Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Drip… Drip… Drip… Another Richmond Company Moves from the Burbs to Downtown

Bob Hilb

The Hilb Group, a fast-growing insurance brokerage with more than $125 million in revenue, has made the decision to move its headquarters from the suburban Stony Point office to the Riverfront Plaza in downtown Richmond.

CEO Bob Hilb told Richmond BizSense that he had been looking for a new location for a year in anticipation of the lease expiring on his 5,000-square feet office in 2017. “While it’s a great building, it has turned into very much a medical office space,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that; it just doesn’t fit our vibe.”

And what’s that vibe? It’s all about the Millennials.

The downtown office will have a more modern, open layout — “a little less wood and more glass,” said Hilb. The company will move only 17 of its 800 employees into the new 9,000-square-foot digs, but he expects the number to grow as the company continues to roll up smaller, independent insurance agencies around the country.

“A lot of a people in our business, you walk into their office and it’s like you’ve walked into a hunting lodge,” he said. “As we grow, there’s no question that being able to attract millennials and having a really nice progressive office makes a difference.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Technically, the Hilb Group’s relocation is a Richmond-to-Richmond move. But Stony Point, located on the far western edge of the City of Richmond, was developed as a classic suburban office park surrounded by parking lots and trees. Walking to the nearby “pedestrian” mall is impractical. The office park is accessible only by automobile. The Hilb Group’s new location in the Riverfront Plaza will be in the heart of downtown near the James River.

Meanwhile, the urbanization of the City of Richmond continues apace. Union Presbyterian Seminary is moving ahead with the development of a $50 million, 301-unit apartment complex in Ginter Park, a single-family neighborhood, despite stiff opposition by neighboring property owners.

And the city planning commission has signaled its intention to rezone Scott’s Addition, a light industrial area transitioning to mixed-use residential and commercial, under a new, more urban zoning classification. Local businesses, says the T-D, would see changes to parking regulations, square footage restrictions and the allowance of small-scale manufacturing.

A Non-Partisan Election Reform: Shorter Lines

Here’s an idea for election reform that everyone should be comfortable with: reducing the time voters spend in line at the polls.

In 2014 a bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Electoral Administration called on state and local officials to ensure that voters wait no more than 30 minutes to cast a ballot. As a voter who spent an hour or more waiting in line in the 2016 election, I would greatly appreciate any effort to cut the logjam.

Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, John Fortier and Donald Palmer with the Bipartisan Policy Center describe a nationwide study in 2016 of election lines. That study encompassed 17 Virginia jurisdictions representing more than 2 million registered voters, or nearly 40 percent of all registered voters in the state.

Our data shows that more than 80 percent of Election Day lines in Virginia occur before noon. Moreover, we found that steps taken by Virginia officials after the 2012 and 2014 elections to allocate resources more effectively did decrease the average wait times at the polls. In 2016, Virginia voters waited an average of less than nine minutes to vote — down dramatically from 24 minutes in 2012 and 28 minutes in 2008. This decrease is one of the largest in the country.

When equipped with the right data, local officials can make smart and informed choices about where and when to deploy resources on Election Day, designing a structure that works best for their unique situations. Until now, however, those officials were flying blind with little to no data to guide or back up decision-making.

It’s nice to know that our election officials are doing something right. I’m looking forward to a snappy, nine-minute wait in the gubernatorial election this fall.

Workgroup Seeks Compromises to Move Solar Forward

The consensus-building workgroup that fostered 2017 legislation to promote community solar energy in Virginia reconvened Monday to grapple with more intractable issues that stand in the way of widespread adoption of solar power.

Participants in the Solar Policy Collaborative Workgroup had clashed repeatedly in the General Assembly over the years, but decided to pursue a different approach in 2016. Mediated by Mark Rubin, executive director of the Virginia Center for Consensus Building at Virginia Commonwealth University, they worked out a compromise proposal that will allow Virginians to purchase renewable electricity generated by local, independent solar developers and marketed by electric utilities.

The General Assembly enacted the law in the 2017 session, and participants hope to build on the success, tackling issues that they could not resolve last year. “A level of trust and respect has been established among members of the steering committee,” said Rubin when convening the Monday meeting.

This year the ad hoc organization is seeking input from a broader array of stakeholders and inviting the public to attend meetings. Sub-groups will discuss issues relating to land use, large developers, large customers, community development and net metering. Of the five topics net metering — in which utilities pay owners of solar facilities for surplus electricity they supply to the grid — stimulated by far the most interest, inspiring numerous comments from the audience.

