Explaining West Virginia’s Struggle

The legacy of coal is important in understanding the future of Appalachia. Coal taken from West Virginian (and other Appalachian) mountains almost literally powered building the industrialized United States. While mines were operational, miners largely earned living wages, joined strong unions, and achieved a middle class life. However, coal today makes up a far smaller portion of American energy consumption than 50 years ago, and many of the geographic areas producing coal are now poverty-stricken and suffering from public health crises ranging from opioids to smoking to obesity. In thinking about why this is the case, it is important to keep a few facts in mind:

Most coal mines were located far from established towns, which led miners and mining companies to build towns in more convenient locations. These included cheap homes, a company store, and a church. Rather than bringing the banking system to the miners, mining companies generally paid miners in “coal scrip,” a simplified system in which miners could exchange the scrip tokens for goods at the company store. Though convenient at the time, this system created generations of miners and families that lacked financial literacy and were excluded from the modern financial system.

Coal mining is hard. Ranging from respiratory problems (e.g., black lung) to chronic pain, there is no doubt that miners themselves paid a physical price of walking into mines every day. But coal by itself does not explain the opioid crisis. While true that there is evidence that substandard working conditions can lead to addiction, and over-prescription of opioids should not be overlooked, a more comprehensive view leads to a “disease of despair” explanation for the West Virginia opioid crisis. So we should think about education, obesity, and poverty (to name a few) as part of a system that creates economic and social disadvantage that helps explain the severity of the problems in West Virginia.

Regional differences in West Virginia are important. Coal production in Southern West Virginia decreased approximately 70% (from 130 million tons to 40 million tons) between 2000 and 2017. Yet for Northern West Virginia, production actually modestly increased from just under 40 million tons in 2000 to just over 40 million tons in 2017. To explain this, we can note a few important factors: first, to the extent there is other industry in West Virginia, it is located in the Northern part of the state (primarily logging and shale gas mining). Second, the Northern West Virginia is geographically less remote than the Southern part: the “Eastern Panhandle” arguably benefits from Washington D.C. spillover effects and the “Northern Panhandle” includes suburbs of Pittsburgh (commuters drive for less than an hour). These regional differences manifest in demographic and public health statistics: Southern West Virginia shows worse public health outcomes, has lower median HHI, and lower life expectancy than Northern West Virginia.

West Virginia has historically not invested in public education. Despite modest gains based on the successful 2018 teacher strike that resulted in a 5% raise (and catalyzed teacher strikes in numerous other states), West Virginia remains significantly behind on public education. West Virginia ranks last in percent of population with a bachelor’s degree (a shade under 20%) and 49th in percent of population with an advanced degree (7.9%). West Virginia teachers went on strike again in 2019 protesting a state bill privatizing public education despite the fact that if passed teachers would have gained an additional 5% raise. Structurally, this investment stems at least partially from the lack of education necessary for coal mining jobs: historically, many West Virginians sacrificed formal education to enter the mines.

As an employer, coal has not been replaced. Today, Wal-Mart is the state’s second largest private employer, Kroger the fourth, and Lowe’s the seventh. The rest of the top ten include five hospitals, Mylan pharmaceuticals (generic drug-maker), and Res-Care (Kentucky-based company providing in-home services to people with disabilities). Notably, there is not a single energy company on this list. It is hard to find longitudinal employment statistics, but just since 2005, coal industry employment has dropped approximately 30%. The number since the height of coal production (e.g., 1950) would almost certainly be far more staggering. It is also important to note that West Virginia is not the only state impacted by the decline of coal: of the top ten coal-mining companies in the US ranked by production per year in 2014, the first, second, fourth, and seventh (representing 44.2% of total 2014 coal production) were bankrupt by 2018.

State government has historically promoted pro-business policies that helped coal companies thrive. Specifically with regards to environmental protections, West Virginia has been on the forefront of deregulation. Though a cherry-picked example, it is almost unbelievable that weeks after a chemical spill at a coal refining plant spilled 10,000 gallons of chemicals into the Elk River leaving ~300,000 people without potable water, Democratic governor Earl Ray Tomblin warned the Obama EPA of “unreasonable” protections.

