Category Archives: Consumer protection

Consumer protection

A Better Model for Lending to the Poor

LendUp office in Chesterfield County. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

It’s time to introduce into the public lexicon a distinction between “social justice warriors” and “social justice entrepreneurs.”

Social justice warriors (or SJWs, as they are known short-hand on some conservative blogs) seek to remedy the conditions of the poor and downtrodden through political action, typically calling upon government to wield its power and money to fix some perceived institutional wrong.

Then there are social justice entrepreneurs. Instead of seeing government as the answer, they look to private action: creating new business and not-for-profit models to help the poor. The entrepreneurs don’t agitate, they don’t wave placards, and they don’t frequent protest rallies. They go out and change peoples’ lives for the better.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have no patience with SJWs, most of whose “remedies” are counter-productive, if not outright destructive. By encouraging the poor to buy houses they can’t afford, take out higher-ed loans for degree students never complete, and shutting down lenders-of-last-resort like payday lenders, SJWs have worsened the plight of the poor — all for the most noble of motives, of course.

California-based LendUp Global Inc., is an example of a social justice enterprise that has the potential to help ameliorate the lives of millions of poor people — without a single dollar of government funding. The company, which has established its first East Coast office in Chesterfield County, was recently profiled by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I base the following account upon that article.

Sasha Orloff had worked in finance, including an internship at the Grameen Foundation, a global nonprofit co-founded by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus that provides micro-financing for poor people in developing countries.  His experience there inspired him and his stepbrother Jake Rosenberg, who had worked in technology at Yahoo! and an online gaming company. They conceived the idea of tapping the emerging FinTech industry to make small loans to an estimated 100 million Americans, mostly poor with low credit ratings and income volatility, who cannot get loans from traditional banks. In early 2016, LendUp raised $150 million in venture capital with the goal of becoming a better small-loan provider.

As with payday lenders, LendUp’s interest rates are extremely high on small, short-term loans. A $250 loan repayable within a month would carry a finance charge of $44, equivalent to an annualized interest rate of 214 percent. Interest payments must cover the transaction costs of making the loans, after all. They also reflect the increased risk on non-payment by low credit-score borrowers. 

As Rosenberg acknowledges, “There is a subset of the population that actually needs payday loans, and for this population, banks cannot readily serve them for a wide range of reasons.”

“Yes, payday loans are expensive. The real problem is there is no other options,” he says. “The average borrower is getting ten [payday loans] a year, and they have no pathway to a better product. The key thing is, we’ve tried to create a model where we win when the customer wins. … We do that by trying to incentivize behaviors that are constructive to the consumer’s financial life. If they do those things, they get access to more, the cost goes down, and the amount of capital they can get goes up.”

LendUp offers customers a “ladder” out of the indebtedness trap. The company provides financial, advising customers on how to improve their credit rating and qualify for lower cost debt. Borrowers can win points by paying back loans on time. As they prove themselves, they can work from payday-like loans to installment loans of up to $1,000 with lower interest rates.

Earlier this year, LendUp passed the $1 billion mark in loans provided. It has made more than 3.5 million loans.

Time will tell if LendUp has a profitable business model. But if it does, it should have no trouble attracting capital and expanding. Most likely it will attract competitors, and it will push the payday lending industry to reform itself — either develop a better business model or get dismembered by new tech-savvy, FinTech enterprises.

Interestingly, although LendUp’s East Coast operation is based in Virginia, the company does not offer loans in the Old Dominion. The article does not explain why, but don’t be surprised if there are regulatory restrictions inspired by do-gooders trying to protect the poor from predatory lending.

Government’s War on the Poor: Parent Plus Edition

Rebecca McEvoy, Parent Plus borrower and likely victim of unintended consequences.

Rebecca McEvoy, Parent Plus borrower and likely victim of unintended consequences. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal.

Rebecca McEvoy, a retired school teacher coping with multiple sclerosis, borrowed $84,000 under the federal Parent Plus program to help her oldest son through art and design school. When he graduated, the government expunged the debt under a law that forgives balances for borrowers deemed permanently disabled. Three years later, she and her husband Dave, also a retired teacher, turned to Parent Plus again. The couple expects to borrow another $50,000 to cover costs for a second son, as Josh Mitchell with the Wall Street Journal tells the story.

