People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it. Welcome to From On High.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Is SW Virginia Doomed?

I read with great interest a Bristol Herald Courier editorial the other day (I haven't had the time till now to actually address it properly) in which we learn that the tobacco settlement money that has been doled out by the state of Virginia in recent years to revitalize our ailing economy has been a complete waste of effort. * Nothing positive has resulted from the $400 million in economic investment that has poured into the area.

From the editorial:
Do The Right Thing With Tobacco Funds

Since 1999, Virginia has doled out $400 million in tobacco settlement funds with the ostensible purpose of rebuilding the economies of the Southwest and Southside regions.

The report card just arrived, and the marks are mediocre.

“Despite this spending, population in the region continues to decline, wage rates still lag behind the rest of the state, there is persistent high unemployment and poor educational attainment is still endemic,” a Blue Ribbon Review Panel report on the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission states ominously.

The panel recommends a number of changes ... (
The panel - and the HC editorialists - recommend that the money be devoted to improving educational opportunities in Southwest Virginia, which is fine. The change in investment strategy won't bring about any fundamental change in the business climate here, but it won't do any harm either. The money would be better spent if we were all simply given a case of beer, but I don't want to be accused of being too negative ...

What caught my attention in the editorial was this:

At least one seasoned political commentator, Jim Bacon, a former editor of Virginia Business magazine, is ready to write off Southwest and Southside Virginia – in part because of this report.

“Even if the Commission followed the advice of its blue ribbon study group and invested more heavily in education, it wouldn’t make much difference,” Bacon opined in a column for his Webzine, “Bacon’s Rebellion. “Tragically, the vast majority of newly educated residents of Southside and Southwest simply would emigrate to metro regions where they could better utilize their skills and make more money.”

And it gets more harsh.

Bacon's commentary can be found in full
here. The nut of Jim's argument:

Some truths are just too hard for politicians to speak: There are some things that constituents refuse to hear. That's why we have blogs.

One of those truths here in Virginia is that Southside and Southwest Virginia are experiencing an irreversible decline that cannot be halted as long as current economic trends and development policies hold. This is not a reflection upon the earnestness, work ethic or moral worthiness of the people of those regions. It's just the way it is.

The dispersed, low-density settlement patterns of Southside and Southwest Virginia -- small towns, tens of thousands of homestead scattered along country roads -- are not sustainable (a) in an age of energy scarcity that drives up the cost of gasoline and (b) in a Knowledge Economy in which the "
clustering force" rewards companies for locating near large pools of skilled labor.

If there's any hope for the region, it's in conducting economic-development triage and concentrating resources into a handful of urban areas -- Danville, Bristol, perhaps Martinsville -- that are large enough to compete for human capital.
"An irreversible decline."

Is Southwest (along with Southside) Virginia doomed to extinction? Is energy scarcity and the lack of a skilled workforce here enough - in themselves - to force the area to become a vast wasteland? Or a vaster wasteland?


I'd ask Jim to consider a few points:

1) That energy that he rightly considers to be "scarce" is to be found here in Southside and Southwest Virginia, not in either northern Virginia or in Richmond. Coal, timber, hydro, and
uranium are in abundance around us. Scarce? Only in our people-rich, natural resource-poor big cities. You need energy? You need us, bud.

2) That "knowledge economy" that so captivates the authors of Bacon's Rebellion on a regular basis, I respectfully suggest, isn't an important driver anywhere in the commonwealth to any appreciable extent. Northern Virginia is awash in wealth to be sure. But remember this: The only thing grown in the Washington D.C. area is government and the only thing manufactured there is money.** Where's that knowledge economy thriving? Silicon Valley. That's in California. Take out all the businesses that cater to Homeland Security and the Defense Department and you're left with squat.

3) I've never been sold on the whole "the area lacks skilled labor" argument. If it held water, America's I.T.-related businesses would be clustered in and around Jaipur, India, not in Seattle or in the San Francisco Bay area. Skilled labor - just ask the tens of thousands of Indians who have emigrated to the USA and found employment in California and Washington State respectively - goes where the job opportunities are. Always have; always will. I'll agree that that "clustering force," which to me is best described as a clustering "effect," is something to be reckoned with, but only because corporate heads have been convinced that it is necessary and therefore make it whole.

But I've strayed off the subject.

Is Jim Bacon's pessimism warranted?

Without doubt.

As the Herald Courier points out (again), "population in the region continues to decline, wage rates still lag behind the rest of the state, there is persistent high unemployment and poor educational attainment is still endemic." The editorialists could have added the growing problems with drug abuse, erosion of the nuclear family, an horrendous suicide rate, an uncomfortably high rate of government welfare and government jobs (think prisons), and a troubling trend toward a predominantly geriatric population.

