Petersburg Backs Away from the Precipice

Petersburg City Manager Aretha Farrell-Benavides

The City of Petersburg looks like it has finally dug out of its fiscal hole. City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides presented a $73 million budget to City Council last week that restores funding to schools and public safety even while building up the cash reserve by $950,000.

Last year the city lurched from crisis to crisis after the discovery in 2016 that it was running a $20 million deficit. After bringing in consultants with the Robert Bobb Group, the city slashed funding across the board, cut salaries, and laid off administrative employees.

The proposed fiscal 2019 budget is $1.1 million smaller even than last year’s, yet it manages to increase public safety by $3 million and schools by $0.3 million. The city bond rating has been upgraded from junk to bond status, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The budget is spartan, no doubt, and many Virginia localities would find it unacceptably austere. One could argue that the budget fails to invest enough into K-12, one of the worst-performing school systems in the state. One could further argue that the budget is still fragile, thus vulnerable to a slowdown in the economy and tax revenues. But there is no nay-saying that Petersburg has survived one of the worst fiscal disasters experienced by a Virginia locality since the Great Depression. Government administration is far more disciplined as as a result, and the city is fiscally stronger than it has been in years.

Most remarkable of all, Petersburg pulled off this fiscal feat without benefit of government bail-outs or reneging on its debt. Kudos to Fredericksburg, to the Robert Bobb Group, to the citizen activists who kept the pressure on, and to the city officials who did what they had to do.

Bacon’s bottom line: There are two lessons to be learned here. First, Virginia’s system of government worked. The McAuliffe administration didn’t panic. The Secretary of Finance provided some professional assistance but didn’t turn the city’s fiscal plight into a broader political crisis. The Commonwealth made it clear from the beginning that Petersburg’s problem was Petersburg’s to solve. And rather than expend its political capital on blaming others and seeking bail-outs, Petersburg’s political leadership submitted to the discipline imposed by the Robert Bobb group.

Second, Petersburg’s resurrection serves as an example for other governments to emulate. Illinois, Chicago, and Hartford, Conn., are one recession away from fiscal collapse, and a dozen other states and localities are not far behind. Here in Virginia, we forced poor, economically struggling Petersburg to face the music — and it did. When the inevitable occurs, our congressional delegation must steel itself to the inevitable crocodile tears and special pleading from other jurisdictions and say, “If Petersburg did it, so can you.”

Want Proof of the Decline of Western Civilization?

A white rap artist who goes by the name of Lil Dicky joined a black rap artist, Chris Brown (born in Tappahannock, Va., and best known for slapping around songstress superstar Rihanna) to produce a song, “Freaky Friday.” The conceit of the song and video is that Lil Dicky and Chris Brown find themselves occupying each others bodies, which gives rise to such witticisms as

I’m in Chris Brown’s body
I look at my soft dick with delight, it’s my dream dick…
My dick is trending on Twitter, fuck

and toward the end of the video when contributing “artist” Kendall Jenner says…

Huh, I’m Kendall Jenner
I got a vagina, I’m gonna explore that right now (woo)
Holy shit, I got a vagina (uh), I’m gonna learn
I’m gonna understand the inner workings of a woman

Then  there was this, in which Chris Brown (occupying white Lil Dicky’s body) croons the following:

Wonder if I can say the n-word (wait for real?)
Wait, can I really say the n-word?
What up, my nigga? (woo)
What up, my nigga? Big ups, my nigga
We up, my nigga, you pussy ass nigga
Man, fuck y’all niggas, ’cause I’m that nigga
Nigga, nigga, nigga, I’m that nigga

Apparently, that’s what passes for art — or maybe it’s humor — in the Millennial generation. We’ve come a long way from Rogers and Hammerstein, baby!  Released in March, this foul little ditty soared to number one in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, and reached number eight on the US Hot 100. As of today, the YouTube video has received more than 90 million views. The mind-dumbing vulgarity didn’t seem to offend anyone….

Until the words were sung by members of the Virginia Tech women’s lacrosse team. Someone posted a Snapchat of exuberant young women after a win over Elon University dancing in the aisle of their bus and singing the song. Including Chris Brown’s grotesque nigga-nigga-nigga sequence.

Social media went ballistic. Charges of racism were hurled. Next thing you know, Coach John Sung was apologizing for the use of the epithet, although he insisted that there was no malice involved. “They had just won,” he said. “They’re singing songs. The first couple songs were Disney songs… They were celebrating and they were dancing and they were excited.” (From “Let it Go” to “Freaky Friday” — quite the transition.)