The McEvoys’ finances likely would have raised red flags with private lenders, Mitchell dryly notes. They live off modest pensions, and existing debts eat up much of their income. Odds are, they won’t be able to meet their payment obligations for the second round of student debt any more than they could the first.

As of September 2015, more than 330,000 people, or 11% of borrowers, had gone at least a year without making a payment on a Parent Plus loan. The student loan debt crisis is engulfing not only students but many parents. An estimated 41,000 Parent Plus borrowers had their checks garnished in FY 2015.

“This credit is being extended on terms that specifically, willfully ignore their ability to repay,” said Toby Merrill with the Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center. “You can’t avoid that we’re targeting high-cost, high-dollar-amount loans to people who we know can’t afford to repay them.”

Parent Plus defaults began rising during the Great Recession. By 2011, Obama administration officials recognized that they had a problem and put tighter restrictions into place. Writes the WSJ:

But after schools argued stiffer underwriting would prevent many students from covering tuition, thus reducing college access for minorities and poor students, the administration rolled back the new rules. Research shows that restricting access to loans based on credit scores leads to lower college enrollment.

The Government Accounting Organization (GAO) estimates that taxpayers ultimately will forgive $108 billion on student loans made through the current fiscal year, says the WSJ. Colleges are the only winners here. Federal loans allow them to jack up tuition, but they suffer no adverse consequences when students or parents cannot repay the debt.

Bacon’s bottom line: Thus has the student loan program, created with the best of intentions, been corrupted: simultaneously saddling taxpayers with the cost of a massively expensive entitlement and burdening students and parents alike with billions of dollars in loans they can never repay. That’s quite a two-fer. Two… Two… Two massively destructive unintended consequences in one!

It hasn’t always been this way. Once upon a time, student loans weren’t dogged by subprime mortgage-scale bad debt. The problem arose when Uncle Sam began treating student loans as an entitlement for anyone who wanted to attend college. Refusing loans to students with no credit rating and/or parents with poor credit ratings constituted “discrimination” against the poor and minorities. Once you play the discrimination card, the debate is over.

The unintended consequence, of course, is that when poor and minority students and parents load up with debt they cannot repay, they suffer disproportionately — even when billions of dollars in bad debt are written off. Except in rare instances like Ms. McEvoy’s, student loan debt cannot be dispelled. Uncle Sam extracts its pound of flesh by garnishing wages and social security. Families living on the edge of poverty are pushed into poverty; families living in poverty are pushed into destitution.

All for what? A significant number of poor students make it through college, obtain degrees, and get good jobs that allow them to service their debt. But millions don’t. Federal law limits undergraduate federal loans to $27,000 over four years. Even when parents step in by borrowing under the Parents Plus plan, many poor students lack the resources to graduate. (The problem may be compounded by a lack of academic preparation — student loan programs apparently don’t take that into account either.) Meanwhile, millions of well-paying, semi-skilled jobs go unfilled. Washington could not have better designed a system to crush the poor if it tried.

A Prosecution or Persecution of Pawn Brokers?

Pawn brokers under the gun. Fredericksburg’s All-Star Pawn & Gold does a good business in pawned guns.

The Virginia Attorney General’s office has extracted settlements from two Fredericksburg-area pawnbrokers for allegedly charging illegal interest and fees. Spotsylvania Pawnking LLC and Stafford-based All-Star Pawn & Gold will provide more than $62,000 in refunds to more than 1,000 customers to resolve the allegations.

The two pawn shops also paid the Attorney General’s office a total of $12,600 reimbursement for expenses, costs and attorney’s fees.

“In recent years we have seen a rash of pawnbrokers around Virginia skirting laws and overcharging consumers,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a press release about the settlement. “If you’re considering using a pawn shop or other small dollar loan lender, you should always closely review the terms and know your rights before signing anything that might result in even more money coming out of your pocket.”

The press release provided no details about what the pawn shops charged in interest and fees. But in a previous press release, Herring accused B&B Pawnbrokers, Inc., also of Fredericksburg, of “predatory lending.” B&B, Herring charged, had made automobile title loans without a license, charged an illegal 10% monthly “processing fee” on all pawnbroker loans, and exceeded state limits on allowable interest rates and other charges.

The settlements are part of a larger initiative in which the AG’s office has partnered with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to enforce state and federal consumer finance statutes.

