December 31, 2016

Looking ahead and back

The latest Front Porch program/podcast is about two of my least favorite subjects: 2016 and 2017. If you have the time and inclination, give it a listen and chime in about your big stories for last year and what you expect in the coming year. Unless it's too much of a downer...

December 28, 2016

A good word for the governor (for a change)

This op-ed proves once and for all that I CAN say nice things about politicians. It's just that I rarely have the opportunity. Plus, trolls need fed too.

I always liked the part in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer where Tom and his friends Huck and Joe listen to their own funeral after they were presumed to have drowned in the Mississippi. I’m guessing a lot of people might like to do that, especially since it may be the only time anyone says something nice about us in public.

I’ve joked with my friend and fellow columnist Pastor Matthew Watts that I’d like him to preach my funeral, preferably when I’m alive and able to enjoy it. Funeral orations are kind of wasted on the dead.

It’s too bad we often don’t say positive things while people are still among us. In that spirit, I’m going to give a shoutout to outgoing Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who’s still kicking. Here’s the punchline: without making a show of it, I think he’s done more to help disadvantaged people than any governor in my lifetime. Or several of them combined.

(Disclosure: I’ve only met him in person a time or two and doubt he could pick me out of a police lineup.)

I recall when he was installed as governor in 2010 after the political earthquake that followed the death of Sen. Byrd in June of that year. I didn’t go, but my friend the Rev. Dennis Sparks, then director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, offered the benediction.

His text was Psalm 72, possibly written about the coronation of Solomon. It says in part, “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people and give deliverance to the needy…”

I wished the new governor well, but didn’t expect any of that to actually happen. From observing him at a distance in the state Senate, he seemed to be cautious and conservative, although he took the lead in building up the Rainy Day Fund, which has helped West Virginia avoid disastrous cuts lately.

I expected a sort of caretaker administration where little would change.

I was wrong.

In 2011, he expanded eligibility for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The Legislature passed legislation to that effect in 2006, but it had never been implemented. We’re a national leader in insuring children. For now.

In 2013, after an actuarial study, he decided to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Since a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, that was a state option rather than a federal mandate. At the time it was estimated that this might eventually cover around 90,000 working West Virginians.

Nobody — least of all me — guessed that just a few years later it would cover nearly twice that number, or that on his watch, DHHR would do such an amazing job at getting people signed up. Despite hard times, West Virginia is a national leader in reducing the number of uninsured people.

I’ve talked to working people who benefited from this, and I know it has changed and saved lives. It’s also helping people struggling with addiction find their way out. And supported jobs in health care.

All that may be undone by the Trump administration and the Republican Congress, including our delegation, but Tomblin did what he could when he could, and it was good.

We’re also a national leader in early childhood education with universal access to voluntary pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds, thanks in part to legislation proposed by the governor in 2014. Other early childhood programs have also expanded and probably would have done more if times had been better.

He also took on problems that others didn’t. People knew for years that we were locking up too many people for trivial offenses at high cost and with no benefit to the public, even as the population dropped and the crime rate remained stable. Tomblin took the lead in creating a state task force and bringing in the Justice Center to study the issue and recommend legislation aimed at safely reducing the prison population.

It passed in 2013, although some provisions were weakened in the Legislature. It hasn’t fully gone into effect yet, but so far it has improved practices and started to slow down the rate of increase.

The next year, he did something similar with juvenile justice, where again West Virginia was heading in the wrong direction fast. Juvenile justice and truancy reform legislation passed in 2015, when the Legislature was under Republican control.

When the Democratic Legislature increased the minimum wage by $1.50 per hour over two years in 2014, Tomblin came under intense pressure from business groups to veto the increase. Although he probably would have preferred a smaller increase, he resisted the pressure. As a result over 100,000 low-income West Virginians (not mostly burger flipping teens by the way) got a significant boost in income.

He also hasn’t been afraid to veto bills he believed to be unconstitutional or contrary to public safety or harmful to working people (like “right to work” and prevailing wage repeal), even though these have sometimes been overridden. And he proposed revenue measures that, if enacted would have spared the state further cuts.

His administration also responded to public concerns over funding for child care and proposed cuts in programs for children and families. There was some jangling and back and forth, but the issues were eventually resolved without bitterness and rancor.

He’s one of those rare politicians who seems more interested in getting things done than in being seen doing things. He didn’t need to be the only person in the room with ideas. And he governed at a difficult time when major industries collapsed, revenue tanked, and the Legislature flipped for the first time in 82 years.

I haven’t always agreed with the administration’s policies, but the record speaks for itself.

I wish Gov. Tomblin the best in his future endeavors. I’m glad I was wrong about him.

December 27, 2016

Gearing up

Most people who read this blog know that everything is going to be on the table-and nearly everyone is going to be on the menu in the next presidential administration. We know that Paul Ryan wants to kill Medicare in its current form. But in this NY Times piece, Gene Sperling warns us not to take our eyes off Medicaid. We can expect a major push to block grant the program and cut it hugely over several years. It would also threaten CHIP, the popular Children's' Health Insurance Program.

Who would this hurt? Very low income parents receiving temporary assistance. Kids in families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The millions of working Americans earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level who gained coverage under the Medicaid Expansion provision of the Affordable Care Act. People with disabilities. And elderly people who worked hard all their lives but burned through assets when they needed long term care. Not to mention the millions of people who work in the field of health and long term care.

If you care about things like this, it's probably time to do the whole loins/girding up thing. Like now.

December 24, 2016

Annual Christmas Shakespeare feature

That's right, it's that time of year again, which means it's time to quote the sentry Marcellus as he stands on the battlements of the castle of Elsinore in Act 1 Scene 1 of Hamlet.

The tone of the scene is pretty ominous. The legitimate ruler is no more. A usurper is on the throne. There are wars and rumors of war and evil portents in the land.

I feel sorry for those guys...

Marcellus and Bernardo have invited the student Horatio to join them in their lonely night vigil where for some nights past a ghost has appeared resembling the late King Hamlet, father of the prince who is the main character of the story.

Horatio represents a prototype of modernity, an intellectual familiar with the tradition but skeptical of it. Yet even he must concede the power of the unknown after witnessing the phantom, which he takes as a portent of bad things to come.

Marcellus then points out that there are also sometimes portents of good, particularly at this season of the year:

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
At this point, all I can do is say with Horatio, "So have I heard and do in part believe it."

Would that it were so this holiday season and beyond.

December 23, 2016

780 million opioids?

A bit of a downer before the holidays: the latest Front Porch features Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre on his series about WV's opioid epidemic. It's hard to get my head around this but over a few year's time, 780 MILLION opioids were dumped into WV, mostly to depressed areas in the southern coalfields.

I actually did the math, based on measuring one of my own (not very interesting) medicines: at 2.5 pills per inch w 63,360 inches per mile, 158,400 pills per mile divided into 780M=4,924.24 miles of pills. It's about the distance in air miles from New York City to Honolulu.


December 22, 2016

Picking on the poor

This op-ed of mine came out in today's Gazette-Mail. It has a math error I correct at the end. My bad. Forgot to move a decimal point.

