Monday, January 21, 2013

WEST VIRGINIA'S GUN PLAGUE (Pub Date 1/26/2013)

It’s odd that in our debate about guns and killing we rarely mention the form of death in which guns are most frequently involved. It’s not murder or acts of self-defense, which serve as the usual bookends of the argument. It’s suicide.

Even if you add all of the murders, all of the killings that take place in self-defense, and all of the accidental deaths in which guns are involved, you don’t come close to matching the number of times someone puts a gun to his head or heart and pulls the trigger.

The fact is, when guns kill, the victim is usually the gun’s owner.

This is disturbing because, when the perpetrator and the victim are the same person, slogans such as, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” become nonsensical. We’re forced to transcend simplistic notions of “good guys” and “bad guys” and enter the real and messy world of personal strife, pain, and struggle.

So often we hear that law-abiding gun owners are trained in how to use guns properly. But, what we need to know is are they trained to cope with the wounds and pain and disappointments that life inflicts and that drive people to deranged actions?

They demonstrably are not. The states that rank first, second, and third for gun ownership – Wyoming, Alaska, and Montana -- also rank first, second, and third for suicide. West Virginia, which ranks fifth in gun ownership, is only seventh for suicide, but even that rate is a quarter higher than the national average.

Of course, the risks associated with guns don’t end with suicide. There are murders, most of which are committed, not by strangers or intruders, but by family members on one another or by people with whom the victim has a close relationship. At the time they purchase guns people almost never do so with the expectation of killing themselves, a family member or a boyfriend or girlfriend. But, that’s what happens.

Simply stated, when you introduce guns into your home, you may or may not reduce the threat of being attacked or killed by an intruder – the statistics on this point are vague – but you unquestionably increase the risk of major injury and death to yourself, family members, and guests.

In a 2006 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors Matt Miller and David Hemenway showed that people living in homes with guns are twelve times more likely to suffer violent injury or death from that weapon than they are from the actions of an intruder. Moreover, men in the states with the highest rates of gun ownership are four times more likely to commit suicide with a gun than their counterparts in the states with the lowest rates of gun ownership. And women in high-ownership states are eight times more likely than their counterparts to kill themselves with guns. The added risk extends to children as well.

That’s why some of us look askance at claims that gun ownership is an effective method of self-protection.

And it’s not as though the carnage of suicide and domestic violence can be fobbed off on the entertainment industry, which has become the NRA’s latest scapegoat as it tries to deflect attention from guns. While video games and movies glamorize depersonalized violence and mass killing, the same is not true of suicide, which is almost never depicted, or domestic violence, which, even when depicted, is rarely glamorized.

It’s simply the case that the suddenness and near certainty with which guns work make them perfect tools for impulsive acts of suicide and murder.

But, there’s some good news. Nationally rates of firearm-related crime have dropped over the past twenty years, as have rates of gun ownership, which is down to less than a third of American households.

Unfortunately, this has not been true in West Virginia where gun ownership remains over 50%. West Virginia used to be the safest state in the nation, but is no longer. Over the last fifteen years, as the nation’s murder rate has dropped by a third, West Virginia’s has risen by 14%. As a result we now rank 24th, tied with New Jersey and ahead of New York. And, for every murder in West Virginia, there are more than three suicides, which puts us way ahead of both New York and New Jersey in total deaths by firearm.

We also spread the plague. On a per capita basis, West Virginia exports more guns that are used in crimes than any other state.

Still, the NRA and others who oppose virtually all efforts to control guns fall back on the second amendment guarantee of the right to bear arms – a right that they argue is necessary so that an armed citizenry can dissuade or defeat would-be tyrants who would seize the government.

But, no right is absolute. And our democracy’s bulwarks against tyranny are the Constitution’s guarantees of basic rights and the voice in government bestowed on all citizens. Against those noble guarantees, quaint notions of tyrannical government take-overs being repulsed by armed citizen insurrectionists are trivial and come at the price of 19,000 suicides a year, a murder rate three times that of Canada and four times that of the UK, and, of course, Columbine, Aurora, and worst of all, Sandy Hook.

It’s too high a price to pay.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

THE END OF JAY, THE END OF AN ERA

It’s a problem as old as elections. Newly chosen representatives ask themselves, “Should my actions be guided by the will of the majority of my constituents or by my own judgment?”