Bacon’s bottom line: Let me be 100% clear about one thing up front. Pawn shops, like any other business, should not cheat their customers. They must obey their contractual commitments, and they must obey the law. If they break either, they pay the price. Very simple.

That said, I’m always a little suspicious about campaigns against “predatory” lenders. The crusade against pawn shops reminds me of the crackdown on payday lenders motivated by a misguided effort to help the poor. In the case of payday lenders, the real offense typically is not cheating customers but lending money on terms that offend the consciences of do-gooders and social justice warriors. Is that what’s happening here with Virginia’s pawn shop prosecutions? I don’t know. I’m just raising the question.

The fact that Pawnking and All Star Pawn & Gold settled the case does not inspire confidence. Maybe they’re guilty as charged — or maybe they didn’t want to fight prosecutors with deep pockets.

Pawnking’s settlement provides a restitution averaging $67.29 per client, and so does All Star’s. Yup, exactly the same amount. That makes it sound like a cookie-cutter restitution. One must ask, is there any relationship between the restitution offered and the alleged harm done? According to the press release, customers who received loans between Sept. 13, 2014, and Nov. 12, 2015, can contact the companies directly. Why isn’t the AG’s office dispensing the checks? Does the AG’s office even know the identities of the presumed victims?

Pawn shops fill an important function in the economy. Most poor people do not have checking accounts, and those who do are required to maintain minimum balances and are punished for overdrafts. For the most part, they live in a cash-only society. When they run short, they don’t have savings accounts or credit cards to fall back on. Here’s the sales pitch on the All Star website:

If you’ve found yourself needing some quick cash recently and if you’ve been turned down for a personal loan, consider heading to All-Star Pawn & Gold.

All-Star Pawn & Gold offers collateral-based loans, meaning the loan is secured by something of value. You bring in something you own, and if we are interested, we will offer you the loan. The pawnbroker, All-Star Pawn & Gold, then keeps your item until you repay the loan.

You will receive a pawn ticket. Don’t lose this! Not only is it the receipt for your loan, but it also summarizes the terms of your pawn loan: fees, expiration date, description of your item, etc. …

If you don’t return to make payments on your pawn loan All-Star Pawn & Gold keeps your item. There are no other consequences: no collection action and no [effect] on your credit report.

Continue reading

Let Tesla Open in Richmond

Tesla's Model3 is expected to be the electric car company's first mass-market vehicle.

Tesla’s Model 3 is expected to be the electric car company’s first mass-market vehicle.

By Stuart C. Siegel

Tesla’s electric vehicles are often described as disruptive to the motor-vehicle industry, and understandably so. The U.S.-based company’s all-electric vehicles are well designed, transparently priced and environmentally friendly, and the company is setting high standards for other car makers to follow.

Tesla’s sales model is disruptive, too. The company has never been part of the auto dealer-franchise system that is now entrenched in the modern marketplace. This direct-sales strategy has irked Virginia’s car dealer lobby, but it’s indisputably good for the car-buying public.

And that’s precisely the measure by which existing Virginia law allows for a car manufacturer to sell directly to consumers, rather than through a designated middle man. The commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles has the authority to allow Tesla to operate its own store in the Richmond area, and he should approve the company’s application.

Tesla already operates a store in Tysons Corner, where I serviced my all-electric Model S sedan and more recently purchased a Model X. The experience, like the car, was unlike any other I’ve encountered because the company is committed to educating customers about the vehicle and its innovative technology, rather than rushing to make a sale.

Since opening that store, Tesla has witnessed more demand elsewhere in Virginia. In a free market, a company should be able to make its own business decisions about how and where it serves its customers. Tesla wants to do so by opening a showroom and service shop in a vacant furniture store at Broad Street and Stillman Parkway. Henrico County’s Board of Supervisors has approved the company’s use of the site, and county officials recognize the potential for Tesla to help revitalize that area, bolster the local economy and create dozens of new jobs.

The Virginia Automobile Dealers Association has overreacted by trying to block Tesla’s application. The lobbying group, long known for doling out hefty campaign contributions, has been spreading false information for months in an underhanded attempt to manipulate regulators and legislators. The association even filed a lawsuit against Tesla and the DMV. The case, and every allegation made by VADA, was recently dismissed by a circuit judge in Fairfax.

VADA exists, above all else, to protect dealer franchises. Its claim that Tesla shouldn’t be allowed to sell directly to the public because independent dealers want to sell Tesla products is a clear signal that the lobbying group’s argument has crossed into fantasy.

