April 29, 2017

Solidarity forever. And now

Lots of people in and out of West Virginia may not realize that the song "Solidarity Forever," the international anthem of the labor movement, was inspired by labor struggles right here. Specifically, Ralph Chaplin, journalist and songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World was inspired to write it after witnessing union miners in Kanawha County during the 1912-1923 Paint Creek strike.

In that spirit, I'd like to share a blog post by my friend and co-worker Arnie Alpert, aka New Hampshire Slim, who works on social justice issues for the American Friends Service Committee in that state. The post is from his blog InZaneTimes and is adapted from a talk he gave in observation of Worker's Memorial Day:
An Injury to One is Still an Injury to All
Four years ago, this past Monday a building in Bangladesh called “Rana Plaza” collapsed and came crashing down.
The building housed five garment factories which employed 5000 people.
Brands that were sourcing from the factories in Rana Plaza building include Benetton, Bon Marche, Cato Fashions, The Children’s Place, Walmart, and JC Penney.
The owners ignored warnings about the building’s structural flaws.
The workers did not have a union.
The laws were weak and unenforced.
When the building collapsed, one thousand one hundred and thirty-four workers lost their lives. Thousands more were injured.
The scale of the disaster was so large, and the capacity of NGOs like the International Labor Rights Forum and the Clean Clothes Campaign was strong enough, that even though the workers were unorganized it became possible to pressure the companies and the government to reach agreements for inspections, compensation for affected workers and families, and renovating factories to make them safer.
But workers in Bangladesh still face repression when they try to organize.
That makes reforms hard to defend, especially when workers are inter-changeable pieces in a global supply chain, thousands of miles away from the consumers of the products they make, and several corporate intermediaries away from the firms whose logos they sew onto the apparel they make.
That’s one reason why we need to stand together, as workers, as consumers, as citizens.
One hundred and thirty-one years ago next Monday, hundreds of thousands of American workers went on strike calling for an eight-hour day. (The eight-hour movement followed the earlier ten-hour movement, which was led largely by young women like New Hampshire’s Sara Bagley and conducted in places like Dover, Manchester, Exeter, and Lowell.)
In Chicago, at the same time, a strike was going on at the McCormick Reaper plant, whose owner was trying to replace workers with machines. Several days of protest followed the May Day strike. Police killed 2 strikers on May 3. During a rally the next day protesting killings by police, a bomb went off. No one ever knew who was responsible. Several police officers and strikers lost their lives in the violence.
To be brief, Albert Parsons and August Spies, leaders of the eight-hour movement, were blamed, tried, convicted, and executed, despite the lack of any evidence tying them to the violence. (Hanging, not injection of toxic chemicals, was the method used back then.)
The following year, May Day was observed in their honor throughout the world and became known as International Workers Day.
In this country, over the past decade or so, International Workers Day has become associated with protests, rallies, strikes, and marches led by immigrant workers. That includes this coming Monday in Manchester, 5 to 7 pm, in Veterans Park.
Why does this matter?
When immigrants are afraid to complain about the toxic chemicals they use to clean our schools or the excessive heat in bakeries, factories, and laundries, the rights of all workers to a safe workplace is threatened.
When immigrants can be scapegoated and threatened with loss of jobs, the rights of all workers are weakened.
When capital can cross borders with barely any restriction, but workers face walls and troops, we have to stand together.
When workers are so desperately poor that they will take jobs that put their lives at risk, we have to stand together.
When the number of people forced to flee their homes dues to violence, climate disruption, and economic desperation is at an all-time high, we have to stand together.
When xenophobic and nativist movements are on the rise the world over, we have to stand together.
When workers anywhere are afraid to organize, we have to stand together.
And when workers do organize, despite the fear, despite the risks, despite the threats, despite the scapegoating, we have to stand with them.
During Workers Memorial Week, we say, injustice anywhere is still a threat to justice everywhere.
We still say, an injury to one is an injury to all.
We still say, Solidarity forever.
(I wish I'd said that. Thanks, Arnie!)

April 27, 2017

Act now to protect West Virginia's future



WV Governor Jim Justice has issued a call for a special session of the legislature to start on May 4 to work on the state budget. The governor seems confident that a deal is within reach, having told those attending a press conference that “I think we’re on a pathway to pass a budget that’s going to be really special,”

Of course things could be "special" in all kinds of ways. While I appreciate the governor's attempt to reach a deal with the Republican legislature, I hope he doesn't reach a "compromise" that would hurt working families while giving a tax cut to the wealthy and causing more serious fiscal problems down the road. You can read more on that here and here.

This is a time when revenue increases are needed to preserve the things we value most: schools, higher education, infrastructure, kids, seniors, veterans, parks, recreation, etc. That's one thing. But making the tax system more unfair to low income families while giving a break to the well off is just wrong.

As my friend Sean O'Leary from the WV Center on Budget and Policy recently tweeted, "If WV is going to increase taxes on working families, it should be for investing in schools, roads. Not to pay for tax cuts on the wealthy."

If the Republicans want to force the issue--and they have the votes--then so be it. Let them own it. All of it.

So what can you do about it? Several things, including:

*Call the governor's office and say something like, "Thank Gov. Justice for fighting for a budget that's good for all West Virginians. But please don't accept a compromise that hurts working West Virginians and makes our problems worse in the future."

*Contact your legislators. You can find out who they are here. The legislative website is here.

*Learn more by watching this Facebook Live presentation by Sean Monday, May 1 at 5:30.

*Show up at the capitol on Thursday, May 4 at 9:00 to stand up for The People's Budget.

Game on. And for real.

April 20, 2017

A new motto?

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about how the website WalletHub came up with a list of the best and worst places for millennials to live.

It’s no surprise that West Virginia came out on the bottom. But, as my friend Stephen Smith wrote with Pastor Mason Ballard in a Gazette-Mail op-ed online, it’s the best state to come to, if you want to make a difference.

And God knows we need that.

One of the reasons West Virginia might be unattractive to younger newcomers is the fact that it’s kind of falling apart, and the Republican majority in the Legislature apparently wants to pass a poverty budget that keeps things that way, by cutting K-12 and higher education, slashing social services and neglecting to invest in our people and infrastructure.Gazette-Mail reporter

Phil Kabler had a great riff on that theme in a recent column in which he envisioned the state as a shabby and unmaintained apartment for rent in a run-down neighborhood where schools are neglected and teachers laid off. Who would want to live in a place like that unless they had to?

One thing that could make things better in the short term is a budget that invests in people and infrastructure, along the lines that Gov. Jim Justice has proposed. Before a certain memorable news conference, lots of people I know were hoping he would veto the Legislature’s proposed budget. And some of us, including me, sounded the alarm and urged people to contact the governor in support of a veto.

I guess that’s something we can scratch off the list. And that’s no (metaphorical) BS.

It’s hard to tell how the budget battle will go, but there’s a lot riding on it. And a lot depends on whether and how much ordinary West Virginians are willing to stand up in support of the kind of budget that protects our people and gets us back on the road.

I do hope that, if and when a budget deal is sealed, it won’t involve a “compromise” that shifts the weight of taxes to those who can least afford it and sets up another fiscal crisis down the road.

Meanwhile, recent events have convinced me that I should devote my remaining days to updating the state motto to bring it up (or down) to date. “Mountaineers are always free” was great, but more suited to the days when our appetite for fighting for ordinary working people was more apparent.

My suggested replacement is: “You can’t make this **** up.” At least until such time as the other one fits again.

(Note: I even started looking for how to say this in Latin, until I was reminded that, as of 2016, the Legislature made English the state’s official language. I guess I can scratch that off the list, too.)

(This op-ed ran in today's Gazette-Mail)

April 17, 2017

Hands up

One argument often made in defense of slashing programs for low income and working people is that these discourage or "disincentivize" work. However, as Neil Irwin makes clear in this New York Times article, it's often the other way around.

