Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Why I Joined": A Soldier’s Story In His Own Words

"And so we watch with detached curiosity, from dry land, to see whether the Iraqis will sink or swim. For shame." -- Christopher Hitchens

Posted by Lt. Mark Daily at

Christopher Hitchens, writing in the November 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, tells us a heart-rending story about the death of Lt. Mark Daily in Iraq. Hitchens, the liberal who pressed for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein more loudly than any conservative dared to do, was confronted with the consequences of his unequivocal call for regime change when he learned that Lt. Daily took his words to heart and considered them as reason enough to oust Saddam and his Baathist thugs.

Christopher Hitchens is my favorite writer of this age.  His wordsmithing alone qualifies him for that praise.  But what sets him apart from other commentators is his bravery (not bravado) in advancing his views and positions.  Lt. Daily evidently admired Mr. Hitchens as well -- well enough to quote him, and more importantly, to believe in his message.

And so it happened then that when Mr. Hitchens learned of Mark Daily's fate, he felt the pain and anguish of perhaps being partly responsible for this young soldier's death. It is one thing to advocate war from within the safe confines of a typewriter carriage.  But to know that a soldier took the typed page and made it part of his battle creed has to be haunting.

Lt. Daily was killed by a cowardly weapon -- the land mine. In the Iraq war, however, we do not hear the term "land mine" mentioned. In the newspeak of terror war, we refer to these bombs as IEDs -- improvised explosive devices.

Thankfully, IUD was already in use or our soldiers would have to be on the lookout for improvised underground devices.

At his page, Lt. Daily wrote a passionate essay titled "Why I Joined."  He also was kind enough to summarize his reasons for joining the army and going to Iraq by telling his readers to watch the movie "Schindler's List" followed by "Saving Private Ryan."

The young lieutenant was not a hero in the traditional sense of the word, but I would describe him as heroic -- a more fitting word, perhaps.

Oskar Schindler was not a hero, but he was heroic.  Capt. John H. Miller was not a hero, but he was heroic.  And so on.

Lt. Daily went off to fight a war for a noble reason -- that of ridding an oppressed people of their dictator.  He did not go off to war to loot and plunder.  And that is a major difference in the pursuit of warfare that differentiates the American soldier from the hordes of masquerading butchers and thieves who permeate the history books.

Mr. Hitchens article, "A Death in the Family," recounts his meeting Lt. Daily's family.  He wasn't sure at the outset whether he should even make the attempt to contact them.  And if he did so, he had no idea of how to phrase his greeting.

There was no established protocol to guide his introducing himself to this family in mourning.  Nor did Emily Post's provisos lend any advice specific to the situation.  But he felt strongly that, given the circumstance, he needed to make the effort even if the Dailys rejected his condolences out of hand.

We are fortunate that Mr. Hitchens persevered.  The story that he wrote is the final chapter that every soldier's family lives through when bidding adieu to a beloved son or daughter who was killed in combat.

"A Death in the Family" comes to a close on a windswept Oregon beach, the locale where Mark Daily wished his ashes be strewn.  Mr. Hitchens joined the Daily family there for the ceremony, and he read a fitting passage about the death of a soldier from Shakespeare's "Macbeth".

This is all I want to tell you about Mark Daily in this column.  His words are the words you should be reading.  For regardless of your opinion of war, you should avail yourself to hear the soldier's opinion.  You will find it interesting.

Lt. Mark Daily at

"A Death in the Family" can be found at   or

Friday, December 7, 2007

David Allen’s Top 10 Predictions for 2008

10. At the request of Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglas, Al Gore will perform rain dances in drought-stricken Mason County. Commissioner Douglas will have a cameo role in Gore’s next documentary: "An Inconvenient Flash Flood".

9. BrickStreet Insurance loses its monopoly for underwriting workers compensation coverage in July and will face heavy competition from major insurers such as Aetna (dba Cobblestone Street Insurance), The Hartford (dba Elk Crossing Guaranty), Liberty Mutual (dba Blacktopped Boulevard Insurance), and Berkshire Hathaway (Cul-De-Sac LLC). By year end, BrickStreet will have reinvented itself as RoadPavedWithGoodIntentions Insurance Company.

8. For the fifth time, President Bush will visit West Virginia on the 4th of July. When asked what he plans to do in retirement, he will answer, "I wanna work on takin’ the "Duh" out of "Dubya."

7. The Democratic primary outcome will hinge on the gun control issue. Dennis Kucinich, who claims that he has seen UFO’s, will win the WV primary presidential nomination in a romp after promising to defend the right to own and bear ray guns.

6. Come Spring, the "Rachel Ray Show" will discover ramps. Rachel airs live from the Richwood Ramp Festival. Ms. Ray will prepare garlic-fried ramps, gnocchi, and mountain oysters with Marinara sauce.

5. Wal Mart has saturated West Virginia with Super Wal Mart stores. In 2008, the retailer will expand its market share by opening 250 convenience stores and selling cheap, leaded gasoline made in China.

4. The Republican primary results will surprise everybody. Fred Thompson will be nominated for Prosecuting Attorney in all 55 counties.

3. West Virginia will retain its moniker "Judicial Hellhole" as a result of Nitro resident Arthur Treacher suing Long John Silvers for deceptive advertising. Treacher will claim that he is allergic to seafood but that his takeout order of shrimp and lobster didn’t so much as give him a mild case of hives. Long John Silvers will declare bankruptcy after being forced to reveal its food sources. The jury will award Treacher $10 million plus unlimited fries for life.

2. Ang Lee will win the Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or award for "Brokeback Mountaintop Removal", his touching story of two environmentalists fighting to stop coal mining. Starring Rosie O’Donnell and Paris Hilton. Filmed on location at a Logan County, WV motel. (This film has not yet been rated by the Friends of Coal.)

And the number 1 prediction for 2008: David Allen will overcome his lifelong struggle with dyslexia and win the Pultizer Priez

Friday, November 2, 2007

Bong Hits 4 Jesus and Other Pipe Dreams

This year, I joined the Cato Institute. Technically, I am a sponsor of Cato Institute, and my sponsor's fee qualifies as a tax-deductible donation to a §501(c)(3) educational institute.

It did strike me as odd that I was making a tax-deductible gift to a libertarian think tank. That libertarian intellectuals sought and received special tax status tells me that we have pushed the federal tax code into the Twilight Zone.

This lone, Schedule A deduction got me to thinking about all of the organizations that receive tax-exempt status and, more importantly, asking myself why do we allow tax-deductible contributions in the first place?

We as a nation have a history of convoluted court decisions regarding the separation of church and state. The courts tell us that public school teachers aren't supposed to promote religion with daily prayers. The courts say that churches can't set up Nativity scenes on courthouse plazas if the displays promote religion.

On the other hand, the government allows for parishioners to deduct their contributions to their church. Provided, of course, that the Internal Revenue Service has sanctioned their church.

If you start a church that celebrates the Deity with bong hits for Jesus, then the IRS is likely to say that your church is not a real church. On the other hand, the IRS conveniently looks the other way when politicians make political speeches from the pulpits of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church and Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church.

I won't pick on the political endeavors of Catholics, Jews, Hindus or Muslims at this time. Lord knows, Christopher Hitchens ("God Is Not Great") has done that dance.

But as for the tax-deductibility of contributions to churches, three things need said.

First, tax-deductibility creates an incentive to give. Second, tax-deductibility for one special group means that all other taxpayers subsidize that donation. And finally, all mainstream churches spend a portion of their domestic contributions conducting missionary work in foreign lands.

Some fair questions exist, then. Is the federal tax code really supposed to be involved in sanctioning contributions to religious entities? Is the IRS within its bounds to define a church or religion? Is it in the best interests of our tax-collection policies to subsidize the Jehovah's Witnesses membership drive in the Amazon rain forest? If religion and state are to be separate, how can the federal tax code allow deductions for contributions to religious entities? After all, these donations promote religion.

Tax-deductible charitable contributions to educational institutions have been allowed for a long time. Everyone agrees that bona fide educational expenses include tuition scholarships, distinguished faculty chairs and the cost of constructing and maintaining academic buildings.

On the other hand, it is a real stretch to say that donations for new Astroturf and a multi-million-dollar scoreboard for the football field fall under the guise of education. Contributions to the athletic fund that are made for the sake of getting good stadium seats aren't exactly educational donations either.

