Iron ships sail into economic storm

Burns Harbor ore freighter

The ore freighter Burns Harbor, pictured here in the Duluth-Superior Harbor in 2019, became the first laker to leave the port for the 2020 season on March 23. An uncertain economic future hovers over the rest of the year. (PHOTO: Tony Webster, Flickr CC)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Economists study the market’s “invisible hand,” but when it comes to the economy Iron Rangers believe what we see.

That’s because here in northern Minnesota economic indicators ride in iron ore cars pulled by diesel engines on steel rails.

With our own eyes we see Minnesota’s iron mines operating despite the historic shuttering of the American economy due to COVID-19. In late March the first Great Lakes freighter full of taconite pellets left the Port of Duluth-Superior to signal the start of the 2020 shipping season. Right now, all Iron Range mines continue to operate at full production.

The State of Minnesota deems mining and shipping to be critical manufacturing. This exempts the industry from orders that sent most Minnesotans home to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. As long as mines have contracts to fill, they will send Mesabi Range ore down the line.

“As long as” is the operative phrase here. Already, automakers shuttered plants while steel mills begin to do the same. Like a long traffic jam, eventually this wave of stoppage will reach mines in northern Minnesota.

But also consider how much this situation has exposed the weaknesses in our broader economy. Even with the mines running local unemployment offices are brimming with new jobless claims. Maybe now we can see what we couldn’t see before. We no longer live in the era of the Oliver Iron Mining Company when mines alone dictated economic output.

We know this because the outbreak completely changed our communities. Most businesses’ doors remain locked. Wind whistles past empty streetscapes and playgrounds. Scores of people, myself included, work from home. Many more can’t work at all.

The other day I was buying gasoline and heard two men talking as they passed each other in the store. One was working full time and complaining that he didn’t have much protection from the virus. The other complained that he had gone from working more than 40 hours a week to nothing. Each seemed jealous of the other, but grateful, too. There’s just no winning in this situation.

It will be no easy task to sort out our new economic reality when the crisis abates. But we can be assured that much will change. For better and for worse.

In an April 2 BBC News analysis, writer Jonty Bloom asked whether coronavirus would reverse trends in globalization. Perhaps, confronted with volatile global supply lines and trade uncertainty, some companies will see wisdom in “re-shoring” more production in Western nations like ours.

That’s an encouraging proposition, until you read Bloom’s exploration of the matter. If companies become willing to spend more on domestic operations, they’ll also rapidly implement technological change to reduce costs.

This means automation.

Like a good chess player (and I learned chess in an Iron Range school) we need to think several moves ahead of our current turn. Yes, we might see iron mines idled this year. In fact, we probably will. But we’ve dealt with that before.

The real question is how we will prepare ourselves for a domestically-focused, technology-driven economic shift? Are we ready? Or are we merely ready to be exploited? Again.

The economy is now much more than rocks in train cars. It’s intellectual property, technology and design. The people still working now? Still making money? Buying low priced stocks for their retirement funds? They do this kind of work and will benefit most from what comes.

We need ore. But yes, Hibbing, we also need more. We need economic diversification. And we must capture economic activity related to mining technology.

Otherwise we’re just sailing ore ships into the storm of the century without a map, a compass or a clue.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 12, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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