Pushing On a String


Michael Cain

Michael is a systems analyst, with a taste for obscure applied math. He's interested in energy supplies, the urban/rural divide, regional political differences in the US, and map-like things. Bicycling, and fencing (with swords, that is) act as stress relief.

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68 Responses

  1. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    Coal mining has become a totem representing white workers.

    It doesn’t matter that there are more people employed by Arby’s than coal mines, or more people employed as home health care workers, because to the Trumpist party those workers don’t count.

    I think it was somewhere in the 90s when culture overtook economics as the primary driver of our political divide. The specific cultural issues change (gay marriage, gun control), but the divide is the same.

    The old identifying litmus tests for Republicanism of fiscal conservatism, hawkish defense, and moral rectitude have completely been overwhelmed by the single issue of white cultural identity .Report

    • Avatar J_A says:

      As I mentioned in another thread, I am now managing the construction of a large wind farm in the West.

      Though there are some women involved in the renewable energy business, minorities are almost nonexistent. I’m willing to bet a good beer sixpack that there are more white men working in the development, installation, and operation of renewable power than there are coal miners.

      So it is not even white cultural identity what’s at stake. Appalachian/Southern/Midwest white cultural identity IS the issue. Race (a more relevant issue East than West of the Rockies) appears only at is relevant to that geographically limited number of votersReport

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        I think this is spot on. The whole thing too is about masculinity and the need to do certain jobs because they require a certain amount of brute strength and break the body. I find it odd that “My granddad was a coal miner. My dad is a coal miner. I’m a coal miner. I want my son to be a coal miner.” can co-exist with 16 tons and what do you get, another day older, and deeper in debt….

        Don’t get me started on rolling coal which might as well be saying “I will poison my lungs to own the libs…”

        There are lots of states in those geographic limitations though. Speaking of which Josh Hawley (Stanford, Yale Law) went very close to full Nazi this weekend:


        • Avatar J_A says:

          Hawley demonstrated his commitment to fight the upper class and the elites by voting so hard and so fast for the tax cuts that he hurt his hand.Report

          • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

            Those are “job creators”, not cosmopolitan elites. Cosmopolitan elites are Ms. Feinberg who teaches third grade and is married to a junior partner at a law firm that does plaintiff-side personal injury cases because Ms. Feinberg and her husband own a condo in Brooklyn Heights and like to go to the Brooklyn Academy of Music twice a year for a play from abroad.Report

            • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

              Funny that Rosa the cleaning lady is also a member of the cosmopolitan elite. As is Mohammed who drives a cab in Queens and Shanique who is an insurance adjuster in Milwaukee.

              Deep and vast, this cosmopolitan elite is.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          Now they can say, “My grandpa was a coal miner who died early from black lung, and my dad was a coal miner who died in a mine accident. I’m a wind turbine technician whose legs and ass are so tight from climbing towers all day you could glass with them, who doesn’t have trouble with getting a safety harness from the company, and who will likely live a long time free from any horrible job related diseases.Report

          • Avatar JoeSal says:

            My grandfather had his own wind generator long before ‘line electricity’. Coal was a decadence thing. I imagine all these population centers wouldn’t be as sizeable without a long history of using it.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

        I wish race were less relevant out here.

        Thats what I meant by totem, in that the image of the “white working class” doesn’t actually align with the reality, but they cling to it because it serves to cleave away those who are outside their tribe.

        No Trump ad will ever show a couple of guys working on a wind farm, because alternative energy is a liberal totem.Report

        • Avatar J_A says:

          No Trump ad will ever show a couple of guys working on a wind farm, because alternative energy is a liberal totem

          I agree with you, and I believe it is a very short sighted decision on the GOP so “sort of” hate renewables (*).

          To the extent male white gun toting voters in the West who are lining up for jobs in the wind industry, not only never see themselves in a GOP add (and do see Dem’s adds lauding their industry), but actually are told by the GOP candidate that he will do anything to make sure wind farms do not cost mines to forego one single pound of coal, they see the GOP candidate working hard to get them out of their (very well paying) jobs.

