Given the role that the issue played in the US election last year, I've been really interested to follow the recent news about the coal mining industry. You may remember Clinton cheering about how they were going to put a lot of coal mining companies out of business, with the tone-deaf assumption that everyone would regard this as a Good Thing. I'm sure you remember Trump talking about bringing it back.
From one point of view, the issue might seem to be relatively simple. A shift to other energy forms would be good for the environment, and what the former coal miners then need is new jobs in other industries. As long as economic growth is happening, it can be a win-win. From this point of view, reluctance on the part of coal miners might be seen as irrational and obstreperous.
But it's interesting in this context to consider a few recent articles discussing the miner's point of view. This Reuters article describes miners who are resisting retraining and discusses their reasons. Among them: Mining pays well. Other industries are unfamiliar. There’s no income during retraining. Even if you put in all that effort to learn something new, there is no guarantee of a job afterward.
When it comes to replacements, they point out that coal jobs are seen as preferable to those in natural gas, because the mines are close to home, while pipeline work requires travel. One government official is quoted as hoping for "big companies like Amazon or Toyota."
These are all real reasons. And given what we know about working in an Amazon warehouse, it is any wonder people are resistant to that?
A deeper discussion of worker preferences and their implications for the economy is found in this New York Times piece about mining and environmentalism in Minnesota. It's complicated, but the basic story is that miners want mining jobs while environmentalists want to turn the area into a tourism location and beauty spot -- preserving the natural landscape and also providing new and different jobs.
I was struck both by the miners' calculations about their alternatives and by their cultural commitment to their way of life. For one thing, tourism jobs are really different from mining jobs. Tourism jobs are seasonal, and unreliable, and often not well-paid, while mining jobs -- at least so far -- have been solid and remunerative.
But it's not all cold calculation. Mining jobs are also seen as respectable and masculine, work you can take pride in, while tourism jobs are seen as subservient. One politician summed it up this way:
"[The miners] see it as fundamentally a question of dignity for families that
have worked blue-collar jobs for generations ... 'I
don’t want to be anybody’s Sherpa.'"
When I first read that I felt a little defensive. There's an implication that cooking, cleaning, and showing people around are somehow not "manly" -- the implication being that their OK work for women but that men are somehow above all that.
But I can also understand it. Especially in our society, where workers' rights and protections have been eroding, cooking, cleaning, and showing people around jobs often do have aspects associated with low status. Often you have to take orders, do things you otherwise wouldn't want to do, act nice, act happy to see people. Women in these jobs have had to put up with that kind of bullshit forever. It's not surprising that someone who hasn't had to doesn't want to have to start.
There are no easy answers, but I think one thing these articles show is that understanding the decisions of workers can't happen in a cultural vacuum. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that rational self-interested economic agents will do what seems to make "economic" sense. But even economics doesn't really tell us that. It tells us that people will maximize their own preference satisfaction.
As everyone has known forever, preferences are not just for things like "have more money" and "work fewer hours." They're also for amorphous things like respect, status, and community. Far from being squishy considerations that affect only the non-economic realm, these preferences affect the most starkly economic decisions there are.
So an analysis of labor has to include not only the obvious economic factors like money, but also cultural factors. I know "way of life" is not an easy variable to put into a quantitative analysis, but until we find a way to factor it in, we're just going to keep getting things wrong.