Driving The Last Spike

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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85 Responses

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    When I hear politicians talk about creating jobs, I often wonder why they aren’t investing more in space based technology. If we can develop affordable ways to put people and key materials into space (be it space elevators, SABRE engines, or heavy lift high altitude balloons), space could be the next boom town.Report

  2. Doctor Jay says:

    Your discussion of Uncle Duke has given me a Doonesbury moment. Not that I read it any more.

    But your discussion does seem pointed in the right direction. Does a willingness to do hard physical work, endure long hours, uncomfortable conditions and danger have any value any more?

    In a sense, this is a consequence of making the world safer and more comfortable. That’s kind of a disturbing thought, really.

    It’s quite clear that out here in Silicon Valley, lots of people work insanely long hours. And lots of other IT shops all over the country, and probably the world do that. But there’s not really any physicality to it, there’s little discomfort in any physical sense, nor is there much danger. And people who found their place in the world by being the one to bear those things feel like they don’t have a place any more.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I think one other thing that sort of sets Silicon Valley apart from the other jobs is that only fraction of the public can most of it. Both in terms of raw capability and educational/vocational background. During the boom North Dakota sent the message “We need you here no matter who you are.” Silicon Valley has never sent that message because they most desperately need a particular kind of (uncommon) person.Report

      • The flip side of most booms are, of course, busts. The State of North Dakota’s official estimates are that the party will be over by 2040, all but a small fraction of the jobs due to oil and gas will be gone, and wages and property values (and tax revenues) will return to normal. They’re not shy about publicizing that opinion. I’m sure that puts off a considerable number of people who are interested in putting down roots: in 20 years, your job may well disappear, your house’s value will be declining, and your kids are going to have to move away.

        Busts can be good things in the right time/place. I live in one of the modern bust capitals of the country: the oil bust in 1988, the telecom bust in the late 1990s, the dot-com bust hit locally around 2001. It happens often enough that local business economists speculate about what the next boom/bust episode will be. Real estate? Marijuana? The area is attractive enough that many people stay through the busts. There’s usually an entrepreneurial wave of small businesses (then geologist and now Governor Hickenlooper stayed in Denver during the oil bust and was important in the early days of both brewpubs and the LoDo revival).Report

        • Twenty years is a really, really long time these days. I suspect most people going to West Dakota don’t even want to be there that long. My man in Texas reports that a lot of the people who made their way to Midland left their families in Mississippi and Louisiana. The goal was to get out there, make a lot of money, get back on their feet, and then move on to the next thing.

          That is, of course, not going to be attractive to most people, including myself. Which is among the reasons they have difficulty recruiting to begin with! But a lot of people – including myself – like the idea of it being there.Report

          • If that’s all I can get, so be it… I’d rather that booms led to investments in infrastructure and human capital with a longer life. Houston got a whole chemical industry. The West Coast got a dominant civilian airplane industry. Silicon Valley created multiple entirely new technologies, which turn out to be useful for far more than integrated circuits. In Denver, the telecom boom/bust left huge amounts of dark fiber that let the internet backbone in the US grow cheaply. The dot-com boom/bust here left a lot of talented software people (it seems that every few weeks I come across another software business doing $10M to $100M in sales that makes me say, “That sounds really useful.”).

            Broadly, I fear that West Dakota lacks the human mass and variety necessary for them to have a boom/bust/rebirth cycle.Report

          • gregiank in reply to Will Truman says:

            After 20 or 30 or 40 years and the boom is gone people mourn their dying towns. They feel screwed over by the elites. After all they helped build this country, they did good hard honorable work. Their towns were built with blood and sweat with good jobs anybody good build a middle class living from. And those damned coastal elites don’t care about them, they look down on them.

            If they are coal miners they are a great symbol of the bad elites or if they are farmers or iron workers. Try telling them the boom is over and they need to move on. When the boom ends many people don’t’ just pack up and leave.Report

      • Doctor Jay in reply to Will Truman says:

        I think you are spot on. Silicon Valley believes that it needs a very specific set of people, and is really unwilling to train people to have that skill set. In part, that’s because of the nature of what goes on here it’s often the case that by the time you’ve trained someone, the company is shuttered or acquired. Nobody can afford a longer outlook.