          That doesn’t seem a way to, for instance, keep Montana red, just saying.

          (*) Sort of, because behind closed doors, without cameras, the GOP has been quite supportive of renewables in practice, which is why Texas leads the country in renewable generationReport

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Race (a more relevant issue East than West of the Rockies) appears only at is relevant to that geographically limited number of voters

        This is an interesting topic that I’ve thought about regularly, although I draw the line down the middle of the Great Plains rather than following the Rockies. In the 13 states in the Census Bureau’s western region — which largely follows that mid-Great Plains line — there are none where African-Americans are the largest minority group (I’m not counting non-Hispanic whites as a minority group anywhere). There are several of those states where African-Americans aren’t even the second-largest minority group.

        It’s been decades since I’ve lived in Texas, but at least then the change in predominant minority group from African-American in the eastern part of the state to Latino in the west made for some really interesting dynamics in the legislature.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      Coal mining has become a totem representing white workers.

      I would qualify that with eastern coal mining, or perhaps Appalachian coal mining. No one is holding up the people who operate the enormous strip-mining equipment in the Powder River Basin from air-conditioned cabs and produce 40% of all US coal as a totem. In my experience, western coal mining and its decline plays out as an urban vs. rural thing without the race angle.Report

      • Avatar J_A says:

        No one is holding up the people who operate the enormous strip-mining equipment in the Powder River Basin from air-conditioned cabs and produce 40% of all US coal as a totem.


        Even with half of Wyoming’s coal country undergoing consolidation and the other half in bankruptcy proceedings, few experts predicted that the once lucrative Powder River Basin would undergo such a rapid decline, including Rob Godby, professor and director for the University of Wyoming’s Energy Economics and Public Policies Center.

        “Up until a few years ago, everyone, including me, knew that thermal electricity from coal was declining, but the Powder River Basin stood as the healthiest of the coal-producing areas,” Godby said. “People in Wyoming took that for granted.”

        A decade ago, Campbell County produced over 400 million tons of coal. Last year, output sank to 283 million, according to the Wyoming Mining Association.

        It seems to me that the Western states will be even more concerned about attacks against the renewable industry. MT and WY electoral votes outstrip WV’s after allReport

      • Avatar JoeSal says:

        Inbound coal pollution from China doesn’t really appear to be a issue either as compared to ‘whatever the left needs to political signal today’.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

        I don’t even think it is so specific, since totems never are.

        When media types and Republicans talk about the “working class” they conjure up an image from Central Casting of some white guy with a hard hat and a Carhartt jacket, somebody that would be played by John Goodman or Randy Quaid.

        Maybe he (and it is always a he) is in manufacturing or construction, but definitely NOT a home health care worker, or nursing aide, definitely NOT a service clerk or retail worker and never, ever, an agricultural worker.
        Even though these sorts of jobs are more the norm than steelworkers or even construction and most of them are low paying difficult work.

        But of course, the reality is that most blue collar work is rapidly becoming the province of immigrant labor, because, well, they work cheap and don’t unionize.

        Few if any media outlets even have a “labor” desk, and like we’ve seen from the Cletus Safaris when they venture out to talk to “working class” people they are searching for what Central Casting tells them to look for.

        So a coal miner becomes the totem, the symbol of Working Class America.Report

  2. Avatar JoeSal says:

    Energy is racist, sexist, and environmentally bad.

    Oh yeah, and has a long history in white supremacy.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      You’d have to journey long and hard into the fruit loop fringes to find those sentiments. Make sure you pack a pith helmet.Report

      • Avatar JoeSal says:

        Considering Chips first comment, I was just getting it out of the way so we could talk about something else.

        Remember way back, a long time ago, when coal was coal?Report

        • Avatar North says:

          Sure, but you tried to steal a base by using ‘energy’ when you should have used ‘coal’ and thus invalidated your whole point.
          Coal is coal, like you said; it ain’t energy in toto.Report

          • Avatar JoeSal says:

            That was a prediction on the direction of progressivism, not an attempt at stealing a base.Report

            • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

              Hey, we’re not the ones retrofitting our cars to belch smoke, just to piss off other people.