“No ideas are off the table,” said Sam Brumberg, counsel for the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives, and a leader of the net metering sub-group. He cited time-of-use rates, charging for usage of the grid, feed-in tariffs (which enable long-term contracts for solar generators) and other options that might be considered to encourage distributed solar development. “No idea is off limits.”

Brumberg was joined by Scott Thomasson, southeast director of Vote Solar. His organization has engaged in some “fierce battles” in other states over solar policy, he said. By participating in the Virginia solar workshop, he added, he hopes to “get better outcomes through dialogue. We want to avoid the melt-downs in other states.”

Net metering. One thing most audience members agreed upon is that the existing net metering law, designed to protect electric utilities, is a hindrance to widespread adoption of solar energy by homeowners, small businesses, and other small users. Current law limits net metering to residential systems up to 10 kW and commercial systems up to 500 kW, with a program cap if generating capacity reaches 1% of an electric utility’s peak load for the previous year. The benefit to generators is that their surplus electricity can be used to offset electricity purchases from the utility during off-peak periods.

Dominion Energy has sought to limit the surplus that generators could use to offset their electricity sales, while both Dominion and Appalachian Power have insisted upon stand-by charges to compensate them for the cost of maintaining the electric grid that solar-generating residences would draw upon for backup. Builders, environmentalists and other advocates say the restrictions make solar less attractive to install and give small, distributed generators no credit for the load they take off the transmission and distribution grids.

The interests of the electric utilities and the others seem starkly opposed, and there is no obvious way to reconcile the two. But Katharine Bond, senior policy adviser for Dominion, sounded an optimistic note, suggesting that new technology and novel rate structures might make the utilities “more agnostic” about solar initiatives that cut into utility revenues.

Another complication is that net-metering advocates are a diverse group and do not agree amongst themselves on the best approach. Charles Guarino, a Richmond-area resident, made a plea for simplicity in the net metering law. “If people don’t understand it, they won’t participate,” he said.

But Tom Hadwin, with Waynesboro-based ACN Energy Solutions, advocated a value-of-solar tariff based on the premise that it made more sense from the perspective of balancing load on the electric grid to put solar in some locations than in others. Electric rates would be less favorable for solar located near where the grid was congested than for locations where grid congestion was not an issue.

“Simplicity is good, but there are trade-offs,” said Thomasson with Vote Solar., who suggested that a tariff that varied by time of day and load demand might suit some better.

“Not everyone can get what they want,” said Brumberg, but “if we’re successful, folks will get some of what they want.” Continue reading

Thinking on a Higher Plane about Higher Education

Stephen Moret, CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP), brought a wealth of experience in corporate recruitment and workforce training when he moved to Virginia from Louisiana. But there’s another aspect of Virginia’s economic development chief that has gained little notice here in the Old Dominion. Last year he earned a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.

The Ed.D. dissertation that Moret completed last year, “Attainment, Alignment, and Economic Opportunity in America: Linkages Between Higher Education and the Labor Market,” examines the connection between higher education and economic development in the United States, often challenging the conventional wisdom in the process. His findings are worth considering here in Virginia.

Two propositions are widely and uncritically accepted in the Old Dominion: (1) a highly educated workforce is good for economic development, and (2) therefore, we should invest more in higher education. Accordingly, the Virginia Plan for Higher Education sets the goal of making Virginia the best educated state in the U.S. by 2030. The plan articulates the rationale:

An educated population and well-trained workforce increase economic competitiveness, improve the lives of individuals and support greater community engagement. The best-educated state means that Virginia supports higher education at all levels. This spectrum includes workforce credentials such as industry certifications, state licensures, apprenticeships and certificates, as well as traditional degrees.

Moret does not contest the link between an educated workforce and economic development. But the relationship is a complicated one, he says. His dissertation suggests that it is possible to invest too much in higher ed, or invest in the wrong places. Among other issues, Moret discusses the problem of “malemployment,” a form of underemployment in which four-year degree holders work in jobs requiring less education. He worries that many college graduates lack the critical thinking skills needed to succeed in the workplace. And he notes that the benefits from investing in higher education are highly uneven among the states.