In the 1870s, the nation was slammed by one of those periodic depressions that punctuate our economic history. Although largely forgotten today, it was known as “the Long Depression” for its lingering effects. It lasted for 65 consecutive months — longer than the 43-month contraction of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Around 18,000 businesses failed between 1873 and 1875. Unemployment rose above 8 percent. Millions of Americans were jobless, hungry and homeless. In those days, there was no such thing as unemployment insurance, food assistance programs like SNAP or supports for the elderly like Social Security.

Some might call it a free-market paradise, although those hit by it probably didn’t.

In New York City, thousands of jobless workers, nearly half of them women, turned to one of the only forms of public assistance. They got to sleep in their clothes on hard benches in police station houses. And they had to be out at dawn in search of their next meal.

That’s a big credit to the humanity shown by the NYPD, but there was a catch. The homeless were only allowed to sleep for two nights a month in any one station house. For this reason, they were called “revolvers.”

That sounds like a grim existence, but there were those at the time — who had full bellies, money in their wallets and a roof over their heads — who condemned “the over-generous charity of the city” on the grounds that it “might sap the foundation of that independence of character, and that reliance on one’s own resources.”

It reminds me of the saying of Anatole France that “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

One might hope that over nearly 150 years of bitter experience that that kind of thinking would have been excreted from the body politic. Instead, it’s alive and well and is being promoted in West Virginia by out-of-state groups like the Foundation for Government Accountability, which aims to tighten the screws on poor people, many of whom are presumed to be “fraudsters” living too high on the hog.

Two groups targeted are people receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which is often referred to as “welfare,” and those receiving SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits. There are all kinds of wild misconceptions about both.

People tend to vastly overestimate the number of people receiving welfare cash assistance and the level of benefits. But according to the DHHR, in September 2016, there were only 7,678 cases statewide. Of these, most were child-only cases with no adults in the benefit group, most of whom were kids living with a grandparent or other relative and who received no other support.

The number of adult cases (i.e. parents with kids) receiving cash assistance was only 2,698. That’s down from around 35,000 when “welfare reform” went into effect in the 1990s.

I did the math, dividing 2,698 adults getting TANF by the 2015 West Virginia population estimate of 1,844,128. That amounts to way less than 1 percent of the population. To be exact, it’s 0.001463022089573 percent. Not that anybody seems to be counting.

Damn, now that’s a problem.

As for the high-on-the-hog part, the TANF maximum benefit for a family of three is $340 per month. Or $11 and change per day per family. Or less than $4 per person per day. If that’s high, we’re talking about an extremely short hog. If people think it’s fun to live on that, I’d suggest they try it.

Benefits were actually slashed by $100 per month back in 2004, and the cuts have never been restored.

The typical adult receiving TANF is a single female, with two kids and some or all of a high school education, who might be a survivor of domestic violence and who has to comply with some stringent rules to receive temporary benefits and is subject to serious sanctions for failing to meet requirements.

Sounds like a dangerous fraudster to me.

Maybe we should call in an airstrike ...

Then there’s the SNAP population. According to the USDA, “SNAP continues to have one of the lowest fraud rates for federal programs.”

It’s true that the West Virginia caseload is bigger than TANF, more than 350,000 in 2013. But around two-fifths of these were children and one-fifth were elderly or disabled. Around one-fourth are adults living with children.

Many of the adults who receive SNAP benefits work at jobs that pay so little that people have to depend on this kind of help go get by.

Back to the hog. The average household benefit is $255 per month, which comes down to $126 per person or around $1.40 per meal. Try that for a while.

One might think that the best way to address that problem is to improve job quality, but some find it more fun to mess with poor people by making benefits like this harder to get, even though this would take federal money out of the economy that supports agriculture and retail jobs in grocery stores.

One thing that particularly seems to set some people off is the shocking discovery that some benefits might be spent in multiple states, although you might have that in a state where around half of the counties border other states or where, God forbid, people visit family members who live elsewhere or who are serving in the military.

I guess that could be remedied by putting collars on poor people that give shocks when the borders are crossed, kind of like the invisible fences some people use with dogs. Or by bringing back patrols like those used in the South before and after the Civil War to keep certain populations in line.

Or we could decide that we have better, less petty and more honorable things to do than stomp on people who are already down.

I think I’ve made up my mind.

December 21, 2016

A call to replace. And a gratuitous animal picture

I wish I could link a new story from Politico, but it's limited to paid subscribers of which I ain't one. The gist of it is that there's growing consensus among governors that the Affordable Care Act shouldn't be repealed until it is replaced. That's encouraging. I hope congress listens.

Meanwhile, my dog Bo and I attended a rally yesterday outside the offices of WV's Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito urging the same. We were a little disappointed Bo's picture didn't make the paper so I'm including this one, which shows his standard way of requesting a walk in the morning while I'm trying to drink coffee and read.

This fight will require dogged persistence.

December 20, 2016

An act of war

In case you missed it, please take a look at this great reporting from Gazette-Mail journalist Eric Eyre about WV's opioid epidemic. It's really hard to get your head around. Or my head, anyway.

Teaser: a handful of drug companies poured 780 MILLION pain pills into WV over a few years, even while our overdose rate increased. They specifically targeted a handful of rural communities in the coalfields.

It reminds me of Great Britain's shameful behavior towards China (or is that Jina?) during the opium wars, when that empire forced addictive drugs on the Chinese people.

If another country did this to us, we'd go to war. Unless it was Russia, which apparently gets a pass from the president elect.

December 19, 2016

Sad story. Will it get sadder?

You may have already heard a lot about WV's opioid overdose issue. The short answer to the question "How bad is it?" is "Pretty damn."

Yesterday's Washington Post talks about:

a national crisis that has been worst of all in rural West Virginia, where health officials estimate that overdose rates are now eight to 10 times higher than the national average. Middle-aged white men in this part of the country have lost a full year of life expectancy during the past two decades. Middle-aged white women have lost more than two years. The opiate epidemic has essentially wiped out an entire generation of health advances, and now West Virginia has begun to focus more of its resources on prevention and preservation among the next generation entering into the void.
The crisis has even led to the creation of a new term for children who lost parents due to overdoses: opiate orphans.

Sadly, the president elect and the Republican congress want to wipe out one ray of hope for dealing with this epidemic: Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Tomorrow, health care advocates are planning to rally around the country urging that the helpful provisions of the ACA not be repealed until they are replaced. An action is also planned for Charleston, which will occur near Senator Capito's office. More on that here.

December 18, 2016

A major catch

I could be wrong, but The Front Porch program/podcast on WV Public Broadcasting, may actually be getting respectable. This week, we had an actual US senator, WV's Shelley Moore Capito. We talked about black lung, health care, broadband and the new political era here.

December 15, 2016

Sticking it to which man?

This op-ed of mine ran in Tuesday's Charleston Gazette-Mail, although for some reason it didn't get posted online:

There’s a lot of talk lately about the working class. In an ordinary year, I’d be ecstatic because this is something I care about.  But this isn’t an ordinary year.

