Richmond’s Growth Bottleneck: Building Permits

Proposed 7west project.

Jeremy Connell wants to build a dozen high-end townhomes in Manchester, right across the James River from downtown. The $6 million, 7west project envisions four-bedroom, three-story townhouses priced in the $700,000s, providing a nice boost to the City of Richmond’s tax base and offering a short, easy commute to the region’s central business district.

He originally hoped to begin construction in April of 2016. Four months later, when demolition began, he revised the timetable to September. Yet today, 16 months later, work has not proceeded beyond the foundation-laying stage, reports Richmond BizSense.

The City of Richmond is experiencing an unprecedented boom as a wave of Millennials, empty nesters, and corporations move into downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. There is enormous pent-up demand to live and work in the amenity-rich city, with its walkable streets, historic buildings, museums and cultural institutions, and its canals and James River parks. But there’s a hitch. The city’s building inspectors can’t keep up. Writes BizSense:

“It is by far the worst it has ever been to get a project developed in the city of Richmond,” said Connell, who has been developing in the city for 15 years.

“The process is undermanaged, understaffed and overwhelmed,” Connell said. “It’s a bad three-way combination that retards development in the city.”

According to BizSense, Connell’s experience is frustratingly common. Doug Murrow, in charge of permits and inspections, attributes the delays to departures and vacancies that left the department temporarily short-staffed. Other observers quoted by BizSense (in a very well-sourced article, by the way) say the problems run deeper. The city has been slow to embrace new digital-permitting technology that would speed the process.

“The culture in Room 110 has been: this is the way we’ve always done it, this is the way we’re always going to do it,” says Charlie Diradour, a local landlord and developer. Diradour says that he hopes that the new mayor, Levar Stoney, will break the logjam.

For his part, Stoney says he is looking to neighboring Henrico County to see how the city might perform better. “We are suffering from staffing issues,” he told BizSense. “I wish we had the numbers that our friends in Henrico have: at least 70-plus people working on commercial and residential permitting. But we don’t have those numbers here. I know that the departments are doing everything they can to keep up with the uptick, but we can always do better.”

Bacon’s bottom line: In theory, core urban jurisdictions like Richmond should be kicking suburban butt in the race for development dollars. While Richmond clearly is rebounding, urban renovation is not occurring as rapidly as it could. In the past I have focused mainly on the zoning code as a throttling force. When Richmond could still annex country land a half century ago, it adopted a suburban zoning code that restricted denser, mixed-use development — precisely the kind of development the market wants to see. City Council has finally addressed that problem, especially in the Broad Street corridor (see “Richmond’s New Growth Corridor.”) But the city hasn’t fixed its permitting bottleneck.

In the competition for development, the City of Richmond enjoys immense advantages over its suburban neighbors, Henrico and Chesterfield Counties. But the counties do have one competitive edge — efficient government administration. The hassle factor is much lower. As Diradour told BizSense, contractors have told him that they add a point or two to their overhead when they do business in Richmond to account for the inevitable delays.

I don’t know if other cities have similar problems. BizSense suggests that the City of Roanoke has moved to a more efficient digital permitting process. Regardless, Richmond better get its act together, or it could squander a historic opportunity to rejuvenate itself.

Show Me the Data

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, EPA Toxic Release Inventory. Red dot = Virginia.

I’ve been pondering Vivian E. Thomson’s book, “Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.” Thomson, a University of Virginia professor who served on the State Air Pollution Control Board during the Warner and Kaine administrations, stresses the high cost of air pollution in human health and mortality. Her treatise quotes various studies predicting that tighter air quality standards would yield major reductions in premature deaths.

I wondered, has anyone gone back to see if the expected reductions actually materialized? If society is going to spend billions of dollars to make gains in air quality, it would be nice to know that there actually is a payoff in the form of better health. My sense is that no one ever checks. If anyone does, the public never hears about it.

Out of curiosity, I ran a correlation analysis between two types of data: the pounds of toxic emissions reported to the Environmental Protection Agency and the 2016 incidence of cancer reported by the Centers for Disease Control, broken down by state. All other things being equal, one would predict that larger toxic emissions would be associated with a higher incidence of cancer.