According to Irwin, "Certain social welfare policies, according to an emerging body of research, may actually encourage more people to work and enable them to do so more productively."

For example the Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable credit for workers with low and moderate (by WV standards), is a huge boon to millions of families. Studies suggest that the EITC encourages workforce participation by rewarding work. One study found that by 1999, 460,000 more women heads of household were working that would have been the case without the EITC.

(There's been an effort in WV for several years to create a state version, but that hasn't happened yet.)

Child care subsidies are another case in point. Costs for this can easily exceed college expenses. And they usually hit families at a time when their earnings haven't peaked. We've had several scrapes in West Virginia aimed at holding the line on these subsidies.

It only makes sense in a state with the lowest workforce participation rates to do what we can to make work affordable.

Research also supports the long term benefit of SNAP (formerly food stamps). A study of the early days of food stamps, a program that was rolled out at different times around. the country, found that those children who received this kind of nutritional support were more likely to be working decades later than those who didn't.

Specifically, a study titled "Long Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net" by
Hilary W. Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach  and Douglas Almond concluded that 

access to food stamps in utero and in early childhood leads to significant reductions in metabolic syndrome conditions (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes) in adulthood and, for women, increases in economic self-sufficiency (increases in educational attainment, earnings, income, and decreases in welfare participation).
This is another reason why expanding access to free school breakfasts and lunches to everyone is so important. This is one area in which West Virginia is a national leader.

Another intervention that pays huge dividends is early childhood education. Nobel economics laureate James Heckman assets that "Evidence shows that supplementing the family environments of disadvantaged children with educational resources is an effective and cost-efficient way to provide equal opportunity, achievement, and economic success."

These kinds of investments offer more promise of promoting shared prosperity than the current slash and burn approach to federal and state budgets.







April 15, 2017

You really can't make this **** up

The website WalletHub recently came up with a list of the best and worst places for millennials to live. It's no surprise that West Virginia came out on the bottom. But, as my friend Stephen Smith wrote with Pastor Mason Ballard, it's the best state to come to if you want to make a difference. And God knows we need that.

One of the reasons WV is unattractive to newcomers is the fact that it's kind of falling apart and the Republican majority in the legislature wants to pass a poverty budget that keeps things that way. Gazette-Mail reporter Phil Kabler had a great riff on that theme in the first part of this column.

One thing that could make things better is a budget that invests in people and infrastructure, as Gov. Jim Justice has proposed. Some of us were hoping he would veto the  legislature's proposed budget. And some of us, including me, sounded the  alarm and urged people to contact the governor in support of a veto.

I guess that's something to scratch off the list. And that's no (metaphorical) BS.

Two last thoughts:

*first, this really is the year of political props; and

*second, as I've argued before, we really should change the state motto from "Mountaineers are always free" to "You can't make this **** up" At least until we deserve the old motto again.

April 12, 2017

Easy action alert to protect WV

If you live in WV and want to do a good deed for the day, here's your chance. Call Gov. Jim Justice's office at 304-558-2000 and tell whoever answers that you want the governor to veto the bad budget passed by the legislature and fight for one good for WV kids, families and seniors. Don't forget to thank him for his work on this so far.

Also, if you're around Charleston, which I won't be, show up to support a decent budget tomorrow (Thursday, April 13) at 2:00 in the lower rotunda of the capitol. The governor is expected to make an important announcement about the budget at that time.

You can read more here,

April 11, 2017

Poverty pays if you aren't poor

“Poverty pays unless you’re poor.”

So said Don West, a rebellious Appalachian poet and educator and friend of mine who devoted his life to the struggle against it.

The evidence suggests he’s right.

Way back in 1971, sociologist Herbert Gans enumerated the different ways poverty benefits the non-poor in an essay titled “The Uses of Poverty: the Poor Pay All.” His findings hold up pretty well.

Then as now, it turns out that those who benefit the most from it are the wealthy.

Among the functions of poverty are these:

*Poverty ensures that the “dirty work” of society gets done in the form of the many jobs that are low-pay low-trust and low-status but are absolutely necessary for a society to work.

A pool unemployed and underemployed people also imposes “discipline” in the labor market and helps drive down wages for all workers. A bad job looks pretty good when you step over homeless people or drive past people holding “Will work for food” signs on your way to work. When hundreds apply for a handful of living wage jobs, it sends a strong message to the lucky few that they can be easily replaced.

This population can also be mobilized by the powerful and wealthy as strike-breakers or cannon fodder in war time or even as angry mobs that can be used to target other vulnerable populations.

*Because the poor work at low wages, they can perform the tasks (cleaning, child care, etc.) that make the leisure of the affluent possible. They also pay a higher proportion of their income in sales and consumption taxes, something likely to get worse if some in the Legislature get their way.

*Poverty creates a lot of jobs and economic opportunities for people, businesses and organizations which “service” the poor, from pawn shops to plasma centers to professionals to prisons.

*Poor people can be counted on to buy or otherwise consume the goods that others don’t want, whether it’s old food, second hand goods, or used cars. In a twist Gans couldn’t have imagined, huge corporations now get major breaks for dumping unwanted and often unhealthy food products to pantries and charities.


*Poor people are an ideal group to punish in order to uphold social norms. As Gans put it,
“To justify the desirability of hard work, thrift, honest, and monogamy, for example, the defenders of these norms must be able to find people who can be accused of being lazy, spendthrift, dishonest, and promiscuous. Although there is some evidence that the poor are about as moral and law-abiding as anyone else, they are more likely to be caught and punished when they participate in deviant acts.”

They are also less able to defend themselves against stereotypes and legal punishments.

*Speaking of deviance and social norms, the non-poor can derive a vicarious thrill from contemplating the real or imagined moral laxity of the poor.

*The affluent also have a long history of what I call cultural strip-mining, which consists of finding, commodifying, and profiting from the cultural creations of the non-wealthy. Think blues music, mountain ballads, folk art, etc. To paraphrase the Clash, the spice of poverty adds life where there isn’t any.

*A poor population helps boost the status and self-esteem of those who aren’t poor. It also gives the aristocracy a chance to display its generosity on the “worthy poor,” which presumably helps justify its existence.

*Because of their relative powerlessness, Gans noted that poor people can absorb the costs of change. If you need to wipe out a neighborhood for a new highway or development project, close down a school or locate a toxic dump, poor communities are a ready target.

There are also a lot of ways the affluent can use the poor for political purposes, some of which Gans couldn’t have anticipated.

He noted that “An economy based on the ideology of laissez-faire requires a deprived population that is allegedly unwilling to work or that can be considered inferior because it must accept charity or welfare in order to survive.”

An “unworthy” population is a powerful argument against working for a more just social order, since presumably such people would benefit the most from such an arrangement.

Politicians such as Ronald Reagan and many others elevated this process to an art by stirring racially-charged resentments against mythical “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” buying steaks with food stamps. Wealthy people and corporations are still reaping the benefits of that strategy.
Tapping such resentment served to further enrich the already wealthy and contribute to a level of inequality unprecedented in recent history.

Finally, and this is just me talking, it seems like some people in positions of power and influence derive some kind of gratification by proposing and imposing laws and policies that impose humiliation, surveillance and degradation on poor people. The pleasure seems to be enhanced when masked as compassion. To me it’s the political equivalent of bullying or cruelty to animals.

Considering all the benefits the poor convey to the wealthy, there doesn’t seem to be much gratitude. But I guess that would defeat the purpose.

I’m reminded of some lines by the English poet William Blake:

“Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.”

April 10, 2017

It's over. Ish.

The WV legislative session, one of the weirder ones in recent memory, officially ended this weekend. Sort of. There's the teeny tiny issue of the budget, where major disagreements remain between Democratic Gov. Jim Justice and the Republican legislature.

