From the editorial:
Do The Right Thing With Tobacco FundsThe 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 ...
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 ... (link)
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.Wow.
“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."An irreversible decline."
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.
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?
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
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.