Morning Ed: Cities {2017.05.09.Tu}

Beware the Pyongyang hirise.

According to Xenocrypt, economic activity has always been geographically lumpy.

Some folks have tried to explain it to me (It’s seen as too Asian/Hispanic, it’s already getting too expensive, etc) but I remain surprised that inland California cities (and Reno) haven’t benefited more from the coastal exodus.

I hear all of this, but at the same time there is a reason people think Milwaukee is a big city and Norfolk isn’t.

That’s beautiful and wonderful and let’s never do it again.

Suburban sprawl is harshing songbirds’ mating buzz.

Tyler Cowen responds to a working paper on the economic efficiencies of Urbania.

From 2015, a look at how data mining is helping people figure out how big China’s ghost cities problem is.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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74 thoughts on “Morning Ed: Cities {2017.05.09.Tu}

  1. The car seems to have been the biggest enemy of urbanism in the twentieth century. Cars and trucks need wide streets, highways, and lots of parking to be efficient. This makes building the traditional pre-car housing and street design impossible. If cars are going to be the most popular form of transit and if people really want to drive than urban design is going to meet the needs of the car even if it leads to a lot of living arrangements that people hate. For the traditional street designs and housing desired in fifth link to thrive, you can’t have a transportation system primarily based on the car.

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  2. That coastal migration piece is entirely focused on SoCal, which is fair since it appears in the LA Times. I have seen reports that rents are now falling in the Bay Area/Sacramento area.

    This is probably due to the massive amount of building of higher-density housing that’s going on. You can read news stories about Palo Alto and how they refuse to do it, but in the meantime, there are many projects in Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara. Probably also in San Jose, Fremont and Union City. There are a few project in SF, but its harder there.

    Owning a detached home is going to be harder and harder, but having a place to live looks to be getting a bit easier.

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    • The wife and I moved away from the Bay six months ago. We were both CA kids and loved it there, but felt (regardless of politics) that NorCal was no longer the place we grew up in, certainly not the place we still wanted to live in. Our hobbies preclude us living in the cities and the costs of housing, even with good six figure income, was prohibitive even in the suburbs. And those suburbs were looking pretty grotty at this point. We thought about going back to Sac, but the wages were drastically lower for the same work, getting worse the further you went; Fresno, Redding, Stockton.

      So we left. Wages dropped 13%, but the cost of housing was so much cheaper it didn’t matter. Infrastructure is so much better, people are friendlier and we haven’t missed anything yet but good Cantonese food.

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  3. Umm, Milwaukee has population of close to 600,000. Norfolk has a population of about 250,000.

    So I think there is a very good reason to think of Milwaukee as a big city and Norfolk not so much. Virginia Beach, which is adjacent to Norfolk, has a chip on it’s shoulder about this, though. It’s pop is 450K, and it don’t get no respect.

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    • I was stationed at Norfolk for much of my Navy career. The Hampton Roads area taken as a whole (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Hampton, Chesapeake, etc) is a pretty respectable metropolitan area but Norfolk proper is sorta geographically constrained.

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    • I was going by metro area. Otherwise you get things like “El Paso is bigger than Milwaukee, also Seattle and three times as large as Salt Lake City!”

      Milwaukee has either 1.5 or 2 million (depending on criteria, while Norfolk (or Virginia Beach, if you prefer) has 1.7 million.

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    • The term “redneck” originated with the red bandannas or scarves that the West Virginia miners wore on their fateful march to battle, a term of derision by coal company partisans

      good read so far, but that’s not true. the term originated at least a generation earlier, and was directed at poor white farmers in the South.

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    • Though rich in natural resources, its wealth is constantly extracted from the state by corporations and investors, and not reinvested at home; the same absentee corporations own much of the land; it has relatively poor infrastructure, which creates little incentive for young and/ or affluent people to move there; its taxes on coal companies are too low to fund the many public investments it needs

      Uh, most of the modern economy even in the rich places involves corporations and investors. And the current governor is a coal zillionaire (and a Democrat). Thanks to the late Robert Byrd, West Virginia also has plenty of infrastructure spending, but you can’t beat the hard limits of the terrain. As for taxes on the coal companies, the entire point is that the industry is in a cyclical dip, and a long term secular decline. What money is there to tax? The article even talks a bit later about the bankrupt coal companies

      (the whole article had an odd tone of exoticism that would be remarked on if the subject people weren’t white)

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      • I ate at the Applebee’s in nearby Lewisburg WV last year, and I found the experience very unexotic, very average. On the other hand, I think I drove in 16 states last year on various family vacations and West Virginia had the highest quality interstates, not even taking into consideration the challenging terrain.

