Saturday, December 9, 2006

Graduation Remarks--WVU School of Journalism, May 2006

Dec 9, 2006

Graduation Remarks: Perley I. Reed School of Journalism at WVU

(Salutation, Acknowledgement: faculty, grads, guests.)

I was in this auditorium once before to hear Dr. Bruce Chabner, Chief of Oncology at Harvard Medical School, give a lecture on the status of cancer treatments.  That was in June 2004.

Dr. Chabner told us that day that only one cancer drug, Gleevec, was a “magic bullet” when it came to curing cancer.  Gleevec is very effective in treating a type of leukemia.  While Gleevec is a true miracle drug, scientists have yet to match its success in treating any other type of cancer. 

I remember standing in line nearly 50 years ago to take the first oral polio vaccine.  The Sabin polio vaccine was the miracle drug of its day.  Polio was still a scourge in the 1950’s.  But then came the cure—a drop of red liquid on a sugar cube.

You cannot imagine how I felt as a young boy knowing that miracle cures were served on sugar cubes.  Never again, I thought, would I hear my mother say, “It’s time to take your medicine.”, and then have to swallow a bitter tonic.

The same day that I took the polio cure, one of the grown-ups said, “It won’t be long until there’s a cure for cancer.”  How wrong he was.

I suppose it was that day when I started thinking about cancer and about waiting for its cure. 

Six years ago, I proposed that West Vrginia University should publish a report called “100 Lives.”  The book would consist of interviews with 100 cancer patients being treated here at the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center.  I believed that these interviews should be conducted by journalists so that they would be objective write-ups.  I also believed strongly that journalism students would be the best candidates for the jobs.  Here’s what I proposed:

The Student-Reporter

At the outset, one might conclude that only an experienced reporter need apply for this assignment.  In this case, however, the novice might actually have an edge because of bias.  Demographics being what they are, a college student is far less likely to have experienced the effects of cancer than would have a seasoned reporter.  When I say, “experienced”, I also mean to include knowing family members or friends who have been through the ordeal.  To know where the patient is headed, or worse, to think you know where the patient is headed based on one case, is a form of bias that will detract from the objectivity of One Hundred Lives. …

Not long after I submitted the proposal to President David Hardesty’s office, I received a call from the Cancer Center saying that the project was being considered.  Then came the first meeting with the Journalism faculty.  Dean Christine Martin chaired the informal get-together and George Esper, the veteran reporter and professor, sat in as chief inquisitor. 

At the time, I never gave it much thought that the Journalism school might be skeptical of the plan.  I came to realize, however, that Dean Martin probably thought I intended for her students to create some sort of PR-piece for the Cancer Center.  That’s when George Esper asked me directly if “100 Lives” was to be a puff-piece or a true, journalistic endeavor.

I answered his question correctly.

I had hoped for an accurate reporting of the havoc that cancer plays in a person’s life and, beyond that, the effect it has on family members.  The journalism students who worked on the project, which became known as “Cancer Stories”, certainly delivered a product that exceeded all expectations.

Going back to Dr. Chabner’s visit, then-professor Maryanne Reed was able to meet with him briefly and give him a galley proof of “Cancer Stories” and the accompanying video.  He was most gracious in his review of the project and wrote to her:
     "I, along with my wife, had the great privilege of watching “Cancer Stories: Lessons in Love, Loss, and Hope” and found it to be an extraordinary window into the personal experience of cancer patients.  I have never seen anything as personal and revealing about this experience.  The subjects are not patients; they come to us as family members, parents, friends and their lives are like ours.  Their stories are so gripping and so wrenching.
     "You and your students have made a remarkable contribution."

I believe that “Cancer Stories” is genuine and holds its integrity for one reason—its lack of bias.

Because this project was such a novel concept, nobody went into it with his or her mind made up.  No one—not the doctors, not the patients, not the students—knew what to expect. 

In most every medical report, comments from the experts permeate the text.  In most every medical documentary, there is endless footage of static medical equipment or test tubes. 

In “Cancer Stories”, the words and the images of the patients carry the report.  And the reporters were never intrusive.  If anything, the reporters allowed the reader and the viewer to accompany the patients and their families as if they were there themselves.

In the closing chapter of “Cancer Stories”, I wrote:
     "That our young reporters blended into the fabric of this tapestry so completely as to be unnoticed and yet captured the realism of each day in the life of a cancer patient is a testament to this university, its faculty and staff, and its students….
     "To this end, the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism students were faithful and unbiased reporters and they have delivered a remarkable and honest catalogue of the facets of life as well as the range of emotions that we call the human spirit."

Dean Maryanne Reed suggested that I also talk to you about the importance of journalists in our society.   Since I am a contributing writer of opinion columns, let me confess my bias in favor of unfettered journalism at the start. 

If I were a good communist (instead of a good columnist), then I’d be condemning journalists to the work farms.

Having worked in both the private and public sectors has given me the insight that the people in charge are not very fond of criticism.  Part of that attitude is plain, old-fashioned human nature.  From time-to-time, we all wear our pride on our sleeve.

But part of it is that leaders and their press officers hope to control information.  Control of information has always equaled power.  And that applies to everything from backyard gossip to the press releases at the highest levels of government.

Our Founding Fathers knew of this peril.  Perhaps their wisest decision was guaranteeing freedom of speech.  Were it not for the 1st Amendment, “truth” would be a relative term that changes from day to day. 

George Orwell’s “1984” is, of course, a work of fiction.  But his fictional tale of Oceania is rooted firmly in reality.  When there is no free press, the Minister of Information decides what is true and what is false. 

If we understand what happens when there is no free press, we must also consider what happens when the press itself is derelict or corrupt.  Ayn Rand’s fictional newspaperman in “The Fountainhead”, Ellsworth Toohey, is the best example of a failed press that I know of.

Ellsworth Toohey famously said, “Don’t set out to raze all shrines – you’ll frighten men.  Enshrine mediocrity, and the shrines are razed.”

In modern society, I believe that we have enshrined mediocrity.  And I believe that we have enshrined mediocrity to a dangerous degree.

But I still have hope that this generation of young people will reverse this course.

At West Virginia University, greatness is learned.  There is no better proof of that motto than the accomplishments of the students and recent graduates of the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism. 

From “Cancer Stories” to “Starting Over” (the Katrina project), journalism students at WVU have produced reports of exceptional quality.  They have learned that facts speak for themselves and that the truth, however painful, always wins the day.

We owe these youngsters much more than our applause.  We also owe them the professional respect that they have earned.

Thank you.

