Hey, White Nationalists, Go Away

White nationalists marching in Charlottesville. Image credit: Washington Post

Hey, white nationalists, go away. We don’t want you. Nobody wants you. I, too, am a white person, and I, too, am appalled by the identity politics of the Left. But the answer is not to match La Raza and Black Lives Matter with an identity politics of right-wing whiteness. You and your torch-light marches only fuel the Left’s narrative that America is an irredeemably racist nation. The opposite of left-wing tribalism isn’t right-wing tribalism, it’s individualism. If you want to stand up to Leftist identity politics, work to build a society that provides equal treatment under the law to all and empowers Americans to rely upon their own initiative, not the government, to better their condition.

Update: I made this post this morning before the violence took place. I share the sentiments of Governor Terry McAuliffe who said this afternoon that there is no place in Virginia — or the United States — for the kind of violence we saw this afternoon or the hateful sentiments that motivated it. The perpetrators of violence need to be prosecuted with the full power of the law.

I also support the statement of the House Republican leadership:

The rhetoric and actions of racists, white supremacists, and Nazi-ideologues in Charlottesville last night and today are disgusting and vile. We are heartbroken that innocent life was taken in what appears to be a violent act of terrorism. This is not what Virginia believes in or stands for and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms. We are grateful for the bravery and professionalism of local law enforcement, the Virginia State Police, and the Virginia National Guard. They are heroic public servants.”

Does Virginia Higher-Ed Discriminate against Asians?

The Students for Fair Admissions, an Arlington-based non-profit group, has made waves recently with its lawsuit charging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian-Americans in its admissions process.

The lawsuit asserts that the university administers what amounts to an illegal quota system, in which roughly the same percentage of African-Americans, Hispanics, whites and Asian-Americans are admitted year after year, despite fluctuations in application rates and qualification, reports the New York Times. Numerous academic studies have shown that Asian-Americans have to achieve significantly higher SAT scores than other groups to gain admission to many elite universities.

The controversy got me to thinking — do similar admissions biases exist at Virginia’s top universities? The University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, and Virginia Tech aren’t as elite as the Ivy League schools, but they are highly regarded and they do recruit students nationally. Asian students in Virginia schools consistently out-perform other racial categories in Virginia high schools. Are they fairly represented or under-represented in Virginia’s top colleges?

That’s hard to say for sure. I can’t find any data online providing average SAT scores broken down by race for any of the three universities. (I conjecture that such data is suppressed precisely to avoid the kinds of accusations made by Students for Fair Admissions.)

But the institutions do provide a breakdown of enrollment by race and ethnicity. At the top of the post, you can view the 2016 enrollment numbers for Asian and Pacific-American students. The percentages at each institution are higher than the percentage of the Asian population in Virginia — 6.5% as of 2015 — as a whole.

But how do enrollments compare to the Asian percentage of college-bound students? According to the College Board, 5,389 college-bound students of Asian origin took the SAT exams in 2016, accounting for 9% of Virginia’s college-bound population. By that yardstick, W&M at 8.7% in-state Asian enrollment appears to have an under-represented Asian population, while UVa and Virginia Tech are comfortably above.

But the story doesn’t stop there. Asian-Americans out-perform other racial/ethnic groups academically. The average reading + math SAT score for Virginia Asian-Americans was 1,145 in 2016. That compared to 1,037 for all Virginia students. Colleges and universities consider factors other than SAT scores, of course, such as grades, student rank in high school, and extracurricular activities. All other things being equal, however, the superior SAT performance by Asians suggests that they should be represented at Virginia’s elite institutions in numbers greater than the percentage taking the SATs.

What numbers would represent a bias-free admission percentage for Asians? The data that I could find isn’t granular enough to make a firm judgment, although a scientific wild-ass guess suggests that UVa, where Asians account for 18.2% of in-state first-year students, is very receptive to Asian admissions, Virginia Tech (12.7) moderately receptive, and William & Mary (8.7%) bears a closer look.

That’s just a rough cut. It’s impossible to dig deeper without seeing the average SAT scores of Asians and other racial/ethnic groups admitted to each institution. Getting that data, I suspect, will be like prying teeth from a dragon.