Add to that the blind eye that our elected representatives in the area are turning toward the problem. Factories have closed right and left and they respond by funding bike paths and hiking trails - at a cost of millions - that have resulted in the creation of tens of thousands tens of seasonal, part-time bike repair and canoe rental jobs springing up in the area.

Worse yet, the problems are worsening.

But are they terminal?

Not by a long shot. I have argued in the past (and experts, having read my work, are coming around to the notion), that high transportation costs and high energy costs make our region more valuable. That which fuels America's power plants is to be found here. That which fuels nuclear power plants is to be found in Southside. And the cost of shipping our raw timber to China is fast becoming prohibitive. We can only prosper from the trend.

Of course, it would be helpful if area politicians were more inclined to ease the burden of doing business here - the burden being in the forms of oppressive taxation and government regulation - instead of farting around with bike paths that take us nowhere. But Southwest Virginia, I think, will make it out of this. Eventually.

That "knowledge economy" stuff is great for MBA classes. But when it comes down to it - as the Chinese are teaching us - brutally - we still need raw materials and manufactories, and a cost-effective means of getting one to the other. That's where we come in. Now and forever.

So don't write us off yet, Jim. We still have a little political housecleaning to be done. And we certainly need to get our houses in order. But there is every likelihood that we'll get through this. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

- - -

* An interesting aside came out of this. Mr. Bacon brings to our attention a letter that was written by our own former Delegate Barnie Day, from which we learn that he - Barnie - was instrumental in having tobacco settlement money blown on a covered bridge festival. It goes well with my call for a case of beer for everyone. Just as useful but has a longer-lasting effect.

** I know. Our currency is actually manufactured elsewhere. But you know what I mean.

What Congress Can't Do ...

... the courts can.

The 1st Amendment to the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Congress cannot abridge (i.e., lessen, diminish, or curtail) our right to free speech. So the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals does it for the members thereof. And the Roanoke Times, which is rather vulnerable to 1st Amendment abridgements itself, though the employees thereof aren't smart enough to realize it, is fine with it:

A good policy on public prayer

The U.S. Supreme Court should not hear a Fredericksburg City Council member's claim that he has a constitutional right to say a sectarian prayer at the start of council meetings. He does not.

As a government official at a governmental meeting, what he says is governmental speech, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously this week. As such, the government can regulate it -- and Fredericksburg does. (link)

"Government speech" isn't speech.

George Orwell would be proud.

Child Abuser in Troutville Gets 10 Years?

Man pleads guilty to having sexually abused 3-year-old

For the love of God.

Such The Ground Swell

There was a shift in the tectonic plates up in Salem yesterday. Did you feel the earth tremble? A rally took place at the Civic Center there (seating capacity - 7,157) and a crowd showed up to cheer on the state's passenger rail initiative for Southwest Virginia:
Residents promote passenger rail routes
A public meeting was enthusiastic about having the travel option.
By Jeff Sturgeon, The Roanoke Times

Speakers from throughout Southwest Virginia said all aboard Thursday to a panel of state transportation leaders checking whether there is public support to restart passenger rail service in the region.

Rail can be faster, cheaper and cleaner, Jim Overholser of Roanoke said during a public hearing that drew more than 50 people to the Salem Civic Center. It's something the commonwealth needs to be looking at, he said. (link)
More than 50.

50? There were more people standing in line for a Big Mac at the local choke-and-puke yesterday noon.

May I suggest that 7,642,884 Virginians expressed their opinion - perhaps just as "enthusiastically" - by not showing up?

Someone needs to remind these 50 misbegotten souls that there is a transportation budget crisis looming. We don't need to be adding to our woes with hairbrained schemes like this.

That About Sums It Up

The Washington Post on that monstrously wasteful - and misguided - housing bailout that is working its way through Congress:

"Lawmakers can go home in August and tell the voters that they did something about housing. Exactly what they will have done, and at what eventual cost, may be harder to explain."

Perhaps those lawmakers (including Rick Boucher; to their credit, both Virgil Goode and Bob Goodlatte voted against this awful bill) can explain that the banks that loaned money to people who couldn't afford to pay it back needed the American people to bail them out.

Perhaps those lawmakers (including Rick Boucher) could explain that it is no longer necessary for American citizens to be obligated to meet their mortgage obligations.

Perhaps those lawmakers (including ...) could explain that they'll continue to print money at a furious pace and that America's grandchildren will have to pay the bill that'll come due.

Perhaps hell will freeze over.

A Wakeup Call To Rick Boucher

While Rick Boucher, Democrat representative, 9th Congressional District, fantasizes that the people here in Southwest Virginia appreciate his efforts to bring pork to the region, the people have a different message for him. Maybe if he spent a little less time hobnobbing with his pals in Washington and a little more time in Bland County, and Smyth County, and ..., talking to actual human beings, he'd learn the following:

Voters Want Less Pork, Even in Their Own District
By Pat Toomey, writing in the Wall Street Journal

If you want to know how out of touch Congress is on the issue of wasteful spending, listen to Florida Rep. John Mica defend his pork projects: "There's no way in hell I would support banning earmarks. That's our job, getting elected and making decisions." Mr. Mica is the most powerful Republican on the Transportation Committee.

