Paradise Lost: West Virginia


November 1997, New River Gorge National River, West Virginia, USA — Grand View Lookout Point — Image by © Richard T. Nowitz/CORBIS

The story of West Virginia is mired in promises stolen as colonists invaded, committed genocide against indigenous populations, deceptive politics, and then sold the resource-rich land for profits. What remains is stunning beauty, abject poverty, and the poisonous remnants left behind by unchecked capitalistic greed in the form of industrial pollution.  What industries that have not yet abandoned the state for greener (more profitable) pastures exercise almost unregulated control… a luxury granted to employers who hire such large swaths of the state that entire towns and counties practically entirely depend on that single employer for their livelihoods.

As the economy changed through increased automation and offshoring, West Virginia residents found themselves in a dire predicament: increased unemployment with only about half the residents working, increased poverty, and a demand for an improved safety net that would safely capture those tumbling to their demise because there was no way out of their economic death spiral. Residents were more impoverished now than they were in the 1970’s but without the industrial promise on the horizon. Residents were begging for relief.

Legislatures were at a crossroads. They could either inject money into the people through various publicly funded programs like state-funded health care programs, educational programs, and job-creating infrastructure spending. Or the legislatures could reward the wealthy corporations and residents who maxed out campaign contributions with tax cuts under the guise that it might lure other industries and create new jobs.

The state of West Virginia passed a series of tax cuts for the wealthy leaving the state and its residents to suffer the death of a hundred tax cuts. While income among corporations and the wealthiest members grew in West Virginia, most West Virginians continued to fall into the despair and hopelessness of poverty. To keep up with the ever-increasing cost of living, some teachers have taken to picking up second jobs in the fast food industry in a last-ditch effort to live in one of the poorest states in the country.

This is the relationship that legislatures hide: actions have consequences. When legislatures redistribute tax revenue to benefit the wealthy, legislatures don’t do it out of ignorance. They’re not shrugging and saying, “Let’s see what happens when we pull this lever.” In the early months of 2017, headlines ran with the story that household income soared to $94.8 trillion. This is in no small part to legislatures rewarding their donors with opportunities to grow their wealth in the form of subsidies, tax cuts, and deregulation. Legislatures understand that these legislative measures benefit the donor class. So what does this say about their wants and desires for the rest of us?

A starvation diet will only lead to the body’s decay. Any growth that occurs from starvation is incidental: the bloat of decline that precedes death. When state legislatures take money from the hungry mouths of the masses to feed the obscene largess of the wealthy, it sends the message that our primary use is to prop up those who need it the least. We serve as resources left to plunder by those who only seemingly grow to abnormal sizes from that plunder.

While legislatures almost always justify tax cuts as a job-creating mechanism that might somehow, someday trickle down into wealth for everyone else, it’s noteworthy to point out that their commitment to low unemployment rates is a facade. In most states, like West Virginia, the public sector is one of the largest employers. Perhaps someone much smarter can explain why states with massive unemployment rates and low wages pretend that cutting taxes for the wealthy is a more efficient job creator than merely hiring more employees at better wages to perform the vital services that serve as the lifeblood to many communities.

When public services are cut, they’re not cut because there’s a decreased need. Children with chronic disabilities aren’t cured of some fiscal miracle that just so happens to coincide with the urge to balance the budget. These cuts occur regardless of need. In fact, public service budgets are so cash-starved that many programs feel insufficiently resourced to meet the needs of the community. If there’s a homeless problem, cutting funding that provides assistance for the homeless harms not only the homeless but also increases unemployment.

The only folks preventing states from using their coffers to fund public works projects that would provide for its residents are those in charge of running the state, and those folks are beholden to the donor class.

The Strike heard Around the World

On February 22, West Virginia school teachers banded together to commit a crime: they would strike. In a state that permitted DuPont to poison its citizens, it prohibits employees from uniting together for a strike. The teachers and staff on strike weren’t asking for unreasonable unicorns. They were asking for a meaningful pay raise and reforms made to the public insurance program Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) whose premiums were cost prohibitive to policyholders. And in that single illegal collective action: they shut down one of the state’s largest employers.

By Tuesday, March 6th, the teachers were offered an uninspiring deal that would come at an extraordinarily high cost. West Virginia public workers would receive a 5% raise and a committee to look into improving PEIA. However, the money to pay for the increase would be taken from public services which already operates on a shoe string budget. The bipartisan agreement would be to steal from the poor to give to the poor leaving the donor class unaffected from the consequences its exploitation wrought.