Planning for the Solar Eclipse

by Bill Tracy

As a backyard astronomer, here’s my take on why Virginians might want to “get out of Dodge” on August 21. Just like Dodge City, Kan., Virginia will be close to, but not inside the path of totality for the Great American Eclipse. Therefore Virginia will experience a partial solar eclipse. Virginia’s partial eclipse will range from about 80% in NoVA, up to about 95% coverage in Bristol. But even a 95% eclipse is not rare, nor is it a very exciting experience for astronomy hobbyists.

Only a Total Solar Eclipse qualifies as a once-in-a-lifetime event for Bacon’s Rebellion reader’s bucket lists.

Why is a total solar eclipse something that must be seen to be believed? To answer that question, we must delve into the fundamental differences between human eyesight and a camera. For many distant objects, in and beyond our Milky Way galaxy, a time-exposed photograph, for example by the Hubble Space Telescope, provides the most spectacular color and detail. In such cases, the camera/telescope combo wins as the best way to observe a deep-sky object.

Human eyesight, however, is far superior to a camera for certain “close by” events in our own solar system. This includes comets, and the greatest spectacle of all, the Total Eclipse of the Sun.

The superiority of the human eye is perhaps best described from my own observing experience. The human eye is better able to see gradations of contrast in nebulous objects such as comets. For example, when the famous comet Hale-Bopp passed our way in 1997, I spent quite a bit of time sketching drawings of the swirls and details that could only be seen by the naked eye through a telescope. By comparison, photographs taken at the same time revealed a cloudy, over-exposed image almost totally devoid of the detail visible to the eye.

Therefore, the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” definitely does not apply for a Total Solar Eclipse. I am expecting to see marvelous details in the Sun’s corona dancing around the circular dark mask of the Moon, not mention other sensory phenomena such as the confused behavior of wildlife, the diamond ring effect, Baily’s beads, and perhaps even flying shadows.

Keep in mind, two important observing tools that augment what the human eye can see are binoculars and telescopes. I personally plan to lug my 6-inch Dobsonian/Reflector telescope out to the Saint Louis metro area, where we have family. On the day of the eclipse we will head for totality around Carbondale, Ill., or alternately modify our plan if necessary due to weather and traffic considerations.

Eye safety is a very important topic. During the partial eclipse, it is imperative to use eye protection at all tines. Eye protection most commonly consists of properly certified solar filter film which can be used for eclipse glasses and for sun screens used to cover the front optics of binoculars, cameras and telescopes. My understanding is that a particular safety concern applies to locations like Bristol. As much as a 95% partial eclipse still requires eye protection, even if you mistakenly think you can look directly at the Sun’s thin crescent. Extended observing of the Sun’s thin crescent without eye protection can damage your eyes (eclipse blindness). Therefore Virginia’s partial solar eclipse necessitates eye protection for all, at all times.

Only during the approximately 2-minute duration of eclipse totality is it allowable to view the eclipse directly with your naked eyes. In fact, viewing with your naked eyes is the only way to properly observe the 100% total eclipse. Reportedly, out of fear, a few folks always leave their eye protection on for the total eclipse…but that is a mistake. The brief 2-minute period of totality is when I will use my telescope and binoculars intermittently to augment what my own eyes can see, and I will try to get some photos.

Regarding travel to the zone of totality, even Bristol residents would have to travel about an hour south on I81 to get to a good viewing location in Tennessee or North Carolina. Other Virginians like myself in NoVA will have longer treks. Traffic will most likely be challenging on the day of the eclipse. Therefore be prepared for emergencies, and be safe.

It’s time to go and get ready for our bucket-list adventure. And so. as amateur astronomers always say: Clear Skies!

For more information see the website GreatAmericanEcipse.com.

Bill Tracy, a retired engineer, lives in Northern Virginia.

I’m Going Cyborg, Baby!

Artificial hip

Part man, part machine — that’ll be me in about six or seven hours. I’ll be checking into Saint Mary’s hospital to get a new ceramic-titanium hip to replace the flawed model that my DNA bequeathed me.

I’ll be out of action for a few days, and I expect my blogging productivity will be diminished for some time after that. Pain meds and clear thinking do not go hand in hand. But with luck I’ll come back stronger than ever. Personal issues have severely distracted my blogging over the past few months, and I hope this will be the last of them. There’s so much woolly headed thinking to dispel!

Illuminating Rural Poverty in Virginia

Last week Augie Wallmeyer delivered a speech to the Virginia Historical Society on the “Extremes of Virginia.” If you haven’t read his book by the same title, listen to his speech. (Clicking on the image takes you to the Virginia Historical Society Facebook page, where the speech can be viewed.)

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.