COLUMN: We support ourselves; we support each other

This is my Sunday column for the July 22, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

We Support Ourselves; We Support Each Other
By Aaron J. Brown

We all remember how the year 2000 was once emblematic of the future. “In the Year 2000” was a phrase that meant “When we figure out our problems and enjoy a prosperous tomorrow.” The movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” showed us commercial flights to the moon and remarkable missions to Jupiter. Now, in 2012, all the year 2000 means is a time when the economy was better than it is today. Is 2020 the year we get to Mars? Is 2030 when the Iron Range is finally a secure, self-sustaining economic region? We shrug, and say “maybe.”

I’ve talked often of the economic changes going on here on Minnesota’s Iron Range as part of a larger shift in the workforce. Range mining jobs pay better and are more secure now, but there are fewer jobs available. Further, the strain on the middle class in this country continues to reduce the positive effects of a good salary, causing all kinds of political, institutional and social instability.

Beth Bily of Business North recently wrote about mining jobs in her publication as well as the Scenic Range News Forum. According to state employment data, mining jobs paid $356.9 million in 2011, up $70 million from the year 2000. However the impact of cost of living increases and spending power decreases makes that higher figure actually less potent.

One of the biggest reasons for this is the loss of raw jobs. Bily reports that an average of 4,245 miners did the work that 5,599 did in 2000. Remember, this is 2000, after the collapse of the 1980s. Nearly twice as many miners worked the ore formation in the late 1970s, albeit for less money.

Bily’s story speaks of new mining as one possible way we could see an increase in mining employment, but the 300 jobs at Essar and the 200 more that are possible at PolyMet (should PolyMet be permitted, which is not yet complete) would fail to seriously close the gap.

Around Hibbing one can easily find yard signs that read “We Support Mining” all over town. The other side of the sign reads “Mining Supports Us.” That’s a lovely sentiment, because mining really is a major part of the economy. But all the hand-wringing in the world over mining jobs won’t create the economic transformation necessary for the area to completely finish its recovery from the population and job losses of the 1980s. Not even close.

Economic development that relies on mining alone is economic development for some, but not for all. The region as a whole region needs more. Scores of low skill, undereducated workers are being churned out by our increasingly uncompetitive schools. The means to help these folks do better at community colleges is rapidly evaporating with rising tuition and reduced aid. Service jobs crop up to support the tourist and mining economy, but these wages and shifts remain woefully inadequate to raise families.

I’d like to print up some signs. “We educate our students.” “We believe in our future.” “We are in this together.” In short, “We Support Ourselves” on one side and “We Support Each Other” on the back. The Iron Range is reputed to be a place of smart, independent people. Let’s prove that. We are the keepers of a land of forests, water and resources. My goodness, we are better positioned than anyone gives us credit, ourselves included.

First you’ve got to train the workers. Then you have to create means of income and an environment supportive of entrepreneurship. Then you’ve got to bolster the public schools so that students 12 years from now are ready to compete at a world class level. This is difficult and quite likely expensive. Both innovation and sacrifice are necessary. But no candidate, plan or scheme that avoids these goals is worth a handful of taconite pellets. Democratic solutions, Republican solutions and independent solutions are all welcome. The absence of solutions is inexcusable.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.


  1. That yard sign reminds me so much of the state of affairs in Kentucky. A couple years ago, a writer named George Ella Lyon penned a brilliant editorial for the Lexington Herald-Leader that I’ll never forget which likened our relationships with these corporations to a multi-generational sick family cycle of abuse.

    “The abuser always says, ‘Without me you have nothing. You are nothing.'”

  2. Aaron….you’re trying so hard and say all the right things, the problem is your mindset won’t let you put them in the correct order.

    You say “first you’ve got to train the workers”. Train them for what?…making cars, houses, call centers, microchips, ball mill operators?

    “Then you have to create means of income”. What the heck does that mean??

    “And an environment supportive of entrepreneurship”. Now you nailed it!! This is THE number one issue. However the Range (the state) with its anti-business attitude has a long way to go on this issue. The tsunami that swept the Mn House and Senate in 2010 is trying their best to improve on this but Dayton’a vetoes are an issue.

    “Then you’ve got to bolster the public schools so that students 12 years from now are ready to compete at a world class level”. Bolster our public schools?? You need to drill down and define what you mean by “bolster”. If it’s spend more, you’re barking up the wrong tree. We already spend more money per capita, per household, per student than the world has ever seen. If you mean families taking responsibility for their kids’ education, you’re on the right track.

    “This is difficult and quite likely expensive”. No, it’s not difficult nor expensive…it simply requires families, individuals setting priorities and then following through on them…

    It doesn’t take a “community at a time” (the world isn’t and never was Lake Wobegon), but it does take one person at a time, one entrepreneur at a time, one city council member at a time, one neighbor at a time, one legislator at a time, one teacher at a time…to make good things happen.