Then came the crowning blow, the condemnation of their peers. The Virginia Tech Student Government adopted a resolution condemning the use of the racial slur, describing it as “one of many episodes of discrimination and animosity toward marginalized groups that have occurred on the campus of Virginia Tech in recent months.”

According to the Campus Reform website, the resolution stated:

Examples of such discriminatory incidents include… a guest lecture by Dr. Charles Murray, a white-nationalist known for inaccurate theories linking race and intelligence; a Steven Crowder speaking event in which promotional materials contained homophobic language; and the invitation of Charlie Kirk, a controversial right-wing speaker whose rallies have attracted the support of white nationalists and ended in violence such as the February 2nd event at Colorado State University, to speak on campus April 30th.

Asserting that “such discriminatory incidents contribute to members of marginalized communities feeling unsafe on the campus of Virginia Tech,” the resolution goes on to “completely and wholeheartedly” condemn the Women’s Lacrosse team out of a desire to “stand in solidarity with our fellow students.

Basically, anyone to the right of Mother Jones is deemed a racist, a homophobe, or a borderline Nazi worthy only of condemnation and exile. This is concocted outrage. It is selective indignation. It is bullying. It is totalitarian intimidation. It is all about silencing opposing views and silencing anyone who even has a stray thought resembling an opposing view.

Look, the song is total trash. It is offensive from start to finish — not least the mindless repetition of “nigga nigga nigga” — and if I were the parent of one of the girls who had learned the lyrics by heart, I’d be mortified that she’d wasted her time listening to such garbage. But in the minds of the Virginia Tech student council members, there’s no problem with Chris Brown using that language. There’s no problem with putting that language on a YouTube video. There’s no problem with 90 million people listening to that language. The problem is that the wrong people used the language. When a bunch of white girls used the N word while singing the song — not in in a way meant to denigrate anyone — they were singled out for condemnation and humiliation.

I reject the N word, I never use it, I don’t defend anyone using it, and I suppose you could say the lacrosse team girls had it coming for being so vapid as to use it. But the double standards applied here are just appalling. It’s all about the power. It’s all about defining who can say what and who can’t.

But this bullying will backfire. If you want more Donald Trump, this is how you get more Donald Trump. If you want more Alt-Right, this is how you get more Alt-Right. That may be fine with the far Left because anything that engenders hate and polarizes the nation is fine with them, but it’s not the kind of country I want to live in.

We have a choice. We can succumb to the narrative of aggrievement or we can build a narrative of achievement. We can surrender to envy, resentment, nihilism, and destruction, or we can embrace hope, collaboration, improvement and uplift. Pick one or the other. That’s what it’s come down to.

How UVa Compares to Other Flagship Universities in Out-of-State Enrollment

There’s a special burden upon state flagship universities to acquit themselves well in the national rankings — the university reflects upon the state as a whole. Thus, the high esteem in which Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia, among others, are held casts a warm glow upon California, Virginia, and Michigan.

The ranking methodology for the U.S. News & World-Report “Best Colleges in America” puts a premium on average SAT scores. Enlarging the pool of out-of-state students enables an institution to recruit more high-SAT students. As a bonus, out-of-state students pay higher tuition than in-state students. But filling up the student body with out-of-staters conflicts with the mission of public institutions to serve the population of the state supporting them with taxpayer dollars. What’s a university president to do?

The Washington Post took at look at the flagship institutions of the 50 states to see what percentage of out-of-state students they admitted. At the bottom, the University of Vermont admitted only 21% of its students from within the state in the fall of 2016. At the opposite extreme, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks admitted 89% in-staters.

Of course, here at Bacon’s Rebellion, we’re most interested in the University of Virginia. UVa admitted 66% in-state students, an increase of 3 percentage points from the previous year. That was a middle-of-the-pack performance compared to other flagships.

For purposes of comparison, only 51% of University of Michigan students were native Michiganders. On the other hand, Berkeley managed to maintain its high ranking with 76% in-staters, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with 83%.

Conversely, one can look at a flagship’s ability to recruit out-of-state students as a positive. Talent comes from all around the country, all around the globe, and many of the 34% of out-of-staters recruited by UVa end up staying here in Virginia. Looking at the percentage from an economic development perspective, this might be the number we’d like to see grow.

(Hat tip: Peter Blake)

Fear and Loathing in the Era of Weaponized PC

John Accordino

I don’t know John Accordino especially well, but we’re more than casual acquaintances. He and I had lunch a couple of times to discuss a partnership between Bacon’s Rebellion and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis, which he headed at the time. He struck me as friendly and collegial. He was assiduous about consulting his colleagues before committing to an agreement with me. He never gave any sign of temper, prejudice, profanity, or any other off-putting trait.

