When The Coal Mine Closed Down

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By Paolo von Schirach

WASHINGTON – Not long ago, I read a vivid account of a small town in West Virginia facing the demise of a coal mine, the major employer in the area. It is a real tragedy. Many people in the small town worked there. Their families depended on their salaries; while the entire local economy thrived because of the money coming directly or indirectly from the mining operation. No mine, no nothing. Only semi-desperate unemployed miners, empty stores, empty restaurants. You get the idea.

Gas is cheaper and cleaner

And why did the mine close down? Mostly because of the competition created by cheaper, super abundant, (and much cleaner), natural gas as the new fuel of choice for electric power generation plants. Considering lower prices and lower emissions, utilities across America have been switching to natural gas.

Hence the slow demise of coal. Quite frankly, from a most elementary economic stand point, this switch from coal to natural gas makes perfect sense. Having a choice, utilities go for the fuel that costs less and pollutes less.

Indeed, as a nation, we should be extremely grateful to the entrepreneurs who a couple of decades ago unleashed this incredible “fracking revolution” and created this almost unthinkable natural gas bonanza. Once gas poor, America has now so much natural gas that it is exporting it, with obvious advantages for our balance of trade.

No reason to be happy

However, if you grew up and live now in that West Virginia community, you have no reason to be happy. The coal mine was all they had; and now it is gone. How are the people going to create, out of nothing, a new local economy that will provide income and a decent standard of living for all? The reality is that this is almost impossible.

Creative destruction

Capitalism is a process of “creative destruction”. Unfortunately the “creation” and thedestruction” components are not nicely harmonized. There is no “system” that will guarantee that when jobs are lost because a new technology has made the old one obsolete, (or as in this case a better fuel becomes available this way replacing the old one), enough new, well-paying jobs will be created, just when they are needed.

In the end, if one looks at the big picture, if an innovative economy works, eventually the entire society will be better off. New technologies mean new and better products or services. New investments mean higher productivity and higher salaries. Yes, this is true…eventually.

What about the victims?

In the meantime, what will be the fate of this West Virginia rural community now that their main source of income has disappeared, victim of the “destruction” component of “creative destruction”? Unfortunately, as a society we have not managed to create the necessary shock absorbers, the transition tools that could eliminate or at least alleviate the frictions caused by painful economic change affecting people with no defenses.

Sure enough, in America we have retraining programs, vocational schools, Community Colleges, and more. But these resources are scattered. They are not well organized. Most tragically, usually they are not available when and where they are needed the most.

A future smart society will provide tools

A future smart society should have this reassuring message for all workers: “Do not worry. If you lose your current job, and this is quite possible given the rapid pace of change in this hyper competitive global economy, we have many resources for you. You will quickly learn new skills. You will become employable in new sectors where there is a strong demand for qualified workers. You will be OK. Your family will be OK.”

Sadly, we do not have anything like this in place today in America. Yes, there is unemployment compensation, food stamps, Medicaid, and other state or federal subsidies. But these are just bandaids. These are no long term solutions.

May God help those poor people in that West Virginia small community. Without the coal mine they are lost.

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