Visualizing the West Virginia Opioid Crisis

Having just returned from two weeks in West Virginia working on an economic development project in Appalachian downtowns, I was interested to look at opioid death (easier than use) statistics by county. However before getting into the data, it’s worth taking a look at one generalized take of regional differences in the state.

Annotations based on interviews with community leaders across West Virginia.

With these regions in mind, opioid death rates are particularly stark.

Data is from CDC Wonder database. Grey counties do not report opioid deaths.

This “Southern Coalfields” region clearly shows a significant opioid problem, and is moreover economically depressed (as seen below). Opinions among community leaders in the state differ on how government and community institutions can and should address the problems in southern West Virginia.

Source: 2017 American Community Survey.

From its history as a leading coal mining state, West Virginia is struggling to re-invent itself as an outdoor tourism hub and an exporter of timber and natural gas. However to support this redevelopment effort, West Virginia needs a healthy workforce. How federal, state, and local institutions respond to maps like the above will define whether West Virginia can successfully navigate a post-coal economy.

Elizabeth Warren on Confederate Monuments, via Breitbart

I fact checked a Breitbart piece documenting a Jake Tapper-Elizabeth Warren interview in which Warren agrees with Tapper that Mississippi should change its flag.
My fact-checking annotation of the article, via Bounce, is here. The CNN piece on which the article is based is here.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this exercise was that the text of the Breitbart piece is not factually incorrect (most of it is verbatim quotes from the CNN piece that broke the story). But the title is vastly misleading. There is a big difference in Warren agreeing with a statement made by Jake Tapper and saying “Get Another State Flag”

A historic weekend for Central Ohio high school hockey

For the first time in history, Dublin Jerome HS made it to the Ohio high school ice hockey final four, beating neighboring Olentangy Liberty HS 1-0 for their spot to represent Central Ohio.

Dublin Jerome earns their spot in the final four.

In the state semifinal game, they played University School, a private school in Cleveland that had won the state championship twice, most recently in 2009.

The close game eventually went to overtime.

Jerome wins in dramatic fashion! (This clip ends up getting picked up by ESPN and makes it to #3 on the SportsCenter top 10.)

As the first Central Ohio school to make the ice hockey state championship game, the team had already accomplished a lot.

The game turned out to be an uphill battle, as Jerome played St. Ignatius high school, a private, all-boys school in Cleveland that has won 7 ice hockey state championships, including the last three (2016, 2017, 2018.)

The Jerome team made it close, but eventually came up short.

Despite the loss, the Jerome team has lots to be proud of, and the fourth consecutive championship for St. Ignatius raises questions about fair competition among Ohio high schools. After the fact, local news picked up the story.

Love Thy Neighbor? The Politics of Hydropower in New England

Thanks to Jason Dearen for his guidance and expertise in researching this post!

In 2016, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker passed signature energy diversity legislation to increase the state’s reliance on renewables, specifically hydro and wind power. The law requires Massachusetts to solicit long-term contracts, 15 or 20 years, to procure 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power and another 1,200 megawatts of hydropower or other renewable resources. Massachusetts regulators began a RFP process in 2017, collecting 5 bids from utility companies hoping to bring Canadian hydropower to Boston.

Graphic of the proposed line from The Portland Press Herald

The policy benefits are clear: Between the retirement nuclear plants, decline of coal, and push for renewable sources of power for the significant needs of the Boston grid (especially during the Winter), the bill aims to provide a generation of Massachusetts residents with clean power. To put it plainly, the bill provides some indisputable economic (and environmental) benefits to Massachusetts residents.

In January 2018 Massachusetts regulators announced that Eversource’s Northern Pass had won the contract and would bring power from Hydro-Quebec dams to Boston via New Hampshire. However, by March 2018, political uncertainty in New Hampshire around the status of the project led regulators to announce that they had revoked their Northern Pass offer, and instead chosen Central Maine Power’s New England Clean Energy Connect to route Hydro-Quebec power through Maine. The only catch? CMP needs to get the power from the Canada-Maine border to their existing power lines along the coast.