        And that means that a lot of potential workers are left on the table. I’m exploiting that gap right now – hiring people who don’t have the pedigree, letting them work remotely from other parts of the country, teaching them how I want things done, and paying them an amount that is cheap from my perspective and very solid from theirs.


        I wonder if we aren’t rapidly approaching a time where there isn’t any place where they have work for anybody who is willing to go to that place and do physical labor. That’s what we’re looking at, right?Report

    • George Turner in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I think it would be highly beneficial to add an element of extreme danger for people who write code that sucks. If a programmer violates the principle of least astonishment (the code should do what astonishes the user the least), he shouldn’t be astonished to find a lynch mob outside his house.

      A few programmers hanging from lampposts would do wonders, perhaps with a sign hang from their neck saying something like “I wrote the double-click pop-up that you can’t close.”Report

      • Kolohe in reply to George Turner says:

        This was sort of the orignal Jurassic Park plot. Except with dinosaurs, not mobs (impeccibly dressed or not)Report

      • Doctor Jay in reply to George Turner says:

        Tell me, George, have you had some bad experiences? I think you might be carrying some anger.Report

        • veronica d in reply to Doctor Jay says:

          I find a healthy sense of absurdism helps one muchly when encountering other people’s code.

          (Encountering my own code is just depressing and I try to avoid it.)Report

          • Doctor Jay in reply to veronica d says:

            I remember once I had the flu but I went in to work anyway, just stayed away from people. Two weeks later, I was better, and when I looked at the code I had written, I thought, “Wow, I was a lot sicker than I thought! This makes no sense at all!”Report

        • George Turner in reply to Doctor Jay says:

          I use Windows, so I’ve had a few bad experiences.

          Never had those problems with DOS v2.2 to 6.22.

          I blame Intel’s segment registers for most things that have gone wrong in the world. They didn’t even know what to call one of them, so they just said “Here. It’s an extra segment at no charge!” Then they botched the 8087.

          Then everybody jumped on ‘C’, myself included, not realizing it wasn’t an actual programming language that could be used to write programs that weren’t full of potential bugs because it lacked exception handling.

          The combined result of all that was worse than pandemic malaria.

          Had we known what awaited awaited us, we’d have stayed with Z-80’s and 6502’s, or perhaps PDP-11’s. At least their 16-bit memory space limited the amount of possible bugs.Report

          • Doctor Jay in reply to George Turner says:

            I am in awe of someone who can write the sentence “I blame Intel’s segment registers for most things that have gone wrong in the world”

            I bow down to you, sir.

            For my part, I merely wish to go back in time and murder the person who thought using ‘\’ as the file separator for DOS just to, you know, differentiate from the ‘/’ of Unix was a good idea.Report

            • Somebody well-known in CS, I forget who, said: “Those who do not study UNIX are doomed to reinvent it — badly.”Report

            • George Turner in reply to Doctor Jay says:

              An eternal classic, The Unix Haters Handbook 😀

              They even have a section on C++ titled “C++ is the COBOL of the 90’s”, which includes a bit saying “C++ is to C as lung cancer is to lung.”

              I programmed almost exclusively in C and C++ for decades, and they’re probably not wrong. I avoided C++’s OOP features like the plague.

              Like many in the early days of PC’s, I started out in BASIC, but then wrote my own Forth interpreter in 8080 assembly language because I wanted to program in Forth. I quickly abandoned Forth as an abortion of a language and switched to LISP, Pascal, and C.Report

              • Troublesome Frog in reply to George Turner says:

                Dennis Ritchie’s Anti-Forward is still one of my favorite roasts of all time:

                Here is my metaphor: your book is a pudding stuffed with apposite observations, many well-conceived. Like excrement, it contains enough undigested nuggets of nutrition to sustain life for some. But it is not a tasty pie: it reeks too much of contempt and of envy.


