Bloodletting in Kansas

This op-ed appeared in June 12, 2015 Charleston Gazette. It can be found at

In the course of human events, to coin a phrase, people have tried to use remedies that did more harm than good. Over and over. There are plenty of examples of this in the history of medicine. One such disturbing instance was the use of calomel, a mercury-based mixture, as a medicine for many disorders during the Civil War era. It was delivered in the form of a blue pill or “blue mass.” If smaller doses didn’t seem to help, doctors prescribed “heroic doses” of the poison, which often resulted in loss of teeth and oral tissue, facial disfigurement, and sometimes death by mercury poisoning.

Earlier, George Washington suffered from a different — although less gruesome — application of bad medicine. Retired to Mount Vernon after leading the Continental army to victory and serving two terms as the nation’s first president, Washington fell sick at age 68 after a lengthy ride around his farm in foul weather. His caregivers applied a standard remedy of the time: bloodletting. When the first attempts didn’t seem to help, they did it over and over, removing as much as five pints of blood. No wonder the “father of his country” died within a couple days of falling ill.

It seems strange to keep resorting repeatedly to something that doesn’t work, but it happens a lot. Sometimes even state governments suffer from doses of bad medicine. One such “blue pill” that has been tried repeatedly around the country without success is cutting taxes to create jobs.

A few years back, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback claimed that his tax reductions would be like “a shot of adrenaline to the heart” of the Kansas economy. He was right about the shot to the heart part. As for adrenaline … not so much. Kansas has — surprise — a $400 million deficit and may be on the verge of cutting aid to schools and laying off public safety officers. Standard & Poor even downgraded the state’s bond rating.

Around the country other states are taking the blue pill as well, although not in such heroic doses. However, we don’t really have to leave home to see that some snake oil claims haven’t lived up to their promise. Several years ago, under Democratic leadership but with Republican support, state leaders inaugurated a series of tax cuts that have taken millions of dollars out of the state’s budget. The 2006-2008 cuts were much more than enough to pay for tuition and fees for state colleges and universities for all undergraduates, which really could have been a game changer for a state with low educational attainments. The results are in: 49,000 fewer West Virginians have jobs than they did before the cuts began.

The state is spending around 23 percent less per student on higher education. State college tuition has gone up by nearly a third in the same period, making education less attainable and leaving many students mired in debt. Oh yeah, and our roads are falling apart. State legislative leaders are contemplating another round of tax changes that could once again wind up hitting working families either by shifting taxes on onto them or by making things like education less available or lowering the quality of life.

Fortunately, there are real working alternatives to blue pills and bloodletting. These include investing in education, workforce development and infrastructure and ensuring that West Virginia is the kind of place where people want to live, work and raise families. In a recent news story, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper laid it out: “Most of the business people that I talk to, and I talk to a lot of them, are interested in the quality of life here. Do we have good schools? Do we have good roads?” It’s sad that George Washington and the soldiers of the Civil War had to suffer from the effects of bad medicine. They deserved better. So do the people of West Virginia.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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