Lately, the term is often racialized, which is never a good sign. The Electoral College victory of the president elect is attributed to the white working class. While there are lots of ways of parsing the results, let’s assume that’s true and consider how working people are likely to fare now.

I guess we could start by saying that white working class people probably won’t have their names added to a registry, face mass deportations, or have travel restricted for reasons other than lack of money. There’s that anyway, although I kind of doubt this would have happened in any case.

But a number of policies now on the agenda could be harmful to working people.

Let’s start with the Affordable Care Act.  Around 30 million Americans could lose coverage if it is fully repealed without being replaced. Of these, over half are white, most of whom work for a living.
 In WV, Medicaid expansion alone covers nearly 180,000 people, about one out of ten. That doesn’t include people with disabilities or the tiny TANF or welfare population.  Around 37,000 working West Virginians got covered through the exchange.  Around 18,000 young people up to age 26 are now covered on their parent’s insurance. These people are overwhelmingly in working families. White ones too.

Losing expansion funding would be a devastating blow to hospitals and health care providers here and would result in job losses in one of the few growing industries.

The new administration could breathe new life into House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program. Medicare is a health care program for people age 65 and older who have worked and paid into the system. It provides coverage to over 55 million Americans and around 400,000 here, over 1/5 of the population. We’re tied with Maine in having the highest percentage of beneficiaries.

Ryan has also proposed block granting—and effectively cutting--programs such as SNAP and traditional Medicaid, both of which benefit working families. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says the data shows that “The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so.”  SNAP benefits go straight to local businesses and help support thousands of retail and agriculture jobs.

Traditional Medicaid covers 70 million, including long term care for the elderly and people with disabilities. Many seniors who worked all their lives run out of savings when they need long term care. Medicaid picks up the slack. With block granting, some would have to quit jobs to care for elderly family members, even though they may be unequipped to do this. More seniors who worked all their lives will be in danger of abuse or neglect.

This would also mean losing federal matching funds, again with job impact. More than 10 years ago the WV Bureau of Business and Economic Research found that Medicaid spending supported economic activity that generated nearly 33,000 jobs. That number has only gone up since.
Medicaid and CHIP provide health care to children in many working families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level—and most workers want their kids to live and be healthy. The programs also bring millions of dollars to local communities and sustain jobs.

The latest round of proposed tax cuts—a remedy that has yet to produce impressive results--would likely benefit the very wealthy, increase inequality, and reduce the ability of the federal government to respond to the needs of working families—for example by making vocational and post-secondary education more affordable.

From the earliest days of the republic, working people fought for a free public education for their children, which is likely to be undermined by a secretary of education committed to undermining it with a system of vouchers and privatization schemes. Speaking of labor history, another key demand of the past was the abolition of child labor, which has been praised by a group the newly appointed education chief has supported.

Then there’s trade, a major issue for working people. I’m not mourning the death of the Trans Pacific Partnership and I support revisiting trade deals to ensure workers’ rights and save American jobs. But a heavy handed approach could set off a trade war which the conservative Peterson Institute described as “horribly destructive.” Peterson estimated that this could cost between 1.3 and 4 million jobs. Progressive groups that ordinarily oppose Peterson on trade issues, such as the Economic Policy Institute, share similar concerns.

If the US ignores the dangers of climate change, working people will be hit the hardest by extreme weather events, like those that hit much of the state this summer. Scientific models project more droughts, floods, food shortages, wildfires, disease epidemics, etc. While we’re at it, if the US goes to war with the known universe over perceived slights on Twitter, it’s a pretty safe bet that working people would pay the highest price.

Then there’s the pick for secretary of labor, a fast food baron who opposes the minimum wage and talks about replacing workers with robots, saying that the latter are ““always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case”

Sorry, but If this is a case of sticking it to the man, I’d have to ask, which man would that be? From where I’m sitting, it seems to be the one who is living paycheck to paycheck.

I think a real pro-working class program would be based on solidarity, not scapegoating. It would include such things as full employment and trade policies to strengthen the middle class; patching the holes in our pension and health care system, ensuring paid sick days and family leave; making debt-free post high-school job training and education a reality; strengthening K-12 public education; investing in things like early childhood programs and infrastructure; and guaranteeing the right of workers to organize. And, since widespread poverty exerts a downward pressure on everyone’s wages, it would support an increase in the minimum wage indexed to inflation.

It would recognize that an injury to one is the concern of all, just as the labor movement of the 1800s came to recognize that free labor could never prosper while slavery persisted. And it would promote international policies that would guarantee fair trade, a sustainable future, and what Lincoln called “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

I haven’t heard a lot of that.

December 13, 2016

A big question

It's become a bit of an annual ritual for AFSC in WV to collaborate with the WV Center on Budget and Policy on a "State of Working West Virginia" report. Each one usually has a theme. This year, it's a perennial question about the Mountain State: why is West Virginia so poor?

The report has four parts, including a historical overview (written by yours truly); a look at contemporary data, a statistical regression analysis of factors affecting policy, and policy recommendations to reduce poverty.

In the first section, I tried to explore the two leading explanations for that poverty: culture vs colonialism. You can guess which side I lean towards. If you're really bored, check it out.

December 11, 2016

Losing a good guy

It looks like one of West Virginia's good guys took evasive action to avoid living under the Trump administration. Ken Hechler, former congressman and WV secretary of state, died at the venerable age of 102. Among his many distinctions, he was the only active member of the US Congress to march with Dr. Martin Luther King and allies in Selma back in 1965. I had the good fortune of knowing him, although not as well as many. He was a tireless fighter for social justice as he saw it, albeit with a regrettable tendency to shoot himself in the foot politically from time to time.

In the words of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, "Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord. And let light perpetual shine upon him"

December 08, 2016

Apropos of nothing again

For some reason, this cheery little jingle by William Butler Yeats has been going through my mind lately:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre  
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere  
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst  
Are full of passionate intensity. 
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.  
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out  
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert  
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,  
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,  
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it  
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.  
The darkness drops again; but now I know  
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,  
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,  
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? 

December 07, 2016

When it rains

I try not to be Debbie Downer here, but lately that's a bit of a challenge. Here are more items from the local news:

*WV's state budget woes increase. That would be fixable given the political will but probably not given the composition and disposition of the state legislature. State officials have said they've cut about as much as they can.

*On a similar note, it looks like public employees and retirees are in for more brutal cuts in health benefits for the next several years.

*The likelihood of a convention to muck up the constitution is increasing. What could possibly go wrong with that?

*Then there's this: our elderly population ranks 50th in terms of well-being. No wonder.

Other than that, things are just peachy here.

(I'll try to be cheerier next time.)

December 06, 2016

Shape of things to come?

This is so not cool. The daily newspaper is starting to creep me out more than The Walking Dead. On the Gazette-Mail webpage today we have:

*an article about how the legislature, thanks to a right wing "think" tank, is considering vouchers for schools;

*another one about how they are considering cutting public education even more by cutting the business inventory tax;

*another one on how the state's public colleges and universities have been cut to the bone and are likely to be cut even more; and

*one more on Republican plans to undo the Affordable Care Act, which covers around 225,000 West Virginians.

The zombies are looking pretty good right now.