Currently, two Ivy League university foundations are being sued for misspending endowment money. These lawsuits arose because the universities allegedly failed to spend the money in accordance with the donors' directives. If true, should the donors lose their prior tax deductions?

Duke University will pay out millions of dollars to settle the Duke rape case. Most, if not all, of this money will come from Duke's tax-exempt foundation. Should the solicitation of money to shield the school's management from personal liability qualify as a tax-deductible educational contribution?

Tax-deductible contributions of property are rife with overvaluation of the conveyed assets. The IRS should require that donors sell the property at auction and donate the actual sale proceeds. You and I both know that appraisals in these instances drift to the high side.

Millions of lower-income Americans donate "what they can" to a church, or to the Salvation Army, or to the Humane Society. They donate to the Red Cross disaster fund. They buy the flour and sugar for the school bake sale. But these taxpayers seldom get to claim a deduction for their charity as the tax code usually persuades them to opt for the standard deduction.

Thus, a philosophical question needs answered: Does the government (via the IRS) have a guiding philosophy regarding charitable contributions, or is Form 1040 just an arbitrary, and sometimes feel-good, accounting exercise?

If I could revamp the federal tax code, I would eliminate charitable deductions altogether -- even if that means my giving up sponsorship of the Cato Institute.

Friday, October 19, 2007

State of West Virginia Faces a Hidden Highway Problem

My father was a registered professional civil engineer.  He built highways.  When I was learning the trade from him, I asked him for advice about a drainage culvert that was too small to handle the runoff from a storm.

His reply was logical and concise: "The pipe doesn't carry the water.  The hole does.  The pipe just keeps dirt from filling up the hole."

Since then, I have thought about pipes differently.

You probably don't think about roadway drainage, but for every mile of four-lane highway, there's a mile or so of drainage culverts.  Some are as small as 6 inches in diameter -- they drain underground springs or weeps.  Some are as large as 10 feet in diameter -- they allow streams and creeks to flow under highway fills.

The grassy median between divided highway lanes may look scenic to you as you drive.  But the median, with its buried culverts, exists mainly to drain surface water away from the roadway.

When I was a boy, almost all highway drainage culverts were made of reinforced concrete.  I grew up two miles from a concrete pipe plant.  That company's salesman was Earl Brane, a man who once worked for my grandfather as a highway superintendent. I assumed at the time that concrete pipe, and Earl Brane, would be around forever.  But I was disappointed on both counts.

Concrete pipe has a life expectancy of 80 to 100 years.  But it is bulky, requires heavy lifting equipment to install it and it comes in short joints.  The cost of installing concrete pipe eventually led to it being replaced with steel culverts.  Steel is lighter and comes in more manageable sections.

But the tradeoff for steel was not based on comparing apples to apples.  Corrugated steel pipe has a predicted life of 50 years or less -- half that of concrete.

Steel begins to oxidize the moment it is buried.  The industry has used several types of coatings to minimize oxidation, but the laws of physics are what they are.  When you bury steel, you essentially build a battery.

Older steel drainage pipes were most often coated with asphalt.  Epoxy and plastic coatings also are used for certain applications.  Steel pipe also is galvanized or aluminized to slow the oxidation rate.  These various coatings push the life expectancy out to 50 years.

Steel also is attacked by other elements, rainwater being the most corrosive.  Rainfall in West Virginia is acidic on the order of tomato juice.

As water runs off the roadway, it picks up particles of sand and grit that scour culverts over time.  Salt may melt snow and ice in the winter, but the salty meltwater also corrodes steel pipe.

The effects of the elements are insidious.  And like termite damage, the corrosion goes unnoticed until the culvert fails.  The invert, or bottom of the culvert, rusts away first, and then the culvert collapses for lack of structural strength.

The hole that carried the water starts filling up with dirt and debris.

West Virginia's modern highways are approaching the ripe age of 50.  I-81 in the Eastern Panhandle, I-70 in the Northern Panhandle and I-64 between Huntington and Charleston are perhaps the oldest Interstate highway sections.  Then come I-77 and I-79 north of Charleston. 

The newest Interstate sections, the Turnpike and I-64 from Beckley east, are about 20 years old.  Much of the Appalachian system (U.S. 50, I-68, U.S. 460) is more than 30 years old.

In the not too distant future, the then-governor will be looking at a very expensive repair bill for culvert replacement.  And that governor's successors will find themselves facing the same problem.

When a bridge collapses, any governor worth his salt has one thing on his mind -- camera time.  When the replacement bridge is built, that same governor will show up at the opening with ribbons and scissors.  Let's face facts -- bridges make for glamorous photo-ops.

Future governors who cut ribbons at the dedication ceremonies for new culverts obviously will be challenged.  Past is prologue.  And highway engineers will tell you that West Virginians have elected governors who became terribly confused when asked to identify a hole in the ground.

But I digress.

Fifty years ago, steel culverts were chosen to save construction money.  However, replacing these penny-wise pipes will cost a small fortune.  The task ahead will give a whole new meaning to the worn-out phrase "rebuilding the infrastructure."

Friday, September 14, 2007

War On Poverty Gave Us Entitlements (2)

Part two of two parts.

Regardless of all the welfare programs that we have tried, we are no more advanced than the ancient societies that allowed the poor to glean the fields. Like the ancients, we spend on welfare what we feel we can afford at the time.

If our welfare programs had truly attacked the root causes of poverty, then we would have seen some results by now. Head Start schools would be consolidating due to a dearth of students. Child abuse would be fading from view.

But the truth is that Head Start still serves only a portion of the kids who desperately need that respite. And watch the news or read the statistics; child abuse, if not outright child torture, is still all too common in West Virginia.

Welfare spending has done a wonderful job of alleviating the state of being poor. The best example of this comes from elder care.

Millions of the elderly have been spared a life of destitution because of Social Security and Medicare. The social safety net for the aged is broad indeed. An old man may not live out his dying days in a suite at the Ritz, but he is assured a bed in a nursing home.

Unfortunately, this charitable solution is about to end. The aging baby boomers will bust the system.

Had Social Security been used only as a safety net, or had workers been required to save more for their own retirement, then Social Security would be solvent for another century. Instead, Social Security became an entitlement. Whatever surplus the plan ever had has been frittered away.

We no longer see poor people wearing rags. Clothing vouchers and thrift shops have given the poor a contemporary wardrobe that lets them blend in with the crowd.

We no longer see the starving poor. Food stamps have cured undernourishment. But the food stamp program is an entitlement, and the poor have learned nothing from it about nutrition or meal planning.

We have created a class of people, some of whom are third generation, who have mastered the welfare rules. Trust me: They know the eligibility rules better than their case workers.

Because liberals have always viewed poverty as a structural rather than a cultural problem, they desperately needed to develop a spending program that could mask, if not altogether remove, the stigma of poverty. They succeeded (mightily). But in doing so, they also created this class of welfare pros.

This is but a brief summary of forty years of welfare spending. In short, welfare spending has bought us much wallpaper and window dressing. The foundation of the house, however, is what we should have concentrated on.

There are causes of poverty that we will never eliminate. We will always have to take care of the mentally retarded, those with severe birth defects, and those afflicted by a debilitating illness or medical condition.

There are causes of poverty that we will exacerbate. To tease people with dreams of hitting the lottery is most irresponsible. Jack Whitaker won the Powerball jackpot. Ask him what his winning ticket was worth now that he’s spent the money.

We may never cure poverty. However, the day will come when we spend much less ameliorating it. Gone will be the clothing vouchers. Food stamps, the first of which were used to buy baked beans, will possibly return to that role. Gone will be the Social Security largesse. And then the raw images of gripping poverty will again appear in a popular magazine.

The United States is so wealthy now that we cannot image a return to our recent past. But it will happen. And when that day comes, let us hope that some social scientist bothered to save a 1961 dictionary so he can redefine poverty for that era.

In my old neighborhood, we had a running joke about Little Debbie cakes. The joke went like this: "Only people on food stamps buy Little Debbie cakes." To this day, I have never bought them.

Whenever I see a picture of Little Debbie, I remember that joke, and I also think of Marie Antoinette. Though neither of these females cured poverty, their respective cake recipes can teach us a valuable lesson: Timing is everything.

Friday, September 7, 2007

During Past Decades, Nation Has Redefined Poverty (1)

Definition of poverty

Poverty:  The state of being poor or without competent subsistence; need; penury.

Poor:  Lacking means of comfortable subsistence; indigent; needy.

Penury:  Extreme poverty or want.

Funk and Wagnalls, New College Standard Dictionary, 1961


Part one of two parts.

In 1960, poverty in West Virginia meant something altogether different than it means today.

In his campaign for the presidency, U. S. Senator John F. Kennedy cast the national spotlight on poverty in our state.  West Virginians warmed to him (and to his pledge to end Appalachian poverty), and we handed him the nomination with our primary vote.  Then came a photo essay about West Virginia’s poverty in the Saturday Evening Post.  The photos shocked the nation.

Whether poverty was the topic of political oratory or sensationalism in the coffee-table magazine graced by Norman Rockwell’s idyllic covers, poverty was a word and an image to be feared.

I looked up "poverty" in my 1961 dictionary and discovered that the word had a much more severe meaning than it does today.  Poverty is now defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as "the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions."  Poverty, a lifestyle that not so long ago "gripped" its victims, is now an arbitrary measure of spending money.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan served as advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, and he made quite a name for himself when he argued that curing poverty was not a function of spending.  Rather, he argued, poverty was a social problem aggravated by broken familes, a lack of education, and so on.  His analysis infuriated liberals; they had already concluded that monetary benefits would cure poverty.  The only question in their minds for fighting LBJ’s War on Poverty was "How much do we need to spend?"

For the next three decades, the government spent more and more.  Uncle Sam even paid single women to have more children out of wedlock.  Then in 1996, Congressional politics changed, and welfare programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, were either terminated or radically modified.

In an interesting footnote to the 1996 welfare debate, Mr. Moynihan (then the senior U. S. senator from New York) argued loudly that cutting welfare spending would create chaos.  In his book, Miles To Go, Sen. Moynihan railed that "the national commitment to dependent children'' would be ''eagerly abandoned'' by what he called "welfare repeal."

The boy genius who understood so well the root causes of poverty in 1965 ended his Senate career as a partisan-a liberal general still fighting the last war, a war over spending levels.

Eric Blair, the British author known to us as George Orwell, hoped to learn what it meant to be poor during the years that he experimented with socialism.  In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell recounts his life in Paris as a restaurant dishwasher trying to survive on less than a livable wage.  He lived among other poor kitchen workers and waiters. 

Orwell certainly lived in poverty.  At one point he sold his clothes for two hundred francs.  He also skipped out of his boarding house owing rent.  And there were times when he could not afford even bread. 

Parisian bakers sold their loaves whole and charged one franc each.  From this formula, they would not budge.  Orwell could not understand why the baker would not sell him part of a loaf for eighty centimes, all the money that he had to his name in one of his telling chapters.

His comrades, the waiters, for the most part had never known anything but poverty.  When they had less than one franc, they did not eat.  Nor did they trouble themselves with trying to understand the baker’s one-franc rule.  But when the waiters got an unexpected big tip, they splurged.  They bought good wine and fine pastries.  They sated themselves rather than save for hard times.

You have lived Orwell’s scene.  You have passed up Delmonico steaks and instead opted for the meat loaf mix because of your budget.  But when you checked out, the shopper in front of you paid with food stamps.  And topmost on her grocery cart was the shrimp cocktail platter.  Then you realized it was the first of the month.

Whether by Orwell’s observation or your own, you can see that the cause of poverty is better defined in terms of behaviors rather than by levels of disposable income. 

Compared to King Midas, we are all paupers.  In that sense, our poverty can be lessened by his charity.  But to cure the roots of poverty, charity alone has little effect.

In Part Two, I will discuss the future of welfare now that society has accepted poverty as an income problem.

Friday, August 3, 2007

There Are 88 Reasons to Avoid Duke University

     "From 1914 onward, there arose from the ranks of Marxist socialism one teacher after another who led, not the conservatives and reactionaries, but the hard-working labourer and idealist youth into the National Socialist fold. It was only thereafter that the rise of nationalist socialism attained major importance and rapidly grew into the Hitlerian doctrine."
     F. A. Hayek, "The Road to Serfdom: The Socialist Roots of Naziism."

If you watched "V for Vendetta", then you know that it was a right-wing politician who rises to become Big Brother of a futuristic England.

The movie got it wrong. This is not how Big Brothers rise to power in real-life totalitarian governments.

Nobel economist F. A. Hayek studied the rise of Marxist dictators in The Road to Serfdom. In Chapter 12 ("The Socialist Roots of Naziism"), he demonstrates that liberals and the liberal traditions of Germany are what made Adolph Hitler’s rise to power possible.

At first, Hayek’s position might seem counterintuitive. But it’s not if you really think about it. To get people to live their lives under the doctrine of Karl Marx, you have to apply force. Once the vogue of equality wears off, people will want creature comforts and privileges that only a capitalistic system can deliver.

If Conservatives are truly the builders of evil empires, then the enactment of the Patriot Act would have already turned America into a police state. But that has not come to pass. Even Jay Leno has given up writing jokes about the government reading his mail.

Conservatives do deserve their share of criticism. Conservatives decry the Miranda decision and blame its restrictions for allowing criminals to go free on a technicality. Conservatives should know better.

Miranda was an important case. But let’s make an important distinction about its application. It was a very liberal U. S. Supreme Court that empowered the police to read a suspect his rights. I have always maintained that police officers are the last people you want telling you what your rights are under the law. But liberals cannot understand the danger of entrusting that authority to the state’s armed police force.

This is how the fabric of a free society unravels. Liberals invariably appoint the government and its agents to control everyone’s lives.

We are fortunate to have a modern example of how liberals would apply your legal rights if they controlled the government-the Duke lacrosse players rape case. We are also fortunate that this civics experiment took place in a test tube and not across the breadth of our society.

As soon as the news broke that a young black woman had accused three white Duke lacrosse players of raping her, the liberal community on the Duke campus and its surrounds demanded swift justice, which in this case was a euphemism for a lynch party.

In Hitler’s Germany, Jews were not persecuted because they were Jews per se. Their crimes were twofold. First, they were foreigners in the sense that they had not assimilated into the German mainstream. And second, but more important, Jews were cast as the controllers of the capitalistic system. The money ills of the post-WWI German economy were blamed on Jews, the convenient scapegoats.

In the aftermath of the Duke rape allegations, you can easily see that a group of privileged white boys fit nicely into Hitler’s model. These boys were athletes who lived in unassimilated fashion with the rest of the campus. And being white boys of privilege, they quickly became the metaphor for controllers of the capitalistic system.

             German Jews wore fine leather shoes.
             Duke athletes preferred their Nikes.
             The spats were not about the shoes,
             But instead about the Piggies.

Mike Nifong, the Durham prosecutor, saw his opportunity to seize power. He threw fuel on the fire and denied the accused athletes their legal rights. He even hid exculpatory evidence from the defense. Nifong won election by a slim plurality, a victory made possible only by the hideous frenzy that he created.

Perhaps the saddest story of this affair was the response of the "Gang of 88"-the 88 Duke faculty members who published an ad (some would call it a manifesto) proclaiming the alleged rape "a social disaster." Their condemnation of Duke society came two weeks after the news broke.

The Gang of 88 used this incarnation of Tawana Brawley to repaint Blue Devils as white devils. But their motives in doing so had nothing to do with race. Their goal had everything to do with instilling class warfare to promote the extreme socialism that they ascribe to.

If you ever wondered how Adolph Hitler came to power, then read The Road to Serfdom. And then study the Duke rape case. Once the gangs of 88 elected enough Mike Nifongs as prosecutors, Hitler was unstoppable.

Friday, July 13, 2007

With Abacus in Hand, the Chinese Eagerly Engage the World

If they were Americans, you'd say they suffered from math brain. But they're not -- they're Chinese. So allow me to coin the term "abacus brain" so we might understand China's situation.

What is abacus brain? Consider the poultry farmers in China's Hebei province. Until last year, they sold duck eggs at a premium because the yolks had a reddish tint, a trait prized by consumers. To create that reddish tint, the farmers mixed red food dye with the ducks' feed. The particular red dye is a human carcinogen.

If you think with an abacus brain, you consider ways to increase egg sales but ignore the impact of feeding your customers cancer-causing food. The reliable abacus can calculate the difference in profit between selling normal and dyed yolks. On the other hand, no amount of abacus calculations could predict when the customer base would die from eating food-borne carcinogens.

Abacus brain, or solving for X while ignoring Y, is prevalent in China.

To calculate China's future energy needs, the government has concluded that 50 new coal-fired power plants will have to be built every year for the next few years -- that's one per week during the present five-year plan.

