November 21, 2017

Raising the floor

Recently, I worked on a report about the state of West Virginia's low-wage workers with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. Some results weren't surprising. The number of low-wage jobs, defined in this case as 150 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of two ($11.59 per hour or under $24,108 per year) has grown by 14.5 percent since 2001, while employment in high wage industries has declined by 2.8 percent.

Key industries employing low-wage workers include grocery stores, retail, food services and personal care for children or the elderly. Nearly one in four West Virginians works at such a job. For many, these jobs are no longer a stepping stone to a better gig but rather a lifelong path. Fifty-five percent of the state's children (200,900 in all) live in a household with at least one low-wage worker.

While most such workers in West Virginia are white, African-Americans are more likely to earn low wages. The rates are 23 and 31 percent, respectively. Fifty-six percent of low-wage workers are women. Younger workers are more likely to earn low wages than those in their prime. Rates shoot up again for workers 65 and older. Still, nearly half of all workers over 35 have low-wage jobs.

One major factor affecting wage levels is, unsurprisingly, educational attainment. Fully 44 percent of those without high school diplomas earned low wages. For high school graduates and those with some college, the rate dropped to 28 percent. Rates of low earners dropped to 12 percent for people with associate's degrees and less than 10 percent for those with a bachelor's degree or more.

One obvious policy change to raise earnings and our state's abysmal statistics would be to put more resources into affordable post-secondary education rather than unproductive tax cuts. Indeed, cuts enacted over the last 10 years were more than enough to pay tuition and fees for a public college education for every student in the state.

It's pretty clear that anything that helps people move from low to living wages - or keeps people from sinking lower -would strengthen West Virginia's economy, boost demand for goods and services provided by local businesses, and help increase the state's chronically low workforce participation rate.

Some other steps in that direction include:

*Protecting West Virginia's Medicaid program. This federal-state partnership provides care to nearly one out of three West Virginians, including 170,000 people from working families earning under 138 percent of the federal poverty level. It also supports thousands of jobs in health care and other sectors. Losing that would be a huge hit to the state's economy and drive thousands of West Virginians into deeper levels of poverty and misery.

*Enacting a refundable state earned income tax credit (EITC). So far 29 states and the District of Columbia have enacted such credits to help people build assets, pay off debts and offset the impact of regressive taxes. The EITC is a proven tool to fight poverty, increase labor-force participation and help workers in low-wage jobs afford necessities. This is no radical idea - recently, the WestVirginia Bankers Association came out in support of a state EITC.

*Protecting and enhancing child care assistance. Child-care assistance is crucial to helping low-income families maintain employment, stay off public assistance and have higher earnings. Without assistance, it is simply unaffordable, forcing workers to choose between child care and a job. Increasing the eligibility level for families from 150 percent to 200 percent of the poverty line could reduce the "cliff effect," which discourages parents from advancing in their jobs and careers.

*Raising and indexing the minimum wage. In 2014 West Virginia passed legislation to increase its minimum wage to $8.75 per hour, $1.50 more than the $7.25 federal rate. That was a step forward but is still not a living wage. It's high time for another hike, which could be phased in over several years and indexed to the rate of inflation.

*Preserving and expanding early childhood education and voluntary home visiting programs. Evidence suggests there is a critical period in early childhood, roughly equivalent to the first 1,000 days of life, which can make a huge difference in cognitive, emotional, social and physical development. These in turn can impact health and economic well-being across the lifespan.

Bottom line: Workers in low-wage jobs constitute a large and important segment of West Virginia's population. These are the people who do some of the most important work in our communities, such as caring for children and the elderly. The steps we take to help them improve their economic status is critical to ensuring a better future for all West Virginians.

(This appeared as an op-ed in Sunday's Huntington Herald-Dispatch.)

November 16, 2017


Recent acts of senseless violence and other forms of trauma reminded me of the ancient Greek idea of miasma, which means something like pollution. The religion writer Karen Armstrong talks about it as a contagious power that “has an independent life of its own.”

Think of it as hazmat.

The Greeks seemed to believe that every act of violence, hubris, cruelty or excess unleashes a bit of miasma on the world. Often the people who unleash it minimize it or think they can control it. They can’t. Miasma isn’t loyal. It bounces. And like a toxic chemical or an infectious disease, it can leak into the atmosphere and water and have effects far beyond the initial point of infection.

Miasma also doesn’t seem to respect borders — even those with walls — or to have an expiration date. The effects of the spiral of violence and trauma (miasma) can continue across continents and generations.

The child who is abused or witnesses abuse may one day abuse. The victim may one day become a perpetrator. The trauma done to a group or individual can have effects across time and space. The eventual target of all this may be random and innocent. It may be us.

One strand of Greek mythology follows the thread of miasma across generations in one family. It started with Tantalus, who for a time enjoyed the favor of the gods. He tried to trick them at a feast by feeding them the flesh of the shoulder of his son Pelops. For this he was punished in the underworld by eternal hunger and thirst. Hence the word “tantalize.”

Pelops, who was restored by Zeus, would later murder his would-be father in law by cheating in a chariot race. He also murdered the person who helped him do the deed. Not surprisingly, the victim cursed him with his dying breath. The curse would play out in the future.

Pelops’ sons were Atreus and Thyestes. They murdered their own half-brother but later had a deadly quarrel, which ended in a horrific act of child murder and cannibalism. Each brother had a son who continued the curse and the conflict in the next generation.

Agamemnon, son of Atreus, led the Greek forces to invade Troy. He sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia to gain favorable winds for the fleet. While he was gone, his wife Clytemnestra became the lover of Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes, who was born of an incestuous union.

Yeah, it was a mess of extra-biblical proportions.

Agamemnon was murdered by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus when he returned from the destruction of Troy. His son Orestes murdered his mother and her lover and was pursued by the Furies, dark underworld deities who punished crimes against blood kin.

On and on, one thing after another. Kind of like world history.

In the end, as the Greek tragedian Aeschylus tells it, it took divine intervention, rational deliberation and democracy to bring the awful cycle to an end.

The way things are going, we may need all that as well.

The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum finds some lessons for us in all this:

“Greek tragedy shows good people being ruined because of things that just happen to them, things that they do not control. This is certainly sad; but it is an ordinary fact of human life, and no one would deny that it happens ... . Tragedy also shows something more deeply disturbing: it shows good people doing bad things, things otherwise repugnant to their ethical character and commitments, because of circumstances whose origin does not lie with them.”

Things happen to us and to others. We react, not always in the best ways. We get caught up in situations beyond our direct control. The chain of events gets longer. Dominoes fall. Which means more miasma.

Recent research in the field of public health shows that the long-lasting effects of the trauma of things that happened to us or that we get caught up in aren’t confined to mythology. They can occur in much more ordinary ways — often in childhood — but still have long lasting effects.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that trauma isn’t destiny and that there are ways we can help those who’ve suffered from it and reduce the damage that it can do now and in the future. Often these are as simple as a positive relationship with a responsible adult.

