly less likely” to move to states with higher taxes.

Though a significant factor in shaping the geographic distribution of innovation, taxes are not all-powerful. The authors readily acknowledge the influence of agglomeration effects. Within a given scientific or technological field, inventors like to stay close to the action — in other words, to locate near others in the same field. Often, agglomeration effects are stronger than tax rates.

Bacon’s bottom line: Let me offer a couple of refinements, and then a warning to Virginia.

The authors examine published corporate income tax rates. They do not take into account the impact of corporate tax giveaways — an essential strategy for some states (such as New York) to retain corporate activity and for other states (such as anyone trying to attract Amazon’s HQ2) to bribe corporate investors. Also, they don’t examine how the tax money is spent. In theory, highly skilled and educated inventors prefer to live and work in locations with superior amenities made possible with higher taxes. Finally, they neglect to examine university-generated R&D. It goes without saying that university R&D is tied to the geographic location of the institution (although research teams can be induced to move).

I would argue that powerful forces work to perpetuate the geographic status quo:

  • Agglomeration effects, in which inventors in industry clusters feed off one another. Silicon Valley is a classic example of how agglomeration effects outweigh the negative impact of high taxes and even higher real estate prices.
  • Government and cultural amenities, in which wealthy regions of the country spend more money on schools, higher-ed, and other amenities valued by the educated class, and where philanthropists have endowed local universities, medical centers, and arts & cultural institutions over the ages.
  • Tax-favored institutions, in which leading universities, disproportionately located in the Northeast, the Midwest and California, have accumulated massive tax-exempt endowments that allow them to underwrite the recruitment of world-class research faculty. Insofar as universities serve as anchors for innovation ecosystems, this tax advantage is crucial.

It is remarkable, given the extraordinary advantages of the incumbent innovation leaders, that research and innovation has migrated to other states at all. What allows these other states to compete? Lower corporate and individual taxes is one of the few public policy tools a poorer state can muster.

Once upon a time, Virginia was known as a low-tax, fast-growth state. That is no longer true. At best, we can claim to be a moderate-tax, moderate-growth state. We have neither the advantage of accumulated wealth in the form of world-class research universities, medical centers, foundations, museums, and cultural institutions nor the advantage of lower taxes that attract corporate investment. (Yeah, yeah, the University of Virginia is great, and so is the Virginia Museum, but overall Virginia is strictly second-tier.) Measured by economic performance, Virginia is in the muddled middle. Economic growth is plodding. For the first time in decades, more native-born Americans have been leaving the state than entering it. 

Is our tax policy to blame? Do our tax structures and budgetary priorities increasingly resemble those of the Midwestern and Northeastern states — without the inheritance of vast industrial-era wealth and philanthropy to underpin our economy? I suspect strongly that that’s the case.

To answer the question, it would help to have innovation data more recent than 2000. Economically speaking, Virginia was on a roll then. Today, the state is suffering economic malaise. I would not be surprised to find that our relative innovation standing has declined. Our governor and legislature propose lots of small-small remedies to jump-start the economy, but it’s hard to see how they will amount to much. Virginia’s relative decline warrants far more serious thought than it has received so far.

JLARC Report on Licensing: Useful, But a Missed Opportunity

As the old saying goes, you find what you look for. And in its examination of occupational licensing in Virginia the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) largely found what it was looking for — inefficiencies and overcharges. Conducting the review was worthwhile, but the exercise was small ball — it missed the opportunity to examine much bigger issues.

In 2017, JLARC instructed its staff to study the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) staffing and organization, its processing of occupational licenses, and its enforcement of occupational rules. Staff also assessed the affordability of fees and the processes for adjusting fees.

Here’s what JLARC did not study: To what extent does licensing create barriers to entry into the regulated occupations and professions? To what extent do regulated professions use regulations to protect their occupational turf and boost their earnings? To what extent does the public suffer from these legalized labor monopolies?

To its credit, given the limited scope of its inquiry, JLARC did come up with some interesting findings in “Operations and Performance of the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation“:

  • No legal justification for regulating 11 occupations. Eleven occupations regulated by DPOR appear not to meet the criteria for regulation established in the state code. These include community managers, opticians, residential energy analysts, soil scientists, landscape architects, waste management facility operators and others. Regulation of these occupations does nothing to advance the public health, safety and welfare of the public.
  • Excess fees. DPOR is funded by the fees it charges to applicants. DPOR’s method for calculating fees has over-projected agency expenses leading to unnecessarily high fees in the past. Fees have been reduced since, but the balance still has grown $27.2 million — up from $15 million ten years ago, and far more than needed.
  • Many complaints go unexamined. Staff closed 71% of the disciplinary cases it opened in FY17. Staff do not investigate all potential violations.
  • Poor use of IT. DPOR does review and approve licensing requests in a timely manner, but it would make the process more user friendly by making it more accessible online and by automating key processes.

