Thursday, December 29, 2011


Jerry West is the most famous West Virginian ever to wander from these hills. He was an all-American basketball player at WVU, the ninth greatest professional player of all time according to Bill Simmons’s encyclopedic “The Book of Basketball”, and he remains a literal icon of the National Basketball Association, which uses the silhouetted image of Jerry West driving hard to the basket as its logo.

Jerry West is also a tortured soul. In his recent autobiography, “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life” (written with Jonathan Coleman) this man who has earned virtually every reward and accolade society can offer an athlete tells us he is incapable of enjoying very much of it, that he cannot experience love in the way we all at least hope to, that he is, in short, a tortured and incomplete human being.

Although he doesn’t use the term, one could say that Jerry West is mentally ill.

Does that sound harsh? Some of us, perhaps West himself, will recoil at the phrase because mental illness carries a stigma. But, it shouldn’t, especially in cases where the causes are all too understandable. For West it was a father who beat -- not “hit” he tells us pointedly – beat him repeatedly. Meanwhile, West’s mother chose not to see the abuse taking place in their barren, wood frame house in 1950’s Chelyan, West Virginia.

Afraid to go home, young Jerry would spend endless hours on a dirt-patch basketball court, shooting baskets and fantasizing about game-winning buzzer-beaters -- imagined moments of triumph followed by the adulation and love he didn't find at home. West calls his relationship with basketball then and now an addiction. In therapeutic terms, he was using basketball to dissociate from his pain and its causes.

Jerry West’s story of abuse and his consequent behavior is unusual only in that, in the absurd lottery that is life, his chosen means of dissociation, playing basketball obsessively, happened to intersect with a freakish athleticism to produce a magic carpet ride that took him first to college, then to the Olympics, and eventually to Hollywood, far, far away from the sources of his pain. It’s the one-in-a-million coincidence of which all addicts dream as they anesthetize themselves with booze, gambling, junk food, cigarettes, pain killers, assorted drugs, and still sometimes basketball.

Although Jerry West remains emotionally damaged, he escaped at least partially. Most who are similarly afflicted don’t even have that. Their lives aren’t saved by miraculous coincidence and their dissociative behaviors, far from being a means to prosperity, are more likely to cripple and occasionally destroy them and sometimes their families as well. It’s an important issue for West Virginia because it happens here more often than in most places.

The National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control rank West Virginia among the leading states for the prevalence of depression, anxiety-related disorders, and, inevitably, suicide. We’re nearly five times more likely to kill ourselves than we are to be killed by someone else. And suicide combined with accidental drug overdoses (usually prescription pain killers) kills more of us than even traffic accidents.

Of course not all premature deaths associated with mental illness are sudden and traumatic. Some play out over years of gnawing misery in the form of diabetes, heart disease, and cancers -- conditions often caused or nurtured by chronic apathy and disinterest in our own wellbeing. All of this results in West Virginia ranking 46th among the states in life expectancy, more than six years behind the leader, Hawaii, and only seventeen months better than last place Mississippi.

It’s a crisis, yet as a state we offer little support to those in need of help. Per capita state funding for mental health care is a third below the national average and we have less than half as many psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists per capita as our neighboring states.

Instead West Virginia has largely narrowed and recast the problem of mental illness as one of drug abuse and attempted to counter it through policing and legislation designed to disrupt the illegal drug trade and punish perpetrators. However, these steps, although legitimate, address only symptoms of what is at its core a disease of the soul. The result is that, in West Virginia, prisons rather than hospitals and community-based programs are the primary repositories for many of our mentally ill while most go untreated at all.

Why do we choose not to address the underlying causes? A large part of the problem is our attitude toward mental illness. Many, including some political leaders, see depression and addiction not as illnesses, but as shortcomings of character – a lack of self-discipline, a failure of resolve, or even a dearth of religious faith – traits for which they believe people should be admonished or punished rather than treated. Even Jerry West, who has yet to escape the shadow of abuse six decades after it ended and who asks our understanding, admits that he only briefly tried therapy and quickly rejected it.

Until West Virginians dismiss the stigma surrounding mental illness and embrace depression, addiction, and other conditions as treatable diseases for which a sufficient number of qualified professionals are required, the statue of Jerry West that stands outside the WVU Coliseum will be as much a monument to West’s and West Virginia’s disease of the soul as it is to the athletic achievements it’s meant to celebrate.