        In the Illinois coal basin (IL, IN, KY), there are (or were) employee-owned mines.

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      • @pd-shaw

        The article is also being discussed on LGM. I think the best hope for West Virginia is to spend decades trying to clean it up with Federal Money and then make it a destination for nature tourists who like to hike, hunt, fish, raft, etc. The problem is that there is a lot of resistance to service work as opposed to manly man mining work. Coal is largely dead and not coming back.

        The other thing to do is just have the Feds buy up everyone who will take a good offer and move them.

        Otherwise there is not much reason for West Virginia to exist anymore except because of history.

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        • Nah, this is an overly pessimistic assessment. WV has a 4.9% unemployment rate as of 3/17, with just over 15,000 coal mining jobs in a state that employs 742,000. Maybe those jobs continue to bleed, down to 5,000 to 7,500, but some of this loss is due to increased employee productivity. Those that have to move from a $55,000 average salary to half of that in retail are going to experience pain, but if they are union members they get first dibs at jobs at other mines, even across state lines.

          Coal in Illinois (where Mother Jones is buried) was hit hard by sulfur regulations from the Clean Air Act of 1990, and production shifted to WV and the Rockies. We’re down to 44000 jobs, but actually have started to see an increase in production because the coal can be placed on barges and shipped to China and India. Jobs jumped 800 last year, and if that continues (aided by canal expansion and planned improvements to the Mississippi lock system), then WV miners will have the option of moving.

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    • Nolan’s piece on West Virginia ties into the piece Will linked above about economic activity being geographically lumpy. We generally assume that every area is going to be economically productive forever but that isn’t the case. Industries can rise and decline, especially if they are based on resource extraction or manufacturing rather than services. Real and substantial communities form during the times of economic prosperity and getting people to move is never easy. The economic decline of an area leads to social decline.

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  4. I’m finding it hard to believe there are homeless children in Pyongyang. My understanding is that while it is of course a Potemkin village, its also a Forbidden City, and you’re not allowed to live there unless you got permission (and thus, are serving the regime’s interests)

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    • I don’t find it hard to believe at all – exactly because of the need for official permission to live there. If you can’t get an address there without special permission, then everyone who is there without permission, must be homeless. They could even have money available to pay rent, but the lack of paperwork means they can’t officially get an apartment.

      I can easily imagine that if I were orphaned / ran away / kicked out in North Korea, I might want to strenuously avoid whatever official care there is for destitute children.

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  5. Is it a sports team that makes Milwawkee seem bigger than Norfolk, or is it simply reputation and legacy? When Milwaukee first passed 100K people, it was top 20 most populated cities in the US.

    It’s reputation, and being historically eclipsed by peers, that make people not realize that cities like say, Austin and Columbus are in the top 20 for population these days (within the city limits)

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  6. I don’t think cities should subsidize sports teams and stadiums but this is something that politicians love to do no matter what most of the time.

    There is little evidence that it spurs long term economic growth and I am not sure that it is worth being thought of as a big city. Detroit and Millwaukee have plenty of economic problems despite having sports teams and cultural institutions.

    The Raiders moving to Las Vegas is a good example. What does Las Vegas gain? They already have a lot of tourists for gambling, conventions, etc. They aren’t going to fill a third of the seats with tourists coming into town. Events won’t help occupy the space during non-football season, etc.

    But there is something about funding sports stadiums that most politicians can’t resist and when there is a person who can, the rest of the city works against said politician to out him. This is not limited to sports but can be other useless infrastructure projects like the JFK subway shuttle instead of improving the existing infrastructure and the big tunnel boondoggle in Seattle. The mayor at the time knew it was a big mistake and the rest of the city politicians basically organized a conspiracy and coup against him. The mayor was right.

    So there has to be something in the politicians brain that works differently from the policy wonk’s brain and/or the normal citizens brain.

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    • Politicians have to periodically face voters, wonks do not. People are generally sports made and teams have become institutions as well as franchised businesses. They have histories going back to the mid to late 19th century many times. No politicians is going to want to face the electorate and say, “we decided it was better to loose the team that has been in our city for generations because we thought spending money on a new stadium would be a waste.” That politician is going to not be in office next election.

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    • I don’t think cities should subsidize sports teams and stadiums…

      Museums? Concert halls? Symphonies?

