Wednesday, February 29, 2012


This evening hundreds of thousands of West Virginians will sit down to dinner without saying grace and they and their children will go to bed without prayers. On Sunday morning, rather than go to church, they’ll sleep late, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, read a newspaper, and relax with bottomless cups of tea or coffee. Others will rise early, not to worship God, but to take a walk or hike. And it’s all good.

We're talking about non-religious West Virginians -- secular West Virginians. A small number are atheists, some are agnostics, but mostly they’re regular people, free of doctrine, for whom religious belief and practice simply aren’t parts of their lives. They may or may not believe in God. They may or may not be spiritual. But they share a common characteristic in having little interest in religion because even without religious faith they’re happy and fulfilled while in public life they’re solid citizens and contributors to the general good.

That's not to say that all secular people are virtuous and happy. But, as we shall see, they seem to do at least as well as their religious counterparts and there are lots of them. According to recent studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Gallup organization 29% of West Virginians and more than a third of Americans say religion is not an important part of their daily lives. About a fifth of West Virginians rarely or never attend church.

Secular Americans are spread out pretty much across the political spectrum, although they are somewhat less likely than the population as a whole to identify as Republicans. And you can’t really blame them given the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates.

“How can you have judgment if you have no faith? How can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?” thunders Newt Gingrich who frequently cites secularism as America’s greatest threat. In Rick Santorum’s lexicon, the word “secular” is regularly associated with the excesses of the French Revolution, collapsing values, and various forms of totalitarianism. And Mitt Romney warns about the dangers of “the religion of secularism”.

If you happen to be a secular American sitting at home watching TV and you hear this kind of vitriol and hysteria, you almost have to remind yourself that it’s you they’re talking about. Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich rail about a “war on religion”, but you’re the one who is being insulted to a degree and in terms that religious Americans never have to endure. But, as aggravating as that is, mostly you wonder just what it is these guys are talking about.

That’s because, as the United States has become more secular, it’s generally become a better place to live. Steve Chapman addressed this issue in a recent Chicago Tribune column.

"In the past couple of decades, most indicators of moral and social health have gotten better, not worse. Crime has plummeted. Teen pregnancy has declined by 39 percent. Abortion rates among adolescents are less than half of what they were. The incidence of divorce is down. As of 2007, 48 percent of high school students had engaged in sex, compared to 54 percent in 1991.”

Then Chapman points out that the states that lead in these measures of quality of life far from being the most religiously observant are instead the least observant and most secular.

Vermont and New Hampshire, the states with the lowest rates of church attendance in the country have the fewest murders. Mississippi has the highest rate of church attendance in the country and one of the highest murder rates.

Chapman goes on. “Of the ten states with the most worshippers, all but one have higher than average homicide rates. Of the eleven states with the lowest church attendance, by contrast, ten have low homicide rates.” The same dynamic is true of other measures of morality and social well-being.

Teen pregnancy rates are highest in states where religious observance is most prevalent and lowest where it is not. Divorce rates are very low in comparatively secular states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, where same-sex civil unions are legal, but above average in the Bible belt and among adults who classify themselves as evangelical or “born again”. Rates of crime, charitable giving, and volunteerism also show that in general more secular states do better than more religiously observant ones.

So, why do the Republican candidates fear and vilify secularism?

They don’t trust it. They don’t believe morality can exist in the absence of an active faith in God. None the less, they’re contradicted every day by millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of West Virginians who conduct virtuous lives grounding their morality, not in religious faith, but in the principles of love, compassion, duty, and charity – impulses they and almost all people feel spontaneously, impulses that don’t diminish whether God is present in their lives or not.

If Gingrich, Santorum, and those who are of a like mind on issues of faith can set aside their rhetoric about secularism and take a look at whom secular Americans actually are and the lives they lead, they’ll find great comfort and reassurance. Perhaps then they will politely respect these people who are, as much as any Americans, good parents, good neighbors, excellent citizens, and important contributors to what is good in West Virginia and America.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


(Image: US GNP on the left. Irish GNP on the right.)

A few took issue with my recent Journal column, "WEST VIRGINIA UNDER THE KNIFE", that describes the myth of budget austerity as a path to economic recovery. Specifically, I was charged with misrepresenting the condition of the Irish economy, which I claimed was shrinking in response to austerity measures. Some people argued that, in fact, the Irish economy had turned the corner and was recovering . . . a claim they based on a spate of optimistic press reports in the fall of 2011. For the record, here is the latest comparison of the US and Irish Gross National Products over the last few years. Bottom line: After a brief uptick Ireland is at its lowest point since the 2008 crash and has begun to descend further. The decline in the US was brief by comparison and growth restarted in 2010 when, after a decline in 2009, we surpassed pre-crash GNP and have continued growing ever since. (Thanks to Paul Krugman's blog for the latest Irish data.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


By the time this column is published we may know whether Royal Dutch Shell has awarded West Virginia the much discussed ethane “cracker” plant that brings with it the promise of 12,000 high-paying jobs. It’s a prize badly needed in West Virginia and one that has rightly concentrated the minds of the governor and legislature, who have put together a tax reduction package worth more than $300 million in an effort to lure the plant.

