Free Markets, Free People

Is Atlas shrugging?

Of course what I’m about to cite is an anecdote.  It is hard to claim there’s a trend.   And we don’t even know if the threat was carried out.  On the other hand, we also don’t know how many times the thought process and decision voiced here have been silently made by people who have the ability to hire and expand, but just don’t see the hassle being worth it.   And, of course, it doesn’t help that what they’re trying to do is demonized at every step.

The story told below takes place in Birmingham, AL.  I love B’ham – spent years and years doing business there.  It’s like a second home.  Birmingham was once the “Pittsburg” of the South, with a huge and flourishing steel business.   Of course that’s gone now, at least most of it.   One of the reasons Birmingham was the Pittsburg of the South was because the state had both iron ore and coal deposits.   And one of the major coal mining regions is a county just north of Birmingham named Walker County.

Here, from the David McElroy blog (via The Conservatory) is Ronnie Bryant:

He operates coal mines in Alabama. I’d never heard of him until this morning, but after what I saw and heard from him, I’d say he’s a bit like a southern version of Ellis Wyatt from Ayn Rand’s novel. What I saw made an impression on me.

I was at a public hearing in an inner-city Birmingham neighborhood for various government officials to get public input on some local environmental issues. There are several hot topics, but one of the highest-profile disputes is over a proposal for a coal mine near a river that serves as a source of drinking water for parts of the Birmingham metro area. Mine operators and state environmental officials say the mine can be operated without threatening the water supply. Environmentalists claim it will be a threat.

I’m not going to take sides on that environmental issue, because I don’t know enough to stake out an informed opinion. (With most of the people I listened to today, facts didn’t seem to matter as much as emotional implications.) But Ronnie Bryant wasn’t there to talk about that particular mine. As a mine operator in a nearby area, he was attending the meeting to listen to what residents and government officials were saying. He listened to close to two hours of people trashing companies of all types and blaming pollution for random cases of cancer in their families. Several speakers clearly believe that all of the cancer and other deaths they see in their families and communities must be caused by pollution. Why? Who knows? Maybe just because it makes for an emotional story to blame big bad business. It’s hard to say.

After Bryant listened to all of the business-bashing, he finally stood to speak. He sounded a little bit shellshocked, a little bit angry — and a lot frustrated.

My name’s Ronnie Bryant, and I’m a mine operator…. I’ve been issued a [state] permit in the recent past for [waste water] discharge, and after standing in this room today listening to the comments being made by the people…. [pause] Nearly every day without fail — I have a different perspective — men stream to these [mining] operations looking for work in Walker County. They can’t pay their mortgage. They can’t pay their car note. They can’t feed their families. They don’t have health insurance. And as I stand here today, I just … you know … what’s the use?

I got a permit to open up an underground coal mine that would employ probably 125 people. They’d be paid wages from $50,000 to $150,000 a year. We would consume probably $50 million to $60 million in consumables a year, putting more men to work. And my only idea today is to go home. What’s the use? I don’t know. I mean, I see these guys — I see them with tears in their eyes — looking for work. And if there’s so much opposition to these guys making a living, I feel like there’s no need in me putting out the effort to provide work for them. So as I stood against the wall here today, basically what I’ve decided is not to open the mine. I’m just quitting.Thank you.

Whether Ronnie Bryant actually did what he said isn’t known – but his frustration is clear and his decision as stated, warranted.

The question is how many Ronnie Bryant’s are out there right now?   How many are tired of the demonization, the taxes, the hassles, the bars government and environmental groups erect that make business difficult if not impossible to conduct?  How many have faced men and women with tears in their eyes because they can’t pay the mortgage or feed their family, but know that hiring them would actually be more difficult and costly than just continuing as they are now, or, as Bryant claims, just decide not to open a business because of the intrusion, over-regulation, demonization and the increasing level of obstacles put in the way of business?

That story, at least to me, is a stunning and telling example of the anti-business culture that has been created and nurtured within this country.   This isn’t some apocryphal or fictional example to demonstrate a point.   This is a man listening and deciding that it just isn’t worth it to open a business that would bring in 125 jobs, consume 50 to 60 million in consumables a year (downstream jobs) and, of course, mean tax revenue to both the city, county and state. 

But coal is unpopular.  It is demon coal.   So an industry that powers the nation and generates the electricity that the complainers in the audience and the government bureaucrats there will use when they go home is trashed in a meeting along with business in general.  And a man who could offer something critically needed – jobs – makes the decision that in the climate he observed, it’s just not worth it to open a business up.

How many times in how many local meetings like the one described in Birmingham is there a Ronnie Bryant who just says, after listening to all the trash talk, ‘screw it, I’m not going to bother to open a business’?

Atlas Shrugging – something our lefty friends said was fiction.  

