When crisis meets crisis, opportunity becomes clearer

PHOTO: HonestReporting.com, flickr/truthout, Flickr CC, BY-SA

Sometimes it gets hard to keep track of all the crises. At the state level or even regionally here in Northern Minnesota, we’ve got plenty of worries to choose from. Any one of them could keep us thrashing in bed all night.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s review.

Employment Crisis

“Double edged sword” is an overused phrase, but particularly apt for us here in Northern Minnesota. On one hand, most folks agree that we need jobs. (Not just jobs, but “jobs, jobs, jobs”). What people usually mean by this, though, is that we need high paying jobs with benefits that fit perfectly with our current workforce. Because we don’t have enough of those. That’s because technology shrunk those industries into a lean, mean shadow of what they once were.

Meantime, the region *does* have thousands of high- and low-skill jobs that employers can’t fill. Now hiring! Rural hospitals and specialty firms struggle to attract and retain young talent. Meantime, you hear business owners complain about the local applicants, “too lazy” or “drug-addled” chief among the charges.

Quite often this really means that the people employers want won’t work for the cheap wages they offer. Other times we must recognize that even the necessary tech school and community college education has become prohibitively expensive. Nevertheless, the social problems inherent with an 80 percent drop in our top source of employment over the past 40 years bear some responsibility, too.

Our economy has become so brutally efficient that we’re just now realizing what happens when a person retires after absorbing five job titles over the last 30 years. Namely, it’s pretty hard to replace them.

Consider how this relates to the next “crisis,” though.

Retirement Crisis

Did I say “as baby boomers retire?”

I did, didn’t I?

If you want a thrill, ask baby boomers about their retirement savings. No, not the ones with master’s degrees poured into pantsuits and stretch Dockers. The other ones. *Most of them.* Whether they’re middle income or low income, data shows they aren’t fully prepared for retirement.

Part of the reason is that defined benefit plans like pensions have been destroyed over the same 40 years that nuked most of our mining and natural resource jobs. Along with them went the clout of the private sector unions that fought for and protected those pensions. This has put most people who DO plan for retirement into 401(K) plans or their public sector equivalents. We are just beginning to realize the folly of these plans.

Boiled to the argument’s core, does *everyone* who invests in the stock market *win?* By capitalistic necessity, the answer to that question is “no.” And even if they did, most people don’t save enough on their own. It’s a choice, sure. But I’ve seen diligent savers lose out by retiring right before a stock sell-off. And what do we do with the millions who haven’t saved much at all? Sometimes because they’ve been working lousy jobs to make ends meet? Or because they were cut loose in their 50s?

Fact is, we know who will fill some of those jobs left behind by retiring baby boomers: Less fortunate baby boomers. Frankly, our workforce will need them. Look for a rise in part time work for older workers with specific skills. Phased retirement will become something formalized across the economy. But what about people who do physical work? They’ll suffer. Not just because their bodies break down sooner, but because of …

Automation Crisis

One more crisis to consider, the fact that a third of the jobs we know now will be performed by machines within 15 years. Sure, there will be technician jobs to operate the automation, but who do you know who’s training for that job now? Anyone in Buhl? Hoyt Lakes? The only people who do were probably trained by the mines to help the mines reduce their workforce.

My point in bringing up these many crises is not just to scare you, though we should be alarmed and motivated by these gathering storms.

Rather, I point to another piece of old wisdom, perhaps too often trivialized: From crisis comes opportunity.


If we think strategically instead of emotionally, we might find a path forward. For instance, instead of obsessing about the limited possibility of a few hundred new mining jobs, we could focus our efforts on attracting workers and entrepreneurs for a new generation of mining technology. We should be developing and testing the technology here. Even more important, companies that use the products we mine will become far more important than the raw materials alone. Value added commodities and specialized manufactured goods are the future. Europe is doing it. We can too.

How? Well, it’s pretty evident that the cost of college and technical training is a major burden on young people, giving them compounding debt right at the time we’d like them to buy houses, volunteer in the community and pop out babies. (Or as we call them at the school, FTEs.) What if we made that affordable, or even free? Instead of endlessly servicing bloated low-interest student loan programs, we could get people earning and paying taxes earlier.

Then we could help them out by planning career training and high-order critical thinking programs that look beyond our current dying industrial system. We could imagine a system that will beat the Chinese, Europeans and Indians on merit, instead of might.

If all this sounds too pie in the sky for the baby boomers worried about retirement, consider this. What’s going to cause enough young people to pay into Social Security and Medicare for the next 40 years to keep you from living in a FEMA trailer on the edge of some desert town? What we’re doing now? Or something new?

I’m ready to try something new. The only people in the way are the ones who got rich off the mess we’ve got now. And you know, they’ll be fine either way.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 25, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. If we make college “free”, how in the world are you going to get paid Aaron? You should check with Christina before pushing the idea too hard that you’d be willing work for nothing.