* * * * * * *
From:  WVU Journalism School Magazine   Summer 2007


Allen Delivers Convocation Address for December Grads
By Kate Grosel

David G. Allen, a Clarksburg, W.Va. native, delivered the School of Journalism's December convocation address on Dec. 9, 2006.

Allen is a frequent contributor to The State Journal. He writes about West Virginia politics and economics.

"David Allen has a truly original voice," said Dean Maryanne Reed. "As a writer and a journalist, he calls them like he sees them. His commitment to honest and accurate reporting is an inspiration to our students and graduates."

In his remarks, Allen urged students to seek truth in all future journalistic endeavors. He reminded students of the First Amendment's protections for press freedom.

"If we understand what happens when there is no free press, we must also consider what happens when the press itself is derelict or corrupt," Allen said.

In his address, Allen focused on the School's groundbreaking convergence project, "Cancer Stories."

In 2000, Allen was asked to serve on the WVU Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center's Advisory Board. Subsequently, he proposed that SOJ students interview cancer patients, following their progress throughout all treatment stages.

His vision and support led to the project, "Cancer Stories: Lessons in Love, Loss and Hope," an Emmy Award-winning documentary and a book published by WVU Press.

Allen lauded the School's special projects that give the students real-world experience.

"From 'Cancer Stories' to 'Starting Over' [the School's innovative project on Hurricane Katrina]' journalism students at WVU have produced reports of exceptional quality," Allen told graduates and their families.
"They have learned that facts speak for themselves and that the truth, however painful, always wins the day."

Friday, December 1, 2006

For Government, Trailers Make Sense

Ten years ago, I attended a meeting at Jackson’s Mill. One member of our group arrived a few minutes late. He entered the meeting room with a panicked look on his face and asked us if we had heard about the fire at the Governor’s mansion. Before we could collect ourselves from news of this tragedy, he uttered the punch line, "It burned to the axles before the fire crews got there!"

Well, it was funny and we all laughed.  But we knew in our hearts that the Capitol complex was run like a rundown trailer park.

When the late Bill Ritchie was re-appointed Highway Commissioner in 1985, one of his first tasks was to repair the fountain in front of the DOH office tower on Washington Street.  In its less than 20-year life, the fountain hadn’t worked for years because of lack of maintenance.  The empty concrete vessel had become a joke.  State workers called it the "Yeti trap" and chirped that, sooner or later, we would finally catch the elusive abominable snowman.

Upon taking office, Gov. Bob Wise learned that the Capitol’s priceless chandelier nearly fell from its haunt because of "lack of maintenance."  The lamp’s support cable had frayed to its last strands.  Shortly thereafter, we also learned that structural steel in the dome had cracked.  And we also learned that the dome itself needed extensive work.

Then, we learned that the Capitol’s roof leaked.  The reason?  Once again, a "lack of maintenance."  Money for repairs was not forthcoming, so the job was initially recommended as an Economic Development Grant project.

And since, we have learned that the Capitol complex elevators failed to meet building and safety code requirements.  The answer to that "lack of maintenance" question was to quit inspecting the elevators all together.

What started out as a redecorating project at the Governor’s mansion in 2005 quickly ballooned into a structural repair nightmare after the contractor removed the tarpaper.  Again, a "lack of maintenance" had allowed little problems to fester into big ones.  We have coughed up $3 million to rehab an 80-year-old building that could have been razed and built new for less money.  But then again, it wouldn’t have the charm and ambiance of Tom Hank’s money pit, would it?

And now for the pièce de résistance-the Capitol cafeteria.  This eatery gave new meaning to La Cuillère Grasse (The Greasy Spoon.)   In fact, if the kitchen grease had caught fire, then the Capitol would have burned to the axles before fire crews got there!  Fortunately, nervous cockroaches drew attention to the fire hazard which, in turn, prompted the health department to close the cafeteria.  I am told that cockroaches are sensitive to fire hazards and need no special training to alert humans that danger is at hand.

Don’t laugh.  The two prior state capitol buildings weren’t lousy with cockroaches and they each burned to the ground!

To blame government workers or elected politicians for failing to maintain government buildings is pointless and irrelevant.  Unlike homeowners, government workers have no ownership interest in government-owned real estate.  Unlike homeowners, the government has no interest in creating equity because the property will likely never be sold.  Unlike homeowners, government never dies nor does government ever move to another state.  And government is never financially at risk for its farm-the taxpayers and their grandkids are.

The run-down condition of our most majestic buildings is a story that clearly defines the difference between individual property rights in a democracy and government control of property.  When government is in sole charge of property, the decline begins.  And then political leaders ceaselessly solicit more and more tax money to address the needs of the state. 

"Give us $3 million and we’ll fix the mansion once and for all." 

"Give us $15 million and we’ll fix the roof leaks once and for all." 

And so goes the begging until you are mentally conditioned to expect such cycles as inevitable.  Then they become so.

State workers and elected leaders can do no better than they have done in the past.  But the fault is not theirs.  It is ours. 

We should never have expected them to take care of fountains, elevators, crystal chandeliers, or gilded domes in the first place.  If these people wanted to manage real estate, they would have hired on with Donald Trump, not the state.

We should have bought each agency its requisite number of trailers and, when they were trashed, replaced them with new trailers. 

As for the governor’s residence, we’d probably be obliged to buy him a nice double-wide.  (Without a fire place, of course.)

Friday, November 3, 2006

The Best-Paying Jobs That Your Taxes Can Buy

Ever since the time of Pharaoh, government has felt the need to create jobs for the people. Only now, we don’t build pyramids. We are much too modern for that notion. We are high tech workers; we build airplanes by decree of economic development committees.

Europe organized Airbus in 1970. The company is mostly owned by France and Germany with smaller shares being held by England and Spain. Russia, the grandmaster of government boondoggles, recently bought a 5% share of Airbus.

To justify the way that Airbus bleeds European taxpayers for subsidies, the company has built 16 plants in its member countries. I am sure that each plant has a sign in its front yard that reads, "Jobs for Your Community." Of course, there is no mention of the cost to taxpayers to create those jobs. Socialist ventures are exempt from truth-in-investing disclosures.

Airbus is currently building the 555-seat A380-the world’s biggest passenger plane. The A380 is the most ill-conceived invention of the post-9/11 era. But it is huge, like the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Aswan Dam, and that is its attraction to the bureaucrats who manage the government-owned consortium.

The future of the Airbus A380 is beginning to resemble that of the Concorde SST. England’s BAE and France’s Aerospatiale built that marvel before both government-owned companies became founders of Airbus. Airbus learned from the Concorde’s mistake. The Concorde carried too few passengers to ever make a profitable flight. Therefore, Airbus designed the A380-the behemoth which is too big for any airport terminal in the world to load and unload.