Malemployment. Malemployment is a widespread problem in the U.S. Approximately one-quarter to one-third of all college graduates and roughly 45% of recent college graduates are working in jobs that do not require college-level skills. Altogether, about 10 million FTFY (full-year, full-time) employees with a bachelor’s degree are malemployed nationally, working as retail sales clerks, truck drivers, food service managers, cashiers and other occupations.

“Proponents of higher college degree attainment often emphasize the higher earnings and lower unemployment rates enjoyed by college graduates in comparison to those of individuals whose formal education ended with a high school diploma,” writes Moret. “The reality is that significant numbers of college graduates do not secure employment in occupations that require and/or make meaningful use of college-level skills. They often experience much lower earnings premiums as well as lower job satisfaction than their peers.”

The phenomenon varies widely by type of degree. Science and engineering degrees tend to have the lowest rate of malemployment, arts & humanities among the highest rates.

“The sheer size of the malemployed population as well as the nature of the occupations that many malemployed individuals hold suggest this is a widespread and serious issue in the U.S.,” says Moret, calling into question the simplistic idea that a college education is a sure pathway to well-compensated employment.

Critical thinking. Most full-time faculty members at colleges and universities consider development of critical thinking skills (99%) and effective writing skills (93%) to be essential or very important goals of an undergraduate education. Employers say they are looking for the same skills. All too often, degree earners are not gaining mastery of them. At a few institutions, students lose proficiency at college.

Quoting from an academic source, Moret says:

Many seniors graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers. Many cannot reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, nontechnical problems, even though faculties rank critical thinking as the primary goal of a college education. Few undergraduates receiving a degree are able to speak or read a foreign language. Most have never taken a course in quantitative reasoning.

Many studies of the connection between education and economic growth have focused on years of schooling or educational attainment as the key predictor, says Moret. But recent research has shown that the real predictor is cognitive skills, which may or may not be obtained in college. (I would bet that there is a large overlap between these cognitive under-achievers and college grads experiencing malemployment.)

Migration and educational attainment. Highly educated, recent college graduates are the most likely of any demographic group to move from one state to another. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree are twice as likely to complete an interstate move as those with a high school degree; Ph.D.s are three times as likely. Likewise, people in their 20s and early 30s are more likely to move than any other age group.

Some states export college-level talent to other states, in effect losing the fiscal investment they made in their students, while other states are talent importers, reaping the benefit of others’ investments. The Great Lakes states are the biggest exporters, followed by the Mid-Atlantic, New England and the Plains states. For every 100 bachelor’s degrees conferred in Michigan, the state has lost 22.

Says Moret:

When college degree production substantially exceeds demand in a state, college graduates tend to complete interstate moves in order to secure better employment outcomes. Collectively, these findings suggest that the economic payoff of a college degree is much greater in some states than others, and state leaders must be careful to ensure that their college degree attainment initiatives are not misaligned with the labor market demands of their economies.

Traditionally, Virginia has been a talent “importing” state, which has contributed to the Washington metropolitan area, including Northern Virginia, having the best educated workforce of any metro in the country. The Old Dominion has benefited from other states’ investment in higher education. However, in recent years, coinciding with sequestration and Virginia’s economic slowdown, Virginia has shifted to a talent-exporting state (although the number of people leaving the state is relatively small). Despite this transition, the state forges ahead with a strategic higher-ed plan calling for awarding more degrees, certifications and apprenticeships. Will supply exceed demand? Will we end up exporting talent? Are we investing excessively in higher ed — or perhaps in the wrong places, producing too many B.A. degrees and too few certifications for skills that are demonstrably in demand?

Virginia’s public policy leaders are not asking such questions — or, if they are, their deliberations are not reflected in the news media. But the issues Moret raises in his dissertation are profoundly important. With an economy in the doldrums and a state budget facing chronic stress, Virginians must question all of their hoary assumptions in order to make better use of the state’s limited resources.

As a member of the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, Moret is in a position to ask the questions that no one else in authority is asking. Let us hope he makes the most of the opportunity.

Worse than Pell!

Cranky (aka John Butcher) has been nosing around the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) database and come up with some interesting numbers comparing the graduation rate for students receiving different types of financial aid.

As seen in the chart above, the students graduating within four, five and six years at the lowest rate are those receiving assistance from the Virginia Commonwealth Award. As Cranky describes it bluntly, VCA is “subsidizing failure” more than any other source of financial aid. That’s quite an accomplishment considering that even the federal Pell program for low-income students out-performed VCA.

