Should We Continue Self-Interest Government or Try Public-Interest Planning?

by S. Tom Bond on July 16, 2018

This is a long standing issue in West Virginia


Essay by S. Tom Bond, Retired Chemistry Professor & Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV

It’s an unfortunate fact that one of the most important driving forces of history is self-interest. We like to trade on “democracy,” “freedom,” “natural rights,” “national power,” “national security,” and such, but in fact getting rich drives top individuals running things. They form income boosting groups and sponsor politicians catering to those groups. What comes out of legislative bodies shows that. Surely no one who keeps up with the news can fail to observe.

The history of the Civil War is no exception. It is couched as though there were no economic benefits to be gained or lost, purely a matter of principle, the end of formal slavery. However, it doesn’t take much study to learn the railroads gained huge benefits, as did the new cotton mills in New England, the Northern Banks and anyone gaining from driving the Indians west. Many soldiers were immigrants iust off the ship, and a man could pay someone else to take his place if drafted.

Western Virginians hated the aristocrats who ran the state from the East. But how much did the opportunity to sell the abundant coal to the Union over newly established railroads have in the separation? Coal, oil and gas, timber, glass, chemicals, certainly have been prominent legislation movers since. What the descendants of the German, Scots-Irish, and later Irish and Italian descended folk of the state got was not opportunity to develop their own business, but to work for capitalists from out-of-state in extraction industry.

And what about the new form of slavery that developed after the Civil War: life in extracting coal. Live in the company house, buy from the company store, paid in scrip money good only at the company store, no binding safety laws, not even a place to clean up before going home. Who represented these people? And when they tried to organize, the Pinkertons, the Pinkerton National Detective agency, were hired to infiltrate nascent unions and provide “goon squads” to counter unions. Who represented working people then? Remember the miles long battle line in The Battle of Blair Mountiain? Matewan?

Democracy? For the ultra rich. Of course.

Since West Virginia has seen numerous extraction industries; shallow oil and gas; timbering that still shows its marks in the higher mountains; stripping coal, peaking out in the southern part of the state with the horrors of mountaintop removal and what that does to people. And most recently, “fracking” drilling for gas and oil on steroids, by which the earth is literally crushed with high pressure, to extract the tiny disconnected droplets of product, using gross synthetic chemicals, carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting compounds among them.

And we should mention the industries derived from these extraction industries, too. Early gas wasn’t worth much, it was used for illumination, and soon replaced by the much superior electricity. Piping was expensive, so glass, requiring much labor, burgeoned for a while, then when pipe got better glass moved on, and now offshore to cheap labor overseas. Coal produced two derivatives. First used for heating, it was soon used to run steam engines for power, and then that was turned to generating electricity. In the hundred years of coal generated electricity a marvelous improvement in technology has occurred. It has reached an impassable barrier as more and more coal is used: it produces waste that is changing the natural world.

It is hard for some to realize a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas, carbon dioxide has been released in such volume the earth is getting hotter. But not for me. I stand on these Northern West Virginia hills on a strip job and look to other hills and see a seven foot thick seam of coal extending over much of the surrounding counties, all burned in a few years, and I know of many others seams world wide. From my chemistry I know 12 tons of carbon make 44 tons of carbon dioxide.

The other big derivative of coal is chemicals. This has settled in along the Kanawha and Ohio rivers – big business. Forbes list of worst polluted cities includes worst, Wheeling, WV; second, Parkersburg; third, Huntington; fifth, Charleston; 8th Stubenville, OH.

What about derivative industries of the latest extractive flash-in-the-pan, fracking? Aside from the need for gas storage to provide steady, year around flow, plastics. That’s due to ethane that comes up with methane. IENOS is already shipping ethane to Europe and wants to ship more. The reference is an article titled “IENOS signs second deal to ship more ethane to Europe and orders more ships.” It includes this, “Those ships are currently being built in China.”

Speaking of China, what do you think of the $83.7 billion “to help develop West Virginia’s petrochemical industry,” as Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher put it in this January article. Put that way it sounds like charity, almost. Don’t think that is the way it will work, though. They will get what they need for putting on added value in the product consumed – and leave the environmental damage here. Do you suppose the environmental damage will get paid for? Or even get recognition as a cost? Of course the present “art of the deal” tariff war may have sunk that one, too. If not, bet they get a bargain.

The West Virginia legislature has never been able to bring its self to tax these big sources of income enough to finance state needs. The public excuse has been “We need to compete with other states which have similar resources.” Like the resources were going to run away if they are not extracted now. Like there is no future. It’s not the resources that are going to run away, I think, but the politician’s tenure. Got to get it while you can!