I think it would be a huge step forward for us all if we became more conscious of the ways that the effects of trauma can spiral out over time and space — and if institutions such as schools, health care providers, public services, law enforcement, courts and corrections institutions became more trauma informed and adjusted their practice accordingly.

As Albert Camus put it, “We all carry within us places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.”

(This appeared as an op-ed in yesterday's Gazette.)

November 13, 2017

Game changer?

The big news in WV these days is a "game changing" deal with China Energy that could mean $83 billion in investment around shale gas and related developments. I found two different but interesting takes on this news from different parts of the state.

This Gazette piece warns that the deal could doom WV to another century as a mineral colony and could have negative environmental impacts. Closer to the likely point of impact, I found this piece from the Wheeling Intelligencer, which is generally pretty conservative, to be interesting. While not criticizing the deal as such, it warns about the dangers of continuing to rely on one major industry, even a relatively new one.

It even calls for making the Future Fund, which is only on the books at this point, a reality. The idea behind a Future Fund is to set aside a portion of severance taxes to create a permanent source of wealth for WV.

I especially like the idea of investing more in education, or "preparing our children for careers in which they, not anything pulled from the earth, were viewed as the valuable resource."

In any case, I hope WV doesn't make the same mistake in the century to come that it did in the last one.

November 07, 2017

In the forest of the night

Spider, spider burning bright...

Last night, I took the dog on a walk in the woods while wearing a headlamp. It had been raining, so there was water on the grass. As we trudged up and down the hill, I saw what looked like a skyfil  of little diamonds moving on the ground. A closer look revealed, a closer look revealed a multitude of spiders busy going about their nocturnal business. There had to be thousands of them.

I guess I knew that there were spiders on the hill. And I guess I didn't expect them to go to be at sundown. Still, there was all this activity going on all around me that I'd never been aware of before.

I think that's a pretty good metaphor for life. There's stuff we don't have a hint about going on all around us all the time. Thoreau said "Only that day dawns to which we are awake" I guess something like that is true of the night as well.

November 06, 2017


The tragic shooting in Texas and other recent acts of violence made me think of an ancient Greek idea about miasma, which means something like pollution.  In one of her books, the religion writer Karen Armstrong talks about it as a contagious power that “has an independent life of its own.” Think of it as hazmat.

I think that every act of violence, excess, hubris, moral blindness and such unleashes a bit of miasma on the world. The people who unleash it think they can control it, but they can’t. Miasma isn’t loyal. Like a toxic chemical or infectious disease, it leaks into the air and water and can have effects far beyond the initial point of infection.

It also doesn't seem to have an expiration date. The child who sees abuse may one day abuse. The victim may one day become the perpetrator. The trauma to an individual or group can have effects far across time and space. The target may be random. It may be us.The less we use it, the less pollution we release into the world, the better off we all are.

Unfortunately there's a lot of miasma out there. More every day.

November 01, 2017

A holiday we could use

A Mexican custom of which El Cabrero is a big fan of is the Day of the Dead, which corresponds with All Saints Day in the Church calendar. Halloween, you recall, is All-Hallows-Eve or the day before. Similar customs are observed elsewhere, but it is the official Goat Rope verdict that this is the coolest.

The celebration likely has pre-Christian roots. During the Aztec month of Miccailhuitonli (say that 10 times while spinning around), there was a festival presided over by the "Lady of the Dead" which was dedicated both to children and the dead. Originally, this was celebrated in the summer, but there was an understandable post-colonial shift.

Now the festivities usually continue for the first two days of November and include acts that symbolically welcome the dead back into their homes and visiting family graves. There's special food including "pan de muerto" or bread of the dead. Family altars and gravesides are decorated with religious objects and symbolic offerings of food flowers and even alcohol and cigarettes.

I think the basic idea is right on, i.e. that the living and the dead are connected. That idea is enshrined in the ancient creeds of Christianity, which speak of "the communion of saints."

Maybe that's because the dead aren't quite as dead as we tend to think or the living aren't as alive as we tend to think. I'll leave that to the reader's discretion...

(This came from a blog post here from 10 years ago. Recycling.)

October 30, 2017

RIP Turk Lurk

It is with sadness that I report the passing of Turklurk, the one remaining turkey on Goat Rope Farm due to natural in a predator. I found him this afternoon on returning from a long day. Not sure when the crime took place or who the culprit was. Whether coyote or raccoon or whatever it didn't eat much, which is to say a lot went to waste.

This never would have happened when Arpad the Magnificent, protector of poultry, was alive.

The life lesson here, apropos of nothing is that when the good guys go away the predators move in.

October 28, 2017

Having it both ways

So this past week we heard that the president declared America's opioid crisis to be a public health emergency. We can at least agree on that. 

Too bad he didn't mention anything about the funding needed to deal with it.

In 2015, there were more than 2.5 million Americans with opioid use disorder according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. That year, more than 33,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses, which is triple the death rate for 2000. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that the US, with less than 5 percent of the world's population, accounts for about a quarter of drug related deaths.

Unfortunately, the same person who declared the emergency also wants to destroy the Affordable Care Act, which has brought drug treatment to many Americans.

According to the American Journal of Public Health, the ACA has expanded treatment options through four main mechanisms: expanded coverage, insurance rules requiring substance abuse treatment, enhanced mental health parity, and opportunities for integrating substance abuse treatment with mainstream health care. An estimated 1.6 million Americans received coverage through Medicaid expansion alone.

So it seems that what we have here is the declaration of an emergency along with a declaration of war on one of the few things that is actually working to deal with it.

October 26, 2017

Curiouser and curiouser

Earlier this year a friendly librarian changed my life. Again. She told me about this cool online service, Hoopla, which among other things allows you to download audiobooks to your smartphone or other devise.

I've always been a big fan of audio books, but used to listen to them in the Paleolithic era on cassettes and in the Neolithic era on compact discs... all of which had an irritating tendency to disappear or get damaged. Thanks to Hoopla I've been able to burn through dozens of books while driving, mowing or other tasks.

I took a classic wisdom bath and listened to unabridged recordings of Herodotus, Thucydides and Plutarch. I binged on my beloved (and admittedly crazy Nietzsche). I caught up a bit with my old friend Freud.

Just lately, to clear the palate, I listened to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I've been a fan of the Disney movie forever, the more recent version not so much though I like the actors, but it had been a while since I read the book.

Think Kafka for kids.

It was even more delightfully trippy than I remembered it, dreamlike and full of playing with language and logic.

Since we've gone down the rabbit hole lately, with and Orange King instead of a Red Queen screaming "off with their heads," it's even kind of timely. Electronically or otherwise, I highly recommend giving it another look.