What do we know about the Virginia Commonwealth Award? There’s not much available online — mainly this fact sheet published by SCHEV:

The purpose of the Virginia Commonwealth Award is to assist undergraduate students with financial need and graduate students to pay part of their college costs. The funds are appropriated directly to each state supported institution. Funds may be used for need-based grants to Virginia resident undergraduates or for grants or assistantships to graduate students (both in-state and out-of-state). The law requires that the awards to undergraduates be proportional to need so that the students with the greatest need receive the largest awards.

Not that I looked at that hard, but I couldn’t find any document detailing how much money the VCA hands out each year or, more importantly, what the default rate is on loans. If the graduation rate of VCA students is lower than that of federal loans, and federal loans are experiencing significant defaults, it is logical to assume that the VCA is experiencing major defaults as well. Who is managing this program? Is anyone tracking the numbers?

Read John’s thoughts over at Cranky’s Blog. (By the way, I liked John’s headline so much that I stole it for my own post.)

Yorktown Units Allowed to Operate on Emergency Basis

Existing power lines crossing the James River. Photo credit: Daily Press

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has issued an order allowing the coal-fired Yorktown Units 1 and 2 to operate on a limited basis for three months this summer to prevent uncontrolled power disruptions in the North Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Dominion Energy had planned to shut down the two units to meet Environmental Protection Agency clean-air regulations. But PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization serving Virginia, requested the exemption in March.

“I hereby determine that an emergency exists in the Commonwealth of Virginia due to a shortage of electric energy, a shortage of facilities for the generation of electric energy, and other causes, and that issuance of this Order will meet the emergency and serve the public interest,” stated Perry in an order dated June 16.

The units will operate only as needed to reduce the risk of power outages until Dominion Energy’s 500 kV Skiffes Creek transmission line is completed. The units also can be used during transmission construction when existing lines will need to be taken out of service.

A week ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave a conditional go-ahead to Dominion to build a transmission line across the James River, eliminating the major regulatory barrier to the project. But the utility still needs to obtain permits from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, a water quality certification from the Department of Environmental Quality, and a permit from the James City County Board of Supervisors for a switching station, reports the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily.

Meanwhile, construction is expected to take a year and a half, leaving the Virginia Peninsula vulnerable to rolling blackouts on days of peak demand in order to avoid an uncontrolled, cascading blackout that could spread way beyond the region.

Dominion had cited the threat of blackouts as justification for hurrying the permitting process, which has dragged on for years. After shutting down the two polluting Yorktown units this spring, the utility instituted a Remedial Action Scheme (RAS) that would immediately drop load to 150,000 customers in the event that  an uncontrolled blackout took place.

“The order provides authority to PJM and Dominion to run the [Yorktown] units only when needed to avoid loss of electric power in the North Hampton Roads area when certain power demand levels are reached,” says PJM spokesman Ray E. Dotter.

UVa Philanthropy Now Equals State Support

What would T.J. say?

The University of Virginia could reach a milestone this year: collecting more money from private donations than from the state.

At a Board of Visitors meeting earlier this month, Melody Bianchetto, UVa’s vice president for finance, told board members that a steady stream of philanthropic income is expected to provide more than $150 million in operating funds over the next years, reports Derek Quizon with the Daily Progress. That compares to the $150.5 million appropriated from the state General Fund to the University of Virginia this year.

Quizon asks an interesting question: If the trend of increasing reliance upon private over public support continues, what are the implications for how UVa is governed? Will the General Assembly lose leverage?

“You’re more responsive to the goals of the people who give you your revenue,” says Dustin Weeden, who analyzes higher-ed issues for the National Conference for State Legislators. “There are a whole host of concerns private donors have that are different from the goals of the state.”

Private donors tend to favor things like new facilities and research, which could benefit the state in other ways, but not necessarily in the way public universities traditionally benefit the state: with affordable undergraduate degrees for in-state students. “Public institutions can’t completely shrug it off,” Weeden said. “But I think they push for more autonomy and control over their own operations.”

Weatherford said UVa and William & Mary are experimenting with a new model — new for public universities in Virginia at any rate — that may allow them to keep costs low in the long run. They have the freedom to try this experiment because the state allows it, says Greg Weatherford, spokesman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. “One of the best things about being in Virginia is they have the flexibility to try that,” he said.

Quizon also quotes me in the article, addressing the question of whether UVa might aim to become a private institution. Even if the shift to private philanthropy continues, I opined, I didn’t see the university seeking to transform itself into a private institution. “That impulse does exist — people would probably love to get rid of that General Assembly oversight and cut the strings — but at the end of the day, they want to be a state institution.”

