December 31, 2015


I have a friend and former co-worker I haven't seen in years. Back in the day when we'd get together for work gatherings, we'd bust out a guitar or two and wail far into the night. My friend was a veritable jukebox capable of playing anything from revolutionary anthems to "Hang on, Sloopy."

He'd spent several years as a political prisoner in the Philippines and I think that's where he expanded his playlist.

I loved it when sometimes after playing a song, he'd get this faraway look in his eyes and make some brief oracular statement about the inner meaning of the song. If memory serves, after "Space Oddity," he paused and said "It's about alienation."

Once, after tearing through "The Man Who Sold the World," he mused "It's about the triumph of evil." I remember almost getting a chill when he said that.

For some reason, his oracles are on my mind going into 2016. I have a feeling 2016 is going to have more than it's share of alienation and the triumph of evil, in West Virginia and around the world.

I wish I'm wrong about that.

December 30, 2015

The end of an era

There was some sad news today for WV, although rumors about it have been swirling for a while. The old days when the state capitol was the people's house and citizens could just walk through any number of doors to participate in their government, gossip or just watch the show are over. Starting in early January, visitors will have to pass through a security screening,

During the legislative session, there will only be two entrances to the capitol. I think the last the the current crew running the place wants is for ordinary people to participate.

I used to love taking visitors to the capitol and bragging about how open and accessible government was here, even if it was ****** **. The checkpoint is symbolic of a political sea change in WV, and an ugly one at that.

December 29, 2015

Curiouser and curiouser

Holy chaos theory, Batman! WV politics just got even weirder. It goes something like this:

1. WV state senator Daniel Hall once ran for the WV House as a Republican. He lost.

2. He then ran as a Democrat and won. Twice.

3. Then he was elected as a Democrat to the WV Senate.

4. After the 2014 elections, when the WV senate was tied 17-17, he switched back to being a Republican.

5. As of today, he announced his resignation from the senate in early 2016.

Y'all getting this so far?

So the question is, who gets to name his replacement? He was an R after the election but was elected as a D. State law seems to be a bit ambiguous, but it seems to me the fairest way is to honor the results of the last election.

This could potentially rewrite the landscape of the 2016 legislature. Or not.

This is yet another reason why I think the WV state motto should be changed from "Mountaineers are always free" to "You can't make this **** up."

Read more here.

This will be one to watch.

December 28, 2015

Best book ending ever

This time of year, with darkness and the winding down of December, makes for reflections. Around here anyway. 

Today, in lieu of any social commentary, I have something better to offer...the ending of The Great Gatsby. It happens after (spoiler alert) Gatsby's death and after the cruel and arrogant rich folks leave. Nick Carraway, the narrator who has lost innocence and illusions, is getting ready to leave the city. On his last night he sits and looks at the island across from the Sound.

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Dude could write.

December 21, 2015

Get ready

Working families in West Virginia had better get ready to take some major hits--or, better, to get back to basics and stand up for themselves and each other. One hit coming is the likely push of the Republican led legislature to pass RTW (right to work for less). Another union busting move is a likely attempt to repeal prevailing wage for construction on public projects.

Next in line are teachers, police and other public employees, who are about to get hammered with "draconian" cuts to benefits. Republican leaders want to resist adding money to help with the program's deficit and are blaming the administrators of the program, charges which are refuted here.

In a word, or maybe two or three, depending on whether you count contractions, it's on.

December 18, 2015

Big stories

Here's the latest Front Porch on the biggest WV stories of 2015. What's your list?

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. Urgent 200 year old Chinese salamander update here.

December 15, 2015

December 10, 2015

Mother of Exiles

I guess we'd have to ban this poem if some people got their way:

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

December 09, 2015

Something that works

OK, in the grand scheme of things, improving child nutrition in public schools may not sound like a big deal. But you know what? By more than one measure, it's working. This year, in spite of the whole WV-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket thing, huge strides have been made in feeding kids. And it's something to build on in the future.

December 08, 2015

It's not all bad (another installment)

There's been a lot of nastiness in the air over the Syrian refugee crisis. It was nice last night to attend an event at the Islamic Center in which Christians, Jews and Muslims stood together against hate and in favor of a humane response.

THIS MAY SOUND LIKE INSIDE BASEBALL, but an article in the Sunday Gazette-Mail by statehouse columnist Phil Kabler shows what happens when media is concentrated into a few very rich and very ideological hands. 

TALKING SENSE IN HUNTINGTON. This Herald-Dispatch editorial argues that mine safety violations should carry felony rather than misdemeanor charges. I'm with them.

December 06, 2015

The verdict

Sorry about the slow posts. Aside from running around, I was without phone and internet for a good chunk of last week, which was very frustrating. The big news, obviously, was the Don Blankenship verdict. Short version: guilty on conspiracy to evade mine safety laws, not guilty on charges related to corporate reporting and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Here's my thought: how (fill in the blank)-ed up is it that the maximum sentence he could face for helping to bring about the needless deaths of 29 miners is one year, whereas the sentences for misleading investors carried a penalty of decades? OK, so that was a rhetorical question.

I mean, golly, one might almost think that the interests of the wealthy and powerful count for more than those of working people in this country.

Still the fact that a corporate boss got any penalty (or even inconvenience) at all for causing the deaths of workers is a big deal, so I'll try to focus on the positive.

Anyway, the story is all over the web. I think WV Public Broadcasting did a good job on Inside Appalachia and Ken Ward at Coal Tattoo had this to say after following this developing story for years.

