Sunday, 17 October 2010

Something Heroic in Their Way of Trading

Guest post by Robert Tracinski

_robert_tracinski Until a few days ago, I had only been loosely following the drama of the miners in Chile who were trapped a half-mile underground after a mine collapse in early August and who managed to stay alive until they were rescued on Wednesday night. But it was during the coverage of the rescue, when the last of the miners came to the surface, that I heard something that made this story much more interesting.

Photo 1 of 6 It was the statement of the last miner to be rescued, shift supervisor Luis Urzua, whose first words to Chile's president were, "I hand the shift over to you."

I thought that was a wonderful expression of the ethics of work. It conveys the mentality, not of a victim, but of a productive man who takes seriously his responsibility to act to achieve his values. Urzua viewed the problem of his and his men's survival as part of his job, to be approached with the same professionalism and rationality. He was "on the job" throughout the emergency, completing what some observers are already calling "the longest shift in mining history."

An item on a CNN blog tells us about Urzua's crucial role.

_Quote After the Chilean mine collapsed on August 5, shift boss Luis Urzua divided the lone cans of tuna in the dark cave among the men to keep them alive.
Without food, light, or contact with the outside world for days, the shift boss organized the 32 others into three work shifts. He kept them busy, and he helped keep them alive. He led the group that was forced into living in continual darkness—and kept their spirits and solidarity intact as they faced living in a cramped area with high humidity and hot temperatures....
    Inside the underground cavern, Urzua, who has worked in mining 31 years, pored over diagrams of the mine, working with rescuers to construct a plan for the escape.
And so it was fitting that he would be the one who offered to be the last man out. Only after all the other men were each lifted to safety one by one would Urzua leave the mine.

This last detail really struck me. It is the kind of attitude we associate with military heroism; Chile's president compared Urzua to a ship's captain who leaves a sinking boat only after he is sure all of his men are safe. And this comparison reminded me of something Alexis de Tocqueville observed, more than 200 years ago, about American merchants. After recounting the hardships and risk-taking that made Americans the leaders in global shipping at the time, he concluded: "I cannot express my thoughts better than by saying that the Americans put something heroic into their way of trading." So, apparently, do Chilean miners.

The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan is good at capturing the sense-of-life dimension of political events, and her column on this story names the reason why it has captivated the world.

_QuoteWhat a thing Chile has done. They say on TV, "Chile needed this." But the world needed it. And the world knew it: That's why they watched, a billion of them, as the men came out of the mine.
Why did the world need it? Because the saving of those men gave us something we don't see enough, a brilliant example of human excellence—of cohesion, of united and committed action, of planning and execution, of caring. They used the human brain and spirit to save life. All we get all day every day is scandal. But this inspired....
Chile this week moved the world not by talking but by doing, not by mouthing sympathy for the miners, but by saving them. The whole country—the engineers and technicians, the president, the government, the rescue workers, other miners, medics—set itself to doing something hard, specific, physical, demanding of commitment, precision, and expertise. And they did it. Homer [Hickam], the coal miner's son turned [NASA engineer] who was the subject of the 1999 film "October Sky" [As usual, the original book, Rocket Boys, is much better.—RWT], said Wednesday on MSNBC that it was "like a NASA mission." Organized, thought through, "staying on the time line, sequential thinking." "This is pretty marvelous," he said.  "This is Chile's moon landing," said an NBC News reporter.

She then brings out the obvious comparison between Chile's achievement and the helpless floundering of America’s current president.

_QuotePresident Obama this week told the New York Times, speaking of his first two years, that he realized too late "there's no such thing as shovel-ready projects." He's helpless in the face of environmental impact statement law. But every law, even those, can be changed if you have the vision, will, instinct and guts to do it, if you start early, if you're not distracted by other pursuits.
"Shovel ready." Chile just proved, in the profoundest sense, it is exactly that.

Noonan gets only so far: that the mine rescue is a sight of competence and human achievement. The Journal's Daniel Henninger goes the rest of the way, identifying this specifically as "a smashing victory for free-market capitalism." He runs down a list of the technological achievements—many of them made in America—that "showed up in the Atacama Desert from the distant corners of capitalism."

_QuoteIf those miners had been trapped a half-mile down like this 25 years ago anywhere on earth, they would be dead. What happened over the past 25 years that meant the difference between life and death for those men?
Short answer: the Center Rock drill bit.
This is the miracle bit that drilled down to the trapped miners. Center Rock Inc. is a private company in Berlin, Pa. It has 74 employees. The drill's rig came from Schramm Inc. in West Chester, Pa. Seeing the disaster, Center Rock's president, Brandon Fisher, called the Chileans to offer his drill. Chile accepted. The miners are alive....
Samsung of South Korea supplied a cellphone that has its own projector. Jeffrey Gabbay, the founder of Cupron Inc. in Richmond, Va., supplied socks made with copper fiber that consumed foot bacteria, and minimized odor and infection.
Chile's health minister, Jaime Manalich, said, "I never realized that kind of thing actually existed."

I love that last quote. If everything were left up to the health ministries of the world, no matter how sincere and well-intentioned their employees, all of these life-saving and life-enhancing goods would never be available. As Henninger concludes, "In an open economy, you will never know what is out there on the leading developmental edge of this or that industry.... [W]ithout this system running in the background, without the year-over-year progress embedded in these capitalist innovations, those trapped miners would be dead."

And note also the benevolence of capitalism: that these products were offered to Chile's rescue effort by entrepreneurs who were eager to demonstrate to the world the value of their achievements.

The Chilean mine rescue merely shows us in a particularly dramatic form what is being demonstrated every day in the ordinary functioning of a free economy. After more than two centuries of such demonstrations, it is time to recognize the life-and-death value of capitalism—and of the moral virtues it embodies.

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Robert Tracinski Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist magazine and the TIA Daily e-newsletter. 
This post is copyright Robert Tracinski, and  appears by permission.

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