So I was startled to read a couple of weeks ago that former Governor L. Douglas Wilder, a professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, had sued Accordino, who by then had become dean of the school.

L. Douglas Wilder

Wilder’s lawsuit alleges that Accordino violated university rules when he verbally assaulted and abused Wilder’s administrative assistant, Angelica Bega. He allegedly called her “obscene names, accused her of violating VCU human resources rules, questioned and insulted her intelligence, threatened her employment with VCU, and generally disparated her humanity.”

His abuse “was such that others within the department, throughout the building, heard his harangue.” Although Wilder did not personally witness the incident, Associate Professor Dr. Kristine Artello allegedly informed him that she heard the event through her closed office door and volunteered to provide a written account of Accordino’s alleged abuse. 

I suppose it’s possible that Accordino presented one face to the public and an entirely different visage to his subordinates, and I acknowledge that my interactions with him were too limited to reveal the inner nature of the man. Furthermore, I have never met Ms. Bega and have no basis upon which to comment upon her credibility. But given the toxic environment in higher education and the #metoo movement today, I’m not willing yet to start casting stones at Accordino.

Angelica Bega

Apparently, VCU President Michael Rao and Provost Gail Hackett had their own issues with the accusations against Accordino, for Wilder sued them, too. He alleged that Hackett did not fairly process Bega’s complaint. After an unsatisfactory meeting with Hackett and Rao, Wilder then went to VCU’s H.R. department, portraying the incident “as sexual harassment and racial and sexual discrimination.” The university, he charged, failed to protect Bega from Accordino’s abusive behavior. Despite Wilder’s insistent personal appeals, Rao refused to discipline the dean.

That was then. This Wednesday, VCU removed Accordino as dean of the school of government, striking an agreement to supplement his $220,000 salary with $80,000 in supplemental pay over the next three years. After spending the next year and a half on paid “study-research leave,” he will return to teach as a tenured faculty member in the fall of 2019.

Gail Hackett

Meanwhile, Accordino has filed a counter-suit against Wilder, accusing him of defamation and interfering with his VCU contract. He is seeking $150,000 in damages, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In the filing, Accordino accuses Hackett and Rao of privately supporting him but acting to remove him anyway out of fear of Wilder. … “Hackett told Accordino that she had no cause to reassign him, but due to her certainty that Wilder would go after Accordino with a vengeance, she strongly encouraged Accordino to ‘step down as dean,’ the countersuit alleges.”

Hackett allegedly told Accordino that he and VCU “would not win in a fight against Wilder.” Further, she implied that VCU refused to confront Wilder’s “disruptive, disrespectful and bullying behavior” because of “a fear that Wilder would make up unfounded and false claims of racism and discrimination.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Judging from the T-D‘s coverage, Accordino did not dispute in his counter-suit that an incident occurred. I’m speculating here, but it’s not hard to imagine that Accordino did confront Bega over violating VCU H.R. rules — taking too much time off, perhaps? — and that voices rose and tempers flared. It’s also not hard to imagine that Accordino and Bega had markedly different recollections of what happened. Finally, it’s not hard to imagine that Accordino construed his behavior as a justified chastisement of an employee for failing to follow policy, while Bega felt emotionally abused. Did he throw a temper tantrum? Or was she being a snowflake? At this point the public has no way of knowing.

We do know that VCU authorities initially sided with Accordino. Was that because his side of the story was so believable? Or because Hackett and Rao sided with him because he was “one of them,” a member of the university’s inner sanctum?

It also seems clear that Wilder immediately embraced Bega’s version of events, and he went after Accordino like a bulldog. He put the VCU brass in an untenable situation. Wilder wasn’t just any ol’ adjunct professor. He was Virginia’s first black governor, and the school of government was named in his honor. He also had the reputation of never backing away from a fight. In the end, Rao faced a devil’s dilemma. Who could embarrass the institution more — Wilder or Accordino? It wasn’t much of a choice. When he characterized the incident in his lawsuit as “sexual and racial discrimination,” Wilder indicated a willingness to go thermonuclear. 

Wilder has been embroiled in another lawsuit recently. He sued former Democratic legislator Joe Morrissey, notorious for misconduct allegations arising from his relationship with a 17-year-old employee who is now his wife, for work he had performed for Wilder and the Virginia Slavery Museum. Two of Wilder’s three allegations were thrown out of court after Wilder failed to appear in court in answer to a subpoena from Morrissey’s lawyers.

