Reconnecting the Rich with America

I stood as bewildered and resentful as an Eastern bloc dweller circa 1985 in front of the banks of “green” drinks in Whole Foods in Seattle last Sunday. After weeks in America’s back country, that starved and broken part of the United States, the disaster behind the Obama glitz, I was scraped raw. Some conservative jerk, rejoicing over Barack Obama’s move to side with Republicans on extending tax cuts for the wealthy, said: “Well, it’s hardly as if it’s a matter of Okies and plutocrats.” Sorry, buddy, when was the last time you left your Whole Foods environs and ventured into that part of your country that’s bereft of even one of those $5 virtue pints? Truly, it was last days of a Versailles experience.

“We’re dying,” said one small-town mayor or commissioner after another. “No one wants to talk to a journalist,” said a blue-blazered county counsel in California. “But we’re desperate.” In one northeast Washington State county, one of the poorest in the U.S., its 7,500 residents, most of whom live in shacks or double-wides, without a glimmer of a high-paying resource job in sight, are sitting atop a gold mine. A real one. Shuttered for decades. Not to mention surrounded by one of the most productive forests in the world. Also shuttered. And, by the way, dying of neglect.

Suffice that for a metaphor for the rural West from Germany to the former bounty of northern California where the economic model is so instructive, it could be said to be the only case study the Harvard MBA program needs for the next decade.

Blame the rich. Rightly angry at government over-reach, they dodge taxes, only to be assaulted by a fiendish combination of narcissism and guilt. In recompense, they’ve spent an astonishing amount of money shuttering industrial, rural America, using science and labour economics as dubious and untested as climate science has turned out to be.

I sat in on a county commissioners’ meeting in Lander, Wyo., where the Wilderness Society insisted that all coal mining and cattle be dragged off the range or all of Wyoming would be shut down, and it would sue for as long as it took. The U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Game, state senator and congressman present floundered as the lives of 27,500 residents were gutted. Rich people in Chicago were distressed by coal-bed methane drilling.

Tens of thousands of actions such as these have caused the price of every natural resource to rise tenfold. It now takes 10 years and $20-million to open a working gold mine, it’s virtually impossible to log in any national forest, and it’s damnably difficult to mine or ranch or produce anything material in North America. Just ask the head of Canada’s Coal Association.

Money used to be distilled work. Now it’s whatever you can wrench out of the public purse, shake down from the hyper-rich or conjure from the ether. As Peter Munk, chairman and founder of Barrick Gold, says, you only buy gold if you lose confidence in everything else. Or produce anything but ephemera.

The rich, says author James Howard Kunstler, used to stay home and build their towns, rooted to a real place. Now they float in a ghastly hyperspace of cloying luxury, while their money destroys our common wealth. Said the broken-hearted caretakers of America’s rural lands: “We took care of these forests, ranges, rivers and fields. Now we’re watching them die.”

America’s rich have to return home. So does their money.

Elizabeth Nickson’s next book is A Soft Place to Fall.