Monday, November 13, 2017

Why Did The Coal Miner Refuse To Cross The Road-On 3Quarks

I was born one mornin' when the sun didn't shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number 9 coal
And the straw boss said "Well, a-bless my soul"
 ("16 Tons" Merle Travis)

Who in his right mind would want to be a coal miner? It's scary, dangerous, terrible for your health, and destructive to the environment. In popular mythology, coal miners live in tar-paper shacks without indoor plumbing that are situated next to toxic waste dumps, buy all their supplies from the company store at ruinous rates, send children below ground by the time they are 12, and look 70 at 40—if they get there.

Hyperbole aside, it actually is dangerous, and the danger isn't just part of the historical past of Black Lung, the Coal and Iron Police, and Johnny Cash singing "16 Tons." There have been 13 deaths just this year. In 2010, at the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, 29 miners died at a site that had over 350 safety violations, including lack of roof support, poor ventilation of dust and methane, failure to maintain proper escape ways, and the accumulation of combustible materials. The CEO of owner Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, was aggressively unrepentant. He wasn't going to slow production for safety's sake. The only thing he cared about was running coal, and running it as fast as it could be wrenched from the ground, at the lowest possible cost. If that meant cutting corners, that didn't trouble him.

Let's pose the question a second time: Who in his right mind would want to be a coal miner? Turns out, quite a lot of people. One of the most striking things about the various retraining programs for out-of-work coal miners and other old-economy/Rust Belt jobs, is how many reject them. They don't want to learn alternatives—the want their old jobs back. Along the Allegheny Mountain Range, where there's still plenty of coal to be mined, they think they should have them back—and will soon, because Trump promised to bring them back.

So, these are foolish people—either too ignorant to understand market forces or too uncaring about the environmental damage mining coal can cause, or just too reckless with their own lives and that of their children? And we need to save them from themselves…

Not exactly. First of all, thanks in very large part to an effective union, a coal miner, with overtime, can earn in the low six figures. They know there will be layoffs and company bankruptcies, but that's a powerful lure. Second, coal mining is truly a family business for many, with multiple generations following that path. The coal miner doesn't want to code. He wants to go back to the mine, wants to earn what he can from it, wants to return to the working community that has friends and neighbors, schools and athletic fields, baptisms, marriages and funerals.

But can he? The history of capitalism since the Industrial Revolution offers cautions. The movement from a traditional, pre-capitalist society to the modern innovative economy has created enormous wealth, and even the partial democratization of wealth, but also enormous upheaval and obsolescence. We have changed the way people live—no longer are they on farms where they can feed themselves, or manufacture at home, or barter with their neighbors. The overwhelming majority have become wage-earners, dependent on other people's capital allocations. When the market moves against the product being sold, whether that's shoes, textiles, steel, or coal, capital goes elsewhere, factories and mines close, jobs evaporate—as do the community towns that relied on those allocations.

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