Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Virginia Is for Psychos

I don’t know how good the social science is, but this is too good to pass up. A study by Ryan H. Murphy, an economics professor at Southern Methodist University, has ranked the 48 contiguous U.S. states by “psychopathy,” or anti-social behavior.

It is disconcerting to see the Old Dominion ranking No. 10 on the list. Are Virginians that whacko? Perhaps so — and I have a theory to explain it. Murphy eliminated Washington, D.C., from the ranking because its standardized score was off the carts — almost twice as high as the highest-ranking state, Connecticut. My theory is that psychopathic behavior in D.C. spills over into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Please note that Maryland is ranked No. 11, right behind Virginia. I hypothesize that the Old Dominion’s score was diluted by regions of state that are sociologically similar to neighboring North Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee, among the least psycho states in the country. If we could isolate Northern Virginia, we would find that it is almost as loco as D.C.

Treading where Murphy dared not go, I have correlated each state’s psychopathology “Z score” with its vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Clearly, there is correlation between psychopathy and voting for Hillary! The R² suggests that 27% of the variability between states can be explained by the relationship between the two variables. Haha!

Hey, don’t look at me. It’s not my data. I’m just plotting the correlation.

OK, OK, I’m peddling junk science. There may be other explanations. Except for the outlier of Wyoming, there appears to be a strong correlation between urban states and the presence of anti-social traits in the population. Urban centers are more transient than small towns and rural areas. People are more anonymous and have weaker social bonds. For entirely distinct reasons, urban areas also lean left politically. The correlation is between psychopathy and urbanism, not psychopathy and liberalism.

If we could show that the psychopaths, not the urban populations where they live, vote for Democrats, we might on to something. Until then, I’m just playfully engaging in the same kind of nonsense as social scientists who purport to show that liberals are smarter, better informed or otherwise more virtuous than conservatives.

Another Warning of Sea-Level Rise

Ashville Park subdivision in Virginia Beach after Hurricane Matthew. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

By 2030, $838 million worth of residential property in Virginia is at risk of being chronically inundated by high tides caused by rising sea levels, directly affecting more than 6,000 people and $8 million in property taxes, according to a new report by the Union for Concerned Scientists. The definition of “chronic” inundation is 26 times per year.

“Sea levels are rising. Tides are inching higher. High-tide floods are becoming more frequent and reaching farther inland. And hundreds of US coastal communities will soon face chronic, disruptive flooding that directly affects people’s homes, lives, and properties,” states the report, ” Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate.” “Yet property values in most coastal real estate markets do not currently reflect this risk. And most homeowners, communities, and investors are not aware of the financial losses they may soon face.”

By the end of the century, the study warns, sea levels could rise by seven feet, exposing 115,000 Virginia homes worth $30 billion to routine flooding.

That’s the worst-case scenario, predicated on the assumptions that global warming-induced sea-level rise is accelerating and that communities are incapable of adapting, and it’s the one highlighted by the report and the Virginian-Pilot coverage of the report. Under the report’s low-rise scenario based on effective global action against climate change, sea levels will rise only a foot and a half, and projected losses would be much smaller.

Scientists skeptical of alarmist global warming scenarios counter that sea levels have been rising steadily by 20 centimeters per century for at least two centuries with no sign of accelerating. The implied sea-level rise globally would be six and a half inches by the end of the century. But the impact varies geographically depending on whether tectonic plates are rising or sinking. In Virginia, the tectonic plate is sinking, suggesting that the impact could be greater locally.

I react negatively to alarmist environmental scenarios, which I think are fed more by wishful thinking that the world is in desperate need of saving. But I don’t dismiss the UCS report out of hand. If these scientists’ worst fears are well founded, Virginia’s coastline could face massive dislocation. Even if the skeptics are right, periodic flooding will get worse — not catastrophically worse but enough to force us to think differently about coastal development.

Given the array of risks, we cannot continue business as usual. I’m not suggesting that it’s time for draconian action, but we can at least stop doing stupid stuff. By “stupid stuff,” I mean we should stop subsidizing coastal development through the National Flood Insurance Program and through implicit promises that state and local government will maintain roads, power lines, water-sewer and beach restoration regardless of cost in the face of increasing floods. Homeowners should bear the costs and risks associated with their decisions to live on or near the water.