Given today’s business climate, it seems more like a self-fulfilling prophesy, doesn’t it?


Twitter: @McQandO

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13 Responses to Is Atlas shrugging?

  • Heinlein quote that Glenn Reynolds has referenced several times recently fits in well to cap all this off:

    Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
    This is known as “bad luck.”

    From Ed Driscoll.  Read the whole thing.

    • This is known as “bad luck.”

      What’s maddening is that if (when?) our present wealthy society collapses under the weight of “social welfare”, too many people will have no idea why.  They’ll be happy to blame bad luck… or the capitalists… or the Jews… or the left-handed people… and so set fire to the rubble, as it were.

      Liberalism is like a disease: its greatest natural ally is ignorance.  Just as cholera can flourish where people are too ignorant to know to protect their drinking water from contamination, just as malaria can flourish where people are too ignorant to know to try to control the mosquito population, so liberalism flourishes where people are too ignorant to know that you can’t rob Peter to pay Paul forever; sooner or later, Peter runs out of money, and then both he and Paul are sunk.

      • I was mildly dumbstruck by the Keynes quote in that piece by Driscoll.  I wonder what he would say about how his theories have been perverted today, and how they have worked to destroy what he saw?

  • I work in the general “resource extraction” business and I can well believe that a small operator would be experiencing that. The majors in the ore business are doing OK, they have the size and resources to roll with the vagaries of government in the US for the moment and have the supporting business in places like Australia, Africa and Canada where it is not quite so crazy on the regulation (yet).

    And on the same topic, most people would be quite surprised how good the waste control is in most mines run in the west these days. The recycling of liquids and waste control is light years ahead of what it was even a decade or two ago. But that of course is not actually the issue for the opponents, is it?

    You get the same nonsense now with fracking due to the coming golden period of gas, specially in the USA where I think the last estimate I heard was that there is at least enough gas for 250 years of US demand at current usage. You can bet your ass that if windpower somehow magically promised to actually fulfill plentiful and cheap energy supply then the enviros would about-face quick smart and oppose it because of the dead birds, sound and visual pollution.

  • All I can say is liberals seem to lack critical thinking skills – that cause has effect.    From what I can tell, they walk 6 blocks from their air conditioned lighted apartments on the 14th floor, and pat themselves on the back because they don’t pollute driving a car either way, let alone OWN one.  They walk to their local little grocery store with their recycle bags and purchase organic produce and meat that was trucked or railed half way or all the way across the United States from ‘organic’ farms in warm climates.  Then they go home and and take the electrically powered elevator up to their apartment, turn on the lights and the TV to watch Olbermann, or maybe get on the PC and read about the latest affront to nature by big oil or big gas, or big farms, or big corporate America, and those ignorant right wing morons in fly over red neck country who find their faith in that silly book that says – don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet, don’t murder, honor your parents and acknowledge the supremacy of a higher power than man.
    And after they’ve voted to get rid of the coal, and the oil, and the dirty freight lines, and the trucks, and forced those red necks to heel and helped wreck grasping polluting  profit driven industry, and the food supply, and voted free handouts to illegal immigrants in other states…
    they’ll blame George Bush for the fact that their 14th floor apartment just became a walk up oven because there’s no power, and no parts for the elevator or AC and no food in the boarded up grocery store or gas to deliver their cherished arugula and tofu burgers.  And demand the government DOOOOOOOO something to fix it!

    • A few decades ago, I wrote Joe Shrugged, the premise of which was that demi-gods like Hank Reardon would never have to be too troubled by BIG GOVERNMENT.  They have a phalanx of people who protect them, and even the thugs of the Collective know they can’t totally do without them.  They are usually co-opted.
      It would be the Joes of the nation who would shrug.  Guys like the miner in the McQ piece.

  • The comments in the original article from current and ex-business owners were frightening.
    I think the DC lawyers and the academia types have no idea what’s going on.

    • I think another problem is that people see growth from the internet, software, technology, and assume that’s the real growth in the economy. It is real growth, but its growth that doesn’t hire many people and in fact probably destroys plenty of jobs. Nothing you can do about that (or should) but if we do want more job growth the powers that be have to start looking closer at these sorts of situations in the article.

      • It is ALSO growth predicated ENTIRELY on the basis that such essentials as electricity will be reliable, available, and affordable.
        Texas utility officials are saying that we will shortly be experiencing electrical shortages.  We ALREADY had one a few months ago.
        Texas accounts for 45% of the growth in jobs in the recent past.
        It  takes no great talent to see where we are heading.

  • This is what I see. Small businessmen are not walking away from what they already are doing, but they are not expanding. As a few fail and others retire or die, our economy slowly declines.
    Atlas is not a few CEOs, but countless small businessmen.
    Atlas doesn’t shrug, he just stops striving, he stops pedaling, he coasts.