December 05, 2016

Make it a double

There were two Front Porch podcasts this week, including one I missed. I think both are worth a listen. Here's one featuring Cpl. Errol Randle about how the Charleston Police Department is fighting racism. And then there's a really good one featuring research Joan Williams on what liberals may not get about the white working class. I hope you check em out.

December 01, 2016

Some days are better than others

West Virginia senator Joe Manchin has been in the news a bit lately, the most recent example (to my knowledge) being speculation that Trump may tap him for energy secretary. This may or may not explain his stated support for the appointment of Jeff Sessions, whose record on racial issues is...let's just say out there.

As if all that wasn't enough, he has also been widely quoted as saying he'd "beat the hell out of" anyone he found burning a flag. I wonder if he feels the same way about hate groups that hide behind the flag?

November 30, 2016

Department of Corrections

In yesterday's post, I meant to link this article about the tragic killing of James Means, an African-American teenager who was called "another piece of trash" by the white man who killed him. Here's the corrected link. Sorry about that.

Meanwhile, here's more bad news about Trump's apparent secretary of education.

Finally, as wretched as things seem, here's a little less heavy news story about a Swedish holiday custom that involves a giant straw goat. Whatever else can be said about them, straw goats are probably easier to deal with than the real thing.

November 29, 2016

A little existentialism and more

"It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards. And if one thinks over that proposition it becomes more and more evident that life can never really be understood in time because at no particular moment can I find the necessary resting-place from which to understand it."--Soren Kierkegaard

Well, that takes some of the pressure off, doesn't it?

So, without attempting to understand anything, here are a few items:

*A take from outside WV on the horrific murder of a young African American teen by a white man in the capitol city of Charleston. More on that to come.

*The latest Front Porch podcast, about growing up Arab-American in WV.

*A bill in the US Senate that actually makes sense.

November 28, 2016

For the hell of it

This op-ed of mine about Dante's Divine Comedy (and us), came out in yesterday's Gazette-Mail.

No human creation is perfect, but one that comes pretty close in my book is Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Its three books, or canticles, provide a guided tour of hell, purgatory, and paradise through the eyes of the poet and summarize the Christian theology, philosophy and world view of much of medieval Europe.

The opening line of the “Inferno” is one many can relate to: “In the middle of our life’s journey, I awoke to find myself in a dark wood, having lost the true path.” Dante is in fact so lost that, with the help of divine intervention, he has to literally go through hell to find salvation.

That rings true for me in more ways than one.

Along the way, he is aided by the spirit of Beatrice, someone he loved from afar in his youth, and by the ancient pagan Roman poet Virgil. Beatrice symbolizes divine grace, while Virgil represents human effort and reason. Both are needed, but human effort can only go so far. In the end it must give way to help from above. Virgil speaks less and less as the story continues and disappears completely near the top of Purgatory, while Beatrice takes the lead.

If Dante is read at all these days, most stop with the “Inferno.” Its appeal is understandable, but stopping there is a bit like walking out of a good movie half an hour into it.

His hell is like an inverted funnel that gets worse as you go deeper. He classifies sins differently than we might today. The least bad places there are are for those who lacked self-control in life. Then come the abodes of the violent. The worst part, which is ice cold, is reserved for deceivers and traitors.

Generally, punishments fit the crime by resembling or contrasting with the sin itself. For example, those given to lust in life are driven around in a violent wind, while fortune tellers walk eternally with their heads on backwards. The term for this is “contrapasso.”

Lowest of all is Satan, “the Emperor of the sorrowful kingdom,” who betrayed his creator. In a dark parody of the Trinity, he has three mouths which gnaw on Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.

After you go so far down, you often wind up going up, which is what happens to Dante and Virgil. I hope it happens to us as well.

After descending to the bottom of hell, they wind up on the opposite side of the world at the mountain of Purgatory, where the souls of those who are saved but still tainted by sin are purified.

(So much for the idea that medieval people believed the world was flat.)

Purgatory is a seven-story mountain or wedding cake where one by one each of the seven deadly sins is cleansed, again with the penance fitting the crime. Pride is purged by carrying heavy weights, which keep the penitent from looking up. Lust is purified in a fire so hot that Dante says he’d have gladly jumped into molten glass to cool off.

Those in Purgatory who are destined for salvation are not any better than those in hell. The only difference is that they repented of their sins. As Beatrice says, “When condemnation of the sin bursts forth from the sinner’s lips, here in our court the stone is turned back against the blade.”

Dante’s heaven is pretty trippy. There are different levels or spheres according to the capacity of those who are saved. It’s a bit like the mother of all light shows, where some are closer to the stage than others, but everyone can see as much of it as they can handle.

His journey involves conversations with saints and saved souls, as well as a warning from his ancestor that he must prepare for a life of exile from his beloved city of Florence (he was exiled in 1302 when political winds shifted and never returned).

At last, he is granted a vision of God words cannot describe. He ends the poem by saying that “like a wheel in perfect balance turning, I felt my will and my desire impelled by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

May we all end up that way ...

It’s an amazing work, one that can also be read as a poem of exile and even of politics. It’s hard to doubt that he enjoyed handing out real estate in hell to his opponents, including some corrupt popes. Many commentators have also noticed that hell seems to have more than its share of Florentines.

I’ve often thought that it would be interesting if he could be brought back to bring the “Divine Comedy” up — or down — to date. A U.S. or even West Virginia specific version of “Inferno” would be really cool — or maybe ice cold. I might even have a suggestion or two. For example, the evil genius who first came up with the idea of separating surface rights from mineral rights, which has caused so much suffering here, surely deserves s special spot.

I imagine that one circle of hell that might be getting a lot of business soon (unless people repent, of course) is that of false counselors, those who used their words, power and influence to promote unjust causes. Such people who inflamed others with their speech are themselves encased in flame in the eighth circle of hell.

There are plenty of voices of hatred today inflaming our worst fears and passions. My wish is that, when we hear them in the land of the living, we follow the advice of Virgil where he says of other lost souls, “Mercy and justice deny them even a name. Do not speak of them. Look and pass on.”

November 25, 2016

Bring back child labor?

I used to think that I should devote my few remaining days on this earth to the noble cause of changing West Virginia's state motto from "Mountaineers Are Always Free," which doesn't really fit anymore, to "You can't make this **** up."

I'm starting to think that may need to be done for the nation instead. We are, after all having pluribus troubles with our unum.

Here's one example, which is particularly ironic or sad for those familiar with labor history. From the earliest days of the republic, a major demand of working people and the labor movement has been for free public education. Another key demand from long ago was the abolition of child labor. So it's just peachy that the Trump administration's pick for education secretary is someone devoted to torpedoing public education though vouchers and privatization. AND she's served on the board of an organization that celebrates the virtue of child labor.

Here's another cheer for child labor from a similar think tank that talks about how exciting mining can be for kids.

The picture above comes from the 1907 Monongah mine disaster, one of many that occurred in West Virginia. The official death toll was over 360, but nobody knows for sure. In the absence of child labor laws, it was customary for some miners to bring their boys to work with them. We'll never know how many children died in the disaster.

I guess some people find that exciting.