Local governments also need to stop zoning for large developments in flood-prone areas. In a separate and unrelated article, the Virginian-Pilot describes the issues surrounding the proposed expansion of the Ashville Park development in Virginia Beach. The developers won zoning approval for the giant, high-quality subdivision more than a decade ago, before periodic flooding became a concern. In 2016 Hurricane Matthew overwhelmed the project’s storm water drainage system, flooding many houses and leaving families stranded for days. Fixes are expected to cost $11 million. The developer will share the cost of the first phase of $2.75 million; the city will cover the rest. Remarkably, the developer claims the right to be able to build up to 400 more houses.

I firmly believe that people should be able to build where they want — as long as they are willing to pay the full cost associated with their location decisions. The problem is not insoluble. Virginia Beach and other coastal localities should establish special tax districts in flood-prone zones, with provisions to expand the geographic scope of those zones as sea levels rise. Property owners in those zones would be assessed a tax surcharge to fund infrastructure projects — storm water drainage systems, flood control berms and dikes, the re-engineering of roads and bridges, whatever — deemed necessary to protect the community. The tax structure should be adjusted to penalize sprawling, low-density housing projects that require greater public investment and reward compact, infrastructure-efficient investment.

The risk of sea-level rise is likely exaggerated, but no one knows for sure. It is not right to transfer that risk — however great or small — from home-owners in flood-prone areas to the tax-paying public. The time to enact reform is now, not when the floods are upon us.

Grasses, Fisheries Drive Health Gains for the Bay

More good news about the Chesapeake Bay. While still plagued with problems, the Bay’s ecological health continues to improve, reports the 2017 Chesapeake Bay Report Card.

Last year stood out for the spread of aquatic grasses and the highest-ever Fisheries Index. The biggest gains were found in the James River, the Elizabeth River and the Upper Western Shore.

The Scalia School: a Bastion of Conservative Thought

The Scalia School of Law at George Mason University has significant disadvantages in the scrabbling for prestige among American law schools. Founded in 1979, it’s a relatively young institution, which means graduates have had less time to accumulate wealth, donate, and leave bequests than their counterparts at older institutions have done. As a result, the school’s endowment is a negligible $4.4 million. Scalia also is part of a public institution that for many years treated it as a cash cow to be milked rather than an asset to be invested in.

Yet Scalia fares well in rankings of law school prestige — having made it into the Top 50 among 200 law schools every year over the past 18 years and having scored 41st in the most recent US News & World-Report ranking. In a 2015 ranking of scholarly impact based upon the number of law journal citations by its faculty, Scalia did even better: It scored 21st.

One reason that Scalia “punches above its weight,” suggests Dean Henry Butler, is the intellectual diversity of its faculty. “Conservatives and libertarians are under-valued in the academic marketplace,” he says. “That allows us to recruit a stronger faculty.”

Lawyers tend to be more liberal than the general population, and law school professors more liberal than practicing lawyers. A 2017 research working paper, “The Legal Academy’s Ideological Conformity” found that only 15% of law school professors are politically conservative compared to 35% for lawyers as a whole.

Scalia is a marked exception to the national norm. Of the 49 highest-ranked laws schools in the country, Scalia had the largest percentage of conservative professors, roughly 80%. Only two other law schools, Brigham Young University and Pepperdine, had majority-conservative faculties.

Not surprisingly, the conservative faculty of GMU’s law school, named after deceased conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, has made it a target of the left. A group called UnKoch My Campus used the Freedom of Information Act  to obtain emails and copies of gift agreements purporting to show undue influence by the conservative/libertarian Charles Koch Foundation and the conservative Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy over the appointment of faculty members and creation of programs. The allegations were repeated by the New York Times and Washington Post. GMU President Angel Cabrera has ordered an inquiry into the terms of the gifts, but he has described only two such deals as “problematic” and noted that both have expired.

UnKoch My Campus expressed shock — shock! — at evidence it uncovered showing that Dean Butler had communicated extensively with the wealthy conservative donors. Butler offers no apologies. As dean of the law school, he is the fund-raiser in chief, which makes him the schmoozer in chief. He is proud of the school’s success in funding programs that elevate its profile in the legal community.