Some resolve to always follow their constituents’ wishes. But eventually, as they are inundated by facts and considerations too arcane or sensitive to enter public discourse, as they confront witheringly complex bills containing multiple provisions some of which are popular and some not, and as they contemplate their duty to represent all of their constituents including those in the minority, representatives eventually find the exercise of personal judgment unavoidable. Initially they may do so in lieu of guidance from their constituents, but inevitably, in some instances, they do so in opposition to it.

That's how it was meant to be. The Constitution places many buffers between the popular will and the enactment of laws. Legislators, especially senators, are encouraged to exercise judgment by provisions that insulate them from the whims of public opinion.

Still, even in a system that encourages legislative independence, the degree to which it was exercised by West Virginia's former senator Robert Byrd and by its current, but soon-to-retire senator, Jay Rockefeller, is remarkable. Equally remarkable is that two men from opposite ends of any economic, social, or cultural scale one can imagine should end so near to one another in how they perceive West Virginia, the nation, and the forces that shape us.

For decades Byrd and Rockefeller were to the left of their electorate on issues ranging from fiscal policy and social issues to the environment and, of course, coal. On issue after issue, had referenda been been held, West Virginia’s voters would have come down on the side opposite that of their senators.

That’s not to say Byrd and Rockefeller always acted in opposition to the preferences of their constituents. But, while they did what they thought best and many West Virginians agreed with them, on some important issues more probably did not.

Still, voters elected and re-elected them -- Byrd nine times and Rockefeller six. But why, when so often they went against our collective wishes?

To say it was “habit” is to duck the question. And, while it’s true that their election opponents were often tomato cans, that too is an evasion. There was something more subtle and important.

Byrd and Rockefeller won elections because, for reasons going back to their origins, they commanded not just our trust, but our deference – our willingness to place greater faith in their judgment than we place in our own.

In Byrd’s case, it’s because he was one of us and his love of West Virginia was palpable. So, we willingly accompanied him in his personal evolution from Dixiecrat segregationist to defender of the Constitution and conscience of the Senate.

Rockefeller on the other hand has never been one of us. How could he be? He came along at a time when Governor Arch Moore, who was one of us, was revealing the ugliness and folly of our tendency to put the state on the block to the highest bidder -- usually the coal industry.

But, it was also a time when we weren’t so cowed by corporate fear-mongering and threats of job loss. So, as Arch Moore slouched from office, doing a few last favors for his cronies before being convicted of extortion, we elected an outsider, Rockefeller, to replace him, in no small part because we had seen where placing trust in the coal industry and its apologists led.

Far from being a “carpetbagger” as some charged, Rockefeller proved to be deeply committed to West Virginia. In contrast to his predecessor, he could be trusted to act in what he believed to be the best interest of West Virginians.

In the senate, Byrd became and Rockefeller always was more liberal than most West Virginians, which caused some to call our willingness to elect and re-elect them an abdication of responsibility by voters. But, it was no more an abdication than when we defer to doctors, financial advisors, and other experts in matters in which we reasonably believe that their choices, while sometimes mysterious to us, are guided by superior knowledge and judgment.

Meanwhile, Byrd and Rockefeller rarely needed or sought constituent approval, which was OK, because they usually chose well. But, it also left a void.

Feeling little need to persuade constituents of the virtues of their policies, Byrd and Rockefeller participated less and less in West Virginia’s political discourse, ceding that role to a succession of governors who have become progressively more conservative, who tied our economic prospects to a fading coal industry that never made West Virginia prosperous, and who, despite all evidence to the contrary, accept at face value the fiction that cutting business taxes and public safety even a the cost of reducing investment in the state and its people will somehow produce economic prosperity. It’s a creed that today few leaders in West Virginia question much less challenge.

So, as Jay Rockefeller’s resignation represents an end to our era of patrician senators, we will, for the first time in generations, be guided by our own lights rather than by theirs. New senators will be chosen based on the degree to which their beliefs coincide with our own. But, what should we believe?

If only as a final act of deference, we should study and contemplate why Senators Byrd and Rockefeller believed differently than we do on so many issues, including economic policy, coal, and healthcare, and only then decide which set of beliefs would best serve West Virginia and the nation and should be our standard when considering who we want to represent us and how.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

HOW WE WERE FOOLED (Pub Date 1/12/2013)

Thus far West Virginia’s Marcellus shale natural gas boom has been a myth. While production has grown significantly, predicted economic benefits – tens of thousands of new jobs, tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue, and hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into local economies– have failed to materialize.