Some major cities already suffer from terrible air pollution. The smog is so bad that local citizens have developed a new way to measure it -- the building index. If one looks down the street and counts 10 buildings, the building index is 10. On a clearer day, the index might be 20, and so forth.

China's government has projected the country's future electric needs without any thought given to breathable air. In fact, China's air pollution has become one of its leading exports. From Los Angeles to Seattle, the west coast now receives a windblown blanket of smog and soot from the Orient.

Americans do worry that China will become the world's major economic power in this century. And when it comes to pets, Americans are petrified that China will poison their precious flea hosts. However, unless and until China learns how to run its banking system, these worries are premature.

China has approached banking as if banking is a math equation waiting to be balanced. Banking is a system, and as a system it has no relation to mathematics.

Banking is another word for trust. Yes, banks balance accounts daily, but that is a chore, a chore analogous to restaurants cleaning dishware and refilling salt shakers.

Your checking account is known in banking parlance as a demand deposit because you can demand every penny of it at any time. In China, checks haven't caught on. The typical Chinese worker is paid in cash. Businesses haven't taken to accepting checks for payment either. Debit and credit cards are seldom used and remain novelties.

In China, the government runs the banking system. The Chinese people know that their government leaders think with abacus in hand. Thus, if too many customers demand their money on a given day, the government will simply declare a bank holiday.

China also maintains tight restrictions on foreign currency transactions. Again, inflows and outflows are viewed as an equation to be balanced rather than as a measure of global trust in China's economy.

As long as the Chinese people allow Communist party hacks to run the banks, then China will remain what it is now -- a nation on the cusp of financial collapse. Yet for China to change its ways, there is the irony that a complete financial collapse may have to happen. Something drastic will have to occur to cause one billion people to rise up against their suffocating masters. Protests on the scale of Tiananmen Square just won't do.

At present, China is publicly responding to complaints about tainted foods and pharmaceuticals, as well as its lethal air pollution, corrupt banks and restrictive foreign currency policies. But it is too soon to tell whether the government's response is genuine or just another exercise in face-saving legerdemain for which the Chinese are famous.

China can have a modern banking system any time it wants. But to do so, the Chinese must learn that "No MSG!" means more than just no MSG.

Friday, June 22, 2007

George Marshall Defined American Leadership

If you wonder how far the United States has slipped, then you need only look back sixty years to June 5, 1947. On that date, Harvard University’s commencement speaker, George C. Marshall, outlined the European Recovery Program.

Whenever I ask people under the age of sixty, "Who was George Marshall?", I almost always get a blank stare. Rare is the young person who can identify him; rarer still is the person who knows any details of his life.

George C. Marshall was a humble man born in Uniontown, PA. He later became General of the Army and commanded our armed forces in the first true world war, that being World War 2.

After the war, President Truman appointed him Secretary of State. The European Recovery Program is known as the Marshall Plan.

Europe went to war on September 1, 1939-the same day Marshall was sworn in as Army Chief of Staff. By the end of May, 1940, the German army had routed Allied forces. British and French forces were in retreat but managed to escape annihilation in the famous Dunkirk boatlift.

The United States aided Allied forces with shipments of arms and supplies during the period 1939-1941. But our nation just did not see itself getting involved in combat.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the Selective Training and Service Act in 1940, and Congress approved the first peacetime draft. The draft came up for renewal in the summer of 1941. The U. S. House of Representatives did extend the draft, but only by a single vote.

When Marshall became Chief of Staff, the U. S. Army consisted of 200,000 poorly-trained soldiers. The draft authorized an army of 900,000 soldiers. However, the draftees were anything but willing soldiers given the isolationist mood of the country.

Then the die was cast on December 7, 1941. Japan declared war, and Germany followed suit the next day.

Winston Churchill, England’s Prime Minister, was perhaps the only man on Earth who believed that Gen. Marshall could defeat the Axis powers. Indeed, Churchill tried at every juncture to drag the United States into the war. He knew that England would eventually be defeated if we did not come to their aid.

As for the rest of the world, I doubt that anyone believed that Gen. Marshall could build a fighting army from scratch, replace the sunken Pearl Harbor fleet, and wage a global war, let alone win it. You can bet that Germany and Japan didn’t think that he could (or would).

George C. Marshall was the greatest military commander in all of history. Churchill called him the "organizer of victory" which is the kind of fitting understatement that the Brits are famous for.

In our times, Colin Powell held the titles of Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State. I like Colin Powell. But somehow, victories against Iraq’s Republican Guards and Panama’s police force don’t quite measure up to defeating Japan and Germany.

As Secretary of State, George C. Marshall sold the world a bold new idea-the Marshall Plan. For his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

As Secretary of State, Colin Powell sold the world a bill of goods-Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

FDR was a mediocre president happily turning America toward Socialism until a great war ended his agenda. "W" is a mediocre president without a plan of any kind. His war hasn’t been big enough to give him an agenda.

Congress today is just as inept as it was in 1941. Whereas the 1941 bunch loved isolationism, the 2007 bunch cannot muster the votes needed to close the borders.

Our modern generals don’t seem to be mad at the enemy. Given the sneak attack on the Pentagon, you would expect them to at least act indignant. No. Today’s generals focused more on turning Jessica Lynch into "G.I. Jane" than they have on leading decisive victories.

When I took the public school version of American History in 1966, my teacher never made it to the chapter on World War 2. I suspect that your history teacher was just as derelict. And that is probably why so few people know of George C. Marshall.

Going forward, maybe we should start our American history classes with World War 2 and the role of George C. Marshall. Compared to Marshall, most historical figures are footnotes at best.

Sixty years is not a long time. It is, unfortunately, long enough for Americans to forget a great man.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Re: That Hellhole Issue, Phonebook Tells the Story

Back when Martin Milner wandered along Route 66 in his Corvette, he could have predicted each town’s crime rate by simply reading the local telephone book.

If the number of clergymen outnumbered lawyers, the crime rate would be low. Conversely, if lawyers outnumbered the clergy, then the crime rate would be high. In the 1950s and 1960s, the ratio of clergy to lawyers almost perfectly correlated to a town’s lawlessness.

The ratio of clergy to lawyers painted a picture of the town’s citizens and their values. People who regularly attend church are apt to follow God’s absolute laws-the Ten Commandments for example. On the other hand, people who flock to law offices often view laws as guidelines, or even suggestions, and hire lawyers to mitigate their circumstances.

In a manner of speaking, Martin Milner could have written a "Route 66" tour guide and included a chapter titled "Judicial Hellholes" based solely on phone book surveys.

If you use this survey method today, you’ll quickly notice that lawyers advertise on phone book covers as well as in the yellow pages. Daytime television advertising could well be called the "cavalcade of trial lawyer ads."

I will say this, though: melodramatic personal injury lawyer ads do complement the soap opera milieu of afternoon programming.

The so-called "respectable" law firms advertise just as heavily. They flood trade publications with image ads. On Madison Avenue, image ads are referred to as the silk purse enigma, or the more familiar "put lipstick on the pig."

The practice of law has been a growth industry ever since the Miranda decision (1966.) To sustain that growth, every aspect of the practice of law has succumbed to relativity and compromise. If a non-lawyer read former West Virginia University basketball coach John Beilein’s contract, he’d say that the coach owed WVU $2.5 million for leaving early. In the hands of skilled attorneys, however, the contract was just a starting point for negotiations (Read: more billable hours.)

The practice of law in West Virginia is a growth industry. Our venue laws encourage growth by allowing tourist litigators to spend their workdays suing in our courtrooms while whitewater rafting or skiing on the weekends.

Innovative ways to use the courts, such as medical monitoring lawsuits, have expanded the realm of the once-stodgy definition of torts. It seems that at one time in our history-perhaps before the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer went to law school-the plaintiff actually had to prove damages. Not so now on this warming globe.

When Roane County jurors returned a $400 million verdict against natural gas companies in January, two things happened. The first was national headlines; West Virginia had finally entered the big leagues of jackpot justice. The second result was that businesses across the state realized that a billion-dollar verdict is soon to happen. After all, $400 million is now a benchmark-the four-minute mile so to speak.

Several people, and that includes a few in the natural gas industry, have told me that the verdict in Tawney et al v. Columbia Natural Resources et al was a long-overdue victory for justice for mineral owners. This sounds romantic when heard in isolation. But the future effect of Tawney is unpredictable when you read it alongside the recent WV Supreme Court of Appeals ruling that a law firm (Schrader Companion & Byrd) can claim as its fee a percentage of future royalties from a mineral lease it negotiated on behalf of its client.

