Author Archives: James A. Bacon

Libertarian Hyra Cracks 8% in VCU Poll

VCU poll results

The predictable headline of the new Virginia Commonwealth University poll is that Democrat Ralph Northam has a five-point edge, with a five-point margin of error, among likely voters over Republican Ed Gillespie in the gubernatorial race. You can read all about it in the Washington Post article filed this morning.

The more interesting story is how well the Libertarian Party candidate, Cliff Hyra, is faring. Among registered voters, he scored 8%. Among “likely voters,” he snagged 6%.

That’s in the same ballpark as the 6.5% vote that Robert Sarvis won in the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli match-up four years ago. The difference is that Sarvis was thought to have benefited from a large “none of the above” sentiment among voters who found Terry McAuliffe’s wheeler-dealer persona and Ken Cuccinelli’s strong cultural conservatism to be off-putting. By contrast, the Northam-Gillespie match-up is a battle of the bland. Both candidates are cautious and inoffensive. No one has to hold their nose to vote for them.

If that’s the case, how does one explain the strong showing of Hyra, a political novice who is campaigning part-time on a shoe-string budget? Maybe, just maybe, his libertarian principles are resonating with voters. Could Virginia become a three-party state? It’s not impossible.

A Town that Refuses to Die

The past twenty years have been unkind to Halifax County. The Southside Virginia locality has seen wave after wave of plant and business closures — some caused by the restructuring of the tobacco industry, others from globalization and the offshoring of traditional manufacturing industries. The dislocations have been so traumatic that Bloomberg writer Craig Torres used Halifax and the town of South Boston as a mini case study of the downside of the nation’s free trade orthodoxy.

Reflecting a common view, the Heritage Foundation wrote in 2000 that free trade would create “prosperity that benefits every citizen.” While it still is possible to argue that free trade has benefited Americans overall, the impact has been uneven. And hundreds of small-town communities across America like Halifax County were the losers. No wonder, suggests Torres, that Halifax County swung toward avowed protectionist Donald Trump.

Torres spends much of the article describing how economists have begun questioning free trade dogma. He also recounts how the Halifax-South Boston community has undertaken the hard work of reinventing itself, a process that, he says, “might be working.” The jobs gap has closed. Halifax now has 5.1% unemployment, down from nearly 13% — only a tad higher than the nationwide rate of 4.3%. (Torres doesn’t discuss how many people are under-employed or dropped out of the workforce.)

The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center provides a variety of degrees and certifications in partnership with Virginia colleges and universities.

Look at the chart above, taken from the Bloomberg article. The post-NAFTA era of the mid-1990s was devastating to employment in Halifax County. While the U.S. economy as a whole prospered during the Internet boom, unemployment in Halifax shot up to 14%. The county managed to recover to national unemployment levels but got hammered again when the 2001 recession overlapped with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. But the delta this time between Halifax and U.S. unemployment was somewhat smaller than it had been five years previously. Halifax got slammed in the 2008 recession as well, but the unemployment delta shrank yet again. Today the employment gap has almost disappeared.

Is Halifax County the story of a mill town that has successfully reinvented itself? Writes Bloomberg:

Some manufacturers are still around, from sports-car maker TMI AutoTech Inc. to Swiss industrial giant ABB Ltd. Both received incentives after expanding investment and adding jobs, the county industrial development authority said. The companies’ long-term plans for the region might hinge on whether the local workforce has the right skills; so South Boston and the county turned two former tobacco warehouses into a higher education center, offering college courses and vocational training, from nursing to welding to IT. Technicians trained there are getting hired at Microsoft Corp.’s data center in a neighboring county.

Torres explores what the Halifax example portends for the free trade debate. But the story has implications for a parallel discussion here in Virginia — can Virginia’s mill towns be saved? Or is money spent on economic-development efforts throwing money down the drain?

The evidence of Halifax County is admittedly anecdotal, but it is encouraging. The old economy is gone. It’s hard to imagine that there is anything left for globalization to destroy. Halifax has undergone an economic transition more wrenching than anything that inhabitants of Virginia’s major metro areas could imagine. But the community has adapted. In my humble appraisal, the agglomeration economics of the Knowledge Economy still favor the nation’s big metros and work against communities like Halifax over the long run. But it’s too soon to write off Virginia’s mill towns.

A State-Sanctioned Debt Trap? Really?