Bacon’s bottom line: No question, passing the 50/50 milestone of philanthropic versus public funding has symbolic value, reminding everyone of the state’s diminished role in supporting the university. But that $150 million is still critical to the institution’s functioning. It could not be replaced by philanthropy in the short run, and it could not be easily replaced by raising tuition. The balance of power in the relationship between the university and the state doesn’t change. Unless UVa uses more of those philanthropic dollars to stabilize tuition, as opposed to building a grander, more prestigious institution of higher learning, they will rely upon state funding and legislators will continue to agitate against tuition hikes.

Charts of the Day: Job Polarization

Virginia employment change since 2008. Source: StatChat

The good news in the ongoing evolution of Virginia’s economy is that employment in high-paying occupations has increased since 2008. The bad news is that employment in low-paying occupations has risen as well while employment in middle-class occupations is shrinking.

Kathryn Crespin with the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia published these charts from Bureau of Labor Statistics data in the StatChat blog.

“Job polarization is certainly not unique to Virginia,” she writes, but the trend has been more noticeable here since 2008 than in the rest of the country. … Although there has been an uptick in middle-wage job growth in Virginia over the past few years, job polarization is a nationwide, long-term trend that has developed over the past few decades and shows no signs of resolution any time soon.”

Virginia employment change since 2008. Source: StatChat

Exploring the Dark Side of the Creative Class

Richard Florida, who gained renown 15 years ago with his book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” is a progenitor of big ideas exploring the nexus of urbanism, innovation and prosperity, and he’s back with another book and another big idea. Having documented in previous works that a handful of “superstar cities” are sucking up the lion’s share of artistic, scientific, and entrepreneurial talent and creating a wildly disproportionate share of global wealth, he delves into the dark side of urban prosperity. The title of the new book lays out his thesis succinctly: “The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can do About It.”

The “clustering” effect – capital, corporations and talent migrating to large metro regions with deep labor markets – creates a huge economic advantage for the world’s biggest metros, and an economic advantage for dense urban centers within those metros. As the creative class grows in wealth and power, there ensues a competition for prime urban space. Prosperous inhabitants bid up the price of housing, while NIMBYs inhibit the development of new units. Soaring housing prices drive out the working and middle classes, and push the poor into enclaves segregated by income, race, and education.

The result is “winner-take-all urbanism,” says Florida. “The talented and advantaged cluster and colonize a small, select group of superstar cities, leaving everybody and everywhere else behind.” This baleful trend, he describes as the “New Urban Crisis.”

As with all of Florida’s books, “The New Urban Crisis” has much to recommend it. Florida is very good at descriptive analysis – showing what is going on. It is impossible to finish this book without agreeing with his conclusion that a handful of highly innovative supercities are more prosperous than others, that the combination of increasing demand and constricted supply are increasing the cost of housing, and that housing soaring prices in these metros are displacing the poor and middle class. Florida will convince you that prosperous cities are becoming more unequal, not less, and that the pervasive pattern of the past half century – prosperous suburbs and decaying urban cores – is being replaced by a patchwork pattern of highly affluent neighborhoods intermixed with neighborhoods of concentrated poor in both urban cores and suburbs.

Florida is far less persuasive with his prescriptive analysis. As a political liberal, he agonizes over the growing inequality within metro areas, particularly the impact on poor African-Americans. Despite the promise of the book sub-title, he devotes little attention to how metros fail the middle class. Hispanics are strangely absent from the discussion. As for whites in rural/small town America, he evinces no concern whatsoever.

As a liberal, Florida remains sublimely confident that government is the solution to what ails the U.S. He is realistic enough to acknowledge that the New Deal/Great Society paradigm is getting long in the tooth, and that America needs to realign resources to reflect 21st-century realities. He also regards the thicket of NIMBY-empowering zoning regulations and building codes as a prime cause of rising housing prices and income segregation, and argues that they need to be scaled back. But whether he’s writing about the minimum wage, mass transit and inter-city rail, and the scourge of poverty, his confidence in the beneficent power of government never flags.

In previous books, Florida attributed the success of large metropolitan areas in large part to three factors – talent, technology and tolerance. By tolerance, he means acceptance of cultural and ethnic diversity: gays, bohemians, and racial, religious and cultural minorities. In a North American context, he is undoubtedly right: Open societies do foster creativity and innovation. (I’m not sure how well his paradigm applies to Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo or cities in ethnically homogeneous countries like Sweden and Finland, but that’s an issue for another time.)

