Ominous Signs From the Hinterlands

Photograph Source: PD-USGov-Interior-FWS – Public Domain

It’s fair to say many people judge the state of the nation’s economy and well-being by the performance of the stock market — even though only a small majority of Americans actually have a stake in the stock marker. It’s also fair to say many Americans think of Montana as a hinterland “somewhere up by Canada.” But there are ominous signals from our hinterland right now and like the canary in the coal mine, they are worth our sincere attention.

As most people know, canaries were not kept in coal mines because the miners liked to hear them sing. Quite the opposite. If the levels of toxic gasses sometimes released by mining rose to dangerous levels, the little birds would topple over first — hopefully giving miners the time to get out before they, too, succumbed.

The “canaries” appearing in Montana right now are likewise warning of serious ongoing impacts and are directly connected to President Trump’s escalating trade war with China.

Those who have lived in Montana will well remember the hot controversy over the miles and miles of sidelined rail cars that appeared during the Great Recession a decade ago. They were stored by the thousands along unused rural tracks. It was so bad they drew a harsh rebuke from the public and elected officials when the ugly yellow cars adorned with urban gang graffiti were moved to the banks of the blue-ribbon section of Montana’s world famous Missouri River downstream from Wolf Creek. To say they were incongruous with Montana’s natural beauty would be a huge understatement and, once enough pressure was applied, they were moved to other areas.

Well, the flatbed cars used to transport the enormous number of containers that come in from China are once again appearing on miles and miles of Montana’s railroad sidetracks. If this canary could talk, it would tell you it’s because the imports from China have fallen so significantly that the railroads now have an oversupply of flatbed cars and have once again taken to storing them in the hinterlands of Montana.

Unfortunately, the news from the canary gets worse. As reported in the Washington Post last week, Montana’s family farm bankruptcies were 50% or higher in 2018 than in 2017. Montana is joined in the flood of family farm bankruptcies by Idaho, North Dakota, Utah, Minnesota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Illinois, Alabama, South Caroline, North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Given that agriculture has long been touted as the leading industry in Montana, that statistic should shiver the timbers of citizens and politicians alike.

In response to Trump’s move to slap on even more tariffs, the Chinese government announced it will now cease to buy American agricultural products. Mind you, that’s not “cut back” on purchases from U.S. farmers and ranchers, it’s “cease.”

The sidelined rail cars and family farm bankruptcies are impossible to see from penthouses atop Manhattan’s skyscrapers or down on the Wall Street where the traders play high-stakes poker with other peoples’ money — but they are certainly visible here in the hinterlands where the canaries are tipping over.

Trump told Americans “trade wars are easy to win.” But that’s coming from a guy who thinks a “trade war” means stiffing the contractors at his failed casinos — not fighting with the most populous nation on the planet and its enormous economy. The signals from the hinterland clearly show we are not winning. It’s past time to get rid of the “fool on the hill” and put our nation back on a sustainable path to a more sane future.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.