Government squabbling has now left Airbus’ top management in disarray. Delivery of the A380 is still two years away. Orders have stagnated. And Boeing has taken the lead in the long-haul market with its new 787 Dreamliner.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Holman Jenkins compared Airbus’ current state to that of the Concorde as a "Rip Van Winkle moment." Yogi Berra would say, "It’s déja vu all over again!"

Just like the socialist governments of Europe, we West Virginians own an interest in a government-run aircraft consortium. And somewhere in Martinsburg, there is a sign that reads, "Jobs for Your Community."

According to press reports, West Virginia loaned Swearingen Aircraft Co. $4 million to build small business jets. Apparently, the company could only repay half the loan, so our state took a 2% interest in the company in lieu of the $2 million outstanding debt.

Later on, the Republic of China (Taiwan) invested $500 million in the project through its state-owned Sino Aerospace Investment Corporation, and the resulting company is Sino-Swearingen Aircraft Corp. (SSAC) of which Taiwan owns 90%. Thus, I assume that we own 2% of 10% of a company capitalized at $500 million. That’s one million dollars. Our investment appears to have lost half its value.

I was unable to find any publicly-available financial information for the company. As investors, our state should make that information available. For example, do we own common stock or preferred stock? Does the stock pay a dividend? Has the stock split? Does the stock trade on an exchange? Are our shares restricted?

In late June, we received some bad news about our aircraft investment. SSAC is headquartered in San Antonio and the city offered the company a $70 million development package to expand its plant facility. San Antonio has upped the "Jobs for Your Community" ante. We cannot match its offer.

I do hope that SSAC builds jets or jet components in Martinsburg someday. But the reality is this-thirty other companies (including Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Learjet, and Embraer) have new business jets in development. It’s always tough for a start-up company to match the competition from industry veterans.

Sino-Swearingen’s website boasts that "SSAC's goal is to become the world's leading aircraft producer…" And therein lies a good lesson for businessmen wanting to secure government welfare: If you can’t build Pharaoh the biggest pyramid, then do the next best thing and promise to build him the most.

Friday, October 6, 2006

The Importance of Being Herb

Former WVU President E. Gordon Gee was recently featured on page one of the Wall Street Journal.  He now serves as Chancellor of Vanderbilt University, the fourth university which he has led since leaving Morgantown.  The list also includes the University of Colorado, The Ohio State University, and Brown University.

The WSJ article critiques Mr. Gee’s generous salary and perks.  And it also balances criticism of his compensation with praise for his outstanding fundraising ability.  Vanderbilt’s endowment has grown from $2 billion to $3.2 billion during Mr. Gee’s tenure.  That feat alone would make Commodore Vanderbilt proud of his namesake school.

Gordon Gee’s prominence is not new, however.  The national media discovered him while he was president of WVU.  Burger King ran a television ad campaign called "Where’s Herb?" Herb was promoted as the only American who had not eaten a BK Whopper and viewers were offered a cash reward if they spotted Herb in public.

As luck would have it, the actor who portrayed the fictional Herb was a dead ringer for Gordon Gee.  It wasn’t long before Mr. Gee was seeing strangers point at him and exclaim, "There’s Herb!"

"Herb" is again newsworthy just as David C. Hardesty has announced that he will step down as WVU’s President.  The university has formed a presidential search committee and I think it’s rather certain that the committee will receive two lists of candidates from which to pick.  So then, this is a good time to consider the candidates who hope to steward West Virginia’s flagship institution of higher learning.

First of all, the committee will hire a professional headhunter.  I always believed that headhunters and headhunting firms were nothing more than glorified realtors.  After all is said and done, they provide you with a handful of listings in your price range and then ask for their fee.  The headhunter’s list will be populated by professionals from academia-Herbs, if you will-and will contain most of the frontrunners for the job.

The second list, what I call the "out-of-work brothers-in-law slate", will be provided by state politicians and other power brokers who believe that patronage is the pathway to employment.  Patronage and nepotism have justified their existence, so pardon them if they know no better.

Sometime in March 2007, both lists of names will be commingled and the resumes will be thoroughly shuffled.  This is an important step in the selection process because it guarantees that some candidates will appear to be outstanding in comparison to others in their peer group.  The selection system then works as predicted, and is considered a success because most search committees never ask the all-important question, "As compared to whom?"

The search committee can avoid this trap by first identifying the needs of WVU before it even accepts a resume.  The job description drives the process, not the other way around.  Since the search committee is probably now defining the job description, let me offer my thoughts.

The next WVU president will face two major tasks.  First, faculty and staff salaries need to be raised significantly to insure that the university not only retains, but also attracts, the best personnel.  As WVU grows to 30,000 enrolled students, faculty and staff will also grow.  And second, the university’s growth and expansion needs to be financed by a method other than further burdening the already debt-laden student body.  Both of these goals can be mutually accomplished without compromise.

The candidate that WVU should be looking for can be best-described as the next Peter Ueberroth.  Ueberroth, you’ll recall, organized the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles; the event made a profit of nearly $300 million.  He proved that a public enterprise could be of world-class quality without complaint while still being operated efficiently.

To the search committee, I say this: Forget List #1 and List #2. Go find the next Peter Ueberroth.  He’s out there, but his resume isn’t on file with academic headhunters and he’s surely not an out-of-work brother-in-law!

I have always said that David Hardesty is the best president that West Virginia University will ever have.  He was born for the job.  Even so, he had his detractors during the selection process.  Those who preferred List #1 said he lacked academic credentials.  Those who preferred List #2 said he would use the job as a springboard for politics.  Fortunately, the previous search committee ignored all of that claptrap.

Leading West Virginia University, the university where greatness is learned, is an honor and a privilege.  I wish the search committee well in its quest to find the candidate who is worthy of the title.

Friday, September 8, 2006

American Know-How Delivers Record Opium Crop

Congress outlawed the sale of heroin and cocaine in 1914.  Prior to then, drugstores sold narcotics as popular cures and tonics.  "Heroin" was actually Bayer’s trade name for its over-the-counter cough medicine.  Coca-Cola, a fountain drink, was invented by an Atlanta druggist; its kick came from the coca leaf.

In ninety-three years, narcotics have gone from quaint drugstore notions to ubiquitous small-town evils.  For all of the drug wars that our government has fought and lost, we might as well never have quit selling them over-the-counter.  At the least, addicts could buy pharmaceutical-quality drugs before Congress weighed in.

The news from Afghanistan is telling of our drug war failures.  Our army and air force have occupied that desert fiefdom for five years.  This year, Afghani poppy farmers will reap a record opium harvest.  The acreage under poppy cultivation has risen to 370,000 acres since our armed forces have been in country.