As can be seen in the chart above, there is almost zero correlation — the R² is .0028 — between toxic emissions and the incidence of cancer in a state. (The chart omits Alaska and Nevada, huge outliers in terms of volume, which would have made the trend line to an even more negligible .0008.)

I readily concede that this is a superficial analysis. Among other factors one might consider would be the size of the state in square miles, on the theory that the same volume of toxic chemicals spread over more acreage would dilute human exposure and result in lower cancer rates. Also, any sophisticated comparison would account for differing toxic release profiles of the 50 states. The Toxic Release Inventory tracks some 143 chemicals, from acetaldehyde to zinc, some of which are more toxic and/or carcinogenic than others.

I publish the graph above not to dispute the idea that there is a connection between toxic chemicals and human health — of course there is — but to push back against the idea that spending billions of dollars tightening regulations on toxic chemicals ineluctably leads to better health outcomes. Perhaps the health benefits are everything Vivian Thomson purports them to be. But perhaps pollution abatement is subject to the laws of diminishing returns which means smaller benefits for larger expenditures. Conceivably, Virginians would see greater benefits to their health if they spent the money in other ways.

When Thomson criticizes Virginia’s “climate of capitulation” — the idea that industry exercises a controlling influence over the political and regulatory system — one might expect her to demonstrate that Virginia’s health is worse off as a result. We would expect to see (a) that states with “traditionalistic” political cultures like Virginia impose laxer pollution restrictions than “individualistic” and “moralistic” political cultures, and (b) that those laxer restrictions are reflected by worse health statistics. But in her book, she makes no effort to demonstrate such connections.

Indeed, Thomson misses what would seem to be an easy opportunity to do so. She quotes a Harvard study as stating that installing “Best Available Control Technology” at the Mirant coal-burning plant in Alexandria would avoid 40 deaths, 43 hospital admissions, 560 emergency room visits and 3,000 asthma attacks per year. Well, from her point of view, things worked out even better than adopting best-in-class technology — the Mirant plant shut down altogether, emitting zero pollution. Did asthma rates in Alexandria decline as advertised? According to a 2015 health profile, 21.4% of Alexandria 10th graders in 2014 had been diagnosed with asthma. I can’t find older data on the Web, but surely it exists. Was the asthma incidence lower than 10 years previously? If not, what does that tell us?

Thomson has total faith in the validity of the studies she cites, which, of course, align with her ideological proclivities. But if she wants people to accept her argument that Virginia’s regulatory policy is bad for Virginians, some of us would like to see the evidence.

Can This New School Deliver a Quality Education for $8,750 a Year?

John O’Herron

John O’Herron has a job as an insurance defense attorney at the ThompsonMcMullan law firm, but he also has five kids at Saint Benedict’s, a single-sex Catholic high school in Richmond that charges an average tuition of $18,500. Distressed by the high cost of private school, he co-founded the Cardinal Newman Academy, which will open this fall with an entering class of three students.

The business plan is to recruit families whose kids attend Catholic elementary schools but find the cost of attending the three Catholic prep schools in the region to be unaffordable. A 2015 feasibility report, O’Herron tells Richmond BizSense, “showed us a lot of things, the most prominent thing was the level of dissatisfaction with high-school options. It was for varied reasons, but a big driver of that was affordability.”

Cardinal Newman’s tuition this year is $8,750 — half the price of Benedictine and Saint Gertrude’s, cheaper even than $13,843 per student spent by the City of Richmond in the 2017 school year, and even less expensive than the roughly $9,600 per pupil spent by Chesterfield and Henrico counties.

To keep tuition affordable, the school is keeping a tight rein on costs. The school is renting space from the Bon Air Baptist Church. Also, says O’Herron:

“We’re not offering the amenities other private schools offer. And we’re proud to stand up and say that,” he said. “We’re not going to have a football team, or a swimming pool, or a golf course or a tennis court.

“We are about educating young people. And we’ll have extracurriculars and athletics, and offer a high-school experience. But every decision as we grow will be made with affordability in mind.”

The academy’s curriculum has six core courses: English, history, mathematics, theology, foreign language and science. Fine arts and physical education are offered as additional courses.