This case has all the markings of a controversy in which bystanders pick sides based upon their ideological preconceptions. Before we go that route, let’s try to keep an open mind until we see the evidence.

Nukes and Renewal

Surry Nuclear Power Station

Should Dominion Energy re-license its four Virginia nuclear power units? The answer depends on your appraisal of solar power, energy efficiency and other alternatives.

Is there a future for nuclear power in Virginia’s long-term energy outlook?

Dominion Energy Virginia believes there is. Nuclear power currently contributes about 30% of the company’s electricity sales, and the company plans to continue generating power from its Surry and North Anna nuclear power stations for decades to come. Nuclear power, the company says, is reliable, provides fuel diversity, and does not emit carbon dioxide — a major plus as Virginia aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The utility’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, which peers 15 years into the future, assumes that the company will renew the licenses to operate the two nuclear-generating units at Surry and the two at North Anna. At the time of the license renewals, the units would be 60 years old. The nukes would continue to operate until they were 80 years old.

But many people think that renewing the licenses is a bad idea. While Dominion expects that refurbishing the four generating units would cost $3 billion to $4 billion, environmentalists and other skeptics suggest that the actual cost could run significantly higher. It doesn’t make sense to spend billions on nuclear power, they say, when solar energy costs less and is getting cheaper every year. While it is true that solar power is intermittent — it generates electricity only when the sun shines — the advent of low-cost batteries and the spread of electric vehicles, they claim, will make it possible to economically store surplus solar power for when it is needed.

Expect the debate to heat up when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) begins processing Dominion’s re-licensing request for the Surry 1 plant. Dominion has filed notice of its intent to submit an application for a license renewal by the first quarter of 2019 — less than a year away. The review could take up to three years, and construction several years more.

License renewal for existing nuclear units is distinct from a proposal, also explored in the 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), to build a new nuclear unit at North Anna known as North Anna 3. Dominion has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in planning and engineering costs to keep that option alive. Estimates of the cost for building the third unit have ranged as high as $19 billion, and the IRP suggests that it would not make economic sense except in the strictest CO2-reduction regulatory scenario that would compel the shutdown of coal-generating capacity. The cost of building a third nuclear unit would be so high and fraught with so much uncertainty that opposition would be formidable no matter what the circumstances.

The re-licensing proposals are a different story. The up-front capital cost, though considerable, would be in the same ballpark as building new gas- or solar-powered generating capacity. Moreover, fuel costs would be more stable and lower over the long run than for the gas-fired facilities. Although there are no hard figures on what the impact on rate payers would be, no one disputes the fact that re-licensing Surry and North Anna would cost a fraction of building a new generating unit.

Flagships of the fleet

The two Surry units became operational in 1972 and 1973, capable of generating a total of 1,600 megawatts of electric power. In the early years the power station had some major operational issues. In 1972, two workers were fatally scalded by steam after a routine valve adjustment. And in 1986, a steam explosion due to internal erosion and over-pressurization injured eight workers, four fatally. But performance has been steady since then. Other than an incident in which a tornado touched down in the switching station, disabling power to the plant’s cooling pumps, Surry has operated largely without incident.

The two North Anna units went online in 1978 and 1980 with a combined capacity of almost 1,800 megawatts of power. The station has operated without major incident, except in 2011 when an earthquake centered nearby caused light damage and triggered an automatic shut-down of the nuclear operations.

The four nuclear units have formed the backbone of Dominion’s electric-generation portfolio. In recent years, North Anna has operated with top measures of efficiency and safety, garnering the highest ratings in inspections by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission every year but two. Surry and North Anna are consistently ranked as among “the lowest-cost producers of nuclear-generated electricity in the nation,” as reported periodically by Platts Nucleonics Week, a nuclear industry newsletter and database, says Richard Zuercher, manager-nuclear fleet communications.

While the nuclear units account for only 16% of Dominion’s nameplate capacity, they generate more than 30% of its total electricity output. That’s because they operate non-stop, twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week, almost 52 weeks a year, going offline only for planned refueling outages every 18 months or the the rare tornado, earthquake or other mishap. The 2018 IRP, as shown in the table above, assumes a capacity factor for the nukes of 96%, which compares favorably to 70% for combined-cycle gas plants, 42% for off-shore wind (assuming the company manages to build a wind farm off Virginia Beach), and 25% for solar. Thus a nuclear facility with a nameplate capacity of 1,000 megawatts generates 8.4 million megawatt hours annually compared to 6.1 million for natural gas, and 2.2 million megawatts for photovoltaic solar. Continue reading

Here’s an Idea, Let Maryland Have Amazon

Virginia’s friend: Maryland Governor Larry Hogan

Maryland legislators approved Wednesday an $8.5 billion incentive package to lure Amazon’s second headquarters to Montgomery County. Governor Larry Hogan (R), who proposed the plan, is expected to sign the bill.