      The Denver metro area is a bit weird. The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG, pronounced “Doctor Cog”) dates back to 1955 and does consolidated regional planning. Air quality, water quality, and public transportation are largely regional functions. The Scientific and Cultural Facilities District has a dedicated regional sales tax that funds museums and cultural stuff (including the very nice performing arts center in my suburb). The tax was up for renewal last November and passed comfortably in all six counties. The public part of Coors Field (Rockies baseball) and Sports Authority Field (Broncos football) funding was paid for by a special region-wide voter-approved temporary sales tax comparable in size to the SCFD tax (stadium bonds have all been paid off and the tax terminated).

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      • Public funding for a stadium should mean that the public either owns the team, or the stadium, & enjoys the profits from the team or stadium operations.

        Or the team is publicly owned, like the Packers.

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        • Neither the NFL nor MLB allow public ownership like the Packers any more (once burned, twice shy).

          The rest pretty well describes the stadium situations in Denver. Each is owned by a six- or seven-county special district, the teams have long-term leases (with substantial payments to the districts). The districts can use the facilities for their own events in the off-season. The teams may also do so, but have to share profits with the districts.

          One of the nice things about the regional public ownership is that it avoided most of the Denver vs the ‘burbs wars about siting — central locations, meaning Denver, were just common sense. Some suburban sites were considered, but lost out on factors like ease of access.

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      • Museums are weird entities because they have always had a quasi-private/quasi-public status because they technically don’t hold the art but hold it in trust for the public*. State Attorney Generals have a huge say in when museums can deaccession pieces of art and other issues from my vague memories from Art Law. I know that Pennsylvania was able to finally open up the Barnes Foundation/Collection because of the public trust aspect.**

        Though my mom can recall during the 1960s and 70s that the Met was free admission and they also offered lots of classes and lectures for free and/or at low cost. Now there is a “suggested” donation that is pretty high for entry. Technically you can say no thanks but that is just a dick move that most people won’t do. Most people probably glaze over the word “suggestion.” The museums in San Francisco just have mandated entry fees though I think they are more controlled by the City and are certainly on City property.

        The difference I would say for the city supporting a lot of arts organizations is that most of those organizations are non-profits and most of them are not paying super high salaries or profits. There are some really big “non-profit” theatres like Manhattan Theatre Club, The Roundabout, The Public but there are also a ton that have survived in the same walk-up spaces for decades with varying degrees of government support/money. Plus it tends to be small change compared to what is given to the sports stadiums and billionaires.

        It would be interesting to know if people who work at the De Young or Legion of Honor get paychecks from the City and County of San Francisco. Same with the symphony, opera, and ballet.

        *As far as I can tell, the Broad in LA was built entirely with private money and is free to the public but it is also a huge tax deduction for the Broad family.

        **Barnes was a guy who made a ton of money selling anti-STD drugs in the age before antibiotics. He assembled one of the most impressive art collections in the United States ranging from the Renaissance to Mattise and he had an idiosyncratic art display philosophy. He turned his house to a museum/foundation when he died but the rules of admission were so strict that the only artists and scholars got in. Starting in the early 1960s or so, various PA attorney generals engaged in a campaign to open the Barnes Foundation to the public. By the time I was in high school, you could get in but had to book tickets weeks in advance. After that, PA succeeded in basically moving all the art to a new museum in downtown Philadelphia. There is a documentary on this called the Art of the Steal narrated by Matt Damon but I think the documentary is way too sympathetic to the Barnes Foundation and I think the PA government were heroes for basically destroying the Foundation and liberating the art.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnes_Foundation

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    • From what I hear, Vegas is betting (heh) that they can upsell casual Raider fans from “buy a ticket to one game a year” to “yearly Vegas vacation – now including a Raider game!”.

      Which is, whatever one might think of it, at least a plan. Which puts Vegas one plan above most cities that lure franchise moves.

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      • I think they would have benefited more from basketball, where “Hey, while you’re in Vegas here’s something you can do, available twice a week for seven months of the year.”

        Like Hockey is doing. It’s kind of weird that Vegas is now going to have more “big five” sports than San Diego does.

        Anyway, Football is more of a Thing You Do than a thing you do while you happen to be somewhere, which is baseball’s bag.

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  7. The problem with telling the story of West Virginia’s economic decline is that the state doesn’t really seem to have declined; it has always been desperately poor, and in fact is now a good deal closer to the national per-capita income than it used to be (maybe that’s the wrong measure, but it makes sense to me). Maybe mining towns are doing worse than 80 years ago, though as that article correctly notes the conditions were not exactly considered good when people were actually living through them, but mining has never been the only thing going in the state.

    My suspicion is that a lot of the state’s problems are not really tractable (improving infrastructure seems difficult, expensive, and low-impact given those hills, we really should be trying to use less coal, etc), and the state’s likely future is as a backwater with a bit of a tourist industry, but I’m neither a prophet nor a development expert.