I had the opportunity to visit Butler earlier this month. School was out for the summer, and the dean greeted me clad in shorts, sockless, tassled loafers, and an untucked button-down shirt. He came across as affable, enthusiastic, and passionate — but not dogmatic — about conservative causes. While Scalia’s law professors are mostly conservative, he noted that there are “a couple of Democrats” on the faculty. Perhaps more importantly, students feel free to express liberal views. “We don’t muzzle anybody here.”

Unsurprisingly for a free-market conservative, Butler touts the “marketplace of ideas,” and he sees the Scalia School playing an important role in that marketplace.

Founded in 1979, the law school entered its modern incarnation in 1986 when Henry G. Manne became dean at the recommendation of GMU’s two Nobel Prize winners, James M. Buchanan and Vernon Smith. Manne was a proponent of the Law and Economics school of thought pioneered by economist Ronald Coase and legal scholar Richard Posner. The breakthrough idea was that the discipline of economics could provide insights into not only areas of business law such as antitrust compliance but torts, property, contracts, domestic relations, procedure, even constitutional law.

In a 1994 essay Manne recounted how Law and Economics took root at GMU:

Much of the credit for what occurred at GMU belongs to the University President, Dr. George W. Johnson. He repeatedly said that he did not want “just another good law school.” Rather, consistent with his entire style at this new, innovative and burgeoning university, he wanted to be at the cutting edge, to set new models for other universities, and to take chances in order to move George Mason’s reputation along in a hurry. When he heard in some detail my idea for a law school, he is reported to have said to an associate, “whether Henry Manne comes here or not, that is the kind of law school we want.”

A student of Manne’s, Butler has built on the Law and Economics foundation. He has fought to keep a bigger share of the law school’s tuition revenue for the law school itself. He has raised money for massive renovations of the Arlington campus, including the digitization of much of the law library to replace oppressive stacks of books with light-imbued study and meeting space. He orchestrated the school’s name change to honor Scalia, a leading light of conservative legal thought. And he has increased outside fund raising. Most of the money goes to support six centers and institutes. Continue reading

Too Early to Predict Impact of Medicaid Expansion on Carilion

Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, flagship of the Carilion fleet.

Information continues to dribble out about the impact of Medicaid expansion on Virginia hospitals, although there still seems to be no consensus on whether or not the costs of a hospital “assessment” will be passed on to privately insured patients. The uncertainty reinforces the impression that Governor Ralph Northam and GOP lawmakers bought a proverbial “pig in the poke” when they agreed to enlarge Virginia’s largest entitlement program.

The latest evidence on the hidden cost of Medicaid expansion comes from Don Halliwell, chief financial officer of Carilion Clinic, the health system serving much of western Virginia. Halliwell tells the Roanoke Times that the health system will pay about $27.5 million a year once expansion is fully underway, but he cannot tell how much the system will reap in return.

“It is a victory for our communities and a victory for our patients, but boy, it’s complicated,” Halliwill said. “We know the direction and what has been stated as the intentions. But how it will play out we just don’t know.”

Left unaddressed in the article is the question of how much Virginia will need to spend to raise Medicaid reimbursements to physicians — an issue that was deferred by this year’s legislation. Reimbursement rates of about 71% of cost are so low that many primary care doctors refuse to accept money-losing Medicaid patients. There is a growing awareness that expanding Medicaid coverage to Virginia’s near-poor population is meaningless if patients can’t find doctors to treat them.

Luanne Rife does not address that issue, but her article in the Times otherwise does the best job I’ve seen yet of exploring the financial implications of Medicaid expansion at the provider level.

If everyone who will soon qualify for Medicaid signs up, Carilion will gain at least 17,000 paying patients in its core service area and a share of another 17,000 people living in outlying areas.

Most of these patients are now what Carilion calls “self pay.” Last year, this group represented about 6 percent, or $255 million, of Carilion’s charges for inpatient and outpatient services. Much of it is written off.

In the first year of Medicaid expansion, the hospital assessment on all acute care hospitals (with the exceptions of the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Childrens Hospital of the King’s Daughters) will pay an assessment of 1.1% on net patient revenue, or an estimated $190 million statewide. In the second fiscal year the tax will increase to 2.3%. In exchange, states the Times article, the state will boost reimbursements for Medicaid services from 70% of hospital costs to 88%.

