There's nothing inherently attractive about working down a coal mine. I've never done it myself, but it seems like hard physical labour, often in cramped conditions, with a view from the office that leaves a lot to be desired. In the short run, there's the danger of explosions and collapses to contend with, while black lung disease is the long-run killer that ensures there's always room at the bar in a miners' welfare club.
Yet when President Trump flourished his executive pen a few weeks ago to roll back Obama-era environmental protection regulations, he was surrounded by West Virginian miners excited at the prospect of getting back down the pit. For Trump, the politics were obvious. These were the people he had diligently courted for nearly two years and whom he had brandished as icons of the besieged American worker. In the Republican primaries, Trump won over 90% of the votes in McDowell County, the traditional heart of West Virginia coal country, on the back of his promise to put them back to work and end the 'war on coal'.
In the Trump coalition, it would be hard to find a more archetypal white working-class community than the miners. In 2016, the Bureau of Labour Statistics reported that minority employment (African American, Asian, and Latino) in the coal mining industry was a mere 5% versus 35% in the overall US workforce. Rolling back clean energy regulations is also a chance for Trump to burnish his credentials with traditional Republicans for whom even the rhetorical resurrection of the coal industry is a middle finger to the lefty pinko climate change panic merchants ruining the American economy. Nothing says we deny global warming like a smoke stack belching sulphurous coal fumes into the atmosphere.
Yet the miners flanking Trump were just props in a piece of pure political theatre, with the further irony that Trump didn't even get to the part in the script where he takes away their medical coverage and defunds the Appalachian Economic Development Agency tasked with creating alternative jobs. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of energy economics knows that – regardless of what Trump says or does – the US coal industry is not about to rise Lazarus-like from decades of decline, and the villain isn't increased regulations, but rather the market economics beloved of traditional Republicans.
The reality is that the combination of abundant natural gas, plus increasingly cheap renewable energy, has made coal uneconomic. 2016 was the first year in which natural gas generated more electricity than coal in the US, and as power generation accounts for the overwhelming majority of coal consumption, the result is production at multi-decade lows, and a string of major coal producers filing for bankruptcy over the last few years.
The impact on the miners of declining production is amplified by increased automation. When US mining companies stopped digging under mountains and instead started blowing the tops off them to shovel up the debris, far fewer workers were required. By far the most cost effective coal producing region in the US is the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, where vast strip mines scar the landscape. But in the traditional mining heartlands like Eastern Kentucky, the world has moved on. By the end of 2016, coal mining employment in Kentucky was at its lowest level in over a century.
To put the industry into perspective, the American coal sector now employs only 53,000 people. It still dwarfs the UK coal industry which is down to a few thousand workers in a handful of open cast mines, but in US economic terms it's now a rounding error. Last year the industry employed 2,000 fewer people than the 'retail sewing' sector, yet you don't see the quilt makers of America jostling for photo ops in the Oval Office.
So why has Trump latched onto the idea that coal mining is an industry that must be saved at all costs? It's for the same reason that he pedals the fantasy of bringing steel mills back to Ohio – a nostalgia for an industrial America that shaped and supported working-class communities and which technological progress is inexorably erasing. The truth, whether it's miners in West Virginia or shipyard workers on the Clyde, is that hard physical work in homogenous communities created social bonds and social capital that isn't easily replaced. Whether those communities are in the remote valleys of Appalachia or the somewhat less remote valleys of South Wales, the closing of a mine wreaks social havoc.
Thirty years on from Arthur Scargill's failed strike, the parallels are clear. It wasn't just about jobs and economics, it was about trying to protect a way of life that, while dirty and dangerous, was also unique. The jobs may eventually be replaced, but loose networks of Uber drivers are unlikely to spawn many male voice choirs, world-class brass bands, or the social and cultural corona that surrounded the pits. A key insight from J D Vance's recent award-winning Appalachian family history, 'Hillbilly Elegy', is that when the social capital anchored in a concentration of traditional jobs gets eroded, whole communities can descend into a purposeless existence in which drug abuse, alcoholism and domestic violence find fertile ground.