December 04, 2015

Looking under a rock

This op-ed of mine about the ugly history of so-called "right to work" legislation ran in today's Gazette-Mail:

The ancient Chinese sage known to us as Confucius was once asked what he would do if he ever came to a position of influence in a kingdom. His answer was a little surprising. He said he would begin with “the rectification of names.”

Then as now, a great deal of damage can be caused by misleading language. As he put it, “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”

The 20th century writer and thinker George Orwell made pretty much the same point in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” where he wrote “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. … The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

Misleading language, he argued, is designed to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Hence the term Orwellian language. In his dark novel 1984, political slogans such as “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” abound.

A great example of Orwellian language is a policy now being considered by the Legislature known by the misleading name of “right to work” (RTW). After all, who could be against the right to work?

Actually, the policy would lower labor standards, undermine the democratic process, weaken unions and allow free riders to benefit from collective bargaining agreements without providing dues to support the process.

Unfortunately many people today may not be familiar the ugly history behind RTW.

The person who came up with the name and launched the movement to enact it as law was a Texas businessman and politico named Vance Muse, who lived from 1890 to 1950. An unabashed racist and anti-Semite, he bitterly opposed the labor law reforms of the New Deal, which he sometimes referred to as “the Jew Deal.”

At the time, the labor movement was making huge advances and helping to build what would become the great American middle class. However, it faced serious obstacles in the south, where a racial caste system divided workers and kept wages low for everyone.

Vance and his allies in the “Christian American Association,” an organization he founded to promote RTW, were opposed to unions not only for their promotion of better wages and conditions but also for their potential threat to the system of racial segregation. But they soon gained powerful supporters beyond the south and began to win major victories.

According to Dartmouth historian Marc Dixon: “The Christian American Association out of Houston was the first to champion Right-to-Work as a full-blown political slogan in 1941. The organization stood out in a crowded field for its fiery rhetoric against President Roosevelt and especially labor. But Right-to-Work quickly moved from the fringe to the mainstream. After the war, organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers championed the laws with great effect. By the early spring of 1947, fourteen states had adopted Right-to-Work, and the Taft-Hartley Act, passed by Congress later that year, solidified the rights of states to pass and enforce these laws.”

Muse was able to play on racial biases to promote RTW with considerable success — but not a lot of subtlety. At one point he warned that without such laws, “From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

He promoted the rumor popular among some white segregationists that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was organizing subversive “Eleanor clubs” which supposedly encouraged black domestic servants to oppose their employers. At one point, he warned that such imaginary clubs were a “RED RADICAL scheme to organize negro maids, cooks and nurses in order to have a Communist informer in every Southern home.”

He also told supporters that anti-labor organizing would “keep the color line drawn in our social affairs.”

Ironically, back in the 1940s, labor organizers dreamed of launching “Operation Dixie,” which was to organize southern workers and overcome segregation. Instead, thanks to Orwellian language and bankrolling by billionaires and big business groups, Muse’s successors have rolled back labor laws in many northern states. And we may be next.

Before West Virginia takes Muse’s bait, maybe we should consider these words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.

“Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. … Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.”

NOTE: sorry for slow posts. Goat Rope was offline several days this week when a falling tree took out some wired. Ahhh the joys of rural life.

December 01, 2015

Words of wisdom

As I mentioned in the previous post, I've been binge watching season 5 of The Walking Dead. I figure it's the best way to prepare for the 2016 session of the WV legislature. Last night I had to write down some words of wisdom from a character on the show:

If you feel safe enough to be bored, you're lucky.
I think that may well be the case. There are a lot of people around the world who would give just about anything for enough safety to be bored.

November 29, 2015


We interrupt Goat Rope's ceaseless stream of meaningful social commentary to make a personal announcement. For the next little spell, the Spousal Unit is away from the farm. This means, of course, that I am prostrate with grief, sadness, misery and such. It's a wonder I'm still alive, really.

More to the point, it means it's time to binge watch another season of Walking Dead! Season 5 to be exact, as I'm a year behind and have to wait for Netflix.

I've only watched two so far, and it may be too soon to speculate, but it looks like this one will be pretty grim. I mean, back in the good old days, only zombies ate people.

I really do wish that this series and other zombie apocalypse movies didn't remind me of the real situation in WV.  

November 27, 2015

Biblical paraphrase

The prophet Isaiah spoke of a coming day of peace and justice when "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the goat; and the calf and the young lion and the yearling together; and a little child shall lead them."

Obviously, we haven't gotten there yet. But at least in Russia there's a goat that lies down with a tiger (after taking its bed).

I reckon that's a start.

November 26, 2015

Another beloved Thanksgiving tradition: the annual possum recipe

Thanksgiving is all about tradition and so are we here at Goat Rope. Each year at this holiday, we make it a practice to publish a possum recipe for readers whom we know to be avidly in search of one. And for anyone else who stumbles on the site.

(Disclaimer and disclosure: none of us here at Goat Rope have actually eaten possum at any time nor do we necessarily recommend that you do. But traditions are traditions and we've been doing this for the last 9 years.)

This year, in an effort to be health conscious, we feature a lighter selection, to wit a possum soup recipe we found by way of Google.

Enjoy and happy Thanksgiving!


November 23, 2015

It don't come easy

For those out there who are afraid of letting Syrian refugees into the US (and, incidentally, for those trying to cash in politically on that sad situation), here's a look at what it takes for a refugee to actually be admitted to our country.