With higher reimbursements and thousands more paying patients, budget makers figured that after assessments, hospitals across the state would net $263 million the first year and $617 million in the second full year of expansion.

Hospitals with few Medicaid patients might pay more than they gain, and there is speculation they will pass along their losses to commercial insurance payers.

What does that mean for Carilion? Halliwell isn’t sure. “I can only speak for myself, but I don’t see a way where we would be in a position where our assessment would be greater than the benefit,” he said. “If your assessment was greater than the benefit then you would have excess costs. A system would have to figure out a way to pay for it. I wouldn’t speak for them, but it could be passed on.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The politicians don’t know what the impact will be. The hospitals don’t know. Nobody knows. All anyone can say is that in the aggregate, more Medicaid money will flow into hospitals as will flow out. While hospital lobbyists engineered what looks like a political deal for their industry, the hospitals themselves have not figured out how the money flows will work internally. One thing you can bet on, more money will mean bigger hospital profits — including those of the so-called nonprofit hospitals.

Here are some benchmark figures for the Carilion Medical Center, the flagship operations in Roanoke, to monitor in the years ahead as Medicaid expansion unfolds (2016 figures):

Charity care — $142 million
Bad debt — $71 million
Net patient revenue — $1,174 million
Operating income –$66 million
“Surplus” (profit) including non-operating gains — $100 million

New Chapter for Bacon’s Rebellion

Today marks the end of a three-year era at Bacon’s Rebellion — the final day of Dominion Energy’s sponsorship of reporting and commentary on energy issues in Virginia. Dominion and I are parting on excellent terms, but I have decided to let the sponsorship expire in order to take the blog in a new direction. One option I am considering is creating a new business model that will allow the blog to become a bigger force in Virginia journalism.

It’s a sad fact that shrinking news staffs and editorial holes in Virginia newspapers are leaving vast gaps in journalistic coverage. Sponsorships over the years gave me the freedom to cover important state boards such as the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, whose activities would have gone largely unreported otherwise. I have reported in-depth about transportation, land use, smart growth, public health, higher education, and the electric grid.

The one-man-blog model allowed me to make a comfortable living doing what I loved to do, but it was impossible to grow. For a long time, I really didn’t care if Bacon’s Rebellion grew — it did what I wanted it to do. But now I worry that Virginia’s newspapers are in meltdown mode. The press corps covering the Governor’s Office and General Assembly is a shadow of its former self. Increasingly, state government agencies are operating in the dark. A handful of statehouse reporters are still doing yeoman’s work, but it’s not clear how long Virginia’s newspapers can continue to employ them.

If newspapers continue their meltdown, who will report the news? Who will hold government accountable?

An emerging model of journalism is based on funding by non-newspapers — conservative government watchdogs or liberal environmental advocates. Agenda-driven journalism is better than no journalism at all, but… it’s agenda driven.

All reporters have biases, conscious or unconscious. I freely acknowledge that I am favorably disposed to limited government and free markets, and I am unfavorably disposed to social engineering. However, I firmly believe that you can’t understand one side of the argument unless you also understand the other side of the argument. Ironically, under my Dominion sponsorship, I felt an obligation to give greater voice to anti-Dominion environmental groups than I might have been inclined to do had I remained an unsponsored commentator. As an aside, while Dominion would pitch stories to me as it did to other reporters, the company never tried to control what I wrote. I question if the backers of agenda-driven journalism will be willing to take the same hands-off approach.

Beginning with the “Big Bacon Fry” event late last year, I have been holding conversations with a variety of people about the future of Bacon’s Rebellion. I have concluded that there is a viable business model for a non agenda-driven publication focused on covering the Virginia statehouse. Such a venture would re-conceptualize reporters from people who report to editors and publish articles in newspapers into people who create a nexus for the flow of information on a chosen topic, such as the future of the electric grid, innovation in transportation, productivity in health care, or something similar. Content would run the gamut of written journalism, commentary, white papers, video presentations, networking luncheons, seminars and conferences.