The political current that Trump has expertly tapped into is the need for 'meaningful work' rather than just a job. When you're powering the country, launching ocean liners, or building cars to export to the world, there's a sense of purpose that a zero-hours contract stacking the shelves in a Walmart struggles to replicate. Sherrod Brown, a Democratic senator from Ohio, wrote in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, 'People take pride in the things they make, in serving their communities in hospitals or schools, and in making their contribution to society. When we devalue work, we threaten the pride and dignity that come from it.'
In the long run of economic history, the decline of mining and the erosion of the social fabric around it is nothing special. Neither is the search for 'meaningful work'. In 1853, a full century before what many Americans would consider the pinnacle of their industrial power, Henry David Thoreau, the American poet and essayist, lamented that 'most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.'
The nature of economic progress has always been that we fail to imagine what might come next to fill the void caused by the decline of what came before. In Dundee's heyday of jute, jam and journalism, the creation of Grand Theft Auto and the emergence of a thriving video games cluster would have been literally unimaginable. That is why Trump's luddite tendencies have been with us for centuries, sarcastically illustrated by French 19th-century economist Frederic Bastiat, whose 'candlemaker's petition' demanded that the French parliament blot out the sun to protect lighting jobs.
The economic cycle of creative destruction is personally very disruptive if you're a miner in Eastern Kentucky, or a steel worker in Motherwell, but at the national level it's been a consistent source of new employment. In the 15 years after containers were introduced, 90% of dock workers in the US lost their jobs, and the social ecosystem of pubs, crime, and prostitution that used to characterise the docks of the world gave way to vast automated ports in which people are few and far between. Yet the Brooklyn waterfront warehouses that once stored dry goods now hum with internet start-ups (and the occasional failed presidential campaign), and Finnieston in Glasgow is now becoming as famous for its trendy restaurants as it was for its crane.
As dock jobs evaporated, many workers found themselves behind a wheel, as containerisation fuelled the growth of the long-distance truck industry that now employs nearly 2 million people in the US, but which itself is soon likely to be disrupted by driverless vehicles. For the remaining miners, the long wave of demand for coal kicked off by Trevithick, Watt, and Stephenson in the 19th century has crested and receded, and their jobs will inevitably go the way of the longshoreman, hopefully to be replaced by something unimagined but meaningful.
Yet the economic pessimists share Thoreau's concern that this time it might be different. That Trump's electoral appeal as an economic King Canute standing athwart the tide of progress reflects a fear that we've now reached a point where automation will prevent the economy creating new 'meaningful jobs'. That fear may seem strange in an America where unemployment is now below 5%, but as economist Thomas Piketty has pointed out, the long-run growth in income inequality can be directly traced to a decline in the return to labour in favour of the return to capital – a trend that has seen the rich get richer and the working poor scrambling to make ends meet.
If the supply of 'meaningful jobs' does indeed start drying up because of increased automation, it will raise broader societal questions. In India and Scandinavia there's already active discussion of moving to a guaranteed minimum income as a redistributive mechanism, but that alone won't address the issue of the dignity of work, hence the attraction of a demagogue who promises to bring back 'real jobs'. If those jobs don't appear organically, we could find ourselves back to something that looks like Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. Not just a guaranteed income, but a guaranteed job to go with it, and the promise of doing something worthwhile, rather than just being a benefits scrounger.
As the need for labour declines, we'll also need to find ways to create social capital, as rotary clubs and bowling leagues don't spring spontaneously from lines at the benefits office. The optimists see a future where, like retired people searching for continued meaning in their life, we become a society of woodworkers, local history researchers and artists. But that transition will require a level of political acumen that seems to be beyond the current cohort of politicians in the US who are content to try and turn back the clock and collectively send us straight down the mines again.