Jim Thompson
Jim Thompson
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

People often ask me “How is the paper industry doing?”

I explain it this way. The major component in paper is cellulose. If cellulose is used for its physical properties (boxes, packaging, kitchen towels and tissue), the business is just fine. If cellulose is used to convey ideas (books, newspapers, copy paper and so forth) it is nearly dead.

Despite paper never being far from my thoughts, Laura and I are vacationing in Switzerland as I write this. We have not been here before. The terrain reminds me of Ohio’s neighbor, West Virginia.

There's hardly a level spot to be found, same as West Virginia. Yet, there is a quite noticeable difference in prosperity (it will cost you at least $100 to have a modest dinner here). In Switzerland, the GDP per person is around $65,000. In West Virginia, the GDP per family is around $45,000. This puts the Swiss personal income around two to three times higher.

Switzerland is almost 16,000 square miles while West Virginia is a little over 24,000 square miles. Population size is flipped. Switzerland’s population is 8.5 million, while West Virginia’s is only 1.8 million. Figure this into the per capital and per family numbers I cited, and overall, Switzerland financially towers over West Virginia.

Founded in 1291, Switzerland predates West Virginia by 570 years. Rugged mountains seem to be about the only common features these two entities share. Why is that? Why can one area with such a terrain become so prosperous while the other flounders?

I think the answer is more than skin, or in this case, topsoil, deep. Switzerland seems to be lacking in an abundance of mineable resources. The early folks had to look around and find something to do. With no heavy industry prospects, due to the lack of resources and enough flat land to site large factories (and an industrial revolution still a few hundred years away), they concentrated on small, high-value items. For instance, cuckoo clocks, watches and knives from Switzerland are known the world over. Switzerland has also managed to develop more museums per capita than anywhere else in the world. Then, there is banking and insurance, two vital cogs of modern life that need very tiny amounts of level land.

West Virginia thought it was blessed with coal. But the coal resource was exploited by outsiders – mine ownership was not developed by the locals. The locals only earned wages for their labor; the created wealth went elsewhere. Thus, the locals furnished the labor to mine the coal until automation took over. Now, in the age of environmentalism, even the engines on the bulldozers and earth movers have gone silent.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? The more mundane uses of cellulose are thriving while the fashionable and creative parts of cellulose’s offerings are stagnant or dying. For West Virginia and Switzerland, just the opposite is true – the mundane (coal) is out of favor while the fashionable earns Switzerland a great deal of prosperity.

I think if I were a political or economic leader in West Virginia, I would form a high-powered team and we would spend a lot of time studying Switzerland. The biggest problem I see, however, is changing the culture. West Virginia has a proud heritage in coal mining. To move the population in an entirely different direction requiring completely different sets of expertise and perspectives will be a yeoman’s task.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at jthompson@taii.com.