The plan is to start with a ninth grade class, and then to add a class each year for the next three years. O’Herron would like to grow to 30 to 50 students within five years, and to between 300 and 500 in the long term. “Realistically, starting a new school with a small student body, your incoming revenue is really low,” he says. “It allows you as an institution to navigate, learn from mistakes and strategize.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I’ll be interested to see how Cardinal Newman fares. I am totally sympathetic to the problem of runaway private-school tuition, especially at elite prep schools, which, in their never-ending quest to erect new buildings, expand sports programs, and enrich the student experience, are becoming increasingly unaffordable to the middle-class. Private education needs a stripped-down financial model that stresses academic preparation and the inculcation of values. Natatoriums and rock-climbing walls are frivolous luxuries. If Cardinal Newman can provide a superior education at the $8,750-per-year price point, it might even serve as an example to Virginia’s public schools as well.

Virginia’s public schools are mired in bureaucracy and politics. Virginia’s elite private schools are running on the same race-for-prestige treadmill that afflicts the nation’s elite universities. Middle America yearns for an alternative. Cardinal Newman, or something like it, just might be the answer.

McAuliffe: Build up Budgetary Reserves

I have to agree with Governor Terry McAuliffe on this one: The General Assembly should put $121.5 million from the FY 2017 budget surplus into a newly created financial reserve. Moreover, I find his logic impeccable:

“Given the level of federal and economic uncertainty, I would suggest to each or you that any effort to build up liquidity and cash reserves is a wise course of action,” McAuliffe said while addressing General Assembly money committees yesterday.

Right on!

The Commonwealth ran a $136.6 million budget surplus last fiscal year. After making mandatory deposits in special funds, such as one to help localities make water quality improvements, the state has $121. 5 million left over to do with as legislators please, reports the Richmond Times-DispatchIt’s not easy for a politician to resist spending the money, but McAuliffe’s instincts are absolutely correct.

The governor’s advice comes against a backdrop of increasing concern about Virginia’s ability to maintain its AAA bond rating. In April Standard and Poors downgraded the state’s financial outlook from stable to negative due to uncertainty over federal spending and the drawing down of the state’s Revenue Stabilization Fund to balance the budget the past two years. The legislators who created the so-called Rainy Day fund visualized tapping the reserve in years when revenues actually declined, not merely when they increased below expectations. The details are not clear from press accounts, but the new reserve apparently is distinct from the Rainy Day fund.

The governor is not likely to get any push-back from legislators. “We’re on the same page as far as all excess revenue going into the revenue reserve fund,” said House Appropriations Chairman Chris S. Jones, R-Suffolk, after the governor’s speech.

Virginia faces a future of chronic fiscal stress and economic uncertainty. Medicaid spending will continue to gobble an increasing share of state spending. The state does not meet its own standards for providing support to K-12 education, it has fallen behind in support for higher education, and it still faces massive unfunded pension liabilities. Meanwhile, the economy is stuck in slow-growth mode, providing little basis for thinking that a surge in tax revenue will bring in a miraculous gusher of cash.

Long-term, Virginia needs to re-think how it delivers and pays for core services such as transportation, infrastructure, health care, and education. There is no indication that either the governor or the legislature has ambitions to do more than tinker at the margins of institutional reform. Accordingly, the only alternative is to adopt an ultra-cautious approach to budgeting: Build up the rainy-day fund, add to the newly created financial reserve, accelerate payments to the Virginia Retirement System, and halt the budgetary gimmickry.

Eclipse Wash Out

Here was the view of the 86% eclipse from my house. Woo hoo! This big flippin’ cloud sailed in from nowhere just in time to block out everything. I’ll take another whack at it in 2024.

I wonder how Bill Tracey fared.

The Power of an Alumni Revolt

College alumni need to go from tummy-rub dog…

Virginia Tech unleashed a firestorm of alumni protest last year after it disinvited Jason Riley, a conservative African-American columnist with the Wall Street Journal. The university received numerous phone calls and more than 100 angry emails, recounts Jillian Kay Melchior in a WSJ op-ed piece today.

News of the dis-invitation, prompted by administrators buckling in to the campus forces of political correctness, reached millions of readers on Twitter, where the reactions were overwhelmingly negative toward the university and higher education in general.

