Our analysis of this week’s Democratic debates comes in the form of two invitations.
To: All the candidates.
Re: Please come visit the coal counties of Southwest Virginia. Or coal-producing counties anywhere, for that matter.
All the Democrats are in favor of replacing fossil fuels with renewables. It’s just a matter of how, and how quickly. “Our house is on fire,” declared Jay Inslee. “We have to stop using coal in 10 years, and we need a president to do it or it won’t get done. Get off coal. Save this country and the planet.” Inslee isn’t wrong about our house being on fire. The Arctic is burning. OK, technically, the sub-Arctic. Still, more acres are now burning in Alaska (2.2 million acres) than in all of California during its devastating fires last year (about 1.8 million acres.) Alaska’s wildfires are on track to burn 3 million acres. Alaska’s fires are small compared to what’s happening in Russia, where 7.4 million acres in Siberia are on fire — a territory about the size of Belgium. Another 2.1 million acres are burning in northern Canada. Why are all these places on the edge of the Arctic Circle on fire? What might be changing in the climate that makes them all so combustible? Could it be because we’re now pumping more carbon into the atmosphere than at any time in human history? That, quite naturally, leads Democrats to declaring that they’ll bring an end to mining coal and, perhaps, extracting natural gas. The details are a little unclear because these debates don’t allow for much more than sound bites. Still, we have Joe Biden, supposedly the centrist in the race, in this exchange:
Moderator: Would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?
Biden: No, we would — we would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those, either — any fossil fuel.
Did Biden just call for shutting down coal and natural gas? Maybe. It’s hard to tell. Biden’s syntax tends to be garbled, even in the best of times. What does “we would work it out” mean? This isn’t quite as definitive as Hillary Clinton saying “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” although it’s pretty close. Indeed, by including fracking (the process that brings most natural gas to the surface), Biden might even go further than what Clinton said. This is politically problematic for any Democratic nominee in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. We’re less concerned about the politics, though, and more concerned about the policy.
What would the end of coal mean for coal-producing counties, such as the ones we have in Virginia? This isn’t a hypothetical. The free market is already doing a good job of killing the coal industry. Inconvenient fact for Republicans: More coal-fired plants are closed under Trump than they did in Obama’s first term. Not even an enthusiastically pro-coal administration can save it. At an energy conference in Roanoke held earlier this year by the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce, one speaker referred to the coalfields as “the former coalfields.” Both Democrats and Republicans ought to address what happens to those communities. Trump’s not, though. And neither are the Democrats who would like to replace him. Of the 20 candidates who took the stage this week, only one even mentioned that— and that candidate probably doesn’t have much of a chance.
That candidate was Steve Bullock — the governor of Montana and the type of red-state Democrat the party ought to be paying more attention to. “As we transition to this clean energy economy, you’ve got to recognize there are folks that have spent their whole life powering our country, and far too often, Democrats sound like they’re part of the problem,” Bullock said. “We got to make sure to aid in those transitions as we get to a carbon neutral world, which I think we can do by 2040.” He didn’t explain just how he would build a new economy in coal country, but at least he did acknowledge “far too many communities are being left behind as we make this transition.” No one else did.
That’s why we’d like to invite all the Democratic candidates to come to the coal counties and explain face-to-face what should happen there. Any takers?
To: Bernie Sanders, Bill DeBlasio and any other Democrats who bad-mouth the North American Free Trade Agreement:
Re: Please come visit Metalsa in Daleville.
Sanders included NAFTA in a list of what he called “disastrous trade agreements” that cost American jobs. DeBlasio agreed, saying the new North American trade deal is “just as dangerous as the old NAFTA. It’s going to take away American jobs like the old NAFTA.”
Why do Democrats persist in these kind of willful half-truths? Yes, NAFTA cost some American jobs. But it also created others. Indeed, many economists believe that NAFTA actually had relatively little impact on the overall number of American jobs. Of course, that’s an antiseptic way to describe the wrenching changes that have taken place in the economy, but it’s hard to pin all those on NAFTA because there are some other fundamental changes were taking place at the same time — automation, chief among them. Many of those manufacturing jobs we lost would have been lost anyway; NAFTA is simply a convenient excuse that avoids hard thinking about how the economy is changing.
In any case, whatever jobs were lost have already been lost — and aren’t coming back. Instead, we’d like Sanders and DeBlasio and anyone else to come take a look at Metalsa, an auto parts maker in Botetourt County that recently announced it was adding 25 jobs to expand its workforce to 255. This is a Mexican-owned company that has been building new plants in the United States —and acquiring existing ones — as a direct result of NAFTA. It’s easy to point to jobs believed lost to NAFTA, but here are jobs that were gained. Why don’t those count? Metalsa’s Daleville operation isn’t even its biggest. The company’s biggest U.S. plant is in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where Metalsa now has more than 2,000 employees. Those 2,000 employees probably don’t think NAFTA was “disastrous.” The reality of NAFTA is a lot more complex than these candidates make it out to be.
Here’s the thing: The economy is always changing, trade deals or no trade deals. We need candidates who can talk about that in a thoughtful way. These debates don’t allow for that — too many candidates, not enough time. The real question is whether any of these candidates could talk in a thoughtful way about the economy even if they had more time.