              OK, I will admit that this weekend I turned off the AC and opened the windows to get fresh air, just to piss off some conservatives.

              But I feel guilty about it.Report

              • Avatar JoeSal says:

                It’s really going to suck when yall screw up energy production. I forget, is that before or after the banning of cow farts and airplanes?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Before. Priority One is to fuck up energy production. Cow farting will be our excuse for Why It All Went So Wrong followed by banning cows (which is the real goal, Joe :).Report

            • Avatar North says:

              Ah, well then I shall reiterate my original point then. You need to journey far out into the left wing weeds to find lefties dumb enough to decry energy in general and they will stay there on the fringes. People will indulge a certain amount of dumb fishery from idealists but when it actually inconveniences them the idealists get reliably taken out to the woodshed- See environmentalism in general (and how it reliably wanes in importance during a recession), identity politics and how its extreme versions are confined almost soly to the internet and academia and almost every form of social conservatism or the way pro-lifers collapse in popularity whenever they look like they’ll actually impede abortion rights in a way that hits more than poor minority women.Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

          Boy, the way Glenn Miller played
          Songs that made the hit parade
          Guys like us we had it made
          Those were the days

          And you knew what you were then
          Girls were girls and men were men
          Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again

          Didn’t need no welfare state
          Everybody pulled their weight
          Boy our old La Salle ran great
          Those were the days!Report

          • Avatar JoeSal says:

            Did they get you to trade
            Your heroes for ghosts?
            Hot ashes for trees?
            Hot air for a cool breeze?
            Cold comfort for change?
            Did you exchange
            A walk on part in the war
            For a lead role in a cage?Report

  3. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Any idea why nuclear is so much better represented in the East?

    Edit: The difference is even more stark on a map:


    Looking at that map, you’d almost think nuclear power was invented in 1820.


    • Avatar North says:

      Isn’t the east just a naturally better fit? Renewable energy isn’t quite so plentiful in the east as it is in the west; not a mountain of local fossil fuel and an absence of earthquakes and abundance of fresh water. Just what nuclear thrives with.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        It’s a long list, and timing had a lot to do with it. The East had demand at the right time, and utilities big enough to finance the nukes. As I mentioned in the OP, the feds were pushing coal in the Southwest to benefit the Native Americans during the period when the East was building all those reactors. The Glen Canyon Dam came online for power generation in the mid-1960s. The Pacific DC Intertie came online in 1970, making huge amounts of hydro power available to Southern California. The LADWP built the huge Intermountain power plant in Utah in the early/mid-1980s after nuclear was a dirty word. Western utilities had bad luck early on with nukes: the Trojan power plant in Oregon had multiple major flaws; Fort St. Vrain in Colorado was overly ambitious about technology. Water is always an issue. The Palo Verde nukes in Arizona uses purified gray water for cooling and are, I believe, the third user for some of that water.Report

        • Avatar North says:

          Thanks Michael. So water as I posited and timing which I hadn’t even considered.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain says:

            More and more often I find myself wanting to be an historian, but for a really strange period of time and location :^)

            I saw an interesting remark the other day about water, from someone at the Palo Verde nukes: “If Phoenix gets too efficient with its water, Palo Verde will have to shut down. Flush your high efficiency toilet twice.”Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      It’s Ted Kennedy’s fault, he really hated see wind turbines off the coast…Report

  4. Avatar PD Shaw says:

    While I think I agree with the thrust of the piece, I guess is separate on two points:

    I have a fairly different read on the cost of aging plants. The 1990 environmental law imposed a lot of new regulatory requirements for new coal-burning facilities and existing facilities were grandfathered for a period of time so long as they didn’t make significant improvement. The regulation created an incentive not to make improvements, and it was around ten years ago that plants had to decide whether to expand and improve, or shut down. Those that improved, needed less than 2/3rds of the coal they previously used, and saw additional reductions in operating costs.