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    • In some ways you have to separate what we’re talking about when we’re talking about West Virginia. I think Charleston will be fine because it’s a decent sized state capital. Morgantown has a university, education population, etc. The eastern panhandle will benefit from DC expansion (and gambling, to a lesser extent) and would actually be an ideal spot for quite a bit of DC megopolitan sprawl.

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      • Definitely true; I think this was what Tyler Cowen’s recent piece on West Virginia was getting at.

        The other part of this, I think, is that we tend to conflate persistent poverty and economic decline. The Rust Belt has declined, but in many places it’s still doing OK compared to places like rural Appalachia or the lower Mississippi River Valley (plug for Xenocrypt’s county-level income distribution toy).

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      • Charles Town casino is kinda screwed with all the ones Maryland has opened up.

        (And that bar across the street from the casino tells you everything you need to know about it as an engine of economic development)

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        • This was always the trouble with the casino-as-economic-revival idea. The business model is to hoover up money from the math-impaired of neighboring states. Even states that don’t really want to have casinos will look at the cash outflow and eventually work their way around to building their own. It doesn’t necessarily hurt the casino operators, who are happy to go anywhere, but nobody else benefits.

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          • Around here if you want your organization to get any funding from the province, you have to get the members to work a casino night every year. All the nonprofit and arts funding comes through the gaming commission.

            Which, most organizations I’m involved in you can just ignore the annual emails for casino volunteers, but at my daughter’s school you have to buy your way out for a non-trivial sum of money. I do this, because the most positive thing I can say about the casino funding model is that it’s better than, say, selling fentanyl…

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      • Would we be talking about WV if it hadn’t seceded from VA? Or if it wasn’t important to Democrats to take the Senate? Frankly, I’m more concerned about Detroit and other Midwestern cities that are hollowing out — the population impacted is much larger and the political implications may be just as significant.

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          • I was more thinking that WV in VA would simply be a troubled region within a state in which the rest of the state would provide economic diversity and long-term assistance. I’m not sure that the borders of WV make that much sense; perhaps another victim of the Civil War?

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        • We talk about WV because it’s within a day’s drive of megalopolis. But we also talk about it because of some interesting recent and rapid poltical trends. But we also should talk more about Vermont, also a day’s drive from megalopolis, as mountainous & landlocked* as WV is (arguably more) but with a very different recent poltical and economic trends.

          *and access to the Ohio is more important and useful than access to Lake Champlain or the Connecticut river.

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          • I’m curious why WV is so much worse than any of the rural Mountain West states. Say, Montana. Screwed over by out-of-state extraction industries, about equally rural, even smaller population. A couple of cities somewhat bigger than anything in WV, but unlike WV, all of those are growing briskly.

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              • My question is “why?” Why isn’t Montana as poor as WV? Given the at least superficial similarities — rural, dependence on extractive industries, landlocked — why aren’t they comparably poor? Did WV do particular things wrong? Montana right? Historical timing? Federal land ownership?

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                • Michael,
                  As far as I can tell, WV did subsistence farming and still does, a lot more than Montana ever really did. So, fewer people to BE poor. Montanan land works out better for ranching (and that leads to large landowners like Tester), where you turn out the animals on large, large, large fenced enclosures.

                  WV has hills, the farming is a bit weird. I’ve been through, and you see tons of black angus.

                  So, a bit of history, a bit of timing — Montana has always seemed to have larger tracts of land (my opinion, but I figure it’s true).

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                • Not sure how different they are; Montana is pretty poor compared to the rest of the country. Playing around with that county-level link I put up, it seems like the richest parts per capita are in the North Dakota-like parts (e.g. Richland County on the border); West Virginia doesn’t really have places like that to push up the average.

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                  • Yeah, but excluding Billings in the central part of the state, Montana’s population skews heavily west. The ND border counties aren’t populous enough to counterbalance that (Richland is ~11,500 people, Yellowstone (Billings) is almost 15x that).

                    Assuming you’re right, though, then the question is why does WV get all the press? ‘s remark about how close it is to the NE urban corridor?

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                    • Being within a day’s drive of NY and DC certainly helps, I think. If you want to write about poverty in rural western Montana you have to fly into…I don’t even know where, rent a car, get a few nights of hotel, etc.

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                      • To get into western Montana you fly into Missoula. It’s a nice small city, U of Montana is there. Or you could fly into Butte or Bozeman.

                        Yellowstone is in Wyoming but on the border of Montana. That creates lots of tourism dollars for Montana.