“While we can respond to the people who write to us,” wrote one administrator, “we cannot dispel the negative impression created by the media against the president, the university, the dean, and the college and the department.”

… to guard dog.

Quailing again, this time from the public’s reaction, Virginia Tech subsequently reissued an invitation to Riley. But the university left the engagement off its campus event calendar and marketed only to alumni. Of the audience of about 125 who came to hear the black conservative, only three or four were students, reported the National Review this past April. Wrote the NR: Tech “was more concerned about its public image than about intellectual freedom, and eventually honored its invitation to Riley out of fear for its image and fundraising, not from principles of respect for its promises or for intellectual freedom.”

As I wrote last week (see “Virginia Tech on a Fund-Raising Tear“), Tech enjoyed a banner fund-raising year last year, collecting a record $160 million. If the university suffered any ill effects from its politically correct behavior, it wasn’t reflected in outside donations. But the Riley episode shows that alumni still can influence policy.

Nowhere has the blacklash against campus radicalism and PC run amok been more evident than the University of Missouri. As the WSJ notes, the response to campus unrest and intolerance in 2015 has been a 35% decline in freshman enrollment this year, and a massive falloff in attendance at football games. (I’ll bet donations were off, too.)

It baffles me that alumni open their wallets to their alma maters and ask so little in return. Give them a few tail-gating parties, reunion bashes, and alumni events, and most grads roll over like a dog begging for a belly rub. But it’s clear that alumni can have a tremendous impact if they choose to. Official alumni associations, which function as extensions of the development office, are worthless as mechanisms for resisting radicals. It’s time for outraged alumni to get organized. They need to attend Board of Visitor meetings, set up websites, monitor official communiques, collect and share intelligence, and act as a countervailing force to campus radicals.

How to Protect Civil War Statues

Photo credit: Virginia Flaggers

If you want to preserve the statues of Civil War generals, there are two ways to go about it. One is to align yourself with white nationalists, spew racial vitriol, evoke the terror of the KKK by brandishing torches, arm yourself to the teeth, mix it up with Antifa and other Lefties, and mow people down with a car.

The other is to conduct yourself in the same manner as the Virginia Flaggers in Lynchburg. Hearing rumors that statues of Jubal Early and others were targeted for vandalism, the Flaggers set up protective patrols, backed by the Lynchburg police. Then, according to the organization’s Facebook page, this happened:

Late in the evening, one of the monument guards noticed this woman, who later identified as a black lives matter supporter, trembling and shaking with fear. He said he could tell she honestly feared them. He walked up to her, arms outstretched, said “we are not KKK” and she grabbed him and wouldn’t let go. He explained that they were here to stop all of this and prevent another Charlottesville. He said “If I were KKK would I hold you like this and she said “NO”.

They talked for some time and he said we have to work together to stop this mess. She wept and thanked him over and over for coming over to her and they parted ways with new understanding.

I doubt the encounter changed anyone’s mind about the appropriateness of Civil War statues in public places, but perhaps a few people parted ways mindful of the humanity of those on the other side of the controversy.

Rogue Board

In “Climate of Capitulation,” former Air Board member Vivian Thomson argues unpersuasively that state government favors energy over the environment.

In 2005 Mirant Corporation operated a 482-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Alexandria. The facility was 60 years old, and it was dirty, emitting almost twice the allowed limits of nitrogen oxide (NOx). Due to its proximity to Reagan Washington National Airport, the plant had unusually low smokestacks, which meant that NOx, sulfur dioxide and particulates settled nearby. A Harvard University health study contended that installing Best Available Control technology at Mirant would avoid about 40 deaths, 43 hospital admissions, and 3,000 asthma attacks each year. In August of that year, the Warner administration ordered the plant shut down.

Mirant complied, but within a few weeks, citing an order from the U.S. Department of Energy, it reopened the facility. Conflict between Mirant on the one hand and environmentalists and citizens of Alexandria on the other raged for years. Warner’s successor, Governor Tim Kaine, tried to find a solution acceptable to all, and in 2006 the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) negotiated a permit that would reduce the local impact on Alexandrians by increasing the height of the pollution plume and dispersing emissions over a wider area. But the State Air Pollution Control Board, a majority of whose members sided with the opposition, voted 3 to 2 against it. Later, in 2008, the company agreed to merge smokestacks to lift the plume, accept the Board’s sulfur dioxide limits, and invest $34 million to reduce particulate emissions. The Air Board approved that permit, but Mirant’s owner, GenOn, ended up closing the plant before undertaking the improvements.