Specifically, the budget has no new revenue and deep cuts to programs like Medicaid. When you figure in the federal match, this could mean a cut of $200 million. The governor hasn't vetoed the budget yet as far as I can tell, but it seems likely to me that this will happen and the games will begin. The deadline to state shutdown is July 1.

On the bright side, the budget passed isn't as awful as some that were proposed during the session. More work is needed to pass a decent one.

On the brighter side, I'm especially happy about two victories, one of which involved killing a bill and the other involved passing one.

I'm actually gladdest about the bill that died, a mean-spirited SNAP bill that would have taken away food assistance from the poorest West Virginians while also taking millions out of the state economy.

The one that passed will give people with felony convictions the chance to petition the courts to have the offence reduced to a misdemeanor after several years. It's weaker than what we would have liked but it's way better than it was before.

Mulling over that and other limited victories has led me to formulate a maxim which I plan to copyright:

"Those who minimize hard won but limited victories for social justice tend not to be the people who worked their ass off to win them."

And you can quote me on that.

April 03, 2017

Time to clear the palate?

There's a big dust up going on at the WV capitol right now over a medical marijuana bill. So far it's generating a lot of heat. (Did you notice I resisted the temptation to make a cheesy smoke joke?)

 Earlier today, there was a public hearing on nasty changes to the SNAP program. I was one of around 20 people who opposed it. The only one who spoke in favor was a paid lobbyist.

There are several bad budget bills floating around. Here's just one example from the senate.

I mostly just want things to be over.

If you just want a change from all that, in the most recent Front Porch program/podcast from WV Pubic Broadcasting, we talk about such burning issues as:

*Is it cool for public schools to teach little kids that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs?; and

*What we think about Mike Pence's rules for having dinner or drinks with someone of the opposite sex.

WV Public Broadcasting also re-released a popular Front Porch program in which I attempt to teach the uninitiated how to speak Appalachian.

(The Spousal Unit noted an error I made in  the podcast while discussing cool forms of Spanish profanity in which I called a verb a noun. I usually don't make mistakes where profanity is concerned.)

April 01, 2017

Holy trifecta, Batman!

One of the meaner bills going through the state legislature in WV is SB 60, which would punish poor people in need of food assistance, take millions away from local businesses and the state's economy, and cost taxpayers money.

The Gazette had a great editorial about it, which is worth a look. The paper also ran this op-ed of mine this week, recycled from blog posts here.

The bill is now before the House Judiciary Committee (contact information here). If you're from WV, please contact the committee's leaders, particularly Chairman John Shott. You can take make up your own message or recycle the first paragraph of this post.

For local folks, there will be a public hearing in House Chambers Monday April 3 at 10:00. Please go if you can. Sign up the hour before the hearing.

(As a bonus, here are some old Goat Rope reflections on the art of the public hearing in WV politics.)

Thanks!

March 28, 2017

Back in play

Who knows what will happen with the fate of the Affordable Care Act, but I think it's pretty cool that less than a week after the "replacement" bill failed, the Kansas legislature voted to expand Medicaid to low income working families. Kansas Governor Brownback, who has a history of wrecking things, is likely to veto it, but this is still pretty major.

Medicaid expansion is once again being talked about in other holdout states. The more the merrier. It's been a life saver in WV. Literally.

March 26, 2017

A kick in the assets

There are a lot of bad bills making their way through the WV legislature, but one that particularly gets under my skin is aimed at making life harder for people who need to rely on SNAP (formerly food stamps) for food assistance.

Senate Bill 60, linked above, isn't as bad as it used to be, thanks to amendments by rational legislators. But it's still pretty bad.

Let's start with the math. At a committee meeting last week, it came out that the proposed legislation would cost around a million per year in state tax dollars to pay private corporations to profit at public expense in "verifying" eligibility for benefits--in order to remove $5 million in federal dollars from the WV economy. That's money spent at local stores and farmers markets supporting local jobs.

One more time: we'd be paying corporations to take away money from WV. Really.

In chess, this would be like sacrificing a rook to take a pawn.

Even worse is a mean spirited asset limit which would knock people off the rolls and make it harder for low income families to get back on their feet. Most states, 34 in all, including not just West Virginia but some of the most politically conservative southern states, have eliminated the asset limit because it's expensive to implement, useless and just plain mean.

As the folks at the WV Center on Budget and Policy note,
The reason most states have removed their asset test from SNAP is that they recognized that it was counter-productive and punishes families for saving money for emergencies or for their children’s future while they are temporarily enrolled in SNAP.  By removing the asset test or limit, it simplifies the application process, reduces errors associated with assets and vehicle information.
Asset limits would hit older adults particularly hard, potentially wiping out retirement savings. But it could also eat away family savings for emergency or for college education...so that people could get the equivalent of $4 a day for food.

Like unemployment insurance, SNAP benefits are counter-cyclical, which means they kick in more when times are bad, helping to keep families and communities going. Most people receiving SNAP only do so for a limited time. Here's more from my policy wonk friends:
Because SNAP works as a temporary stopgap – with 58 percent of new receipts leaving the program within a year – it is vital for them to retain their savings as they get back on their feet. Studies have also shown that asset limits (and more stringent vehicles asset tests) have no impact on the length of stay in SNAP.
A study by the Urban Institute found that states with relaxed asset limits make it easier for low income people to bounce back and participate in the mainstream economy (such as having bank accounts):
Taken together, relaxed asset limits increase households’ financial security and stability by increasing savings and reducing benefit fluctuations, and they can decrease administrative program costs when fewer people cycle on and off the program. The findings suggest that states with SNAP asset limits can improve family financial well-being by relaxing them and that reinstating federal SNAP asset limits will harm family financial stability.
Finally, I hope that decision makers take a minute to check out this great letter to the editor in today's Gazette-Mail by the Rev. Kay Albright, outreach coordinator at Manna Meal, which serves two hot meals a day to anyone who shows up at St. John's Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Here are some of my favorite parts:
I have sat in committee meetings, met with various legislators, and called even more of them regarding SNAP benefits. I believe it is easy to sit in the capitol complex and make decisions about issues that do not affect you. Poverty is something our legislators may not have experienced.... 
Come and eat. Talk to those most affected by your decisions regarding SNAP before you make them. Come and see it is about food, a basic human need. We do not need to create more bureaucracy for those in West Virginia who are in the grip of poverty.
SB 60 is on second reading in the senate and is likely to be up for amendments tomorrow (Monday).

If you haven't already, please consider contacting your legislator. You can find out who and how here.



March 25, 2017

SNAP crackle pop

The latest Front Porch includes  a pretty brisk debate on  (food stamps), poverty and the current budget showdown in WV politics. You can check it out here.

Meanwhile, re: ACA. Damn.

March 22, 2017

Hunger games, WV style

This op-ed on efforts to restrict SNAP (formerly known as food stamp benefits) ran in today's Gazette Mail.

I think it’s interesting that many religious traditions uphold the idea of food justice. In part, that notion means that all people should have access to the nourishment that sustains life.

In the Torah, the fountainhead of Judaism, the biblical Book of Leviticus (23:22) requires all keepers of the covenant to leave a portion of their harvest for the poor and the foreigner, a theme reiterated many times by the Hebrew prophets.

The gospels are all about food, both literal and spiritual. One of the strongest passages is in Matthew 25 related to the last judgment. In it, both those destined to be saved and those destined to be damned are pretty surprised at their status. The former are told that they gave the Son of Man food and drink when he was hungry, while the latter did not.

Neither group seems to know exactly what he was talking about. The punchline came when the Judge says that whatever acts of justice or mercy were given to or withheld from “the least among you” was also done to him.

In the Quran, it is written that “In the sight of God, harshness, carelessness or even insensitivity to the suffering of the poor, helpless and hungry is tantamount to denying the religion and the Day of Judgment.”