November 22, 2015

Something to think about

"Among the innumerable rights claimed by the dominating consciousness is the right to define violence, and to locate it. Oppressors never see themselves as violent."-Paulo Freire

November 21, 2015

Worth a look

From the NY Times, here's an interesting analysis of the American political scene, including those high-poverty areas that have flipped in recent years.

November 19, 2015

To pander or to lead?

A number of WV politicians, like many others across the nation, are falling all over themselves to try to block the entrance of refugees from Syria, many of which are children, from entering the state.

A recent Bloomberg Poll shows that a majority of Americans likewise oppose admitting the refugees. But you know what? Sometimes it's more important to be right than to be popular. Pandering to xenophobia is no doubt an easy gig, but there's no honor in it.

I prefer those who take a principled stand, like NY Congressman Eliot Engel, who had this (and more) to say:

I read a poll the other day. The question was quote, “What’s your attitude towards allowing political refugees to come into the US?” unquote. Sixty-seven point four agreed with the response, “With conditions as they are, we should try to keep them out.” More than two thirds. “Try to keep them out.”
That poll was conducted in the summer of 1938. And the question in its entirety was, “What’s your attitude towards allowing German, Austrian and other political refugees to come into the US?” European Jews. More than two-thirds of Americans thought we should just close the gates just four months before Kristallnacht.

We know how that turned out.

My question: in retrospect, which group from 1938 would you rather have been a part of, the popular one or the right one?

Next question: how about today?

November 18, 2015

Not so fast?

Even while congressional Republicans continue to talk about repealing the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, some are starting to hesitate at the idea of taking way expanded Medicaid coverage from what probably amounts to millions of people.

WV Senator Shelley Moore Capito was even quoted saying this: “I am very concerned about the 160,000 people who had Medicaid expansion in my state. I have difficulty with that being included.” I'm glad she feels that way. I hope more people on her side of the aisle do as well.

I guess that amounts to good news these days.


MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE COURTHOUSE...the Don Blankenship case is up to the jury now.

November 16, 2015

Sheep guts, then and now

In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans would practice augury, which meant seeking for signs on which course of action to take through various means. One method consisted of looking at sheep's intestines. Sometimes, if they didn't get the answer they wanted, they kept on cutting up sheep's guts until they they got it.

Recently, the Republican leadership of the WV legislature consulted the contemporary augurs, to wit, the WVU Bureau pf Business and Economic Research. Having a certain advantage over sheep, they came up with the desired answer right away.

The question was whether right-to-work-for-less legislation would be good for WV's economy. The political leadership wanted to hear a resounding "yes" and it got what it wanted.

Surely this has nothing to do with the fact that the Koch brothers recently gave $5 million to WVU, right?  Hmmmm. Maybe not. Maybe this was a good faith effort. But this isn't the first time plutocrats have bought shares in WVU or many other institutions of higher ed.

Meanwhile, stop calling me Shirley.

November 09, 2015

More it's not all bad

I want to give a shout out to one of my heroes who happens to be my main yoga teacher, a brave woman who served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Korea and has suffered for her service. She credits yoga with saving her life. This news story highlights her efforts to bring the healing benefits of yoga to other veterans.

I'm not a veteran but am a lifelong martial artist. The highest compliment I can give to anyone is that he or she has  what is called in Japanese "bushi no nasake"--the tenderness of the warrior. This she has. "The bravest are the tenderest; the loving are the most daring."

November 08, 2015

Life lessons from the VFD

On a longish drive through the country, the Spousal Unit and I were talking about life lessons we learned during our brief buy happy tenure on the local volunteer fire department. Here's my list:

*Candles are evil, conscious beings who want to burn down your house. Really. Unless you're a church, beware. I've seen several fires and much devastation caused by pretty candles.

*Four-wheelers are in the pay of Hades, god of the underworld.

*Try before you pry. In the VFD we had all kinds of cool tools to cut our way into buildings or vehicles. But that doesn't mean we have to use them. Try the simplest thing first before you break out the hardware. Politically speaking, don't assume you have to work at the margins. Sometimes they forget to lock the front door.

*Don't risk a life to save a thing; only risk a life to save a life.

*There is no end to desire. I remember conversations with our guys who were lusting in their hearts for a ladder truck, even though my town is pretty much a two story place.

*Four year olds are right. Firetrucks are cool.

MAKES SENSE TO ME. Here's an op-ed on how WV needs to make it a priority to put its indigenous population back to school.



November 07, 2015

Gratuitous animal picture

It's been a while since I went there, but this one of Arpad wearing a tiara is just too good to pass on. Some of us wear them better than others. (Photo credit: the Spousal Unit)

November 06, 2015

More it's not all bad

I'm trying to keep reminding myself of the positive things happening in WV right now--and there really are some. The latest example of good news is the vote by the Cabell County school board to offer free meals to all students starting next year and expanding the program to Huntington High immediately.

The county (my home turf) is already considered a national leader in child nutrition and opted for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) at the earliest opportunity. CEP allows for free meals to all students in schools where the poverty rate is at or above 40 percent.

The numbers are pretty huge. Cabell has 28 schools with an enrollment over 12,000. Huntington High alone has around 1,600 students.

This means that 20 of WV's 55 counties now offer free meals to all students. The majority of other counties (despite a diminishing number of holdouts) offer CEP to qualifying schools.

November 04, 2015

Requiem for a goat

It is with heavy heart that I must report the passing of Arcadia Starlight Venus, doyenne of Goat Rope Farm and the initial inspiration for the name of this blog. She died at nearly 15 years of age, which is pretty old for a diary goat.