Katie Otersen on the GMU campus. Photo credit: Washington Post.

When Katie Otersen transferred from Northern Virginia Community College to George Mason University last fall, tuition and fees totaled $11,300, more than double what she had paid before. Working at a salon, she struggled to pay her bills. Seeking to make a payment in May, she was shocked to learn that GMU had sent her account to a collection agency, which had tacked on a fee of 30 percent.

“I can’t argue or negotiate this. I’m just stuck paying almost $1,000 more,” Otersen told the Washington Post. “The fact that they charged me as a student who has been paying throughout the semester this 30 percent fee is disgusting.”

Otersen, says the Post, is one of thousands of Virginia students caught in a “state-sanctioned debt trap.” When students lack the money to pay their bills on time, they are penalized in a way that makes it harder to meet the obligation.

A Virginia statute requires public colleges and universities to hand over student accounts of less than $3,000 that are 60 days past due to private debt collectors. These companies can charge up to 30% of the outstanding balance as a fee. Past-due accounts of more than $3,00 are referred to the state attorney general’s office, which also pockets a 30% fee.

GMU often gives students five months and eight notices to make arrangements to settle their accounts. Unpaid debts, in most cases, are not referred to a collection agency until after the semester ends, said GMU spokesman Michael Sandler. “We can’t allow students to create their own payment plans. We are bound by state law and have an obligation to be responsible stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The Post seems to think there is something wrong with charging the collection fees. States the article: “Those fees may be placing students with limited means at risk of falling behind in school and not graduating.”

Yeah, and people with limited means who fail to pay their rent are at risk of being evicted. And people with limited means who fail to pay their electric bill are at risk of getting their juice turned off. And people with limited means who fail to make their car payments are at risk of having their wheels repossessed. That’s the way it works.

Indeed, students are less worthy of sympathy than most. After all, they have the option to take out student loans, which, from what I gather, anyone and everyone qualifies for. I admire Ms. Otersen for working her way through college — something I never had to do — and I hope she earns a degree. But perhaps someone should have advised her to take out student loans, which she can repay at her leisure.

The affordability problem in higher ed doesn’t stem from outsourcing debt collections. It arises from runaway costs and reductions in state support. Virginia’s public universities warrant closer scrutiny for ever-escalating charges for high tuition, fees, room and board, but not for turning over bad debts to collection agencies, a standard practice in every industry. Just wait until Ms. Otersen discovers what happens when she’s late on her income tax payments!

UVa Board of Visitors Discusses Online Learning

Five years after the future of online learning played an important role in the drama over University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan resignation and reinstatement, the UVa Board of Trustees is making cautious moves to increase the university’s commitment to e-learning.

During a two-day board retreat, Kristen Palmer, director of online learning programs, provided an overview of how other colleges and universities are utilizing online learning — from enhancing the education of residential students to delivering education to off-campus students, reports The Daily Progress.

Still in the brainstorming phase, UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan said at Saturday’s meeting that the first step would be to research the market and determine what would and would not work for UVa. She said online curriculum support for students will be very important, as will options for nontraditional students.

“We’re willing to think outside the box,” Sullivan said. “The sweet spot is that there is so much new knowledge and people beyond college age want it.”

UVa offers more than 50 online courses, 20 certificates and five degrees, and it supports Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) — giving the university a significantly larger online presence than it had in 2012 when the Board of Visitors demanded Sullivan’s resignation. Although then-Rector Helen Dragas cited several reasons for seeking Sullivan’s departure, the issue that resonated most with the public was the absence at UVa of a coherent strategy for adapting to the online revolution. MOOCs were generating considerable publicity at the time, and the higher-ed community was divided on whether online learning would fundamentally transform learning or was a passing craze that could never effectively translate into higher education.

After Sullivan mobilized faculty and student support to win reappointment as president, online learning took a back seat compared to other UVa priorities. While individual schools did adopt the technology — the School of Continuing and Professional Studies most notably (see the video above) — UVA as an institution never made a major commitment. Now, as Sullivan prepares to retire, the Board of Visitors is delving deeper.

Many universities — Harvard, Berkeley, MIT, Penn State, Georgia Tech, the University of Michigan and Purdue, among others — have ramped up their investing in online learning. Here in Virginia, Liberty University has ridden the online-learning wave to become the largest university in the state by enrollment). Liberty’s online learning programs have been so profitable that the institution has been able to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into its endowment.