The victims of this theft are impoverished college students who already face homelessness and hunger.  The state’s Medicaid program which provides health care for mothers-to-be, children, and the disabled may also face cuts to pay for the entirely modest raises that the teachers earned. The state legislatures justify stealing from disabled children, like Franklin, because they say the state has no money. “Sorry, I would love to help you, but I just can’t afford it,” they say through blindingly white teeth paid for by taxpayers. Yet, while the state legislature was bemoaning the new costs associated with paying their employees slightly more (to the tune of $82 million), they were rather silent about the $140 million tax cut bill that was positioned to pass. Apparently, financial costs are only crushingly burdensome when they benefit public workers. It must be some great work of sorcery that increases the value of a dollar so much that $82 million becomes a higher cost than $140 million they were already planning on giving away.

While the coal industry was quietly looking to squeeze more blood from the state, the teachers organized together to ensure the students who depended on the school system would continue to be fed despite the strike. From both solicited donations and their own hard earned money, the teachers continued to care for their pupils. Although I’m sure if local industries had enough time to plan, they would devise some cunning plan to steal from those babies, too. After all, they understand the impact cutting taxes on public services has on residents of West Virginia. They just don’t care.

The Con

The Democrats get a bad reputation among liberals, progressives, and leftists for being spineless. For not having the courage to stand up to those bully Republicans and demand justice. After all, Democrats appear to cave on everything their constituents want from DACA to Medicare for All. They wag their fingers at those naughty Republicans and say things like, “What you’re doing is wrong!” right before signing on to whatever new inventive curse our donor class has convinced our legislatures to present as a bill.

But what if this is all a con? What if the spine is indeed intact for all parties involved? What would that look like?

Pundits are poised to blame Republicans for the pay increase trade-off, too. After all, they control the state government and could raise taxes to pay for the increased wages but choose not to. Why tax the rich when you can kill the poor? The soulless husks known as Republicans have earned both the blame and ire for this epic theft yet it’s worth remembering that the reason why the public sector was underfunded was a bipartisan effort with a Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, leading the charge.

When President Obama was elected, he was elected on a tidal wave of promised changes. People were hurting. He was running for president just as the economy was careening off the cliff due to rampant greed and illegal mortgage fraud. Wall Street was starting to crumble under its bad behavior taking with it the massive banks that run our economy. The quicksand Wall Street had created with the banks became so extensive and consuming that it now threatened the economy as a whole. Small businesses couldn’t get loans and went bankrupt, millions of Americans who were forced to sink their retirement plans in the snake oil with which the industry had convinced legislatures to replace pensions, and rotating lines of credit were suspended for people.

In a parallel world, a similar financial catastrophe was brewing in Iceland. In an unprecedented move, Iceland began to imprison the bankers while they bailed out its citizens who lost everything. Apparently, their bankers were not too big to jail. But the US designs prisons for those who cannot afford the luxury of buying Congress and so the fraudsters that earned billions through defrauding American citizens were given golden parachutes while the institutions that rewarded the rampant criminal behavior were granted various bailouts by two presidents representing a genuinely bipartisan effort to appease the donor class.

The decision was already made. We would bailout the criminals that tanked the economy and we would allow them to continue hoarding their ill-gotten wealth. Politicians publicly fretted and said things like, “Golly, bailing out these folks doesn’t seem right but what choice do we have?”  This was just public theater to get the rest of us on board. It is easier commit theft against the people so long as they believe the con. Otherwise its robbery and that just seems ugly and undignified. A blue collar crime that was below their station. Here’s the outcome of it all, as summarized by Matt Taibbi:

In the end, there was no lending requirement attached to any aspect of the bailout, and there never would be. Banks used their hundreds of billions for almost every purpose under the sun – everything, that is, but lending to the homeowners and small businesses and cities they had destroyed. And one of the most disgusting uses they found for all their billions in free government money was to help them earn even more free government money.

When the Great Recession hit, a lot of families lost their homes. The same banks that defrauded everyone into financial ruin then had the audacity to seize the homes in foreclosure. Not having anywhere else to go, many families outstayed their welcome and the banks worked with legislatures to pass laws making it easier to evict them which was code for having them arrested and then charged for the interaction with our criminal justice system. More “squatters” were arrested than bankers.

There’s this myth that because Democratic voters and Republican voters cannot stand to have a conversation with each other, that their ideological divide is so insurmountable, political gridlock is inevitable. “Of course our elected esteemed members of Congress cannot unite together to solve our pressing problems, look who they’re forced to work with,” goes the argument. And the argument is pretty seductive based on our real-world experiences around the holiday dinner tables, Facebook acquaintances, and the cell site that is Twitter.

Unfortunately, this grants the assumption that our political divide is the product of good faith arguments and not a poorly written play carried out in the theater of politics. That this inability to unite over common ideas like, “perhaps we shouldn’t starve children,” drives a real and legitimate wedge in Congress. What if the arguments in Congress are performative? What if they’re designed to exaggerate a divide among the voters? What if we are angry at each other because we’re watching a performance intended to illicit anger and direct it at each other? What if both the Democrats and the Republicans more or less agree with one another?