Dealers must make a profit to stay in business. An independent dealer can’t profit off Tesla sales because few, if any, car buyers would pay a dealer’s marked-up price when they could walk out of the store and order the car for the lower, fixed price available at tesla.com. And dealers wouldn’t be able to recoup a profit on the back end through pricey service needs because, unlike a combustion-engine vehicle, a Tesla has no oil, gasoline or traditional transmission. Its battery pack carries an eight-year, unlimited-mile warranty.

Numerous studies and news reports have shown traditional car dealers offer a less satisfying consumer experience than Tesla. Some also were found to steer buyers away from electric vehicles and into gas-powered cars, even when those buyers expressed interest in purchasing an electric vehicle.

That’s particularly worrisome for a growing manufacturer such as Tesla. Its Model S has racked up industry awards, and its Model 3, a smaller sedan set to start at $35,000, will begin production next year.

Sales staff must be able to answer questions with specificity and accuracy about a Tesla’s innovative technology, batteries and warranties, charging and maintenance, and other incentives, none of which is applicable for the sale of a gas-powered vehicle.

And unlike the bigger manufacturers, Tesla doesn’t make gas-powered vehicles that customers can be diverted toward on a dealer’s lot and still record a sale. The company is exclusively focused on building powerful, stylish, electric cars, and helping consumers learn about them and find the proper model is its mission.

Industry research and Tesla’s own track record suggest the company can sell its cars more effectively, and at a lower cost, than traditional car dealers, and it can give customers the service and attention that they deserve. Hopefully that can happen soon in Richmond.

Stuart C. Siegel is a Richmond resident and Tesla owner.

How One Gas Plant Can Save Billions

Dominion Virginia Power's gas-burning plant in Brunswick County opened this year. The Greensville power station, scheduled to open in 2018, will be even more cost efficient.

Shown here: Dominion Virginia Power’s state-of-the-art, gas-fired generating plant in Brunswick County. The company’s Greensville facility will be even more cost efficient.

There’s more to the natural gas boom than fracking. Technology deployed at Dominion’s Greensville power plant will squeeze more electricity out of a BTU of gas than ever before. 

by James A. Bacon

Last month Dominion Virginia Power commenced construction of the $1.3 billion Greensville County Power Station. When it opens in late 2018, the facility could well be the most efficient gas-burning electrical power plant in the world. That one facility will save Dominion customers $2.1 billion over its 36-year lifetime, the company says, even as it emits less carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour than other gas power plants and only 40% of that of a coal-fired plant.

Even if stretched out over 36 years, $2 billion represents a significant savings from a single power station. The average savings of $59 million a year compares to $7 billion annually paid by Dominion’s Virginia and North Carolina rate payers.

Rate payers might wonder: How does Dominion calculate that $2 billion in savings. The station will save $2 billion compared to what? Those questions seem all the more germane in light of commonly heard arguments that investing in massive natural gas-fired power plants instead solar panels and wind turbines is a bad idea when the price of gas will only rise in the future and the cost of renewable energy will steadily decline.

“We see the potential for a lot of stranded costs to be put on consumers as emissions of carbon pollution and greenhouse gas emissions continue to be ratcheted down,” says Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club-Virginia chapter. Solar is not just non-polluting but in many parts of the country it’s the lowest-cost energy source. As solar technology improves and the cost per kilowatt hour continues to decline, solar could become the low-cost option in Virginia, too. While natural gas might look like an attractive option today, it may not be as gas reserves are depleted and prices rise. Says Addleson: “Dominion is pointing to the benefits of gas because that’s what they see as the best outcome for their profit margin.”

Dominion defends its commitment to natural gas as the best deal for rate payers. The Greensville County Power Station will save money two ways: (1) by extracting more energy value from each BTU of gas, and (2) by using its access to two pipelines to purchase cheaper gas.

Greensville will be the third “three on one” Combined Cycle plant in Dominion’s generating fleet, using waste heat from three gas-burning turbines to power a traditional steam generator. Incorporating the most advanced Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems turbines, Greensville will squeeze more electricity from 1,000 BTUs of natural gas than ever before.

