By Sam Burnham, Curator
One of the late evening conversations during the Cracker weekend was about the Agrarian Ideals that we hold dear. Of particular note is the economic theory that we wish to espouse. Capitalism is, by far, the best economic system ever conceived in the minds of mankind. The freedom and incentives built into the system make it efficient, competitive, and, most importantly, free.
But along with the liberty of capitalism comes a responsibility. While economic markets should not be weighed down with restrictive government regulations, it should still be regulated. But instead of the laws of the land, this economic system should be governed by things far more solemn and forbearing. It is this very regulation that we are missing in our society today. Our inability to implement this one principle is what is causing unemployment, wage stagnation, probably every economic shortfall in this nation today.The only way that free systems can survive is if we maintain them with the principles that must govern them. A system designed to work for good people must be maintained by good people.
These principles are driven by the intrinsic value of a human being. This value is not something that can be measured in dollars, rubles, or yen. In fact, if you reduce this value down to a measurable amount of money, you have just destroyed the value entirely. Money is always going to be one of the restrictions that business leaders face when operating. And a budget will always have limits on how much a proprietor can afford to expend in salaries and benefits. But if we address the value of a person in terms of currency alone, we are missing the point.
Mechanization and automation are both replacing people in commerce, industry, and agriculture. Banks use automated tellers, stores have self-checkout, factories employ robots, all in the name of lower costs, lower prices, higher profits. But what are the costs? Just the other day I saw a post on Twitter where someone was trying to communicate with their online bank - one of those new things with no branches, just websites. He wasn't getting much service. I had been in my local bank earlier that same day. Upon entering, two tellers greeted me by my first name, then they both greeted my coworker by his first name. They each helped one of us and in less time than it took for that other guy to send a tweet, we had both completed transactions and were on our way back out the front door. It's a human touch, a personal connection. That face-to-face transaction is backed by an interaction in a community, not a glint in a microprocessor.
When we cut this human interaction out, no matter how menial we think the task to be, we are taking from someone a chance to provide for themselves. We are taking from ourselves a chance to interact with another person. In doing this we take a bit of the humanity out of our society. We continue the pattern of dehumanizing each other and in doing so, we dehumanize ourselves. In that act of turning "Amy" at the bank into a button on a touchscreen we have made our community a little less valuable. Yes, the bank may have more money because they pay one less person. We may even benefit because the bank can afford to give us a higher yield on an account. But a member of our community lost her job to a machine. There may not be another job for her because of all the other machines coming on line. Then what? What happens once a machine can do our job?
A story I heard on NPR this past week was reporting on such technological advances and how these machines will free people up to do "more detailed" or "more important" tasks. But unless we eventually determine what these tasks are and how people learn to do them, all the advancements do is continuously replace people with machines. Another unintended consequence is that we devalue the art of manual labor. There are people who have an innate ability, even the desire, to work with their hands. These are people who don't withdraw from sweat and grime that come from physically handling their work. They don't take issue with being physically tired after an honest day's work. Who are we to determine that these tasks are better off done by machines? We have developed the erroneous, perhaps dangerous, assumption that everyone wants, even needs, to attend college and work in an office, that this is the way to wealth and enlightenment. That's not fair to a group of people who aren't wired that way, people we devalue and demean by suggesting their proclivity toward manual labor makes them somehow less of a human.
It is time for us to change. It is time to stop mechanizing or automating every job out there. It is time to return to the idea that the human factor has worth, that the bottom line is not the only value that business has to budget into the cost of operation. We have to once again understand that our human resources are exactly that - human. Until we begin treating people as people, rather than as expenditures, we will continue to live in a dangerous world where people feel like and therefore treat others as liabilities rather than assets,
The other morning, while catching up on the world, I came across a New York Times article that caught my attention. It was linked to a tweet that mentioned the outrageous commute times that many New Yorkers are having to deal with in order to get to work. My first reaction to the tweet was that this is due to the inordinate number of persons being enamored by "big city living and a voodoo woman named Phyllis." Reading the article added another dimension to the problem entirely. The swelling of the American city due to the never ending quest for wealth and power is still very much involved. But the people in this particular article are the victims of this quest rather than the perpetrators.
The article tells the stories of service workers, security guards, laborers, good honest blue collar folks, who find themselves moving further and further from their jobs in order to have rents more in line with their incomes. Some of these people have had to relocate so far out that they are commuting up to 2 hours one way to get to work. This isn't your typical Atlanta commute. These people are using transit - buses, subways, combinations of the two, often having to switch back and forth more than once. People putting in eight to 10 hours a day making $11-$15 an hour simply cannot afford to live near their job...anywhere near their job. Throw in a two way commute that might equal as much as a half of their work shift, they've lost more than 12 hours just to pay the bills. An 8 to 5 worker could lave home at 6 am only to return around 7 pm.
As cities continue to drag in more large employers that pay high salaries and property values climb in response to the housing market shifts, the problem continues to worsen. And transit isn't making the situation any better, so it can't really be the answer.