                        Also Spokane is not all that far from western Montana. Glacier National Park is in north western Montana and is another big draw in the summer months.

                        Western Montana has some decent sized ski resorts. As areas in the west go, west Montana has a lot there. It’s very scenic with big NP draws, recreation is abundant and well advertised and a handful of small cities to fly into. That half of the state has a lot going for it. It’s also a place rich people buy ranches or second homes in to retire to or vacation in.

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                          • East coasters looove to go skiing is resorts in the Rockies. The places in Montana are less crowded then in Colo. It may not be for you, but lots of W Montana is popular and has many virtues. Eastern Montana, well that is different. By the standards of the rural west, W Montana is a great place with advantages many areas would love to have.

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                          • Out of curiosity, I took a look at flights from New York to Helena. Currently, the best round trip I get for the end of May is around $500; DC has similar prices. Butte is a bit higher (can get it down to $600 with the right dates). Great Falls I can get for just over $400 on the right days in June, otherwise seems similar to Helena.

                            Compare that to the drive to WV: from DC, I get about 360 miles to Charleston, so call it 12 gallons of gas each way, from NYC about 530, call it 18. This is almost an order of magnitude’s difference in travel costs before doing anything in the area (not sure what gas costs in that area of the country at the moment, but at $3/gallon the DC trip is $72 and the NYC trip is $108), and that’s going to the furthest part of the state. If you base out of Morgantown, you’re cutting off 150 miles each way and can probably find plenty to write about even if you are staying in the fancy college town.

                            For a few days or a week’s worth of reporting, it should be possible for an East Coast based reporter to make the West Virginia trip for less than the flight to Montana alone.

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                            • If they are an expense account then gas vs. air fare won’t be that relevant. The Rockies are scenic and grand and famous. A River Runs Through It was set in Montana i believe. WV does not have the same natural draw, not even close.

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                              • Not sure how your expense account works, but on mine the person who signs off is pretty interested in the amounts and tends to prefer them to be lower rather than higher (and the point of reporting on rural poverty isn’t landscape photos, though I admit that if you have a good backdrop for pictures of shacks it helps).

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                                • The rural poverty in Montana is mostly on the Native American reservations. The cities are doing okay with strong positives. There are places in Montana where the locals are complaining about rich outsiders coming in and buying up all the land for ranches and vacation homes. That often sucks for the locals, and would be called gentrifying in the city, but is a sign that W Montana has stuff going for it.

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                                    • Reservations are quite often desperately poor and appropriately 1 million miles farther away from media attention then WV. Not that WV gets a ton of attention regularly but outside of the Standing Rock protests they get nothing.

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                                • If the person signing off my expense account expects me to drive my own car on business and hit them only for the gas, I’m working at the wrong place. IRS standard rate for business use of personal car this year is 53.5 cents/mile. 720 miles round trip is $385.20, 1060 round trip is $567.10.

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                    • The answer of course is water. West Virginia (& the rest of Appalachia) has it, the mountain west doesnt. So very different (white people) settlement history and patterns.

                      Life is old there, older than the trees. Seriously – family histories go back farther than most of the woods, which were pretty much clear cut as the 20th century debuted. The mountain west was never as densely populated until the modern era, and large parts (but not all) of its legacy has been erased by (inarguably better) ski resorts and urbanization

                      West Virginia is different than the rest of Appalachia exactly because it separated from the lowlanders. Like said here in this post, and elsewhere before, you got the same problems and poverty in southwest Virginia, western Carolina, & central Pennsylvania – but they all can hide behind (and get ameliorated by) the urbanized parts of each state. In WV, there’s no big city or cities to balance out the state stats.

                      And to be blunt, there’s lots of white people, so the media can write all it wants about the problems and the poverty without being problematic.

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        • PD Shaw,
          Well, I can tell you that nobody gives a rat’s ass about southwestern Virginia, which is home to people objectively worse in most respects than WV, and poorer to boot.

          So, um, no, Charleston would be like a lower rent Pittsburgh (less infrastructure too, Virginia is less egalitarian than PA).

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  8. “That’s beautiful and wonderful and let’s never do it again.”

    I swear I’ve seen this article like three times here (and I think you even posted it once!)

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    • Yes. A remarkable decision by Trump’s White House but unambiguously the correct one.
      Comey’s stunt near the election was enormously dangerous (and would have been just as dangerous had he sat on Clinton investigation info while disclosing Trump investigation info). Firing Comey upholds a vital principle and Trump and his administration deserve praise for doing so.
      I hope the Dems briefly note something to that effect and move on. I very much hope they don’t try and make political hay out of it though I acknowledge that’s probably a vain hope.

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