October 24, 2017

All that matters

Christian charity keeps me from referring to the big business friendly Tax Foundation as a racket for the rich. So I won't. But it kind of is. The group rates states on their "tax climate" (translation: good for a few) as if that was a measure of well-being.

Today, conservative commentator Hoppy Kercheval celebrated West Virginia's improved ranking of 19, ahead of our surrounding states. Most of the "improvement" in ranking comes from tax cuts initiated 10 years ago and phased in over time.

My friend Sean O'Leary at the WV Center on Budget and Policy summed it all up in a great tweet:
And all it cost us was an ongoing budget crisis, credit downgrades, a depleted rainy day fund, and major cuts to higher education.
Oh yeah, and we have fewer jobs now than then. And we've lost population. And things have gone so dark that we lead the nation in drug overdose deaths. And schools are laying off teachers and support staff. And we cut taxes by more than enough to pay free in-state tuition and fees to all WV students in a state that desperately needs to raise its educational attainment rates.

But, hey, the Tax Foundation is happy. That's all that matters, right?

October 21, 2017

The two step budget shuffle

Congress just voted to engage in a grossly irresponsible two step maneuver which will cut taxes mostly for the rich in the short term and make everyone else pay for it long term. For a quick look at just how the tax cuts will hurt people who need housing, health care, food, and education, check out these posts by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

For a look at what the two step will do to people in West Virginia--and what would make much more sense--check out this report from the Coalition on Human Needs and the WV Center on Budget and Policy.

October 18, 2017

More work to do

In recent years, WV has made progress in juvenile justice reform. We've take a few steps away from locking up kids at $100,000 or more per year for truancy...but there's still more to go. The missing piece is the mental health angle.

We as in AFSC  and the WV Center on Budget and Policy recently released a report on where things are and where we need to go. Here's a link to the full report.

And here's a summary of the key findings. We hope to work with folks in the coming year to move things along:

Every year in West Virginia, around 4,000 juveniles will appear before a judge. Pending the judge’s decision, a juvenile may be given an improvement period to address the behavior, put on probation, referred to a special court, or committed to some form of out-of-home placement. However, the state’s juvenile justice system can be confusing and data is often difficult or impossible to obtain.

This report provides an overview of West Virginia’s juvenile justice system, including historical background, recent reforms, and recommendations for improvements. It also suggests looking at the system through a mental health lens could lead to more constructive solutions and positive outcomes for the state’s youth offenders.

“When West Virginia confines a young person for a minor, non-violent offense, too often it puts him or her at risk of being drawn more deeply into the criminal justice system,” said Sean O’Leary, West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Interim Executive Director. “While the state has recently embarked on the path of juvenile justice reform, there is still more work to be done. A greater focus on juvenile mental health would help West Virginia build on its recent progress.”

Key Findings

*West Virginia bucks the national trend with its high confinement rates. It was one of only five states where the rate of detention increased, despite a drop in both crime and population.

*In 2013, West Virginia confined juveniles at a rate of 510 per 10,000. By contrast, Massachusetts, with nearly four times the population of West Virginia, had just 393 youth in confinement.

*African American youth were nearly three times as likely to be confined as their white counterparts. West Virginia’s youth confinement rate for African Americans was 1.5 times higher than the national average.

*West Virginia was second only to Wyoming to confining young females. With a rate of 175 per 100,000, the Mountain State far exceeded the national rate of 47.

*Incarceration or other forms of detainment early in life are a major life disruption in the ordinary life course, which can have ripple effects into the future. Prior incarceration was a greater predictor of recidivism than carrying a weapon, gang membership, or poor parental relationships.

*In 2013, only one out of every eight committed youth in West Virginia was locked up based on a violent crime, such as homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, or sexual assault.

*Community-based programs were more cost-efficient and effective with recidivism rates than DJS facilities.

*In 2014, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin convened the West Virginia Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice, which brought together legislative and judicial leaders as well as system experts to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the state’s system and to produce policy recommendations.
West Virginia’s juvenile justice system has made real progress, however, it continues to face significant problems, particularly in the area of juvenile mental health.

*Looking at the system through a mental health lens could lead to more constructive solutions and positive outcomes for youth offenders. Some next steps include: creating a task force to address juvenile mental health; build the infrastructure to help public schools address mental health issues before a student is suspended or sent to court; and a long-term goal should to build an infrastructure which would ensure that students in danger of entering the system are assessed and referred to appropriate community-based programs whenever possible and appropriate.

West Virginia’s communities, families, and youth will benefit if the only young people who are confined or detained in out-of-home facilities are those who constitute a threat to the public or themselves.

October 15, 2017

Sometimes screwing up the world just isn't enough

Apparently screwing up climate, health care and the international situation just isn't enough for some people. Now they want to go after meals for school kids in order to make things just a bit cushier for the very rich.

A federal program, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), passed in 2010 by Congress as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, made it an option for school boards to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students in schools where 40 percent or more of children are low income.

The idea is to improve child nutrition and academic performance, save schools paperwork and money, and give a break to working parents. And it's worked really well around the country and especially in West Virginia, where 49 counties participate, including 510 schools and over 190,000 students.

I recently spoke to a school board member in Pocahontas County, which recently implemented CEP countywide. She said more kids were eating, the county was saving money AND test scores were going up.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the majority of House Republicans, including Congressmen Evan Jenkins and Maryland Alex Mooney, voted to drastically cut the program, which would end free meals for hundreds of schools and thousands of kids in the Mountain State. 

The Senate is expected to take up the budget next week. So far the cuts aren't part of the Senate plan but these days all threats are best regarded as credible. Senator Manchin has come out against the cuts, while Senator Capito's office has said something like they'll be watching it or whatever.

October 10, 2017

Condemned to be free

When I was quite a bit younger, I went through an existentialist phase. It wasn't all that uncommon at the time. I'm not sure I ever entirely emerged from it.

Despite all the weight of apparent evidence for scientific determinism, I still have a core belief that however much our lives are conditioned by external and internal forces there is some small residue of choice if not in outcomes then at least in our reaction to them. And whatever decision I make or allow to be made, I can't help but feel it could have been done just a little bit differently. Or maybe a lot. And that the future is at least in part unwritten. Or maybe a lot.

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who to be fair was not all that admirable a guy, famously stated that we are condemned to be free.

Apropos of nothing, some words of Sartre's have been on my mind lately. In essay he wrote for The Atlantic in 1944, shortly after the liberation of Paris by the allies, he wrote that:
 "Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces. ... They deported us en masse. ... And because of all this we were free."
Obviously, he didn't mean the good guys then could do or get whatever they wanted. But extreme times made the weight of free decisions--to resist or to collaborate, to hold out a little longer under despair or interrogation or torture-- a little more stark.