Even pagans seemed to get the memo. Say what you want about the ancient Romans, but they at least provided food assistance for citizens displaced from their farms when rich aristocrats took over vast tracts of land. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, souls seeking a pleasant afterlife must pledge to the gods among other things that “I have not caused hunger.”

I could go on.

I hope that state legislators recall such ancient wisdom as they contemplate legislation that would restrict SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) assistance through time limits, punitive asset tests, unrealistic requirements, and time limits.

Or at least that they’d do the math.

Whatever noble motives people championing such legislation claim, the end result will be increased hunger and food insecurity. And less money circulating through our communities. And more of a drain on already overburdened food pantries and charities.

This isn’t speculation. It’s a fact.

Last year, the state Department of Health and Human Resources piloted a program implementing just some of these measures in nine counties. These were the most prosperous counties with the least unemployment. Presumably, these would be the counties with the best possible outcomes.

The results are in. Imposing time limits and unsupported requirements on able bodied adults without dependents (so-called ABAWDs, a dehumanizing label) didn’t result in more people being better off. It resulted in more people losing basic assistance and millions of dollars being taken out of the local economy.

Of nearly 14,000 people referred to education and training programs, only 259 gained employment by participation in the program.

There was no growth in the employment of the target population. According to DHHR, “The percentage of working ABAWDs proportional to the total SNAP population has held steady since the work requirements were put into place.”

On the other hand, 5,417 people were cut off. And over $13 million dollars was taken out of the local economy. (Multiply 5,417 by around $200 per month in SNAP benefits times 12 months.)

That was money that could support over 700 full-time retail jobs for a full year at the state’s minimum wage. That unspent local money doesn’t go into some imaginary pool for the “worthy poor” or get refunded to taxpayers. It’s just gone.

And it’s money that would have created jobs, supported food producers and local businesses, been invested in local banks and loaned out to local people for homes, cars and businesses.

DHHR estimates that if these measures were implemented statewide, it would mean the loss of nearly $18 million that could have been circulating through West Virginia’s economy. That’s even more of a loss to local jobs and businesses.

One would hope that considerations of justice, compassion and humanity as expressed in our religious traditions would be considered. Failing that, there’s the hope that considerations of jobs, profits for food producers and local businesses might be considered.

Failing either, the mean spirited political bullying of the least among us might prevail.

The jury is still out. I stand with the Judge.


March 18, 2017

Smoke and mirrors

One of the many bad ideas under consideration at the WV legislature is a bill that would replace WV's income tax with a tax on consumption. This would mean a huge cut for the wealthiest and a major tax increase for everyone else. It would also blow yet another hole in the state budget. We discuss this on the latest Front Porch.

Last time around, we discussed marijuana legalization, both chemical and recreational. My position is rather nuanced:

*if alcohol was good enough for my old man it's good enough for me; but

*considering all the ill **** that's legal, marijuana is pretty small potatoes; and

*medicinal marijuana could really provide relief for people dealing with several diseases; and

*it could be a much needed revenue generator if it was legalized, taxed and regulated.

March 15, 2017

Wayne's World for Wonks

A little while back, a friend suggested that we as in AFSC and our allies start doing regular webinar type thingies on issues in play in the legislature for people who can't get to Charleston. Or for people who could get there but would rather not.

To that end, co-worker Lida Shepherd and I have started experimenting with Facebook Live. Here is our latest effort, modestly titled SNAP Smackdown. It's about some of the bad legislation regarding food assistance making its way through the legislature.

We went for a "Wayne's World for Policy Wonks" vibe, with some Saturday Night Live-inspired visual stunts at the end. Major props to Melissa McCarthy!

In case of extreme boredom, take a look or listen.

We're planning another one in a week to deal with some really bad tax proposals and are already looking for more cheap visual stunts. I'm thinking eggs, snapping turtles, toy bats to start with...

March 14, 2017

Notes from the bad idea factory

First off, if you happen to be around a screen on Wednesday, March 15 (the Ides of March!), check out a Facebook Live webinar thingie my co-worker Lida Shepherd and I are doing about SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits, what they mean to WV, and what some people are trying to do to them. It's a 1:15. More info here.

Next up, this op-ed of mine ran in today's Charleston Gazette-Mail about the bad idea of replacing WV's personal income tax with a regressive consumption tax:

One of my favorite state legislators, who shall remain nameless except to say he’s Mike Pushkin, likes to call a certain place with a dome “the bad-idea factory.”

While I would never even dream of saying such a thing, some days I can see where he’s coming from. Like today, for example.

Senate Bill 335 is a case in point. It would replace West Virginia’s income tax with a steep boost on consumption taxes. The bill has numerous sponsors in the Senate, with the notable exception of Republican Finance Chairman Mike Hall, who knows more about the state budget than just about anybody ever has.

So what’s wrong with the bill?

For starters, it would slam middle-class and low-income families with much higher taxes while granting a huge break to those at the top.

West Virginia’s state and local tax systems are already topsy-turvy, with the poorest 20 percent paying a higher percentage of their incomes in taxes than the wealthiest 1 percent (8.7 percent vs 6.5 percent).

One reason for that is our regressive sales tax, which is basically a consumption tax. The imbalance here is even more extreme, with the poorest fifth paying more than six times the percentage rate of their income than the wealthiest 1 percent.

Eliminating the personal income tax, which is the only state tax actually based on the ability to pay, and replacing it with the proposed consumption tax would increase taxes on the bottom 80 percent, while providing breaks for the very wealthiest. Assuming revenue neutrality, middle-class families would pay over $1,000 more per year, while those earning $353,000 or more per year would see a tax cut of more than $27,000 according to an analysis by the Institute for Tax and Economic Policy.

The reason for this is pretty obvious. Middle-class and low-income people of necessity spend more of their money on basic necessities than the wealthy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people earning less than $70,000 per year typically spend 114 percent of their income (think debt) while those earning over $200,000 per year spend around 50 percent.

This shift in tax policy would only increase income inequality, which has skyrocketed in recent decades. In West Virginia, for example, between 1979 and 2011, the average real income in the state increased by only 3.9 percent, compared to the U.S. average of 14.8 percent. But over that time, all of the income growth was gained by the top 1 percent of richest West Virginians. Real income for them grew by more than 71 percent, while it fell for the bottom 99 by almost 3 percent. This bill would be another step in the wrong direction.

SB 335 wouldn’t be great for state businesses either. They already pay more in sales taxes than income taxes. Phasing out the income tax would likely mean a hit for them, as well.

Then there’s the border-county issue. I checked a map and found that 29 counties border another state (31, if you count tiny parts of Tucker and Summers). While small or moderate increases of excise taxes on some goods wouldn’t have much of an effect on consumer behavior, a major hike in consumption taxes would encourage people to take their business out of state or online, thus hurting the state’s economy.

Recently, Gov. Jim Justice memorably said West Virginia is like “a patient laying there, and blood is shooting to the ceiling.”

(Try getting that image out of your head.)

Sticking with that simile, SB 335 is like an unnecessary surgery that would make the bleeding even worse.


March 13, 2017

24 million

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office just did the math on the proposed bill to "replace" the Affordable Care Act. The short version: 24 million more uninsured Americans over 10 years.

From the NPR report:

Just over 28 million Americans were uninsured in the first half of 2016, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau. The CBO estimates that in 2026, that number would remain barely-changed under current law — there would likewise be 28 million uninsured Americans if the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, remained in place. 
However, 52 million would be uninsured under the American Health Care Act, which is the first step in the Republican repeal-and-replace plan.

Some of that would come from eliminating the individual mandate. However:

...a big chunk of that increase in the uninsured comes from Medicaid, as the Republican bill rolls back the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion. In 2026, 14 million fewer people would be enrolled in Medicaid under the GOP health care bill, accounting for half the total increase in uninsured.

CBO also estimates the Republican bill would cut the number of employers who cover workers by eliminating the employer mandate.