    • Please don’t invoke my wife’s name into this conversation. I know what college costs. The question is how much do we, as a people, invest in making sure people have access to it. About 33 to 45 percent of college is subsidized now. Another more nebulous amount of money is dedicated to subsidizing public and private loans, servicing debt and defaults. That hardly seems efficient because we are cutting into working people’s incomes precisely when we want them to buy houses, have children and invest in long term savings. So what I’m really proposing is upping the amount we subsidize the cost because that money will return in the form of income taxes and economic improvements in the relative near future. It makes a lot more economic sense than subsidizing people who don’t need the money and just end up hoarding it. If you’d rather call this a tax cut for young professsionals we can do that. That’s how it will function.

      • Sorry Aaron, I erroneously made the assumption you’d be willing to help out with the ever rising cost of college by taking a pay cut…most happily married folks make a decision like that jointly. So, if your pay doesn’t decrease, but tuition goes to zero, something has to give.

        I see what you’re suggesting is a tax increase for other people’s husbands and wives. I think it’d only be fair to ask them if they’re willing to do that. It’s their money your proposing to take.

        Just an observation, as college subsidies rise and rise, it sounds like you’re driving towards government run colleges. Most folks kids don’t go to college and might question why they should pay for other peoples kids to do so.

        • Ah, see I missed your logical fallacy there. I understand it well enough now to dismiss it as such.

          I am calling for a prioritization of spending, not necessarily a tax increase. I’d like to reduce our defense budget, for instance. Though I doubt we’ll ever emerge from deficit spending without rolling back the expensive giveaway to the wealthiest people on the planet included in the last tax bill. That is a separate matter.

          I am happy to pay my share of any taxes. Never suggested otherwise. I’m not going to argue with you on the nature of taxation and the role it’s played in American history, or human history, for that matter. The use of tax dollars for public progress predates the Bible, as you know.

          As for your last point, I sometimes feel you don’t fully understand the things you rail against. We have a robust public (ie: “government run”) college system in the 50 states and federal programs that support them already. I am saying that we could probably achieve more tax revenue (in a positive way, through economic activity rather than tax increases) if young people had more buying power and savings during their prime child-rearing and career-building years. After all, when you went to college, or when my dad went to tech school in the 1970s, tuition was low enough that a college student could afford to pay his or her way through by working part time. That’s all I’m really suggesting here. Maybe the better word is “net free” — which is another proposal you see. Students should pay what they can and the rest is free.

          Right now about half the country sends children to college or some kind of technical training. Both are vitally important to the training of our workforce and also in our function as a democracy and civilization. This is well documented in countless studies and comparisons with places that don’t have what we have. The people who don’t go to college, by and large, can’t afford it. I grant you, a handful get by without it because of some divine ability to dribble a ball or hit home runs, a handful are coding geniuses, but most are poor kids who spend their lives living paycheck to paycheck. We pay for a lot of things that not everybody collects on. Programs for the old. Programs for the young. Streets and bridges. Again, I’m not going to debate the nature of taxation. I know from years of your posts, an exhaustive volume of writing that would be substantial enough to publish in book form, that we’ve had that conversation before. I think you know that, too.

          • After years of my truthful posts and you still believe – “the rest is free”. Name me a society which as survived with that thinking.

  2. “years of truthful posts”? How about years of whining about the others “taking” your money , while you pose as some kind of Christian? The cognitive dissonance is truly mind-boggling

  3. Elanne Palcich says

    Aaron–whatever it is that you say, Ranger 47 has decided that it’s his job to argue against it. Since he’s not getting paid to argue, the govt. isn’t collecting any taxes off his opinion, and he also has no money to put into the local economy. That must fit into his economic philosophy somehow.

    • Aaron is a “bigger government” elitist proponent Elanne. I don’t hold that against him as his primary income is dependent on big government leaning policies. I’m a constitutionalist, small but effective government guy. I pay $1,000’s of dollars, way too much for what we get in return (they’re very wasteful), to state and local governments in taxes in Minnesota. Aaron is a believer in continually getting those taxes raised for all, across the board. And he’s developed a regional, occasionally state wide voice, that represents a minority view of the Range. (for that, I give him credit…he puts in a lot of hard work).

      So yes Elanne…I generally debate, and rightfully so, against Aaron’s positions..but, give him credit when credit is due.

      For example, I think he’s done a wonderful job with the Great Northern Radio Show. His Dig Deep effort could use help…it’s a bit shallow. BUT, again…he’s a go getter, just misguided in his political thinking.

      • Geez, sorry Aaron…”Overburden”, your signature accomplish! It’s what introduced me to you and certainly worthy of the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. Without that, your blog hits counter would be significantly less..

  4. Ranger seems to follow the hybrid theology of Chrisitanity/Ayn Randism.

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