November 23, 2016

A needless killing

I've been holed up lately trying to finish some projects and get clear of some deadlines. One thing I missed in all that was the tragic shooting of James Means, an unarmed 15 year old African American who was gunned down by a white man on Charleston's East End. As I write this, a vigil is going on in Charleston. This is one of too many acts of racism and violence going on across the country. Please hold his family and friends in your thoughts at this difficult time. This story isn't over yet.

November 21, 2016

Not a good sign

Over the years, I've often complained about West Virginia's sometimes skewed budget priorities. These go back way before the current economic and fiscal meltdown the state faces now. And the perfect example of this is the state of funding for higher education.

You can find my recent rants about this in the Gazette here and here.

Here's a recap of the mini-rant version:

*WV ranks at the bottom in terms of higher educational attainment;

*It's also at on near the bottom on income and poverty statistics. (Hmmmm....might there be a connection?);

*Back in 2007 and since, when times were better, the state cut taxes by more than enough to provide free instate tuition and fees to all WV students with money to spare; and

*When adjusted for inflation, WV has cut higher ed funding by more than 40 percent since 2008.

It's starting to show. As WV Public Broadcasting reports, college enrollment here has dropped for the fifth straight year.

Any way you slice it, that's not a good sign. And it's likely to get worse before it gets better--unless we fight back to restore sane budget priorities, which includes raising revenue.

November 19, 2016

Funeral for a friend

I got some sad news this week. A friend of mine I hadn't seen for years died after a long illness. We met over 20 years ago in the midst of a huge struggle between the Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation (RAC) and the 1,700 union members and their families who were locked out of the plant.

RAC used to be owned by Kaiser Aluminum but its ownership had been kicked around over the years. The management at the time was eager to get rid of the union, even though the workers agreed to continue working under the terms and conditions of the old contract.

At midnight Oct. 31,1990 they were informed that they would be locked out of their jobs and permanently replaced.

The average age of a union worker was over 50 with over 20 years of service at the company.

What followed was a fight that lasted nearly two years and bitterly divided the community.

I visited the area with a union  miner friend shortly after it started. We had some experience in that kind of thing and offered solidarity, but nobody seemed interest. It was around a year later that I got a call from inviting me to come and meet with some steelworkers and members of the women's support group.

We met above a place called Ike's and it was there that I met my friend Sue. She was active in the support group but was the most unlikely labor militant you'd ever meet. She was a devoted homemaker and mother of three, active in her church and community. Neither she nor any of the other people impacted by the lockout ever imagined they'd be in this kind of situation.

We met regularly with folks for several months, trying to think of things to keep morale up while events took their course. I worked a lot with the women's group. This may not be a surprise to anybody, but I found they were more concerned with how everyone was doing and were more likely to follow through. No one seemed to look out for others as much as Sue. She was part of the glue that held people together at a critical time.

Eventually and against all odds, they won the lockout, thanks to unsung heroes like Sue. After two years of living dangerously, folks readjusted to a "normal" life.

No victory is permanent, but the plant stayed open and stayed union for until 2009. It's now closed.

It was a good fight, and the best part for me was meeting and standing together with people like Sue.

When you're in a struggle like that, people often swear to stay in touch. Sometimes you do, but often the tides of life cause us to drift apart.

I had lost contact with Sue until I got the news and it  hit me pretty hard. I guess a lot of the people I knew from that fight have passed. And I'm not getting any younger.

I guess the main thing is to do what we can with the time we have. She did anyway.

November 17, 2016

Want to do something?

So if you are one of the millions of people out there who are wanting to do SOMETHING now, here's a simple step for those who live in West Virginia: sign this petition asking the president elect not to turn his back on nearly 180,000 West Virginians from working families who benefit from Medicaid expansion. When you've done that, share the link with others on all your social media.

Once you've done your good deed for the day, you can jog a victory lap and reward yourself by listening to the latest Front Porch podcast.

Is this a full service blog or what?

November 16, 2016

A little good news on police community relations

This op-ed of mine on recent positive news about police/community relations in Charleston came out in yesterday's Gazette Mail.

The ancient Chinese sage Confucius (aka Kong Fuzi) was once asked what a kingdom needed to survive. He answered adequate food, armaments and the trust of the people. When pressed about which he would give up if necessary, he said he’d first part with armaments and then food.

His reasons still make sense: “Death has always been the lot of humanity; but if the people have no faith in their rulers, then the state cannot exist.”

It’s as true today as 2500 years ago that the greatest protection for people in positions of authority is to be seen by citizens as legitimate and worthy of trust.

That’s especially true for those charged with maintaining public safety, especially police officers who put their bodies on the line every day.

Unfortunately, that trust has been damaged in many parts of the country by the tragic killings of African Americans, particularly young men, by police officers. These have eroded public trust, outraged many people, created civic unrest and even contributed to the killings of police officers.

This is sad in so many ways. Ironically, many of the communities most in need of legitimate law enforcement are those in which trust has been damaged.

Incidents like this can happen anywhere and quickly spin out of control, leading to situations where no one wins in the end.

That’s why I think it’s great that the Charleston Police Department, in partnership with many community organizations, has taken major steps to get out in front of this issue.

For more than a year, police officials under the leadership of Chief Brent Webster, met and partnered with groups such as NAACP-Charleston, Black Ministerial Alliance, Our Children Our Future, American Friends Service Committee, American Civil Liberties Union-WV, Kanawha County Public Defender’s Office, East End Family Resource Network, RESET, the Tuesday Morning Group and the WV Coalition Against Domestic Violence to hammer out some real solutions to these problems.

What they came up with could well be a model for the nation, but getting there wasn’t always easy or pretty. The complex bundle of issues involved weren’t unique to Charleston and certainly didn’t begin here. Over time it became clear that both community members and the police were caught up in much larger systems and a long and often ugly historical process.

My co-worker Lida Shepherd described it like this:

“The first meeting with Chief Webster with the Charleston Police Department was slightly tense. We were sitting around the table to discuss the fact that the arrest rate of blacks in our small city of just over 50,000 people was more than double that of whites. Before getting into the problem at hand, we all shared why each of us personally thought it was important to address racism, a dialogue that highlighted how the problem we were meeting about was not about singling out the Charleston Police Department as an offending racist institution, but like all the institutions with which we affiliate, are all part of a broader problem of systemic racism.”

After a lot of give and take, the group came up with a comprehensive program. To promote transparency, the department will begin publishing monthly arrest statistics broken down by age, race, gender and reason for arrest and will implement state of the art body camera technology and best practices.

To reduce the likelihood of unfortunate incidents that could endanger civilians or police, promote better understanding of larger issues, and improve community relations, the department will implement de-escalation training, require training on the dynamics of race and racism, and hold roll call presentations so that officers and community members can hear from each other.

The coalition will also launch a Youth Advisory Council to be composed of a diverse group of at least 10 young people aged 18-25 which will which will plan on-going dialogue and events between youth and officers, and make annual recommendations to continue to improve the relationship between youth and officers.

In addition, the department will offer annual community service awards which to recognize officers who demonstrate their commitment to community policing and have engaged in acts of compassion and caring.