To me, the court’s logic in deciding the Schrader case is just plain Stephen King-scary. The Langoliers. Now playing at a law office near you!

A major criticism of West Virginia’s judicial system has been the partisan election of the judiciary. Judges have to be selected in some way. I’d rather see judges elected than trust politicians to appoint them. And that view holds for U. S. Supreme Court justices as well.

By electing judges, especially in a partisan manner, the voting public is exercising a referendum on the judicial system. And this is West Virginia’s downfall. The voters must like the system just the way it is. Otherwise, they’d vote to change it.

Is West Virginia a judicial hellhole? You can’t always judge a book by its cover. But in this case, the phone book would suggest that it is.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Finding The Strength To Endure April's Cruelty

T. S. Eliot’s poem, "The Waste Land", begins: "April is the cruelest month." Were Mr. Eliot living today, he might criticize Americans for taking his imagery so literally. The third week of April will now be remembered for Blacksburg as well as Columbine and Oklahoma City.

While the news media has described the murders on the Virginia Tech campus as the worst such event in American history, I disagree with that assessment. No matter what else happens, nothing can be as disgusting as the murders and wounding, make that planned executions, of Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania last October.

Be honest. You were probably numb to the shootings on that fall day at Nickel Mines until the Virginia Tech reports recently reminded you.

In a nation gone so bizarre, one has to ask, "How can we change this behavior?"

The answer to that question might be rather simple. The killing rampages that we now accept as an everyday fact of life did not exist fifty years ago. What was it that we did then that we aren’t doing now?

This past April 19th, I attended the annual dinner of the Highland District of the Boy Scouts of America in Elkins. The district includes Barbour, Randolph, Tucker and Upshur counties. I estimated the dinner crowd at nearly 150 generous people.

When I arrived at the banquet, I told a friend, "I’ve returned to Mayberry." And I meant that sincerely. I previously worked in the Elkins area and was happy to see so many old friends and acquaintances. I also used the Mayberry reference because Elkins seemed like a safe port during the stormy weather that now accompanies the third week of April.

David C. Hardesty was the guest speaker for the evening. He spoke not as President of West Virginia University, but as a former Eagle Scout. If you have been involved in scouting, then you know that somebody’s mom volunteered to be a den mother and somebody else’s dad volunteered to be a scoutmaster. Mr. Hardesty recounted this spirit of volunteerism and community involvement in his remarks.

He also related the one-hundred-year history of the Boy Scouts. The mission of scouting has always been to teach youngsters skills. Scouting also develops values such as citizenship and personal responsibility. To "be prepared" requires much more of a young boy than any other program that I can think of.

I remember when my scoutmaster taught our troop how to build telegraph keys and wire them together. That was an amazing lesson. We marveled at being able to send clicking messages from one end of Mr. Aylestock’s basement to the other. But that was not the end of the exercise. With a telegraph key in hand, we then learned Morse code.

I know that my telegraph anecdote sounds like a quaint lesson-the kind of lesson you’d expect Andy Taylor to teach his son, Opie. But Samuel Morse revolutionized communication much more than the Internet has. To have built a telegraph system and then operated it gave me a great appreciation for the history of communication in America.

The other motto of scouting is "Do a good deed daily." Unfortunately, this generation of college students has been found by a San Diego State University study to be the most narcissistic group of its kind-ever. College professors who I know also concur with the study’s conclusion. The students, however, call their narcissism "healthy self-esteem", and they do so in a self-congratulatory manner.

Scouting, 4-H, and similar structured youth programs used to be an integral part of Plan A when it came to raising children. We as a nation no longer use Plan A. We are much too sophisticated for that homey nonsense.

We now use Plan B, or Plan C, or whatever plan it is that barely frowns on teen pregnancy or the employment of pedophiles as schoolteachers. The new plan also permits schools to spy on students with cameras rather than engage each student personally. The new plan encourages school administrators to force-feed zombie pills to hundreds of thousands of grade school kids rather than diagnose why little Johnny suffers from anxiety in the first place.

As Dr. Phil would say: "How’s that plan working?"

The answers to America’s social problems are not hidden in a cave. Nor are they known only by the Oracle at Delphi. The answers are as obvious as the noses on our faces. When Americans finally decide to look themselves in the mirror, then they will go back to Plan A.

Until then, expect more cruel months.

Friday, April 6, 2007

It’s The End Of The World, And I Can’t Sleep

A few days ago, I dozed off while watching television. I woke to a widescreen scene of parched ground, which reminded me of droughts and locust plagues in Ethiopia. As for the sound, an ominous narrator was ranting about some major crisis at hand.

I was sure that I had woken to the "700 Club" and that the ominous narrator was none other than Pat Robertson.

Was I ever wrong. I was watching An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Oscar-winning (and whining) film about the end of the world as we know it.

All of my life, I have been told that the world is coming to an end post haste.

As a kid, I saw Godzilla, the product of atomic radiation, foretelling our ruination. Not to be outdone, Hollywood mutated every conceivable insect and animal to sell the radiated mutant story. James Arness actually polished his marksmanship fighting giant ants in Them! before he got the job of taming Dodge City.

My neighborhood grade school boasted that its basement was a suitable bomb shelter for over 100 people. That seemed adequate until the Cuban missile crisis started. Then, every family began stockpiling food and water and fixing up their basements.

Although we had erased polio and smallpox by early in my life, the threat of epidemic still gets headlines. Remember the swine flu scare? Or Legionnaires Disease? And Ebola? Now we have avian flu in our everyday fear vocabulary.

When I lived at the head of a hollow in Doddridge County, I found myself often visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses. As you may know from similar encounters, their founders previously predicted the exact date of the end of the world-a date that has long since passed.

Perhaps the most popular cartoon ever drawn has been the one featuring a man holding a sign that reads: "The End of the World Is Near." Cartoonists have had a field day captioning this one.

From The Blob to Alien and from War of the Worlds to Independence Day, Hollywood has exhausted every conceivable plot regarding extraterrestrial destruction of Earth.

Hollywood needed a new villain. Thus a star, Al Gore, was born.

Given the box office receipts for The Perfect Storm and The Day After Tomorrow, is it any wonder that Al Gore’s movie won the Oscar? Although the special effects in An Inconvenient Truth are lacking (everyone knows that glacier ice falls much faster), documentaries are not held to the same standard as are feature films.

This new Greenmania has already had an economic effect on the American economy. Ethanol receives a 51-cents-per-gallon tax credit which is paid for by general tax revenue-not at the gas pump. Experts argue both sides when it comes to answering the question of how much energy it takes to produce ethanol. Since ethanol enjoys both a tax credit and tariff protection (54¢ per gal.), we can conclude that domestic ethanol is not a competitive motor fuel in its own right.

Not tracked in the cost of ethanol production is the fact that corn prices have (at times) doubled since 2004. This increase directly affects the cost of corn flakes, meat, poultry, and soft drinks as well as other foods indirectly. Many food companies have switched from corn oil and corn syrup to cheaper substitutes that are still more expensive than corn was in the pre-ethanol era.

So then, we have already spent billions going green, and we haven’t made a dent in global warming, human-caused or otherwise.

We will be taxed billions more when Congress begins rationing carbon emission rights. West Virginians have always enjoyed low electricity rates. That will change when our coal-fired power plants have to buy emission rights.

Twenty years from now, the country will realize that the global warming scare was just another passing disaster fad-the same as dioxin and Times Beach. Unfortunately, we will have paid dearly to learn that lesson.

For the interim, Greenmania is the new religion. Human-caused global warming is its fall from grace genesis. And Al Gore is its proselytizing Elmer Gantry.

Years ago, I fell asleep watching television. I woke up about 5 am and found myself watching the "PTL Club" for the very first time. Jim Bakker and his guests sat in easy chairs and grinned religiously while Tammy Faye belted out a song.