    And please, don’t demonize those “handful of taconite pellets”, they’ve paid for countless numbers of Rangers kids, grandkids and great-grandkids very successful livelihoods.

  3. Bob, you’ve got a narrow interpretation of the world and I’m not going to go point by point on this. I said what I think and I put it in the order I wanted. We train the workers to be effective in a modern workforce that is increasingly service and technology based, not manufacturing based. We educate students to be the best in the world, not good enough to make widgets in an open shop, happy to lap up what the company gives. I’m not disparaging taconite pellets I know what they’ve done and what they’re worth. A handful of taconite will not feed a family. Mining alone can’t sustain a region. Your “mindset” is not the only one and will never be accepted by everyone. Nor will mine. We work together. And if you’ve got an idea more concrete than “everybody act like me” you let me know.

  4. Gonna be tough to work together and make progress unless you’re willing to go “point by point”. Where else, how else, do we start??

  5. Clearly we just need to unbind the invisible hand and the entrepreneurs will be thick on the ground, entrepening one another and the rest of us. Doesn’t have to cost anyone a cent. Or something.

    In seriousness, the George Lyon metaphor (via AK) nails it. Different region, different commodities, converging toward a similar power dynamic. For those who are interested, here is the Lyon piece:

  6. Every mining job is a boom job and when the mineral is gone, you go bust…back down toward the true population that can be sustained by the land and water of da range. That is of course if the mines don’t screw up the land and water, whereupon then you will truly have a bust economy up there. Don’t rush into a deal your hires will regret.

  7. No response yet Aaron as to how to start a sensible real world dialogue to do some good for the Range. If not issue by issue, point by point, how?? Metaphors and generalizations not allowed.

    I’m willing to put in cash…and/or time into common ground solutions if you’re willing to seriously discuss them. If not, continue to windmill away..

  8. This is the issue, Bob. You want me to list for you a solution to all our problems that you find acceptable. If it is not acceptable to you and your interpretation of politics, particularly national politics, you flood me with red herring arguments using statistics you cherry picked from the internet. It is very frustrating. I have articulated the framework of some ideas that I hope people respond to. I have been more specific at times in the past and I will be more specific at times in the future.

    I don’t know what I have to justify. Your offer of cash is nice and all, but what we need is for people to live here, participate in our communities and love one another. The cash will come and go. The jobs will come and go. We must not be beset by negativity and self-hatred. We must welcome and dream. I welcome ideas. What do you think, Bob? What do you want to see happen here?

    If I don’t immediately respond, know that I am on a family trip and might not have the ability. But I do read these comments and perhaps others would like to join in.

  9. Bob and Aaron,

    Here are a few potential “common ground” jobs solutions that might help move this dialog forward.

    1) ** Right-sized lumber mills and biomass facilities **

    As gas and diesel prices continue their steady upward climb, logging is becoming more and more unprofitable due to increasing transportation costs to a few far away mills that don’t pay very well. Small, local mills for lumber and processing plants for pellets and other biofuels should be able to create some jobs in the short term. The price of wood is low, and if the operations are smaller and dispersed, the hauling costs will be low as well. If the operations are “right sized”, they will not be too capital intensive, will not take 10 years to design and permit, will not be opposed by most environmentalists, nor will they be as likely to close if there are fluctuations in the markets. Sure, these won’t create lots of jobs, but they will create some and shore up the declining local logging industry. As petroleum costs increase, cheap local fuels and to a lesser extent cheap local lumber demand will expand and be at a competitive advantage. There has been some success with this type of approach in Aitkin County.

    2) ** Local Food production and processing **

    We don’t think of northeastern Minnesota as an agricultural area, but it has more potential than is generally realized. Certainly we can’t grow the big commodity crops like corn and soybeans, but those markets are typically monopolized and difficult to compete in anyway. Local produce, eggs, meat, potatoes, etc. for local consumption can create jobs, particularly if there are processing facilities. Again, I think the competitiveness of this market may increase (assuming farms and facilities are designed to have low fuel consumption) as fuel prices continue to rise. See a recent economic impact study on local food production at

    3) ** Other types of light to medium manufacturing **
    I don’t have specifics here yet, but some ideas come to mind – dis-assembly and reclamation of computer devices, small furniture factories, specialized tools manufacturing, etc. Undoubtedly, some of these are poor ideas, but these are off the cuff. It can be done, especially if it is a unique and perhaps regionally adapted product.

    Just a few ideas to discuss.

  10. Good, tangible ideas Joe… Linking/encouraging individuals who have innovative ideas like you mention to Range resources would be a pragmatic next step.

    Those “Range resources” could be both individuals & organizations but should have a passion to outline/tout the benefits of the investing on the Range..

  11. I agree that any of Joe Hill’s suggestions would have more sustainable jobs for Da Range than mining, but here’s the problem–

    Nobody is gonna do those jobs for you, no one is going to champion your jobs for you and your neighbors but you and your neighbors.