That kind of freedom can be terrible and terrifying.

These are pretty dark times. While a lot is beyond our immediate control, the weight of our decisions is getting heavier.

In that sense, we're pretty free right now too.

October 06, 2017

Leaving kids behind?

While congress has been busy doing whatever it is it does lately, one thing it didn't do is reauthorize the Children's' Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage to millions of children in working families nationwide and to around 38,000 children in West Virginia. The deadline to reauthorize the program was Sept. 30.

To their credit, both of WV's senators support the program and were disappointed by the failure to reauthorize the program. Senator Manchin had this to say:

“It is shameful that Congress is so dysfunctional that we cannot even manage to reauthorize funding for a program that ensures 9 million children across America have access to health insurance. More than 21,000 West Virginia children are enrolled in CHIP and to let this funding expire is nothing short of negligent. The least we can do is put partisanship aside to protect our children, the most vulnerable among us. In the coming days, I will continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure no child in West Virginia loses access to healthcare.” 
And Senator Capito said this:

“I understand the benefits the Children’s Health Insurance Program offers to many students in West Virginia. This is why for two decades, dating back to my time in the West Virginia State Legislature, I have championed this important program and support ongoing efforts to reauthorize it. The legislation to reauthorize CHIP that is advancing in the Senate has strong, bipartisan support."
Despite the missed deadline, the bill has recently made some progress in the senate, although it's a long way from being a done deal. 

Here's hoping this gets fixed before millions of kids get thrown under the  metaphorical bus. This might be the time to make some more noise.

October 04, 2017

The art of watching bad news...or not

The cascade of bad news, human-generated and otherwise, has been pretty overwhelming lately. The two main Dylan songs going through my head lately are "Everything is Broken" and "World Gone Wrong."

Today I ran across some useful information that might help in dealing with bad news in the media. For one thing, being glued to the set while ill **** is going down can cause serious and acute stress. One study conducted in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing found that the stress reactions of news junkies glued to the TV were as bad or worse than those of people actually much closer to the real event.

A good guide to dealing with breaking bad news can be found in the On The Media blog's resource, The Breaking News Consumer's Handbook, which starts with the reminder that early news reports are likely to get things wrong. Among other points is a warning to be skeptical of anonymous sources and hoaxes. There's also good advice about not uncritically retweeting or otherwise posting information that may be unreliable.

Finally, here are some suggestions from the American Friends Service Committee's Media Uncovered project.. Here's one suggestion: "Turn off the TV, put down your phone, and do something else."  The bad news will still be there. But rather than being glued to the set (or phone) it might be good to take some time to reflect, to spend time with those you care about, consider taking positive action, and send your best to those suffering from the crisis at hand.

September 26, 2017

Gazing into the abyss

It’s comforting to think that good and evil people are completely different, and that “our” side, whatever that is, is all good, while evil belongs exclusively to the other.

Too bad this is a dangerous illusion.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it in “The Gulag Archipelago,” his study of Soviet punishment camps:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. ... During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish.

“One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood.”

He quotes a Russian proverb that, “From good to evil is one quaver,” noting it works the other way, too.

That’s a good summary of social science on how ordinarily good people sometimes do terrible things.

Someone who explored this field for decades is Philip Zimbardo, creator of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment and author of “The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil.”

He argues that we tend to attribute evil actions to the individual dispositions of people who do them but ignore the powerful forces situations exert on individuals. Further, powerful people create systems that put decent people in situations in which they do things they otherwise never would have.

He warns that we often have a dangerously inflated notion of our ability to resist evil influences.

“For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion of invulnerability,” he wroted. “Paradoxically, maintaining that illusion only serves to make one more vulnerable to manipulation by failing to be sufficiently vigilant against attempts of undesired influence subtly practiced on them.”

Two powerful toxins that can unleash the beast in any of us are dehumanization and deindividuation.

Zimbardo: “Dehumanization is one of the central processes in the transformation of ordinary, normal people into indifferent or even wanton perpetrators of evil. Dehumanization is like a cortical cataract that clouds one’s thinking and fosters the perception that other people are less than human. It makes some people come to see those others as enemies deserving of torment, torture, and annihilation.”

Dehumanization happens at an individual level, but it is most dangerous when the powerful create systems that label and target some groups as being less than human.

When we dehumanize others, another process that kicks in is what social psychologist Albert Bandura called “moral disengagement,” when we convince ourselves that some people are unworthy of empathy and compassion.

Then it’s on.

Deindividuation happens when we identify so closely with a group that we lose our sense of individual responsibility. This happens in organized or informal ways. When countries send people off to war, the warriors are often deindividualized with shaved heads, uniforms and drills that emphasize following orders and acting as a unit. It can also happen in informal groups like mobs and gangs. Things like masks and hoods can add to the effect.

This is most dangerous at the systemic level, particularly when it goes hand in hand with dehumanizing some vulnerable group via ideology and propaganda. Throw in our tendency to conform and obey authority, and you have a pretty lethal brew. Signals from above give permission to abuse those below.

The scary side to group behavior has long been recognized. Sigmund Freud noted that, in groups, emotionalism rises while rationality falls (think political rallies, rock concerts, some sporting events).

He believed that when groups fall under the spell of a charismatic authority, the people in it regress to a more primitive mental state. He wrote, “It is not so remarkable that we should see an individual in a group doing or approving things which he would have avoided in the normal conditions of life.”

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr even titled one of his books “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” He didn’t have any delusions about the flaws of individuals, but rather noted that, “In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.”

After all, most individuals have consciences. But often the conscience of a group is a dissenting minority accused of disloyalty.

We live in are dangerous times. Polarization runs high. There are calls for dehumanization coming from high places around the world. America may be on its own dark journey, although it’s unclear how far it will go. I’m consoled by the thought that many other nations have gone through dark times and come out on the other side.

I hope we step back from the edge of the cliff and resist the temptation to see the other, whoever it may be, as some kind of monster.

As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

(This ran as an op-ed in the Gazette-Mail a day or so ago.)

September 24, 2017

More of a tweet

Well, a Republican senator had the courage to break with the leadership in order to save health care coverage for over 200,000 West Virginians. Too bad the senator in question was from Arizona.

September 20, 2017

What if?

The descendants of the Vikings figured out a thing or two.

Not so long ago, I, along with lots of good folks and a very impressive coalition,  spent a good bit of time and effort trying to get the state of West Virginia to pass legislation creating a Future Fund. This would have involved setting aside a portion of state severance tax revenue, allowing it to build, and using the interest as a permanent source of wealth for the state.

The bill passed in 2014. Ish. Unfortunately, it was sabotaged in the House of Delegates (at a time when Democrats held the majority in both houses) and basically made unworkable for the foreseeable future. Since there, there's been a political earthquake or three and a big dip in coal production and gas prices.