He views Republicans as retrogrades, and regards the election of Donald Trump as an unmitigated disaster. “Summoning up the political will to face up to the New Urban Crisis will be no easy thing,” he says. “And it will be ever more difficult with Donald Trump as president and the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress.”

Yet he is strangely incurious about one of his own findings: The more politically liberal the city, the greater the inequality. At least he acknowledges the phenomenon, even if he explains it away:

Our most liberal cities number among the most unequal. …. Across the United States, inequality is not just a little higher, but substantially higher, in liberal areas than in more conservative ones. … My own analysis of all 350-plus US metros found wage inequality to be positively correlated with political liberalism and negatively associated with political conservatism.

Florida never entertains the possibility that liberalism causes poverty and inequality. “Of course, inequality is not a direct product of liberal political views,” he says. “Rather, liberalism and inequality are simply both attributes of large, dense, knowledge-based metros.”

An alternative narrative would suggest that inequality arises from the juxtaposition of massive wealth creation of new industries with tragi-comic ineptitude of big-city administrations, mostly Democratic and mostly liberal. “Blue” cities are more prone to over-spending and fiscal crises. (The situation in blue-state Illinois has deteriorated to the point, we read in the news today, that the PowerBall and MegaMillion lotteries are dropping the state as a client!) Blue cities have larger under-funded pension liabilities, their taxes are more punitive, their inner-city schools are worse, their murder rates are higher, and unemployment is more chronic – all of this despite the immense advantages conferred by the presence of greater wealth to tax.

A core argument of “The New Urban Crisis” is that high housing prices are driving inequality and income segregation. Florida alludes to the work of so-called market urbanists who argue that eliminating restrictive zoning and building codes will allow developers to build as needed. “They make an important point: zoning and building codes do need to be liberalized and modernized,” he concedes. “We can no longer allow NIMBYs and New Urban Luddites to stand in the way of the dense, clustered development our cities and our economy need.”

While deregulation will help by building more housing and increasing density, he adds, the high cost of land combined with the high cost of high-rise construction will limit new construction to expensive office towers and will not create affordable housing. As evidence, he points to Houston, one of the few large metros in the U.S. where developers “can build what and where they want.” While Houston housing is more affordable than New York’s, L.A.’s or San Francisco’s, he says, it is “rather expensive” compared to that of most other metros, and the metro ranks high in his inequality and segregation indices.

I’ve never found persuasive the argument persuasive the argument that building luxury towers instead of workforce housing leads to higher housing prices for the poor. If the super-rich occupy the luxury towers, they relinquish the slightly less luxurious/preferable accommodations where they once dwelled. The merely rich move in, in turn creating vacancies in their less opulent quarters, which in turn creates openings for the merely affluent, and so on down the line. Unless Latin industrialists and Russian oligarchs are buying up all the luxury tower units as a hedge, new luxury housing eventually exerts downward pressure on housing prices down the line.

Edward Banfield described the economic logic in his classic, “The Unheavenly City.” Writing in 1968 at the height of white flight and the original urban crisis, the urban sociologist foretold the trends that Florida describes in “The New Urban Crisis.”

If present trends continue, thee will not only be more people in the cities in the next two or three decades, but a higher proportion of them will be well-off. … In this very affluent society, housing probably will be discarded at an ever faster rate than now, and the demand for living space will probably be greater. In the future, then, the process of turnover is likely to give more and better housing bargains to the not well-off, encouraging them to move even farther outward and thus eventually emptying the central city and bringing “blight” to the suburbs that were new a decade or two ago.

Eventually land in the suburbs would be worth more than land in the central city, Banfield predicted. “When this time comes, the direction of metropolitan growth will reverse itself: the well-off will move from the suburbs to the cities, probably causing editorial writers to deplore the ‘flight to the central city’ and politicians to call for government programs to check it by redevelopment the suburbs.”

Lo and behold, 40 years later, Florida describes a “suburban crisis” of flight from cheap-to-build but expensive-to-maintain suburban sprawl back into the city. At least he avoids the trap of calling for government programs to redevelop the suburbs.