Any way you cut it, this would be a disaster for West Virginia and millions of people across the country.

But don't worry, rich folks and drug companies will get a huge tax cut. That's all that matters, right?


March 11, 2017

It's on the table. We're on the menu

Here's an initial analysis of what the "replacement" for the Affordable Care Act making its way through the US House means to West Virginia, courtesy of the Spousal Unit:

How does the Proposed House Plan Affect You?

West Virginia residents who make $20,000 or less would lose up to $3900 in subsidies while those making more than $75,000 would gain up to $3000 each in tax credits if the Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA also known as Obamacare) becomes law. Analysis done by the non-partisan, non-profit organization Kaiser Family Foundation shows tax credit by income and age in each county of the mountain state. Here's the link.

The proposed plan hurts vulnerable people and families and limits subsidies available to help keep health care affordable for middle-income people.

Under the Affordable Care Act, individuals received tax credits that reduce their income tax. Some of these tax credits are refundable, allowing the person to apply the difference to health care premiums purchased through the Health Insurance Marketplace.

West Virginians with the lowest incomes receive the largest subsidies to get insurance under Obamacare.  The Republican plan, called the American Health Care Act, has passed two committees this week. It also provides tax credits but in a very different way. The proposed plan does not take into consideration income differences so those who make more money receive the same tax credit as those who make less. The Republican plan in essence shifts government tax credits from low-income residents to higher-income residents across the board in all West Virginia counties.

Of particular concern for residents is the fact that people who are older, lower income and live in high-premium areas will be especially disadvantaged under the proposed plan.

For example, under Obamacare, a 60-year-old making $20,000 in Kanawha County currently receives $13,560 in tax credits to help pay for health insurance premiums while a 60-year-old making $75,000 has no such tax credits.

A Kanawha county resident 60-years old and making $100,000 would receive a $1500 tax credit under the proposed Republican plan while the current plan offers none.

A similar story plays out in all of West Virginia’s counties. Because the Republican plan is linked to age rather than income, people in their 20s receive fewer tax credits than their older neighbors.
Insert quotes here from elected officials and their stance.

West Virginians wishing to discuss their concerns may reach elected officials at the following numbers:

Representative David McKinley (1st District* ) Office in: Washington (202) 225-4172;Parkersburg (304) 422-5972; Wheeling (304) 232-3801

Representative Alex Mooney (2nd District*) Office in: Washington (202) 225-2711; Charleston (304) 925-5964; Martinsburg (304) 264-8810.

Representative Evan Jenkins (3rd District*) Office in: Washington (202) 225-3452; Beckley (304) 250-6177; Bluefield (304) 325-6800; Huntington (304) 522-2201.

Senator Joe Manchin III Office in: Washington (202) 224-3954; Charleston (304) 342-5855; Eastern Panhandle (304) 264-4626; Fairmont (304) 368-0562.

Senator Shelley Capito Office in: Washington (202) 224-6472; Beckley (304) 347-5372; Charleston (304) 347-5372; Martinsburg (304) 262-9285; Morgantown (304) 292-2310.

* Congressional Districts can be found here.

March 05, 2017

Philosophical bugs


It's interesting how references to animals show up in philosophy. Plato put in a good word for some dogs in The Republic, comparing their traits of bravery and loyalty to guardians of the ideal city.

Hegel remarked that the owl of Minerva (Roman name for the Greek wisdom goddess Athena) "spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk." I take that to mean that we mostly figure things out when they are over--or when it's too late.

Wittgenstein said that if a lion could speak we couldn't understand him (I disagree with him for reasons elaborated here).

Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay about foxes and hedgehogs, quoting a Greek poet as saying that "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

I recently stumbled on another philosophical animal reference from Francis Bacon (1561-1626) from his New Organon:

Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.
I don't usually think of myself as a Bacon fan, but that is a pretty good way of stating the need for balance between data and perspective.

Plus, bugs are cool.

March 04, 2017

This and that



and


The latest edition of the Front Porch program/podcast has a pretty random mix, ranging from sugary drinks to the transgender bathroom issue. However, listeners can benefit by my sage advice on the biblical hermeneutics of   dietary entomology and what happened in the 70s if you got caught smoking in the bathroom.

March 01, 2017

Dead or in jail

I spent a good chunk of Monday talking with women who were recovering from opioid addiction. This was part of an ongoing effort to interview people whose lives were touched by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Two of those women were particularly memorable. Both were parents who regained control of their lives thanks to medically assisted treatment they were able to access due to the the decision by then WV Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to expand Medicaid under the ACA.

One spoke of loved ones lost to overdoses, including a fiance who was like a father to her son. Another told of her experience with jail and probation. Thanks to treatment, both had been clean for several months, were holding down a job, paying taxes, maintaining a home, and caring for their children. Both were proud of being made assistant managers at their jobs.

Both said that "nobody wakes up one morning and decides to become an addict." Both were glad to finally be drug free and in control, for the first time in their adult lives.

When I asked how their lives would be different without the treatment the ACA supports, the answers were pretty stark: "Dead or in jail."


February 27, 2017

"They'd better start digging graves"


As I mentioned last week, a co-worker and I have been interviewing people who received coverage through the Affordable Care Act. Some of these got it at no cost through Medicaid expansion while others purchased it on the exchange. Some people were on oxygen, in wheelchairs, or both.

Again, the takeaway message was that even those who don't like some parts of the law or who have complaints about the cost agree on this: don't just take it away.

We had some intense conversations and lots of memorable moments, but one thing someone said stuck in my head: "If they get rid of it, they'd better start digging graves 'cause they're gonna be burying people."

Let's hope--and work hard to make sure--it won't come down to that.

February 25, 2017

A taxing question



The latest Front Porch program/podcast is about the proposal by the majority in the WV senate to replace the state's relatively progressive income tax with a regressive consumption tax. It's no surprise that I'm against it, for reasons mentioned on the podcast. I was pleased to learn, however, that my conservative counterpart on the program doesn't think it's a great idea either. You can get down in the weeds here.

Meanwhile, if you haven't already, click on Protect WV and sign up for alerts on the state's ongoing budget battles. Drastic cuts would adversely impact the quality of life for all West Virginians. We're talking jobs, roads, education and school services, higher ed, vocational training and workforce development, programs for kids and seniors, state parks, natural resources, and all the rest.

 Here's the action page. And, while we're at it, here's a budget calculator where you can come up with your own solution to balance the state budget.

This tax and budget stuff is a huge issue and one that could have as significant impact on our state as actions at the federal level.

February 22, 2017

Talking ACA

I spent the day talking with several West Virginians who were impacted by the Affordable Care Act. This included someone who received coverage through Medicaid expansion, some who purchased health care on the exchange, and someone who works in a primary care center.

Their experiences varied widely. Based on what I heard now and in the past, it's pretty clear that those who gained coverage through Medicaid expansion (around 200,000 in WV in a typical year) really like it and are grateful for it.

It's a bit more complicated for those who gained coverage by purchasing it on the exchange, some of whom had life-threatening illnesses. Two out of three of the people I spoke with were concerned with premiums and deductibles which increased, often dramatically, even as their incomes stayed the same.

One thing everyone agreed on was that they needed the coverage they had and that repeal of the ACA without a replacement--preferably a better, more affordable one--would only make the situation worse. There was also zero interest in health savings accounts-- mostly because there was little or nothing to put in them.

Lots more on this to come.

February 21, 2017

Do you feel lucky today?


I’ve been musing lately about the role of luck in human affairs. By luck, I mean things that affect us for good or ill that we can’t anticipate or control. We go through our lives bouncing between automatic pilot and conscious planning, but even when we try to leave nothing to chance, the universe gets a vote.

Even when things work according to plan, I’d say we were lucky. Think of all the things that could have gone wrong but didn’t.

The biblical book of Ecclesiastes sums it up: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.”