Finally, the Charleston Police Department has pledged to cooperate with other community leaders to advocate for policy changes that reduce recidivism and improve the chances for ex-offenders to successfully re-enter the larger society.

If steps like this had been implemented around the country a few years back, black and blue lives would have been saved and all kinds of trouble would have been avoided.

After this was announced at a recent press conference, there was some inevitable trolling on the internet (I’ve come to regard feeding internet trolls as a form of Christian charity). But there was quite a bit of positive support across the political spectrum.

A Daily Mail editorial said “By building mutual respect and cooperation, police officers and the community can successfully maintain order in Charleston and become a model for the rest of the nation.”

Conservative broadcaster Hoppy Kercheval wrote “The Charleston Police Department and community leaders deserve credit for being foresighted. Their efforts do not guarantee the state’s Capital City won’t have its version of a Charlotte, Baton Rouge or Baltimore, but they do reduce the possibility, while simultaneously strengthening relations between the police and citizens.”

I agree. And I love it when West Virginians lead the nation in something positive. It doesn’t happen every day. But it happens.

November 14, 2016

Want to do something?

If you live near the Charleston WV area and want to do something, please consider coming to the West Virginia Welcomes Refugees rally tomorrow Nov. 15 at 5:00 pm at the corner of Court Street and Kanawha Boulevard.

You can find news about the event here. There's also this op-ed by Rabbi Victor Urecki and this Gazette editorial.

This won't take care of everything, but it might help "break the freeze" some of us have been feeling.

November 13, 2016

On the porch

The latest Front Porch discusses the recent election and whether the president elect, whose name escapes me at the moment, and the governor elect Jim Justice will be able to keep their promises. Or should.

November 09, 2016

Apropos of nothing

So the last few days have been interesting or something, although I would have been fine with boring.

I'm thinking of three things I've read that crossed my path this week. One was this piece by Andrew Sullivan on the dangers of fascism to the USA from the Trump campaign. That was before.

Then a friend sent me this item from Vox about how Trump's proposed policies will be a disaster for the white working class.

Then there's this item from Jacobin about how urgent it is to engage in (small d) democratic political action.

Otherwise, I've been thinking about a book someone told me about with a title I can't print in a family blog. It was something like "**** yes: A Guide to the Happy Acceptance of Everything." The **** in question is neither scatological nor eschatological. I haven't read it (yet) but I think it's kind of a comic novel about someone who tries to say "Yes!" to everything that life throws at him. And yes can be kind of complicated.

I can't say that's my worldview, but I think at some point we all need to say "**** yes" to the challenges that have been thrown our way. And deal with them.

One last thing. A quote that has been on my mind lately is attributed to Mao Zedong (of whom I'm not a fan, btw). It goes like this: "Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent."

**** yes!

November 06, 2016

Taking on the new tobacco

Given West Virginia's budget crisis and dismal state of public health, it's a good thing that a campaign is in the process of being launched that aims to increase the tax on sugary drinks. Already some cities have experienced success at this. This NY Times article shows the early results of a major university (and employer) that banned them from the campus.

Of course, the outcome of that campaign might be affected by Tuesday's outcome. As will many other things...

November 05, 2016

The whiteness of the whale

I'm a big fan of the writings of Herman Melville. Whatever his other (and especially family) problems might have been, racially he was pretty cool, as the Dude might have put it in The Big Lebowski.

This year's political season has reminded me of one of the weirder chapters in Moby-Dick wherein he discusses all the disturbing things about whiteness. My friend Owens Brown, WV NAACP president, updates that chapter here.

November 03, 2016

A little late

El Cabrero is slacking this week in case you haven't noticed. However, in lieu of nothing at all, here's a link to last week's Front Porch podcast, which was late getting to the web for technical reasons. I'm sorry to say that most of it is about a topic many of us are already sick of, i.e. the coming elections. Anyhow, you can listen here.

October 30, 2016

Major disgrace

I'm still kind of floored by the recent decision to acquit the Oregon protesters who seized federal property for 41 days and videoed themselves doing it. The contrast between how they were treated and how unarmed African Americans--especially young men--are treated couldn't be more striking.

As more than one person has pointed out, holy white privilege, Batman!

I imagine that if a similar armed uprising was staged by African Americans, there wouldn't have been a trial because they would all have been killed. Period.

This is the kind of legal decision that damages the credibility and legitimacy of the whole system. To the extent it had any to start with.

October 29, 2016

Warming up a (metaphorical) pen in hell

The late great American writer known as Mark Twain was said to have warmed up his pen in hell when he felt indignation about this or that social injustice.

Here's  free sneak preview: I'm no Mark Twain, and the extent of my pen or computer doesn't reach to hell (yet), but I'm getting ready to open a can on a right wing foundation that to me is about as morally disgusting and contemptible as can be, which is quite an accomplishment. The group is the Foundation for Government Accountability, a euphemistic name for a billionaire funded and ALEC supported group dedicated to taking  away food and health care from poor people.

WV's Republican-led legislature has brought someone (apparently well fed, by the way) from this group on more than one occasion and I'm sure they'll be back soon. Depending on how things go in a few days, they may even write legislation for the coming session.

Here's a little background on these charm school dropouts and here's a great editorial from the Gazette about them. You'll hear more from me soon, inshallah.

October 26, 2016

Forest and trees

This op-ed of mine appeared in Wednesday's Gazette Mail:

Last fall, I was in a delegation to Palestine and Israel. Politics, religion and culture aside, what struck me most about the landscape was the contrast with West Virginia.

The scenery was striking, with plenty of hills. After all, many of the big events in the Bible take place on mountains. But I couldn’t help but notice the absence of the blanket of trees that covers most of the Mountain State.

Say what you want about West Virginia — I certainly have — but at least it’s a lush, green place in season.

It’s been said that before the arrival of Europeans, a squirrel could swing from tree to tree across the state (assuming it could hop rivers). That forest provided a habitat for a great diversity of plants and animals and resources for native people living and passing through the area. It would also provide shelter, game and more for later settlers from Europe and elsewhere.

Our old-growth, virgin forests were among the first casualties when West Virginia became an economic colony of outside business interests.

According to historian John Alexander Williams, the greatest change that came in the wake of industrialization was the disappearance of the Appalachian forest: “as late as 1870 there were at least ten million acres of virgin forest in West Virginia, covering nearly two-thirds of the state’s surface. In 1900 this figure had been reduced by half; in 1910, by more than four-fifths. The virgin forest was gone by 1920.”

This destruction disrupted the traditional subsistence farming and the local food economy and altered ecosystems, erosion patterns and waterways.

The waste left by timbering created a fertile ground for forest fires. According to historian Ron Lewis, “The extent of the damaged cause by these fires is staggering. In 1908, for example, the number of fires reached 710, burning an area of 1,703,850 acres, more than one-tenth of the entire surface of the state, one-fifth of its forested area, and 3 percent of the state’s standing timber.” Of these, more than 70 percent were caused by locomotives and 20 percent by sawmills and logging operations.

