I've lived in Kentucky for more than 20 years, but there are still days that I can't shake the feeling that I've walked through the looking glass into an alternative universe.
I get lost as forward motion gives way to a seemingly endless, diminishing circle that finally collapses into an incomprehensible muddle.
My earliest encounters with this disorienting sensation date from the early '90s when tobacco felt it was under attack. I remember the billboards of farmers declaring they'd rather fight than switch, asserting that "tobacco still counts." A Miss Kentucky in this era — decades after it was clear tobacco was dangerous to human health — was pilloried for agreeing to serve as Kentucky chairwoman of the Great American Smokeout.
"I don't think it is appropriate for Miss Kentucky to speak out against smoking," harrumphed an executive of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association. "I would hope that more people would appreciate what tobacco has done for Kentucky." And for the world. Millions of premature deaths, billions in medical costs.
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Usually it takes a war to hit those numbers. My carcinogen, right or wrong!
See what I mean? It's disorienting.
I had a flashback reading an Associated Press story about the state's April revenues. They fell and the sharpest decline was in the coal severance tax, the money paid to the state when a ton of coal comes out of the ground.
The story quoted Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. A professional, he wasted no time linking the fates of coal and Kentucky. It hurts the state twice when coal production falls because we lose both the revenue and the jobs mining coal produces, he said. (Never mind that the same could be said about virtually any business enterprise which pays taxes and has employees.)
The drama according to Bissett continued. Coal itself has suffered the twin plagues of an uncooperative EPA that's slowing down mining permits and an equally stingy Mother Nature, who delivered a mild winter. That meant lower demand for electricity to heat homes, leaving stockpiles of unburnt coal at power plants. (How is the industry hurt by not getting new permits, if power plants are not buying because they already have surplus coal?)
But the kicker that pushed me into that swirling world was the comment that a hot summer could offer salvation in this dreadful landscape by driving up air-conditioning use and, with it, demand for electricity and coal.
Let's recap: Coal mining produces revenue and jobs for Kentucky; severe weather creates demand for coal to generate electricity; so severe weather is good for Kentucky.
It transforms revving up your air conditioner into the moral equivalent of growing a victory garden. How about a campaign to wear sweaters inside in summer and leave a window open in winter to help coal in its times of trouble. Or, perhaps, each family should adopt a ton of coal, dump it in the backyard near the swing set?
Do you have a headache yet?
It's the miracle of coal in Kentucky, as it once was for tobacco. The most amazing statements can pass for reasonable commentary.
Leaving aside the environmental and human health issues raised by both extracting and burning coal, consider the economics proposed by Bissett.
First, the jobs. He cites the 18,000 coal miners in Kentucky. I take every job seriously, particularly these days, but it's been a long time since coal was a major employer in this state. UPS alone employs over 12,000, Toyota almost 11,000, the University of Kentucky hospital 10,000. Xerox, Ford and Amazon each have about 5,000 workers in Kentucky.
In 2010, when there were almost 22,000 miners, mining accounted for 1 percent of all Kentucky jobs; manufacturing provided 12 percent.
But there's a more fundamental disconnect here. Bissett's world view describes a race to the bottom, not economic development.
If mild weather means your heating bill is $100 not $200 then you have $100 to spend on clothes, food, gas, whatever. Either way, you put $200, no more, into the economy.
Economic growth by definition requires expansion. It means creating new jobs, new and better products and services, not shuffling around what's already there.
Clinging to the status quo, aggressively ignoring the very real health issues surrounding tobacco didn't expand Kentucky's economy. Praying for bad weather to improve coal sales won't get it done, either.