Vivian E. Thomson, an environmental science professor at the University of Virginia, recounts the Mirant episode in her recently published book, “Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.” Mirant’s ability to keep the Alexandria plant opened, she argues, was just one of many examples of how the energy lobby exercise power in Virginia and other states at the expense of the environment and citizens’ health.

Officials in the Kaine administration undermined and opposed the Board’s work, she asserts. The General Assembly interfered with Board decisions and enacted a law to expand the board from five to seven members for the purpose of diluting the power of the three activist board members, one of whom was Thomson herself. Resistance to the board’s policing of the environment reflected “cozy relationships” between regulators and businesses and Virginia’s “corrupt” environmental policy-making process, she says.

Vivian E. Thomson

Thomson details three major controversies in which she participated: the Mirant closing, the approval of Dominion Energy’s hybrid energy plant in Wise County, and the regulation of dust from coal trucks. Distressed by the way energy interests evaded her brand of environmental justice, Thomson describes a “climate of capitulation” — a system that shows “favoritism toward private interests and an inclination to maintain the status quo.”

By avoiding inflammatory rhetoric and maintaining a flat, academic style, Thomson strives to come across in the book as a reasoned observer of the political process. She doesn’t insult her opponents, she doesn’t engage in conspiracy theorizing, and she avoids a strident tone. But she never concedes that environmental regulation involves trade-offs with jobs, electric rates or electric reliability. In her analysis, protecting the environment and public health are not merely important goals, but the only goals worth considering.

Indeed, Thomson’s inability to acknowledge any perspective other than her own gives proof to the assessment of Kaine’s secretary of the environment, Preston Bryant, that the State Air Pollution Control Board was indeed a “rogue board.”

The Mirant controversy. Thomson’s blinkered view comes through most clearly in her recitation of the Mirant controversy. She never explains why the Department of Energy (DOE) issued an emergency order to reopen the Mirant plant after the Warner administration shut it down. The facility, as I discovered only by querying the Web, was one of three power plants supplying electricity to Washington, D.C. Pepco, the city’s utility, was planning to shut down one of the other three, the Potomac River Generating Station, for environmental reasons and it needed to upgrade a transmission line and substation feeding electricity to the capital from the outside. To avoid the risk of outages, the D.C. Public Service Commission petitioned federal authorities to keep the Mirant plant open until Pepco managed to complete the improvements. The DOE complied. Thomson deemed none of this background to be worthy of mention. Without it, the early behavior of Mirant and the Kaine administration are all but incomprehensible. 

The controversy persisted after Pepco completed its grid upgrade in July 2007. As Mirant struggled to stay in operation — operating mainly as a peaker plant only during the hottest and coldest days — Mark Rubin, a gubernatorial aide, brainstormed possible solutions to the problem. Eventually, he worked out a settlement, which the Air Board accepted. But in the end, the aging plant was beyond saving as natural gas began displacing coal in the energy marketplace. GenOn shut it down permanently.

Let’s recap. Governor Warner ordered the Mirant plant closed. The federal government ordered it reopened to ensure a reliable supply of electricity to Washington, D.C. through July 2007. The Kaine administration sought a compromise to allow the plant to continue operating beyond that date while also addressing environmental concerns. Protracted negotiations resulted in a deal that the Air Board approved. This is an example of Virginia politicians capitulating to energy interests?

The Hybrid Energy Center controversy. A parallel controversy in Wise County in which the Kaine administration did not accede to the air board’s wishes provides another alleged instance of state government caving in to the energy sector. In this case, the villain was the electric utility now known as Dominion Energy.