I love it! This is the best of all worlds for Virginia. Amazon has estimated that the headquarters will invest $5 billion and employ 50,000. If Amazon puts its second headquarters just across the Potomac River in Montgomery County, Md., Northern Virginia will benefit from many of the positive spillover effects without undermining its tax base to bribe the company into locating there.

Nonpartisan analysts with Maryland’s General Assembly said the incentives would cost the state $5.6 billion in tax breaks, $2 billion in transportation spending, and $924 million in local tax credits, for a total of $8.5 billion. While a solid majority of Maryland legislators backed the package, a sizable minority objected to the massive subsidies, reports the Washington Post.

“Amazon is getting the gold mine and we’re getting the shaft,” said Del. Herbert H. McMillan, R-Anne Arundel. He described the package as “corporate welfare.”

(Virginia has offered an incentive package as well, although nothing that has required approval by our General Assembly. The details remain confidential, despite efforts by anti-Amazon groups to obtain them through Freedom of Information Act requests.)

Let’s game this out. Let’s assume that Maryland’s bribery package is so generous that it outweighs anything Virginia can cobble together under existing legislation and appropriations. Let’s assume that Amazon builds an 8-million-square-foot  headquarters campus in Montgomery County, invests $5 billion, and hires 50,000 highly compensated workers, as it says it will. Where does that leave Virginia?

In the cat bird seat.

Maryland and Montgomery County hired the Sage Policy Group, Inc., to study the economic impact of an Amazon relocation to Montgomery County. The study finds that a full build-out would support more than 101,000 jobs in Maryland, generate nearly $7.7 billion in employee compensation, and boost economic activity by more than $17 billion. (Presumably these are annual figures, although the study’s Key Findings does not say so explicitly.) Writes Sage:

Complete development of Amazon’s HQ2 will create approximately $112 million in augmented tax revenue at the County level. The bulk of this will flow to Montgomery County through direct income and property tax effects, though indirect and induced activities will also augment local tax revenues as far north within Maryland as Frederick and Baltimore Counties. This tally includes nearly $64 million in property taxes and nearly $34 million in income taxes.

At the state level, tax receipts will increase by an estimated $190 million over the duration of development, including $84 million in sales tax revenues, $62 million in income tax revenue, and more than $10 million in nontax revenues (e.g., fees, and permits.)

Here’s what the Sage study overlooks: the costs associated with an added workforce of 101,000 in an era of full employment.

Unemployment for the Washington metropolitan area was 3.6% in February. That verges on a labor shortage. Indeed, for IT-related jobs, there is a labor shortage. To fill those jobs, Amazon will either (a) induce skilled employees from other metros to move to the Washington area, or (b) recruit skilled employees from local employers, who in turn will have to induce skilled employees from other metros to move to the Washington area. Those people will have to live somewhere, and they will require state and local government services.

The increased economic activity resulting from the Amazon headquarters will more than offset the drain from $8.5 billion in subsidies. But will it also offset the cost of building new infrastructure and providing state/local government services, including schools, to the tens of thousands of households moving into Maryland?

Let’s assume for purposes of illustration that a third of those 101,000 employees joining the Maryland workforce have children, and let’s assume that they have only one child at home on average, and let’s assume that only 75% of those children are of school age. That means we can expect an enrollment increase of 25,000 students in Maryland schools. The average cost per K-12 student in Maryland is about $15,000. Let’s say a 20% of that is overhead and that the variable cost per child is only $12,000. That pencils out to $300 million in added K-12 school expenditures.

Guess what. The total anticipated increase in state and local tax revenues is…. $300 million. That leaves nothing for public safety, public works, higher education, health care, social services, the environment, or the mandatory bloated bureaucratic overhead. Fiddle with the numbers in my assumptions, if you want, but understand the principle: Sage’s economic impact formula considers only tax benefits, not fiscal costs.

By contrast, Virginia will enjoy economic benefits from Amazon in Maryland without the tax giveaways.

The Sage study does not publish an estimate of the economic impact of an Amazon-in-Montgomery-County scenario on Virginia or Washington, D.C. scenario.  I suspect there’s a reason why Sage didn’t disclose those numbers — because an embarrassing proportion of the benefits of an Amazon move to Maryland will accrue to the entire metropolitan area.