Banfield didn’t foresee everything – he did not predict the growing preference for walkable, mixed-use communities in denser settings. But he understood basic economics: As the wealthy migrate to the most luxurious housing, the poor migrate to the least desirable and cheapest housing. At this stage in urban evolution, that means the poor are moving into the aging, 50s- and 60s-era ranch-style tract houses of the inner suburbs that no one else wants. That’s the affordable housing that Florida yearns for, but he does not see it for what it is.

There’s nothing that liberals love more than a good social crisis – it gives them meaning in life. As much as I appreciate Florida’s previous work, I can’t get as exercised as he does about the New Urban Crisis.

No, Reduced State Subsidies Do Not Drive Tuition Increases

One of the great debates in higher-education policy is the relationship between cuts in state subsidies for colleges and universities and increases in tuition. Over the past two decades states (including Virginia) have curtailed state support, and college tuitions have soared. The higher-ed lobby argues that the one is the direct and proximate cause of the other: Institutions raise tuition to compensate for state cuts.

The national debate has played out here in Virginia. Last year, House of Delegates fiscal analyst Tony Maggio estimated that between 1996 and 2015, for every dollar the state cut in college subsidies, public Virginia institutions raised tuition by two dollars — implying that half the tuition increases could be attributed to the cuts. In March, Heywood Fralin, a member of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) contended that using a 2001 starting date for the analysis would have shown a dollar-for-dollar correlation between reductions in state support and higher tuition — in effect blaming the cuts for 100% of tuition increases. (See “Deciphering Higher Ed Statistics.”)

Against the backdrop of the same debate playing out nationally, Preston Cooper, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, has published research that reaches a remarkable conclusion: There is almost no correlation between changes in state funding and changes in tuition. State budget cuts account for maybe 5% of the tuition increases.

Proponents of the “state disinvestment” hypothesis blaming state cuts for tuition hikes are correct that smaller state subsidies among the 50 states has coincided with aggressive tuition increases nationally. Between 2004 and 2015, state subsidies per student fell by $1,319, or 15%, while average tuition increased $3,488, or 56%. But there is little causal relationship between the two trends, Cooper argues.

To the statistically untutored, those numbers might appear to suggest that roughly 38% of the tuition increase can be explained by state cuts. But such a superficial reading fails to explain why tuition rises both during periods of increasing subsidies and declining subsidies.

In his paper, “Pennies on the Dollar: The Surprisingly Weak Relationship between State Subsidies and College Tuition,” Cooper delves deeper than broad aggregate numbers. He examines year-to-year changes for hundreds of public universities across the country.

Citing the work of economist Howard Bowen, Cooper suggests that colleges do not seek to minimize costs like corporations do. They are not profit-maximizing institutions. (They are, I would suggest, prestige-maximizing institutions, which drives them to spend money on projects to enhance their rankings.) Colleges and universities, he contends, seek to maximize all available revenue streams and then benchmark their costs to the revenue they are able to raise. “An institution finds a way to use each dollar it accesses.”

Institutions charge all the tuition they can all the time. Whether direct subsidies go up or down is irrelevant. Subsidies and tuition are independent of one another; the pass-through rate is zero.

Cooper’s data indicate that Virginia’s public four-year colleges and universities actually have a slightly negative pass-through rate — 6.1%. “Negative pass-through,” he explains, “does not mean that institutions respond to subsidy cuts by reducing tuition outright but that institutions reduce tuition relative to its (sic) underlying trend when subsidies fall.”

Cooper theorizes that universities, reflecting their core mission of teaching, do try to avoid slashing instructional spending. Cutbacks fall most heavily on research and administrative costs.

Bowen … predicts that institutions will raise more revenue than they need to provide education and then channel the excess funds into superfluous expenditures that may be tangential to the core educational mission. When revenue streams contract, this low-value spending will be the first to go.

A corollary of Bowen’s theory, suggests Cooper, is that increasing state support for higher education will lead to trivial reductions in tuition. Colleges and universities will seek to maximize tuition revenue in any case. But more generous state subsidies will fund increased spending. Rather than increase direct support to institutions, he argues, states should consider abolishing subsidies and using the money to fund grant aid to students.

Bacon’s bottom line: I find Cooper’s theory intriguing, and I think it provides a useful frame of reference for examining trends in state subsidies and college tuition in Virginia. But I would like to see how the numbers play out before accepting his findings. In particular, his theory suggests that institutional spending would increase or decrease (with a year delay) in response to changes in state support. While the task might be tedious, it should be easy enough to look up the numbers. If I have time, I will do so and report back to readers.