That was really scary, and I haven’t slept soundly since.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Winning Strategy: West Virginia University Proves Pay Matters

Comparison of Gross Wages:

WVU Football/Men’s Basketball Coaches to WVU College of Business and Economics Ph.D. Professors; Rounded to nearest $1,000

Head Football Coach:         $1,233,000
Asst. Head F/B Coach:            210,000
Asst. Football Coaches (9);   1,334,000  (Aggregate)
Asst. Football Coaches (9);      148,000  (Average)
Dean, College of B&E:         $  202,000
Coll. Of B&E; Ph.D. (54)          108,000  (Average)

Head Basketball Coach         $ 849,000
Asst. B/B Coaches (3);            110,000  (Average)
Aggregate: FB & BB Coaches (14):     $3,747,000
Aggregate: Coll. Of B&E; PhD (54)      $5,831,000

Sources: WV State Auditor, WVU College of Business & Economics, WVU Athletic Department (via respective websites) 

While in the grips of cabin fever last month, I had time to memorize all 1,223 pages of state employees’ wages.

With knowledge comes duty. So I compared West Virginia University coaches’ wages to those of WVU’s College of Business and Economics (CB&E) professors.

For comparison purposes, I limited my study of the CB&E professors to the Ph.D.s listed at The football and men’s basketball assistant coaches are those listed in the 2006 coaching guides at

By now, everyone knows how much Rich Rodriguez and John Beilein earned in 2006. What I found more interesting is the payroll of their assistant coaches.

Dean Stephen Sears holds the CB&E’s top-paid position. But Dean Sears made about $8,000 less than Assistant Head Football Coach Rick Trickett. Overall, the average assistant football coach earned 37 percent more than the average Ph.D. professor. The average Ph.D. professor also earned less than the average assistant men’s basketball coach.

The payroll for 14 coaches is almost two-thirds (64 percent) of that for the CB&E’s 54 Ph.D. professors.

Coaching salaries have always been defended by the argument that football and men’s basketball are revenue sports that bring home the bacon. Left unsaid in that argument is the fact that college sports enjoy two substantial subsidies.

College sports are subsidized by tax-exempt donations to the athletic program. Ostensibly, this tax-exempt status was granted in an era when athletic scholarships were the major expense of the department. Now that Division I coaching salaries have mushroomed, Congress has asked the NCAA to justify the tax-exempt status for donations that effectively make high salaries possible.

A second subsidy is the uncompensated labor of scholarship athletes. These youngsters are indentured servants who risk permanent injury when plying their trade. While the athletic department makes money from ticket sales and television contracts, the department’s financial obligation to scholarship athletes consists mainly of room and board and an opportunity for an education.

In making fair comparisons, we need to recognize that the CB&E is also generously subsidized. If Pell grants, PROMISE scholarships, student loan subsidies and transfers from the WVU Foundation and state government stopped tomorrow, the school would easily lose more than half of it students; the professorial ranks would shrink accordingly. As well, the competition for an open professorship would drive salaries down.

In other words, without all of these subsidies, WVU’s campus would look much like it did in the 1950s. Come to think about it, that was WVU’s Golden Age. The rifle team, Sam Huff, Jerry West, three Rhodes Scholars, and a new medical center represented WVU well.

I have no clue as to what the ideal Ph.D. salary should be. Nor do I have access to the national norms for Ph.D. salaries. But my instincts tell me that when the head football coach makes more in one month than half of the CB&E professors make in one year, then Ph.D. pay scales are far too low-not the other way around.

When the football or basketball program goes awry, the old coach is unceremoniously dumped and a new coach is hired to turn the program around in three to four years. If the university’s academic standing falters, then recovery is much more complicated.

A good example of this dilemma is the College of Law’s slide to fourth-tier status in the U.S. News and World Report survey. Rather than read the scoreboard, the faculty remains in denial; they blame the magazine’s survey criteria and beg the need for remodeled classrooms.

At least coaches understand that life is a game, that the game has rules, and that competition is their friend.

In this world, you pretty much get what you pay for. WVU’s success in all of its athletic programs has happened because financial commitments have been made. If the university is to project its academic reputation in the same fashion, then financial commitments for academic salaries must be forthcoming as well.

The law school’s decline may very well be the canary in the coal mine in this regard.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Opinion Writing Considerations

This outline was presented to the Editorial Writing class at the Perley I. Reed School of Journalism, West Virginia University, Feb, 26, 2007.

"Some things, as Orwell wrote, are true even if The Daily Telegraph says they are true."  
    Christopher Hitchens ("A Man with a Score to Settle", London Sunday Times, Jan. 21, 2007)


George Orwell was a prolific writer and excellent essayist.  His comments on style are to the point and his advice would be agreed with by other great writers.


Excerpts from "Politics and the English Language," 1946.  Orwell presents five passages by five writers and criticizes them as follows:

"These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad -- I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen -- but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:

1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate. -- Professor Harold Laski, Essay in Freedom of Expression

2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder. -- Professor Lancelot Hogben, Interglossa

3. On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity? -- Essay on psychology in Politics (New York)

4. All the "best people" from the gentlemen's clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis. -- Communist pamphlet

5. If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion's roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream -- as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as "standard English." When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o'clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma'amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens! -- Letter in Tribune

"Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision."

Basic rules of style

"… one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

"These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article."

NOTE: In addition to "Politics and the English Language," also read "Why I Write", another of Orwell’s essays.

SOPHISMS (Fallacies):

A common mistake in presenting an argument is creating a sophism. A sophism is a fallacy which may at first seem plausible.

Example from "How To Win Every Argument", by Madsen Pirie (2006):
     "A US legislator recently noted that a high crime rate correlated with a high prison population, and suggested that the prisoners be released in order to cut the crime figures."

Example from "The Black Tulip", by Alexandre Dumas (Chap. 8):
     Mynheer Isaac Boxtel encouraged himself with the following sophism: --
     "Cornelius de Witt is a bad citizen, as he is charged with high treason, and arrested.
     "I, on the contrary, am a good citizen, as I am not charged with anything in the world, as I am as free as the air of heaven.
     "If, therefore, Cornelius de Witt is a bad citizen, -- of which there can be no doubt, as he is charged with high treason, and arrested, -- his accomplice, Cornelius van Baerle, is no less a bad citizen than himself.
     "And, as I am a good citizen, and as it is the duty of every good citizen to inform against the bad ones, it is my duty to inform against Cornelius van Baerle."

NOTE: I have heard legislators say that there should be a steep tax on tobacco because smokers have health problems that non-smokers end up paying for. In other words:
     All smokers have chronic health problems.
     All non-smokers have either no health problems or less-costly health problems.
     All non-smokers pay taxes.
     All treatments for smokers’ health problems are paid for with taxes paid by non-smokers.

You would have an impossible time sorting out the exact cost of health care for each and every ailment. Cancers, diabetes, and heart attacks correlate more closely to heredity than to diet or lifestyle. There are millions of non-smokers who have heart attacks just as there are millions of non-smokers who have cancer. Visit WVU Hospital and you will find infants and toddlers being treated for cancer or having open-heart surgery.

If you agree with the smoker vs. non-smoker argument above, then you might soon advocate a special tax on sugar (adult-onset diabetes), or a special tax on fatty or fattening foods (obesity), or a special tax on tanning beds, tanning lotion and any clothing that does not cover the entire body such as swimsuits (skin cancer).

Special whiskey taxes haven’t reduced alcoholism, DUI’s or DUI-related injuries and deaths. Indeed, the USA voted in the Prohibition Era, and we know how that turned out.

In the meantime, state legislatures across the nation have spent billions of dollars of tobacco settlement money (effectively, a steep tax paid by smokers) on everything but tobacco-related healthcare.


Develop a historical perspective:
     Read and research your topic thoroughly lest you be caught up in the moment of popular sentiment.

(I)  Human-caused global warming is a popular issue right now. But did you know that Vikings landed at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, Canada in the year 1000 and never saw the temperature drop low enough to cause a frost in the two years they remained there? Leif Ericson’s journals tell us that not only did Newfoundland have a mild climate, but that forage grass for livestock was plentiful year-round. Today, the site of Ericson’s settlement (approx. 2,000 mi. NE of Morgantown) is closed to tourists 8 months of the year because of the area’s harsh weather.

(II)  Thomas Jefferson is routinely criticized today because he was a slave owner. But did you know that Jefferson inoculated his slaves in 1800 with the first smallpox vaccine? Jefferson also sent the smallpox vaccine with the Lewis and Clark Expedition to inoculate Indian tribes. A century would pass before our nation began widespread smallpox vaccinations as a public health program-even though Jefferson contemplated the eradication of smallpox in his lifetime.

Develop your vocabulary:

It is important to develop a good vocabulary. It is equally important to tailor your words to fit your audience.