The con is easier to pull off when Congress, whether it’s at federal or state level, is at odds with each other. But when a single power controls all chambers of Congress and the executive office then explaining why these necessities cannot be met becomes a much harder sell. After all – who is responsible for the obstruction when the obstruction is a political, powerless minority?

Democrats ran the federal government during Obama’s first term. Most of the legislation they passed served the elite: TARP, Cash for Clunkers, Obamacare, war profiteering, pardoned wealthy criminals, privatization of public services, and so on.  He delivered a significant amount of hope in change while he had control over Congress. The problem was that he delivered it to the donor class.

Similarly, the Republicans are now the powerhouse at the federal level. They own the House, Senate, and Presidency. So why is it that they can’t seem to deliver on any of the promises they offered to the working class? It isn’t because of unruly members who won’t play ball (Rand Paul). If that were the case – if the Republicans were a party divided – then they shouldn’t be able to pass any legislation. All of these barriers magically disappear when the donor class wants more money for war profiteering, deregulation, and tax cuts for the wealthy. In fact, all fighting seems to disappear. Both Democrats and Republicans silently line up to kiss the corporate ring of the ruling class. It seems as though the only truly bipartisan agreement that can be reached is when it comes time to reward the laziest people in the US with even more obscene wealth.

Poverty Talk

We live in a society where columnists will tsk at the injustice of poverty while avoiding questions like, “Why is there poverty?” They might ask the single mother, “Why can’t you afford to care for your child with diapers, formula, and childcare?” Yet none dare ask, “Why can’t we as a society provide these things for struggling mothers? How might providing these things help lift struggling mothers out of poverty?” Discussions around poverty ignore the mechanisms that trap people into poverty by focusing on the behavior of the individual. We would rather blame the poor for their poverty than acknowledge our role in creating it. There’s little space devoted to mainstream media for analyzing how pillaging public services makes it harder for those in the pit of poverty to climb out.

If the money stolen from public services is given to the wealthy because it grows wealth, then there is no compelling reason why that money couldn’t do the same for those from where it was taken. Ultimately, poverty is a resource problem. Poverty is, in its most basic form, a lack of resources: a lack of money, a lack of housing, a lack of food, a lack of medical care.

The single most effective way to cure poverty is through reversing the direction of government monies. If poor people lack money, give them money. If homeless people lack housing, give them housing. If poor children lack food, give them food. This is not rocket science. Give people the things they lack and they will no longer lack them. And if giving the rich more money helps them generate even more money, the same is true for you and me. If those without a living wage no longer have to fret about rent, diapers, health care, or day care then that removes both financial and mental obstacles for them. They can invest in college, a new business, or a technical trade.

It’s important to think that our government is incapable of doing anything so that we don’t ask it to start doing things like providing universal health care for free, universal daycare for free, a free income, free housing, and free public college. We already offer things for free, but the vast majority of these freebies require membership to the 1%. Why not us?

It’s important that we’re prevented from understanding the relationship between tax cuts for the rich and the burden it places on the poor because the moment we understand the con, these grifters draining our tax funds suddenly have to account for why their hand is in our cookie jar.

We live in a society where pundits and politicians want to give teachers guns but not an adequate wage. We live in a society where when black children suffer from hookworm due to inadequate sanitary plumbing, states like Alabama allocate $6 million to improve the plumbing for white children. We live in a country where the wealthy hiss “socialism” when we want them to pay a living wage but call it incentive when the government handouts benefit them.

Poverty is a commitment US politicians make every single day of their term. They could easily end it with sweeping legislation that seizes the wealth that belongs to the people and returning it to the people. They don’t because they don’t want to. Even when they have complete control over the state or federal government. It’s not a partisan stalemate grounded in ideological divide. There is no divide. They serve the donor class at the expense of everyone else. And we all pay that price with the sweat of our labor, the paltry dollars in our banks, and our broken sickened bodies that will give out on us far sooner than our wealthier counterparts.

If these Democrats and Republicans aren’t prepared to fight for what you need then vote them out. Every single last one of them. Don’t vote for a single incumbent that takes money from the donor class. Don’t vote for a single politician that equates tax cuts for the wealthy with job creation. Don’t vote for a single politician that hesitates around the notion of a robust safety net, the right to housing, the right to health care, the right to nutritional food, and the right to a living income. You deserve each and every one of these things.

This notion that you have to vote for Democrats to stop Republicans ends here. This myth that you have to vote for a Republican to stop a Democrat ends here. They are all on the same goddamned side and unless you have a trust fund that could run a small country, that ain’t your team.