To understand what has happened since we invaded Afghanistan, recall that the Taliban had effectively eradicated poppy growing by 2000.  Last year’s harvest of 250,000 acres was estimated to have provided 90% of the world heroin supply.  The 2006 crop is half again as big.

With such a glut, the price of heroin is certain to slump to modern lows.  The dope dealers will likely drop the street price to hook even more addicts.  Heroin could easily become America’s drug of choice.  And down the road, we should expect increased business for methadone clinics as addicts seek treatment.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) discussed several areas of public policy in his 1996 book, "Miles To Go".  He reserved a chapter ("Drug Wars") to write about America’s love of alcohol and drugs.

Moynihan is best remembered for his intellect. He may very well be the last true intellectual elected to the U. S. Senate, given the prostitutional manner to which we have stooped when selecting senators.

Moynihan, a master lawmaker, was also fond of alcohol, and it is therefore no coincidence that he wrote such a lucid, balanced essay on government’s effort to control drug use.  In his conclusion, he tells us: ''Thus, it may be that drug addiction is one of the problems government simply cannot solve.''

The Rolling Stones went platinum with, "You can't always get what you want, but … you get what you need."  Huey Lewis topped the charts with "I want a new drug."  The popularity of these songs directly correlates to modern society’s addiction to narcotics.  And therein is the problem.  When Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby ruled the airwaves, drug use was comparatively non-existent.

The Sixties, however, brought out a culture that embraced drugs as a form of escape and recreation.  Whether it was the bored housewife who chose Valium or the acid head who popped LSD, our society changed overnight, from top to bottom, and for the worse.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan perfectly captured the degradation of our society in his essay "Defining Deviancy Down."  Because America has allowed its mores to decline over the last fifty years, defining deviant behavior has continually narrowed toward the most egregious crimes. 

As a practical way of explaining this, consider that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry have all said that they have smoked marijuana.  George W. Bush has admitted his bout with alcoholism and a DUI arrest.  These facts barely raise an eyebrow today.  But how would these political candidates have fared at their respective 1956 nominating conventions?  Do you really think either political party would have considered one of these men to lead the ticket?

We are living out an unbelievably cruel joke.  Our government made it harder for cold sufferers to buy Sudafed and has proclaimed that act as a victory in the drug war.  At the same time, our military is fighting a real war in Afghanistan, but our government has opened the door for Afghanis to inundate the world with cheap heroin.

If you gave every Arab terrorist a flying carpet with a fully-loaded bomb bay, they could not muster a threat to the American way of life that even comes close to the havoc that heroin will do to our neighborhoods in the coming year.  We are destroying our empire from within, one fix at a time.  And what’s insane is that we’ve used our own armed forces to overlord a cheap, plentiful stash.

Government cannot solve the problem.  Legalization of narcotics cannot solve the problem, either.  Only the American people can.  But I doubt that we have the will to do so.

Friday, August 11, 2006

We Won't Make Tough Calls On Higher Education

August has arrived.  And with it comes the payment deadline for parents who must fork over a tidy sum to their children’s chosen colleges and universities.  College costs in West Virginia have increased by 30% since the 2001 school year.  And it is all but certain that college costs in future years will gallop along at a fast pace.

I say the cost will continue to gallop because the general inflation rate averaged 2.5% per year from 2000 through 2005.  Think of the increases that will come after a few years of 4-5% inflation.

The state and federal governments have contributed to these runaway costs by legislating easy money policies.  Subsidized loans, Pell grants, and PROMISE scholarships are all noble gestures.  However, easy money begets wasteful spending.  Had higher education been made to live off what its customers could afford to pay, then college campuses would look downright Spartan by comparison. 

But we cannot let market forces dictate admission to higher education.  After all, we live in a quasi-socialist society where unionized public schools give A’s to C students.  Parents tolerate this sham because no parent will freely admit that his or her kid is not college material.

As Garrison Keillor wryly observed of Lake Woebegone, "All of the children are above average."

Nationally, only 50-60% of entering college freshmen will graduate within five years.  We can conclude from reading graduation rate statistics that one-third of any college class should never have walked onto campus to start with.  But how do we determine who falls in that group?  We can’t because of the way the education system has been corrupted by easy grades and easy money.

In the final analysis, college graduates and taxpayers are paying through the nose for this system that caters to the masses.  Two out of three West Virginia undergraduates borrow money through the student loan program, and the average West Virginia graduate now finishes college with an $18,000. IOU.  This number does not include the debt that many parents incur by taking out home equity loans.  Nor does it estimate the consequences for the parents’ retirement incomes because their savings accounts were drained to pay for little Johnny’s tuition.

Pell grants pay for a significant amount of the higher education bill.  But realistically, the money to fund these grants comes from federal deficit borrowing.  It’s not free money as the politicians would have us believe.  It’s just another form of debt.

Society needs to stem this exorbitant rise in higher education costs.  There is only one way to do that, given the current education system.  Colleges must stop teaching "bonehead" English and other such remedial courses to freshmen.  The freshman year should be a difficult one with a strict core curriculum (minimum 16 credit hours each semester) of college-level English, math, and science.  The freshman year should be what it was intended to be-a weed out session.

There is no other way to rein in these costs.  Even private giving cannot offset college inflation.  West Virginia University recently raised $360 million which is almost meaningless.  The investment income on that money will never keep pace with the higher education inflation rate.  Although $360 million is a commendable sum, the university didn’t even have to wait a year to start begging money to pay for new band uniforms.

Because the public school system has failed to prepare students for college, the higher education system has been forced to teach 12th grade to incoming freshmen.  That wasted year has diluted the value of a bachelor’s degree to the point where graduates waste two more years pursuing their masters.  That’s two more years of being a non-productive adult, and two more years of debt to add to the bill.

Of course, if colleges do follow my advice, then that necessarily means that college enrollments will shrink considerably.  That would force some colleges to close up for good.  West Virginians will never let that happen.  We will continue to prop the system up with the wallets of gamblers before we give up socialized education.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Thomas Jefferson Provided the Real Fireworks

Independence Day came and went without much mention of the man who made the date memorable.  Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence were seldom mentioned on July 4, 2006.   Instead, this year’s holiday morphed into a 4-day weekend that featured fireworks every night. 

Boston’s extravaganza highlighted this year’s holiday-a pyrotechnics rendition of "shock and awe" choreographed to the orchestral strains of Aerosmith and the Boston Pops, and hosted by the feel-good psychologist of our times, Dr. Phil.

Though I missed it, National Public Radio’s "Morning Edition" correspondents read the Declaration of Independence.  Bravo for them for preserving this tradition.  At one time in our nation, the reading of Jefferson’s words inspired audiences much more so than a fireworks display could ever hope to.

