Tag Archives: wealth

All Clear for the Mining Boom in Michigan’s UP, Unclear What That Portends

Just before the holidays I wrote a short post about the one-two punch that Michigan legislators delivered during the 2012 lame duck session. They rushed through legislation to make Michigan a “right to work” state despite widespread protests and they passed Emergency Manager Legislation in defiance of voters.

Most of the news coverage of these bills focused on the action in Lansing and effects this legislation might have in the Detroit auto industry. I wondered aloud (or at least on Twitter) what implications these bills might carry for towns and working people in the Upper Peninsula.

There’s a new mining boom underway in the region, with global giants like Rio Tinto and Orvana exploring, leasing, and re-opening old mines.

This map [pdf], put together by the Lake Superior ad hoc Mining Committee, shows all mines, mineral exploration and mineral leases in the Lake Superior Watershed as of 2010.


The map merits some careful study. As you can see, there is already significant activity in the Upper Peninsula. On the Canadian side, especially around Thunder Bay and further north, there’s been a leasing boom. Lots of gold on the eastern shore; copper and nickel as you move further west. They’re also exploring for uranium in at least two places.

The new mining is going to put enormous pressure on the Lake Superior basin. There are the usual environmental hazards associated with mining — subsidence, toxic runoff, acid mine drainage. Mining puts the waterways – the Lake and the streams and rivers that feed it – at risk. And then there is the infrastructure that’s going to be built to support all those mines. Access roads and haul roads, like the proposed CR 595 in Big Bay, roads to get to those roads, gas stations to fuel the vehicles that run along those roads, housing to shelter the people who drive on those roads to get to work and haul the ore from the mines, and so on.

Governor Snyder and his cronies in the Michigan legislature are doing everything they can to encourage this new activity. Just before the holidays, the Governor signed a third lame-duck bill, addressing the taxes that mining companies operating in Michigan will pay. The new bill, brought by outgoing Republican representative Matt Huuki, relieves mining companies of up front costs.  Indeed, they will pay no taxes at all until they start pulling minerals from the ground. Even then, companies will pay only 2.75 percent on gross value of the minerals they extract. So a million dollar sale of Michigan’s mineral wealth on the copper exchange will yield the state a paltry $27,500 in taxes.

35 percent of these so-called severance taxes will go to a “rural development fund to support long-term economic development opportunities.”

A number of things aren’t clear to me. What, exactly, is meant by “economic development” here? What’s the best course of development for a rural region, and for the Lake Superior region? How will fueling the boom benefit the region over the long term? How much if any of this money will go to alleviating the environmental impact that all this new mining is bound to have? How is it possible to talk about rural development without taking responsible stewardship of the environment into account?

It’s also unclear what sort of working conditions in the new mines the “right to work” legislation might allow, and whether the Emergency Manager bill could be used to limit community oversight.

For now, at least, it looks like the big mining companies are running the show in the UP, and the vague promise of economic development — whatever that means — has trumped all else.

Thucydides on Catastrophe and Lawlessness

On the plague of Athens in 430 BC. History of the Peloponnesian War (2.52): “the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.” Thucydides continues (2.53, Warner trans.):

In other respects also Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness (ἀνομίας). Seeing how quick and abrupt were the changes of fortune which came to the rich who suddenly died and to those who had previously been penniless but now inherited their wealth, people now began openly to venture on acts of self-indulgence which before then they had used to keep dark. Thus they resolved to spend their money quickly and to spend it on pleasure, since money and life alike seemed equally ephemeral. As for what is called honour, no one showed himself willing to abide by its laws, so doubtful was it whether one would survive to enjoy the name for it. It was generally agreed that what was both honourable and valuable was the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure. No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. As for offenses against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that already a far heavier sentence had been passed on him and was hanging over him, and that before the time for its execution arrived it was only natural to get some pleasure out of life.

Why Don’t These Rich Liberals Act Like the Self-Serving Bastards They Are?

