“Swimming with the shark just isn’t working.”

Rescue Capsule in Mine Shaft

‘Capitalism Saved the Miners’? Only in Wonder Land

10/15/2010 by Steve Rendall

After the miners’ rescue Wednesday, talk in Chile turned to mine safety and the  conduct of Compañía Minera San Esteban, the corporation that owns the San Jose mines where the miners were trapped. On Thursday, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera publicly addressed safety issues,  vowing “fundamental changes in how businesses treat their workers.”

Stories about San Esteban’s horrible record are legion (e.g., here and here). The company has been host to a number of deaths at its mines in recent years, and accusations of safety violations including the charge that it ignored orders to install safety equipment–a condition of its reopening after a previous accident–which might have made an earlier escape possible for some miners.

Moreover, during the debacle, San Esteban, which played no part in the miners’ rescue, pled poverty and claimed it could not pay the trapped miners wages. As London’s Independent reported, San Esteban “says it has no money to continue paying their wages, let alone cope with the lawsuits that will inevitably arise from the ordeal.”

All in all, one might say it wasn’t an episode in which capitalism cloaked itself in glory. That is, unless one is Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page director and “Wonder Land” columnist Daniel Henninger. In his October 14 column, “Capitalism Saved the Miners: The Profit = Innovation Dynamic Was Everywhere at the Mine Rescue Site,” Henninger argued that the miners owed their rescue to a special drill bit developed by a private U.S. company. That was his entire argument.

Henninger’s real motive seemed to be to use the miners’ rescue to rebut a bit of Obama campaign rhetoric in which the president had sarcastically dismissed notion of unqualified faith in markets:

The basic idea is that if we put our blind faith in the market and we let corporations do whatever they want and we leave everybody else to fend for themselves, then America somehow automatically is going to grow and prosper.

Henninger’s response to Obama’s remark:

Uh, yeah. That’s a caricature of the basic idea, but basically that’s right. Ask the miners.

I’m sure the miners are thankful for the heroic drill bit, but their opinion of the role of capitalism in their debacle might be less breathless than Henninger’s. Indeed, most of the miners have weighed in on the central capitalist actor in the story: At least 29 of the 33 miners’ families have filed lawsuits against San Esteban.

Also inconvenient for Henninger’s argument: The rescue was run by the Chilean government and its relevant ministries, not by the capitalist company. Oh, and the U.S. government’s space agency, NASA, also played a crucial role, designing the rescue capsule and consulting on safety issues.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that, while Chile’s larger, government-owned mines have relatively good safety records, the same cannot be said for its smaller, capitalist-run mines, such as San Esteban’s.

No one argues that capitalism does not produce new innovations (while sometimes stifling innovations too), but in Henninger’s capitalist Wonder Land, the bad actions of capitalists, as well as the the good and vital acts of governments, are banished to the real world.

12 Responses to “’Capitalism Saved the Miners’? Only in Wonder Land”

  1. Alfredo Lopez Says:
    October 15th, 2010 at 4:30 pm “No one argues that capitalism does not produce new innovations (while sometimes stifling innovations too)…”

    I think Steve Rendall’s entry is excellent (as always with his work) but I want to take some issue with the above phrase. A caveat: this is not the main point of the piece but I just wanted to point this out.

    I don’t think capitalism has produced anything other than a system of organizing work and a real good way of paying for it while not paying for it completely. The innovations are the product of workers themselves, in collaboration made possible and even enhanced — I’ll admit — by capitalism but those innovators almost never include capitalists. I just think it’s important to be able to envision a productive, innovative future that isn’t hinged to capitalism. Now…back to Rendall’s important points. 🙂

  2. ‘Capitalism Saved the Miners’? Only in Wonder Land – Fox News Watchdog Says:
    October 15th, 2010 at 5:01 pm […] ‘Capitalism Saved the Miners’? Only in Wonder Land […]
  3. mike owen Says:
    October 15th, 2010 at 6:14 pm I’m with you 100% Alfredo. the question is not the value of capitalism but what can you do about it? Swimming with the shark just isn’t working. What? mining is dangerous? I worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and it was dangerous. My father in law did aluminum casting. It was dangerous. etc. Would people be doing this without capitalism? No. They would be hunting. dangerous. fishing dangerous. Who gets the bad duty? Same old same old. Jonathan Schell said it all. Only two things are true about history: people don’t like to be stepped on and technology proliferates.

    If we are headed for one government and one corporation we had better figure out how to make the government work for us. Capitalism is a force to be reckoned with.

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