These are all useful findings, and the report makes some 36 recommendations on how to improve the system. While the goal of improving administrative productivity is laudatory, however, making a flawed system work more efficiently doesn’t do much to build a more prosperous, equitable Commonwealth.

Conservatives have long targeted occupational licensing for creating barriers to upward mobility. Do the state’s 73,000 barbers and cosmetologists really need regulating? Do they really need formal education and credentialing? Is the public health and safety truly harmed if someone gets a bad haircut or cracked fingernail? The crafts of hair cutting, cosmetology and hair-braiding, which provide an avenue of occupational mobility for lower-income Virginians, could be taught perfectly adequately in informal apprenticeships. Why burden people with educational costs and licensing fees?

Of greater concern is the regulation of the medical professions. In theory, the system is designed to protect the public from frauds, charlatans and malpractice. The system does do that, so some form of licensing is necessary. But the system also carves out occupational turf, protecting doctors from competition from nurse practitioners, and nurse practitioners from registered nurses, and registered nurses from licensed practical nurses, and so on down the line. That may not be a big problem in major metro areas, but it is a huge problem in large swathes of rural Virginia that have trouble recruiting medical professionals.

Indeed, it is fair to say that the crisis of access and affordability in rural health care is largely the result of rigid occupational licensing rules that prevent nurses from performing a high percentage of the routine procedures, and dental hygienists from cleaning teeth and filling simple cavities. No health care, it appears, is better than health care not delivered by doctors and dentists.

I would love to think that the General Assembly might get serious about tackling these issues. But I don’t see it ever happening. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page observes today, only one in twenty jobs required government certification a half century ago. Today, one in four does. It should come as no surprise that highly compensated professions, intent upon maintaining their occupational monopolies, have become major campaign contributors. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, physicians have donated $347,000 to political campaigns so far in 2018-19, dentists $223,000, optometrists $114,000. Nurses? Only $33,000. Don’t expect rural healthcare reform unless it involves paying doctors and dentists more money.

Oops, Where Did that $3-4 Million Deficit Come From?

The idea behind the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM) is fantastic: Create a facility where Virginia manufacturers and universities can collaborate on advanced-manufacturing research projects that all participants can share. Research staff for the Prince George County-based facility are expert in everything from “vertical diffusion furnaces” and “robot arm-based automation cells” to “thermal spray coating” and “corrosion crack healing,” and they conduct about $7 million a year in research.

Just one problem: The program is operating at an annual deficit of between $3 million and $4 million a year. Debts include $2 million in unpaid rent to the University of Virginia Foundation and a tapped-out bank credit line, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Said Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne: “They’ve got to put together a business plan that makes some sense.”

The Center has procured state and federal funding commitments to build a $12.6 million Advanced Manufacturing Apprentice Academy next door. But state officials, reports the T-D, say they won’t release $9 million in bond money planned for construction of the academy without an answer to the center’s financial questions. Said Layne: “That is not going to happen until this issue is solved.”

Bacon’s bottom line: As I have ranted and raved and inveighed and fulminated, Virginians have no idea how many fiscal land mines are out there. Yes, the Commonwealth has a AAA bond rating (although we have skirted on the edge of a downgrade), but no one has tallied up the long-term commitments, unfunded long-term liabilities, maintenance backlogs, and fiscal tricks of all the local governments and independent authorities set up to serve the interests of the Commonwealth.

After the Petersburg fiscal meltdown, the General Assembly began monitoring the health of local governments, looking for early warning sides of impending financial apocalypse — a big step forward. But no one is tracking dozens of non-governmental entities. Only a couple of months ago, for instance, was the public made aware of a $3.5 billion unfunded pension liability at the Washington Metro mass transit system serving Northern Virginia. Now we learn that CCAM is running a big budget deficit and racking up long-term debt.

The federal government has accumulated a $21 trillion national debt, and soon will be adding to it at a rate of $1 trillion a year — during an economic boom. The Medicare trust fund is projected to run out in 2026. The Social Security trust fund is expected to run out in 2034. Uncle Sam will never collect a big chunk of the $1.3 trillion in student loan debt outstanding, and taxpayers will have to pick up the tab. Meanwhile, states like Illinois and New Jersey are one sharp recession away from fiscal collapse.