              • Ooh! Ooh! Are we doing old geek bragging rights? When it was still “C with Classes”, I was doing a port for a research group and sent Stroustrup e-mail summarized as “There’s a reason varargs.h exists” and caused a new minor point release.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Michael Cain says:


                The only fix I ever caused was for the Allen-Bradley PLC-5/40, which had a serious bug whereby indexed addressing would allow negative indexes. The equivalent in C would have allowed something like the below to execute without an error, but blatting a zero somewhere below the starting address of the array.

                int myarray[200];

                myarray[-400] = 0;

                They forgot to prohibit negative index values. A firmware update was almost immediately released, since PLC errors can rip people’s arms off.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to George Turner says:

                That does execute without an error in C, unless the resulting address is illegal or write-protected 🙂Report

              • veronica d in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Nerds 🙂Report

              • Of course it works. C subscripting is just syntactic sugar for pointer arithmetic, helpful for people and optimizers.

                I have here on my Mac a piece of C code whose origins, as best I was able to determine at the time it originally came into my hands, go back to Ken Thompson before Version 6 Unix (so before May 1975 — call it 42 years). As a code archeology project, it’s interesting. Pointers and ints are used interchangeably; negative subscripts are common; some of the important global state variables have single-character names; the main interactive loop is implemented with setjmp/longjmp.Report

              • veronica d in reply to Michael Cain says:

                I mean, how else would you do it?Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to George Turner says:

                In C, that’s considered a feature.Report

              • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                What a confidence builder! I’ll add it to the list of ways C will produce buggy code, like not detecting overflows and underflows.

                What I wish Intel or someone had done is create a set of exception address registers that can be loaded with the address of an error handling routine, with each register dedicated to a particular flag like zero, not zero, overflow, carry, and sign, plus perhaps a few others that might be useful. But they only did that with the divide-by-zero interrupt, which they treat like any other interrupt.

                If they’d broadened the divide-by-zero concept, it would allow much more exception handling to be triggered as an interrupt, even things that aren’t crashes, such as a carry, overflow, or zero (“Hey, A=B!”).

                Then, if you’re writing a tight inner loop, the exception registers could be preloaded for conditions that might be encountered during the loop, or even loop exit conditions, so the tight loop doesn’t have to waste machine cycles checking to see if some condition has occurred.

                But nobody did that.

                By the way, the worst architecture I have looked at is the Apollo Guidance Computer. It’s not only crazy, it uses one’s complement instead of two’s complement arithmetic, so 0000 is positive zero and 11111 is negative zero. After a comparison, you have to check for both types of zero!

                And it’s mnemonics are likewise bizarre, and the more you’ve used machine language the less likely you are to correctly guess what they mean.

                For example:

                “CA mem” is “clear and add”, which clears the accumulator and adds the contents of mem to it. (A=0; A=A+mem;) Everyone else would call that instruction something based on “move” or “load”. Not those Apollo guys.

                “DIM mem”. You might think that’s dimensioning some memory, but you’d be wrong. It diminishes the value in memory, meaning that it decrements a positive value but increments a negative value, either of which might hit positive or negative zero. Woopee!

                “ROR”. Not a rotate, a read I/O and bitwise OR it with the accumulator. Similar to “RAND”.

                Instead of varieties of jump or branch instructions, (JMP mem or JNZ mem), it uses “TC mem”, for “transfer control”, except for “TS mem”, which is “transfer the accumulator to storage”, which we’d call a move.

                COUNT – doesn’t actually do anything.

                DEC – declare a constant

                ERASE – allocate memory

                It gets worse. Much worse.

                But the code they wrote is hilarious. The AGC boots up with a program code of 00, which is displayed to the pilot as P00. There’s a flush routine for resetting the AGC which will return it to P00. but programmers are warned that before they flush they have to check with the guy in charge of POO.

                AGC Assembly Language manual

                Don’t read it without a bottle of whisky, and perhaps a loaded pistol.

                I only waded deep into it because I figured I could translate AGC code into either Intel assembly language or a high-level language. It would be nice to be able to read what their program did at a more conceptual level.Report

  3. Kimmi says:

    Dykes don’t stop shitstorms.
    Miami got problems that NYC doesn’t have.
    The plans to evacuate Miami are already on the books.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Kimmi says:

      And what exactly is a protective dyke, anyway? A woman with short hair, standing by the river, saying “don’t go in there”?Report

  4. North says:

    Great musings Will. Lurking underneath this, also, is that ominous leviathan that whispers “if these people can’t earn a living doing this what is left for you to offer them to do for a living”?Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to North says:

      the better question is, “Why do these people think that this is the only honorable way to earn a living available to them?”Report

      • North in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        Tradition, the past is a ghost that haunts us all but some are haunted more than others.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        Tradition, pandering, gender, etc.