I still remember when she first came into my life. I had gotten back late on a Saturday night from a work trip around April Fool's Day 2005. My wife woke me up on Sunday morning with words that have sometimes caused me trepidation, to wit "Honey, come see."

There she was in all her glory.

From my earliest infancy, it has been the height of my ambition to be the partial owner/caregiver of a pregnant Alpine dairy goat. Imagine my delight in this first encounter. (Note: that was mild irony.)

My first thought was, who on earth would name a goat after the Roman goddess of love? But then I got it.

Venus turned out to be a delight, a sweet affectionate goat,  a good mother and grandmother and a good milker. Yes, she had that Alpine contrarian attitude, but she was a heart-breaker in her way. I must admit that she was the first goat I ever kissed...

(It's probably not a coincidence that according to Greek mythology Zeus, father of gods and men, was nourished in his infancy by the mother goat Amalthea. Or that the Norse god Thor rode in a chariot drawn by goats.)

Among her descendants at Goat Rope Farm are son Cornelius Agrippa, daughter Pina, and granddaughter Honeysuckle.

This song is for her.

I like to think that Venus has gone to the place where good goats go. I don't think it's very crowded, since in my experience there aren't all that many good goats.

Anna and I are sad tonight. We can only say, "Goodnight, sweet princess: and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

November 03, 2015

Two to ponder

The Charleston Gazette-Mail's political report David Gutman, has been on quite a streak lately. In one recent article, he contrasted the centrality of coal to public discourse in WV with its relative absence on the national stage. Draw what conclusions from that you may.

In another, indirectly related, piece, he writes about how WV is one of a handful of states with a declining population. In fact, we lead the nation on that.

Apropos of nothing, the lyrics of a country song have recently come to mind: "If you're going through hell, keep on going."

November 02, 2015

It's not all bad, continued

I've been making a conscious effort here to highlight positive things happening in WV...when they happen. And they do. Here are two related bright spots:

Try This WV is an effort by many groups and individuals to promote healthy lifestyles, real (and local) food, and physical activity. The long range goal is to pull WV's abysmal health statistics out of the nether regions. Try This is a combination website, conference, mini-grant program and movement. This year it awarded more than $100,000 to local groups working on healthy projects.

One group with Try This connections that is making a splash in the northern panhandle is Grow Ohio Valley, which educates about food justice even while promoting local health food.

DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS. Here's the correct link for the NY Times editorial on Don Blankenship/Massey Energy/Upper Big Branch that I mentioned yesterday but didn't properly link. My bad!

November 01, 2015

Two from the Times

I'm grateful to live in a state where we had a political leader with enough humanity to expand Medicaid coverage to nearly 170,000 low income working West Virginians. (Yes, that would be Gov. Early Ray Tomblin.) Unfortunately, that isn't the case in many states. If you want to see what the all too predictable pattern looks like, click here.

Meanwhile, the Times ran this editorial last week on the case of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who is facing federal charges in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster which killed 29 WV coal miners.

October 30, 2015

Hoodoo, history, haints

Here's the Halloween edition of the Front Porch podcast. Our special guest is folklorist Gerald Milnes and the subject is appropriately spooky. If you listen, you will hear about my theory as to why WV is so witchy.

October 29, 2015

It's not all bad, continued

In these dark days, I try to remind myself as frequently as possible that it's not all bad all the time here. So here's the latest example: there are very, very, very few uninsured kids in WV. This took a lot of hard work by a lot of people from former Senator Jay Rockefeller on down to some very good friends of mine from the late 1990s down to today.

Congratulations, all. Victory lap!

October 28, 2015

Just saying

On more than one occasion, I have suggested here that WV change it's outdated state motto from "Mountaineers are always free" to "You can't make this **** up." If more evidence was needed for this, check out this story.

More on coal

Say what you want about WV Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, but he clearly isn't afraid to play the role of adult when needed. Meanwhile, the head of Appalachian Power had some interesting things to say about the future of coal.

I have a modest proposal to add to the coal debate. First, if state politicians want to oppose the Clean Power Plan, let them knock themselves out. But whatever happens or whoever gets blamed for the troubles in the coalfields, how about we take full advantage of federal proposals to help communities there.

October 26, 2015

Kind words

It's been kind of hard for me lately to say a whole lot of shiny happy things about the current state of West Virginia, so it was very nice to learn that noted "Affrilachian" (that would be African American and Appalachian) poet and professor Nikki Giovanni had some.

October 22, 2015

Addiction, politics, biscuits

Here's the latest Front Porch, which among other things talks about President Obama's recent visit to WV to discuss the addiction problem. It includes a few shameless appeals to get a local biscuit chain to underwrite the program.

October 21, 2015

Big news day in WV

The big news in WV today is the visit of President Obama to Charleston to discuss the opioid addiction crisis. This state leads the nation in overdose deaths.

You can read more or watch the whole thing here. The president also gave Gazette Mail reporter David Gutman and exclusive interview here.

Not surprisingly, coal supporters, many of whom blame all the ills of the industry on the president, also rallied. There was some racial dog whistling at the event. It is my long held position that the blackness of the president has been a gift from the gods both to the industry and to certain politicians.

The state's attorney general also used the visit to show his....position.

October 19, 2015

"Ripe for the picking"

Here's another great report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail's David Gutman. This one is on how WV came to lead the nation in overdoses.