In September 2016, UVa’s Online Education Advisory Committee advanced several recommendations for bolstering online learning. According to Palmer’s presentation PowerPoint, they included:

  1. Identify leader to drive strategic digital learning efforts across
    university
  2. Fund small scale projects focused on measuring effectiveness and
    disseminating findings related to emergent learning technologies
    and digital environments.
  3. Remove barriers for those schools interested in digital learning
    with seed funding with plans for sustainability within 2-5 years
    (possible collaborative Strategic Investment Fund proposal).
  4. Create a Fellows Program by funding, hiring, and supporting
    thought leaders, subject matter experts and practitioners.
  5. Make all digital materials for the university fully accessible for all
    learners

A year later, many questions remain to be answered. Among those raised by Palmer: Who do we want UVa to be? Are there markets UVa could enter at scale? Will moving content online affect the cost of curriculum delivery? Could UVa use online courses as part of the admissions process? Could the university partner with other Virginia colleges or programs?

With discussions still in the early stages, said the Daily Progress, the board will continue to examine pros and cons of online learning. To better support students, said board member Jeffrey C. Walker, it would be advisable to talk to other schools that utilize online learning to find out what works and what doesn’t. Which classes are more proficiently taught online and which are more suited to traditional classrooms?

Richmond’s New Growth Corridor

Pulse construction on West Broad Street. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In 1950, the population high water mark for many American cities, about 230,000 people lived in the city of Richmond. A few years later, when the city annexed a large swath of Chesterfield County, population peaked around 250,000. Then, as suburbanization took hold and average household size shrank, the population declined steadily over the following decades to less than 200,000.

After a half-century of decline, the city’s demographic fortunes kicked into growth gear again. As young people and empty nesters flocked to the metropolitan region’s urban core, the population rebounded to 210,000 by 2015.

That upward trend is far from spent, says Mark Olinger, the city’s planning director. Indeed, if no big issue arises, such as a spike in the crime rate, he says, “I can see the city getting up to 300,000 by 2037.”

If he’s right, such a surge would represent one of the biggest booms in the city’s 235-year history. The idea is not implausible. Following a national pattern, Millennials crave the excitement of life and work at the urban center, real estate developers are building housing to accommodate them, and employers are following the workforce. The real estate action in the Richmond metropolitan area right now is in the city, not the once-dominant suburban counties of Henrico and Chesterfield.

The big question is how long the boom can continue. Much of the new housing stock has come from the conversion of old warehouses and industrial buildings, fueled by historic tax credits. As the stock of old buildings gets used up, it is harder to find locations to build. The omnipresent NIMBY impulse restricts any development that would change the character of established residential neighborhoods.

One way to avoid the NIMBYs is to focus growth in aging commercial corridors that have long been separated from established residential neighborhoods — in particular, the Broad Street corridor west of downtown. West Broad was developed according to standard suburban zoning codes with large lots, loads of parking, and one- and two-story buildings. For the most part, the architecture is hideous and not worth saving. Historic preservationists will not get exercised to see it bulldozed.

Last month Richmond City Council effectively designated West Broad as a major growth corridor by adopting a zoning framework that allows for development at significantly higher density in a true urban pattern. City officials hope that the opening of the $53 million Pulse bus rapid transit line this fall will jump-start re-development along the corridor, especially around the transit stops. In turn, higher-density development will feed ridership to the system and support it financially.

The economic justification for the Pulse suggested that the BRT system would generate $1 billion in additional assessed property value. The way Olinger talks, that estimate is conservative. He sees tremendous potential for the stretch along West Broad around the Cleveland Street,  Science Museum, and Allison Street stops. This “Greater Scott’s Addition area,” as he calls it, encompasses about 700 acres — roughly twice the size of Richmond’s famed Fan district. At present, the assessed value of property in Scott’s Addition is roughly $850 million, while that of the Fan is between $2.3 billion and $2.5 billion.

According to AreaVibes,com, the Fan district has a population of about 13,000. Extrapolating from Olinger’s property assessment numbers, re-developing Greater Scott’s Addition at Fan densities would accommodate 75,000 additional people and add some $3 billion to $4 billion in assessed value to the city’s tax rolls. Is that remotely realistic?

The Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia forecasts that the four core localities of the Richmond Metropolitan Area — Richmond, Chesterfield, Henrico, and Hanover — will gain 193,000 people by 2040. The UVa group expects the city of Richmond to account for only 20,000 of that increase. But demographic forecasts tend to project trend-lines from the past, missing inflection points caused by emergent influences such as the construction of the Pulse and rezoning of the Broad Street corridor.

To realize Olinger’s aspirations, the city must get the details right. Transit-oriented development requires more than mass transit and mid-rise buildings. The glue that ties the two together is the streetscape. People won’t walk quarter- to half-mile distances to BRT stations unless the streets are inviting to pedestrians. And right now, the Broad Street corridor is a relic of ’50-s, 60’s- and 70s-era suburban, autocentric design, violating almost every principle of walkabilty.

Acutely aware of the discrepancy between vision and reality, Olinger says the city will make significant commitments to West Broad walkability in coming years. Under the new zoning code, buildings will help define the pedestrian zone. Building entrances will face the street. Commercial uses will be closer to the street; residential uses will be set back slightly (though less than under a suburban zoning code) to foster privacy and create semi-private spaces. The code will discourage monolithic building facades and encourage lively, varied sotre and office fronts. Landscaping will help define a “streetwall” to mitigate disruption caused by surface parking lots. Indeed, the code aspires to move surface parking off West Broad Street-facing lots into underground parking or behind-the-building lots.

The state will provide $6 million for streetscape improvements over “the next few years,” and private interests will contribute millions more. Whole Foods, which would build a new store on West Broad Street as part of a C.F. Sauer redevelopment project, has created a one-block streetscape plan it is willing to pay for, says the planning director. “They want to make that whole stretch look good.”

Broad Street has fairly wide sidewalks — sidewalks are 18 feet wide in the area near the proposed Sauer redevelopment — which provides a lot of room to work with. The sidewalks can accommodate trees, outdoor dining, and street furniture. Olinger talks about re-orienting the street lights, now used to illuminate traffic lanes, to provide pedestrian-oriented sidewalk lighting instead. At this early stage of re-development, he does not foresee spending public money on fancy crosswalks and brick sidewalks, which are nice but not essential to the pedestrian experience. “We want to make streets inviting to walk — comfortable, safe, and engaging,” he says.

Under the new zoning code, West Broad Street will have its own unique, corridor-like look-and-feel distinct from surrounding neighborhoods. Maximum building heights will be lower on the south side of WestBroad, with its established residential neighborhoods, but could rise as tall as 12 floors on the north side. Four- to five-story buildings would be the norm. “We’re creating this corridor as its own place,” says Olinger.

The challenge is getting from West Broad Street as it is constituted now — largely a walkability wasteland — to the urban corridor Olinger envisions. It would be hard for a private developer to justify plopping down a 12-story building next door to a fast-food joint or auto parts store. The best bet for early re-development is in the Great Scott’s Addition area, where considerable mixed-use investment is taking place already, and near the Science Museum, a major civic landmark. If early projects succeed in attracting tenants and residents, they will attract imitators up and down the corridor.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Richmond has going for it right now is the lack of effective competition from Henrico or Chesterfield. The political establishments of both counties understand that they need to update their zoning codes to allow the kind of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that people increasingly desire, but they are literally two years or more behind the city in allowing such development on a wide scale. Don’t be surprised if Richmond plays fast catch-up with its prosperous neighbors in growing its population and tax base.

Dunes

Sand dunes at the southern tip of Emerald Isle.

Explaining the Moderation in College Tuition Increases

Graphic source: SCHEV

The increase in tuition and mandatory fees for in-state undergraduate students attending Virginia’s public colleges and universities will increase an average of 4.8% in the 2017-2018 academic year, according to a final report by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). That follows a 4.6% increase in 2017-17 and 6.0% in the year before.

The increase in room and board, which accounts for 45% of the cost of college attendance, will average 3.0%, finds SCHEV’s “2017-18 Tuition and Fees Report.” The total cost of attendance (tuition + fees + room + board) increased 3.9% — the lowest such increase in 16 years.

The moderating price increases suggests that “the Commonwealth’s colleges and universities are holding costs down in other areas such as student activities, housing and meals,” states a press release accompanying distribution of the report.