        Americans have always placed value and self-worth from their labor especially if the labor is hard. We have a lot of disagreements about what constitutes hard labor though. Plus a lot of issues about whether white-collar work is real or meaningful.

        I’ve discovered that a lot of people find white-collar/office work to be too abstract and hypothetical in terms of its products. I’m fine with producing a complaint or demand letter.
        Many people are not but get satisfaction from producing something real and physical.

        The gender component is that a lot of people have been trained (including women!) to see service/teaching/health jobs as “women’s work” because they require compassion and courtesy.

        What I’ve noticed on the far left and right is also a distrust of the materialism of a capitalist society and a currency based economy. Both seem to have their own preferred fantasy economies based on barter and trade. The left variant might be slightly more communal than the right-wing variant but they all get rid of the need for white collar work and profits from it. No lawyers, no clerks, no accountants, etc.Report

        • In the case of Duke, it’s not especially about community preservations. I mean, he was pushing his nephew to go out and work on a rig. Which was a change from what he did (agriculture). The point of his that resonated with me was the existence of shovel-ready opportunities somewhere. In his case, he believes there is a sort of duty-bound requirement to do your time in them. I don’t, but I do think society has really lost something when they’re no longer available. Blue collar work lends itself to that far more than white collar work. Apart from secretarial, which itself has become a less common job path and increasingly credential-laden.Report

          • Kolohe in reply to Will Truman says:

            I totally get the part about ‘doing your time’, I’m a big fan of everyone doing scut work at some point (early) in their lives.

            What I don’t get is that Jerry ‘did his time’, correct? Why does Uncle Duke want Jerry to be a diggit lifer?Report

            • PD Shaw in reply to Kolohe says:

              I guess I’m not quite getting this either. There seems to be an underlying assumption that one can work one’s way up the ladder from the entry points, but unfortunately I don’t think this path is very common anymore. I’m guessing that the nephew could keep working and eventually become a supervisor of offshore operations which would mean better pay, more responsibilities, and still working offshore. I’m also guessing he’s looking at a masters degree in something like business (finance) or engineering, that puts him in line for a specialized job that simply cannot be reached through hours worked offshore.Report

            • DensityDuck in reply to Kolohe says:

              “What I don’t get is that Jerry ‘did his time’, correct? Why does Uncle Duke want Jerry to be a diggit lifer?”

              Because the “always-cooperate” strategy only works if nobody ever defects.

              What make Duke sign up to be a diggit lifer and put in his shift work every day and do the best he could and not kick too hard was the notion that everyone else was doing it too. It’s not like Duke never realized that a college degree would put him at the front of the line; what he did figure was that everyone before him had agreed to not play the game that way, and so he owed it to everyone behind him to do the same.Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:

            How much time is needed to be done? Who gets to serve first?

            There is still a lot of supremacy in waiting in line because the amount of time that someone needs to wait seems to be elastic. I’m not sure that blue-collar work lends itself more to trench work. Plenty of white-collar work is about a long slough to new positions especially in the age where lifetime employment is no longer guaranteed and a person’s first few jobs might be benefit free.

            Granted most white-collar work does not come with a risk for injury and for the best jobs, trench work is extremely well-paid.

            Maybe I’m a radical here but I am for getting rid of all these musts and mandatories. There are too many different groups and each group has its own musts and mandatories.Report

            • gregiank in reply to Saul Degraw says:

              How much time? The same amount as we did back in the Old Days not like those darned Kids These Days.Report

            • Troublesome Frog in reply to Saul Degraw says:

              I’m all for the notion that management should have some time in the trenches in order to understand what they’re working with, but it seems like the amount of time is just however long it takes to understand what the people doing the work are going through. If you gain an understanding of how the work is done and have enough experience to have empathy for the people doing it, I’m not sure what else is needed.