I'm still hopeful that the Future Fund can be made workable at some point. And I can't help thinking about how different West Virginia would have been today if one had been set up years ago.

Case in point: Norway. When that country experienced an oil boom, those socialistic Vikings were smart enough to set aside a portion of their revenue for pensions and public expenses. Apparently they were smart enough to figure out that this stuff you take out of the ground doesn't grow back (at least for several million years).

Today, that fund is worth $1 trillion. Yes, that would be the number with 12 zeros. It's worth about $190,000 for each resident of Norway.

I know there's no way WV's version would  have been anywhere near that even if we started decades ago. But we would have been in better shape than we are now.

September 19, 2017

The Walking Dead, health care version: action needed

As recently as last week, it looked like efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act--and take away health care for millions of Americans--was dead. But this is the era of zombies or walkers, when things that should long ago have been dead and decently buried shuffle around to devour the living.

The latest walker to show signs of being dangerously undead is the Graham-Cassidy bill, which is rapidly gaining momentum. It's not clear whether senators who opposed earlier repeal efforts will hold the line. And here's an added wrinkle: the window to pass this zombie bill closes Sept. 30. After that, changing the health care law will require bipartisan support, which some senators have actually been working on.

According to the WV Center on Budget and Policy, Graham Cassidy will cut West Virginia's Medicaid funding by $2 billion by 2027. It would convert funding for expanded Medicaid to a temporary block grant while also undermining traditional Medicaid. On top of that, it would further disrupt the individual market. Read more about all that here.

You probably saw this coming, but it's time once again to contact WV Senator Shelley Moore Capito and remind her of her statement that "I did not go to Washington to hurt people."

Here's how:


    220 North Kanawha Street
    Suite 1
    Beckley, WV 25801
    Phone: 304-347-5372
    500 Virginia Street East
    Suite 950
    Charleston, WV 25301
    Phone: 304-347-5372
    300 Foxcroft Avenue
    Suite 202A
    Martinsburg, WV 25401
    Phone: 304-262-9285
    48 Donley Street
    Suite 504
    Morgantown, WV 26501
    Phone: 304-292-2310
    172 Russell Senate Office Building
    Washington, DC 20510
    Phone: 202-224-6472

September 16, 2017

Annals of hypocrisy

You really can't make this stuff up. As my friend Ken Ward reported in yesterday's Gazette-Mail, WV's Republican representatives in the US House, who rode to power in part by pretending to give a ____ (fill in the blank) about coal miners, voted to cut funding on the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration.  Fortunately, the measure failed to pass the entire House.

UMWA president Cecil Roberts had this to say about that: "I am gratified that a majority of the House agreed with our position that we should not be cutting coal mine safety at a time when we are experiencing rising fatalities and serious injuries in America’s mines."

I guess you get what you vote for.

Speaking of abominations, then there's this.

September 12, 2017

Shiny happy people somewhere else

Well, if you're Jonesing for another story about how West Virginia ranks at the bottom of all things good and at the top of all things bad, you can check out this item from the website WalletHub, which ranks states according to their presumed level of happiness.

Yeah, 50 again.

In terms of method, the group evaluated the broad categories of emotional and physical well-being, work environment, and community and environment using 28 metrics. Whatever you think, the list of factors considered was pretty thorough, as you can see here.

Interestingly, the state that came out on top was Minnesota. Maybe this is because of the way they pronounce the letter O.

September 11, 2017

A spoke in the wheel

Recently, apropos of nothing of course, my friend the Rev. Jeff Allen, executive director of the WV Council of Churches, sent me the following quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Protestant minister and leader of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church who was executed by the regime in 1945.

The quote is from an essay titled "The Church and the Jewish Question." It was published in April 1933, shortly after the Nazis gained state power.

"All this means that there are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state:  in the first place, as has been said, it can ask the state whether it's actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e. it can throw the state back on its responsibilities.  Second, it can aid the victims of state action.  The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian Community.  'Do good to all people" . . .  The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself."

September 06, 2017

Whatever happened to gratitude?

You might think that President Trump, after receiving overwhelming support from West Virginia and much of Appalachia, would show the region a little love in his proposed federal budget.

That didn't happen. Instead, the president proposed massive cuts that would hit West Virginia and the Appalachian region harder than the rest of the country.

Among the programs on the chopping block are SNAP, which provides basic food security to over 340,000 West Virginians, about one in five. Many of those who receive these benefits are working people in low wage jobs - and these SNAP dollars are spent in local businesses, supporting thousands of jobs.

Then there's WIC, a nutrition assistance program that helps pregnant and nursing women as well as young children and over half of the nation's infants.

The highly successful Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers almost 35,000 West Virginia children, is also targeted. Thanks to CHIP, West Virginia has become a national leader in insuring children, with a coverage rate of around 97 percent. That could be undone.

There are also threats to low income energy assistance, disability benefits, Meals on Wheels for seniors, and temporary assistance to needy families.

One cut that seems particularly unsportsmanlike is the proposed elimination of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which has supported infrastructure and economic development projects in the region since its establishment in 1965.

You could almost view the other cuts as generic indifference to or contempt of disadvantaged people all over the nation, but the ARC hit seems like a deliberate and targeted slap in the face.

To his credit, Republican U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins came out strong against the Trump budget in May. In his statement he said:

"While I appreciate the president's aim to cut wasteful spending, this budget goes too far in critical areas for West Virginia. The proposed cuts to our safety net programs, including Medicaid and SNAP, would hurt too many of our state's most vulnerable citizens, and I cannot support this budget proposal.

"The budget also proposes eliminating programs crucial to West Virginia's economic development and diversification - the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration. We need to do more to attract new industries to our coalfields and invest in our infrastructure, and these two programs have a track record of success in West Virginia."

That's the good news.

The bad news is that the budget resolution passed by House Republicans does much of the same thing. The end result would be increasing hardship and poverty, growing inequality, weakened investments in our nation's future and a shift of costs to already hard-pressed states.

And the hidden agenda behind this kind of slash-and-burn approach to the federal budget is to provide yet more tax cuts for the rich, a zombie-like failed policy that keeps coming back from the dead.

The dangers of these disastrous cuts being fast-tracked through Congress are real. We need Congressman Jenkins and his colleagues to stay the course and continue to fight for a budget that reflects our needs and values.

(Note: this appeared as an op-ed in the Huntington Herald Dispatch on Sunday.)

September 04, 2017

Ten thousand times

Here's a fiery labor day quote:

"Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself, and risen again; been seized by the throat and choked and clubbed into insensibility; enjoined by courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by regulars, traduced by the press, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated by renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested by spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches, and sold out by leaders, but notwithstanding all this, and all these, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission of emancipating the workers of the world from the thraldom of the ages is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun."-Eugene V. Debs, 1904

I wish I was as confident of emancipation today as he was then. And more correct about it.