Sean O’Leary can be contacted at

Monday, December 19, 2011


With the recent enactment of rules regulating the extraction of natural gas from Marcellus shale, a process known as “fracking”, some believe West Virginia will experience an economic boom. Newspapers have called our Marcellus shale deposits “a godsend” and Bill Maloney, the recent Republican candidate for governor, described them as “the biggest opportunity for lasting growth and prosperity that West Virginia has seen in decades”.

Since “lasting growth and prosperity” is a phrase not often associated with West Virginia, it’s understandable that the subject of fracking has commanded the governor’s and legislature’s obsessive attention for the past few months.

But, what if it’s not true? Set aside for a moment the real and legitimate environmental concerns surrounding fracking. What if the gas drilling boom isn’t an economic game-changer for West Virginia?

To understand why it might not be, let’s visit the African country of Angola, a nation of 19 million people most of whom live in grinding poverty. Two-thirds survive on incomes of less than $1.70 per day. Most are illiterate and average life expectancy is only 40 years.

This would be just one more heart-rending story from a hellish place were it not for the fact that Angola is the world’s fourteenth largest exporter of oil generating $3,600 annually for every resident. It’s also the world’s fourth largest exporter of diamonds and has other abundant mineral resources. In short, Angola is figuratively and literally a goldmine.

So, with lots of income and abundant resources, why are Angolans so poor and what does it have to do with us?

West Virginia is the Angola of the United States. West Virginia coal generates almost $20 billion in sales annually -- $11,000 for every person in the state. Yet, we have one of the nation’s lowest median income and staggering rates of poverty. While state GDP has increased in the last decade, population and wealth have barely budged. And the economic scourge is worst in places where coal is most prevalent – the southern counties whose economy has retreated to a nearly pre-industrial state and where average life expectancy is ten years below the national average.

Both Angola and West Virginia suffer from what economists call a “resource curse” – a phenomenon in which, for structural reasons, vast holdings of natural resources fail to translate into prosperity. This has been true of West Virginia and coal for a century and will probably be true of gas as well. Here’s why.

First, most of the wealth generated by gas won’t go to West Virginians. As with coal, almost all of West Virginia’s gas will be extracted by out-of-state companies that will repatriate the profits elsewhere.

Second, the royalties West Virginia residents will receive won’t be overwhelming. Do you remember Senator Joe Manchin dismissing the recent payroll tax cut as being paltry because it saved West Virginia families only $14.50 a week – so little “they probably don’t know they’re getting it”?

Guess what. That insignificant $14.50 a week translates into $750 million annually. At current market prices and assuming royalties equivalent to 20% of the selling price, even if gas sales increase at a compound rate of 13% annually, they won’t generate $750 million annually until 2017 and won’t equal the accumulated value of the payroll tax cut until 2022.

That kind of growth is still good and welcome, but not transformative. However, even those growth rates may not come to pass.

Drillers pump when the market price gives them an incentive to do so and, because gas is a commodity, prices fluctuate greatly. As Europe and Asia begin tapping their large shale gas reserves, supplies will increase and prices may drop. If so, production and royalties in West Virginia will drop as well.

It may be argued that this overlooks two other important benefits of the gas boom – job growth and severance taxes that will help balance the state budget.

Dr. George Hammond, associate director of the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research, recently projected that job growth in natural resources and mining will slow significantly. He explained, “Lower coal production in West Virginia translates into coal mining job losses during the next five years. However, the job losses in coal mining are expected to be offset by job gains in oil and gas extraction.”

In other words, we’ll be treading water. And did you notice that, as gas grows, coal declines? The dynamic isn’t just coincidental. Future growth in gas depends in part on its ability to replace coal as a base fuel, which for West Virginia means that as one hand gives the other takes away.

Finally, gas drilling’s contribution to the state budget through severance taxes will be offset in large measure by added costs for inspectors and the maintenance of roads and infrastructure necessary to the industry. In fact, if gas turns out to be like coal, the costs may equal or exceed the tax revenue.

The most likely outcome of West Virginia’s natural gas boom will be the enrichment of a small number of property owners and industry workers, a burst of revenue and expenditures for the state, but, little change from the depressed status quo for most West Virginians.

Of course, we can always hope for “lasting growth and prosperity” from gas, but first we’ll need Harry Potter to remove the resource curse.