              It seems like the, “Do this for X years and then you get an office,” take is often less about the idea that doing it for X years gives you the skills you need for the office and more about the notion that getting an office is a reward for X years of work. It’s not a reward. It’s a new set of responsibilities that you take on when you’re ready. If you’re ready in less than X years, that’s great. Some people will never be ready, whether they put in X years or the rest of their lives.

              People who look at promotions as a reward for time served are doomed to be confused and bitter when they see a world that doesn’t actually work according to the model in their heads.Report

              • The Labor Theory of Value strikes again.Report

              • Saul Degraw in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

                I am not sure I agree re management. There are plenty of people who served time in the trenches and still end up being dick managers because hazing is a thing. As is “I suffered through this and so shall you.” See medical residencies and internships.

                There are great managers who largely existed only in the management world.

                But there are a lot of people who do think that office jobs are a “reward” for X years of service and don’t understand what you pointed out.Report

              • I suspect there’s a fantasy among people who do non-office jobs that suggests office jobs are a sort of promised land of easy work. I saw that fantasy (and bought into it) a lot when I worked fast food. It wasn’t seen so much as a “reward” for x years of service so much as it was seen as a very good gig to get.

                As for the other points, you’re probably right that some very bad managers rise up through the ranks and owe some of their badness to being from the ranks, while some very good managers may not have been in the ranks to begin with.

                But a different way to look at the point is to suggest that at least some experience in the ranks is often better than not in informing how to manage. It’s not decisive. It’s not necessary or sufficient. But it probably usually helps.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Saul Degraw says:

                It’s also the case that familiarity breeds contempt. “Digging is hard? Bullshit, I dug for a year and it wasn’t THAT hard, now get back in there and dig!”

                Same with the people who suggest that rich kids should work with poor kids. “I spent six months in a gas station and those people were dumb as hell, don’t you try to tell me they ought to be allowed to smoke and drink!”Report

            • White collar work can be a slough, but I’d generally prefer it over working on an oil rig.

              Wouldn’t you?Report

              • I have a friend with a PhD in economics who keeps his pipe fitters union card current. Being a pipe fitter screwed his back up permanently (specialists look at his medical records and say, “I got nothin’…”). He constantly asks young people with a pipe fitters card, “What’s Plan B? ‘Cause you will need it. The retirement benefits are generous because so few people can claim them.”Report

  5. Mike Dwyer says:

    Pretty interesting stuff… My youngest daughter is about to start college in the fall and she’s one of those kids that many people would point to and say, “College isn’t for everyone.” If she was a boy I would be pushing the trades HARD. I think I’ve quoted this here recently but according to This Old House, 80% of all skilled trade jobs went unfulfilled last year. That’s astounding but also not very surprising based on my experience with the millennial workforce.

    I do think green jobs might be the ticket to pull some females into non-degree work. It feels cutting edge and not so rough-and-tumble as an oil rig or coal mine. But the OP is completely right that these jobs just aren’t getting the kind of traction that natural resource extraction sees.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      Well, to be blunt and butt in where it’s nunnamai bizness, why aren’t you pushing the trades even if she ain’t a dude?

      (Eta – like even This Old House has a woman as a semi regular host now)Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to Kolohe says:

        I’m absolutely pushing the trades (and the military) but convincing a girl to become a carpenter really reveals a lot about modern gender roles. There are (unfortunately) so many girls that simply won’t even consider it. I’m sure there are companies like this out there, but a good niche to fill in every market would be a female-friendly construction firm that really emphasizes that it’s a harassment-free workplace where women can feel like equals. I feel like someone could really have some success in that area if they put the effort into it.Report

        • George Turner in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          Girls working as carpenters

          The sexual tensions in home construction seem to be different from what I expected.Report

        • J_A in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          The general contractor I use for small/medium jobs at my house (like replacing a toilet or repairing a damaged hardwood floor is a woman. Her gig is that she hires and manages individual guys with a truck to do the job, but she manages, supervises and guarantees the quality and schedule of the job.

          Her marketing angle is that female customers and stay at home mums feel comfortable with her and don’t have to deal with the guys with a truck themselves.