September 02, 2017

Subsidize this

The latest WV Public Radio Front Porch podcast/program is about Gov. Jim Justice's proposal to get the federal government to subsidize eastern coal as a matter of rent seeking national security and also about disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

More important, however, is the pressing question of what food item would be your nickname if sandwiched (no pun intended) between your first and last name? You may have to listen to make sense of that one.

August 31, 2017

Reading the signs

In ancient Rome, augurs tried to read the future by looking at the entrails of sacrificial animals or the flights of birds. These days we tend to rely on things like polls, which is probably just as well. The results of the latest WV MetroNews poll are pretty interesting. Respondents were asked about their approval of President Trump, Governor Justice, Senator Capito and Senator Manchin.

In it, Trump's approval isn't as high as you might think it is (or as low as you might think it should be, depending on your viewpoint). It looks like Gov. Justice didn't do himself a whole lot of favors even among Republicans with his switch to that party during Trump's WV visit.

Senator Capito's approval rating is the lowest on record, which may or may not have something to do with fears related to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which, for all its flaws, has brought health coverage to around 225,000 West Virginians. At this moment, it looks like Senator Manchin is riding high, with more Republicans, Democrats and Independents holding favorable rather than unfavorable views. Of course, it's way too soon to tell how all this will play out in 2018 and beyond.

You can read more here.

Digression: when the ancient Greeks didn't like the results of auguries from entrails, they sometimes kept sacrificing animals until they got some guts that promised good news, which is kind of like commissioning more polls until you get one you like.

The Romans weren't much of a sea power at first. They would sometimes seek to read the future by seeing is the sacred chickens would eat before a fight. When the chickens wouldn't eat before the battle of Drepana with the Carthaginians, one commander got into trouble by throwing them into the sea and saying "Let's see if they'll drink." The Romans lost that one. Take home message: don't mess with chickens.

I'm not big on omens, but things would have to get pretty bad at the farm for chickens not to eat.

August 30, 2017

Gnats and camels

A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post found that Christians, especially white evangelicals, were more than twice as likely to blame poverty on lack of effort by the poor compared with nonreligious Americans.

That’s a dramatic departure from the first 1,500 years of Christian history. Not to mention over a thousand years of Judaism before that.

In fact, concern for justice for the poor is one of the unique features of the Jewish religious tradition, out of which Christianity grew.

Apparently for some Christians, somewhere along the way, economic factors morphed from being a part of life to being the main event. And wealth got conflated with salvation and righteousness, while poverty was linked to sin and damnation.

That’s not how it all started.

Deuteronomy, the final biblical book of the Jewish Torah, states that “There should be no poor among you.”

Mosaic law called for periodic and radical cancellation of debts and redistribution of land to level social inequality. It wasn’t voluntary. The divine call was for justice, not charity. Landowners were even forbidden from gathering in all of their harvest; the remnants were to be left for the poor to glean.

The prophets regularly denounced the wealthy and powerful. To use just one of many examples, Isaiah asked: “What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” They didn’t hold back from denouncing kings, including good ones like David and bad ones like Ahab.

As Thomas Cahill wrote in The Gifts of the Jews, “This bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law. However faint our sense of justice may be, insofar as it operates at all it is still a Jewish sense of justice.”

This bias toward the underdog is also central theme of the New Testament, showing up as early as the song Mary sang in Luke after being told she would bear a child: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

Jesus wouldn’t just say “Blessed are the poor.” He also said “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.”

Here again, examples could be multiplied. Consider the epistle of James: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you ... Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”

That continued in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition. St. Ambrose (337-397), who helped convert Augustine, said “You are not making a gift of your possessions to poor persons. You are handing over to them what is theirs. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.” And “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”

St. John Chrysostom (349-407) preached “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”

St. Basil (330-379) said: “Are not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast receivest to distribute? It is the bread of the famished which thou receivest, the garment of the naked which thou hoardest in thy chest, the shoe of the barefooted which rots in they possessions, the money of the penniless which thou hast buried in the earth. Wherefore then dost thou injure so many to whom thou mightiest be a benefactor.”

St. Gregory the Great, aka Pope Gregory I, (540-604) said “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”

Say what you want about early and medieval Christianity, but bashing the poor wasn’t part of the deal.

In today’s world, far be it from me to deny that there may be a slacker or two out there (most of which are not poor). But myopic views of poverty neglect some huge events that have taken place in front of God and everybody for the last few decades.

These include the decline of unions and workers’ power; trade deals that benefit corporations not communities; tax cuts to the wealthy; budget cuts; a minimum wage lagging behind inflation, privatization, and the growth of big money in politics, all of which has led to record levels of inequality.

Studies have shown that most recent income growth has gone to the wealthiest 99.999 percent, even while the share going to low and middle income Americans has declined.

As The New York Times reported, “Only a few decades ago, the middle class and the poor weren’t just receiving healthy raises. Their take-home pay was rising even more rapidly, in percentage terms, than the pay of the rich.” Today, however, “The basic problem is that most families used to receive something approaching their fair share of economic growth, and they don’t anymore.”

Ignoring these massive injustices while nit-picking at the real or imagined small flaws of low income people is pretty much exactly the kind of thing that Jesus had in mind when, using a drinking metaphor, he accused some misguided religious people of his own day of “straining out gnats and swallowing camels.”

Unfortunately, it looks like camels are still on the menu.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Gazette-Mail. Please be kind enough to overlook the fact that I put the two numbers in the wrong place.)

August 28, 2017

Don't seek and you won't find

According to a news story was first reported by my friend Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Trump administration recently pulled the plug on a study by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine on the health effects of mountaintop removal mining. This occurred in spite of numerous scientific studies that suggest increased rates of birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases 

 This shouldn't be too much of a surprise. As a Gazette editorial put it,  "This administration is anti-science and very pro-coal. It is not so pro-coal miner, or coal miner’s family or community. A clearer understanding of how and why coalfield residents get sick, die and have too many birth defects might get in the way of enthusiasm to mine more coal at all costs."

A serious scientific study of the health effects would have at least helped to clear the air, metaphorically speaking, about the issue. One thing's for sure: you probably won't find what you don't look for.

August 24, 2017

The West Virginia connection?

I've argued for a long time that WV should change its sadly outdated state motto from "Mountaineers are always free" to "you can't make this **** up" for a good while now. The latest proof that this step is needed is a story put out by CNN yesterday about a new twist in the Russia investigation that suggested someone from WV tried to arrange a meeting between campaign aids and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Two possible connections were suggested: WV Governor Jim Justice, who switched his party affiliation to Republican during Trump's recent visit, and Republican legislator Riley Moore, nephew of Senator Shelley Moore Capito. Gov. Justice denied being that person.