The $300 million figure was arrived at by Sean O’Leary in an analysis published by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy. (Note: The “Sean O’Leary” who authored the WVCB report and the “Sean O’Leary” who writes this column are different people.)

In his report O’Leary argues that the cost to the state and localities of providing the tax breaks is not trivial because the facility will create additional need for public services. Meanwhile, he says there is little evidence that tax breaks play a significant role in determining where businesses locate.

Regardless of whether the cracker plant ultimately comes to West Virginia, the question of whether tax incentives attract businesses and jobs is important because both political parties are committed to reducing business taxes as a means of stimulating economic growth. Indeed there seems to be a consensus that through tax cuts West Virginia can discount its way to prosperity.

This year, in the face of future cost increases for entitlements and other programs, West Virginia reduced business taxes by $15 million and Republicans in the legislature want to use growing natural gas severance tax revenues to create a permanent “tax reduction fund” that would be used to eliminate the tax on business equipment and inventory. Meanwhile, we’re in the midst of lowering the corporate net income tax rate from the current 8.5% to 6.5% by 2014.

It’s all being done in an effort to make West Virginia more competitive as a place to do business. And there’s a prima facie case for the need to do so because, West Virginia faces serious obstacles.

We have the oldest, least-educated, most disabled, and most impoverished populace in the country. Cultural opportunities are few. High speed internet access is sporadic and our environment is among the nation’s most toxic. These are serious drawbacks for companies looking to relocate.

So, we have a choice. Correct these flaws, which will be a daunting, time-consuming task requiring spending and investment. Or put the money that could be used to correct the flaws into tax cuts in the hope that potential employers can be bribed into locating here even as they hold their noses while doing so. But, are business tax cuts a big enough incentive?

It’s not likely. An examination of the economics of the cracker plant illustrates why.

First, we should note that, even without additional breaks, West Virginia’s business tax burden is already competitive. The Tax Foundation ranks West Virginia’s business tax climate as 23rd best in the nation, substantially ahead of our primary competitor for the cracker plant, Ohio, which comes in at 39th.

Still, we have offered Royal Dutch Shell about $12.1 million per year in tax savings for the next 25 years. That sounds like a lot of money, but Royal Dutch Shell will spend $3.2 billion to build the plant and something north of $500 million a year to operate it. So, over 25 years, the tax breaks will reduce Royal Dutch Shell’s operating costs by only about 1.5%, little more than a rounding error.

Meanwhile, through free market forces, West Virginia already offers much more significant cost advantages. On a position-by-position basis wages in West Virginia are 20% lower than they are nationally. For the cracker plant, that translates into a labor and supplier cost savings of more than $76 million annually –six times the amount the state is offering in tax reductions. We offer other significant market-based advantages as well.

Because these free market savings dwarf the proposed tax incentives, we have to ask ourselves whether the tax incentives are needed, or are we just leaving money on the table?

Companies deciding where to locate first must determine that there’s a qualified workforce, the necessary supplier base, and a quality of life that will make their managers open to relocating. Only then do they consider operating costs of which taxes are, as we have seen, a small part. That’s why, if West Virginia can meet businesses’ primary needs, our built-in labor cost advantages will usually enable us to win and tax cuts won’t matter.

The problem is that too often we can’t meet businesses’ primary needs. We’re vastly undereducated. Our supplier base is not well-developed. Due to geographic isolation and environmental degradation, our quality of life is not attractive. And our funding for education, especially higher education, remains low given the level of need.

Only by addressing these problems can we create an environment that’s attractive to business. And the money that would otherwise be squandered on superfluous tax cuts is necessary to do that. The cracker plant may come to West Virginia, but if it does it will be in spite of the tax breaks rather than because of them. The same can be said for most business relocations.

West Virginia has been a cheap place to do business for a long time. If we could have discounted our way to prosperity, it would have happened long ago.