Combustion at higher temperatures also releases less carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere. The Greensville plant will emit 780 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour (MWh), an incremental improvement over the 790 pounds for the Brunswick plant and 2,100 pounds for a typical coal-burning plant. Mike Dowd, director of air quality for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), noted that the air permit sets the limit at 813 pounds per MWh, the toughest ever set on a combined cycle, natural gas power station. Environmental groups claimed credit for the “stronger pollution protection” they lobbied for. But the real enabler of the stricter environmental standards was the same combustion technology that makes the facility so economical to run.

Glenn Kelly, director of Generation System Planning, walked me through Dominion’s methodology for calculating the cost savings. If Dominion did not build the Greensville plant, he said, the company would have to purchase the megawatts from wholesale electricity markets maintained by PJM, the regional transmission organization of which Dominion is a part. “PJM market is always an option. We can always buy energy and capacity there  – that’s our benchmark. ”

In the PJM wholesale market, utilities purchase capacity (the right to draw electricity, if needed) and energy (the actual electricity consumed) in day-before and same-day auctions. Prices vary by season, time of day, weather conditions, and other factors such as the volume of electricity being bought and sold at any given point of time and the ability of transmission lines to deliver the electricity to the consumer in different parts of the country. In all likelihood, Greensville’s replacement electric power would come from a mix of gas-fired, solar, wind, and other energy sources — whatever other utilities and merchant providers are willing to put on the market.

How does Dominion know what PJM will charge Dominion years in the future? It doesn’t. It relies upon its economic consulting company, ICF, to make realistic assumptions. ICF assumes that prices will fluctuate around the long-term cost (including a reasonable corporate profit) of generating the electricity, and that the cost of burning gas or building a solar panel can be estimated with some degree of reliability. “Gas prices are very volatile short-term,” says Kelly. Right now prices are depressed, running between $2 and $3 per million BTUs. ICF projects gas prices will likely climb to about $5.11 per million BTU by 2025. “We have it going up pretty fast.”

Many people are familiar with the fact that the cost per KWh of solar energy has gone down as solar panels get more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, but few are aware how the cost of generating electricity from gas has gone down — and not just because of the fracking revolution that has flooded the market with gas. State-of-the-art power stations extract more electricity from the same amount of gas.

The G Class turbines installed in Dominion’s Brunswick County power station, which opened this year, are more efficient than the previous generation, says Bill Newsom, executive vice president-new generation systems with Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Americas. They are about 59% efficient; that is, they extract about 59% of the energy value from the natural gas. The rest goes up the smokestack or is lost as waste heat. Continue reading

Watch Those Utility Poles!

Odd fact of the day: Last year some 2,000 vehicle accidents across Virginia involved utility poles — more than five accidents per day on average, according to Dominion Virginia Power.

How should you react if you struck a pole and electric wires fell onto the car? Let’s just say the life-saving response is not intuitive. Watch the video above.

— JAB

Renewable Energy: A Tale of Two Virginias

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias – at least when it comes to renewable energy.

One is the state’s traditional political and business elite, including Dominion Resources and large manufacturers, the State Corporation Commission and others.

They insist that the state must stick with big, base-loaded electricity generating plants like nuclear and natural gas – not so much solar and wind –to ensure that prices for business are kept low. Without this, recruiting firms may be difficult.

The other is a collection of huge, Web-based firms that state recruiters would give an eyetooth to snag. They include Amazon, Google, Facebook and others that tend to have roots on the West Coast where thinking about energy is a bit different.

Besides the Internet, what they have in common is that they all vow to use 100 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources. What’s more, to achieve this goal, all are investing millions in their own renewable power plants. They are bypassing traditional utilities like Dominion which have been sluggish in moving to wind and solar.

So, you have a strange dichotomy. Older business groups are saying that the proposed federal Clean Power Plan should be throttled because it would rely on expensive renewables that would drive away new business. Meanwhile, the most successful and younger Web-based firms obviously aren’t buying that argument.

I have a story about this in this week’s Style Weekly.

In Virginia, the trend is evidenced by Amazon Web Services, which sells time on its cloud-computing network to other firms. It is joining a Spanish company, Iberdola Renewables LLC, in building a 208-megawatt wind farm on 22,000 acres in northeastern North Carolina, just as few miles from the Virginia border. Three weeks earlier, on June 18, Amazon announced it plans a 170-megawatt solar farm in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore.