The SCHEV report frames the challenge of rising college tuition in the context of erratic and declining state levels of state support for higher education. States the report: “Our public system of higher education has endured eight state budget reductions in the past 10 years, and tuition for in-state undergraduate students has risen dramatically in an effort to offset these cuts. Access, affordability and quality — the cornerstones of our system — are in jeopardy.”

Says Dan Hix, SCHEV finance policy director and a lead author of the report, in the press release:

Virginia’s public institutions share our concern that college costs are getting out of reach for many. With support from the governor and the General Assembly, tuition increases last year were the lowest in many years. This year’s tuitions have gone up from that near-historic low. However, the figures show that the Commonwealth’s public institutions are working to rein in other costs.

Last year, the General Assembly and governor increased state support for higher education by more than 8%. This year, Virginia’s colleges will see an average reduction of 2.5%. This Tuition and Fees Report indicates that when the state provides additional support to public higher education, our institutions can better control the rate at which they increase tuition.

Elaborating on this theme in the report itself, SCHEV stated:

An important lesson can be learned, or a “best practice” derived from the 2012-2014 biennium. Here, Virginia made a clear reinvestment in higher education after several years of state budget reductions. In 2013 we experienced an average increase in state funding of about 5% and another 3% in 2014. With these investments came the lowest increases in tuition and fees in a decade.

Despite SCHEV’s positive spin on the numbers, the total charges for Virginia undergraduate students rose to 47.7% of their families’ average disposable income — up almost 12 percentage points from a decade ago, and considerably higher than the national average of 43% in 2016.

To develop a more sustainable, consistent level of state funding, SCHEV has been developing strategies for increasing revenue, from admitting more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition to giving elite institutions more latitude to raise tuition and redistributing the proceeds to institutions that don’t have the market power to raise charges.

“The changes would not be easy or without risk,” says the report, “but the alternative may be diminished access to a generally degraded system. If the next 10 years are similar to the last 10 years for Virginia public higher education, our system is in peril and all options to improve its future should be considered.”

Bacon’s bottom line:  I’m on vacation, and I don’t have time to make a detailed analysis, but I will make a couple of observations. Over the long term (20 to 25 years) the evidence is strong that declining state support for higher education has been one of the factors contributing to steadily rising in-state costs for undergraduate students. But SCHEV frames the issue as if state support were the only factor pushing the cost of attendance higher. As a consequence, SCHEV places the onus of change entirely upon state lawmakers to cough up more taxpayer money — and none of the responsibility on colleges and universities to reconsider policies and practices that might contribute to the runaway cost of attendance.

I have blogged about some of the practices — raising more money for financial aid, hiring more administrators, declining faculty productivity, paying for star faculty, and improving student amenities — that might be contributing to the inflation in costs.  Without data on all the forces at work, our understanding of tuition inflation will remain partial and inadequate.

The most important higher-ed legislation that the General Assembly could enact in the 2018 session would be to give the SCHEV the legal authority and resources to collect and analyze data that would illuminate these other factors.

Sweet Sunset

Sweet sunset at Atlantic Beach, N.C.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Virginian and would never seriously think about moving to any other state. But if I did… The North Carolina coast would be at the top of the list of places I’d consider.

Boomergeddon Watch: U.S. Virgin Islands

Trouble in paradise…

The borrowing window has slammed shut on the U.S. Virgin Islands, reports Reuters. With about 100,000 inhabitants, the U.S. protectorate, acquired from Denmark during World War I, owes more than $2 billion to bondholders and creditors — the biggest per capita debt load, about $19,000, for every man woman and child, in the country. And that figure doesn’t include the islands’ woefully underfunded pension and healthcare obligations. Reports Reuters:

How these islands will recover from years of budget deficits and a severe liquidity crisis remains to be seen. The territory lost its single-largest private employer five years ago when a refinery shut down. Gross domestic product has declined by almost one-third since 2008. At times this year the government was operating with just two days’ cash on hand.

Locals live with pitted roads, crumbling schools, electricity outages and deteriorating medical care.

At the Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center, plumbing troubles are just the beginning. Doctors have stopped performing some vital procedures, including implanting pacemakers and heart defibrillators, because the facility can’t pay suppliers for the devices, officials say.

The Virgin Islands are entering a vicious downward cycle. Unable to borrow, it cuts government services. As quality of life declines, people leave. As the population stagnates (or shrinks) the debt burden for those who remain gets even worse.

