Why Did The Coal Miner Refuse To Cross The Road?

by Michael Liss

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.

We can’t just ignore this issue, particularly at a time when we see that a great many old-economy jobs have disappeared, or will, in the foreseeable future. We like to comfort ourselves that creative destruction fosters new opportunities, but, as the sociologist Saskia Sassen has noted, not every displaced worker is able to find something comparable, and those who don’t are effectively “expelled” from the economy. The work they can find, when they find it, will be low-wage and transitory, and will likely disconnect them from the community in which they lived.

The larger this cohort of expelled workers, the ones who won’t or aren’t given the opportunity to cross the road, the greater societal risk—and the greater risk to capitalism itself. Sassen has argued that you deepen the emotional and economic ties to capitalism by respecting and valuing the contributions of workers. Conversely, you erode belief in the system by treating them as replaceable, disposable commodities. In those circumstances, the individual realizes his powerlessness and loses any optimism he might have that the future will be better. He has no stake in a system that has no apparent stake in him.

How do we keep the worker engaged? Edmund Phelps, the 2006 Economics Nobelist, addresses this in his 2013 book Mass Flourishing. From roughly 1820 to 1960, industrialization, modernity, trade, and the expression of free-market principles produced a tremendous explosion of the very types of things that Sassen was looking for—economic sufficiency, work that has meaning and value, productivity not just as the means to an outcome, but imparting satisfaction. In such an environment, people can become risk-takers and innovators. Moreover, innovation doesn’t express itself only in a macro, capital-intensive manner, but also in countless smaller businesses that have developed new products and markets.

Where did all that energy go over the last half century? Phelps suggests it has been drained through a combination of government intervention and corporatism. We need to rethink our priorities and approaches to return to what he calls a “Good Economy.”

Phelps is a capitalist, a real true believer, so it is altogether possible to see some of what he says as a recitation of a conservative catechism. But he has a point. There is no doubt that, when government intercedes, whether it is through government spending, regulation, taxes, subsidies, trade deals, or preferences in access to public assets, it picks winners and losers. There is also no doubt that the market better allocates capital than technocrats, and government does not always understand the implications of the regulations it passes, even when it passes them with the best of intentions. Finally, government is not always a force for good—it is very often a place for rent-seeking, and the powerful in the private sector have learned that buying politicians can produce very high returns on investments.

We are about to embark on a great experiment that could be as revolutionary as the New Deal was. If you think lower taxes, less regulation, a green light for extraction, and a government totally dedicated to advancing the profitability of business will cure what ails us—your moment has arrived. The GOP has a free hand to enact anything it wants, at whatever cost.

It is unquestionably only an experiment, conducted by people who have a fuzzy grip on the science, and a strong motivation to do it regardless of whether it will actually work. But it could work nonetheless, if the goal is growth. The tax cut might slide us towards a Kansas-style meltdown, but it’s equally possible the GOP is right and lower taxes directed at selected groups will spur substantial economic activity. Trump’s trade initiatives might cede world markets to China, or he might effectively leverage our economic power and manage at least marginal and regional wins. Putting industry in a truly laissez-faire regulatory position where the sky’s the limit on production, extraction, and pollution, will encourage exploitation and make parts of the country dirtier and less safe, but profitability is going to soar, and it’s reasonable to assume that employment in favored industries will increase. Everything is a might and a maybe.

We might reasonably ask, is all this going to help economic inequality? No, it’s going to intensify it. But just arguing over the morality of that is a dead end. Inequality is a lazy shorthand for something far more important, insufficiency. Most Americans care less about what Warren Buffett has, than about having enough themselves.

That is really the challenge the Republicans face, both on policy and politics, and one on which they will have to deliver to retain power. As Phelps himself said in his Prize Lecture in 2006: “My conclusion is that a morally acceptable economy must have enough dynamism to make work amply engaging and rewarding; and have enough justice, if dynamism alone cannot do the job, to secure ample inclusion.”

Dynamism, and Justice. Neither party’s dogma has historically embraced both at the same time. Let’s see if Trump and the GOP can pull that off, even accidentally.

The coal miners must think they can. That’s why they refuse to cross the road.

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store.