Who knew that El Cabrero's beloved (sort of) state of West Virginia would become a hotbed of international intrigue? One can hardly wait to see what happens next.

August 21, 2017

The better angels of our nature

At least 500 people attended West Virginia's first Black Lives Matter rally Sunday at the state capitol in Charleston. There were some apprehensions going in to this. Rumors spread of armed counter-protesters, especially after controversy surrounding the statue of Stonewall Jackson on capitol grounds, which somehow got added to the mix. BLM organizers took pains to stress that the rally had nothing to do with the statue.

People connected with the event prepared for various contingencies, most of which fortunately didn't occur. Some attended an AFSC nonviolence training. Others were trained as marshals, escorts, legal observers and first aid providers. Several clergy attended as peacemakers and de-escalators. 

Two young African-American women, Takeiya Smith and Gabrielle Chapman, took the lead in organizing the event. Speakers included Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer, daughter of Harry Belefonte, who countered misconceptions of the movement: “The phrase Black Lives Matter means we matter also, not we matter exclusively, but also.” 

There were a small number of peaceful counter-protesters at the Stonewall statue and a pretty big militia contingent. Those who came on capitol grounds (see above) were unarmed. However, I'm told that those on the perimeter were packing pretty heavily.Fortunately, the militia guys were pretty laid back, which is a plus. There was a strong police presence, but overall it was calm.

As was the case when Trump came to WV, I was a legal observer under the umbrella of the ACLU. It's a role I enjoy as it gives me an excuse to attend rallies without having to chant (outside of Buddhist monasteries or high church rituals, I dislike the practice). Luckily, there was nothing much to observe.

I'm pleased to note how peaceful it was and how people safely went home without incident when it was over. It was reassuring to see that even in times as weird and tense as these West Virginians are still pretty nice. What Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" prevailed at least this time.

There was good media coverage.  Here is some from the Gazette-Mail, WV MetroNews, and WV Public Broadcasting.

It was a great event. I have a feeling we'll be doing a lot more of this kind of thing for the foreseeable future.

August 18, 2017

No two sides

In case you missed it, here's WV Senator Joe Manchin's statement on recent events in Charlottesville:

"I condemn in the strongest possible way the hatred and bigotry carried out by white supremacists in Charlottesville. This hateful ideology has always contradicted the very foundation our country was built on and has no place in our society and our communities today. There are not two sides to the story when the other side is Nazi’s, the KKK and white supremacists. The President should not leave any ambiguity about these hate groups - there aren’t two sides, there is only right and wrong."

Too bad some other people didn't get the memo.

August 15, 2017

A blast (and warning) from the past

Since the tragic events of the last weekend in Charlottesville, a long forgotten video produced by the US War Department during WWII has gone viral over the internet. I think most of what's gone out over the interwebs has been excerpts from the full version, which lasted about 17 minutes.

The uncut version of the film "Don't Be a Sucker" is available here. It was first produced in 1943 and re-released in 1947. I highly recommend giving it a look. It's an eerily contemporary warning to Americans to resist the temptations of fascism and authoritarianism.

Too bad it's not just a curious relic of another time.

August 13, 2017

WV Council of Churches statement on Charlottesville

CHARLESTON, W.V. — West Virginia Council of Churches Condemns Violence in Charlottesville, VA

For many years, as stated in our Public Policy Issues Booklet “the West Virginia Council of Churches laments the deterioration of political debate in our society as it is expressed through the demonization of political adversaries, falsehood masquerading as truth for political gain, and the corrosive effect of anonymous money.  All of these have a negative influence on public trust and the participation of citizens in the political process.  We call for civility, mutual respect, financial transparency, disclosure, and truth telling in campaigning and other forms of political activity”  (WVCC Public Policy Issues Booklet, p. 7).

Today, in Charlottesville, Virginia, we have seen the end result of the failure to attend to those things that nurture civil society and of the failure to see one another as sisters and brothers.  We whole-heartedly condemn the violence and the hate that was displayed in Charlottesville, Virginia.  We unequivocally reaffirm our belief that Black lives do matter and that our country must come to terms with the racism endemic in our society.  We pray for peace and healing in Charlottesville and in our country.  It is our hope that all people of good will, politicians and citizens alike, will condemn this violence, begin to heal the wounds in our country, and “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5: 24).

The West Virginia Council of Churches (WVCC) represents 14 Christian denominations in West Virginia. Its mission is to make visible the unity of Christ's church, and to provide a Christian witness on public issues, as well as to engage in cooperative mission and service for all West Virginians.

August 10, 2017

Getting real about fixing health care

A lot of great quotes have been attributed to Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister during the World War II era. Too bad he didn’t actually say some of them.

That’s probably true of one of my favorites, although I’m not going to let that stop me now.

The nonquote I have in mind goes like this: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

(He really should have said that.)

That line came to mind after the latest health care roller coaster ride that ended with Arizona Sen. John McCain’s movie-moment no vote.

In his statement, McCain had this to say:

“We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of aisle, heed the recommendations of nation’s governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people. We must do the hard work our citizens expect of us and deserve.”

To paraphrase, we’ve already tried everything else. Maybe it’s time to do the right thing, which would consist of keeping what’s working and fixing what isn’t.

Maybe it’s a pipedream in this moment of extremism, but it would be the best solution for the American people.

While I’ve spilt a lot of ink (or pixels) defending parts of the Affordable Care Act, I’ve never been an uncritical supporter. At best, it’s an extremely indirect way of getting part way to where we should be, i.e. covering all Americans. It works really well for millions of people — including around 225,000 in West Virginia — but not much or even not at all for others.

Recently, my co-worker, Lida Shepherd, with help from Andy White, interviewed several people impacted by the ACA who received care from Cabin Creek Health Systems. Some purchased health care on the exchange and some were covered by Medicaid expansion. A former coal miner received additional help for black lung due to ACA amendments pushed through by the late great Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

Nearly all of those we interviewed had pre-existing conditions, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, thyroid disorders, Hashimoto’s syndrome, sleep apnea, addiction, anemia, arthritis, endometriosis and more

We didn’t talk to enough people to get a scientific sample, but it gave us a pretty good sense of where people were.

Generally, those who received care through Medicaid expansion were very enthusiastic about it. Others, who received care through the exchange, were glad to have coverage, but some were more critical, especially those experiencing rising premiums, co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses.

For those in recovery, addiction treatment through Medicaid expansion was a godsend. One woman put it this way: “I wouldn’t be here without it, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t have a job. I wouldn’t have a home. It’s affected my whole life. Before I came here, I didn’t have a job. Now I’m an assistant manager. I’m healthy. I’m happy. My son has a great life. He’s happy.”