Closer to home, we see Atlanta trending that way with many claiming that transit will ease the pain and make the problem evaporate. People float the ideas of minimum wages and rent control and a thousand other schemes to try to solve this issue. But there are resource issues - water, energy, air pollution, affordable food, disposal of refuse, all of these are stretching the capacity of Atlanta and nearly every other American city. Throw in the regional types of natural disasters (i.e. Los Angeles fires or flooding in Houston) and the cities don't have the resources and infrastructure to deal with what they have, much less more.
It isn't sustainable.
There is only so much urban sprawl that a plot of land can withstand. I've mentioned before that we need to be using our new connectivity and new technologies to spread out some, use our resources more wisely, and create more sustainable communities. We don't need a mom riding a subway for two hours to make a living and then ride two hours back, missing PTO meetings, dinners with her family, and whatever practices or activities she can afford for her kids to be involved in. She can't have an effective family this way. This isn't life. This is survival. Nothing more.
We have to change our thinking - as individuals, as a society, as a nation. No one is ever going to win the Rat Race. The only way to not lose is to not run. It is time to look for us to quit chasing shiny and start pursuing meaning. Why are we doing what we are doing?
By Sam Burnham
This story was born atop a wood table alongside gas station food. I'm not talking the gas station biscuits we've discussed on Twitter, I'm talking country fried steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, and Fordhook Lima beans. But this isn't a food critique. So I'll shelve that talk for now.
The establishment in question sits adjacent to a paper mill and coal-fired power plant. So just about everyone else in there eating was driving some sort of truck. Some guys haul pulpwood in and others hauling coal ash out. That is where the story got interesting. A conversation on outgoing coal ash, some headed to become a cement ingredient, the rest to specially designed landfills, grew into this article.
As we talk about jobs and the land we live in, the rivers we fish on, the air we breathe, and what we leave our kids, I think this is a discussion we need to have. We don't need a lot of Greenpeace slogans or chanting or left-wing politics, but we do need some realistic talk about this coal thing. In all the talk of President Trump ending the War on Coal it is easy to pick a side, Left of Right and stand there. It is another to see what this means in reality and make a decision independent of political parties altogether.
So I'm looking at one plant. Just a small portion of a major utility in The South. Plant Hammond in western Floyd County, Georgia came on line back in the 50's. It was pretty advanced for its time and helped to electrify rural areas of Georgia in the post-war era as well as providing some solid, good paying jobs in the northwest Georgia area. But technology has changed. The Southern Company has begun to diversify its generation facilities. Hammond has become a sort of peak usage reserve generation plant. Basically, they only operate when there is the heaviest use on the system. Often when they fire up Hammond's boilers it's to meet demand for The Southern Company's customers in Mississippi or Alabama. It may even be to sell power to another agency such as Oglethorpe Power or perhaps a local co-op.
The aging plant is just not vital to Georgia Power's operations any longer. As the road is being cleared for expansions to continue on nuclear fueled Plant Vogtle and natural gas becomes more affordable and easier to access than coal, modernizing a plant like Hammond starts to make less and less sense for a stockholder operation like the Southern Company. It's not a big secret that Hammond is close to joining sister facilities such as Plant Yates and Plant Kraft in being decommissioned and demolished. At normal operation, the coal pile at Hammond sat high and level from one end to the other - 30 days of coal for regular operations. This week a meager pile sits at the front end, just under the chute, while a small stack remains for the length of the rest of the pile. A rough guess at the size suggests it might last 4-5 days.
But here is one major reason that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Coal ash. This is a broad term being given to the solid byproduct of burning coal for power. The new air quality scrubbers take the particulates out of the exhaust from the plants. This material used to fly up the chimneys and out into the air high above the plants to be scattered by the wind. This material is now collected and hauled off on dump trucks to be dumped. This is an additional cost to the use of coal in generating electricity. This makes natural gas and renewables more attractive since the byproducts are easier and cheaper to deal with.
And let's face it, I don't really want to be breathing stuff you can haul in a dump truck. I also would prefer that it isn't necessitating landfills and eating up real estate that could have much better purposes. So the old way is not a great choice and the new way might be even worse. This is not helping me want to see a coal-fired revival. To be honest, I don't think it is making the southern Company want to see it either. They are following market pressures and real estate prices into a future in which coal just doesn't make much sense.
And I know that there is a concern for the miners and the life that they've led as well as their prospects for the future. That is a very real concern that those of us who care for the people of rural America will have to deal with. But I'm afraid the miners and their families have found themselves as pawns between rival factions for their own gain and never them pawns'. Same old story we've always heard. Finding an economy to help these folks make their own way seems to be a better option.
Honestly, I don't think it matters if the Clean Power Plan stays or goes. I think it is just a political football for the two factions to kick around to make us think they are doing something. In reality, they're just wasting our time and money. The point is, coal is on the way out of the electricity business. And that's just reality.
I leave with the words of John Prine singing of a place close to his heart and a land that will never be the same. I used to think it was environmentalist whining. I know better now.
When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
Well, sometimes we'd travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we'd shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.
Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I'll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin'
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire