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The Rule of Capture, Returned

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Michelle Wilde Anderson has an outstanding essay that discusses how Trump and Republicans are returning to the “rule of capture” to fleece poor rural communities out of the natural resources.

Trump wants a government that only works for the likes of Daniel Plainview—not for Plainview’s employees, neighbors, or smaller competitors, and certainly not for the public. The key to selling this agenda is the illusion that anyone can be Plainview. This is the president who brought us books like Trump: How to Get Rich (yes, his name is in the title) and Why We Want You To Be Rich. A Twitter message from an account in “the Mountains, West Virginia” schooled me on how much people want to believe this. “Don’t fall for the Marxist propaganda,” it said. “The movement should be to make poor people wealthy.”

The heist, though, is that we are all still Eli Sunday, and the big mouth about to drain our milkshake is no longer a regional, individual powerhouse like Plainview. Returning to a winner-take-all system for natural resources in 2017 benefits a small group of global industrial giants and their few owners. Take Peabody Energy, for instance, the world’s largest coal company, whose 2016 bankruptcy filing allowed it to restructure its obligations to bondholders, pensioners, and government agencies. That bankruptcy reaped a $15 million stock bonus for its chief executive, and hundreds of millions of dollars for six hedge funds that are all based in New York City or Connecticut. Or consider some of the big timber stands and mills in Northern California, which were drawn together in 1891 by lumber titan C. R. Johnson and his family company Union Lumber. In 1969, Union Lumber was sold to the Boise Cascade Corporation, which was sold to Georgia-Pacific in 1973, one of the largest paper products companies in the world. In 2005, the Koch Industries—one of the biggest companies of any kind in the country—rolled the Georgia-Pacific conglomerate into their even bigger empire.

With their power and $3.1 million to lobby lawmakers early this year, the Koch Brothers helped write a wave of deregulation measures and confirm Scott Pruitt, who is poised to deliver our land wealth to them for a song. Pruitt is using every tool he can find to transform the EPA into a concierge service for the largest oil and gas, chemical manufacturing, and coal companies. He is likely courting them as donors for his own political future.

Applying the rule of capture to today’s world means crossing the wires of big capital with rural poverty, amidst powerful extractive technologies that minimize job creation. There is money to be made for sure, but it will flow to the biggest corporations and their C-Suites. Beyond them is just a bit of trickle down here and there. As in other industries, wages for jobs in the coal industry are not keeping pace with the economy, even as executive pay soars. Unionized miners still make a good living, but only 2.5 percent of coal miners were covered by a union as of 2016. This leaves most coal miners competing for short-term jobs that lack health benefits and pull in less than $20 per hour while they last.

Meanwhile, Trump’s proposed 2018 budget eliminates funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the US Economic Development Administration, which have long supported downsized coal miners and new businesses in Appalachia. While Congress acted in May to find taxpayer funding to cover health benefits for 22,000 retired coal miners whose employers had gone bankrupt, there is as yet no fix to address those miners’ unfunded pensions. So far, Trump’s ideas for rebuilding infrastructure would only work for projects that can pay down debt with high usage fees over time (like bridge tolls, airport taxes, and rising water rates). This will mean little to no infrastructure work on the urgent projects needed in older areas where residents cannot afford to pay more for what they need.

Pruitt holds up his home state of Oklahoma as a promise: Look how a state rich in fossil fuels becomes rich in money. But it really should be a warning. For more than 25 years, incomes for poor and middle-class families in Oklahoma have fallen or stagnated, despite dramatic growth among the state’s wealthiest households. Posing in a hardhat, as Pruitt so often does these days, does not a working man make.

Equally important, Anderson explores how the left, broadly defined, has opened the door for the rural working class to support the theft of their own resources because we have no answer at all for rural poverty.

Just as environmental groups can’t show up at the 11th hour of a terrible drought causing job losses and say they care about farmworkers, so too the American left can’t keep ignoring our land-rich, cash-poor regions. No one can afford for Trump and Pruitt to be the only people who show up holding a plan. “Drill, baby, drill” starts looking pretty good if there is no other prospect of making rent—even if Exxon wrote the plan and everyone knows that drilling, baby, requires more machines than men.

To show up with a plan, I think, means this: Blue voters and politicians in the cities, state governments, and federal delegations of purple, resource-rich states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Colorado have to seize the political moment to issue a vocal, organized demand for three things: (1) ambitious, transformative investments (including for tuition relief) in community colleges and universities in declining urban and rural areas, (2) capital investments in small businesses as a foundation for economic development, and (3) a jobs program (expanded from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act model) that meets urgent needs in these regions: such as rebuilding decaying water and wastewater infrastructure, thinning the overstocked western forests that threaten rural counties with wildfires, decontaminating waterways and land sullied by fossil fuel extraction, and treating the opioid addiction crisis.

This demand is for Trump as well as all the Democrats in Congress—that is, the two groups whose immediate political future most depends on a serious campaign for the stabilization and reinvention of declining regions. If big business is the only hope in town, it will always divide households’ urgent, short-term economic interests from collective environmental safety interests.

Sooner or later, the left is going to have to adopt a platform that ties Environmental Justice and Economic Justice together in a single movement. That platform must be rooted in reinvestment, not just regulation.

This is really important. The Democratic Party’s answer to these communities has been no answer at all. That’s because saying that you will get some job retraining for some potential low-wage job is not an answer. Saying that “your way of life is a dead end and so your kids should be STEM majors” is no answer. Saying that some coding jobs might appear someday is no answer. Even if you think that these are in fact reasonable answers, the fact of the matter is that these people can make a critical difference in elections and they are swinging hard right. The fact that Grays Harbor County, Washington in the center of the Washington timber country voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 2016 for the first time since 1928 is not just about racism. It’s also that Trump gave them an outlet for their other resentments around class, regional identity, and economic dislocation in a Pacific Northwest where they feel left behind by a Seattle and Portland that has created a huge economic engine without them. And while Grays Harbor isn’t going to swing Washington as a state to the Republicans, we just saw counties like this do that very thing in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. Anderson’s program seems like a start to taking these people’s concerns seriously, an absolute must for the future of the nation. I think the ideas need to be bigger than what she is offering, but they are at least a place to being a conversation.

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