ANOTHER BAD IDEA. Here's another report on why eliminating WV's personal property tax, a priority for big business, is a bad idea.

WELCOME CANINES! Enter the dog.

October 18, 2015

Good question

A select committee of mostly Republicans in the WV legislature have spent a good part of 2015 pondering state tax reform. It's pretty clear that what they'd like to do is further cut business taxes. But Gazette statehouse reporter Phil Kabler asks a good question: how does that plan play out when the state budget is going under?

COULD THERE BE A PATTERN HERE? In this piece, WV Public Broadcasting looks at the troubled history of safety violations at Upper Big Branch before the 2010 disaster.

October 15, 2015

It's not either or

Hoppy Kercheval is a big fish in the WV media pond with his conservative commentary and news reporting for WV Metro News. Occasionally I agree with him. I remember one time when that happened we agreed in an email exchange that on such occasions we should both reconsider our opinions.

He recently wrote a commentary in which he criticizes calls to diversify WV's economy while, correctly in my view, pointing out that a major problem is our low level of educational attainment.

I would only add that doing so would be one of the best ways to diversify our economy.

(I would also point out that big corporate tax cuts, which I believe he supported in the past, have also resulted in less funding for higher ed and higher tuition costs for WV students.)

I also sorta kinda agree with his implying that state government can't do a whole lot to plan an economy. I do think, however, that it can do the kinds of things that can position an economy to grow, like having a decent infrastructure, a great educational system, a skilled workforce and a decent quality of life.

October 14, 2015

A little good news

These days, I'll take any step towards social justice as a major win. And we had one last night, when the Wood County WV school board voted 3-2 to provide free school breakfasts to all students in the county effective immediately and free lunches to all students in 14 schools with high poverty rates.

This is a big deal for several reasons:

1. Good nutrition can improve educational results and reduce discipline problems;

2. Eliminating the application process for free and reduced lunches eliminates stigma associated with poverty;

3. Providing free meals eases the burden on families struggling to make ends meet; and

4. Eliminating the application process can actually save schools money and let school nutrition staff concentrate on feeding kids rather than paperwork and bill collecting.

This victory was a long time coming. The board voted down the measure in 2012 and 2013 and many community advocates worked hard to make this happen.

October 13, 2015

Gearing up for next year

The Our Children Our Future campaign to end child poverty in WV has had quite a string of victories in WV over the last three years under widely varying political settings. Each year, the campaign votes on its top ten issues. Metro News reports on the new platform here.

This year over 2600 people connected with the campaign voted on the issues. Here's a list of the current platform in order of the votes received:

1. Mental Health Matters

2. Protecting Quality Child Care Centers

3. Right to Work is Wrong

4. Second Chance for Employment

5. Tax Reform to Protect Roads, Children, Seniors, and Jobs

6. Juvenile Justice: Redirect and Reinvest

7. Stop Meth Labs

8. Increasing Local Food Access & Profitability

9. Afterschool for All!

10. Expand Broadband Access

You can read more about the issues here.

October 10, 2015

Some good advice

Today I managed to shuffle across the finish like of the Freedom's Run marathon that ran through Harpers Ferry and the Antietam battlefield after what seemed to be about a week. At the beginning of the race I was almost overcome with emotion thinking about all that happened here.

This was my second time, so I knew what was coming. Mentally, I divided the race into four parts: the start, the grind, the suck and the death march.

The start is about five miles around Harpers Ferry, much of which was downhill. The grind is 10 miles along the Potomac towpath trail, which is mostly flat. The suck is about five miles of nasty hills leading to and through the Antietam battlefield. The death march is the final six mile stretch.

Marathoners often talk about hitting the wall around mile 20, when the body runs out of readily available fuel. One advantage of having a bad heart was that I didn't really hit it then. One disadvantage is that it was all wall all the time.

One bright spot is going through Sharpsburg, MD, where some road angels often post clever signs encouraging flagging runners.

One such sign today really hit home: "Embrace the suck."

For the record, I'm generally opposed to misery, but when misery time rolls around, as it will, and when there's no way out for a while, embracing the suck is pretty good advice.

October 09, 2015

October 07, 2015

Here we go again

It looks like the state budget is tanking, due in part to declining severance tax revenues. In addition to the usual services and things like higher ed, this time K-12 education is up for cuts as well.

(I hate to say I told you so, but remember those millions in corporate tax cuts that were supposed to cut jobs but didn't?)

Meanwhile. the Republican-led tax reform select committee is pondering a suggestion to shift more taxes from businesses to families and homeowners.

Nice.I mean it worked so well last time, right?

October 05, 2015

WV in the news

It's been kind of a big news day for West Virginia. Here's my pick of what 's interesting:

FIRST, on the Don Blankenship trial, here's the latest.

SECOND, on the Republican-led effort to drive down wages in WV, read more here.

THIRD, for a look at images from the coalfields, click here.

FOURTH, for an interesting view from the Washington Post on the WV political climate, click here.

October 02, 2015

What would Dante say?

The Gentle Reader may recall an expose by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News a while back about how coal companies, their lawyers, and a lab at Johns Hopkins routinely collaborated to deny miners black lung benefits.

According to news reports, Hopkins has terminated that program, which will forever be a scar on the institution. It should never have existed to start with. I wonder how many miners died before getting the benefits they deserved

One doctor there, and I use the term loosely, is said not to have found a single case of black lung in the more than 1,500 cases he investigated. Since then, the federal government has informed around 1,100 miners that they were wrongly denied benefits.Of course, they only informed the ones who still lived.