When I write a column for the State Journal, I keep in mind that 86% of State Journal readers have a college degree. When I write an article for the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association newsletter, I keep in mind that many of the readers aren’t college-educated and most of the ones that are have engineering degrees. Different audiences require different styles.

Each vocation and profession has its own specialized vocabulary as well as its own set of acronyms. It is imperative that you translate that specialized jargon into words that the everyday reader can understand.

And most importantly, always use active verbs that breathe life into your sentences.


Not many writers can write humor. Some that think they can usually bomb. But good writers can and do use amusing anecdotes to lighten their criticisms.

There aren’t many writers like Dave Barry for a reason. But good writers can effectively borrow from pundits like Mark Twain or Will Rogers for a punch line. (E.g.: "Golf--a good walk spoiled." by Mark Twain)

Examples of use of humor from my columns:

     "Former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz (under Presidents Nixon and Ford) once addressed the Government Dependency Ratio this way. In the early 1970’s, it had become apparent that Social Security recipients would eclipse the number of workers paying into the system.
     "Mr. Butz compared the situation to his days growing up on an Indiana farm. He said he overslept one frigid morning and was late in going to the barnyard to feed the cows. When he got there, two heifers were suckling each other’s udder to stave off hunger. Then he added to his anecdote that, in such situations, some milk always ends up on the ground.
     "Mr. Butz, of course, was making a joke. Cows, unlike humans, are weaned from the teat." (Borrow It Forward, Jan. 19, 2007)

     "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!" (For Government, Trailers Make Sense, Dec. 1, 2006)
Define your topic:

Writing an opinion column or editorial means you have limited space to convey your message. After you present your premise, you have to methodically and logically pursue your arguments to arrive at the conclusion. You have no grassy space to graze.

If you do go off point, you will most likely lose your reader.

One of the most common mistakes that writers make is "showing off." This happens when a writer has researched a topic at great length and then he proceeds to write paragraph after paragraph telling you about that research. Meanwhile, the reader is saying, "You’re telling me more than I need to know."

Be succinct and concise in your setup, premise, argument, and conclusion.

Be wary of bias:

Every writer writes with a bias. Men write like men, women write like women. Conservatism and liberalism are learned mainly from parents and upbringing. Geographical regions impart bias. A Louisiana Cajun’s idea of a good meal is much different than how Manhattanites dine in the Upper East Side.

Be aware of your own baggage before criticizing others.

If you were to write about a logging debate, you might quote the head of the local Sierra Club chapter for some background. That person will say that the trees shouldn’t be cut for any reason. At the least, balance the preservationists’ concerns with those of the logging industry. Their lobbyist will preen that "We are stewards of the forest and forests are renewable."

Reality is always somewhere in the middle of the debate.

In this instance, your readers will be amenable to pristine forests which provide habitat for not only Bambi but also for the endangered five-toed owl. At the same time, your readers also love to sit in front of the fireplace, solving the newspaper crossword with a #2 pencil while sipping Scotch whiskey that was aged in oak barrels.

Political bias is particularly daunting because of the desire to believe that Democrats are for the blue collar workers and Republicans are for the white collar professionals. In truth, Democrats and Republicans just want more spending money. They only differ in how they will get their hands on that money.

Actions, as well as inactions, have consequences, intended and unintended. Make your arguments based on how you view action or inaction. A good contemporary example of this is legislation raising the minimum wage.

Avoid promoting the agendas of competing lobbyists. Otherwise, there is no need for you to spend the ink. If you allow yourself to become a parrot, then you have failed as an opinion writer.


I majored in Economics and took two semesters of Statistics. I was also required to read How To Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff, a clever primer that points out how people get selective when presenting numbers.

I strongly recommend that you read How To Lie With Statistics. It will demystify the numbers games. Another good book is Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos.

Fact checking:

In Dragnet, the 1950’s television series, Sgt. Joe Friday always told the crime victim, "Just the facts, ma’am/sir." Crime victims are always hysterical and Joe Friday tried his best to sort out the facts during his investigation.

When George W. Bush was elected president, many opinion columnists wrote with near-hysteria that the number of homeless would increase by huge numbers. The facts have never supported this claim. But, many writers continued to make the claim based on subjective observations by the very people (or their trade associations) whose livelihoods depend on welfare programs for the homeless and destitute.

Think of facts this way. A policeman estimates the crowd that showed up for a public demonstration at 10,000. Without having a metered turnstile, we can never know the exact headcount. The policeman’s estimate is just that. However, such estimates are often reported as fact.

On the other hand, we know that precisely 68,918 fans attended the football game between the Univ. of Pittsburgh and Fordham University on Oct. 29, 1938. This was the turnstile number-a fact. Even so, Pitt’s publicity officer reported to the newspapers that 75,000 fans attended-a claim he later had to retract.

Today, it is common to actually misrepresent sports attendance numbers to the high side. When you hear terms such as "paid attendance" or "total attendance", know that neither number represents the actual turnstile number of fans who purchased a ticket for the game.

Facts are facts. And just as important, is the way that the facts are derived.

We know, for a fact, the exact number of voters who voted in the last election. Or do we? If you tracked down every registered voter who supposedly voted, you will find that some dead people still find a way to make their vote count. We also know that, in recounts, the recounted ballot totals are almost always different from the vote totals counted on Election Day.

And finally, remember that in our legal system, hard evidence and facts can be disallowed for various procedural reasons. This happens in both civil and criminal cases. Many cases also turn on the opinions offered by hired experts. When trying to understand our legal system, keep these two "facts" in mind as you try to make sense of the verdicts. We have a legal system that accepts opinion as fact and rules out fact by procedural technicality.


The Internet is a great place to find erroneous information. You should rely on sources such as almanacs, dictionaries, encyclopedias, government agency reports, research papers that appear in peer-reviewed journals, and the like. (Primary sources)

I was schooled to avoid even periodicals (secondary sources) such as Time and Newsweek.

Also, familiarize yourself with several web search engines. There are many specialty search engines that deliver more consistent results than Google, Yahoo, etc.

Two websites for opinion columns that I read daily are: and

Be wary of personal attacks:

The late Ned Chilton, publisher of the Charleston Gazette, once wrote an editorial about then-Gov. Arch Moore. He titled the piece, "The Sleaze Is Back!" Those four words told me that there was no reason to read further.

Harsh, shrill writing does not appeal to mainstream readers.

More importantly, if you have to revert to using words like "sleaze", then you have failed as a wordsmith.

There oughta be a law!

Editorial writers love to endorse the most recent act passed by the legislature. A year later, they end up writing an editorial pronouncing that the very same law either
     (a) went too far.
     (b) didn’t go far enough.
     (c) wasn’t supposed to do what it did., or
     (d) has actually made the problem worse!

Nine times out of ten, legislation is a combination of knee-jerk reactions and special interest favors. That is because the average legislator is not too bright of a thinker and owes his/her job to a special interest group.

A good example of this is the ongoing comedy of errors known as "ATV safety laws." In recent years, the WV legislature has passed law after law to regulate operation of ATV’s. Every year, editorial writers praise these new laws only to write a year later that the state has set a new record for ATV fatalities and that "new laws are needed."

Be careful what you wish for when you write: There oughta be a law. You’ll regret it.

Recommended Reading:

Goldberg, Bernard: Bias

Huff, Darrel: How to Lie with Statistics

Orwell, George: Why I Write and Politics and the English Language
Paulos, John Allen: Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences

There are two great satires that you should read: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift (1726), and Erewhon, by Samuel Butler (1872). In both instances, the authors wished to criticize their present-day. Doing so openly would have earned them the wrath of the English Crown. Thus, they created sophisticated novels to do the job. You will learn a great deal about using imagery (see Orwell at the beginning) as you read these books.

A best seller in Europe, England and the USA when published in 1944, The Road To Serfdom, by Nobel Economist Frederich A. Hayek, is an excellent economics book for the non-Economist. A condensed version appeared in Reader’s Digest, and Book-of-the-Month Club featured it. The Road To Serfdom explains the limits of government and the role of the marketplace in understandable prose.

Writing Exercise:

Examine a blackboard eraser and write a description of it (100-200 words).

Then, whittle away at what you wrote. Try to cut the word count by half without sacrificing any of the description.

Repeat Step 2.

The object of the lesson is for you to learn to polish your work.

After you are satisfied with the first part of the lesson, then use the blackboard eraser as a metaphor for Martin Hall in this exercise:

You have just learned that Martin Hall is too old to be remodeled for modern classroom facilities. The Journalism School will be moving to a new building next year. Classes will no longer be taught at Martin Hall.