          She’s very successful.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          I’d reckon to guess that any “female-friendly construction firm that really emphasizes that it’s a harassment-free workplace where women can feel like equals” will immediately become a battle-ground in the culture war, with certain folks saying, “Look… if you want to prioritize political correctness over workMANship, go for it. I’d rather have a staircase that will stay up than one built with ‘sensitivity.'”

          Which is a damn shame and not an indictment of the idea itself but an indictment of where we seem to be as a society right now.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      Women can be mechanics, electricians and plumbers and carpenters too.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Absolutely. And I know from experience in the hunting community that girls that do typically-male activities like hunting, fishing, etc are usually celebrated as a cool anomaly. Nick Offerman employees several women at his woodworking shop in L.A. and he has stated numerous times that they are the best woodworkers he knows.

        It’s like STEM, but there’s even less push it seems. Lots of opportunities for females out there but it’s still a frontier in many ways.Report

        • veronica d in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          It takes a particular type, and there are a lot of weird pressures. For one thing, a lot of men will be weirdly helpful, but they have an agenda. Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes it isn’t. No doubt some men are just being genuinely helpful with no agenda at all, but how to tell? So that’s a catch-22 a thousands times more fraught than “Do I accept a free drink from this guy at the bar?” — cuz you can just leave the bar. Leaving your career is a bit more work.

          STEM has its own weird pathologies, inasmuch as nerd guys (#notallnerds) are weirdly terrified of women, but then pedestalize them, but them tear them back down. Yeesh.

          Honestly, being visibly trans lets me avoid most of this mess.Report

          • Mike Dwyer in reply to veronica d says:

            I recently stumbled across a girl on Instagram that is a fly-fishing guide out west. Her job, combined with her gender, plus she’s attractive…93K followers. I’m sure a not-small % of those followers are just dudes who like to check her out, but it’s also that she’s a girl in a male-dominated field. Not sure what it all says, but I’ve been trying to think of a field where a guy could have the same experience and I keep striking out.Report

            • Maribou in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

              @mike-dwyer It’s not 93K twitter followers but stats are really clear that male librarians get promoted all the way up to library director very disproportionately to female ones, based on their relative prevalence as employed entry-level librarians. It’s not just librarians either. Nurses, teachers… Forbes has a decent article on the topic.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Maribou says:

                It could also be a method to get them off the floor where they stop creeping people out.

                Sexism cuts both ways. A male librarian is like a male nurse.Report

            • Kazzy in reply to Mike Dwyer says:



              Teacher Tom writes really interesting stuff that is worth reading. Sometimes, his work or perspective is informed by his experiences as a man (both as a teacher and just as a human). But I think he draws a ton of his readership from the novelty of being a male early childhood teacher.

              I mean, just the name of the site is telling. Would “Teacher Mary” get you anywhere? Probably not. But “Teacher Tom”? That’s a hook unto itself.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Kazzy says:

                Or maybe his name is Tom and he’s a teacher and a cigar is just a cigar.

                If the blog were “wolfpack leader” or “scoutmaster” or “sage on the mountain” or something like that, I’d say you were onto something.Report

    • J_A in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      I do think green jobs might be the ticket to pull some females into non-degree work. It feels cutting edge and not so rough-and-tumble as an oil rig or coal mine.

      I’m not sure what “green jobs” means in this context, but building (or doing maintenance to) a wind power farm is quite similar to a rig job, with lots of working strapped at high alritude, or waiting in remote locations for the weather to turn right, and it’s very physically intense (climbing 300 ft up and down a ladder a couple of times a day, each climb lasting perhaps 30 min of pulling yourself up, with your equipment strapped to your back).

      Now, running up the operations of a power plant of any kind is a perfectly fine job for (two years college) graduates of any gender who are not afraid of carpal tunnel injuries.Report

  6. Saul Degraw says:

    I think the issue is deeply complicated.

    First I don’t think you can discuss labor in the United States without discussing many other long-simmering tensions in the United States. These have existed since the founding of the Republic and flare up in various forms. The most basic is urban v. rural roughly. But this also contains many other tensions such as immigration, religious minorities, race, etc. These are all intertwined and sometimes purposefully so to maintain division.

