Montana Viewpoint


How wise is it for America to export jobs and import natural resources?

August 4, 2003

As America moves closer and closer to having an economy entirely dependent on shopping we need to be thinking seriously about the loss of manufacturing in general and particularly in the natural resource area.

Today, two- thirds of the American economy is based on consumer spending. Buying stuff is not just a national pastime; it’s touted as our patriotic duty. The problem is, hardly any of the stuff we are urged to buy is made in America. In fact, many of the American flags we so proudly display were not even made here. But most people shop for price and pay little attention to what country will get the profits.

I see three dangers in this. First, a consumption driven economy feeds upon itself when it goes sour—unemployment leads to less shopping which leads to more unemployment, which leads to less shopping and on and on. Second, as we move from a production to a consumption economy, we are losing the infrastructure that supports the manufacturing industry and we will not get it back. Lumber mills spring to mind immediately. Third, we are at the mercy of other countries for the supply of our natural resources.

In Montana, we feel this particularly in the mining and timber industries. A majority of Montanans do not want new metal mines, and have gone to great lengths to prevent them from operating. To a great extent, mining in Montana has earned its bad reputation and in many cases mines have become environmental disasters, leaving the taxpayer stuck with huge cleanup costs. This has led to a justifiable distrust of the mining companies’ promises to do an environmentally sound job.

It’s not all like that, though. The Stillwater Platinum-Palladium mine is a sterling example of a well run, environmentally responsible company. Or at least it has been. Recently it was bought by Russian investors, and here lies a real concern. There are only three countries that have Palladium deposits (it’s used in automobile catalytic converters) South Africa, America, and Russia. The only American Palladium mine is now controlled by Russian interests.

In the timber industry a number of factors have combined to decimate the number of lumber mills in Montana. Firstly, mills in the West cannot compete with Southern plantation timber and a U. S. trade policy that allows for the import of vast quantities of cheap Canadian lumber. Secondly, there is a concerted effort by some to promote a policy prohibiting the cutting of merchantable timber in our National Forests.

The “no cut” policy is wrong for many reasons, but the ones that are of concern here are that it forces further reliance on foreign imports and accelerates the abandonment of the timber industry’s infrastructure. (It also shifts the responsibility of environmental oversight from the consuming nation to the producing nation.) Once the mills are gone, it will be a very long time until new ones are built.

So, two trends in American thought are setting us up for a big fall down the road: Americans’ propensity to put price before patriotism, and Americans’ passion for an unrealistically pristine countryside where industry does not sully the landscape.

We can have a clean and healthy environment without banning industry; and we need to have industries in America…responsible industries kept responsible by governmental scrutiny. It makes us less reliant on foreign suppliers, and it brings jobs that have, largely through the efforts of America’s labor unions, traditionally provided a decent wage. And, you’ll be able to buy products made in America, and keep the profits in Americans’ pockets.

It protects the nation, it preserves communities, and it helps working folks.

Keep that in mind.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620