“Entrepreneurship related directly or indirectly to e-commerce, cyber-security, big data analysis, and other segments would accelerate,” states the report. As it happens, cyber-security and big data analysis are industry sectors at which Virginia excels. It is inevitable that Amazon will do business with Virginia companies, and it is likely that Amazon or former Amazon employees will seed new enterprises in Virginia.

No doubt some Amazon employees will live in Virginia and drive across the Potomac. We’ll have to provide schools and other public services to them. Here’s the difference: We won’t have to eviscerate our tax base to do so.

AVs, Pedestrians, and Human Perversity

In the previous post, I extolled the possibilities for driverless cars to improve our lives by reducing the number of traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities, provide mobility for the aged and handicapped, and reduce the vast acreage we devote to parking spaces. I guess I’m a techno-optimist. (I’m reading Peter Diamandis’s book “Abundance” right now.) But I acknowledge that, given the perversity of human nature, there is a dark side to just about everything.

In a recent blog post, Charles Marohn, leader of the Strong Towns movement, highlights how people will game the safety programming of driverless cars to the detriment of our human settlement patterns.

When perfected, what will an automated vehicle do on that nasty stroad in your community — the one where the cars today drive too fast and the drivers are too oblivious, where nobody sane would dare to cross…. When all cars are AV, what happens when someone crosses midblock?

The obvious answer is that the vehicles stop and allow the person to cross. They don’t run that person down. They don’t kill them. The automated vehicle will be programmed to always stop when someone steps out into traffic. As a society, we would not have it any other way.

So, knowing this, who is ever going to stop and wait at another traffic signal? What person on foot, in their right mind, would wait for a gap to open so they can cross without impacting the flow of traffic? Nobody.

I have to walk across a nasty stroad every time I go downtown. Why would I wait my turn to cross in minus 20 degree weather, with the wind whipping at my face, when all I need to do is step out and traffic comes to a complete stop? I wouldn’t.

And that is not acceptable. Humans will not be allowed to interfere with the free flow of traffic. Our economy will depend on it, after all. All those commuters that need to get to their jobs, all those potential customers that need to get where they are going. … There’s too much at stake in maintaining efficiency.

So, it will be against the law to step out into traffic except at designated places and times.

Well Chuck, how is that different than today’s jaywalking ordinances? Exactly! It’s not. We don’t even need new regulations, just the courage to enforce existing laws.

Despite the fact that in this country’s best urban spaces, the ones that are thriving, jaywalking is rarely enforced (at least rarely enforced except as a law enforcement pretext, which is a different matter entirely), we’ll make stopping jaywalking a national priority. With cameras on every vehicle, and the motivation of frustrated drivers to use them, enforcement will not be a problem.

And if it is, we’ll do what I posited years ago that we would do: we’ll erect human fences along the edge of the streets to keep people out. The people….excuse me, I need to use the correct language in this context….the “pedestrians” will be allowed to cross only at designated pedestrian crossings. …

Automated vehicle technology will do nothing to make our streets better places to be and, if we continue to have blind faith in it, has the very real chance of setting our cities back another generation.

Yeah, I can see things unfolding that way.  I totally agree with Marohn that we can’t let autonomous vehicles ruin our walkable streets. But I also have confidence that we can find solutions to the issues he raises. We need to start experimenting now, and start learning through trial and error what works. There’s too much to be gained from AVs to give up before we try.  

Virginia as Fast Adopter of Autonomous Vehicle Technology

Mark Riccobono, blind since childhood, navigated an SUV through a race course in 2011. Image credit: Virginia Tech

Virginia may not have Silicon Valley, and it may not be a center of the automobile industry, but the Old Dominion is in the thick of the self-driving automobile revolution. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, with a staff of 500, has established itself as a national-level player in research. Blacksburg-based Torc Robotics develops self-driving technologies used in mining trucks and military vehicles. The University of Virginia is studying how passengers react to self-driving cars. Perrone Robotics, based a few miles away in Crozet, has developed a proprietary software platform for running autonomous vehicles. The Commonwealth Transportation Board has moved to allow testing on express lanes on Northern Virginia. Virginia even has a trade association, the Unmanned Systems Association, to promote autonomous vehicles and drones. Virginia Business magazine has the story here.

Suffice it to say that, despite a highly publicized accident in Tempe, Arizona, in which a self-driving Uber test car killed a pedestrian, self-driving cars are coming. There is too much money behind the industry and the potential safety gains are too enormous for any one fatality, or even a series of fatalities, to turn back the tide.