    Maybe this is just another way of saying what I think Mr. Cain is saying, the old plants were retired. But I would pause on two reasons this background makes a difference. A lot of investment has put into coal plants the last several years that is very likely highly sustainable. The other thing to think about is what are reasonable regulatory timeframes when not all of the Clean Air Act of 1990 has been implemented yet?

    The second point is that the focus is on consumption, when about 15 percent of coal is exported, (half goes to India, South Korea, Japan, Brazil, and the Netherlands). Appalachian coal production increased last year because of what might be a temporary boost in exports. A new coal plant is opening in my state with the expectation that most will be exported to Asia.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      Yeah, I’m guilty of oversimplification — it’s always more complicated than can be put into ten paragraphs. Under the 1990 Amendments, a plant can emit as much SO2 as it wants, so long as it holds sufficient permits. As you mention, triggering capital construction events may also require emissions controls despite the number of permits. A couple of the plants in the Southwest were eventually caught up in the 1977 Amendments, which included visibility standards for the national parks (TTBOMK, no power plants have been sued on the visibility thing outside the West, but my interests are parochial).

      There may be an east-west divide over the notion of sustainable coal. 15 years ago, Xcel Energy built state-of-the-art Unit 3 at the coal-fired Comanche power plant in Colorado and brought all three units up to state-of-the-art emission controls. Xcel is back before the Colorado PUC asking for permission to retire Units 1 and 2 early, despite spending all that money on them, because they can buy renewable and natural gas-fired electricity for less than running those coal-fired units. Current conventional wisdom in the West is that no one will ever build another new coal-fired plant, and will shut plants down (or convert to natural gas) rather than add new emissions gear.Report

  5. Avatar George Turner says:


    Coal mining was the route many blacks took to the middle class. That’s why they came to Appalachia in large numbers. They have a wonderful coal-mining culture and have worked in the mines for generations. They were wildly over-represented in mining even back in the 30’s, and many Appalachian mining towns had a higher percentage of blacks than Chicago. Growing up, I didn’t much realize that any blacks worked at something other than coal mining.Report

    • Avatar Philip H says:

      funny how you don’t see them in rally’s in coal country by the President.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Well, you might not, but I do. Admittedly blacks are invisible to certain people, so you probably think that some of the miner’s are just “very tan”. But those of us on the right see a lot of black miners in the crowds behind him, and see what clearly seems to be a black miner, in a mining hat, standing right behind him in the Oval Office.

        The majority of kids on my school bus were black, and virtually all of those were from coal mining families. I grew up with them. I assure you they exist, as much as Democrats wish they didn’t.Report

        • Avatar Philip H says:

          Its not about wishing they didn’t exist. It’s about looking across multiple media platforms at many hours of coverage and many images, and not actually seeing them seeing them. This is the only one I can find – and its from his campaign:


          There’s one african american in the crowd, and one can be forgiven for thinking he’s not exactly thrilled to be there.Report

          • Avatar George Turner says:

            Oh, there are many more than that. Try a Google image search of Trump West Virginia or Trump coal miners.

            If you want to see people whose crowds are whiter than Pat Boone eating a mayonnaise sandwich on Wonderbread in a Minnesota snowstorm, look at Bernie Sanders rallies or Antifa rioters.

            One black West Virginia legislator representing the 44th district, who campaigned from his dorm room (He’s only 19), wants the state to help build Trump’s border wall. He’s an arch Republican. ^_^

            In my experience, blacks from Eastern Kentucky are culturally different from those in the city. They’re Appalachian, like the rest of us. Sometimes we run into each other in some big store check-out line and instantly sync. “Ah, you’re from Harlan!” and then we’re chat like ex-pats bumping into each other in Laos or something. I’d guess the same happens for all kinds of rural folks, where geographic ties and shared culture are primary, even throughout Great Britain.Report

            • Avatar Philip H says:

              i got that from a google search of Trump Coal Miner Rally. But sure, keep believing what you want to believe.Report

            • Avatar George Turner says:

              Perhaps you should read this Boston Review article on myths about Appalachia, and how people outside Appalachia continue to try and create simplistic version of it to support their own racial ends. “Since Appalachians are all homogeneous backwards whites, that means X, Y, and Z!”