The population of West Virginia was just over 2 million in 1950, but is now under 1.8 million. The ingredients for innovation and growth – good education, infrastructure and available capital – have never been encouraged by legislation and taxes. Result? It is 47th in U. S. News ranking of states over all, and 49th in economy and 50th in infrastructure. True, W. V. ranks 45th in both education and quality of life, but is that anything to brag about? 9.5 percent are veterans (think: economic draft), and the state lost 22,000 in population from 2010 to 2016.

The population is 92 percent white, and only 1.7 percent of West Virginians were born outside the U.S. Just 2.5 percent speak a language other than English in their homes. Some time back I had the opportunity to see a ranking of counties in the U. S. in racial prejudice – uh-oh, bad!

West Virginia is one of the most religious states in the country, with 69 percent of adults saying they are highly religious and 46 percent attending worship services at least weekly.

We are famous for our insularity; people on one side of the hill don’t know the people on the other side. When I was working on my WVU degree, I came across a Master’s Thesis written by Norman Tolley in the 30’s. He had been a principal at Lost Creek High School when I was in grade school. It was located 3 and ½ miles east of where I lived. I had attended the high school at West Milford, named Unidis (for UNIon DIStrict), 1 and ½ miles west. Both schools graduated between 20 and 30 yearly. Mr. Tolley’s conclusion was that there was so much animosity between the two, they could never be successfully integrated. That was still the situation when I graduated Unidis in 1952. However, the herculean task was accomplished in 1965.

Part of the problem is topography, but good roads would help overcome that. When I went to school in the stripping era there was a spot in the road just west of where the South Harrison School now stands where a coal company kept a bulldozer to push trucks and private cars through a particularly bad spot. Scouts honor, that’s the truth!

So how is the West Virginia government implicated? It has to do with grease, as in “grease the skids.” Some more memories. 1. When I was a kid, a legislator in Clarksburg famously said “If I couldn’t make at least $1500 from going to Charleston, I wouldn’t make the trip.” 2. When the strip mine inspector came on the job, the boss always greeted him with a cigar with a $100 dollar bill wrapped around it. (Keep in mind a 1952 dollar is worth $9.30 today.) The hourly wage must have been about a tenth of that. 3. When I taught college, one of the Board Members was known as the “bag man” for the gas corporation. Like in Tom Lehrer’s “The Old Dope Peddler” song, he was “Doing well by doing good.” See the words and music here. The last half of the song is a pretty good parody of how corporate bag men operate.

According to Google, there were 12,719 registered lobbyists in Washington in 2011 and 535 senators and representatives, 23 lobbyists for each member of congress. A rough count of the registered lobbyists in Charleston July 6, 2018 gives 380. There are 100 delegates and 34 senators, so the ratio there is about 2.8 lobbyist per legislator.

Do you suppose lobbyist’s salaries aren’t considered a profit making cost to their employers? Do you suppose these employers wouldn’t allow expenses for “wining and dining’’ legislators? When the legislature is in session there’s good money for everyone, including “ladies of the night.” People are working hard and partying hard, too. Not every lobbyist is a “bag man,” supplying bribes, but some are. In this atmosphere can you imagine laws aren’t set for those that can hire more and better lobbyists?

Who represents the unorganized, small businesses, small farmers, independent laborers? Who represents the non-financial interests of society, such as freedom from pollution, freedom from ugly surroundings and smells; light and sound at night and the like? Who represents the need to keep some things inexpensive, like potable water, health care, quality education as opposed to baby sitting to age 16, transportation and more?

My belief is that West Virginia’s low position among states, in spite of providing vast amounts of the energy needed far beyond it’s borders, is due the mechanism in our government since the founding. The feverish atmosphere, the honor of serving and the pleasure of hobnobbing with the wealthy and powerful crowds out of consciousness the needs shared by most citizens. The bottom 90% are assumed to benefit because the wealthy do, and the bottom 30% economically are untouchables, beyond sympathy. Their age, sickness, misfortunes must be ignored to denigrate their worth by characterizing them as lazy, stupid or inept. No charity from society is justified.

West Virginia government is a great social club to be in. It gives self-advancement, sense of importance, and occasionally a sense of benevolence. But it leaves most of its citizens to enjoy the natural beauty that remains but is rapidly fading, and not much else.


See also: Gov. Jim Justice accused a natural gas developer of crossing the line on a potential investment with China Energy — Questions hang over Justice’s claims against natural gas developer

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