In 1998, Howie Klein was the president of Reprise Records, and had the privilege of attending a dinner Bill Clinton threw to honor Vaclav Havel. The entertainment that evening was Lou Reed. (Havel is a big fan.) Klein was seated at a table with Senator Dick Lugar, the Indiana Republican, and he remembers Lugar’s reaction to Reed’s performance:

Lou Reed sang “Dirty Blvd,” his then-current hit. People kind of recognized the melody or something and they kind of danced in their seats. I remember Lugar could barely contain himself. His big plastic smile never even faded when Lou sang:

Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em

That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says

Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death

and get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard

No one seems to have noticed but me and my friend Brian.

For that brief moment, it was as if the country had not just gone through the adolescent convulsions of the Lewinsky affair. Vice President Gore’s “chair rocked constantly during Reed’s 35-minute performance,” according to a report in the Washington Post.

“Political leaders rarely listen to lyrics,” writes Klein. Maybe that’s why none of the APEC leaders took much notice the other night when Makana, dressed in an Occupy with Aloha t-shirt, sang his “Occupy” song for 45 minutes to the assembled dignitaries. But I wonder if that’s all there is to it.

Something else might be at work here as well. I am especially intrigued by the Post report of Al Gore rocking back and forth in his chair to Lou Reed. That’s not someone ignoring the music; that’s someone digging it. And from what I have seen and read about Al Gore, it’s pretty safe to assume that he was genuinely enjoying Reed’s performance. And why not? In his mind, he’s no bigot; he’s a friend of the poor and the huddled masses. How could he think otherwise? He and Lou Reed are on the same side; he shares the rocker’s indignation.

I am willing to bet that Gore doesn’t see himself as an oppressor or exploiter, and neither, for that matter, does Dick Lugar. Does that make them delusional, or hypocrites, or is it evidence of false consciousness? Maybe. Gore’s detractors like to put up images of his compound in Tennessee and talk about its huge energy footprint. They calculate how much fossil fuel he burns, flying around in airplanes to educate people about climate change. It’s an easy game to play.

But I wonder what it really proves about Al Gore (or Dick Lugar, or anyone, for that matter). Would Gore be a more credible messenger if he lived in a small solar-powered cabin and cycled to his engagements? Probably. Would you and I have heard of him? Unlikely. Would the world be better off if he just gave up, sank into an oblivious rich man’s hedonism, and cackled with wild delight as he drove a Hummer over the fragile habitats of endangered species? Probably not.

The right has now learned from the politically-correct left to demand ideological and moral purity from the left. There is something ridiculous in the demand. I’d say the same about putting too much emphasis on moral consistency.

Be that as it may, it’s now Michael Moore’s turn to prove his authenticity, or at least disprove his duplicity. While mixing with the Occupy protestors, Moore has had to defend himself, repeatedly, against the charge that he belongs to the 1 percent. And there’s little doubt he does, if you look strictly at the numbers: the top one percent in this country earn around 350,000 dollars a year.

So a CBS reporter in Denver asks Moore whether it’s true that he’s worth 50 million dollars; Moore calls the reporter a punk and tells him to stop lying. A blogger with the same Denver TV station lambasts Moore for his “hypocrisy.”  Fox News and the New York Post have been flashing pictures of Moore’s lavish Torch Lake compound. They were also posted on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood blog.

On CNN, Piers Morgan put the question to Moore this way:

“I need you to admit the bleeding obvious. I need you to sit here and say, ‘I’m in the 1 percent,’ ” Morgan pressed.
“I’m not,” Moore insisted. “I am devoting my life to those who have less and who have been crapped upon by the system.”

His evasive answer caused an uproar. “How Rich is Mr. 99%?” “Hypocrite and Liar.” “Occupy Wall Street Supporter Michael Moore Belongs to the Affluent Class.” But it’s also worth thinking about. Moore is trying, clumsily, to say you can be in a socio-economic class but not of it. He would have a much easier time of it if he would just “admit the bleeding obvious,” but let’s not pretend for a moment that that would silence his critics. Might Michael Moore be acting in his own rational economic self-interest by pretending to be one of, or at least one with, the 99 percent? Sure. But I’m naive enough, or optimistic enough about human nature, to think Moore’s concern for “those who have less” is genuine. Does it amount to more than noblesse oblige dressed down in a baseball cap? That’s hard to say.