Thomas Jefferson has fallen into disfavor in recent times because he was a slaveholder.  Had the world produced a man of Jefferson’s intellect and accomplishment since his death in 1826, then I could understand society’s willingness to remove the man from his pedestal.  But this world, now 6 billion strong, has yet to conceive anyone even close to matching the Sage of Monticello.

By my estimation, only six men in all of history can be compared to Thomas Jefferson-Sir Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, Socrates, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Alexander the Great.  In deference to readers of the "State Journal", I would also include the woman who invented breast feeding.  Were it not for her, none of us would be here.  But beyond this pantheon, even the most talented are just specialists in their respective fields.

Jefferson did more than just create the United States of America on parchment in 1776.  His vision of America recognized that the nation needed to be larger than thirteen coastal colonies hemmed in by the Appalachians.  Long before he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson had already planned the great expedition that his personal secretary, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, would make. 

Jefferson doubled the size of our foundling country with the Louisiana Purchase.  In doing so, he began the chain of events that would stretch our country from coast to coast and free us from meddling by European states.

Jefferson also projected American influence when he dispatched our navy to the Mediterranean.  The Moslem states of North Africa had long terrorized sailing ships, stealing cargoes and imprisoning sailors of any country refusing to pay tribute.  The Barbary Pirates were quelled in relatively short order.  The pirates had taken an estimated 2,000,000 sailors into slavery and were known to work men to their deaths.

America, as we know it, a continent-wide nation able to project its power around the globe, happened only because of Jefferson’s vision.

In the late 18th century, smallpox was as common as heart disease is today, though its primary victims were infants and children.  Thomas Jefferson made smallpox inoculation the nation’s first public health program.  Using cowpox vaccine developed by Dr. Edward Jenner of England, Jefferson inoculated his family and the slaves on his staff.  He also sent the vaccine with Lewis and Clark to offer its protection to the Indian tribes they would meet.

Jefferson corresponded with Jenner and opined that smallpox could be wiped out with widespread use of Jenner’s vaccine.  Jefferson was proved correct, but not until 1980. 

We know nothing about smallpox in 2006.  We cannot imagine an unmapped, undiscovered Louisiana Purchase.  We do know of Moslem hijackers, but would we have approved sending an untested navy to rout them from their hideouts?   We say that slavery is wrong, but we never pass up bargain sales on goods made in foreign sweat shops.

It is fair to say that we have a poor perspective from which to judge this man, Thomas Jefferson.  Especially so, if we are wont to negate his accomplishments solely because he was a Virginia slave owner.

A man of Thomas Jefferson’s letters will not be forgotten by history.  I, for one, am glad that I had the time to read his biography before history necessarily forgets me.  Believe it or not, his life story was much more inspiring than Dr. Phil’s fireworks show.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Immigrants Helped Shape West Virginia

Immigration policy has become an emotional issue in the post-9/11 era. Americans in every state advocate building a wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. We want every in-bound cargo container inspected for stowaways before it’s loaded on a ship in a foreign port. Our policy towards Cubans remains to turn them back to Castro. We want barriers to immigration. We want America to be a gated community.

It does surprise me that most West Virginians parrot Pat Buchanan when it comes to closing the borders. In the last five years, how many times have I heard disparaging remarks about Mexicans taking "our jobs"? Although many West Virginians entrust their lives to physicians who were born in the Middle East or India, few of them bother to learn to correctly pronounce their doctor’s surname. I guess that Rajiv and Ahmed can stay but Juan and Arturo must leave.

Before West Virginians get too high and mighty about their American heritage, I would suggest that everyone read "Transnational West Virginia" published by WVU Press. This collection of essays is an eye-opener for folks who always thought that the Mountain State was a homogenous English-German colony. It turns out that we are more diverse than you think.

Were it not for iron puddlers from Wales, Wheeling would never have become a steel town. Were it not for glassworkers from Belgium, Clarksburg would never have had a glass industry. Immigrants made our industries hum.

Immigration was considered so important to the economic development of West Virginia that the state appointed Joseph Diss Debar as Immigration Commissioner in 1864. Diss Debar, a native of Switzerland who lived in Doddridge County, is best known for designing the state seal. But in his role as commissioner, he was charged with soliciting immigrants to come to West Virginia.

In the closing chapter of "Transnational West Virginia", the circle is completed when 750,000 West Virginians leave the state between 1940 and 1960 for jobs in Akron and other industrial towns. Our out-migration continues to this day and is one of the main reasons for the state’s dismal economy.

Though it represents just a sliver of American immigration since 1864, "Transnational West Virginia" makes two salient points about immigrants. First, immigrants are drawn to areas where opportunities to make a living exist. And second, immigrants do assimilate into the American culture, just not necessarily in the first generation. In most every situation, their children are Americanized by the public school system.

On a national scale, we need to tailor our immigration policy to optimize these two facts. We need unskilled laborers to clean hotel rooms as well as highly skilled software engineers for our tech industry. We need to make sure that our newly-arrived immigrants understand that they can still appreciate the ways of their old country, but that their ultimate goal in coming here is assimilation into American society.

Allowing immigrants to forego learning English as their primary language is nothing but politically correct folly. Since Day One, second-language ghettos have bred crime and criminals. Requiring English literacy has been and remains the pathway to assimilation and good citizenship.

The last time I checked, America was not a labor union with a seniority system. Our system thrives on competition; nobody gets points for the date of entry of his ancestors. If you believe a Mexican is going to take your job, then work harder or get smarter. America has consistently rewarded productivity and ingenuity, not seniority.

America will probably be the land of opportunity for most of this century. As such, we will continue to be a magnet for immigrants. And that is a good thing. Immigrants who thirst for the American dream will only make our country more vibrant. Closing the borders, on the other hand, will only speed our downfall.

When our leaders debate immigration policy, they should hold a picture of the Statue of Liberty with one hand and a picture of Elian Gonzalez being held at gunpoint with the other. These images represent the bookends of the debate, and they leave plenty of latitude for a sensible immigration plan.


"Transnational West Virginia" is available at

Friday, May 26, 2006

Dead Cows Don’t Wear OSHA Orange

The state that boasts it is "Open for Business" recently made headlines in national and regional newspapers for giving the "business" to its citizens. The laughable folly that is known as West Virginia state government proves once again that it cannot solve even the simplest problem.

In late April, a dead cow floated down the West Fork River and got snagged at the West Milford dam in Harrison County. Had Elsie died a week earlier, when the river was higher, she’d have floated through unnoticed. After a few days in West Milford, however, Elsie began to smell. And that’s when the town of West Milford called for help.