Recall some of the words that your professor wrote with chalk and how the eraser removed them to make room for new words.

Make your reader believe that the words were forever imprinted on the eraser, not just erased and lost for all time.

Compare how you learned from the blackboard and speculate how you will learn from PowerPoint and video presentations. I.e.: Essentially an analog age vs. a digital age comparison. (Or, will the machine evolve into an intelligent being?)

Perhaps, you can make the reader understand that the words you saw on the blackboard were, in fact, never really erased-they were just transferred to your head. Then you can compare human memory and how we learn to the future when knowledge and memory will be stored in the machine.

Develop an anecdote about how class went on in Martin Hall when a thunderstorm knocked out the power one day. Express your thoughts about the future classroom and how it will function when the electricity is off.

Try at first to develop this essay in 500-700 words. In time, you might be able to turn it into a short story.

If you need inspiration, read: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; Act V., Scene 1, by Wm. Shakespeare. (Plus Cliff Notes and other references to the scene.)

(Excerpt:) Hamlet, holding Yorick’s skull in the graveyard:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times…

(Yorick was the court jester when Hamlet was a boy and, in this scene, he reminisces about his forgotten childhood friend.)

Friday, February 9, 2007

Not All Photographs Tell a True Story

I got a lump of coal for Christmas. Actually, I got a copy of Coal Hollow: Photographs and Oral Histories, a smallish coffee table book published by the University of California Press. The authors are Ken Light and Melanie Light.

The dust cover flap carries this description of Coal Hollow: "In Ken Light’s poignant images and in their own distinctive voices the residents of Coal Hollow-a fictional composite of the communities the Lights surveyed …"

Though not intended as a disclaimer, the words "fictional composite" do serve to defend a glaring misrepresentation.

Coal Hollow exhibits a portfolio of black-and-white photos taken in the southern West Virginia coalfields. Except on page 26. That photo is of two Klansmen standing in front of the Jefferson County, Ohio, courthouse located in Steubenville, some 300 road miles north of the subject area. It is captioned: "Ku Klux Klan speech at the county courthouse. Ohio-West Virginia border, 1999."

On the page opposite, there is a photo of two men wearing Klan hoods which is captioned as being taken at a rally in downtown Fayetteville, W. Va. in 2002.

I have to ask the authors: If you have an actual photo of Klansmen taken in the subject area, then why would you include one taken in another state and from north of Mason and Dixon’s line?

The book’s photographs are very dark. I think they were overexposed to add a measure of gloom to the photoessay. But having said that, I grant the authors the license to do so if that was their intent.

Although Walker Evans, the renowned Farm Security Administration photographer, is mentioned in the Foreword as a standard of comparison, I do not agree that the photos in Coal Hollow are comparable to Mr. Evans’ work. Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott and Ben Shahn captured the poverty of the Great Depression with their excellent photography for the Farm Security Administration. They did not have to artificially shade the sky gray to get the message across.

If your goal is to educate yourself about the legacy of mining in the southern coalfields, then I would not recommend Coal Hollow. However, I do recommend that you read it from cover-to-cover for two other reasons-to realize the failure of decades of anti-poverty programs and to see the ugly images that West Virginia can still present.

This year, as in years past, West Virginia will spend millions on subsidizing Tamarack and the state park system because these institutions improve our image. We are told that the money we spend is buying goodwill.

Although Coal Hollow identifies Beckley as the gateway to the southern coalfields, the authors apparently did not shop at Tamarack. Nor did they spend the night at Chief Logan State Park. Otherwise, all of our goodwill would have swayed their work.

In 1960, Saturday Evening Post brought our state’s poverty to light with photos that infuriated many West Virginians. Thereafter, President John F. Kennedy vowed to improve our lot. He remade the food stamp program; the first modern food stamps were given to a McDowell County family in 1961. After that, came the Appalachian Regional Commission and Head Start. Billions in federal aid have been spent to cure poverty in our state.

We can go back even farther in time. The Farm Security Administration photographs mentioned earlier brought the poverty of Scott’s Run near Morgantown to public attention. Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied for the creation of Arthurdale, a commune to house and train the Scott’s Run miner’s families as artisans who would then become economically self-sustaining. Eleanor built Arthurdale, but her dream of its self-sufficiency never came true for the very same reasons that Tamarack’s dream will never come true.

If the truth were known, out-migration to greener pastures has spared more West Virginians from the ignominy of poverty than have all of the anti-poverty programs put together. Rather than cure poverty, we have thrown money at the poor. The best we can say on their behalf is that we have made their poverty bearable, if not an industry unto itself.

With the publication of Coal Hollow, West Virginia’s government should consider its options. The best course of action would be to focus on breaking the cycle of poverty rather than subsidize it as we currently do. The other option is to stop Californians with cameras at the border.

Regardless, we still have an image problem. Let’s not repeat the mistaken anti-poverty programs of the past after this most recent overexposure.

The Oral Histories are quite varied and include interviews with author Denise Giardina and Warren McGraw, the former state Supreme Court justice from Wyoming County. Due to limited space, I opted to critique only the photographs for this article.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Borrow It Forward: The Real West Virginia State Motto

Of late, there has been a great deal of bold talk among politicians about reforming tax codes. In Washington, Congress is talking about ending its long love affair with the Alternative Minimum Tax. Imagine that-populists debating the death of a punitive income tax on the rich and the upper middle class.

So as not to be left behind in the tax debate, our state leaders are talking about tax reform with all of the gusto of astronauts readying for the first mission to Mars. I use the comparison of going to Mars because changing West Virginia’s tax policies will be a long-term venture with peril at every step.

Politicians always fail when enacting taxes because they cannot help but authorize more spending than the taxes collect. This is true of both Democrats and Republicans.

There is a philosophical hurdle at work when it comes to collecting taxes and balancing the books. I call it the Government Dependency Ratio. In West Virginia, we are trending toward an unsustainable GDR of 1:1 payees/payors.

Former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz (under Presidents Nixon and Ford) once addressed the GDR this way. In the early 1970’s, it had become apparent that Social Security recipients would eclipse the number of workers paying into the system.

Mr. Butz compared the situation to his days growing up on an Indiana farm. He said he overslept one frigid morning and was late in going to the barnyard to feed the cows. When he got there, two heifers were suckling each other’s udder to stave off hunger. Then he added to his anecdote that, in such situations, some milk always ends up on the ground.

Mr. Butz, of course, was making a joke. Cows, unlike humans, are weaned from the teat. But the barnyard example nevertheless holds true for people who have become dependent on the government. Should milk spill on the ground, the government simply borrows milk from other farms with the promise that future government cows will pay back the shortfall.

Government is the biggest employer in West Virginia. For starters, one out of six West Virginians is covered by Public Employees Insurance Agency health insurance. Add to that the federal employees. In Harrison County alone, we have a large postal distribution facility, a veteran’s hospital, a federal courthouse and the FBI Center with its growing biometrics offshoot. There are a lot more federal employees in our state that you might first imagine.

The health care industry receives a major portion of its revenue from Medicaid, Medicare and worker’s comp. Were it not for these reimbursements, a great number of hospital and health care workers would be out of work. To calculate the GDR, we have to include that percentage of full-time equivalent positions that are paid, albeit indirectly, by government programs.

When it comes to construction, government builds the big ticket projects such as highways, airports and dams. Next down on the list are water and sewage systems. While construction workers are paid by the private sector, most construction jobs exist only because the government is paying for them. Even in the housing sector, most new homes would never get built without the homeowner’s deduction for mortgage interest.

How many grocery workers would lose their jobs if food stamps and free school meals disappeared tomorrow?

In short, a whole lot of West Virginia workers depend on government for a paycheck. And neither federal nor state tax collectors are the least bit shy when it comes to asking for a goodly portion of those paychecks in return for those jobs.

To complete the calculation of the state’s GDR, just add in everyone who gets a transfer payment. Whether that payment is social security, government-paid disability, military retirement, earned income credit or one of the myriad welfare benefits that is out there doesn’t matter. Just start adding.

"Getting a check" is a big deal in West Virginia. Changing that attitude will take a radical departure from current policy.

Taxes and tax rates aren’t the problem. Government spending, including a mountain of deficit borrowing and unfunded liabilities, is the issue. Reduce the Government Dependency Ratio, and the tax code will take care of itself.