Mine Economics


What you might ask does a concept from game theory and economic theory have to do with the Black Range?  What does a mathematical representation have to do with the people of the Range and their history and the history of their predecessors?  Just about everything.

The essence of the zero-sum game is that there is only 100% of something.  If some portion of that 100% is utilized in some fashion the 100% is reduced by that same amount, it means that when there are winners there are also losers.  The zero-sum game concept is the foundation of cliches like “everyone wants their piece of the pie”.  The pie is limited, if someone gets a bigger piece, you get a smaller one. The most fundamental attribute of the zero-sum game is conflict.  It is the basis of conflict in nature and human society.  

Vilfredo Pareto described a process in which an entity can be improved or increased without the diminishment of another.  This is now called the process of “Pareto improvement”.  A process which can continue until “Pareto optimality” is reached.  Pareto optimality is a zero-sum game.  I have always believed that Pareto improvement is generally misapplied because a holestic enough view of the situation is not utilized.  Put another way, the universe is in Pareto optimality.  If mass/matter/energy is changed some other component is diminished, that is the law of conservation of energy and it describes the natural state (rather than the economic state) of a zero-sum game.   

Mining had the most significant cultural impact on the Black Range of any of the human activities.  At its heart, the value of mining rests on two concepts; direct utilitarian applications and perceptions of value.  For the most part, the value of silver and gold flows from the perception of its value.  The supply of these elements exceeds their direct utilitarian needs (to include their use in art and “cosmetic” applications like “bling”).  It is the perception of their value which determines their value, in this way an ingot of gold is no different from a bundle of United States Federal Reserve Notes. Generally investors in gold receive only a certificate for their money.  The certificate’s value is thus predicated on the belief that it can be exchanged for gold (if everything goes to pot, good luck with that) and secondly that the gold’s value is at some level intrinsic.  Intrinsic value is generally derived from economic concepts like supply and demand.  If people stopped believing that gold was “an economic safe haven” then the demand for it and its value would plummet.  In this context, the value of gold and silver is not a zero-sum game and supply and demand is not a zero-sum game concept since both supply and demand may be variable.

In the modern history of the Black Range there has been ample proof of the artificial nature of value when applied to gold and silver.  As various political-economic standards have been implement, changed, and abandoned (silver standard, gold standard, government-backed currency) the “wealth” of the Black Range has fluctuated.

As demand has fluctuated value of these metals has changed (as opposed to value set by political-economic standards).  When the value of the metal is allowed to float “with the market” rather than being fixed the cost of extraction and processing may be greater than that value (meaning that extraction and processing does not generally occur) or the cost may be less (meaning that extraction and processing may occur).  Other economic factors are at play, of course; transport, total labor cost, the cost of regulations implemented to ensure the safety and well-being of workers and the general population, etc..

If there is a belief that a zero-sum situation exists, and demand exists, then the value of the material will increase.  In the case of mining, the extraction industry typically argues that Pareto improvement is possible.  To my knowledge, they never take a holestic view of the present situation and they certainly do not consider the future social and environmental costs of their actions.  When the full range of present costs (including those costs that the industry is able to avoid via political machinations) and future costs are considered, mining is a classic zero-sum game.  As such, many people have a stake in the activities of the extraction industry.  Investors, industry workers, local populations, the broader population generally, and those yet to be born are all affected by the activities of the extraction industry.  Simply avoiding those costs by trying to ignore them, shove them off to some other population, or to shove them into the future does not make the business case viable - only immoral.

The question of how a zero-sum game operates in the Black Range is problematic because the Range in itself is part of many physical, economic, political, and geographic components.  For instance, the large number of retirees who have moved to the area are additive to the economic viability of the area.  Because their income is derived from outside sources and their demand on the socio-economic infrastructure is substantially less than others in the region, or that demand is effectively mitigated by programs like health insurance which is paid for by outside sources, they insulate the region from the negative economic winds which might flow through the rest of the state/region…. But, as noted above, Pareto improvement is often misapplied.  Although retiree income may represent a Pareto improvement scheme for the region it does not necessarily represent a Pareto improvement for the country, which may be at Pareto optimality.  Much of Brazil’s current economic dilemma, for instance, is created by the fact that 13% of the country’s GDP is spent on pensions (expected to reach 20% by 2060).  The issue of non-productive members of society being supported by the productive members of society is not a new political question.  The focus on retirees in the discussion above could be as easily focused on economical non-productive spouses [all those stay-at-homes] or the infirmed or the overly-priveledged [being born with a silver spoon in your mouth does not make you productive].  The point is that the funding for that support has to come from somewhere else.  Within our current political-economic structure it is not possible to take advantage of Pareto improvements like having the very rich pay higher taxes to support the greater advantages they derive from society. 

To make things worse the United States and Sierra/Grant counties are increasingly unwilling to make changes which would take advantage of Pareto improvement opportunities.  For instance, over the last 14 years the number of 15-year olds performing at level 5 or above in the PISA mathematics literacy exam has been less than 10% in the United States, compared with over 50% in Shanghai and 30-40% in Japan/Taiwan/Hong Kong.  In general, the U.S. routinely scores in the bottom half of the 69 parts of the world which have been in the survey.  This is a problem that Ronald Reagan’s national commission on the issue characterized as a “rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”  Americans are increasingly looking for sound bite solutions from those all to eager to take advantage of them.  

Many of those sound bite solutions are simplistic statements that “x” will create more jobs, or better yet, “x” will create high paying jobs (what business entity is going to create “well paying jobs” for a workforce which regularly scores less than the world-norm?).  Reality is boring for a lot of people and sound bites sound great. It is not difficult to argue Pareto improvement (but never use the term, of course) to advance a business venture which will improve your personal wealth.  And, it is easy to overwhelm the arguments about Pareto optimality with sound bites when it is sound bites that the public wishes to hear.

Such is the case in Sierra County at the moment.  The known reserves of copper in the world are not thought to exceed the demands of the next fifty years.  These, apparently, limited reserves; the fact that China is living up to its part of the Paris accord; and the supply issues which exist in Indonesia and Chile have caused the price of copper to surge.  The Economist Copper Price index is up 50% since the start of 2016.  The increase in the value of copper is based, in part, on a refusal to include the full array of environmental and societal costs as an expense of extraction and processing.  The ability to off load legitimate costs on to others is making facilities which have been economically marginal in the past viable.  The use of sound bite analysis by the political stewards of our country makes it even more likely that the real cost of production will not become part of these business models and we will all suffer.  

There are, however, real opportunities to reduce the bite that others are taking out of the copper pie.  Technological improvements which improve the conductivity of electricity, the use of different materials which conduct electricity more efficiently, and increases in distributed electrical generation could all reduce the demand for copper dramatically.  Those improvements are not likely to come from a populist United States, however, because it is unwilling to make investments in basic educational infrastructure.  Populists everywhere are increasingly willing to wage war on the intellectual resource which has improved their lives so markedly.  They want a bigger piece of the pie but are unwilling to work or invest to achieve it.

© Robert Barnes 2018