Dominion, which has renewable projects in California, Utah and Indiana and the beginnings of some small ones in Virginia, says it is not part of the projects. It could possibly get electricity indirectly from them. Amazon’s power will be sold on regional power grids to business and utilities.

When they complete such sales, the Net-focused firms will get renewable energy certificates that can be used to show that they have put as much renewable energy into the electricity grid as they have used, says Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

This will be especially important in Northern Virginia where there are masses of computer server farms used by Amazon and others. These centers used 500 megawatts of power in 2012 and demand is expected to double by 2017. Also, for years, the region has hosted such a large Internet infrastructure that at least half, perhaps 70 percent, of the Net’s traffic goes through there.

Part of the back story of this remarkable and utility-free push for renewables is that environmental groups are shaming modern, forward-looking firms like Amazon to do it.

Amazon Web Services was the target of criticism last year when Greenpeace surveyed how firms were embracing renewable energy. The report stated that the firm “provides the infrastructure for much of the Internet” but “remains among the dirtiest and least transparent companies” that is “far behind its major competitors.”

Dominion also got bashed in the report. Greenpeace says, “Unfortunately, Dominion’s generation mix is composed of almost entirely dirty energy sources.” Coal, nuclear and natural gas make up the vast majority of its power sources.

Its efforts to move to renewable sources have been modest at best. In regulatory filings, Dominion officials have complained that renewable energy, especially wind, is costly and unreliable although they include it in their long-term planning.

Dominion has plans for 20-megawatt solar farm near Remington in Fauquier County and is working on a wind farm on 2,600 acres the utility owns in southwestern Virginia. It has renewable projects out-of-state in California, Utah and Indiana. The output is a fraction of what Amazon plans in the region.

In a pilot offshore wind project, Dominion had planned on building two wind turbines capable of producing 12 megawatts of power in the waters of Virginia Beach. It later shut down the project, saying new studies revealed it would cost too much. It says it might continue with a scaled down project if it got extra funding, such as federal subsidies.

The utility says it must build more natural gas plants and perhaps build a third nuclear unit at its North Anna power plant to make sure that affordable electricity is always available for its customers.

As Amazon announced its new renewal projects, Greenpeace has changed its attitude about the company. Now it praises Amazon for its initiatives in Virginia and North Carolina. “I would like to think we have pushed Amazon in the right direction,” says David Pomerantz, a Greenpeace spokesman and analyst. He adds that Amazon has some work to do in making its energy policies “more transparent.”

One unresolved issue is that two neighboring states, North Carolina and Maryland, have “renewable portfolio standards” that require that set percentages of power produced there come from renewables. West Virginia had such a standard but has dropped it. In Virginia, the standard is voluntary, meaning that Dominion is under no legal obligation to move to solar or wind. It also gives the SCC, the power rate regulator, authority to nix new power proposals because they might cost consumers too much, providing Dominion with a handy excuse to move slowly on renewables.

Another matter, says Pomerantz, is whether Virginia’s legislators will enact “renewable energy friendly policies” or watch hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable project investments go to other states, such as North Carolina.

So, you have a separate reality. Traditionalists are saying that expensive renewables are driving away new business, while the most attractive new businesses are so unimpressed with traditionalist thinking that they are making big investments to promote renewable energy independently.

It isn’t the first like this has happened.

Does Uber Save Lives?

Should have called Uber.

Should have called Uber.

Speaking of safer roads… Consider the impact of Uber on peoples’ driving habits. Richmond Biz Sense reports that more than 1,200 vehicles in the City of Richmond, Chesterfield County and Henrico County have signed up with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to pick up passengers for hire under the Uber banner. That’s more than double the number of traditional taxi vehicles registered to provide service.

Twelve hundred vehicles is a lot of cars, seemingly enough to inundate the Richmond market. But Uber wouldn’t be contracting with all those drivers if there weren’t a demand for the service.

People employ Uber for many reasons, but the one with which I am most acquainted is to avoid drinking and driving. Most people know that driving while intoxicated is an exceedingly bad idea. But if staying alive and not killing others isn’t incentive enough, Henrico County courts are draconian in their punishment of drunk driving.

Many people of my social acquaintance carry breathalyzers with them. If their alcohol levels exceed the legal limit, they call Uber for a ride home. Some friends don’t even bother driving to social functions at all — they call Uber for rides both ways. I don’t know the percentage of Uber riders who are intoxicated, but I’d wager that it’s a high number.