In 2005 Dominion had proposed building a $1.5 billion “hybrid” energy plant that burned coal, coal waste and waste wood. Dominion and its supporters billed it as a boon to economic development — 800 construction jobs, 75 post-construction jobs, 300 coal mining jobs, and $5 million yearly in new tax revenues for a county with a $44 million budget. As a bonus, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center would consume waste coal that was polluting regional streams and rivers. But activist groups protested that the project would perpetuate the environmentally destructive practice of mountaintop removal, generate air pollution that would harm nearby forests, and emit carbon-dioxide that contributed to global warming.

Dominion submitted the first part of its application for air pollution permits in the summer of 2006, and a second part in early 2007. The first governed sulfur dioxide and particulates, the second mercury and other toxics. The status of state and federal regulation of toxics and greenhouse gases was in flux at this time, with widely diverging views on how to deal with the pollution issues. Long story short, the Air Board hewed to interpretations different than those of the General Assembly and the Kaine administration, and took an adversarial view in the proceedings. Continue reading

Virginia Tech on a Fund-Raising Tear

Virginia Tech collected more than $162 million in donations and commitments in the last fiscal year, blowing through its previous record of $101.45 million. Almost 35,000 donors, up from 32,000 the previous year, gave money, reports the Roanoke Times. The money will help the Virginia Tech Foundation meet its goal of growing its endowment to $1.6 billion in the coming years. The endowment at the end of the fiscal year was $843 million.

“We asked our alumni and friends to help Virginia Tech have a bigger impact on the world. Their response makes it possible for us to grow as a global university, launch new programs, serve more students and communities, and create productive environments for learning and research,” Tech President Timothy Sands said in a written statement.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m of mixed minds. On the one hand, state support is inconsistent. Given past history, Virginia Tech has every reason to fear future cuts. No one can blame the university for trying to buffer itself from budgetary vagaries. Further, I’ll say that Tech has done a better job than Virginia’s other research universities of restraining its tuition increases. I’m not sure how Tech did it, but the university has managed to grow its research base without shifting costs to students as sharply as peer institutions have done. Finally, plowing money into Tech augments its ability to function as an economic-development engine for Southwest Virginia.

On the other hand, building big, fat endowments shifts power within the university to the school administration by insulating the feudal empire of presidents, deans, deanlets, provosts, assistant provosts, and associate assistant provosts from market forces (collecting tuition from students), oversight (the General Assembly), and even the faculty. As Benjamin Ginsberg argues in his 2011 book, “The Fall of the Faculty,” big endowments free the administrative bureaucracy to pursue its own inward-looking agenda, which creates little value for anyone but the administrators themselves.

“Fund-raising represents a more attractive income source than tuition,” Ginsberg writes.

To administrators anxious to generate new revenues, an increased emphasis on fund-raising usually seems a far more attractive strategy than seeking additional tuition dollars. Fund-raising is almost entirely under the control of the administration and requires minimal, if any, faculty involvement. …

Today, thanks to schools’ major emphasis on development, gifts to colleges and universities total about 40 percent of their tuition income. … The larger the endowment, the greater the power and independence of the school’s administration. Perhaps this notion helps to explain why many schools — particularly the wealthiest — hoard the earnings from their endowments, reinvesting a large fraction of their annual endowment income so that their endowment and future income will grow.

I’m not suggesting that the critique necessarily applies to Virginia Tech, which has a relatively modest endowment — but it might. Ginsberg describes a behavioral trope common to the richest institutions that must be guarded against. College development officers are wizards at cultivating a sense of tribal loyalty among alumni (football, basketball, reunions, pageantry, rah! rah! sis-boom-bah!) and crafting sales pitches to maximize giving. Alumni are ripe for the picking, for they typically have no source of information other than what administrators spoon feed them.

A humble proposal: Someone should publish a “Virginia Tech Alumni Donor’s Guide” (and like publications for other institutions) which compiles a wide array of data regarding institutional performance. This series of guides would include data available through the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) website and other sources documenting, just for starters, the history of tuition increases, student fees, student indebtedness, administrative staff ratios, faculty ratios (tenured-track versus instructors and adjunct faculty) and various financial indicators. One set of indicators would describe how the university is administering its endowment. What percentage of income is spent on programs, and what percentage is reinvested to grow the endowment?

Perhaps an organization such as Partners 4 Educational Excellence @ EDU,  a sponsor of this blog, would find value in such an exercise. Just a thought, guys!