While Virginia likely will never become more than a niche player in the manufacture and development of self-driving cars and technologies, the Commonwealth has much to gain from making itself hospitable to autonomous vehicles. Just consider these figures from the Virginia Highway Safety Office:

2017 Virginia Vehicle Incidents
Crashes: 127,375
Injuries: 65,306
Fatalities: 843

After many years of improvement, those trends turned markedly worse in 2015, 2016 and 2017 — most likely due to the increase in distracted driving associated with cell phones. Too many drivers are morons. Safe, self-driving cars can’t come too soon.

Integrating self-driving cars into state laws, the tort system, and the motorist culture won’t be smooth. Inevitably, some motorists will try to exploit the driving patterns of self-driving cars. Inevitably, there will be accidents. Inevitably, some self-driving cars will be found to be at fault. But there can be little doubt that over the long-run, autonomous vehicles can be programmed and perfected to drive much more safely than humans. Further, as the Virginia Business article alludes to, autonomous vehicles will provide mobility for the aged, the blind, and the handicapped. Speaking personally, I’m looking forward to the introduction of fully autonomous cars just around the time I turn 80.

The sooner we begin dealing with these issues, the sooner we can reap the benefits. We have so much to learn. Are traffic laws designed for humans appropriate for computer-driven vehicles? How do we apportion blame when human and self-driving vehicles collide? What impact will robotic cars and artificial intelligence have on commuting patterns? How much will car ownership decline as big corporations begin providing Transportation as a Service? How much will the demand for parking garages and on-street parking shrink when people hail rides instead of drive their own cars? Will people drive less or more when they can wile away long-distance commutes reading, emailing, watching TV or surfing the Web?

The sooner we can get answers to these questions, the sooner we can begin pushing down the number of accidents, injuries and fatalities on our streets and roads. The sooner we can revamping our transportation policies and stop squandering billions on highway and mass transit projects that may (or may not) be obsolete a decade from now. The sooner we can adjust our land use practices. The sooner we can devise 21st-century solutions to the insufferable traffic congestion in much of the state.

That’s why it’s a good thing for Virginia to be an early mover. It would be cool if the next great autonomous-vehicle company sprang from Virginia soil, but let’s be honest — that’s a long shot. The real reason is become fast adopters of the technology is simply to better our lives.

Degree Inflation and Economic Mobility

Image credit: Wall Street Journal

The conventional wisdom tells us that developing human capital is the key to economic development in the knowledge economy, and that helping more Virginians (and Americans) earn more college certificates and degrees is the key to building human capital. This is a core assumption behind Virginia’s Plan for Higher Education, which aims to make Virginia the best-educated state in the country by 2030, and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s Blueprint Virginia 2025, which highlights the necessity of building a talent pipeline, including making Virginia “the top state for talent.”

But Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison with the American Enterprise Institute warn in a Wall Street Journal op-ed today that the emphasis on churning out college degrees can have an unintended effect: degree inflation. And degree inflation can have a pernicious effect: disparate impact on blacks and Hispanics.

“Some 51% of employers have rejected applicants with the requisite skills and experience simply because they didn’t have a college degree, according to a 2017 Harvard Business School study,” Hess and Addison write. “If current trends continue, the authors found, ‘as many as 6.2 million workers could be affected by degree inflation’ — meaning their lack of a bachelor’s degree could preclude them from qualifying for the same job with another employer.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. When practices have a disproportionate impact on minorities in the job selection process, employers must show that any requirements are directly job-related and an accurate predictor of job performance. Given all the legal scrutiny around employment tests, such as IQ tests, possession of a college degree is one of the few proxies for aptitude that doesn’t trigger a risk of litigation.

However, as George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan explained in a Bacon’s Rebellion interview published a week ago, only a small portion of the value of a college degree is what students learn in their classes. Employers regard a college degree mainly as a signal that a job applicant has the intelligence, diligence and social conformity required to earn a degree — all attributes that contribute to making a good employee. If the higher ed system cranks out more students with degrees, he predicted, employers will demand higher degree qualifications — in effect, creating degree inflation.

Hess and Addison also worry about degree inflation and its implications. They write:

In a 2014 survey, Burning Glass Technologies found that employers are increasingly requiring bachelor’s degrees for positions whose current workers do not have one. For example, 65% of job postings for executive assistant and secretary positions call for a degree even though only 19% of people currently employed in such roles hold a degree.

