The return of the 1980s?

Comparisons between this period in Iron Range economic history and the dismal 1980s, the time when I grew up here, are cropping up all over. Earlier in the week the St. Paul Pioneer Press broached the subject from a statewide perspective and yesterday Catherine Conlan wrote an Iron Range-specific story on the topic for She characterized the differences between now and the 1980s with these quotes:

“The Iron Range has more diverse mining-related activity today” than it did 25 years ago, [Iron Range Resources Commissioner Sandy Layman] said. “The amount of people directly employed by mining is significantly less. And the 1980s were a period where steel companies and taconite plants were in transition — after that, the whole industry was reorganized into something that is now better positioned to recover” when the economy turns around.

The short term is what is looking particularly painful.

“They can get by on extended unemployment,” [Mountain Iron Mayor Gary] Skalko said, “but what’s scariest for all of us up here is when it will turn around. U.S. Steel says the halt is temporary, but they don’t know what that is — three months, six months, eight months, a year? That’s the scariest part.”

It’s still a far cry from the 1980s. Our biggest challenge today comes not from a bloated steel industry incapable of competing (the ’80s problem), it’s a country mired in personal debt run by bankers and politicians (OK, some bankers and politicians) all too willing to exploit that problem. That’s actually a much bigger national problem than the 1980s, but one that the Iron Range may not pay the highest price to fix like we did back then.

My Sunday column in the Hibbing Daily Tribune also questions the 1980s connections. My early preview? This period of history demands a fresh set of eyes. It’s not the same.

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