News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

October 17, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: On display in Chile: The fruits of compassionate capitalism

It isn’t often I find myself resonating with an essay on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, but the rescue of the Chilean miners facilitated such a rare occurrence.

The day after all 33 men had been brought back to light and full life, Journal columnist Daniel Henniger wrote a piece headlined, “Capitalism Saved the Miners.” He focused on a Pennsylvania company that made the drill bit used to bore through 2,300 feet of rock to reach the miners, but he also mentioned many other companies involved in the rescue. All of them, he wrote, are keen examples of the “profit = innovation dynamic” that only a competitive free market promotes.

The night before, I had been discussing much the same subject with Jack Wittman, the president of Wittman Hydro Planning Associates in Bloomington.

Wittman wasn’t actually in Bloomington. He was on a cell phone between planes at O’Hare, on his way back to Indiana from Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. In May 2008, his company was acquired by Layne Christensen, a Kansas-based corporation that specializes in drilling for water, minerals and energy sources. Wittman is the director of geosciences for Layne Hydro.

Layne and its Latin American affiliate, Geotech Boyles Bros., operated the drill that successfully reached the miners (two other drilling efforts did not). The drillers reamed their original 5-inch-diameter hole to a 26-inch-wide shaft that would accommodate the miners’ Phoenix rescue capsule. Two of Layne’s ace drillers were brought in for the operation from Afghanistan, where they’ve been boring the earth for water for U.S. troops.

Layne Christensen had plenty of expertise digging pilot holes for exploration and access to water and minerals, but, as Wittman told WFIU last week, “this was new … We were mining people, basically. We were helping people come out of the hole.”

Even though the Bloomington subsidiary had no direct involvement in the mine rescue, Wittman said he felt intimately connected to the Layne Christensen operation. He knows many of the U.S. and Latin American members of the team.

Watching the miners emerge, one by one, reminded Wittman of watching in awe as a child as the first humans walked on the moon in 1969. Now, being a Ph.D. with an understanding of the math, physics and scientific execution behind the moon landing and the rescue in Chile, he said his appreciation of both feats is deeply enriched.

“You watch and you feel something,” Wittman said of the general reaction to the rescue. “This is a story that bonds almost the whole world. Knowing that’s the company I work for just makes me feel so good.”

And the concept of “company” is essential to the uplifting achievement, Wittman said.

“You know, companies can work fast. All that preparation and experience — something like this happens [the mine cave-in], and you say, ‘OK. Let’s go.’ And you do it. I almost feel like — that’s American. We have great ideas and we can work fast. There’s something good and pure about that.”

Remove the free enterprise element, as Hennings wrote, and that ability to move quickly, efficiently, intelligently — with the proper and necessary people and equipment — diminishes or disappears.

Before he began to travel the world so extensively in his capacity for Layne Christensen, Wittman said, he always wondered about the realities of non-governmental organizations — NGOs — non-profit groups that work to better the lives of the disadvantaged. What his international experiences have taught him, he said, is that, usually, “NGOs don’t have the tools, only the desire and  caring, which is good and important, but sometimes — you need a machine.”

For-profit companies like the dozens involved in the Chilean mine rescue possess those machines, along with highly skilled employees who know how to use them and, if necessary, innovate and create, right on the job site.

Lest we forget, the caved-in mine was a job site for those participating companies; they did not donate their people and equipment. For Layne Christensen, “this was drilling by the foot,” Wittman said, although there was no bonus money for responding so quickly and thoroughly.

In addition to being a job, the company’s efforts were “about ability and doing something important,” he said.

That combination — using for-profit tools to turn tragedy into triumph — is the unassailable upside of capitalism and the opposite of the ruthless, bottom-line-trumps-all downside. A media industry powerhouse before his election, Chile’s president, Sebastian Pinera, is no enemy of the free market. And yet, not once since the mine caved in on Aug. 5 did the billionaire Pinera hint that 33 lives were not worth the time, effort and millions of dollars it would take to save them.

“When there’s a disaster, we instantly care about each other,” Wittman said. “I have two boys. I want them, everyone, to feel that. It’s an important component of being human.” But the prolonged, collective and sophisticated rescue of the Chilean miners showed us there can be a further dimension to that shared sense of our universal bond:

“There’s this other thing we can feel together besides tragic remorse,” Wittman said. “We can feel that this is special, this is thoughtful, careful and intentional.”

In other words, people who make up economic systems and keep them running, not only can share our fellow humans’ pain, but also can rejoice and take pride when that pain is lessened — by other humans, bearing the fruit of for-profit enterprise, working together for a common goal that is bigger than money.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or 

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