Another woman echoed that sentiment: “You literally wake up one day after you’ve had nine months or more of sobriety and you’re like — OK, I didn’t realize it but my house is clean every day. My daughter always has clean clothes and food. Her hair is always done.”

In some cases, the ACA was a mixed blessing, but still a blessing. The former miner related how he and his wife purchased coverage on the exchange for her, only to find out that she had a potentially fatal heart condition. He said that news “just took the bottom out of my world.”

Thanks to the coverage, she could get lifesaving but expensive surgery. He said, “Obamacare, although I paid a severe co-pay and a severe out-of-pocket pay, which was roughly $15,000 combination of the two, they picked up the rest of the bill. In that perspective, I got a bargain, though it was a large amount of money.”

A woman struggling with several pre-existing conditions and buried in out-of-pocket costs was frustrated with the ACA but said, “You tell me how I’m going to get insurance coverage by anybody else if this does completely go away, because I have pre-existing conditions. I can’t not have health care. I’m terrified. What am I going to do?”

If I had to sum up what everyone had to say in one sentence, it would be something like, “Make it better if you can, but don’t take it away!”

Otherwise, as one gentleman put it, “You might as well dig some graves, ’cause you’re going to be burying them.”

In a less-irrational world, the fits and starts (mostly fits) of repeal would give way to basic problem-solving on issues such as bucking up the individual market. According to the Commonwealth Fund, a private, nonpartisan health foundation, “The immediate concern is stabilizing marketplaces to ensure that the 17 million to 18 million people getting coverage through the individual market will be able to successfully re-enroll during this fall’s open enrollment period.”

Other basic steps would include ensuring that basic plans are offered in areas currently “bare” or without a plan available, and dealing with the issue of reinsurance, which causes problems for patients when one insurance firm acquires another.

West Virginia’s senators, Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, are uniquely positioned to move the discussion in a more productive direction if they seize the moment.

In any case, I hope all members of Congress and the current administration will consider what one person had to say about it: “Take away your own health care and see how you like it.”

(This appeared as an op-ed of mine in yesterday's Gazette-Mail.)

August 08, 2017

A moment in the sun (literally)

As you may have heard, a certain elected official of the United States paid a visit to Huntington, WV last week. When I heard that the ACLU was sending people there to be legal observers, I tagged along as an unofficial volunteer.

The job for the day was not to participate in any of the rallies or protests, but to monitor conditions with the goal of ensuring that people of whatever viewpoint were able to exercise their First Amendment rights, documenting things as necessary.

I think the subtext  for me anyhow was to pay attention in case the situation started to get out of hand.

Mostly, I walked around in the heat for five hours getting my brain baked. And fortunately things didn't get out of hand. The police were generally very professional. There was some screaming back and forth from supporters and protesters but I only saw one person being escorted out by police and no serious violence, even though the potential was definitely there.

There were people across the spectrum who seemed intent on stirring things up. There was even a group of armed militia-type people standing where the protesters were. Fortunately, they were fairly laid back.

The thing that struck me the most was that, although the lines were clearly drawn, most people walked past each other without incident when it was over. There was some give and take, sometimes heated. And at times people seemed to be honestly baffled with how people on the opposite side could think and feel the way they did. Then they went home.

In the end, I found all that to be oddly reassuring.

August 06, 2017

Three for the road

If you're trying to make sense of WV Governor Jim Justice's high profile party switch and what that means for WV, good luck--and you're in good company. Here's some basic reporting by Brad McEllhenny of WV MetroNews. And I think the Gazette-Mail's Phil Kabler hit most of the right notes with his column.

If you are up for some more amusing WV related news, check out this item from Vanity Fair that talks about the WV ACLU's hilarious brief about coal baron Bob Murray,  who made good on his threat to sue Comedy Central's John Oliver after somewhat less than reverent treatment on the tube. Giant Squirrel fans, you're going to love it.

Finally, it looks like Christianity minus the whole Jesus thing is alive and well in the USA. Sad.

August 05, 2017


I just finished listening to the ancient Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which all kinds of things change form. Little did I know that he could have written a post script on WV's governor Jim Justice, who switched parties publicly during a certain visit to WV earlier this week. We talked about it on a special edition the Front Porch, but I can't remember what I said or if I even agree with myself.

August 01, 2017

Could this be real?

I may be dreaming, but I think I just saw an article in the NY Times about how some in Congress are working in a bipartisan way to fix the parts of the ACA that most need fixing, i.e. the individual markets. Some ideas about how to do this are laid out by the non-partisan Commonwealth Fund, a health care foundation. This approach is in stark contrast to certain screeching tweet threats, which some lawmakers from both parties fear will totally destabilize individual coverage for millions of Americans.

I'm not sure how realistic this is, but it would be nice if we could keep the parts that work and actually do some problem solving on the rest.

July 28, 2017


Looks like I inadvertently picked an eventful weekend for a family road trip. At the time we planned it, nobody could have known that the latest round in the health care fight would come to a climax while we were traveling.

I tried as best I could to follow events by peeking at Twitter, but by bedtime it looked like curtains for the Affordable Care Act...which would mean curtains for real for some who would lose coverage.

I was blown away to learn this morning that John McCain earned Uber-Maverick status by his vote, which effectively killed this attempt to repeal (and maybe replace) the ACA.

I did not see this coming. In fact, when he came back from his hospital stay and voted for the Motion to Proceed, I was feeling pretty snarky. It seemed to me that he came back from receiving health care to a vote to take it away from others.

I was SOOOO wrong and I apologize to Senator McCain for even thinking this.

Instead, he chose that dramatic moment to act with the all too rare courage of a statesman. A longtime opponent of the ACA, he wants whatever happens with health care to be an improvement for the American people done in an open and transparent way.

Here's his statement:

"From the beginning, I have believed that Obamacare should be repealed and replaced with a solution that increases competition, lowers costs, and improves care for the American people. The so-called ‘skinny repeal’ amendment the Senate voted on today would not accomplish those goals. While the amendment would have repealed some of Obamacare’s most burdensome regulations, it offered no replacement to actually reform our health care system and deliver affordable, quality health care to our citizens. The Speaker’s statement that the House would be ‘willing’ to go to conference does not ease my concern that this shell of a bill could be taken up and passed at any time.

“I’ve stated time and time again that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats on a strict-party line basis without a single Republican vote. We should not make the mistakes of the past that has led to Obamacare’s collapse, including in my home state of Arizona where premiums are skyrocketing and health care providers are fleeing the marketplace. We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of aisle, heed the recommendations of nation’s governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people. We must do the hard work our citizens expect of us and deserve."

Talk about a profile in courage. I hope his stand will help bring about a ration effort to fix what's broken with the ACA while keeping what works, one that follows the oath of Hippocrates: "First do no harm."

Talk about a movie ending--one that I'd like to see.

Thank you, Senator McCain! I wish there was more of this kind of courage closer to home.