Needless to say, most West Virginians didn’t benefit from this transformation. In the end, Lewis concludes “Railroad and timber development did not stimulate the growth of a vibrant agricultural sector, but, rather, forced farmers to either abandon the countryside for a new life in the industrial towns or face a life of rural marginality at the periphery of the American, and now global, economy.”

Williams noted one more change in the wake of deforestation: “For the first time in its history, West Virginia come to be thought of as a place of ugliness as well as beauty.”

Today, the forests have recovered to some extent. West Virginia is the third most forested state (behind Maine and New Hampshire). But if our history teaches anything, it is that responsible care for natural resources such as forests matters. A lot.

Aside from their economic, ecological and recreational value and contribution to our quality of life, forests provide a buffer against floods by retaining excess rainwater, preventing erosion and extreme run offs, and slowing down the flow of water to low points.

I visited Nicholas County shortly after the June flood and saw thousands of acres of clear cut land. I couldn’t help but wonder how this impacted communities like Richwood. The clear cutting didn’t put the water there, but it sure didn’t slow it down once it hit the ground.

In light of all this, I found it surprising and disturbing that budget cuts this year led to the laying off of 37 foresters from the state Division of Forestry. It wasn’t like the agency was flush to start with. More than 10 years ago, a state report aimed at disaster prevention found that “the Division of Forestry is currently under-staffed to accomplish all of the inspections, firefighting, and enforcement responsibilities assigned to the division by the state.”

Now, after a late summer dry spell, we’ll also be less able to deal with forest fire season. According to a forestry official quoted by Metro News, it’s not unusual to have 20 forest fires a day in some parts of the state.

Local volunteer fire departments will do what they can, but their main mission is to protect lives and structures and they often don’t have the people to deal with hundreds or thousands of acres of burning hills, not to mention the equipment and often the expertise.

(I can attest to the expertise thing first hand in my short and inglorious stint as a volunteer firefighter, when in a single night of fighting a brush fire I narrowly survived a box turtle attack and sustained my only injury, a burn from a flare and not the fire itself. The flare started it.)

On a more serious note, these layoffs could wind up costing us a lot one way or another in terms of hell and/or high water. It’s just another example — along with cuts to higher education and services and a crumbling infrastructure — of West Virginia’s downward slide, which is at least partially self-inflicted. It could be remedied given the political will.

October 25, 2016

Quite a day

In case you felt any hoodoo about today, there are plenty of reasons for it. First, this is St. Crispin's Day, which means it's the anniversary of the battle of Agincourt in 1415, which is celebrated in Shakespeare's Henry V. The best known part of this is the rousing speech by the king wherein he spurred on his outnumber soldiers to victory:

"he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.”

You can watch Kenneth Branagh's version of it here.

It's also Karate Day. On this date in 1936, the leading masters of Okinawan karate, including one who taught the one the one who taught me, met in Naha to discuss changing the name of the martial art from one that could be translated as "Chinese hands" to karate do or "the way of the empty hand," which better reflected it spiritual component.

Around the world some people are celebrating that by practicing 100 repetitions of a karate kata,which are formal exercises of prearranged series of techniques performed solo. For an example, click here to see a performance of seisan, the signature kata of a style I practice.

100 repetitions of a kata is way harder than it sounds--I'd rather run 15 miles on hills. I plan to do a few today, but it won't be 100.

Today many Okinawans will "pray that Okinawa’s traditional karate will continuously contribute to world peace and happiness." I find the long tradition of Okinawan karate masters linking the art to world peace without embarrassment or irony to be endearing. And they might be on to something.

So, Crispin or karate, enjoy the day!

(Note St. Crispin and his companion Crispinian are the patron saints of shoemakers and cobblers. They were said to have been beheaded on this date during the persecution of the Roman emperor Diocletian around the year 285. They probably didn't enjoy the day.)

October 22, 2016

Celebrity Apprentice should have won... least when Gary Busey was on there. The latest Front Porch podcast is about third parties and whether elections are rigged. Alas, we recorded it before the third presidential debate.

October 19, 2016

Cuts and more cuts

If you're a public employee in WV and you feel something on your back, it could be a target. PEIA, aka the Public Employee's Insurance Agency, is gearing up to make millions of dollars in benefit cuts. This could be the next major health care fight here. Or one of them anyway.

On top of that, food assistance in the form of SNAP benefits is declining around the nation as many states impose time limits and difficult to comply with work requirements. WV did that in nine pilot counties. Meanwhile, right wing groups (whose staff seems to be pretty well fed) are pushing for further food cuts in WV. I guess that'll be another fight.

October 17, 2016

There's this anyway

Times are hard in WV and especially in the coalfields. I wish the Obama administration had gotten onto the case a few years back, even for cynical political reasons. But there's this news anyway about some federal help for economic transition in Appalachia.

Then there's this: the Our Children Our Future campaign to end child poverty in WV just completed a pretty major voter drive. Here's a link to the story and the guide.

Finally, I guess it's not all bad news for coal miners (the ones who are working, anyway).

October 16, 2016

Perhaps you will remember John Brown

On this date 157 years ago, assuming I got the math right, John Brown and his band of black and white guerrillas began their raid on Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia. It was an epic fail tactically but a huge win strategically in that things got pushed to the point of no return. I'm not big on theologizing history, but sometimes it seems like Brown was God's monkey wrench that got thrown into the machinery of a sinful land.

Here's a poem about him by Langston Hughes:

You will remember
John Brown 
John Brown
Who took his gun,
Took twenty-one companions,
White and black,
Went to shoot your way to freedom
Where two rivers meet
And the hills of the
And the hills of the
Look slow at one another —
And died
For your sake.
Now that you are
Many years free,
And the echo of the Civil War
Has passed away,
And Brown himself
Has long been tried at law,
Hanged by the neck,
And buried in the ground –
Since Harpers Ferry
Is alive with ghosts today,
Immortal raiders
Come again to town –
You will recall
John Brown.”

October 15, 2016

Buzz kill

So earlier this week the Spousal Unit and I went to our favorite Italian restaurant. We had a good meal and a good time but it kinda got spoiled. In order to prepare for the next Front Porch podcast, I promised to listen to the debate between WV's two main candidates for governor. It was a buzz kill.

I should have stuck to my usual practice of talking about stuff I know nothing about, like I do here.

Anyhow, here's a link to the podcast. I think it's better than the debate anyway.

October 13, 2016

High time

Image by way of wikipedia.

My day started with some good news that carried me through it, so far anyway. I am of course referring to the news that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

I'm not sure this is a good thing, but Dylan has supplied the soundtrack of my life. I first became aware of his work, without knowing who he was, as a little kid when my late brother came home from college with a guitar and plunked out "Blowin' in the wind." The delivery didn't get me but the lyrics did.

I've said it before and say it again: Bob had--and has--the power of the word.

There were other times in my life when he struck me cold, like the time in my teens when I heard "Tangled up in blue" in a store.

Eventually I found out who he was and started digging into his work.

Of course, when you talk about Bob, you have to be more specific, as in which one? There's folkie Bob, political Bob, hipster Bob, country Bob--and that just gets you through the 1960s, There's way more. I tend to prefer the middle and older, more obscure Bob these days.