    That is why mining wins. Because it is the easy way out. You and your neighbors can sit there waiting for the jobs to find you.

    And there is nobody on a white horse rallying you to good jobs, instead it is an extractive outside multinational corporation who has no problem selling you on ‘good jobs’ while in fact stripping away all the real profits and leaving you behind with ill workers and polluted land and water.

    Why, because they can and you let them. In fact, you want them to, so you don’t have to do the work on your own.

    You don’t have to believe me, instead you can go out into your own community and learn it from your own history museums.

    And guess what, you folks won’t even get a fancy Hibbing High School out of the deal (those days are long gone), and you won’t even think to force the mining company to fund an IRRRB to even pretend to build something with some of the profits. Look no further than Ranger47’s attitude about the need for educating students and broadening skills. Seems all like a waste of time and money to him.

    I say the problem with Da Range is the same as it is with The Big City, that change looks too much like work.

    What was it Edison said about opportunity…something like the reason a lot of people do not recognize opportunity is because it usually goes around wearing overalls looking like hard work.

    I wish you luck with your new mines, you’ll need it.

  12. Well played, Mike. Excellent points.

  13. Thanks T, but I want to mention that Aaron’s comment #8 is right on too. We can’t go negative on each other and expect to grow a positive community.

    Also, I want to assure Ranger47 that I feel he is a fine gentleman, that I only referenced him because he does seem to represent some of this partisan divide that has hamstrung communities for decades.

    We have to stop going there, you have to be neighborly, while too being willing to face up to local concerns, to address them and at the same time being able to listen to different ideas toward honing and improving the overall pursuit. Toward a common goal, working together, not sitting on the sidelines watching someone else work and then snarking about how the sweatstains don’t flatter that other guy.

    What is the goal–I’ll say it is jobs, ones that can sustain the Range communities, to keep people fed and busy (if not downright happy).

    I’m actually not anti-mining, but I am saddened by the wasteful damage left behind. And I get angry when all the profits go out of the community and multinational corporations and banks make rapacious returns while you get raped land in return.

    And this cycle has been repeated now for how many generations (two major runs locally? Endlessly if you think globally), which doesn’t speak well for our ability as a society to learn and improve from our mistakes.

    Which reminds me of another quote of wisdom–Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

  14. Mike, thanks for the comments. You’ve articulated very well a point I’m trying to advance. It’s not just about being for or against mining. It’s an attitude that must pervade our schools and town halls, the idea that we can do more than what is typical or expected. That there is something more than just enough to get by. Talking about it, by the way, is also not enough, as R47 correctly reminds us.

    Because of my inclination I have tended to focus my efforts on the arts. But if people with other talents were to focus on expanded them here in northern Minnesota we could do more, tinkering could turn into invention, tweaking mechanical systems could turn into marketable ideas, living in the woods could become a way of life appealing to a larger world. And so on, and so forth.

  15. True enough Aaron. How shall I put this into words…
    …I think the people in society who will be easiest to reach which your message and Joe Hill’s ideas are (1) the old and (2) the young.

    Think of how it is usually Grandpa that can teach a youngster how to hunt or fish, while the parent is usually too worked up over who knows what to do so.

    And the old and young could be enough except the problem is that–
    –both these groups lack money,
    –and while the young have energy they have no time (are easily distracted),
    –and while the old have time they have no energy.

    (I say all of this not as criticism, just my opinion of reality…please feel free to tell me where I’m wrong.)

    Then, who are making all the life-changing decisions in Da Range (and everywhere for that matter)…
    …it is the monied elites who have the money and time and energy, who tend not to have the wisdom of the old or the idealism of the youth.

    And thus you end up with mining, which is the easy way (only easy way?) to extract some value from Da Range in exchange for some fleeting jobs.

    And it kicks the can down the road for the future to actually try to solve the core problem…when in fact, the old with the wisdom have passed, so we again repeat the same cycle in the following generation.

    Now would be a great time to change this cycle, eh?

  16. This conversation has passed into the post 7-day moderated comments period, so sorry for the delay in getting your comment published.

    Your observation is very much in keeping with the demographics who seem to respond to what I write about. For awhile there after my book came out the only gigs I got were college lectures and historical societies. That remains the base. And those are the two groups who have the least personally invested in keeping everything the same as it is now. Everyone else has next year’s paycheck on their mind.

    It was very frustrating to watch a group fight building a new consolidated school here on the western Mesabi led by a group of businessmen who stood to lose out if their school closed or moved. A few years later the school they “saved” is still broke, doing worse on the tests and half those guys are retired.

    Well, lamentations aside, nothing speaks like visible results. I do think some of Duluth’s positive mojo could spread, and I also think that a few small things could make a difference here on the Range. It might take a forest fire, though. I’ll try to write it all down.

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