All of which makes me wonder what circle in Hell Dante would assign to those responsible. I'm guessing it would be somewhere in Malebolge, the eight circle, which is reserved for fraud, or maybe even the icy ninth, which is reserved for those who betray. I think it's a safe bet that he'd put them way down.

October 01, 2015

Hypocrisy, skulduggery and one to watch

Perhaps the Gentle Reader will recall the crocodile tears shed by political candidates who oozed with compassion for miners and were eager to fight against the alleged "war on coal."

(The winning state candidates who did this demonstrated their sincerity in the last legislative session by rolling back some coal mine safety measures despite the firm opposition of the United Mine Workers.)

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the only member of WV's congressional delegation to support a bill making it simpler for deserving miners to get black lung benefits is Joe Manchin. This would be another put up or shut up moment for people who apparently have little inclination to do either.

NOW SKULDUGGERY. Workforce WV just completed a survey mandated by the legislature last year to calculate prevailing wages for public construction projects. It looks like state legislative leaders really wanted to kill prevailing wage and drag down conditions for working people all along.

NOW ONE TO WATCH. I'm referring of course to the trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

September 30, 2015

Totally disinterested

According to WV Public Broadcasting, business groups have been shoveling big bucks to a committee charged with "reforming" WV's tax system. Golly gee, reckon they are selflessly concerned with the common good? Surely ROI (return on investment) has nothing to do with it, right?

IT'S NOT ALL BAD. I'm not always or even usually on the same side as the writers on the Daily Mail side of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, but they gave a nice shoutout to a worthy program helping kids and families in a community with lots of challenges.

MINDFULNESS FOR ATHLETES seems to help. Come to think of it, this shouldn't be a huge surprise. I've often found it helpful to pay attention to how miserable I am during endurance events.

September 29, 2015

Getting it right

This op-ed of mine ran in yesterday's Gazette. It's about the study of right-to-work-for-less mandated by the legislature earlier this year. It also gave me a chance to give some love to one of my dear departed professors.

Most people probably had a teacher or professor who left a mark. One who did for me was late Marshall sociology professor Bill Westbrook, who some readers may recall.

When I knew him, he taught basic and advanced research and statistics, four classes I avoided as long as possible. Given the option, I preferred to BS my way through theory classes. But you couldn’t BS Westbrook.

He taught that doing research right really matters, especially when peoples’ lives are at stake.

A case in point is the Republican-led Legislature’s decision to have WVU study proposed “right to work” legislation (RTW), which I think of as “right to work for less.” I believe this legislation, if enacted, would reduce wages, benefits and living standards for workers across the state, union and non-union.

But love it or hate it, it’s important to get the research right. We’re playing for real marbles.

Westbrook emphasized three things relevant to any credible RTW study: causality, validity and reliability.

We’re great at shooting from the hip about cause and effect. Turn on any talking heads TV show or listen to many conversations and you’ll hear all kinds of wild claims about this causing that.

For example, a friend of mine believes that unpleasant events are caused by the planet Mercury being in retrograde, whatever that means. A school friend once went on an extended rant about how juvenile misbehavior was caused by teaching evolution. (I was tempted to interject that the delinquents I knew didn’t seem to grasp the finer points of natural selection, but he was on a roll.)

Supporters of RTW often claim that huge benefits will follow as a direct result or that harm is done by not implementing it.

I learned from Westbrook that before you can say X causes Y, three criteria need to be met, two of which are easy and one of which isn’t. First, the proposed cause and effect have to be associated or correlated. Second, the cause has to come before the effect. Then the kicker: you have to be able to rule out everything else. Most of the time, direct causality is hard to establish. Often, the best we can do is to calculate how much we can reduce our errors if we take certain variables into account.

Two other key ideas for a credible RTW study are validity and reliability. To be valid, the methods chosen need to be ones that can actually measure what one is trying to study. Thermometers are great for measuring heat, but not so much for measuring speed. Clocks are great for measuring time but lousy for measuring weight. Individual case studies or surveys might be right for some kinds of research but not for others, which may require statistical analysis, controlled experiments or other methods.

Reliability simply means that if others repeat the study using similar valid means, they should get the same result. That too can be a kicker. Several years ago, some scientists made worldwide headlines that they’d discovered cold fusion. If that was really true, it would provide a clean and virtually endless supply of energy. Alas, their research couldn’t be replicated.

Now back to RTW. Recently, two heavy hitting economists, Dr. Richard Freeman of Harvard and Dr. Paula Voos of Rutgers, sent WVU a letter outlining five standards for a credible (i.e. valid and reliable) study of the subject. Here goes:

•  First, the study should measure outcomes most directly impacted by RTW (i.e. weakening unions and lowering wages and benefits), rather than factors such as per capita income, which includes things like profits, dividends and interest income.

n Second, the data should cover a relevant time period, with more recent information given greater weight. “Data that go back to the 1950s or 1960s are less relevant to assessing the likely impact of a RTW law in 2015 than data for recent years, when globalization and inequality have massively changed the U.S. labor market.”

•  Third, the study should select “appropriate and robust statistical design.” This means controlling as much as possible for other factors that could influence a state’s economy and growth, such as geography, natural resources, etc. Translation: not shooting from the hip about causality.

•  Fourth, the study should compare with already existing research and “consult the major, rigorous studies done by other organizations,” particularly a recent study by the University of Kentucky. In addition, “It is critical that any study make its data and methodology transparent and available to the public so that others can test and confirm the results.” Translation: transparency helps ensure the study was valid and its results will be reliable.

