Speak Your Piece: Change the Economy First

[imgbelt img=Renick-Millwork528.jpg]Pro-coal/anti-coal forces need to combine their efforts and foster entrepreneurship, a long-term strategy for a healthier, more diversified economy.

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The coal industry is the only hope this region has of producing a significant volume of goods that can be exported out of the region to provide earned income to a significant number of residents.

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The coal industry stands in the way of the region’s ability to diversify its economy, and we will not develop until it ceases to be a controlling force in politics and the economy.

Dee Davis started a timely debate on whether we can “turn this thing around” and finally make some economic-development headway in Appalachia.  He asked us to face facts and get honest.  I threw in my two cents, and now Jason Bailey and Kelli Haywood have added their strong voices to that terribly important question. Our local economies remain dependent on coal, and the dole and corruption are debilitating.  Institutions (business, political and nonprofit) are key, and it is fair to ask whether those we have built in the mountains serve us all and whether they could do better.  Kelli is spot-on when she asks us to recognize the centrality of entrepreneurship to our economic prospects.

Of course, the trouble is that both sorts of bumper stickers contain sufficient truth to fuel a feud that has already raged for a century.  Extractive industries, especially those that dominate a region’s economy, do tend to control the politics and raise wages and other costs beyond what other businesses and industries can afford. Politics and community life can get polarized very quickly as some see big benefits from extraction but others see only the costs.

Economists have given this tendency a name, “the resource curse,” and it has been experienced in places as diverse as Holland and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Yet much of Central Appalachia is not suitable for industrial development and offers limited tourism potential, and after years and years of development efforts, the coal industry remains our only significant economic engine.  Its disappearance or decline would bring severe increases in economic hardship and dependence on transfer payments.

set of specific recommendations. I know there are many other ideas out there. Dee and Jason and Kelli have made a great start.  Let us right now begin a larger debate, one that speaks firmly and sharply of the truth of the situation and focuses tightly on what exactly we should do.

Thomas Miller lives on the shoulder of a knob in Berea, KY. He helped build the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, is a founder of MACED, worked for the Ford Foundation in New York and East Africa and has been following community development issues for 40 years.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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