    Rural v. Urban goes back to Jefferson and Hamilton debating and fighting. The rise of office work was also contentious in the 19th century from what I’ve read and officer workers were viewed as effete and getting paid too much money for what they did.

    The problem with a partisan and divided country is that it reduces all sides to special pleading. Everyone needs to learn to adapt but you and your side. So retail workers need to learn to adapt but displaced miners and other men with manly men jobs getting special pleading and pleas from politicians about the jobs coming back.

    The desire for things to remain the same is strong in all humans seemingly. You see it in factory workers and you see it in city residents who hate that a mom and pop shop is being replaced with a bank branch, another frozen yogurt chain or Starbucks or 5 dollar coffee place, and/or a high-rise condo.

    Economics and change are hard but symbolism is easy and psychologically balming. There is a lot of evidence that building fancy yuppie condos as quickly as possible can and does reduce rent but a lot of people still protest against the concept and refuse to build this. My theory is that the protest is because of symbolic representation. What fancy condos represent is seemingly the unworth of those who will never be able to afford to live in them. “Why doesn’t anyone build housing for me? Why is it always yuppies with expensive tastes that get catered to instead of geeky/weirdo/regular Joe/not fancy types like me who don’t understand modern art and don’t want expensive furniture.” The benefit of lower rent is seemingly secondary to the symbolism of the condo.

    Such it seems with Uncle Duke and the Coal Miners. They want a world where their communities get to stay trapped in Amber and “My grandfather did this. I did this. My sons do this” is a thing that gets said for infinity.

    But things do change.

    I don’t know how to address the cutting in line complaint because that can easily be connected to white male superiority complexes and often is.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      When people say “affordable housing”, it turns out that they don’t actually mean “a house you can buy for $200,000”. What they mean is “houses just like all the other ones here only somehow they only cost $200,000”.Report

  7. Pinky says:

    Flipping houses, meth, dog spas…there are always boom industries. Right now, a lot of our boom industries are online – think Uber, ebay, and writing the apps that run them – so it’s harder to “locate” them.Report

  8. Kolohe says:

    I also was thinking Doonsebury. And who is going to blow up the asteroid if Jerry never goes back to the rig.

    Though, and it relates to something Oscar said above, the cultural thinking always seemed to me to be ‘ I’m going to work in this coal mine or this kitchen or this sweatshop hard enough so my kids never have to breathe coal dust or stand over scalding grease or sew a stitch ever in their lives’

    Why that changed is the question. Or, if it even did (I doubt it did, in the main. And not in the immigrant communities I’m familiar with, at least)Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kolohe says:

      Why that changed is the question. Or, if it even did (I doubt it did, in the main. And not in the immigrant communities I’m familiar with, at least)

      I imagine it both changed and didn’t change, often with the same people both wishing to ensure their children would never have to do such work and lamenting that the same children (or their children’s children) are too different and don’t understand what it’s like to do such work.Report

  9. KarelEtc says:

    Visting the mining museum in Bochum(Germany) two years ago, a city with a long history of mining coal that is now really history, it became clear that modern mining for coal is fully mechanised and automated. The work down the shaft is still dark and dusty and involves handling very heavy equipment, it has little left of the heroic struggle with the hard rock and the coal in narrow seams.
    Any underground coal mine that would reopen to benefit from the relaxed regulations would need to modernise its underground equipment to even have a chance to extract coal at a market price. Such a mine would hire only a very small fraction of its former staff.Report

    • Lyle in reply to KarelEtc says:

      Actually if there was a margin in underground coal mining it would have been taken to the point that no one worked at least at the mine face. (Either back in a safe room or on the surface) Consider that the continuous miner is already remoted controlled from 30 feet away. Put fiber optic cables with the power cables and some tv cameras, and no one need be at the mine face. In particular with the new longwall mining where machines provide the roof support and are moved every so often as the coal is removed. All of the machines could be remote controlled. Of course in the current situation underground coal can’t really compete on labor required with a surface mine (a factor of 3 or more less labor per ton for a surface mine) Plus because of the long time underground mines have existed, the seams are getting worse over time (See Smil on Transforming the 20th century). In particular the average heat value per ton is worse than 100 years ago.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Lyle says:

        If I recall the details correctly, most of the remaining underground coal mining in the American West is done in close proximity to a power plant that was sited for other reasons: availability of water, access to utility corridors, special funding deals. Very low transportation costs offset the higher labor costs.Report

  10. Damon says:

    I’m reading this and all I hear is “We work the black seam” by Sting.