As Boomergeddon looms, Virginia traipses merrily along, most recently creating a new Medicaid-expansion entitlement, with no clear idea of its overall fiscal condition. Our lawmakers look no more than two years ahead — the time horizon dictated by the biennial state budget. Although they are attuned to the necessity of maintaining a AAA state bond rating, the credit-worthiness of state bonds is just one piece of the whole. The credit-worthiness of Virginia’s counties, cities and towns is another piece. The credit-worthiness of our state universities is yet another. The credit-worthiness of a plethora of independent authorities is still another. No one, to my knowledge, has analyzed all the pieces as a whole and stress-tested the system. Until we do, we’re flying blind. It is foolhardy to pretend otherwise.

The Real Reason Why Amazon Is the Future

I’ve finally figured out what people can do when robots and AI wipe out half the occupations in the economy — they can get jobs fixing all the #$*& that doesn’t work!

The last couple of months have been a succession of extraordinarily frustrating experiences in the Bacon family — from trying to find tradesmen to complete a gutter job at my mother’s house that the original contractor left unfinished for three months… to badgering our home-warranty company to get our broken microwave repaired, and, after waiting two months for useless parts from China to arrive, to get it replaced… to calling back Comcast technicians three times to get our Internet-cable-telephone service to function properly… to complaining about a two-week-old Microsoft Surface Go tablet whose network adapter stopped working. It’s just astonishing.

If other people are having the same kinds of experiences, our consumer economy is going straight down the toilet no matter what the GDP figures say. I’ll wager that the lost productivity of 340 million Americans navigating phone trees and waiting on hold is a bigger drag on the economy than climate change, hurricanes, cyber sabotage, and telephone marketers rolled into one!

I’ll spare you the gory details but I’m spending more time than ever before dealing with problems created by other peoples’ screw-ups and crappy products. I’m normally a fairly even-tempered guy but I’ve found myself hurling profanities at the wall on one more than one occasion. Other members of my family have been reduced to literal tears.

Some people believe that the progress of AI and robotics is rushing upon us so rapidly that it will obliterate half the jobs in the economy in the next 20 years. I’ll believe it when I see it. Sure, AI might be getting smarter, but everything is getting more complex — IT systems interacting with other systems, nested within yet other systems. Lines of code are multiplying exponentially, far faster than the ability of AI to keep up. Conflicts and failures crop up with increasing frequency. Who’s winning the race — AI or complexity? Right now, I’d say complexity is sprinting ahead of the pack like Usain Bolt.

While the systems are getting more complex, people aren’t getting any smarter. Indeed, given the quality of our educational system, I suspect people are getting stupider. Either that or more people are on drugs. And in a full-employment economy, even stupid, addle-minded people can get jobs. They are wreaking havoc on our lives!

Some people say that Amazon is taking over the world. I, for one, welcome my new corporate overlord. When I bought an inexpensive glare-free Kindle e-reader, the darn thing crashed about one week after the year-long warranty expired. I left a nasty comment on Amazon’s website. A week later, someone from Amazon contacted me and wound up sending me a free replacement.

I now see Amazon as the new model for the U.S. economy. Sure, its products fall apart just like everybody else’s, but its customer follow-up is amazing. Amazon hires people whose job is to clean up other peoples’ messes. The way things are heading, we’ll all be working for Amazon in twenty years.

VPAP Baffled by Media’s Blurry Lines

The Virginia Public Access Project continues to struggle to define what constitutes news reporting worth of inclusion in its popular VaNews news digest — a daily e-letter with thousands of readers who actively follow state and local news. In the most recent iteration of VPAP policy, Bacon’s Rebellion ended up the big loser.

In a world of rapidly morphing publications with different mixes and formats of news and opinion, VPAP doesn’t have an easy job. It started out compiling headlines for Virginia newspapers only. But VaNews compilers have had to contend with the emergence of online publications that do real reporting: Bacon’s Rebellion, The Virginia Mercury, and the more popular partisan blogs. Founder David Poole knows that traditional print newspapers are in decline while online publications are in the ascendancy, and that for the long-run health of VaNews, which is a successful money-raiser for his organization, he needs to embrace online media.