Another possibility is to reinvent Bacon’s Rebellion as a platform for cranky old men (and women). At 65 years, I’m in a financial position to do whatever I want in “retirement,” and that might include doing what I’ve been doing all along — without the necessity of focusing on subject matter aligned with sponsorships. Steve Haner, who has reached a similar stage in life, already has made a tremendous contribution to Bacon’s Rebellion, adding his valuable perspectives as a former journalist, political operative and lobbyist. Perhaps there are others who would enjoy blogging as a serious retirement activity.

I have some personal decisions to make about how to allocate my time over the next couple of years — I do have a major commitment writing a corporate history — so I may or may not have the bandwidth to oversee a full transformation of the blog. But I am open to talking to and partnering with others. If anyone has thoughts to share, I would love to talk to you.

Solar Farms and Rural Blight

Non-solar visual blight in rural Virginia

Governor Ralph Northam is committed to solar energy in Virginia. So is the General Assembly. So are Virginia environmentalists, investor-owned utilities and entrepreneurial solar developers. Now all we have to do is convince the people of rural Virginia that installing massive arrays of solar panels in their neighborhoods poses no threat to their quality of life.

I’ve documented numerous instances of resistance to solar projects around the state on this blog. Here are a couple more.

Campbell County. The Campbell County Board of Supervisors is moving forward with an ordinance to regulate solar farms, three of which have been proposed for the Central Virginia county, reports the News & Advance. Much of the discussion at a hearing yesterday focused on the noticeable hum emitted by solar inverters, which convert the electricity from solar panels into a form that can enter the electric grid. One supervisor argued for a 200- to 300-foot setback for the devices, which can generate noise at a level comparable to an air conditioner or dishwasher. Other supervisors rejected the idea, but the ordinance does require solar projects to conduct traffic studies and decommissioning studies.

More non-solar visual blight in rural Virginia.(Image credit: Hamell.net.)

Culpeper County. Meanwhile, a standing-room-only crowd turned out for a public hearing yesterday on a proposed 1,900-acre solar farm in Culpeper County. Concerns included impacts to view sheds in the area, screening, construction noise, setbacks and property values, reports the Free Lance-Star.

Bacon’s bottom line: I find noise concerns laughable. If inverters required 200-foot setbacks to mitigate an air conditioner-level hum, so would every new house constructed in Campbell County! Is construction work on solar panels louder and more objectionable than construction work on convenience stores, housing subdivisions and manufacturing plants? As for traffic impact, c’mon, a solar farm might generate two or three trips on a typical day. Solar farms are about as low-impact an activity as it’s possible to get. Even cemeteries see more action! 

Even more non-solar visual blight.

People may have a point about the aesthetic impact of solar farms upon bucolic rural views. But, dude, why just pick on solar farms? I’ve seen plenty of run-down shacks, gas stations, and industrial structures barns in rural Virginia that no one gets exercised about. Why not clean them up, too?

Solar’s time has arrived. Virginia was prudent to not mandate solar power when the technology was more primitive and the electric output far more expensive than it is today. But costs have plummeted, and a big chunk of solar in the electric-generating mix makes economic sense. Plus, solar is clean. Even if you don’t lay awake at night worrying about global warming — which I certainly don’t — that’s a major bonus. Get with the program, people! Solar farms bring tax and royalty revenue into your community. Find something else to worry about!

Could Amazon Fixation Cost Virginia $1 Billion Micron Expansion?

Nyah! Nyah! Come and get us!

Will a fixation with winning Amazon.com’s massive HQ2 project cost Virginia a $1 billion expansion of the Micron Technology, Inc., plant in Manassas? It could, says a Wall Street Journal article today:

When semiconductor-maker Micron Technology Inc. approached economic-development officials in Virginia about a tax-incentive package for a $1 billion expansion of its Manassas site, it got the cold shoulder.

The state was too busy preparing its bid for Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters project, according to a person involved in the discussions. Now, the company is negotiating with officials in New York about taking the project—and the 500 new employees it would require—there, said the person. …

With 1,800 employees, Micron’s Manassas, Va., microprocessor plant is one of the area’s largest employers. The plant is expanding to meet increased demand—particularly in the automotive industry, for which the company produces memory-storage devices, said a person familiar with the matter.

Stephen Moret, CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, which is mostly publicly funded, declined to comment on the specific negotiations with Micron.