Despite the clear economic benefits in Mass, like New Hampshirites, many Mainers are also opposed to the project. Why? Objections to the proposal generally fall in three categories:

  1. It will disrupt the northern Maine ecotourism industry (specifically whitewater rafting on the Kennebec river)
  2. It will disrupt the delicate ecology of the Kennebec river
  3. There is no economic benefit to Maine residents
Image of an anti-CMP flyer. From The Portland Press Herald.

Interestingly, New England is not unique in grappling with the political realities of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. Around the country, and especially in the West, we have seen several examples policy initiatives aiming to provide clean power run afoul environmental activists. Because often the best and cleanest alternative to burning fossil fuels is hydro, we are increasingly seeing politicians and regulators damming rivers. The downsides are the ecological disruptions, and associated political conflicts, with generating hydropower.  

For example, the Klamath River on the California/Oregon border has been dammed at six places, the earliest of which were built in the 1920s. Yet recently activists, arguing that the dams make it impossible for salmon to spawn which adversely impacts the native river tribes, have successfully secured four of the dams decommission by 2020. Yet, the Klamath dams are a major source of clean power for northern California. Clearly, there are no obvious solutions.

Arial image of one of the Klamath dams.

Part of what makes the CMP project so interesting is that the issue here is not the creation of the dam itself, but rather the transport of power from an existing dam to a needy market. No one is denying the necessity of clean power in Boston; rather, the concerns of Maine residents are more focused on the lack of benefits to residents of the state.

This raises some important questions to grapple with. What responsibility does Maine have to help out its New England neighbor? What repatriations are sufficient to compensate Mainers? (Note, after initially proposing $22m in mitigation, CMP cut that to as little as $5m in 2018, while low-income ratepayers in Boston will benefit greatly from reduced-price power.) How do we reconcile efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels with the environmental and economic implications of doing so?

If one thing is clear, it is that there are no obvious answers, and the fight is ongoing. CMP is continuing with plans to build the line while activists organize in opposition to it. Perhaps the CMP line counts as a sacrifice that we as a society need to make for the greater good – there is no doubt that we Bostonians need clean power. But who said northern Mainers should have a massive power line built in their backyard? Or that the value of rafting the Kennebec river is less than the value of supplying clean power to Boston? I know I don’t want to be the person who makes those decisions.


  1. https://www.pressherald.com/2019/01/16/maine-voices-cmp-power-line-wont-help-the-environment-and-certainly-not-mainers/
  2. https://www.pressherald.com/2018/09/13/dark-money-and-blurred-alliances-drum-up-resistance-to-cmp-project/
  3. https://bangordailynews.com/2018/11/01/business/hydro-quebec-faces-pressure-to-make-cmp-transmission-line-a-better-deal-for-maine/
  4. https://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2018/02/maine_transmission_line_will_c.html
  5. https://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/07/transmission_hydro_and_wind_de.html
  6. https://www.masslive.com/politics/2016/08/gov_charlie_baker_signs_hydrop.html
  7. https://www.wbur.org/bostonomix/2018/03/28/mass-ditches-northern-pass
  8. https://www.redding.com/story/news/2018/10/05/controversy-klamath-river-dam-removal-persists-approval-nears/1523718002/

The Making of the Bracket: Joe Lunardi Dives Deep

Start: 1:55pm 2/24/2019; End: 5:14pm 2/24/2019

CAMBRIDGE, MA – On a rainy Sunday afternoon in the basement of the Cambridge Public Library, Joe “Joey Brackets” Lunardi provided an overview of bracketology to the Cambridge community.

Lunardi, who works for ESPN as an analyst and commentator, is largely known as the creator of bracketology, the “art and science” of predicting the 68 teams who will be chosen to compete in the March Madness, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Lunardi started the lecture by providing background on himself and the origin of bracketology. A lifelong sports fan, Lunardi began his sports analytics career as a stat-keeper for his high school basketball and football teams. Later, as a student at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Lunardi continued keeping stats for the basketball team. After graduating, he worked as a sports reporter covering college basketball. Later, he became the publisher of “The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook,” and was eventually invited to publish his rankings and predictions for the March Madness field on ESPN.com for the first time in 2002. The rest is history.

