Weathering the economic storm, Range style

Here is my weekly Hibbing Daily Tribune column for Sunday, March 30, 2008. I archive my columns at my writing homepage if you’re interested in reading more.

Weathering the economic storm, Range style
By Aaron J. Brown, for the Hibbing Daily Tribune

So we’re in a recession, or a correction, or some other kind of “…tion” word indicating how two decades of buying SUVs with credit cards was kind of a stupid thing to do. Point is, the economy is going through a rough patch. People across the country are sitting around dinner tables wondering how to pay the bills. Today, Americans clip more coupons, fix their lawnmowers instead of buying new ones and select cheap domestic beers instead of expensive imported brews. In other words, Americans are learning what it’s like to be Iron Rangers.

I’m sure one could find evidence of how the nation’s credit crisis, excuse me, CREDIT CRISIS (Lasers! Lasers! Graphics! Lasers!) affects the Iron Range, too. We need to figure out how folks can borrow money responsibly without jeopardizing the country’s all-important banking sector. But frankly things are pretty much the same on the Iron Range, maybe even a little better than usual. We’ve got a few of them fancy strip malls and the tear-to-beer ratio at local bars is down to comfortable pre-globalization levels. We all assume that we could get laid off tomorrow but are bolstered by the hopes that the big new Whatever plant will begin hiring soon.

(On a related note, our son Henry has begun wearing a metal measuring cup on his head like a helmet and telling us, “I’m building a factory factory.” I always reply, “A factory that builds additional factories?” to which he replies, “Uh-huh.” So my question is when do I put him in a suit to lobby for government financing? Perhaps I digress).

Ups and downs are normal on the Iron Range. In this, nothing has changed since the Great Depression. Yes we see many nice potential developments and yes, I am a big proponent of modernizing this region. But let us not gloss over the fact that Rangers survive whether their leaders are competent visionaries or slack-jawed hacks. Survival is just what we do. So pardon my glib attitude when I yell at my TV, “How does it feel, Suburbia? Why don’t you rent out the top level of your McMansion!” This isn’t very empathetic of me, but I feel we Rangers have earned it.

Sometime around 2003, back when the domestic steel industry was suffering and the Iron Range economy languished, I accompanied my wife on a business trip to southern Minnesota. We were walking through the Spam Museum (yes, a tribute to the ambiguous meat product) in Austin, another town that knows hardship when meat sells low. One of the Spam guides, upon hearing where I was from, told me, “I’m sorry to hear about your economy.” He said this the way you might tell someone you were sorry about their dog dying, or that they had an inoperable tumor. Around the state one of the few things non-Rangers know about the Range is that our economy is probably bad and that they presume we have taken to eating the slowest and least productive of our uneducated children. Rangers know better but just once, for a moment, it’s nice to see that coin flipped.

I know that if the national economy slips further than it already has that the Iron Range will suffer too. We always do. If steel prices drop or biofuel projects don’t pan out, we know that the traditional sectors of our local economy will shrink as they have before. But at least we know that a little ingenuity can get us through to the other side. That’s something that a media-driven economic panic can’t teach you.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist at the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him and read his blog at http://www.minnesotabrown.com/.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I share your feelings on this, Aaron, but let’s don’t sneer at suburbia too hard. Just as the high government debt, high inflation 1970’s turned into the high interest rate 1980’s that killed the steel industry, our current situation could bit us in the butt here on the range. This economy is going to be almost a play by play repeat of that era. Our exit from Iraq is going to mirror the exit from Vietnam. Our government is going to have to deal with paying down the debt created by this fiasco, just as they did with Vietnam. Since nobody has the guts to raise the taxes to do so, or to generate revenue by any of the other means our government has at its disposal, the only method left is going to be to attempt to inflate away the debt. The Arabs, and world demand for oil, are going to make this last route happen, anyway, just as during the 1970’s. After we have enough of that inflation to mess us up good, someone is going to finally realize we’re going to have to raise interest rates, and all the debt heavy companies on the Range, with their shiny new mortgaged plants, are going to be toast, just like in the 1980’s.

    It’e inevitable. This is, indeed, the cycle here.

    Note to all in our area: This is not the time to gloat and/or take on debt. Pull in your horns, pay things off, save your money. You’ll need it. And if you’re wise, when things tank, you’ll be able to make very much discounted purchases from those who didn’t plan accordingly.

  2. Thanks for your reply. I agree with you. If the economy really is going south, the Range will feel the effects on a delay … just like the ’80s. And you’re also right, this is no time for Rangers to act like grasshoppers.

    I don’t think what is actually going on in the country right now qualifies as a genuine economic crisis, though, which is why I was a little hard on the suburbanites in the column. We’ll see where this goes.

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