In an email, he said the group heavily relied on consultants to aid it in its Amazon proposal. “Consequently, we don’t think there has been an opportunity cost to our HQ2 efforts, other than the financial investment we made in third-party support,” he wrote. He declined to say how much the state authority spent on its HQ2 bid.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have long been ambivalent about Amazon HQ2. Admittedly, a major Amazon presence in Northern Virginia would be transformative, spurring a much-needed diversification of the economy away from the federal government. But the sheer magnitude of a $5 billion investment and hiring of 50,000 employees would disrupt regional labor markets and create enormous population and development pressures which state and local governments would be hard-pressed to pay for, especially if tax breaks and subsidies were needed to clinch the deal. Better to aim for projects that are big by any non-Amazon measure such as a major facility expansion planned by Apple, I have argued.

Better yet to win projects, such as Micron, which by all logic would locate in Virginia with only a modest effort. Hopefully, Virginia’s economic developers can rescue the Micron expansion, as I am confident they will. A loss to New York, a state from whom Virginia has been draining investment from for decades, would be humiliating.

While Northern Virginia arguably has as good a shot as any competing region at winning Amazon, let’s face it, snagging HQ2 is a long shot. NoVa is one of 20 regions competing for the business. To re-tread an old metaphor, we can take the bird in our hand or go for two in the bush. With the economy at full employment, I’d happily settle for the bird in hand.

Update: There’s more to the story than reported by the WSJ. Regarding the implication that the Commonwealth has given Micron the cold shoulder, Stephen Moret can say this:

Because Micron is one of our largest traded-sector employers, they interact regularly with VEDP staff members and other state officials.

Including a plant tour back in February, several in-person meetings with Manassas and/or headquarters officials of Micron, and many phone calls, I’ve personally talked with Micron at least 15 times since late last year. I’ve interacted more with Micron than with nearly any other company that has operations in Virginia.

Also, in regard to Amazon HQ2 incentives, Moret said in an email response to the Journal: “We would be thrilled for HQ2 to locate in Virginia, but our efforts to date relative to HQ2 will produce a positive ROI for Virginia whether or not we secure HQ2.” Read the full text of that email here.

A Trump-Stewart Republican Party?

Map credit: Virginia Public Access Project

What do we make of Corey Stewart’s nomination as Republican candidate to run against Tim Kaine for the U.S. Senate seat? Does Stewart’s narrow victory portend a reshaping of the Republican Party of Virginia along more populist, Trumpian lines?

I think a fundamental political realignment could be occurring, but the outcome hinges on events yet to unfold. A lot will depend on what happens to President Trump. If his administration collapses in scandal, as it very well could, so does the populist movement within the Virginia GOP. If, on the other hand, Trump is vindicated in the “Russia collusion” concoction, if the machinations of the Deep State are revealed for all to see (see the release today of the OIG report), and if the economy continues to boom, many people will forgive his character flaws and rhetorical abominations, and Trumpism could very well take lasting root in the party of Lincoln, McKinley and Reagan.

The prospect of a realignment also depends upon how successful Stewart will be in what he promises to be a “vicious campaign” against Kaine, who, whatever one thinks of his politics and his off-putting performance during 2016’s vice presidential debate, is widely regarded as a likable person and the antithesis of vicious. It was one thing for Trump to run a nasty campaign against Hillary Clinton, who had more baggage than Kim Kardashian on a trip to Cannes, and quite another to run one against Mr. Clean. I further question whether Virginia voters, after two years of watching the politics of personal destruction in Washington, D.C., have an appetite for more of the same closer to home, so I am skeptical that Stewart’s pledged scorched-earth campaign will resonate. Indeed, I expect that it will fail spectacularly, in which case Stewart will be repudiated and the GOP could become safe once again for moderates and libertarians.

But my opinion may not count for much. I’m an educated suburbanite, and Stewart isn’t appealing to people like me. He’s hoping to mobilize the forgotten men and women of the white working class and middle class — those who feel alienated from elitist culture and the structures of power.

There may have been enough such voters to capture a GOP nomination, but are there enough to win a statewide U.S. Senate campaign? Stewart won only 45% of the Republican vote in a relatively low turnout primary. If he can unite the party, he has a remote chance of winning the election. If he can’t, he has zero chance. He drew disproportionate strength from the predominantly white localities west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, moderate support in Northern Virginia and the southern Piedmont industrial quadrangle (Roanoke, Lynchburg, Danville, Martinsville), but little anywhere else.