Similarly, I found this quote by American philosopher John Dewey:

“No one knows what a year or even a day may bring forth, the healthy become ill; the rich poor; the mighty are cast down, fame changes to obloquy. Men live at the mercy of forces they cannot control. Belief in fortune and luck, good and evil, is one of the most widespread and persistent of human beliefs. Chance has been deified by many peoples. Fate has been set up as an overlord to whom even the Gods must bow. Belief in a Goddess of Luck is in ill repute among pious folk but their belief in providence is a tribute to the fact no individual controls his own destiny.”

A lot of our lives is conditioned by things we have no control over — the genetic dice our parents rolled when we were conceived, or their bank accounts and zip codes at the time.

I’ve also been struck by the idea of “moral luck” as developed by philosophers Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel. It works something like this: We praise or blame people for actions, as if everything was up to the individual. But in real life, what people do or don’t is often as much a matter of time and chance as choice.

Consider a soldier who commits atrocities in a war. Would he or she have done the same without war? Or what if people who did evil in a dictatorship were born in a different country and/or under a different system?

Consider a car accident. Most of us have zoned out at a stop sign or neglected to obey a speed limit. Driver X runs a light and nothing happens, but with Driver Y innocent people are killed. Both are blameworthy for not paying attention, but the results are vastly different. We tend to blame one more, but the actions were the same. The main difference is luck.

Looking back at my life, the fact that I didn’t get into more serious trouble had more to do with luck than anything. Virtue is often a matter of chance and opportunity.

It’s also fascinating how different religions have incorporated luck and apparent randomness into their beliefs and practices.

In the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament, divination was performed with dice- or coin-like urim and thummin to determine the will of God. These were objects connected with the breastplate of the high priest. In the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, the 11 remaining disciples cast lots to see who would be selected to fill the void left by Judas.

In Chinese tradition, people threw yarrow stalks (or nowadays, flip coins) to consult the I Ching, an ancient book of oracles. Many peoples have attempted to read signs from things like the flight of birds or the entrails of sacrificial animals. Cards have been used for similar purposes. Even people who make fun of superstition sometimes flip a coin to make a decision.

Some traditions even make chance or luck divine, as in the Greek goddess Tyche, who morphed into the longer-lived Roman goddess Fortuna. Fortuna has been described as the one pagan goddess to survive into the Christian era.

Her main symbol is the famous wheel, which gave us the TV game show of the same name. The fact that this image has lasted so long in popular culture speaks of its power. As you know if you’ve ridden a Ferris wheel, sometimes you’re up and sometimes down. As the ancient Roman writer Seneca said, “Whatever Fortune has raised on high, she lifts but to bring low.”

Fortuna’s wheel is a good image to recall as we navigate life’s changes. If things are going good, don’t assume they always will be. If things are bad, this too can change. Nobody owns Fortuna.

One interesting effort to grapple with this is the situation of the Roman patrician Boethius (circa 480-525), who held high office between the fall of Rome and the early Middle Ages. Rome was under the power of the Ostrogoth. Boethius fell afoul of King Theodoric, was stripped of wealth and position, imprisoned and sentenced to be executed in a pretty nasty way.

There he composed a classic work, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” in which Lady Philosophy visits and instructs him so he can face death with composure. While that might sound contrived, his situation was all too real.

His basic point is that it’s the nature of Fortune to change. Those who put themselves in her power by basing happiness on things they can’t control are helpless when things change — as they will.

Fortuna says: “Here is the source of my power, the game I always play: I spin my wheel and find pleasure in raising the low to a high place and lowering those who were on top. Go up, if you like, but only on condition that you will not feel abused when my sport requires your fall.”

As powerful as she is, however, she can’t dictate how we respond to her. There’s an old-wisdom tradition that says while we can’t control events, we can control our responses to them and thus acquire a degree of independence from fortune. Alas, that’s easier said than done.


“Dante’s Inferno” portrays Fortuna as God’s agent in bringing change to the world: “… he ordained a general minister and leader/who would transfer from time to time the empty goods from one people to another, from one family to another, beyond any human wisdom’s power to prevent.”

Though we may curse her, “she is blessed in herself and does not listen … she gladly turns her sphere and rejoices in her blessedness.”

Love Fortuna or hate her, the bottom line is we’re all subject — to some degree — to forces beyond our control, whether we see these as inscrutable providence or random chance. In that case, maybe we should be a little easier on each other.

In any case, good luck! We’ll need it.

(This op-ed of mine ran in Sunday's Gazette-Mail)

February 20, 2017

The biggest deal. Or no deal

The biggest deal in WV politics--and for the future of West Virginians--is the outcome of the state budget debate. That was the subject of the most recent Front Porch podcast, which is back after a brief hiatus caused by...well...the state budget. You can listen here. It's impossible to say how it will turn out but it doesn't look good.

February 16, 2017

A good deed

So far 2017 hasn't been a great year for blogging, especially around here. Come to think of it, it may not be good for much more that Saturday Night Live skits.

Still, here's one thing you could do to make it a little better: help save WV Public Broadcasting, which has been zeroed out in Gov. Justice's "good" budget. It's easy: just click on this link and sign the petition and share the link to your networks.

And then for good measure, you can call the Governor's office at 304-558-2000 and say something like:

"I'm calling to urge Gov. Justice to save WV Public Broadcasting. I'm glad Gov. Justice is serious about raising revenue to save WV, but let's not lose this along the way."

(In case you were wondering about whether this is a conflict of interest because of my role in the Front Porch program/podcast, let me just say that I get no compensation for that--and I'm worth it.)

There's plenty more to rant about, but I gotta run...

February 10, 2017

Going out on a high note


It started with Harry. But didn't end there.

There's been a lot of downer news this week, but here's a positive item to close it out. Some people may remember how several years ago celebrity chef Jamie Oliver came to Huntington, WV--billed as the most unhealthy city in the US--to try out his food "revolution" in the public school system.

The series created a lot of drama, which actually misrepresented the situation. The reality is that my home county of Cabell is a national leader in child nutrition and in feeding kids breakfast and lunch for free.

Here's a great story, titled "Revenge of the Lunch Lady" about the real food revolution. And it's one that worked.

February 09, 2017

A step in the right direction

I don't know about you, but I listened to newly elected WV Governor Jim Justice give his first state of the state address last night.

I tried to watch it on television, but public TV hasn't come in very well ever since we had a dozen or so of our free range turkeys roost on the antenna. But that's kind of off topic.

WV is no doubt in a budget crisis and nobody that I know had any idea which way Justice would go. I'm glad to say that he recognizes we can't just keep cutting but need to raise revenue. I didn't agree with all the specifics of his plan, which, for example included zeroing out WV Public Broadcasting, which is not cool.

(Obviously, if he was a Front Porch listener, the thought would have never crossed his mind.)

Of course, Republican leaders, who control both legislative houses, don't want any kind of revenue increases, so we're in for a game of chicken. More cuts now would be terrible and would likely include shutting down colleges, selling state parks, gutting libraries, ditching seniors, etc.

It's going to be interesting. And I'm getting tired of interesting...

February 08, 2017

Protecting West Virginia

This op-ed on the state budget crisis and all that comes with it appeared in today's Charleston Gazette-Mail.

It looks like West Virginia’s politicians are about to let the wrecking ball swing across the state budget.

It’s likely to seriously damage things like schools, public safety, job training, higher education, care for seniors and kids, health services, infrastructure, libraries, state parks and forests and other things that make our state livable to hundreds of thousands of state residents.

Not to be too Trumpian about it, but this is sad. Bigly.

The saddest part is that leaders are talking about the coming cuts as if they were a product of some kind of stern cosmic necessity.

Actually they aren’t.

And they’re saying things like, “We have to make these cuts.”

Actually “We” don’t. And neither do they.

