Perhaps it’s because the heart of coal country – West Virginia and Kentucky – won’t be voting in the presidential primaries until relatively late in the season next Spring, but coal hasn’t capture the conversation quite as much as it has in prior campaigns. As a commodity, it’s deeply implicated in almost all of the issues raised in both major parties – climate change, energy availability, domestic economic competitiveness – but it’s become something of a pariah.
A West Virginia coal mine entrance, by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1908. From here.
Quietly however, a few prominent politicians have still come out recently with policies for the industry and its most intense regions of operation in the US. That there is a space for the government to do something to help is, surprisingly, something of a bipartisan concern, particularly advanced by the more business-centered wings of both major parties.
Still, that’s about where agreement ends. Republicans led by Ohioan Republican Senator Rob Portman have called for investment to encourage innovations within the coal industry, particularly to capture carbon emissions. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, instead suggested a broader revitalization project to address any negative outcomes of her environmental policies. It aims to shore up public education in the region and expand access to job training, in case the industry’s workforce ends up being reduced.
In spite of their differences, both proposals attempt to shrink the climate footprint of the US and improve the economic lot of the people of Appalachia. Their different ways of going about those goals, however, indicate a subtly distinction between the typical economic policies from the major parties. The government filling in for the failure of investors to create a drive for carbon-capturing power plants is basically a gentle nudge on the existing market dynamics. The government creating opportunities for people to enter different industries is equally capitalist and competition-minded, actually, but understands the government’s role differently. Instead of redirecting the occasional dinner conversation, the government puts a lot of thought into the seating chart and lets conversations develop organically from there.
What this speaks to is a broader disagreement on how capitalism and economics necessarily function, or at least potentially could. From the conservative perspective, private ownership is absolute and can only rarely and carefully be circumscribed. From eminent domain to taxation, the government is begrudgingly permitted to get involved, but with the constant expectation that it should explain its reasons why and quickly get back out.
For liberals on the other hand, and that doesn’t mean anti-capitalists, the understanding is that the government has always been involved, if for no other reason than it sets up the courts and legal standards that create our understanding of ownership and award different people ownership of different goods, territories, or resources. The government’s involvement is a constant – as it continually maintains the legal, social, and political systems and expectations that basically create the economic system.
It’s a shame that coal has ended up on the back burner of US politics, because the policies around it have created such a great example of the contrasting understandings of the world and ideas about how it should work which the two major parties are offering.