•  Finally, the study should rely on quantitative evidence, not anecdotes or testimonies from business groups, unions or other interested parties.

Freeman and Voos argue that this is a big decision that should be made only after a careful look at all the possible upsides and downsides and a careful review of how this would or would not fit in with the state’s economic development strategies.

This is no time to shoot from the hip — especially when West Virginia’s working people are the targets.

September 28, 2015

Another eclipse

I tried to take a picture of the eclipse with my phone but it obviously didn't turn out well. Still the lunar eclipse reminded me of a time long ago when a similar event brought disaster.

It happened during the Peloponnesian War between ancient Athens and Sparta and its  allies . The war lasted from 431 to 404 BC and sped the decline of Greece. It went through several fits and starts.

One of the worst turns was the Athenian decision to send an expedition to Syracuse, a fabulously wealth city in Sicily. For all kinds of reasons let's just say it turned out bad.

But when the Athenians were finally about to cut their losses and head for home, a lunar eclipse occurred. The Athenian general Nicias was given to believe in omens and, after consulting priests, decided to way 27 days.

That was just enough time for the Syracusans to seal their doom. With few exceptions, those of the Athenians who weren't massacred wound up dying in the stone quarries where they were kept in appalling conditions.

I draw two lessons from this:

1. just because you can go to war doesn't mean it's a good idea; and

2. when it's time to go, get the hell out.

September 27, 2015

Two ironies and a novelty

It occurs to me lately that the world is increasingly divided into two kinds of places: those in which it is difficult or impossible to stay and those to which it is difficult or impossible to go. And the difference between the two is shrinking.

AND HERE'S ANOTHER IRONY. Former Massey CEO Don Blankenship has achieved total political victory even while he faces criminal charges from the Upper Big Branch disaster.

NOW FOR THE NOVELTY: would you believe Buddhist campus sororities and fraternities?

September 25, 2015

Of popes and bears

Two of the most common rhetorical questions one is likely to encounter are:

1. Is the pope Catholic?


2. Does a bear relieve him- or herself in the woods?

(Sometimes the questions are combined, although I don't believe the evidence is as clear about the religious affiliations of our ursine friends or the sylvan habits of the papacy.)

Still, what a coincidence is this: on the same day that Pope Francis gave his historic speech to Congress, the Spousal Unit and I saw a black bear while walking in the woods.

Holy Jungian synchronicity, Batman!

September 24, 2015

An idea that makes sense

Like it or not, natural gas production has taken off in WV over the last few years. The question now is, are we going to get anything out of it? My pals at the WV Center on Budget and Policy have an interesting idea: increase severance taxes on the production of natural gas liquids BUT create credits for companies that use the product for manufacturing purposes in West Virginia. You can read more here.

PREDICTABLY SAD: WV's congressional leaders on Pope Francis and climate change.

September 22, 2015

Some good news, with an example of misinterpretation of the obvious

Let's start with some good news: last week, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that the number of uninsured West Virginians has fallen below 10 percent, thanks largely to Gov. Tomblin's decision to expand Medicaid back in the year of grace 2013. That decision alone has brought coverage to 165,000 West Virginians.

The Daily Mail side of the editorial pages thinks this is a bad thing because it presumably disincentives work. That might be the case if employer-provided health insurance was the norm. Apparently the editorial writer didn't get the memo that employer-provided health insurance is declining and never was an option for millions of US workers. Another memo that was apparently lost would have explained that you have to work to qualify for the expanded Medicaid program.

September 17, 2015

O little refugee camp of Bethlehem

I got back from the trip to Palestine and Israel Sunday, but haven't had much chance to blog since then. This time, I'd like to share some images from the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The camp was established in 1950 by refugees from Jerusalem and Hebron. According to the UN, there were around 4,700 residents there. The camp hasn't grown with the size of the population.

For the first few years, residents lived in tents, but gradually more substantial shelters were built. Sometimes people wonder why refugees stayed in the camps for so long. For one thing, there aren't a whole lot of places to go. For another, being a refugee or a lineal descendant of a refugee provides certain status and protections from the United Nations Relief and Work Agency.

Also, many people who live there dream of returning to their homes. Hence the frequency of the key symbolism.

Access to water and electricity is iffy. One way to spot a Palestinian home is the water tanks on the room. Sometimes the supply is cut for hours or days with no warning. And water is a big deal in that part of the world. One Palestinian father told our delegation that when his daughters are able to travel outside the area, they don't talk about scenery. Instead, they say "It was the best shower of my life."

The wall built by Israel around 2004 has made life, work, and mobility difficult, but at least it's a place for murals.

This is a particular sore spot for many Palestinians.

Narrow streets.

No comments necessary here.

This is a school for Palestinian girls. There are no windows on the side facing the wall. This is intended to keep out bullets.

One more anecdote. One man who had three daughters recently found out his wife is pregnant with a boy. Traditionally, this is an occasion for joy, but he says he prefers girls. Life is very dangerous for boys and young men, who can be swept up in arrests. Children as young as 12 can be tried and sentenced in military courts, albeit "juvenile" ones.

September 11, 2015

What Gaza could be

"But hell can endure for only a limited period, and life will begin again one day."--Albert Camus
I've been blogging about Gaza the last few days. I could do more, but there are other places to discuss while they are still fresh in mind. But I have some things to say before moving on.

