Tuesday, November 29, 2016
SYMPATHY FOR (SOME) DEVILS
While I am still reeling from the victory of Donald Trump, and enraged at the over sixty million American voters who supported him, I must admit that I do have some sympathy for one strain of Trump voters, and a recent New York Times headline explains why: TRUMP'S PROMISES WILL BE HARD TO KEEP, BUT COAL COUNTRY HAS FAITH. While job growth and the overall economy are strong right now, there are many mostly white, working class counties in this country that are in trouble, through no fault of their own. And they overwhelmingly voted Trump, even after many of them supported Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012.
Why? Because Trump promised to bring back coal jobs and Hillary Clinton (in a moment she later apologized for) openly remarked "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and companies out of business." To people like myself who live on cities in the coastal part of the country, this comment was no big deal; of course America needs to move away from the burning of coal, which contributes greatly to climate change. But to people who live in coal mining communities, it's a way of life, with entire towns built around people working in the local mine for generations. When those mines close those towns are devastated, with depressed people often turning to drug and alcohol abuse, or even suicide. A recent Princeton study found that between the years 1999 and 2013 the average life expectancy of middle aged white Americans actually decreased, especially for ones without a college degree, (that is, for coal miners and other factory workers) due mostly to this increase in drug and alcohol use. These are the people who went to Trump rallies and cheered, seeing him as their voice; to them "making America great again" meant going back to a time of good paying blue collar jobs that you could get right out of high school.
But there's a reason why that Times headline says that Trump's promises will be hard to keep; the reality is that coal jobs have been deteriorating in this country since the 1980's. Even if Trump does roll back all the regulations that Obama has put in place in regards to phasing out coal energy, there are two factors that even a President can't change: the first is the free market; with the onset of fracking, natural gas is cheaper to use than coal, so many communities are turning away from coal energy to save money. The other is mechanization. Simply put, drilling machines can do the job of people for less money, just as machines in factories can do the same.
This trend towards mechanization is something that the US and the world will have to continue to deal with, and there are few easy answers. While retraining displaced workers and making college more affordable are laudable goals, they are often easier said than done, especially for workers who have made a good living for years in one job. But we have to try, because physical labor is quickly becoming a thing of the past; consider the rise of self driving cars, which are definitely coming ready or not. While these cars will prevent thousands of auto accidents, not to mention the billions of dollars trucking and delivery companies will save, think about the millions of drivers that will be put of work by those companies. This is enough of a problem that Andy Stern, a senior fellow at the Columbia school of business, proposed in a recent interview in VOX magazine that the US adapt a policy of a Universal Basic Income, literally in the form of the government paying each citizen enough money to survive on. While this might seem like anathema to the basic American work ethic, it really might help those struggling communities survive, and in the long run, cost the tax payers less than all the money we lose from dealing with depressed people using drugs and alcohol. I think it's worth a try. It certainly stands a better chance of working than the empty promises that Trump made in the campaign.