Here’s why what happens in the Virgins don’t stay in the Virgins:

Bond buyers for years whistled past the territories’ shaky finances, comforted in the knowledge that these governments couldn’t seek bankruptcy protections available to many municipalities.

“There was an idea that because of the lockbox structure and the fact that the territories did not have a path to bankruptcy, they had to pay you,” said Curtis Erickson, San Francisco-based managing director of Preston Hollow Capital, a municipal specialty finance company.

That all changed in 2016 when Congress passed legislation known as PROMESA giving Puerto Rico its first access to debt restructuring. The move sparked a ferocious battle among creditors to see who would shoulder the largest losses.

If bond holders end up taking a haircut for their holdings in Puerto Rico and Virgin Island bonds, they may start re-appraising their exposure to debt of, say, Chicago, Illinois and other deeply indebted U.S. municipalities and states. They may demand higher risk premiums for investing in municipal debt, which will impact governments with low bond ratings most of all, increasing their borrowing costs and making their debt burden all the more burdensome.

The dominos are falling…

Does “Ooker” Estridge Know Something the Experts Don’t?

Tangier Island, a marshy, low-lying island of about 1.2 square miles  in the Chesapeake Bay, would seem to be Virginia’s poster child for sea-level rise. The island, according to Wikipedia, has lost about two-thirds of its land mass since 1850. There had been a universal belief, I thought, that the island is headed for oblivion as sea level continues to creep higher, whether at the same slow-but-steady rate that has held over the past century or at the accelerated rate postulated by those who hew to the most pessimistic global warming scenarios.

But the assumption of a rising sea level is not embraced universally. The mayor of Tangier, an incorporated town that serves the island’s 500 souls, attributes the island’s shrinkage to erosion, not sea level rise.

Mayor James Eskridge. Photo credit: Associated Press.

The views of James “Ooker” Eskridge gained national exposure when he appeared in a CNN Town Hall devoted to Al Gore’s documentary, “”An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” and said to the former vice president, “”I’m not a scientist, but I’m a keen observer. If sea level rise is occurring, why am I not seeing signs of it?”

US News provides a few additional details:

Eskridge, 58, a lifelong waterman who harvests crabs from the bay, was among the 87 percent of voters in this deeply spiritual community who supported [President] Trump.

When CNN aired a segment on Tangier’s plight in June, Eskridge told meteorologist Jennifer Gray: “I love Trump as much as any family member I got.”

Eskridge and others believe that erosion, not sea-level rise, is the real threat because they can see it. And they believe infrastructure, such as a sea wall around the island, can save it.

“The erosion that’s taking place you can almost see every week, every month for sure,” he told The Associated Press in May.

During his interview with CNN, Eskridge said: “Donald Trump, if you see this … whatever you can do, we welcome any help you can give us.”

A colorful fellow, Eskridge makes good news copy. But the media seem to be treating him as curiosity. And perhaps for good reason. From all the evidence I have seen — and you don’t have to be a Global Warming alarmist to believe it — the global sea level has been rising at a consistent rate for as long as it has been measured (although the rate has varied somewhat locally)

On the other hand, Eskridge does live on Tangier Island, and he he knows the local waters intimately. No one seems to have asked him why he thinks erosion, not sea level rise, is behind the island’s diminution. What evidence does he have? Perhaps he knows something that the scientists don’t. Perhaps there are dynamics they have failed to consider. Someone ought to ask him. He may have no idea what he’s talking about. But then again, maybe he does.

As for the mayor’s proposed solution — building a sea wall around the populated portion of the island — that’s an entirely different matter. Building a wall (it sounds very Trumpian, doesn’t it?) might sound like a great idea if you’re a Tangier resident and someone else is paying for it. But someone must ask, how much would it cost compared to the economic benefit of saving the island’s 500 or so residents from inundation?

I’ll concede that there is some sentimental value in saving a community that has been in place since the 1770s and has preserved a unique dialect dating back to the 18th century or earlier. The island is a historic artifact of times gone by. But is Tangier more special than any other endangered community that can trace its roots back a hundred years or more? We cannot escape the reality that our society has finite resources and that any sum spent on, say, preserving Tangier Island, cannot be spent on a project helping someone else.

It’s safe to say that I’m dissatisfied with the rigor of thinking all the way around.