              But these backward’s hillbilly theories don’t explain why the CEOs of Cisco and Intuit are from West Virginia. They ignore many other groups in Appalachia. For example, Steve Harvey and Katherine Johnson (Who ran NASA’s computing efforts) are black West Virginians. The mathematician John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) is a West Virginian. So is Jennifer Garner, Hoda Ktob on the Today Show, and so many countless others you see all the time.

              And remember, until fairly recently, the state was a Democrat stronghold. Bill Clinton swept it easily, and the they even went for Dukakis, a candidate who didn’t even carry Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, or California.

              To do that, a whole lot of lifelong Democrats had to switch parties, and that’s not something that most people do lightly. It usually happens only during major realignments like the Great Depression, or a massive disconnect forms over a variety of issues, or over time as people feel their party has turned on them. And it’s not unique to West Virginia. Large swaths of Democratic Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and other places also saw dramatic shifts. Many staunch union voters, and union leaders, are jumping ship, too. In the latter case, Trump was saying he’s going to bring back good union jobs. His opponents were saying that the days of US manufacturing were over, and that we all had to learn to write aps or take jobs at Starbucks. If you were a factory worker in a factory town, which way would you jump?Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                Ron Howard voice:

                Trump did not, in fact, ever promise to bring back good union jobs.Report

              • Avatar George Turner says:

                Well, I suppose having big meetings with the nation’s top union heads to discuss jobs and trade agreements, and then looking at the assembled reporters and saying “We’re going to get them working again,” isn’t exactly promising that he’s bringing back union jobs, but it’s promising to bring back union jobs. Nor is going to steel plants and standing with the head of the United Steelworkers International and promising to put tariffs on foreign imports.

                The union bosses were complaining about offshoring and one-sided trade agreements, and Trump was complaining about the same thing, and standing right with them.

                In response, the Democrats and the media started slamming the idea of ever bringing back manufacturing jobs, and of course attacking anything to do with Trump.

                He wants to resort the electorate and take the working class away from Democrats, and the liberal media elites and left wing Democrat politicians are giving their all to help him do just that.

                He’s not playing three dimensional chess, he’s fighting a one-armed blind opponent.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                Nope, not even close.

                He has never sided with unions in any of their disputes, and has not done one single thing that would benefit them in any way.

                His entire cabinet is reflexively hostile to the very idea of labor unions and Trump just recently appointed Scott Walker to the board of a think tank.

                Sorry Charlie Brown.
                There is no Labor Union Great Pumpkin, that’s merely the glowing orange orb of Donald’s head.Report

              • Avatar George Turner says:

                Gee. You should tell that to all the labor leaders who sing his praises. They’ll be shocked. Almost as shocked as some of the Democrats in 2020 who will campaign on gun control, the virtual elimination of personal trucks, more globalism, and open borders and then wonder why industrial workers abandoned them. It all makes you wonder if they’ve ever even met a factory worker who wasn’t from Honduras.Report

              • Avatar JS says:

                I’m very interested. Who would these labor leaders be, and what have they been praising him for?

                I am quite keen to see who they are and what they have been saying.Report

              • Avatar George Turner says:

                Pretty much all of them, standing in the Oval Office or Roosevelt Room for long meetings, or as Trump signs this or that. I guess the mainstream media wouldn’t cover much of it, which isn’t very surprising.

                So, we have:

                A very honest and productive conversation this morning with @realDonaldTrump pic.twitter.com/X5Da3xv1Tt

                — Richard L. Trumka (@RichardTrumka) January 13, 2017

                Trumka is the head of the AFL-CIO.

                Trump also met with Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union, Joseph Sellers, head of the sheet metal workers union, Doug McCarron, head of the carpenters union, Mark McManus, head of the plumbers and pipefitters union, and plenty of others.