The intimacy between his music and my life is such that I've been know to buy the latest Dylan album to find out what I've been up to.

(I can also grade seasons of my life by Dylan album. Street Legal phases are kind of downers...)

I have no idea if he writes consciously or is just the vessel of the muses, although I lean to the latter hypothesis. I was once at an Arlo Guthrie concert where he speculated that Dylan fished for songs upstream so he could catch more than anybody else.

I hope he keeps on catching them. Congratulations, Bob!

(I just checked the Goat Rope archives for all the times Bob has been mentioned here. It's quite a bit.)

October 12, 2016

West Virginia leads in a good way. Really.

I mentioned in a blog post last week that there was a major breakthrough in police/community relations in, of all places, Charleston WV. Here is a blog post by my co-worker Lida Shepherd about how all this came together.

And here's how it starts:

Editor’s note: As cities across the U.S. continue to grapple with issues of racist police violence, Charleston, West Virginia made headlines last week when its police chief and local community groups announced a plan to improve race relations in the city. 
Lida Shepherd with the AFSC West Virginia Economic Justice Project was part of the 14-month collaborative planning process that led to this remarkable agreement.

Our first meeting with Chief Brent Webster of the Charleston Police Department in October of last year was slightly tense. We were sitting around the table to discuss the fact that the arrest rate of Blacks in our small city of just over 50,000 people was more than double that of whites.
At the table were a team of student and faith leaders, and representatives from NAACP-Charleston, Black Ministerial Alliance, AFSC, ACLU, Kanawha County Public Defender’s Office, East End Family Resource Center, and the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 
Before getting into the problem at hand, we each shared our personal thoughts on why it was important to address racism—a dialogue that emphasized this meeting was not about singling out the Charleston Police Department as a racist institution but rather addressing the broader problem of systemic racism that plays out not only in our city but across our nation.
(It's a good story, and one that I hope will get better. Click the link above to read the rest.)

October 11, 2016

Read it and weep

I'll say it again, it's time to shelve West Virginia's old state motto, "Mountaineers are always free" and replace it with something more fitting. (Although I hope we can reinstate the old one when conditions change.)

My nomination for the motto has oft appeared here. It's "You can't make this **** up." I was hoping to come up with a Latin version, but the Republican controlled state legislature declared English to be the official language.

Perhaps that will save the billions of dollars currently spent on printing official documents in Urdu...

But I digress.

The most recent example of why we should use the new motto can be found in the publication from prison by former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship titled An American Political Prisoner.

Ken Ward at Coal Tattoo had this to say about that here. The truly...interested can read the whole document here. I actually skimmed it.

Let's just say it ain't Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

October 09, 2016

Sweet talk

This week's Front Porch podcast is about sugar and its role in public health. Or rather, undermining public health.

Otherwise. a slow political weekend, huh?

October 06, 2016

Sugar is the new tobacco

This op-ed of mine ran in yesterday's Charleston Gazette-Mail:

When legislators start scrambling to fill West Virginia’s budget gap next year, they would do well to consider raising the tax on sugary drinks. And maybe finishing the job on the tobacco tax.

There are plenty of reasons to consider this option, but here’s one to start with: sugar is the new tobacco. In more ways than one. And tobacco is the old sugar.

But, let’s start with the old one. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 U.S. deaths per year.

For comparison, consider this: that’s more than twice the number of Union and Confederate soldiers killed or mortally wounded in battle in the whole Civil War (around 110,000 and 94,000, respectively).

The CDC estimates economic costs to be more than $300 billion per year, including $170 in direct medical costs and $156 billion in lost productivity.

That’s over 70 times the size of West Virginia’s general fund budget of $4.2 billion in 2015.

That’s bad enough, but many Americans may have forgotten how the tobacco industry knew about the danger of smoking but suppressed the information to protect profits and delay regulation.

As James Surowiecki wrote in The New Yorker, industry researchers “had demonstrated the addictive qualities of nicotine and the health hazards of smoking years before these things became public knowledge, and that tobacco companies had nonetheless embarked on a public campaign to deny what they knew to be true, from their own research, and to cast doubt on the dangers of cigarettes.”

It has recently come to light that the sugar industry was up to the same tricks for years.

According to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, more than 50 years ago, sugar industry interest groups became concerned about research on the dietary causes of coronary heart disease, especially those that linked illness and early deaths to sugar intake.

Over a period of decades, the industry dumped a few million dollars on P.R. and “research,” including funding for Harvard scientists who minimized the role of sugar and cast fat as the villain. The scientists didn’t disclose any possible conflicts of interest.

As far back as the 1950s, one influential industry leader argued that “sugar is what keeps every human being alive and with energy to face our daily problems.” In effect, the industry paid for research to back up their claims.

You get what you pay for. Or the industry did anyhow. As the authors of the JAMA article note, “by the 1980s, few scientists believed that added sugars played a significant role in CHD, and the first 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans focused on reducing total fat, saturated fat, and dietary cholesterol for CHD prevention.”

As Surowiecki put it, the Harvard researchers “discounted studies suggesting that reducing sugar consumption could help with coronary heart disease, while overstating the evidence blaming saturated fats.”

If you’re old enough to read this, you probably remember the “low-fat” marketing craze that really took off in the ’90s and hasn’t entirely gone away.

This isn’t to say that fat is a new health food, but it’s hard to deny that the low-fat craze helped lead to the high-carb diets that have contributed to the nation’s — and especially West Virginia’s — obesity crisis, which is taking its own toll, in terms of health and financial costs.

Back in 2008, health care policy expert Ken Thorpe was commissioned to advise the Legislature on how to improve the state’s physical (and ultimately fiscal) health. At the time, he noted that we spent 13 percent more per person on health care than the national average.

He also noted that “Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that West Virginia has among the highest rates of childhood and adult obesity in the country. These high rates of obesity are associated with high and rising rates of diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, heart disease, pulmonary disorders and co-morbid depression.”

In a 2009 report titled “The Future Costs of Obesity,” Thorpe reported that obesity-related diseases cost West Virginia $668 million in 2008, a number he expected to rise to $2.4 billion by 2018 if nothing changed.

It’s hard to get up-to-the-minute data on this, and some progress has been made, but it’s clear the public health threat is still with us.

The death toll hasn’t reached Civil War levels, but damage has been done, and our children have been among the targets. In 2012, nearly one in four West Virginia fifth-graders already had high blood pressure, according to West Virginia University measurements of thousands of children. One in five kindergarteners were coming to school obese and were at risk of type 2 diabetes. Nearly one in three adults were obese. According to Try This West Virginia, a campaign to promote healthy lifestyles, seven out 10 health care dollars were spent on preventable diseases.

Let’s just say that if another country had done this to our kids, we’d be at war.

I’m no purist about this stuff. I’m a former smoker and I consume sugary drinks (although you have to be 21 or older to buy most of them), but let’s face some facts.

Budget crisis or not, imposing a tax on things that kill us might not be a bad idea. Part of the revenue could go to addressing the medical costs these things cause. And if, over time, we consume less of them and suffer less harmful effects ... well ... that would be a good problem to have.