Thursday, October 14, 2010

Capitalism and Underground Survival

WSJ has a paean to the innovators whose products saved the lives of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped a full half-mile below the earth's surface.
If 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.
It's a valid point: while mining accidents have occurred for hundreds of years, high-stakes mine rescues are relatively new. Twenty-five years ago, maybe even 10 years ago, these guys would have died. Instead, high-tech companies offered some really tremendous industrial products.
Center Rock Inc. is a private company in Berlin, Pa. It has 74 employees... Seeing the disaster, Center Rock's president, Brandon Fisher, called the Chileans to offer his drill. Chile accepted. The miners are alive...

The high-strength cable winding around the big wheel atop that simple rig is from Germany. Japan supplied the super-flexible, fiber-optic communications cable that linked the miners to the world above...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.
Whether the companies above donated their items or sold them to the Chilean government is not mentioned in the article: and it's beside the point. The main point is that the companies created something almost ex nihilo. They created markets for their products by meeting human needs or desires, they charged prices that would give salaries to their workers and profits to their investors, and they improved - and in this case saved - human lives.

The author points out that government response in disasters is vital, and can be brilliant (as Chile's in both the mine and 8.8 earthquake) or awful (the U.S. in Hurricane Katrina and the BP spill; China frequently). But the government's less dramatic policies - free trade agreements, taxes on capital - will determine whether technology advances rapidly or slowly, and thus whether the frontier of human ability is advanced ahead of future disasters.

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