It’s mildly amusing to see the American news media peddling class warfare and crude ideas about class-consciousness, but if that’s the game we’re playing, then let’s start looking at the class interests behind the American news media. CNN? Piers Morgan? CBS? Fox News? Andrew Breitbart? Follow the money. Let’s specify the interests behind the American news media’s questioning of Michael Moore’s true allegiances or those asking about his annual income. Let’s look at the rich people they ostracize and those they unthinkingly celebrate. It should be obvious – bleeding obvious — that Michael Moore is not the problem; but there are people determined to make him the problem, and you have to wonder why.

I’m certainly not out to defend Michael Moore. Nor does he need me to defend him. Yes, Michael Moore has gotten very rich from his books and films. Yes, he’s obnoxious. Yes, he shamelessly promotes himself. Would he command more credence if he were not all those things – if he were poor, soft-spoken, and retiring? Maybe, but then most likely his films would never have gotten made or shown, and — more to the point — the TV would just find somebody else to distract us all from the real troubles of the day, or some other way to feed the resentment that keeps ordinary people from acting in their own best interests.

Another Postscript on Innovation- Where I’m Going With This "Orientation" Thing

In my last couple of posts I started to make a case for what I admitted might seem like a far-fetched idea: that research into the human condition and the social world could be as deserving of credit and support as scientific and technical research, especially if the goal of supporting “research” with the R & D tax credit is to deliver “public benefits.”

At the very least, non-scientific modes of inquiry – the study of people and society, languages and culture — deserve more credit than currently given (which is, when it comes to the definition of “research” in the R & D tax code, none), because, I suggested, they provide critical balance to innovation, the very thing R & D is supposed to spur. They provide orientation.

I want to talk a little more about the work I want that word to do. I used orientation just to rough out an idea at first, but I’ve come to like it, not in spite of but because of its association with geography, maps, directions, coordinates and a sense of place. Orientation, in the sense I’m using it, is like having an internal compass — a deep sense of where you are, where you ought to go, and the best way to get there.

To take this a little further, orientation requires and stems from a profound sense of place, of the here and now, in all its complexity and connectedness to other places and to what has come before and what is likely to come after. Knowing where you really are is not just local knowledge; it’s knowledge of how you are situated, connected and not connected, where there are continuities and where you can expect discontinuities. For decision-makers, that contextual knowledge is critical to planning and strategy as well as business judgment (and therefore good governance).

Why? Because orientation helps you appreciate and respect limits, providing a much-needed sense of human scale, without which you cannot make innovation meaningful or growth sustainable. Innovation is the spur, orientation, the reins. A good rider needs both. The events of the past few years should make that tolerably clear.

Or, to use the shorthand I’ve been using since my last post: innovation produces wares; orientation creates awareness. I’m not entirely sure of this formulation, because the play on words here disguises as much if not more than it reveals. Wares can take the form of software, hardware, housewares, or other goods and services; I heard someone the other day use the barbarism “thoughtware.” Our word ware comes from an Old English word meaning “goods” – waru. Awareness, on the other hand, would seem to have nothing to do with commodity exchange. We think of it almost as a synonym for consciousness. It derives from the same root as our word guard; to be aware is to keep watch.

But tellingly both words ultimately derive from the same Indo-European root: wer. This particular “wer cluster”

has to do with watching, seeing, and guarding, but the sense of direction is often there—as in guarding (warding) or looking in a certain direction. From this root we get aware and wary, ward (from weard, keeper) and warden, as well as award and reward and wares (things that are guarded or watched).

It’s a good question whether wares need watching because they are valuable or are made valuable by being watched. Likely both, in some measure. Wares – the products of innovation — are the goods awareness watches and keeps, holds and esteems, prizes and guards, the things entrusted to its direction.