The idea that bringing home federal dollars is integral to a politician's job and essential to getting re-elected is a favorite of Republicans and Democrats alike.

There is just one problem with this theory. It is dead wrong.

The Club for Growth recently conducted a nationwide poll on government spending, and the results were exactly the opposite of what most politicians have been saying for years. Voters are fed up with Washington's out-of-control spending. Politicians aren't representing the will of the people when they bring home the bacon. They are really representing the will of their special-interest cronies. And it's not just conservative voters who feel that way. Voters across the board have finally found something they can agree on even if their elected officials can't: It's time to cut the fat, even if that means fewer projects for their own districts. (link)

Quit wasting our money!

Here's the disconnect: There are those who are concerned that Southwest Virginia is lost forever. (See above). That it's destined to be abandoned by the citizens living here because of a pervasive lack of job opportunity. And Boucher takes our tax money - our precious, hard-earned income - and spends it on horseback riding trails. And music centers. And hair sheep research centers. And he thinks we're appreciative? Hello?

Problem is (make that two): Boucher ain't going to change his ways. And the Republicans refuse to put up a candidate who can drive this fossil from office.

So Boucher will fund more wasteful projects, we'll continue to shell out money to pay for them, more and more area employers will shutter their places of business forever, and Southwest Virginia will continue its steady decline. Unless and until we decide to affect change.

When that day comes ...

Well, Dick, Got a Plan B?

Chicago is, arguably, the most restrictive city in America when it comes to the private ownership of firearms. And it shows. The city is now free of crime fast becoming the most crime-ridden city in the country:
Chicago's spiraling murder rate sparking political spats
By Andrea Billups, the Washington Times

It's been one long, bloody year for the Windy City.

Murders are up 13 percent. During the past school year, 29 Chicago-area youths were killed by gunfire. On one April weekend, 40 people were shot. Over the July Fourth weekend, nine people were gunned down - with three more killed this past weekend.

The press is dubbing Chicago "Beirut by the Lake." (link)
Beirut? I guess we can't be calling it Baghdad on the Lake. That would imply that there's now as much violence in the streets of Chicago as there is at Ground Zero of Mr. Bush's War. (In fact, there's ample evidence that you're safer on the streets of Baghdad than the city that the two dicks, Richard Daley Senior and Junior, made safe for human habitation.

But to the point, guns are now (virtually) banned in the city of Chicago; crime is now rampant and beyond law enforcement's ability to control. A correlation if there ever was one.

While Rome Bur ... Runs Out Of Gas

This might go a long way toward explaining why the Democrats in Congress are unwilling to get serious about our energy emergency:

Blacks in Congress Split Over Menthol Cigarettes

We await, anxiously, the outcome of that momentous debate ...

You Ain't Alone

Professor Bainbridge on the media coverage of their messiah:

Is it just me or is anybody else starting to get a little creeped out by the whole Barack Obama phenomenon? ”Pop star reception in Germany.” ”Obamamania grips Europe.” ”Obama’s youth, eloquence and energy ... have stolen hearts” ”Superstar, Kennedy or Messiah” ”Afghans, Iraqis, Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Germans have already declared themselves mesmerised by Obamamania” ”You want to follow him somewhere, anywhere,’ says actor George Clooney.”

Personally, I find this fervor spooky and creepy.

I'm reminded of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's groupies at Trinity United Church of Christ who lapped up his every word, cheered wildly no matter what he said, and knelt at his feet like he was Christ entering Jerusalem.

Fine for them. But an unbiased, sophisticated media? Tsk. Tsk.

Out Of The Mouths Of Babes

So much could be written about this New York Times headline ...

Obama, Vague on Issues, Pleases Crowd in Europe

... but I think it speaks for itself.

When The Mainstream Press Starts Asking ...

... you know Obama has worked himself into a corner. This from USA Today:

Our view on Iraq: Why can't Obama admit the obvious? The surge worked

Remember all the talk about George Bush being inflexible and unwilling to countenance opposing points of view? Perhaps that shoe belongs elsewhere.

Lofty Hyperbole

When rarefied words spoken in Berlin thrill an adoring crowd but don't match the reality back here on earth ...

Barack Obama yesterday:

"This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands. Let us resolve that all nations -- including my own -- will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere. This is the moment to give our children back their future. This is the moment to stand as one."
Do us all a favor. Do something about that mud hut your grandmother lives in with her chickens, Barack, then get back to us for a discussion about saving the rest of the planet. Okay?

"Act with seriousness." Give me a break.

Photo of Obama's grandmother, filth, and chickens courtesy of the AP.

Man Sings Puppies To Sleep

We need a puppy psychologist to explain this one: