Don’t Have Delusions About Green Jobs

September 15th, 2011 at 9:18 pm David Frum | 25 Comments |

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The human mind has trouble envisioning change. The first automobiles were built as horseless carriages. We will send e-mail even as our children no longer remember what “the mail” ever was.

So likewise, when we imagine a world evolving beyond fossil fuels, we imagine a world of cars powered by hydrogen motors or electrical utilities operating wind farms instead of coal-fired generators.

And who knows: perhaps the future really will look like that.

But my own guess is that a world in which coal and oil are fading from the scene will look and function very differently from our present world of exurbs and super-highways.

The industrial economy built on fossil fuels will yield to a different kind of economy that may still require enormous amounts of energy, but will be organized in very different ways. If solar panels ever generate cost-effective electricity, I doubt they’ll be owned and maintained by utilities. They’ll be owned and maintained by the owners of the buildings to which the panels are affixed.

Likewise, the hope expressed by President Obama that the transition to a new energy future can double as a way to preserve the mass production workforce of the mid-20th century seems at best delusive, at worst a cruel hoax – and actually most of the time a distraction from other more immediate and relevant economic problems.

The president’s talk of green jobs reminds me of how the “Atari Democrats” of the 1980s used to muse that the industrial workforce displaced by the economic changes of the 1970s could find work making semiconductors. The computer industry created millions of new jobs, yes, including some very exciting and well-paid new jobs. But instead of rescuing the embattled blue-collar middle class, the new jobs heaped additional rewards of higher pay and lower prices on the educated and the qualified.

No predictions from me about the economic and social effects of green energy. But here’s what I would predict: we’re rapidly going to discover that new energy forms will destroy many more energy-sector jobs than they create.

And we’ll (re)discover for the umpteenth time that the reason government fails as a venture capitalist is that government faces too many and too contradictory goals. Government effort to subsidize “green jobs” will emerge – not as a benefit from the spread of green energy – but as one of the greatest obstacles impeding the spread of green energy.

–More to Come–

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25 Comments so far ↓

  • nikhil_gupta

    I like this post, but my objection to it is the same objection that I have to a-lot of the more wonky work on this site. Here is my model of the world.

    1. Smart liberal people think about a first best, market oriented solution to improve the general welfare, dependent on cooperation from a conservative party that also cares about the general welfare.

    2. There is no such party, so they think of something else instead.

    3. David Frum attacks them for doing that thing, with an attack along the lines of “have you learned nothing about the market.”

  • rockstar

    What you’re describing is an American version of the German CDU/CSU.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one, for many reasons.

  • Oldskool

    If for example solar panels were made more effecient and then subsidized by the government, enough that everyone would have to have one, the number of jobs it would generate would be enormous. It would take decades to convert every home, school and office and then maintain them. If those panels could recharge electric cars, millions of new ones would have to be built.

    If getting off of oil really is a national security priority, it would surely be worth the trillions we’ve spent trying to steal oil from halfway around the world.

  • dittbub

    I don’t get Frum on this. Didn’t a few days ago Frum criticize Democrats for not having long-term goals in mind for the economy?

  • sparse

    “we’re rapidly going to discover that new energy forms will destroy many more energy-sector jobs than they create.”

    i agree that there will be some scary displacements to come as we shift away from our approach (tens of thousands years old with hardly a change) of whatever you got, wood, coal, gasoline, set it on fire. oh, and witches, too. but if we don’t make the transition, there will be more damage than just some job losses, though, so hold on tight. change is coming, that’s for sure.

    markets have a role to play in the changes to come. but so does government. what role can government play? to set policy; to choose a direction the nation should go in and to make that happen. what role can the markets play? given the direction chosen by the government, to make it more efficient.

    in defense of the role of government: in the second world war, chosen as an example of another time the nation was at a crossroads requiring abrupt changes in what the industrial sector did , did the government leave our national defense to the market or did the government set priorities? the answer is obvious, and the reason is obvious. the markets, left to their own devices, would have eventually come around to producing enough tanks, ships, planes and guns to fight the war, but not fast enough to win the war (and at a probably higher cost). without appeal to patriotism, and sometimes to coercion, the markets would have failed us when we needed them.

    yes, government intervention in the markets can be ugly, intrusive, ineffective, and even corrupt. but i could use the same adjectives to describe many of the private-sector companies i deal with. comcast? yep, all of those. and i am not guaranteed a vote at comcast. i am fairly comfortable with the idea of my government (for whom i can at least vote) trying to make policy that could make my life better.

    if my government’s efforts in that direction are inefficient sometimes, then i am reminded that comcast is that way every day too. if my government’s actions are corrupt, i can take comfort that at least we have laws that prosecute corruption. does goldman sachs police its own? ubs? yes, ubs does, but only when the rogue trader loses.

    markets are efficient, but they are not smart. they are like a school of piranha that scour ever scrap of flesh from the bones of whatever monkey falls into the river. they are awesome that way. but that does not mean they need to be the ones to choose what monkey falls into the river.

