Sunday, September 13, 2009 By Aaron Brown
The toys indicator
By Aaron J. Brown
So some of the mines, not all of the mines (including none of the mines closest to Hibbing) are back to work here on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. We are supposed to feel good and I guess I do but I wish there weren’t quite so many toys for sale.
The word “toys” means different things to different people. I live in a household where toys, meaning the playthings of children, are a very important part of life. Our three boys fight over these toys, literally, often to the point of bloodshed but only because they haven’t learned that when you work for a living you can easily buy all the Matchbox or Hot Wheel cars you want, but not necessarily health insurance or a college education.
Here on the Range another definition takes hold. “Toys,” the word, also means the enjoyable, probably loud playthings of adults, and these are an entirely different factor. From ATVs to four-wheelers, campers to pontoon boats, these toys often come with five-year financing and a license plate. These toys are the spoils of hard work on the Iron Range, the recreational tools accessible by those who cannot afford country clubs, yachts or summer homes. When you make it, and when you can afford it, you celebrate with toys – or at least that remains true of many in these parts.
The economic downturn of 2008 has lingered into 2009 like a bad houseguest, the worst really. This is the houseguest that demands your food and steals your clothes, the kind who can’t take a hint not even when punched in the face. Twice. Seriously, we’d really like this guy to leave. We’re not even sure how he ended up at the party last weekend, or was it last year when all the mines were running gangbusters. Anyway, he’s still here and while he’s showing signs of packing his bags you know that there’s a good chance that another night, or two, will be marred by this interloper.
On the eastern Range, most mines are operating at 80 percent or better, bringing people back to work who had suffered from the same uncertainty that still troubles workers here on the western side of the Range. U.S. Steel’s Keewatin Taconite remains indefinitely idled while Cleveland Cliffs’ Hibbing Taconite won’t resume production until next year. More people are returning to work, but the operative word is returning. Even the happiest, most optimistic Iron Rangers remember that even when times were great our economy could not stand without the support of the mining industry. And that was when unemployment was below 10 percent. It is now at 17 percent and holding. It’s not the worst in the nation, just among the worst and bad for certain. Some potential new opportunities hover on the horizon, all subject to the same economic factors that hold back our current economy.
This means cheap “toys” on the western Range, rusted trailers brimming with mechanical speed machines parked out along the country highways. Hard times on the Iron Range means you could get all manner of toys for a great price, but that you can’t afford these things at any price. That’s why the economy can in many ways best be described by the availability and sales of recreational machines. Let’s call it the “toys indicator.”
We’re told that unemployment is a “lagging indicator,” or a factor that changes long after the stock market, consumer confidence and the approval of politicians ticks upward. Historically this has been true. Jobs come last. People come last. And, as such, the people must sell their things until times are better.
May those times come soon.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. His recent book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is out now.