Monday, December 12, 2011


If this were the “The Daily Show”, you would now see a video of Senator Joe Manchin discoursing on the folly of ending tax cuts in time of economic distress. He would assure us that deficits produced by tax cuts can easily be offset by eliminating government waste. And he would seal his sermon by reminding us that he will “do anything to put more money in the pockets of West Virginians”.

Then John Stewart would appear confidently saying, “So, Senator Manchin’s vote on the payroll tax cut is entirely predictable”, whereupon we would cut back to Manchin who would continue with, ”. . . therefore, I do not support an extension of the payroll tax cut because this nation cannot afford another dime of debt. There’s no evidence this tax cut creates jobs and it only puts $14.50 a week in the pockets of taxpayers. Most people probably don’t know they’re getting it.”

Flash back to John Stewart and see his famous look of bafflement as he struggles to reconcile Manchin’s turnabout -- all the reasons the Senator gave for supporting tax cuts suddenly turned upside down because . . . because . . . ? Well, it’s hard to figure out really.

In fairness to Senator Manchin, the preceding statements were made at different times and were in fact pieced together from comments he made about two entirely different tax bills.

The first segment, supporting tax cuts, was assembled from claims he made prior to voting to extend income tax cuts originally enacted under President George W. Bush. At that time Manchin bucked his party and President Obama who charged that the Bush cuts added to the federal deficit, did little to create jobs, and disproportionately favored the rich.

The second segment, opposing tax cuts, came from remarks Manchin made last week when voting against an extension of the payroll tax cut originally enacted earlier this year under President Obama.

Given his contradictory arguments, we could wonder why Manchin would support one tax cut, but not the other. But, the better question is, if he was going to support only one, why would it be the Bush tax cuts since the well-being of West Virginia and of the country would seem to dictate the reverse as a simple comparison shows.

West Virginia is a great place to compare extensions of the two tax cuts because both return about the same amount of money, $750 million annually, to West Virginians. But, beyond that, their effects are quite different.

Under the Bush tax cuts, West Virginia fares poorly. Because the wealthy are favored and West Virginians have the lowest incomes in the nation, we receive only about sixty-seven cents in savings for every dollar that other Americans receive, also putting us last in the nation. Meanwhile, the Bush tax cuts add $330 billion annually to the federal deficit and, although they have been in place for nearly a decade, they show little evidence of generating jobs or growth.

The payroll tax cut, on the other hand, delivers the same total savings for West Virginians and does so at rate that’s much closer to parity with the rest of the nation. It adds only $182 billion to the deficit and the benefits are more broadly shared among West Virginia households than those of the Bush tax cut. The payroll tax cut hasn’t been around long enough to determine its effects on the economy or jobs, but a 2010 Congressional Budget Office analysis predicted that, all things being equal, the payroll tax cut has four times the job growth impact of the Bush tax cuts.

In short, whether you agree with the arguments Joe Manchin made in support of tax cut extensions or opposing them, the payroll tax cut seems the better option for West Virginia and the nation. Yet, his votes were exactly the reverse. Why?

It’s an important question because ending the payroll tax cut constitutes a major tax increase for West Virginians. Recently Senator Manchin dismissed as trivial the roughly $750 to $1,000 dollars a year it will take from each West Virginia taxpayer, although that figure dwarfs the amount Manchin cut in taxes as governor and for which he loudly and often takes credit.

These contradictions must register somewhere in Senator Manchin’s mind because he has resorted to a truly cynical defense of his vote claiming that an extension of the payroll tax cut “jeopardizes Social Security” by taking “hundreds of billions of dollars out of the funding stream”. However, the Social Security law stipulates that, in the event of a deficit, funding is automatically supplemented from the government’s general revenue fund making Social Security as stable as the rest of the government – a fact of which Manchin is aware if not forthcoming. So, again, why?

Since Manchin’s arguments on both sides of the tax cut debate cancel each other out, it’s hard to tell what his motives are. Maybe he’s a rare soul who can simultaneously hold conflicting beliefs and who, like, Oscar Wilde, considers “a foolish consistency” to be “the hobgoblin of little minds”. Or maybe he’s a victim of “doublethink”, the delusory state George Orwell’s novel “1984” describes as a precursor to becoming a pawn of Big Brother. But whether guided by hobgoblins or Big Brother, Joe Manchin’s actions on this issue are a mystery and a problem for West Virginia.