Sean O’Leary can be contacted at

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Just wanted to let everyone know that I'm very honored to receive an inaugural commission from Barter Theatre for their "Shaping of America" program. Over the next 15 years Barter will commission 15 new plays that "will investigate the shaping of America from its founding to its present". One of those will be my play, "The Boy in The Box", about the unusual witnessing of events by a 102 year-old man who spent the first 15 years of his life confined in a box. Barter Theatre is the State Theatre of Virginia and has a distinguished history having launched the acting careers of Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, and Ernest Borgnine among many others. Barter is also a leader in American theatre in nurturing and developing new plays for the stage.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


From the moment he put a bullet through the “Cap and Trade” bill we’ve known that Senator Joe Manchin’s political instincts are keen. Since then, he has wandered Washington’s maze of issues, sometimes aligning with President Obama and Democrats and on other occasions with Republicans. And in both cases, his reasons are often opaque.

My grandmother would have said of Joe, “The boy’s just got his own ‘rithmetic”. But, whether motivated by principle or expediency or some mixture of the two which only he understands, Joe Manchin has navigated his way to the ever-shrinking center of American politics, which is to say, he is equally mistrusted by both sides.

That’s why Manchin is just the person to perform the ultimate jujitsu maneuver in American politics – unifying us all, including the extremes of political culture, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.

Impossible you say? On May 8th Manchin will probably win West Virginia’s Democratic primary for the Senate and kick off his general election campaign -- an occasion on which he’ll try to appeal to voters from across the political spectrum. Here’s what he should say.

“Fellow West Virginians, I’ve been your senator for eighteen months and in that time I’ve never seen such deep division and fierce partisanship. I’m not talking just about senators and congressmen. I’m talking about you and me – plain folks. We call each other names – socialist, fascist, terrorist, traitor. But, you know what? As I listen to both sides I keep hearing us agree about something –something important, something so big that I think it can help us come together and solve some of our worst problems.

Everyday somebody tells me that our free market, the economic system we depend on to allocate resources and distribute wealth, is broken – seriously broken. And why is that?

Conservatives say it’s because there’s too much government and our tax system redistributes wealth, screwing up the system of rewards and punishments on which capitalism is based. Liberals and Occupy folks, say it’s because the system is rigged so that bankers, financiers, and CEO’s make fortunes whether the companies they buy, sell, and run do well or not.

And guess what. They’re both right! Our free market has been corrupted almost beyond recognition so that almost half of Americans pay no income taxes and, just as bad, the richest Americans pay less than folks in the middle. Meanwhile, working Americans are getting squeezed. So, tonight let’s start a campaign not just to get elected to the Senate, but to restore free markets and fair taxation to this country so that those who succeed are rewarded, those who fail are not, and those who are legitimately in need are helped.

Tonight I’m announcing that, if you elect me, I’ll sponsor a bill -- “The Free Market Restoration Act” -- that will do three things.

First, we’ll scrap the progressive income tax and all other individual taxes and replace them with a flat tax, not on work, but on what we own.

We all agree that government’s most fundamental responsibility is to provide security through policing, the courts, and national defense. These institutions are a form of insurance for all of us. And just like when buying insurance, we should all pay for it at the same rate. The total amount each of us pays should vary only according to the value of our assets – what we own.

For my conservative friends, that means everyone pays something and we do it at one flat rate. For my liberal friends it means that, because the richest ten percent of Americans own eighty percent of the assets, they’ll pay eighty percent of the taxes rather than the fifty percent they pay now. And most important, working Americans, the majority of you, will see your share of the tax bill drop from 48% to 20%.

It’s flat, it’s fair, and everybody pays. We should all agree about that!

Second, to maintain our competitive marketplace and make sure we never again have to bail out companies and industries, we’ll enforce financial regulations and anti-monopoly laws just like Teddy Roosevelt used to. When individual companies get so big that they can set prices, stifle competition, and put the entire economy at risk, we’ll break them up to preserve competition and we’ll do it without destroying shareholder equity or jobs. At the same time, we’ll enforce laws and regulations to make sure companies disclose their finances fully and accurately to the marketplace so that customers and investors can make informed choices.

Third, while preserving necessary incentives for inventors and innovators, we’ll review copyright and patent laws to make sure that new products and services can reach the competitive marketplace as soon as possible, especially in areas such as pharmaceuticals where Americans pay the highest prices in the world.

Finally, there are areas whose needs the free market cannot meet. We’ve already mentioned national defense, the court system, police departments, and patents and copyrights. To these we can add food safety, drug safety, immigration, environmental regulation, our children’s educations, and, helping those who are legitimately needy and cannot provide for themselves.

We’ll disagree about some of these issues because people have different ideas how large a role the federal government should play. But, if we have that debate against the backdrop of a revitalized free market, a thriving economy, and a fair tax system, there are no challenges we can’t face and issues we can’t resolve.

Please join me in restoring the free market and the greatness that is America.”

Sean O'Leary can be contacted at