The town found out quickly that no office of state government wanted the job of removing a dead, bloated cow from the West Fork River. Every agency that the town called had its reason for not being able to help.

The Clarksburg Water Board owns the dam. But since the cow was actually stuck on a tree snag upstream of the dam, they weren’t the responsible agency.

The Department of Natural Resources said it was responsible only for wild animals.

The Department of Environmental Protection said the dead cow did not pose an environmental issue and declined to help. (Pray tell. What is an environmental issue?)

Experts proclaimed that the decaying carcass wasn’t a threat to the drinking water of downstream cities. (Translation: We’re adding extra chlorine instead of removing the stinking beast!)

The governor was busy practicing NASCAR flagging, but his aides referred the town to the Department of Agriculture. The Department of Agriculture said that dead cows were a local issue. Apparently, this agency only regulates livestock!

Finally, in desperation, the town called the Treasurer’s Unclaimed Property Division. But they said that the only unclaimed properties they handled were cash, bearer bonds, and fenceable jewelry.

This is West Virginia-the state that shuts down elevators in state-owned office buildings rather than inspect them according to state law. This is West Virginia-the state that financed a movie piracy studio run by state employees in the capitol basement. This is West Virginia-the state where you can embezzle tax dollars at will!

Good grief, West Milford! What did you expect?

Fortunately for West Milford, their volunteer firemen were up to the task. With help from the Nutter Fort VFD, the firemen pulled the dead cow to shore. The Division of Highways (an agency with absolutely no reason to be involved in the matter) then hauled the carcass to the landfill.

The national government is telling us to expect a bird flu pandemic in the near future. The national government has spent millions of homeland security dollars for the protection of drinking water supplies. In spite of the fact that we are facing threats from a natural disaster as well as a terrorist attack, West Virginia is not even up to the task of removing a dead cow from one of its major rivers.

We laugh about a dead cow rotting in a river. Even West Milford’s Fire Chief punned, "Someone had to take the bull by the horns." But our fellow Americans laughed at us all the harder as the cow rotted for three weeks while state leaders passed the buck.

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from this latest fiasco by state government. In the end, it was a group of volunteer firemen who had enough pride in their community to get the job done.

To this end, we all need to volunteer. We need to hold our noses and clean up state government once and for all. Otherwise, we’ll continue to get nothing but "West Virginia excuses" for our tax dollars.

Friday, May 5, 2006

In 1984, Tom Brokaw Smiled At The Telescreen

When he closed the last NBC Evening Newscast of 1984, toothsome Tom Brokaw smiled and told his audience that Orwell’s prediction for 1984 had not happened.  Though he never said it, his subliminal message to viewers on that New Year’s Eve was: Party like it’s 1999!  And then the peacock did its thing.

In the minds of peacocks and anchormen, Brokaw’s observation was true.  In practical terms, Big Brother was already firmly in charge of the American public’s behavior.

George Orwell began writing "1984" in 1947, the same year that commercial television broadcasting began in America.  In this classic novel, human behavior is controlled by the telescreen which functions not only as a television but also as an all-seeing camera.  Telescreens were located everywhere, and the denizens of Oceania could not escape surveillance.

On this side of the pond, and almost simultaneously with Orwell, Marshall McLuhan offered his concern about the power of television.  McLuhan, however, stressed that television need not have camera capability to control the public’s behavior.  He predicted that televised images would be so powerful that behavior could be controlled just by programming options.

McLuhan was right.  Within a decade, Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Recently, the History Channel selected Elvis’ impact on American youth for one of the episodes in "10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America."  I do find it ironic that the History Channel would say that Elvis Presley’s television appearances "unexpectedly" changed America. Did they not read Orwell or McLuhan?

A week or so ago, my local television newscast ran a story about a man who claimed that his car had been burglarized while parked at a shopping mall.  Like Oceania, the mall’s parking lot is saturated with surveillance cameras.  The police watched the videotape and determined that no burglary had taken place.

You might be quick to approve of the surveillance cameras in this instance because they solved a case of insurance fraud.  But have you given any thought to the fact that the shopping mall is collecting huge volumes of demographic and economic data about its shoppers?  It does not take a genius to decipher the tapes and determine when the rich people shop and when the poor people shop or the ratio between the two.

As it stands now, one television ad can persuade one thousand random shoppers to line up at 5 a.m. on Black Friday to vie for 100 computers being sold for $99 each when the store opens at 6 a.m.  In the future, the combination of data from surveillance cameras (indoor and out), the data on your personal "store" card, and targeted television ads will have a powerful manipulative effect on each class of shoppers.  And the price of goods will change throughout the day and on each weekday to maximize sales to the rich, the poor, the bargain hunters, and the always-desirable impulse buyers.  Technology will make it so, but you will only be aware of the targeted ad that persuaded you to shop at a certain time or on a certain day.

Your car’s computer chip might well hold the entire driving history of the vehicle.  If your car has a GPS locator, you can be tracked everywhere you go.  And if it doesn’t, your cell phone is a beacon.  If you were to go on the lam, you’d be tracked by your credit card or ATM swipes.  Your credit history is a secret only to you.  You have to prove who you are to get a copy of your birth certificate.  Will the new border fences hold us in?  Or as we are told, keep them out?

Face it:  We have fallen a long, long way since we voluntarily gave up our constitutional protection from unreasonable searches at the airport thirty years ago.

It will only get worse, this technological totalitarianism.  Today’s grade-schoolers have been conditioned to surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and searches by the K-9 corps.  Unlike you and me, they will never know any different life.

If the future depresses you, just remember Tom Brokaw’s smile in 1984 and his reassuring assessment that none of this ever happened.  That’s pretty much what Winston Smith did in "1984."

Friday, April 7, 2006

The U. S. Chamber Should Encourage Clarity

On March 27th, the Institute for Legal Reform issued this press release:  West Virginia Rates Last in Legal Fairness.  The ILR (a unit of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce) also began running ads showing a man whose mouth is filled with cash.  The caption reads: Please Don’t Feed The Trial Lawyers.

I think this ad and the accompanying survey results that formulate the Chamber’s claim about West Virginia’s legal system are disingenuous at best.  Big businesses’ cheap shot portraying trial lawyers as money-eaters reminded me of a one-time candidate for Harrison County Sheriff named Raymond Richards who answered a reporter’s accusation by saying, "Pot called Kittle, ‘Blackie!’" 

Mr. Richards, one of the dimmer bulbs in the stagelights of political theater, was unsuccessful in his run for sheriff.  But his unique way of saying, "The pot called the kettle black." has forever been recorded in my collection of West Virginia euphemisms.