Here’s his problem. While nearly all Republicans and many independents recoil from the Democratic Party’s identity politics, they are divided about how to respond. Stewart answers the rhetoric of minority grievance and resentment with the rhetoric of white grievance and resentment. In a demographically diverse state like Virginia, that’s a losing proposition. Nick Freitas and E.W. Jackson, Stewart’s primary opponents, staked out more inclusive positions of opportunity for all. That’s a fundamental philosophical dividing line.

In the current political environment, I see three big buckets of voters — (1) those who hew to the Democratic tribe emphasizing grievances based on color, gender and sexual orientation, (2) those who hew to the Trump-Republican tribe emphasizing white working/middle-class grievances, and (3) those who eschew tribal identities altogether and see people as individuals with cross-cutting identities and priorities. The third group, I would suggest, overlaps significantly with a voting bloc I have referred to in the past as “natural libertarians” with a tolerant live-and-let-live philosophy — and that includes many Republicans who didn’t vote for Stewart.

The logical home of the natural libertarians, I would suggest, is within the Libertarian Party — if only the LP could broaden its appeal beyond its core base of intellectual purists by finding a large demographic constituency. In case you missed it, the LP has fielded a U.S. Senate candidate, Matt Waters. With a platform that includes ending the federal income tax, however, it’s hard to imagine voters taking him seriously.

Where Are the Consumer Rights Advocates When You Really Need Them?

Consumer rights advocates work themselves into a wrathful froth over the misdeeds of banks, payday lenders, credit card companies, and mortgage lenders. But what about the truth-in-lending abuses perpetrated by institutions of higher education? We don’t hear so much.

With the cost of attendance of a four-year degree routinely exceeding $100,000, selecting a college can be one of the biggest financial decisions that Americans can make — probably the biggest decision for low-income families that never purchased a house. But the financial terms and conditions provided in acceptance letters are notoriously opaque, finds a study by the New America think tank and financial-counseling firm uAspire.

The two outfits published a study last week based upon an examination of 11,000 award letters sent in 2016 by more than 900 colleges. Summarizes NewAmerica’s Kevin Carey in the Wall Street Journal: “It found most of them use obscure terminology, omit vital information, or present financial calculations that appear deliberately deceptive. Many letters are confusing in their own unique ways, making it difficult for students to compare colleges.”

Of the 515 colleges that awarded them via nonstandard letters, more than a third provided no information about how much attending school would cost. The letters highlighted grants and scholarships as a way of convincing students to enroll, but without listing tuition or explaining how much money students would owe. …

The letters that did disclose costs were inconsistent. Some listed only tuition. Others included room and board. Others added books and estimated living expenses. … Seventy percent of colleges with nonstandard letters created further confusion by lumping together grants and loans, as if both were freebies.

Carey cited a letter sent by the University of Arizona that told a student that the cost of attendance was $48,200 a year, then subtracted $5,815 in grants, $5,500 in work-study opportunities, and $26,885 in loans. “Net Costs After All Aid” were “$0.00.”

A used car dealer who delivered a pitch like that would be slammed with a fine and driven out of business.

Many (not all) public colleges and universities engage in practices that would make a payday lender blush. It all makes sense when you understand that higher-ed institutions are, beneath the lofty rhetoric about justice and equality, mechanisms for the extraction of wealth from students and taxpayers, the pursuit of status and prestige within the academic community, and the remuneration of elite faculty and administrators.

Feeding the system requires inducing as many students as possible to enroll, which is becoming increasingly difficult as the cost of attendance continues to outpace incomes and financial aid.

How can lower-income Americans be protected from the higher-ed racket? New America recommends requiring colleges to use a standardized award letter that explains expenses, grants and loans clearly so recipients can easily compare offers by competing institutions. The Department of Veterans Affairs already mandates this kind of transparency for students benefiting from the GI Bill. Congress should require a standardized letter for all institutions receiving federal money.

And if Congress doesn’t act, I would suggest, the Commonwealth of Virginia could require a standardized letter for all state institutions — or, at the very least, for institutions offering state-funded financial aid. Colleges and universities should be free to determine the substance of their own financial aid packages, but there should be full transparency in how those packages are presented to students and their families.