The West Virginia Project
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act soon after he took office in 1933, it marked one of the most wide-reaching and audacious responses of an American government to the ravages of disease and destitution. The TVA was a massive depression era hydro-electric project that brought electricity, jobs and prosperity to a large swath of the American southeast. What was once a region of dirt floors, devastating floods, malnutrition, malaria and soil erosion was transformed into an industrial powerhouse — homes with electricity and modern appliances, agricultural best practices, well-paying jobs and a dynamic economy.
The TVA became a model for how government could work best for those most in need by leading an economic and infrastructure transformation that was grounded in science and technology. In doing so, the project literally changed the reality of many millions of people by delivering a standard of living they could not have imagined.
Right now, when we think about the role of government in our lives, “reality” is our biggest sticking point. Our ability as a country to make progress on issues of health, the economy, racism, climate change and nearly every other challenge we face is obstructed by our single biggest problem: The reality that we no longer have a shared reality, or as I’ve referred to it in the past, Problem #1. The alternative reality that our election was a fraud, that Covid is a hoax, that (and I can’t believe I’m actually writing this) Democratic leaders are cannibalistic pedophiles, is a reality most of us could have never envisioned taking hold, but because all these beliefs are reinforced by conspiracies, there is absolutely nothing any of us can say to bring our wayward friends, family, colleagues and fellow citizens back to the one true reality in which we live. And because there is nothing we can say, the future of our country will come down to what we can do. We’ve already lost the war of words — we can only win a war of actions.
President Joseph R. Biden’s only opportunity to solve Problem #1 is to do what must be done to change the reality of those who distrust him the most. There are many people in politically red states that fit that description, but he should start with a state that needs more help than any other: the deeply red state of West Virginia. He should call for the development and implementation of a modern version of the TVA for WVA.
West Virginia is at or near the top of the charts on several measures of misery, including opioid deaths (42.4 per 100,000 in 2018, almost 10% higher than the next closest state. Source: NIH). They are number 8 in suicides (Source: CDC), and they have the 5th highest poverty rate in the country (Source: U.S. Census Bureau). They are last or in the bottom six in measures of Health Care, Education, the Economy (last), Infrastructure (last) and the Environment. (Source: US News).
And as we all know, West Virginia also remains highly dependent on coal for both its energy and its economy — a dependency, like opioids, that can only end badly.
Biden’s first dent in the alternative reality of this highly Republican state might be the surprising realization that a Democratic government would even want to help them, especially considering that his predecessor felt compelled to punish any states or elected officials who didn’t like him personally. A Biden commitment to WVA would draw the starkest of contrasts and provide a timely post-Covid example of how to put country over party by serving the fellow Americans who are most in need rather than the most obsequious.
What would a TVA for WVA look like? Imagine a mini-green new deal, in which public and private investment is concentrated around an accelerated transition of the state economy to 100% renewable energy. This effort would generate many thousands of clean energy jobs where they will be most needed, and that in turn will generate much desired population growth. The larger tax base will literally pave the way for infrastructure improvements and upgrades in the quality of healthcare, education and the environment. Ultimately, with the right mix of public and private enterprise, West Virginia could emerge as a Silicon Valley of energy transformation, attracting talent from around the country and beyond.
One of the major critcisms of the TVA was its heavy reliance on eminent domain, which displaced thousands of people to clear the way for massive environmental disruption. Unlike the TVA, a WVA project would benefit from the low environmental impact and decentralized nature of renewable energy, allowing the federal government to have a much lighter touch. As a facilitator rather than a heavy-handed “authority”, the Feds would instead provide oversight and financial incentives to drive private investment in a manner that would establish West Virginia as a statewide enterprise zone for clean energy.
But then, if this is such a good idea, why should it be limited to West Virginia? Why not do it across the entire country?
First, a critical mass of the country needs a proof-of-concept to fully buy in to the complex nature of a nationwide green new deal. There are too many opportunities for setbacks at that scale to lock-in the necessary long-term support. Strategically, West Virginia is an ideal “pilot project” to demonstrate the transformational potential of renewable energy, allowing all private and public stakeholders to learn along the way, collecting hard data and personal testimonials as they identify viable business models that will justify investment in other states. And with the recent advancements in wind, solar and battery technology, all stakeholders will have a real-life opportunity to identify, through some trial and error, the optimal mix of energy sources to achieve full potential.
Second: Joe Manchin. As the Senior Senator from West Virginia and the new chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Manchin is a centrist Democratic Senator in a deeply Republican state, and just like Biden, he is up for reelection in 2024. In many ways, the fate of Biden and Manchin is inextricably tied together; If they fail to transform the reality of the many of those who voted against them, then there’s a very real chance they could both lose their offices in 2024. But more importantly, Manchin has ascended to the position of power broker in an evenly divided Senate, and his alignment with the rest of the Democratic caucus on major legislation in the year ahead will directly determine success or failure on numerous issues.
The TVA Act was heavily criticized as being a socialist initiative, and the WVA project would not be immune to similar criticism, but we could also expect a certain amount of “investment envy” from red states who want the same type of federal support as they cling to their anti-socialist tropes. One possible way to address this: The money being allocated to West Virginia could be “drawn” from the money that would have otherwise been spent on all those anti-socialist red states that chose to decline the federal Medicaid Expansion that was offered as part of the Affordable Care Act. West Virginia is not one of those states. In fact, West Virginia has a higher dependency on Medicaid (29%), than any other state (Source: KFF, 2017), meaning it is in the financial interests of all American taxpayers to help improve West Virginia’s economy, health and environment as a means of reducing the state’s Medicaid cost and overall misery.
Ultimately, it is more likely that the success of a TVA for WVA will compel every other lagging state to break their fossil fuel addictions and blaze their own trail to transformation with the leadership of a suddenly less risk-averse private sector that has West Virginia as a benchmark.
On the political front, a return to reality could translate into a return of West Virginia to the very blue roots of its progressive history, but only if morality is given priority over politics. Biden and his fellow Democratic leaders must demonstrate what a competent, morally driven government looks like with every chance they are given.
Covid is job #1, but restoring a common reality will address Problem #1, and the best, and perhaps only, path back to reality will be through action rather than words — tangible action that people can feel for themselves.