The start-up of the Virginia Mercury precipitated a round of soul searching. Poole’s concern was that the online Richmond-based news outlet had an explicit politically progressive bias, and that it was funded by untraceable foundation money. By contrast, Bacon’s Rebellion has always been 100% up-front about where the money is coming from. Poole was bothered, however, by perception of bias on energy and environmental issues due to our sponsorship by Dominion Energy. So, when our Dominion sponsorship expired, Bacon’s Rebellion chose not to renew it, and we created a channel populated only by news articles for VaNews to draw from. Poole began incorporating pieces from Bacon’s Rebellion.

Then, as debate continued to buffet his board of directors, Poole decided that due to a continued taint by association he wouldn’t accept news reporting on issues associated with now-defunct sponsors, even though news articles written by Steve Haner and me — both knowledgeable, experienced journalists — met all the traditional criteria of a news story.

Now the wheel has turned again. This time dark-money Virginia Mercury makes the cut but transparent Bacon’s Rebellion — which has no source of outside funding whatsoever, other than some modest reader contributions — does not.

“Our goal, as it has been from the start, is to give readers a comprehensive look of reporting about Virginia government and politics,” said Nicole Riley, chair of the VPAP Board of Directors, in a press release Friday. “As providers come and go, we want to keep the focus on original news reporting.”

The latest changes to the VaNews criteria add specificity to the definition of “original news reporting” to include a requirement that an article present both sides of a debate and writers should be a commentator or a reporter – but not both.

“It’s confusing when someone expresses their opinion about an issue and the next day shows up to cover the same issue as a reporter,” Riley said.

VPAP also dropped its prohibition against “advocacy” publications, a term that had been added in 2016 and proved difficult to define.

“The Board debated this and determined that ‘advocacy’ is often in the eye of the beholder,” Riley said. “Take the Washington Post. There are people who believe the Post is part of a liberal media conspiracy while others think the Post is the savior of democracy.”

So…. Virginia Mercury may be an advocacy publication, but because its editor and staff writers stick to “news” and do not engage in overt commentary, they make the cut. Because Haner and I write commentary in separate posts, we don’t. Nothing against Virginia Mercury — the editorial team is good at what it does and I read the publication every day — but this new criteria seems totally arbitrary.

I get it — VaNews has to draw a line somewhere. I’m just skeptical that it’s possible to draw bright lines and stick to them. For example, Jeff Schapiro, the dean of the Capitol press corps, is known mainly for writing commentary but he also reports news from time to time. Are readers “confused”? Will VaNews exclude him from its clippings? That would be absurd.

Well, the world isn’t fair. The onus is on us at Bacon’s Rebellion to create such compelling content that VaNews has no choice but to treat us as an equal — or maybe grow to a point where we don’t care what it does. Let me take this occasion to thank our loyal readers who contribute to the quality dialogue on this blog. Thankfully, you don’t seem confused by what we do.

Virginia Tech Gets This One Right

As the 150th anniversary of Virginia Tech’s founding approaches, university officials are thinking about how to tell the story of the institution’s past. At the University of Virginia and Washington & Lee University, reflections upon the institutions’ histories have been the occasion for self-flagellation over the sins of ancestors who participated in slavery and segregation. While it is proper to acknowledge ugly aspects of the past, nothing useful comes from wallowing in self-abasement.

Judging from recommendations submitted by a 24-person history council described in today’s Roanoke Times, Tech will likely strike the right balance between candor about the past and wallowing in it.

In a nod to contemporary PC sensitivities, the council proposed erecting a work of outdoor art to honor the Native Americans who lived in the area before white settlers arrived. It also proposed an expansion of VT Stories, an existing oral history project, which collects stories from a broad cross-section of the Virginia Tech community.

Last year President Timothy Sands initiated an inquiry into the legacy of Confederates at Virginia Tech. The university has several buildings — McBryde, Vawter and Lane halls — named for men who fought for the South. John McLaren McBryde, sometimes called the “father of VPI,” enlisted in 1861 before the attack on Fort Sumter. Charles Erastus Vawter Sr. fought in the Stonewall Brigade. James Henry Lane was a brigadier general who commanded the 28th North Carolina infantry.

The council decided not to recommend renaming any buildings. Said historian Peter Wallenstein: “Worrying about what someone did as a 20-something member of the Confederate military really was not on the forefront of our minds.”

Council Chairman Bob Leonard, a performing arts professor, hit a pitch-perfect note: “The council strongly believes that previously silent stories must be voiced, such as those of under-represented and historically marginalized groups, and that complicated histories not be hidden, but instead, be related in full context.”

Add to the history. Contextualize the history. Don’t obliterate the history.