    There IS something about manual labor, or more precisely, CRAFTING, at least for me. From the “fire pit” made out of a clothes washer tub, to the hand made knife, or lamp, or the bell stand. It resonates the soul. As for the extraction trades, it’s conquest over nature. This “stuff” was dug up. We battled the cave ins, the poor light, the heat, and we pried it out of the ground. One could use the analogy that “we battled the Gods” to obtain this.

    But this doesn’t mean that some industries time has not come.Report

    • Lyle in reply to Damon says:

      Consider that machining has changed from when folks directly manipulated the levers and dials on the machine, to modern CNC machining in which the primary job of an operator is to put the work in press start and fix problems. (Of course this does mean much more precise tolerances on machined parts, typically by at least a power of 10)Report

  11. Jaybird says:

    In the 90’s, IT was the boomtown.

    They needed warm bodies so badly that something as banal as having a philosophy degree was seen as a selling point because someone who had a philosophy degree will know how to type.

    And, you know what? It made sense to tell coal miners “you need to learn HTML”.

    But then… the outsourcing came…Report

    • veronica d in reply to Jaybird says:

      Honestly my first job interview was basically,

      Him: “Do you know C?”

      Me: “Yes. I read a book. I play with my C compiler at home.”

      Him: “When can you start?”

      I’m not kidding. No seriously, that was it.Report

  12. PD Shaw says:

    “opportunities for people who are willing to work two weeks a month for sixteen hours a day”

    I get the sense that Uncle Duke may not appreciate that element. I knew a lot of people that worked on oil rigs when I lived in New Orleans, and going out to sea for this type of work seemed to have a number of frequent implications: (1) hard-partying on the return to land; (2) forced savings from good pay and being completely shut-off from spending opportunities for weeks at a time; and (3) difficulty in making and maintaining new social relationships. The group I knew were all gay men in their 20s in good shape, and I think they all had some plan to do something else eventually with the money they were saving; whether it was to go to college, or tend bar or go to cooking school or whatever. And maybe they did or maybe they didn’t, I don’t know, but if they changed jobs they were going to be desirable employees for anybody who understands the work ethic and commitment for the work.

    I think the larger point is that we need to pursue a diverse economy with different job opportunities for different people to pursue at different points in their life.Report

  13. James K says:

    You make a good point, but there’s another reason coal miners are different from haberdashers – there’s no such thing as a haberdashery town. Communities require an economic foundation to anchor them. Most service jobs seem to rely on agglomeration effects – they are done best when surrounded by a large number of people. This makes them good city jobs, but no good for rural areas. In fact, the only jobs that do make sense to locate in rural areas are ones which are natural resource-related as you have to put a coal mine where the coal is. The coal mine may not represent a large amount of employment in absolute terms, but its the only reason for a lot of towns to exist at all. If you shut down the coal mines, the town might exist for a while, but the young folk will leave for the cities to find work, and the town will get older and smaller until it falls apart.

    In the 1980s Thatcher shut down a lot of coal mines in Northern England. Coal mining was dirty and dangerous and the mines themselves were an economic and environmental disaster. But the North still hates the conservatives for what Thatcher did, because there are a lot of towns that have no reason to exist anymore, and will inevitably cease to exist.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to James K says:

      And the coal towns had generations behind them. Getting rid of a community is somewhat easy if it only existed for a generation at most. When you have decades or even over a century of community and families that were living in that community for just as long, your going to have a bit of a problem. Especially since there isn’t usually a lot of help for dying communities and people are left to fend for themselves. Things would go down if the pain was blunted by we will subsidize or pay for your move to an economically viable area rather than the usual FYIGM attitude.Report

      • James K in reply to LeeEsq says:


        I think transition support would be a good idea, but that wouldn’t be enough to prevent all the political support for coal mining – a lot of people will want to preserve the community they have, not move to a new one. Unfortunately I don’t see a way of doing that – coal is a really bad idea as an energy source.Report