Workforce West Virginia calculates the number of jobs added by the oil and gas industry since 2008 to be 916 – less than 10% growth in four years. Meanwhile, severance tax receipts haven’t grown since 2008. And you don’t have to be an economist to see that Marshall, Wetzel, Doddridge, and Harrison counties, which host the bulk of drilling activity, are not booming.

The question is, why? Haven’t our leaders told us natural gas is a game-changer for West Virginia? Aren’t they supported by studies such as the 2010 Marcellus Coalition study and most recently a report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, which suggests the industry could generate 29,000 jobs by 2020 and 58,000 by 2035?

The answer is, yes, they are. So, why have they and the studies been wrong? Let’s look at the reasons.

Studies are based on statistical models, which can suffer from two kinds of errors: factual and methodological. The studies upon which policy-makers have based their optimistic expectations for economic growth in West Virginia have suffered from combinations of both. Here are some examples.

Overestimating the price of natural gas. Tax revenues and royalties are determined in part by the market price of natural gas, which studies from two to three years ago typically assumed would bottom out at about $4.50/thousand cubic feet and then gradually rise to between $6 and $8.

Instead, the supply glut brought about by fracking caused pricies to descend to $2 and recover only to the present level of $3.25 -- far below the amount expected.

Underestimating the effect of absentee ownership. One study that overestimated economic impact in West Virginia also did so in Pennsylvania where it was shown that the authors assumed 95% of royalty payments would go to Pennsylvania residents and into Pennsylvania’s economy. In fact, only 63% did so vastly undercutting the local economic impact.

Misunderstanding what people do with royalty payments. At least one major study assumed property owners would treat royalties like regular income and spend it within a year. In fact, recipients saved more than 40%, greatly lessening economic impact.

Overestimating the share of goods and services the gas industry purchases from West Virginia suppliers. These purchases drive “indirect” job growth. However, gas companies, virtually all of which are out-of-state entities, seem to be purchasing less than expected from West Virginia suppliers.

Overestimating the share of jobs occupied by West Virginians. At least one study assumed that the share of natural gas jobs occupied by West Virginians would mirror the share in other industries. This assumption seems to have been spectacularly inaccurate.

In addition to these factual errors, studies have also had methodological flaws.

Some studies get primary data from surveys of drilling company executives who report their expectations for production, purchasing, and hiring. This group, which seeks to attract investors and curry favor with politicians, tends to be overly optimistic, which may explain why many companies haven’t fared any better than West Virginia. Chesapeake Energy, West Virginia’s largest driller, has seen its stock price drop by two-thirds since 2008.

Finally, studies often fail to fully account for the costs of natural gas drilling. These costs offset some benefits. For instance, if a gas well that generates $10,000 in income replaces a cornfield that generated $7,500, the economic gain is only $2,500, not $10,000. Similarly, if the presence of a gas well diminishes the value of the property for commercial or residential purposes, there is also an economic loss.

Natural gas drilling also costs individuals and communities in other ways. It requires the construction and maintenance of roads and other infrastructure. Sales tax exemptions and other subsidies granted to companies can detract from economic benefit. And there’s the problem of risk. Laws designed to encourage development sometimes shield companies from full responsibility for damages resulting from their activities. So taxpayers bear the costs.

These factors and the others previously mentioned have caused studies to consistently exaggerate the economic benefits of natural gas development. The effect has been compounded by uncritical acceptance by politicians and journalists who repeat the claims and, thereby, confer credibility on them.

Perhaps now that discrepancies between predictions and performance are becoming apparent, journalists will begin to question assertions of job growth and economic stimulus or at least note that previous predictions have been unduly and even wildly optimistic.

And maybe we and our leaders will adopt realistic expectations of the economic benefits. The market price of gas may never be as high as we once hoped. And the problems of absentee ownership and development are structural, which means there are no easy remedies. Consequently, whether or not the price of natural gas rises, much of the wealth that’s generated will continue to drain from West Virginia.

So, while we can make things better by training West Virginia workers to fill jobs, by driving the hardest possible bargain on taxes, and by assuring that the industry shoulders the economic consequences of health and environmental risks, we should also recognize that the term, “game changer” has been and probably will always be a misleading rhetorical flourish.

Sean O’Leary can be contacted at seanoleary@citlink.net. A version of this column containing links to references and statistical sources may be found at www.the-state-of-my-state.com.