Tough laws, breathalyzers and Uber — it’s a powerful combination. I’m betting that roads in the Richmond region are a lot safer these days.

— JAB

Capitalism Triumphs Again!

RAM clinic, Pikesville Ky., June 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

RAM clinic, Pikesville Ky., June 2011.
Photo by Scott Elmquist

By Peter Galuszka

If there were any questions about just how capitalism has failed, one need look no farther than Wise County, where, this week, hundreds, if not thousands, of people will line up for free medical care.

The event is ably noted in The Washington Post this Sunday by a young opinion writer named Matt Skeens who lives in Coeburn in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia.

This week, the Remote Area Medical clinic will come to the Wise County fairgrounds to offer free medical and dental care to anyone who needs it.

You might ask yourself a question: why do so many people in one of the parts of the United States that is fantastically wealthy with natural resources need free medical care? Where is the magic of capitalism so often lauded on this blog?

A few insights from Mr. Skeens:

“Local representatives of Southwest Virginia will travel to the fairgrounds to stand on a coal bucket and assure us they’re fighting against President Obama and the ‘war on coal.’ These politicians won’t mention that with their votes to block Medicaid expansion, they ensured that the lines at RAM won’t be getting any shorter. But hating Obama in these parts is good politickin.”

Skeens runs through a list of mountain folk who can’t afford health care. One is a breast cancer survivor who hasn’t had a screenings in years. His grandfather, a retired electrician and coal miner, had also camped out at RAM clinics to get help.

Odd that this is the way I found neighboring West Virginia when I moved there with my family from suburban Washington, D.C. in 1962. Just as it was then, the riches that should have helped pay for local medical care went out of state. Much of the coal left by railcar or barge. Now, natural gas released by hydraulic fracking will find its way to fast-growing Southeastern cities or perhaps overseas thanks to new proposed pipelines such as a $5 billion project pitched in part by Dominion Resources.

While I have never been to the Wise County RAM clinic, I did happen to drop by one in Pikesville, Ky., a coalfield area that is one is Kentucky’s poorest county. It is not far from Wise. I was busy researching a book on Richmond-based Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm, in June 2011.

Photographer Scott Elmquist and I were on our way from Kentucky to an anti-strip mining rally in West Virginia when we noticed the RAM signs. More than 1,000 people had started lining up at the doors around 1:30 a.m. at the local high school.

It was packed inside. A Louisville dental school had sent more than 50 dental chairs that lined the basketball court. Some of the patients said they were caught in a bind: they had jobs but didn’t have enough health coverage and couldn’t pay for what they needed.

Since then, there’s been some good news. Unlike Virginia, whose legislature has stubbornly refused to expand Medicaid to 400,000 residents who need it (supposedly in a move to tighten federal spending), Kentucky expanded Medicaid last year. Now, 375,000 more people have health insurance.

Not so in Virginia. People continue to suffer while those with comfortable lives laud the miraculous benefits of capitalism.

What’s the Deal with Dominion and Coal Ash?

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

By Peter Galuszka

So what’s the deal with dumping coal ash and Dominion Virginia Power?

A story in the Associated Press that is getting wide attention suggests that the utility may be consolidating five coal ash dumping ponds at its Possum Point generating plant into one that may or may not be properly lined.

If the lining is inadequate, then the coal ash which contains such dangerous chemicals as arsenic and selenium could leach into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Dominion claims it is in compliance with all current state and federal rules although stricter ones are due soon. So why not wait for final rules and bury the coal ash in a proper way? Dominion thinks that would be too expensive, critics say, and it is making its move now.

Dominion announced recently that it was closing nine coal ash ponds at Bremo Bluffs, Chesapeake, Chesterfield and Possum Point. Some of the ponds were opened in the 1940s. Bremo has converted from coal to gas, as has Possum Point. Chesapeake is closing completely.

Just to quash the potential argument, these closings were announced long before the fossil fuel industry started their “War on Coal” propaganda campaign and is doing so for cost reasons. Possum Point switched from coal in 2003.

Coal ash is messy and can be deadly. Its problems were underscored when 50,000 tons of coal ash stored by Duke in North Carolina broke free and splashed into the Dan River. That polluted rivershore into Virginia. Duke ended up with $102 million or so in fines. Virginia fined Duke a puny $2.5 million.