  • DifferentFrumer

    SO, DAVID IS INTO ALL CAPS FROM HERE ON. SO RELIEVED TO KNOW THAT. IF YOU SAY GREEN JOBS IN 6O POINT PRINT IT MUST MEAN YOU DONE SOME KIND OF SECRET RESEARCH THAT SHOW THAT LARGER PRINT HAS A MORE IMPACT.

  • MaxFischer

    …instead of rescuing the embattled blue-collar middle class, the new jobs heaped additional rewards of higher pay and lower prices on the educated and the qualified.

    Frum does not appear to remember that back in the 80′s and 90′s – before nearly all manufacturing for all products was off-shored – that computer components – modems, motherboards, RAM, hard-drives, etc, etc – were mostly all manufactured in the US. That they are no longer does not speak ill of the “Atari Democrats” but in the trade policies that subsequent administrations have followed. That is the lesson that needs to be learned rather than heaping scorn on those who would look forward.

    …we’ll (re)discover for the umpteenth time that the reason government fails as a venture capitalist…

    Let’s take a moment to recall that the ARPANET – and what became the internet – was completely bankrolled by the US government. Likewise with most of what eventually turned into Silicon Valley. Some failure…

    Government effort to subsidize “green jobs” will emerge…but as one of the greatest obstacles impeding the spread of green energy.

    Some supporting evidence here would be swell. None of the points provided here point in that direction.

    • balconesfault

      [ b]That they are no longer does not speak ill of the “Atari Democrats” but in the trade policies that subsequent administrations have followed. That is the lesson that needs to be learned rather than heaping scorn on those who would look forward.[/b]

      Bingo. Had someone in in Congress proposed that we take steps to directly facilitate the shipment of all those fab and manufacturing jobs over to China, they’d have been attacked as treasonous. Yet we happily engaged in trade policies that led exactly, and quite predictably, to that outcome.

      • valkayec

        Question: if all those tech manufacturing jobs remained in the US, would China today have one of the world’s largest super computers?

  • kathyjboyd

    However, we should expect further worsening on joblessness in the country in the next quarter because of political anxieties in the Middle East, check out an article called “High Speed University” for relation between a degree and job and the pay rate.

  • Solo4114

    Ok, so, let’s accept — for the moment — the premise that a “green economy” will not create a mass of new industrial jobs to buttress the fading middle class of the now-gone 20th century.

    Now what?

    What’s the solution instead, then? What other options are there? Nothing but infrastructure jobs? “The world needs ditchdiggers”? Do we simply throw up our hands and say “I guess the global economy is just shifting. Sorry you folks are out of luck”? I mean, honestly, if not this, then what? So far, the GOP pretty much just reflexively says “Tax cuts!” which, so far, doesn’t seem to be doing squat.

    So, the government is a lousy venture capitalist. Ok. What ELSE are we supposed to do? What is going to put Americans back to work, and what will be done about the unemployed in the meantime?

    Put simply: Don’t like it? Great. What’s YOUR brilliant idea, then?

    Maybe it’s time for another “Easy for me to say” column…

  • llbroo49

    The government has done a pretty good job at Venture Capitalism. The origins of the Internet, trans continental railroads, dams, canals, and space program for examples.

    Ironically, it appears that when the government’s focus is on National Defense, instead of just making jobs for the sake of making jobs- we seem better off. Perhaps this is because they are able to focus more clearly in that arena. If my assessment is correct, then for green jobs to take off- it’s focus needs to be on converting the military to effectively use sustainable energy sources. The jobs will then follow.

    • valkayec

      Two additions to your post:

      1- Don’t forget to add computers, software, silicon circuitry and thousands of other technology inventions to your list of DARPA achievements. DARPA’s success is why I believe so strongly in AARPA-E. What DARPA did for tech (and even bio-med), perhpas AARPA-E can do for energy.

      2- The military is working on developing alternate “green” energy to fuel planes, ships and submarines. The stories are noted well in the media, but the few stories that exist show the military has been making incredible progress. However, the GOP House has decided that the progress must end and early this year voted to cut funding for this research and transition. They effectively told the military to stay with oil. Nevertheless, the military is proceeding with it research and development.

  • nwahs

    Some one wake me when the world has a solar powered jet fighter or an electric tank. In the mean time, let the energy conversion scam go on and on and on.

    • balconesfault

      can we wake you when our consumption of oil for moving 1-ton boxes around on the ground decreases significantly, leaving more oil for the jet fighters and tanks when it’s needed?

      • nwahs

        Sure, when you can prove its not an energy conversion scam and you aren’t concealing the use of oil during the building, maintaining, and delivering the charge to your half ton “fossil fuel free” box.

        I.E., lets get real with the life cycle assessments.

