The saddest thing, though, is that there’s a short-term logic to East Kentucky’s tantrum. Decades of near-total mastery by coal of the state’s politics and economy has resulted in a mono-economy, especially in the East, in which working for coal — whether it’s mining or providing a subsidiary service — is the only game in town. It’s not so much that Kentuckians prefer the devil they know; it’s more that something, however bad it may be, is better than nothing. And the immediate future indeed holds nothing. Like a pair of cement shoes, Appalachia’s failing coal industry will drag the surrounding community down with it into the abyss.
The picture is bleak. But in a different world, one could imagine Kentucky lawmakers responding to the looming catastrophe by doing what any good capitalist does: invest. But a quick gander at the state’s expenses for 2011 shows that funds devoted to research & development in transportation, environmental, and economic spheres — the spheres from whence new jobs, if there are to be any, are likely to spring — is effectively zilch. Roughly four out of every 10 dollars spent go straight to pensions and health care. Backward looking. No serious effort is being made by the state’s lawmakers to change what it means to live and work in Kentucky.