In this matter of a legal fairness survey, the Chamber’s Pot is tarnishing the Trial Lawyers' Kettle.

I could not have arrived at this conclusion without the aid of our state Supreme Court of appeals.  For on March 29th, the court (split 3-2 as expected) voted against hearing an appeal of the award of legal fees in a Putnam County case involving a defective car.

A Mr. and Mrs. George purchased their 2000 Dodge Intrepid from Nitro Dodge and later claimed there were problems with the car.  To make a long story short, they sued the dealership and the manufacturer, Daimler Chrysler.  Upon hearing the case, the jury awarded the couple $6,950 in damages.  But that was just a small tip of the iceberg.

The George’s attorneys filed a motion to recover legal fees and submitted their bill of $143,026 to the court.  In order to determine the "fairness" of the claim, the judge asked defense counsel to submit its fees for services so that he could make a comparison.   If you think $143,026 is exorbitant, then hold on to your hat-Chrysler’s legal bill was actually higher!

My advice to the Chamber of Commerce is twofold.  First, quit wasting your money on pseudo-scientific surveys about legal fairness.  And second, change the caption of your ad to: Please Don’t Feed The Lawyers-Theirs and Ours.

As for the lawyers involved in this case, I do not fault them for their excessive billable hours.  They played by the court’s rules and billed the parties for $300k.  If big corporations and insurance companies are stupid enough to wage Pyrrhic wars when a can of STP might have fixed the problem, then so be the outcome.

The members of the jury in this case should be applauded.  They decided that the car did have problems but chose not to make the plaintiffs whole by awarding them a new car or a carload of money.  They only awarded the repair bill ($4,500) and some money ($2,450) for the George’s aggravation.  The jury did its job.  And most likely, the jurors felt insulted after listening to five days of courtroom claptrap when they could have been home or at work.

The U. S. Chamber of Commerce wants to make a statement about the high cost of litigation in our nation.  They have quoted a 2004 study that estimates the tort system cost $260 billion or $886 per citizen.  There is a better way to determine the true and actual cost of litigation as well as a better way to give that number real meaning.

The Chamber should push for a change in accounting rules and seek to have product liability costs and claims included in Cost of Goods Sold instead of being classified as General and Administrative expenses.  This change would let Daimler Chrysler shareholders know right away how much the Putnam County litigation has added to the cost of manufacturing each new 2006 Dodge automobile.

When shareholders are given a line item under Cost of Goods Sold that clearly defines product liability litigation costs and product recalls, then management will either respond with better products and better service or the shareholders will change management. 

When consumers and shareholders have accurate information, the marketplace will settle the question of legal fairness faster than any other mechanism.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Road Projects Defy Both Description and Explanation

The year was 1961. President John F. Kennedy rewarded West Virginia for its role in his bid for the White House by drawing a line from Pittsburgh to Charleston and calling it I-79. The road had not been contemplated when America laid out its version of the German Autobahn-the Interstates. But that oversight mattered little. Our stretch of I-79 was a political payback, pure and simple.

My father’s construction company won the contract to build the first section of I-79, essentially the South Fairmont interchange at exit 132. The interchange had already been planned as part of the new US250 bypass. In fact, one of the Tygart’s Valley River bridges had been completed before the groundbreaking for I-79 took place. And what a groundbreaking it was!

Gov. W. W. Barron, U. S. Senator Jennings Randolph, and JFK’s Commerce Secretary, Luther Hodges, were just three of the dignitaries who spoke to a crowd of several hundred. The highlight of the day’s activities was the actual groundbreaking. My father had purchased a new bulldozer for the occasion and the aforementioned dignitaries all took turns at the controls scraping away a few tons of earth. Screw the hand shovels! This was a big deal!

For those of you who live in Fairmont and have wondered for 45 years about the US250 bypass around your town, you now know that it was given up for a higher purpose. For everyone else, this "groundbreaking" vignette provides an informed look at how roads get built in West Virginia. Always remember this: The new king doesn’t have to finish what the old king started. The new king can do as he pleases.

In Morgantown, over a quarter-century has lapsed since an old king started building Route 705. But Route 705 has yet to be linked with I-68. During this interlude, other kings spent money on the Mon-Fayette Expressway. It, too, is unfinished. Morgantown is booming and desperately needs a completed 705 as well as a north bypass highway and a widened Beechurst Avenue in the downtown. How many more kings will it take to finish this patchwork quilt of a road map?

Clarksburg was promised a south bypass (Route 98) by the mid-1980’s. United Hospital Center fronts on that road. But rather than wait for another unfulfilled decade to pass, UHC decided to move out of the city to Jerry Dove Drive-a road that a former king built for the FBI center.

West Virginia has had a long history of changing its road priorities. You can see that history in the old two-lane primary roads. After negotiating miles of curves, you’ll come upon two miles of fairly straight road and then it’s back to the chicanes.

The West Virginia Turnpike best defines our highway metamorphosis-not even Charles Darwin could tell you what it’s supposed to look like when it’s full-grown. The Turnpike began as a two-lane, driver’s survival course but has morphed into a regional tourism commission that operates a flea market for the well-to-do traveler. What’s next? That much-needed horse center? Or the Glade Springs exit?

From my perspective in the northern part of the state, the King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway look like payoffs for the glory days of 120 per cent voter turnout. Had these roads been built in the 1950’s or 1960’s, there’s a good argument that they would have spurred regional commerce. Building them now is too little, too late for the coalfields economy and too bad for Jefferson and Berkeley, two growing counties that actually need better roads.

Well, at least our Interstate highways are complete. Unfortunately, the Interstates are designed to move people and goods from one end of the nation to the other. They are not local development highways, regardless of how many businesses locate at the exits.

In this century, West Virginia politicians need to forget about grandiose highway schemes and concentrate on improving the primary highway system. And to entice our future kings and their knaves to pursue that course of action, I recommend using this sure-fire approach-let them ride on the bulldozer at the groundbreaking ceremony.

Friday, February 3, 2006

A January Warm Enough To Ripen Watermelons

When the temperature is warmer than normal, my thoughts usually turn to Al Gore and global warming.  I have this indelible vision of Al Gore as a bean-eating cowboy in the "campfire" scene in Mel Brook’s "Blazing Saddles."  For that matter, I always think of the "schnitzengruber" scene from that same movie whenever Bill Clinton’s name pops up.  January was downright balmy so you can imagine where my mind has been.

If you live in Beckley, however, your mind hasn’t been on January’s warm weather.  No, you’ve been thinking about the "Governor Lepetomane Toll Road" scene from "Blazing Saddles."