First, as a West Virginian, I know that even the down and out places in the world aren't down and out all the time. There is joy as well as sorrow among the ashes. Or coal slurry. I don't want those who look at this blog to think of Gaza as only a smoking rubble or place under siege.

For one thing, I don't think I knew what feasting really was until our AFSC delegation came here. And that's what eating fish is meant to be.

When Gaza's--and this entire region's--season in hell ends (inshallah), it could actually be a destination resort.

It would take a lot for that to happen.The UN recently reported that without rapid remedial action, live will become "unliveable" by 2020.

When our delegation spoke with young people in AFSC's program there, many of us became emotional about their plight. One of the young people spoke up, saying something like "Why do you cry for us? Despite all this we are living our lives."

Despite all the death and destructon, I wouldn't bet against life here.

September 10, 2015

Scenes from Gaza

It's not easy get into Gaza these days. It requires a permit from the Israeli government. If you get that, there's a grueling checkpoint that involves inspections and questioning on the Israeli side, which can take a long time. Two other checkpoints follow, one by the Palestinian Authority and the other by Hamas.

Our AFSC delegation went to a high point of the city to observe damage.

There was plenty of it.

For a little background, check this earlier post.

Still, people are trying to rebuild.

Money and new materials are scarce since the Palestinians have no control of their borders.

Still people go about the business of life.

Young people in an AFSC program there work towards a better future despite incredible challenges.

I don't have any pictures to go with this, but one evening we met with a professor and his students who have published a book in English (that was translated into several other languages) called Gaza Talks Back. It was a great discussion, not only about the situation there but also about the power of writing and the love of language and literature. Particular favorite English speaking writers were Twain, Hemingway, and Dickens.

Not exactly what you might expect. But you can expect anything here.

September 08, 2015

Gaza on my mind, 1

This isn't the whole story.

I'm not sure I'm up for this post. Aside from the fact that it's really late Jerusalem time, visiting the Palestinian region of Gaza was one of the most intense experiences I've had. I may not be ready to write much about it, but here's a start.

A little preface. Gaza has been called an open air prison and that's not far from the mark, although parts of it are really beautiful and full of life.You may recall that armed conflict broke out most recently between Israel and Gaza in the summer of 2014. According to the UN, those 51 days of conflict resulted in 2,200 Palestinian and 71 Israeli deaths.

Of these fatalities, 1,492 Palestinian civilians of all ages were killed. Israel lost  a total of 71 people, 66 of whom were military losses. It's late and I'm so tired that I'm not sure about my math, but I think that's around 31 Palestinian deaths to 1 Israeli fatality, with the understanding that one death is too many.

According to the UN, "Israeli attacks striking residential buildings accounted for a significant number of civilian casualties, raising concerns about respect for the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in attack under international humanitarian law (IHL)."

More on how it looks now to come.

September 07, 2015

It's not all shrines

I've just gotten back from an overnight trip to Gaza and a day in Ramallah as part of an American Friends Service Committee to Israel and Palestine, but I'm not even ready to go there. The experiences were so intense I'll need some time to sort them out. Instead, I'd like to share some pictures from East Jerusalem. Yes, that would be the part that is mostly Palestinian, not counting settlements.
There's a bit of a contrast between the west and east sides of the city. Some differences may include things like a reliable supply of power and water and not having your house torn down.

Then there's this eight meter high security barrier wall that started to spring up in the first half of the 2000s.

Sometimes you need to read the fine print.

September 05, 2015

Jerusalem views

It was another amazing day in Jerusalem I'm leaving out the politics and social commentary for now and just sharing some of the skyline. 

The Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives.

 A view of the Mount of Olives.

 Speaking of which, this is my first olive tree.

 The Golden Gate to the Old City. According to Jewish tradition, this gate will only open when the Messiah appears. Let's just say it didn't see much action today.

 The Jewish Old Cemetery on the lower slope of the Mount of Olives.
 The Muslim Dome of the Rock in the Old City. Behind it is the Wailing Wall, the remnants of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 by the legions of soon-to-be-emperor Titus.


 The Garden of Gethsemane.This place was really moving to me. In case you weren't big on the New Testament, this is where, after the Last Supper, Jesus prayed for the cup of crucifixion to be taken away but submitted in the end to the will of God. He was arrested shortly after. He was said to have brought three disciples, Peter, James and John, to wait while he prayed. They all fell asleep. This caused Jesus to unleash another of his great one-liners: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

A closer view of the Church of Mary Magdalene.

 The Lion's Gate to the Old City.

Sorry, I can't remember the name of this garden. Good though.
By tradition, although I wouldn't bet the farm on it, this is where Jesus was condemned.

Next time, more edgy.

September 04, 2015

An evening in Jerusalem

It's my first night in Jerusalem. One of the first things I saw was an Israeli-led protest of the eviction of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah community.

There was drumming and chanting.

The security forces were there, but the demonstration was peaceful on all sides.
Here are some views of the skyline.

An Anglican cathedral dedicated to St. George was an island of quiet.

Inside East Jerusalem's Old City.

By tradition, this is part of the "way of sorrows" Jesus walked en route to his crucifixion.

According to tradition, this is where St. Veronica wiped the face of Jesus with a cloth that became a sacred relic.

This is said to be the place where Jesus dropped the cross and Simon of Cyrene was told to carry it for him. I didn't make it along the rest of the Via Dolorosa tonight. But let's just say that the way of sorrows is still pretty crowded here. And it could be getting worse.

A look from the road. More to come.