And if they decide to cut the things that make life livable to current residents and attractive to future residents and investors, that’s on them. It will be because of deliberate actions they took or failed to take.

It’s true that some of West Virginia’s budget difficulties stem from declines in our traditional industries. But it’s also true that some of these wounds are self-inflicted. Around 10 years ago, state leaders decided to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from state revenues.

The idea was that business tax cuts would create jobs. But we have around 6,000 fewer private sector jobs now than in 2008.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. State taxes are a tiny part of the total cost of doing business — around 3 percent, some of which is deductible on federal taxes. This pales in comparison to things like labor, transportation, communication and such, all of which require public investments.

Meanwhile, higher education spending declined in both relative and absolute terms. The cost of tuition more than doubled in a state with the nation’s lowest higher education attainment — and the low incomes that come with that.

In fact, the amount of revenue lost to business tax cuts could have provided free college tuition and fees to all in-state public college and university students. With some left over.

That would have been a game changer, but it was the road not taken.

Incredibly, in spite of any and all evidence, some politicians want to cut taxes further. Some even want to shift burdens to working and low-income people by replacing income taxes with sales taxes.

While that might sound good, income taxes are progressive in that those with more income pay at a slightly higher rate. But lower income people by necessity spend more of their money than those better off — and they’d pay a higher share if that change is enacted.

I call to witness Adam Smith, prophet of capitalism and author of The Wealth of Nations. He said:

“The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.”

And:

“It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion ... . It must always be remembered, however, that it is the luxuries, and not the necessary expense of the inferior ranks of people, that ought ever to be taxed.”

This addiction to tax cuts when the state is on the verge of failing reminds me of the literal addictions that have poisoned the lives of so many West Virginians. But policy makers have less excuse than those driven by the desperate pangs of physical addiction.

And if legislators think there’s no support for protecting West Virginia’s assets, they’re wrong. Recently Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, a national polling firm, conducted a statewide survey of 603 registered voters.

They asked this question: “thinking about the state taxes you pay, would you be willing or not willing to maintain funding for public schools, Public safety, and aging roads and bridges in West Virginia, even if that meant raising your own state taxes?”

The answer may surprise some people. Seventy percent of statewide voters said yes, including 79 percent of self-identified Democrats, 69 percent of Independents and 63 percent of Republicans.

Voters were particularly protective of education. Nearly 90 percent were opposed, most of them strongly so, to laying off teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and aids or of other K-12 educational funding cuts.

Next on the list of priorities was support for state parks and the Department of Natural Resources, which is not surprising in a state full of lovers of the outdoors — and those aware of the importance of tourism to our economy.

Other priorities supported by an overwhelming majority included higher education, support for drug treatment, public health programs and the Promise Scholarship. Most voters think this is a very serious problem and think the problem is too many tax cuts rather than too few spending cuts.

There are plenty of revenue options if legislators are willing to step up. It’s a question of priorities. In the words of Jesus: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

It’s pretty clear. Most voters want to live in a state that works and one that is worth living in.

Those who want to live in a failed state can find plenty of options around the world. We don’t need to create another one here.

#ProtectWV #nofailedstate.

February 06, 2017

Heads up!



It's understandable that a lot of attention is focused on the...stuff rolling out of Washington these days. But there's a huge threat at the state level and politicians of both parties talk about the need to slash the state budget, which has already been cut for the last several years.

Now it's even more serious. We're talking serious damage to the things that make life livable here..

There's no such need. They can easily raise revenue to protect schools, kids, seniors, higher ed, job training, parks, tourism, public safety and all that. It's a matter of choice.

I urge everyone in WV who cares about any of that to check out www.protectwv.org, learn about what's at stake, sign up to keep up and show up.

For West Virginians, this crosses divides. Whether you love or hate Trump, you probably know someone who goes to or works at a public school or college, have a favorite state park, go to a library, drive on roads, and care about public safety. Etc.

It's on. Now.

#protectWV #nofailedstate

February 03, 2017

Long time gone

It's been several days without a Goat Rope post. I've been on the road a lot lately crisscrossing the state several times to go to citizen advocacy and lobbying trainings. Usually, these are sparsely attended, but for some unknown reason people are turning out by the scores and hundreds. I'm glad--we're going to need all the people power we can get.

Meanwhile, here's the latest Front Porch. Not my best effort, but I was burned out from the road, sick, and uninformed about the topic until the morning we recorded it.

Meanwhile, would someone please tell me when we've hit bottom?

January 29, 2017

Time to protect public education



This is no time to be a turkey when it comes to our schools. This call to protect public education in  WV was written by my co-worker Lida Shepherd and appeared in today's Sunday Gazette-Mail.

There has been a lot of sad news recently in the Charleston Gazette-Mail about our schools. One example concerns Nicholas County, where Ryan Quinn reports that student enrollment has dropped 26 percent in the last 25 years, resulting in a severe loss in funding.

These cuts come on top of the devastating flood that ripped through the county’s schools last year.

In the shadow of our state’s budget crisis and the $11.1 million budget cut to state school-aid, teachers and administrators are being laid off in alarming numbers, with 73 positions in Kanawha County alone. It doesn’t take a big leap of the imagination to see that this means more people leaving the state to find work elsewhere, and taking their talent (and families) with them.

These ongoing budget woes also means more teachers pulling from their own pocket for school supplies, more students having to raise their own funds for extracurricular activities, bigger classroom sizes, more screen time, shabbier textbooks; and I’m not sure we’ll be seeing many Mandarin Chinese or fine arts classes being added.

For some people, these challenges make things like charter schools, vouchers and privatizing our public education system all the more alluring. Since the election, “education reform” or “educational choice” has gotten a major shot in the arm.

The late economist Milton Friedman would be pleased by this development. He thought the answer to the public education system was the private sector. In effect, this meant that public education was an untapped treasure trove whereby tax dollars can be siphoned out of public coffers and into private ones.

As Naomi Klein argued in her book “The Shock Doctrine,” Friedman and like-minded people were experts at taking advantage of natural or political catastrophes — from Hurricane Katrina to major economic crises — to push an agenda that would never fly in more stable times. She called this “disaster capitalism.”

The sad irony is that part of the reason our schools are suffering so badly now is because we failed to take steps 100 years ago that could have converted our natural resources into a public good. Instead, our coal seams were exploited largely for the private gain of out-of-state interests at the expense of any kind of economic diversification. As Jeff Kessler recently pointed out in an interview on W.Va. Public Broadcasting, “If coal’s been king, it hasn’t taken very good care of its subjects. We’re the poorest state in the nation.”

I fear we are poised to make the same kind of mistake by the weakening and/or privatization of our public education system through vouchers — Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) — charter schools and for-profit K-12 education. These efforts are becoming commonplace, supported by the steady rhetoric of “failed government schools” and “school choice.”

We now have as U.S. Secretary of Education nominee billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos, who never attended or taught at a public school and who has spent millions of her private wealth on campaigns to privatize education systems.

Corporate-backed education “reform” campaigns like the ones DeVos has waged (one to the tune of $5 million in Michigan) have normalized in public discourse what once was the radical idea that we turn the public good of our education system into a source of private profit.

Sometimes, these reforms are touted as “leveling the playing field” in public education so that the quality of education a child can receive is not dependent on his or her zip code; but Henry Levin, professor of economics and education at Columbia University, has found that both in the United States and abroad vouchers result in increased economic and racial stratification.

He also points out that most of our public discourse around what is best for equity and advancements in our educational system is based in ideology instead of evidence.

But what’s new? Calls for the privatization of the public sector are happening in Medicare and the health care system, education and, most recently housing, with HUD secretary nominee Ben Carson vowing to privatize sectors of our public housing system.

In spite of troubling national trends, I’m holding out hope that we don’t sell out the public education of our children in West Virginia. Such a step would go against the best traditions of West Virginia and would violate the spirit and letter of our state constitution, which mandates “the establishment of a thorough and efficient system of free schools.”