Statue Controversy a Fixation of the Elites

Twilight of the Confederate statues

Last night I engaged in a deep and satisfying discussion about the Charlottesville tragedy with a group of men with whom I have met monthly over some 15 years to discuss politics and philosophy. Although I would describe those in attendance last night as  seven moderate liberals and one libertarian/ conservative (me), we shared common ground not only in our rejection of far Right extremism but in our concern about violence emanating from the far Left as well as the nation’s increasing political polarization. And, while I was the odd man out on the issue of statues honoring Civil War heroes — the others mostly favored removing them — I was impressed by the range and nuance of views expressed, and by the fact that everyone seemed to acknowledge that competing principles were at play. It was a far superior, and more civil, discussion than anything I have witnessed in the media, and it gives me hope that the nation is not as deeply divided as we tend to believe.

Naturally, as all conversations inevitably do, the discussion turned to President Trump, in particular his pronouncements on the subject of the Charlottesville violence and the fate of the Civil War statues. Some of my friends speculated that Trump at long last had gone too far, lunging so far beyond the pale of civilized discourse, that he had virtually no chance of being re-elected.

I said I wasn’t so sure. While America’s intelligentsia, whose views are magnified by media loudspeakers, is united in its visceral opposition to Trump, we have little sense of what the working class thinks. If Trump’s economic policies succeed (or if by plain dumb luck the economy continues to improve on his watch), and if the unemployment rate continues to decline, and the working class and middle class start seeing solid wage gains for the first time in a decade, he might well get re-elected. Indeed, I suggested, Trump might even see an increase in Hispanic and African-American votes. After all, the primary preoccupation of the working class is jobs and wages. 

I had no data to back up my propositions; I was simply voicing a hunch. Fortuitously, however, a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll of 1,125 adults across the country was published this morning that confirms that hunch.

The headliner finding was that only 35% of adults approve of “the job Donald Trump is doing as president” while 51% disapprove. I’m not sure how insightful that question is given the fact that some might support his policies despite finding him grotesque as a person and inadequate as a leader. (As coincidence would have it, I talked to my brother this morning, and he expressed that very opinion.)

Regardless, here’s what’s remarkable. Among those who approve of Trump, the racial breakdown was as follows:

White – 43%
African-American – 10%
Latino – 25%

According to exit polls, Trump claimed 8% of the African-American vote last year, and 29% of the Hispanic vote. For all the controversy, he has lost no ground with minorities. Let’s see what happens as the economy continues to grow.

Will Trump’s stance on the Civil War statues, roundly denounced in the media, hurt him with voters? The pollsters asked the following question: “Do you think statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy should: Remain as a historical symbol, or Be removed because they are offensive to some people?”

Sixty-two percent of all Americans want to leave the statues alone, compared to 27% who want to get rid of them — a margin of more than two to one. Among lower-income households (making less than $50,000 per year), 65% favored letting them remain as a historical symbol. Among non-college graduates, 68% favored letting them remain. Among the racial/ethnic groups, the breakdown looked like this:

Latinos apparently don’t feel like they have a dog in this fight. Like whites, they favor leaving the statues alone by a 2 1/2-to-one margin. The most astonishing finding was that the African-Americans community is evenly divided on the issue. For all their hyper-ventilating outrage, talking heads on CNN and MSNBC evidently do not speak for all African-Americans. My guess is that working-class African-Americans have other concerns. Agitation over Civil War statues is the luxury of the well fed, well dressed and financially secure.

Update: Some of the poll data was scary and, frankly, hard to believe. When asked, “From what you have heard or seen about each of the following, do you mostly agree or disagree with their beliefs: the white supremacy movement?” Mostly agree:

Whites – 3%
African-Americans – 4%
Latinos – 7%

More African-Americans agree with the beliefs of the white supremacy movement than whites? C’mon. Must be a fluke. But, then, look at the answers to the question asking respondents if they mostly agreed with “white nationalists”:

Whites – 4%
African-Americans – 3%
Latinos – 11%

And the “Alt-Right”:

Whites – 4%
African-Americans – 4%
Latinos – 11%

And the Ku Klux Klan:

Whites – 1%
African-Americans – 2%
Latinos – 6%