What struck me as so odd last month were not the warm temperatures but the incredibly ripe watermelons at the supermarket.  It’s just wrong to shop for ripe watermelon in mid-January.  Or at least it once was.

It hasn’t been that long ago that even the most exclusive restaurants had to limit their fresh fruit offerings to whatever was "in season."  Whether you were dining at the Greenbrier or the Four Seasons mattered not-their menus clearly announced that seasonal disclaimer.  Then it was left to your waiter to announce the fruit du jour.

Eating watermelon in January in West Virginia tells us a great deal about the choices available to us in the 21st Century.  We have come a long way in the 700 years since Marco Polo first delivered peppercorns to exclusive French restaurants.  But both events are the result of the exact same system-the marketplace.  The marketplace has always been defined by supply, demand, and the consumer’s choice based on price, quality, and availability.  While these are tangible choices, a great intangible factor (The customer is always right!) has long been the force that drives the gears of the system.

In many respects, there is merit to the paucity of the old ways.  In olden times, it was the custom in some villages to give each child an orange at Christmas.  That doesn’t sound like much of a gift in our time.  But if you had been dining on dried beans and salt pork for two months, a sweet orange would have been a real treat.  I dare say that a child of yore had more fond memories of eating a single orange in winter than modern kids have of ubiquitous X-boxes.

When we were a society that dined "in season", we had a greater appreciation for nature, the seasons, and the bounty of our garden crops.  We began each meal with a blessing and we properly thanked God for putting food on our table.  Today, it is disingenuous to say a blessing when the table has been prepared by Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, or Long John Silver.

Having choices, on the other hand, doesn’t mean that we have become blasphemers hell-bent on scrapping our old social values.  That’s the beauty of an economy that allows the consumer to have choices.  All that is different now is that practicing the old values has now become a choice whereas before, it wasn’t.

Let’s call it the Wal-Mart phenomenon.  We talk endlessly about preserving our old downtown retail districts.  We wax eloquently about the family-owned stores that once graced Main Street.  We lament that the big box stores along the interstate have completely rearranged the retail district.  And who can forget Blue Laws and restful Sundays?

Fifty years ago, we did not wax eloquent about parking meters.  We also carped that Smith’s Bicycle Shop had no competition and that they sold Schwinn bikes for an arm and a leg above wholesale.  We also complained about Blue Laws.  Just because the shopkeepers needed a day off shouldn’t have resulted in laws punishing the rest of us.

Consumers want choices-the more the better.  That’s why Marco Polo appears in the history books.  That’s why some folks prefer the Martha Stewart stuff at Kmart to the same kind of stuff at Target.  In olden times, soup was a necessity, invented as a way to eat precious leftovers.  Today, you can fill your pantry with canned soups of each and every kind, with or without salt added.

The Luddites of our age sincerely believe that, by encumbering Wal-Mart with "Blue Laws", they can turn the clocks back to 1950.  But that is not going to happen.  F. A. Hayek demonstrated correctly, and well before 1950, that consumers are the force that defines the marketplace.

Al Gore’s flatulence notwithstanding, that’s why watermelon was "in season" last month.

Friday, January 13, 2006

We Needn't Accept Mediocre Education in West Virginia

The foundation stones of our public education system are wobbly bricks, not boulders of substance.  It was designed in such a manner by Count Bismark in order to churn out common denominators to staff the factories (and armies) of the industrial age.  And here we are, a century and a quarter later, still churning out common denominators as if big mills dominate the landscape.

The education bureaucracy has avoided changing this ancient formula that generates common denominators because modern standardized tests have been tweaked to mathematically prove that most students test "above average."  Why should the bureaucrats change the system when they can fudge the test results?  The parents, more than anybody, are happy with the outcomes.

Parents hate to spend their evenings going over homework with their kids when they’d rather watch reality programming on television.  ("My Name Is Earl" can be considered in this genre.)  Parents love the fact that their kids are almost guaranteed to graduate from high school.  Parents are thrilled when their sons and daughters are bestowed with "honor student" bumper stickers.  Parents cherish the PROMISE scholarship for students with grade-inflated B averages.

You’ve read in your local newspaper that one-third or more of high school students are not only on the honor roll, but one-third of that group has a 4.0 average.  You have also read in your local newspaper that high school graduating classes now typically have multiple valedictorians.  Six valedictorians are not uncommon and a dozen or more is no longer rare.

This has gotten out of hand, but there is a solution.

Across the state, we have a cadre of outstanding teachers.  Perhaps the best algebra teacher is in Mason County.  Perhaps the best English literature teacher is in Berkeley County.  And so on.  Why not let these peer-reviewed, outstanding teachers teach every student in West Virginia high schools?  Technology can make it happen.

In this day and age, Mr. Jones could stand before a camera in Point Pleasant at 9 a.m. and broadcast his algebra class to every high school in West Virginia.  Ms. Smith could then go on at 10 a.m. to broadcast her views on "Great Expectations" from Martinsburg.  Every hour, your sons and daughters would receive instruction from the best teachers available.  This method of teaching would outshine even that of the most exclusive prep schools.

For my great expectation to work, barriers would have to be demolished.  First and foremost, the teachers' unions would have to admit that most teachers are mediocre and then convince mediocre teachers that they would be better off as highly-paid classroom monitors and teachers' aides.

The second, and even more difficult task, would be getting the parents on board.  Parents understand that Ms. Smith would have great expectations of her students when they took the exam on "Great Expectations."  No longer would a last-minute read of "Cliffs Notes" on the internet suffice for an A or B grade.  Little Johnny might not be so learnéd in Ms. Smith’s class!

When one out of eight (12%) high school students make the honor roll, then you know that the system is doing its job of not only raising standards but also of weeding out the students who are not college material.  When one out of three students make the honor roll, then you can appreciate why colleges and universities struggle to graduate half or fewer of their matriculating classes.

There is one other aspect to my high-tech classroom of the air that merits consideration.  If done right, snow days would be a thing of the past.  Broadband can bring the classroom of the air to every house via satellite, DSL, or cable.  And don’t tell me that there are households that cannot afford broadband.  For decades, the satellite dish has been known as West Virginia’s state tree.

An education is not something you should ever sell out for.  When you do earn an "A", your first question should be "Why wasn’t the class harder?"  Yet under our education system, we have embraced low expectations and rewarded ourselves handsomely with Ozian certificates for successfully guessing answers from multiple-choice lists.

The day is coming when China, Japan, and India challenge our position as world leader.  Asian parents have long understood that their children’s education is the way to success.  Unlike Americans, they could care less about bumper stickers.

We have given government a monopoly on public education.  That doesn’t mean we should accept mediocrity and an archaic system of teaching.