Of all the candidates running for president on either side, easily the most futuristic is technology entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Yang, who has had enough staying power to outlast some Democratic senators and governors who have fallen by the wayside, has been talking about a lot of issues that other candidates simply ignore. Yang, for instance, has been warning how autonomous vehicles are going to put a lot of truck drivers out of work — a theme that U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has been sounding, as well.
That’s why his recent back-and-forth with Joe Biden was both curious — and seemingly off-message.
Biden recently used a rally in New Hampshire to talk about how coal miners need to change their skills to match the new economic realities: “Anybody who can go down 300 to 3,000 feet in a mine sure as hell can learn to program, as well, but we don’t think of it that way.” He went on to say: “My liberal friends were saying, ‘You can’t expect them to be able to do that.’ Give me a break! Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for God’s sake.”
Biden’s remarks were not particularly well received, to say the least. Brianna Wu, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House in Massachusetts — a software engineer, it should be pointed out — tweeted: “Anyone can learn to code, and I’m glad to see recognition that you don’t need to be in your 20s to do this as a profession. But Biden telling coal miners, ‘Just move to high tech!’ is so tone-deaf and unhelpful.” And Yang told his own event in New Hampshire: “Let them do the kind of work they actually want to do, instead of saying to a group of people that you all need to become coders. Like, what is that about? You know, maybe Americans don’t all want to learn how to code.”
Yang’s right on that last score: Not everybody wants to learn code. But it seems odd to us that here it’s the septuagenarian Biden who seems the most futuristic one while it’s Yang who seems the one stuck in the past. “Let them do the work they actually want to do” may sound like a fine premise, except that coal-mining jobs are dying a slow, inexorable death — and have been long before people started worrying about the amount of carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere. Coal mining jobs in the U.S. peaked in 1923 with 863,000 miners and have been declining ever since. Today that figure is down to 53,300 and will surely go lower. Better mining technologies put most of those miners out of work; a marketplace that increasingly prefers other, cheaper forms of energy will send many more to the unemployment line. Just because somebody wants to do a certain job doesn’t mean the economy can support that particular job. Maybe somewhere somebody wants to make buggy whips or work at Blockbuster. Sorry, but the economy has moved on.
On this score, Biden is right, and Yang is wrong: Many of those miners are going to have to figure out another line of work. Biden is not exactly the most articulate of speakers, but here he’s delivering a hard truth that other politicians have refused to deliver. President Trump, in his 2016 campaign came to Radford and gloriously declared:”We’re going to bring back King Coal. We’re going to bring it back.” No, no he’s not. More coal-fired plants closed during the first two years of his administration than in all of Barack Obama’s first term. Where is the plan to build a post-coal economy in former coal-mining regions? There isn’t one nationally — not from Trump and not from any of the Democrats, either. But at least Biden is telling the truth: Those workers need to figure out a new career plan.
And no, he’s not being “tone-deaf and unhelpful” as Wu puts it. Nor was he being “patronizing, condescending” as Fox News host Rachel Campos-Duffy put it. Yang, in a later interview with MSNBC, delivered a more thoughtful (and more accurate) response: “Suggesting that former coal miners learn to code is not productive at all, and it doesn’t line up with the reality we all experience. Coding is like learning a foreign language that you have to become expert in. That’s not a realistic expectation for millions of Americans.” So maybe Biden’s flip response about turning miners into coders isn’t a good specific solution, but it is pretty good shorthand to describe the broad outline of what needs to happen. Workers in coal communities — and lots of other communities — need skills to match the 21st century economy.
Wu is right that miners can’t simply “just move to high-tech” — a lot of those jobs are getting created in her state of Massachusetts, but not so much in McClure in Dickenson County. If jobs are going to where there’s a deep labor pool of skilled workers, then rural communities — coal communities or otherwise — better figure out how to raise the skill level of their local workforce, and fast. That’s why former Gov. Gerald Baliles, before his death, called on Virginia to enact a “Marshall Plan” for Southside and Southwest Virginia. And that’s why many states — Virginia now among them — are trying to figure out how to get more adult students into community colleges.
Biden overly simplifies the solution, but he’s right that there are a lot of people who simply believe that miners — or rural residents in general — are incapable of adapting to the new economy. You won’t find a bigger advocate for Virginia’s coal counties than St. Paul lawyer Frank Kilgore. He’s loudly promoted his region as a site for cybersecurity companies. He says he was also asked by officials in Richmond if far Southwest Virginia “has the DNA to fill cybersecurity jobs.” If the question had been asked that way about an ethnic group or gender, people would rightly call “racism” or “sexism.” So why is it OK to ask the same thing about people in an entire region? Now that is both “tone-deaf and unhelpful” as well as “patronizing, condescending.”
Kilgore went on to say that far Southwest Virginia has “a very trainable labor base — some of whom have decades of experience in electronics, mechanics, metal fabrication and operating and troubleshooting computer-driven equipment.” Maybe they won’t become coders, but it’s not impossible to envision part of the new economy taking root in Appalachia. The question is: Who will help make that happen? There’s no single answer to that — workers are responsible for their own resumes, but companies also have to look beyond the Boston suburbs that Wu hopes to represent. Perhaps Biden and Yang would like to debate this further? If so, Southwest Virginia would be a good place for them to do so.