  • sunroof

    It’s true that manufacturing jobs in the solar industry in particular are vulnerable to foreign (read: Chinese) competition, but that’s true only so long as the delivered cost of the panel is cheaper than the delivered cost of a locally manufactured panel. If, as many suspect, oil prices are headed higher over the next 2-5 years even with a tepid economic recovery, the business case for locally manufactured panels will improve. If the US has a solar manufacturing base, it will be much easier to ramp up local manufacturing.

    Also, in terms of blue collar jobs, don’t forget there are far more jobs to be had in installation and servicing, just as there are far more blue jobs in installing and servicing residential gas furnaces than there are in manufacturing them. So encouraging solar installations does tend to be a job creator. Perhaps the US should be less concerned with manufacturing panels and wind turbines than with encouraging demand for solar and wind power.

  • passionlessDrone

    Hello friends –

    And we’ll (re)discover for the umpteenth time that the reason government fails as a venture capitalist is that government faces too many and too contradictory goals.

    This is the perfect illustration of what is wrong with the world view of so many Republicans; the believe that everything should be treated as a business and that the only important metric at the end of the day is dollars. Our problems in paying for healthcare are a direct result of treating healthcare like a business.

    The energy problem is very similar. Any real, structural change in how we generate electricity or move cars from one place to another needs to take national level issues into consideration, and this just isn’t something that can be done privately, or on a state to state basis. If we want to have electric cars, we are going to need infrastructure that allows you to charge your car when you drive from your home in Florida to relatives in Georgia. It’s a chicken and the egg problem that requires someone to define the parameters under which a solution can be crafted.

    This doesn’t mean that the problems with big entities like government aren’t a problem, just that the alternatives are worse.

    - pD

  • cranky_engineer

    I’m going to have to change my user name to really irritated cranky engineer. Much of this green economy will come naturally and inevitably. Every time you pass some sign with a small solar panel on top to power a light this is a tiny part of the green economy. In the latest Solar Today from the American Solar Energy Society there is a statistic – We rank 5th in the world for photo voltaic installations in the world after Germany, Italy, Czech Republic and Japan. Hardly uneducated backwater nations. Not all Solar is Photo Voltaic – Concentrating solar is an upcoming technology with large plants capable of producing power around the clock. One in Spain is cited in the same issue of Solar Today. There are plans for others the US – I believe being built by the Spanish. These are operated by utilities. Google, whatever you may think of them, is heavily invested in solar for their own usage. They use a lot of power and are profitable.

    Distributed solar is a developing technology.

    Wind Power provides 2.3% of our energy nation wide and is increasing. They are often operated and owned by utilities. The smart grid could if ever implemented could level the power supplied by these facilities. The link below shows what wind is capable. It shows the amount of wind power generated by the BPA in near real time.

    http://transmission.bpa.gov/Business/Operations/Wind/baltwg.aspx

    My advice to the politicians and pundits – Embrace the green energy future or we as a nation will be sitting on the sideline while other countries eat our lunch. Like it or not the government does have a responsibility to plant seeds and try to help them germinate.

  • Graychin

    That’s a very ugly view of the future, Mr. Frum. Abandonment of fossil fuels throwing millions of Americans out of work…

    So what are we supposed to do? How do we respond? Do we hold on to coal and oil for as long as they last? Subsidize miners and drillers to find more for us?

    Surely our grandkids will thank us for that.

  • beleg

    I think you’re definition of “failure” in this regard is suspect. You suggest that governments fail as venture capitalists because they’re not good at making money (is this even true?). But making money is the goal of business, not government. Governments have multiple goals, and it can fail at some while succeeding at others, so deciding if it has failed is a bit more complex. The answer shouldn’t be if it was as successful as a business, but if its efforts were a net benefit to the country.

  • valkayec

    I think Mr. Frum believes in green tech and green energy, based on previous posts. But he believes everything having to do with green tech and energy need to be left in private industry’s hands. Unfortunately, the costs for research, development and distribution are often too great for private industry or private investors. Given the financialization of the US economy, the multi-billions needed for energy RD&D take too long for a return on investment. Thus, most new energy needs, from green energy to nuclear, require government funding of some sort or they simply won’t happen. Moreover, in a world in which governments subsidize energy industries and new technologies, it’s foolish to think domestic American companies will be able to compete and rapidly expand new tech and energy rapidly enough to meet domestic and global demands on their own.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    I live in Mexico near La Ventosa, a 500 million dollar windmill farm that has generated a lot of high paying (for Mexico) jobs. I live in a very rural area of Mexico, since it was built I have seen both a Walmart and Sorrianas open, a Burger King, a multiplex modern cinema (these are the places I go) as well as a host of other chain outfits.

    I know that windmills like at La Ventosa can only be built in select areas (La Ventosa literally means the Windy) but when they are built they are successful.

    Unless David can show to me how La Ventosa is a delusion, then he does not know the truth.