“The Harvard report found that groups with college graduation rates below the national average are disproportionately harmed by the practice,” they write. Smaller percentages of blacks and Hispanics than whites and Asians possess college credentials, squeezing them out of contention for more and more jobs. And with escalating college costs creating an affordability crisis for lower-income Americans, blacks and Hispanics remain disproportionately likely to fail to complete their degree requirements — and take on debilitating student loan debt in the process.

Bacon’s bottom line: If you’re looking for institutional racism in America, this is it. The impetus behind degree inflation isn’t racism, prejudice or a desire to discriminate. As with so many things, degree inflation is driven by the best of motives. But the unintended effect is highly damaging to blacks and Hispanics (as well as to poor whites and the poor of other ethnicities). When everyone has to have a college degree to get a job, those who are poorest, attend the worst schools, and graduate with the most inadequate academic preparation are the biggest losers.

It’s a shame that the social justice warriors don’t get this. Perhaps the myopia stems from the fact that so many SJWs come from academia, making them direct beneficiaries of the degree-inflation phenomenon. It’s much less discomfiting to focus on micro-aggressions or agitate about the statues of Civil War generals than confront the real forces hindering upward mobility for minorities in 21st century America.

5G Wireless: Build, Baby, Build!

The latest wave of wireless innovation is upon us — fifth generation wireless, otherwise known as 5G. The technology will multiply download speeds by 10 times or more, allowing wireless carriers to compete with cable companies for high-speed Internet access. As former FCC trade commissioner Robert McDowell writes in the Wall Street Journal today:

5G will enable advances in everything from driverless cars to the “tactile internet,” in which surgeons can perform operations and builders operate construction equipment remotely, and entertainment can include sensations beyond the audiovisual.

A 5G-enabled Internet of Things will connect people, data and new devices, creating a surge of economic growth. IHS Markit estimates that in the U.S. alone 5G will yield $719 billion in growth and 3.4 million new jobs by 2035.

To deploy the technology, 5G wireless carriers need to deploy thousands of “small cell” antennas the size of pizza boxes. Although these small cells are almost invisible, some state and local governments are treating them as if they are 100-foot towers. Outdated local requirements restrict carriers from placing small cells in local rights-of-way and on government-owned utility poles. Zoning ordinances designed for big cell towers require zoning board approval. Other localities impose prohibitive fees.

It was with a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach that I Googled “Virginia 5G regulations,” fearing that the Old Dominion still would be living up to the “Old” in its moniker, imposing all manner of unreasonable fees and restrictions. But I was pleasantly surprised. We have been making progress.

Last year Governor Terry McAuliffe signed S.B. 1282, which, according to Wireless Week, removed some regulatory barriers and sped up local permitting processes.

[The bill] stated that localities can’t require special exceptions or special use permits for small cell facilities installed on existing structures where providers already have permission to co-locate equipment, and gives municipalities 10 days to notify carriers of an incomplete application and 60 days to either approve or deny applications. The measure also caps municipal fees at $100 each for up to five small cell facilities on an application and $50 for each facility thereafter. Fees for carrier use of municipal rights-of-way are prohibited, except for zoning, subdivision, site plan, and comprehensive plan fees related to the general application. Additionally, the bill instructs municipalities that “approval for a permit shall not be unreasonably conditioned, withheld, or delayed.”

Consulting firm Accenture had said the wireless industry is looking to make “significant” infrastructure investments in the state, including $179 million in Richmond and $371 in Virginia Beach, reported Wireless Week. The firm also forecast that the investments would create more than 6,000 jobs across the state.

In the 2018 session, the General Assembly passed SB 405, which exempts wireless structures less than 50 feet tall from requirements to obtain special use permits under local zoning laws, as well as SB 823, which establishes an annual wireless infrastructure erected in public rights-of-way. The fee is $1,000 for structures that are 50 feet or shorter.  The bill awaits the signature of Governor Ralph Northam.

Bacon’s bottom line: If Virginia wants to run with the big boys in technology-intensive industries, it needs to encourage wireless operators to roll out 5G as rapidly as possible. What’s extra cool about the technology is that it doesn’t favor just the big metropolitan regions with dense populations. 5G can reach rural endpoints at one-fifth to one-tenth the cost of wireline connections, thus closing one of the big infrastructure barriers to rural economic development.

I don’t see any downside to 5G deployment. It’s driven by the private sector. It will open up high-speed Internet to virtually the entire state. All government has to do is get out of the way. The only losers are crybaby NIMBYs who can’t bare the thought of wireless towers less than 50 feet tall within their line of sight. Waaah. Build, baby, build!