January 28, 2017

A problem we don't need


Bo is all about health care.

According to the business website WalletHub, WV will be one of the states most impacted by the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Not in a good way. Lots of people, including the participants in this press conference yesterday (which my dog attended), are speaking up about the issue and urging that the ACA not be repealed without a replacement that does no harm to the millions who benefit from the law-including around 225,000 West Virginians.

For more on the adverse impact of ACA repeal on WV's people and economy, check out this new and detailed report from the WV Center on Budget and Policy. And howl about it. This is a problem we really don't need right now.

January 27, 2017

A blast from the past



"THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated."-Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, Dec. 23, 1776.

January 24, 2017

What's next for health care?


Efforts to unravel the Affordable Care Act are in the works both from congress and the Dark Tower White House. There are a lot of known and unknown unknowns, as former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who actually looks better and better these days, might say. Here's a good summary.

As this op-ed by a fellow tai chi student points out, the folks in charge have had plenty of time to come up with a real alternative if they really wanted to. The (real) fact is that ACA repeal without a comparable replacement would weaken the state's economy, not to mention threaten the health care of 225,000 residents.

As this Washington Post article points out, unless something gives I'm afraid the above picture might be the shape of things to come. Literally.




January 22, 2017

Bigly sad



According to Prussian Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, the human mind naturally perceives the world through the lens of innate mental categories such as space, time and causality. One of these innate categories is quantity...

...which may explain why some people like Prince Joffrey President Trump are kind of sensitive about size.

One sore spot seems to be the relative size of certain public gatherings this weekend. I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the Women's March at the WV state capitol, many of the attendees of which were male. Numbers kicked around were in the 2800 to 3000 range. For sure, it was enough to go all the way around the capitol grounds as the march took place.

I'm pretty sure that the last time that many people gathered there was during the teacher's strike of 1990, of which my memories are fond.

There were many witty signs there, but the winner to my mind is featured above. My own, which just said "Bigly sad" was pretty popular with those taking pictures, especially when accompanied by a pouting expression that appeared to remind people of someone.

Of course, we all know that a billion zillion gazillion googal-plex more went to the Baratheon coronation inauguration.

January 20, 2017

Apropos of nothing again

I'm a philosophical fan of American pragmatism, especially of the William James variety. Not sure how I feel about John Dewey, but I'd probably like him better if he would have been a better writer. I've also read a few by the late Richard Rorty, who died in 2007.

Some lines from his 1998 book Achieving America have attracted attention lately. Here's a slightly condensed version:

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
Jeez, good thing that didn't happen, right?

You can read more about Rorty's prediction here.

January 16, 2017

Of Dr. King, poverty and hypocrisy

As the nation marks (it's hard to say celebrates these days) the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., I started thinking about the many things Dr. King had to say about poverty, of which this is one example:

 “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
and this is another:

"...it is obvious that if a man is to redeem his spiritual and moral ‘lag,’ he must go all out to bridge the social and economic gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have not’s’ of the world. Poverty is one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life.”
and this is another:

 “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”
The observation of King's birthday provides the occasion for conspicuous displays of hypocrisy perhaps outmatched by only a few religious holidays.I'm sure quite a bit of that was on display in WV's capitol today even while that body prepares to ramp up the war on poor people that is the subject of this Jacobin article. 

I think it's going to be a long winter. Maybe even literally.

January 13, 2017

Treatment for addiction at risk

This op-ed of mine on WV's opioid crisis and how killing the ACA would make it worse ran in today's Gazette-Mail.

There’s hardly a community in West Virginia that hasn’t been impacted by our opioid/addiction/overdose crisis. For that matter, there probably aren’t even that many families that haven’t felt the effects of it directly or indirectly.

I knew it was bad, but I had no idea of the sheer magnitude of addictive pills dropped like little bombs into the state by drug companies and wholesalers until I read Eric Eyre’s series on the issue in the Gazette-Mail. While this has damaged the lives of many individuals, it goes way beyond the level of a purely personal problem.

It reminds me of a basic insight by sociologist C. Wright Mills. In his classic “The Sociological Imagination,” he talked about the distinction and overlap between personal troubles and social issues.

Personal troubles “occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with others.” Potentially, these troubles can be understood and resolved at the individual level.

Social issues, on the other hand, “have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of his inner life.” These include many institutions, organizations, and social forces that operate and interact in a given social and historical situation.

It’s a question of level of magnitude. Social issues can cause huge suffering to any number of individuals, but they involve larger forces and institutions at work that help cause the damage.

Mills uses unemployment as an example:

“When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual.”

In the same way, if a few individuals in a rural state fall victim to opioid addiction, this could be regarded as a personal trouble for those involved. But when, as Eyre has reported, a handful of drug wholesalers pumped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills into the state over six years — or 433 pills for every man, woman and child in the state — while more than 1,700 West Virginians died of drug overdoses, we’re talking about a huge social issue.

I’ve had a hard time getting a handle on what 780 million pills would even look like. For starters, I took a (pretty uninteresting) pill out of my medicine cabinet and measured it. It came out to 2.5 pills per inch. Then I reached for a calculator ...

You may want to double check this, but here’s what I came up with if you placed them end to end: at 2.5 pills per inch and 63,360 inches per mile, that comes to 4,924.24 miles of pills. That’s about the distance in air miles from New York City to Honolulu (4,909).

Which is to say, a lot.

Eyre’s research found that many of these were prescribed in economically depressed coalfield counties, which had high levels of fatal overdoses. Kermit, in Mingo County, for example, with a population of 392 received nearly 9 million hydrocodone pills at a single pharmacy in a two-year period.

There’s plenty of blame to go around on this, from aggressive marketing by drug manufacturers and wholesalers to doctors who ran “pill mills” to unscrupulous pharmacies cashing in on misery to lax oversight by public agencies.

There has been one bright spot in all this in some states, including West Virginia. Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act has made treatment for addiction accessible to many people for the first time.

The Pew Charitable Trusts reported in 2015 that at least 2.5 million adults out of the estimated 18 million potentially eligible for expanded Medicaid coverage had substance abuse issues. Around 2.8 million people with slightly higher incomes would be eligible for subsidized substance abuse treatment through state health exchanges.

According to Pew, “In addition to increasing the number of people with health insurance, the ACA for the first time made coverage of addiction services and other behavioral health disorders mandatory for all insurers, including Medicaid.”

It’s hard to get a handle on exactly how many people are getting addiction treatment for the first time through the ACA. According to Kaiser Health News in December 2016, in Rhode Island, more than 3,600 people were treated for addiction. Between January 2015 and March 2016, more than 63,000 people in Massachusetts got help. Around 10,000 people in New Hampshire were able to get treatment in 2015.

Closer to home, The Columbus Dispatch reported in July: “Nearly 500,000 low-income Ohio adults, most of them uninsured, received mental health and addiction services under the state’s hard-fought Medicaid expansion.”

According to WFPL public radio, in Kentucky, a new report “shows a 740 percent increase in substance abuse services for Medicaid expansion beneficiaries. The number of Kentuckians with traditional Medicaid who received treatment for substance was four times higher between 2014 and 2016, according to the report.”

I haven’t been able to find exact figures for how many West Virginians have received or are now receiving treatment for addiction under Medicaid expansion, but if we extrapolate Pew’s estimate that around 14 percent of the Medicaid expansion population nationwide has addiction issues, that would amount to around 24,500 people here who would be eligible for it, not counting those who gained coverage through the exchange.

That’s enough to take a big bite out of the problem. And we know this is something people want and need.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, the new president and the Republican majority in the U.S. House and Senate plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Unless it is replaced by something comparable, this would pull the rug out from under many individuals, families and communities now on the road to recovery.

It remains to be seen if West Virginia’s delegation will let that happen.