                Cecil Roberts, head of the UMWA, credits Trump with staunching the decline in mining employment, though he says the UMWA is not going to come out and directly back him, even though most of the candidates they have endorsed are Republican.
                The president of the United Auto Workers, Dennis Williams, has given Trump high praise.

                While the UAW leadership is intrigued, Williams said he can’t say he’s fully behind Trump until he learns more detail. But labor is aligned with Trump’s vision, Williams reiterated.

                Trump has been making a major play to flip the union leaders. He already had quite a lot of their membership on board. In some of the early meetings, some of the union leadership said they never had such free and open access to the top before. I recall one expressing the feeling that certain top Democrats took their support for granted and didn’t bother listening to their concerns.

                The Democrat countermove seems to be something about “free college” and “OMG concentration camps!”Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                ” Trump signs this or that”

                What “this” and what “that”?

                How, exactly, has he staunched the decline in mining employment?Report

              • Avatar JS says:

                “Pretty much all of them, standing in the Oval Office or Roosevelt Room for long meetings, or as Trump signs this or that”

                I asked who have sung his praises. You listed people who have met with him, first as just a faceless group of “pretty much all of them stood next to him once”.

                You then reference Trumka, who stated “I had a productive meeting”.

                Cecil Roberts you don’t even quote, but then admit his own union isn’t behind him even though they’re often behind Republicans in general.

                You then cite Williams, who says “the UAW is intrigued” which again you translate out to “high praise”.

                I’m wondering if you and I have different understandings of the meaning of “singing his praises” because “I had a meeting with” and “I am interested in…” are not even praise, much less exultant praise.Report

  6. On your footnote there, not only is WV mines less than the Rochelle, almost all the coal currently produced in Appalachia is going on boats to China and elsewhere overseas.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      almost all the coal currently produced in Appalachia is going on boats to China

      “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to … give Appalachians coal mining jobs.”Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      India might shape up to be another export market. They’ve almost doubled their coal-fired electricity production just since 2012, and if their powerplant growth exceeds their mining growth, it could create some good opportunities. Unfortunately they have their own vast coal reserves, so in the long term they probably wouldn’t be a great market. However, their coal industry is completely dominated by a giant nationalized coal company, and we all know how efficient and innovative those can be. ^_^Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      …almost all the coal currently produced in Appalachia is going on boats to China and elsewhere overseas.

      Per the EIA’s latest report (2017), 24.6% of the coal produced in West Virginia was exported. For WV, VA, PA, and KY combined it was 18.0%. I think the EIA sucks at forecasts, but I trust their data collection. The large majority of Appalachian coal is being consumed domestically.

      We can argue about what constitutes Appalachia. I have map-like things :^)Report

      • no need I’ll concede the point. Still sounds low but perhaps I’m mistaken.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain says:

          The percentages are higher for more expensive metallurgical coal. For thermal coal, though, it’s really hard for any part of the US to compete with Australia and Indonesia in the Asian markets. And a substantial majority of Appalachian coal is still thermal coal.

          Arguably, most of the Trump administration’s actions to stimulate coal usage should result in more western coal putting the thermal coal miners in Appalachia out of business.Report

          • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

            Aaannd between you two, we have more knowledge of the coal industry than the entire Trump administration.

            Wish I could say this is snark.Report

            • Avatar George Turner says:

              Fortunately, our form of government isn’t supposed to require the President to understand much of anything about business or industry except that it’s bad to kill it. In fact, that’s true of most government posts, which is why top-down command economies that depended on government decision making struggled to produce adequate supplies of toilet paper or potatoes.

              There’s simply too much to know, and even people who are living the ground truth have trouble keeping up with the things going on in just their little niche.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Very true! But that same wisdom also requires the president to stop helping as well.Report

              • Avatar Philip H says:

                Exactly. Promising to “revive coal” means promising to swim against the tide of another global market.I always thought Republicans were against such things . . . .Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                I was thinking more about how if they are not supposed to kill business, and they have imperfect knowledge, then any attempt to help a business or sector has an even chance of harming another, perhaps better, business/sector.Report