Shocked and Persuaded


Separating Fact From Fiction

Efficient Marketeer And The Rest Be Damned

This is something I wrote in response to an article by Dr. Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya at Project Syndicate. I love this site and really the thinkers and practitioners run the ideological gradient. Read the rest of this entry »

The True Cost of Coal!

Clean Energy, Clean Coal, Foreign Oil, Middle East Instability, blah blah blah blah blah.

The 2 graphs presented here derived from the US Mine Health & Safety Administration show the true cost of coal. Since data was first recorded back in the 1930s we have lost at least (ie Average Annual Derivation) 420,960 men due to coal mine fatalities and 25,633, 151 have been injured. As to the severity of the latter I wasn’t able to get my hands on how many resulted in men that were Functionally Dead. With more and more union busting and people like Don Blankenship the owner of Massey Energy the company that oversaw the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia making no bones about his distaste and most likely hatred of unions fatalities will rise in my opinion. Yes mechanization and strip-mining has resulted in a decline in fatalities but there has been – in recent years – an increase in large and broadly fatal “accidents”. The Upper Big Branch was a non-union mine thanks to Mr. Blankenship’s machinations. I am not promoting across-the-board unionization but I am worried that erosion of unions where their presence is required may prove economically costly to miners and in the worst case scenario Upper Big Branch Reduxes throughout Appalachia. There may be clean ways to burn coal but it’s extraction is dirty on so many levels not least of which is the fact that it robs communities of their fathers, brothers, uncles, little league coaches, and more importantly their collective spirit. West Virginians and coal mining communities writ large consist of proud, determined, stubborn, and resourceful people. However, the Paradox of Plenty (ie, The Resource Curse) caught them off-guard with the speculative and nefarious vultures swooping in to promise riches that have yet to be delivered. We need to stop stigmatizing these communities and start infusing them with capital aimed at a more diversified economic portfolio. I have been to these communities and they are desperate to decouple themselves from Carbonaceous Robber Barons like Don Blankenship.

Enjoy the data I think the figures speak for themselves.

Average Annual Deaths and Injuries:


Average Cumulative Deaths and Injuries:


An Ode to the Blackboard

What you may ask is too important to fail? Well the answer is lots of things like publication education, local and national newspapers, true democracy, and the NFL. Just kidding! Seriously I would argue one object that is too important to fail is the blackboard. The blackboard you ask who the heck cares if it goes by the way of the 8-track or VHS or basic discourse? Again just kidding about the last one…..I think! The blackboard was at one time a pallet for instructors at every level of education to convey an idea and then another and another, while all the while retaining on the board that initial concept for students to…Now don’t jump out of your seat….actually learn to synthesize to make those nuanced connections that only a young brain receptive to all types of input can manage. We have turned in recent years to Microsoft Powerpoint an all to evil invention of an otherwise seminal corporation. This wonder of the folks in Washington has facilitated an abrupt transition to rote and overly simplified learning. I would argue that what is occurring in high school and college classrooms where Powerpoint is present is far from learning, rather we get respective questions and comments from students like “Is this going to be on the test?” or “I that wasn’t exactly what your Powerpoint handout said!”

I once tried an experiment when giving a guest lecture I waited till everyone was in the room and proceeded to give a lame excuse for why I wouldn’t be using my Powerpoint presentation that morning and instead would turn to the blackboard. Immediately I had students asking how I was going to decide what would and would not be on the test and if I didn’t write something on the blackboard I couldn’t put it on the test. Well I chuckled and said you know let’s just give this a shot and I proceeded to go through the lecture on the board starting at the top-left and ending at the bottom right of two adjacent blackboards, repeating this process twice in the span of 70 minutes. However, half way through I turned to the class and asked if it was all making sense what with them being used to Dr. Evil (i.e. Powerpoint) and all. The response was an emphatic yes and even better they said what they really loved about the blackboard was that it all flowed and they could go back and see the connections right there on the board, which they said facilitated more informed and directed questioning. They said that with Powerpoint it was a race against the next slide, while with the blackboard the pace was slowed down as was the learning, which facilitated true absorption of the information, questioning, and debate that followed. I couldn’t help but ask why they had never voiced these issues with other instructors and they were basically under the impression that the ship had left the dock and they better get with the times or risk the consequences.

This is not how learning is supposed to happen especially with the fact that, as Tamar Lewin reported a while back in The New York Times, college tuition fees and median family incomes between 1982-2007 increased by 439 and 147%. If we are going to send our kids to college and people like myself are going to truly teach rather than talk at them we need to be equipped with the best tools and believe me when I tell you those fancy classrooms with overhead projectors, speakers, etc may look great but we’re not going on tour with Pink Floyd here we’re trying to foster thinking and discourse, neither of which are facilitated under the conforming pressures of Powerpoint and “Is this going to be on the test?” lines of questioning. We have really smart kids in this country that will at some point be handed the baton. I for one want to make sure they are equipped to think holistically and are not in the business of having information spoon fed to them. Powerpoint doesn’t just squash synthesized learning and curiosity it makes students and I would imagine many in the workplace apathetic, lazy, and stupid. Yeah I had to say it because it is true. If we continue to mechanize and desensitize the classroom we won’t produce graduates but rather robots. This planet doesn’t have the luxury of deciding its fate, but we do and I would trust flesh and blood over a robot any day.