Lunardi educated the audience on the technical and operational requirements of filling the 68 team field for the tournament. Outlining a “multiple overlapping votes” system, Lunardi explained how representatives from the major NCAA conferences convene in New York City over 6 days in early March to iteratively vote on the teams to be invited and subsequently on the seeding of those teams.

Perhaps most interestingly, Lunardi took time to explain some of the underlying revenue mechanics of the tournament. Helping to illuminate the many economic incentives that explain individual school and conference behavior, Lunardi argued that the economic environment is increasingly hostile to “mid-major” universities. As the tournament is increasingly commercialized, Lunardi argued that we will see fewer lesser-known programs compete, replaced by major universities with historically successful basketball programs.

Lunardi fills out a hypothetical bracket with the help of the audience.

The event closed with an interactive session in which members of the audience helped Lunardi to fill out an abbreviated bracket, given the current state of college basketball (the real bracket will not be officially created for another few weeks).

If one thing is clear, the affable and charismatic Lunardi is a true lover of college basketball, happy to share his passion and knowledge with anyone who will listen.

Devon’s Media Diary

I tracked my media use from 2/14 – 2/19 using a combination of RescueTime and a notebook to log non-screen media consumption. Reflecting on my week and taking a look at the data I collected, a couple of things surprised me.

  1. I don’t consume a lot of traditional media. I watch almost no TV (don’t have one) and don’t have a login to watch internet cable (the last live TV I watched was the Super Bowl.) I don’t get the paper delivered, nor do I subscribe to mailed magazines. I do have a Netflix account, but watch sporadically (I watched one movie for ~2 hours in the week I logged).
  2. I am extremely reliant on the New York Times for news. I read (or scroll though) the “Home” section of the mobile app most days, and I often listen to “The Daily” podcast. One interesting behavior I noticed is that if I do come across news on social media or the internet, I look to validate it in the NYT app.
  3. I increasingly want someone to tell me how to interpret the news. I’m starting to want to know both the news and what experts think about it. The Daily is great for this, but I also listen to Pod Save America / the People sometimes and Bill Simmons for sports.

Taking a closer look at the data, it’s clear I consume more media on my phone than my computer (though I wanted to show a percentage basis here, the absolute numbers aren’t so stark). I tend to use my phone for social and non-work uses while I use my computer for schoolwork and professional tasks.

Looking at specific apps, I’m getting a lot of my media on social media, and, as mentioned above, almost all of my news from the New York Times. Also a little bit strikingly, I spend very little time reading for pleasure (aside from news), as shown by the only 6% of time with books. One detail with this chart is the podcast number is inflated because I often listen to podcasts while I multitask on my phone.

In closing, a few takeaways for me based on the exercise:

  • I should probably diversify my news sources. Nothing against NYT, but I think I would be in some ways be more informed if I read other outlets and compared the different ways the news is framed.
  • I like audio a lot. I am starting to read less and listen more, especially with respect to long form journalism. Podcasts like Caliphate or The Dropout are starting to replace my reading of the New Yorker or the Atlantic.
  • I was curious to what extent I would be able to cut out TV shows when I got rid of my TV, and I think I’ve been pretty successful. I don’t miss it.

Hi, I’m Devon

Hello, I’m Devon Shapiro. I’m a first-year MBA student at Sloan focusing on entrepreneurship, digital media, and politics. In this class, I’m interested in thinking about the role of journalism in society, especially with respect to how we can create business models that incentivize productive content creation and distribution. In prior lives, I was a consultant and data analyst, first at Analysis Group and later at Legendary Pictures.

My goals for this class are to:

  • Learn from all of you about the journalistic process, what should count as journalism, and maybe even get some help thinking through the role of facts in our society
  • Develop perspective on and a toolkit for navigating the digital media noise
  • Learn how to productively engage in conversations I care about on social media

Some random interests I have:

  • As an undergrad, I was fascinated by how people reconcile capitalism and biblical literalism. I did a major research project on the evolution of fiscal policy preferences among Evangelical Protestants
  • I love to cook and have recently started learning methods of traditional Italian cooking (thanks, Marcella Hazan!) I’m also interested in pickles and have been tweaking a dill pickle recipe for a couple of years
  • I try to prioritize travel – the hope for 2019 is to make it 10 countries
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