Job Creation, Energy, and Appalachia’s Long-Term Health

There is a bipartisan notion perpetuated by industry and many politicians – specifically those so utterly disconnected from their home states/districts true needs – that natural resource exploitation and large agricultural infrastructure is the key to job creation. Just a little hint before moving further if you hear this rhetoric spewing from a politician’s mouth inquire as to their primary donors. Anyway this is one of the biggest if not the biggest lies being sold the American public today and the data buttresses my argument quite robustly. Here it is in black and white when production increases whether it be in the coalmines of West Virginia or cornfields of Iowa what happens is a massive shift towards mechanization, with larger and larger combines or draglines, or Komatsu front-loaders.
The latter able to move tons of earth or overburden allowing relatively uninhibited access to the coal seam, which by the way are increasingly smaller and smaller requiring less laborious methods or more dangerous exploration of deeper seams. This is evidenced in the exponential growth in surface mining throughout the US a method that requires markedly less labor then its underground alternative. Thus, if you look at the debate in simple output:input ratio terms, with # employed as the input, you will see an inverse relationship developing quite rapidly in recent times, which is to say that large multi-nationals like Massey Energy were extracting 5,087,150.3 short tons per thousand works in 1985 and managed to nearly triple this ratio (~290.2%) to 14,762,463.5 short tons per thousand works. Keep in mind the fact that total coal extraction in the US has only increased by 129.6% since 1985.


How you ask would one go about counteracting this 160% profit disparity? Well you can start by purchasing larger and large equipment, vast swaths of land, breaking the systemic will of the UMW of America, and insuring that crimes against labor like the recent tragedies in Utah and West Virginia go virtually unpunished. If you own the hearts and minds of people like the governor of West Virginia, Senators Byrd and Rockefeller and McConnell, and the supreme courts of many coal producing states you don’t need carrots and frankly you don’t really have much need for sticks either.
If you buy that the above ratio is a valid measure of workplace efficiency and by association a primary driver behind the decline in jobs related to natural resource exploitation and agricultural production then let’s apply it to the farm sector specifically corn to see if it still holds up. The answer is as you could probably guess by my tone is that it does indeed and is slightly more robust in this instance. It turns out that if you look at data associated with corn production in the US at five year intervals since 1910 you will see that that the total number of farms and workers are currently 66.1 and 78.2% of what they were at the turn of the century, while production and output:input have increased by 347.6 and 1,595.4%, respectively.


This suggests that one of two things is occurring, either we are getting better at how we manage our agricultural lands vis à vis chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc and crop-rotation or our current farmers are on steroids, which I am not ruling out but would hope is not the case.
This is a marked increase in “efficiency” by any standard begging the question: Why not get more from less? The answer is of course that there is no surficially viable reason, but more to the point portending that more coal mining brings more jobs when you know the exact opposite to be true is quite the bait and switch wouldn’t you say?
It is true that neither underground nor surface mining is great but it is underground mining, while extremely dangerous and liable to create vast stability problems down the road, that has traditionally been the engine employing much of Appalachia. This method imbued a greater sense of community and unification that was/is anathema to the coal companies and their strike breakers so vividly depicted in “Harlan County KY”. Much of the debate around “clean coal”, which if you ask anyone from Appalachia is a complete whitewashing, centers around jobs as does the research and production of biofuels and it is true that if done right these industries do create jobs. The fact is that since 1949 when much of the high grade anthracite-type coal was still available surface-mining accounted for 25.3% of all mined coal in the US whereas today it accounts for nearly 70% or 794,263,579 short tons. Furthermore, anthracite coal extraction has declined from 8.9 to 0.14% of all coal extracted in the US during the same period, with a parallel decline in jobs from a high 1,737,000 miners in 1985 to 776,000 in 2007.
So, what we have are two lies being pushed down the throats of Appalachia and America writ large: 1) exploitation of our mountains and arable lands is a perpetual large-scale benefit to the job market and 2) that clean coal and biofuels will benefit the environment, Appalachia, and industry. According to Judy Bond of Coal River Mountain Watch “Even if you could get rose petals to come out of the smokestacks, coal is filthy and will never be clean as long as mountains and communities are blasted and streams and communities are poisoned…The entire cycle of coal must be examined. We in Appalachia are blasted by over 3 1/2 million pounds of explosives daily and are similar to a “banana republic”. The coal industry is allowed to simply kill us slowly with toxic waste.” So, in plain English folks the only ones benefitting are John D. Rockefeller, WV Supreme Court Justice Brent D. Benjamin, and the pious head of Massey Energy Corporation Don L. Blankenship.