Green Jobs Blues

September 1st, 2011 by Phil Mattera

President Obama’s grand plan for job creation has not yet been released but it is already struggling. The capitulation to Speaker John Boehner on the scheduling of Obama’s speech to Congress about the plan is a sign of things to come.

Yet perhaps even more troubling is the announcement by a company that served as a showcase for the administration’s campaign to promote jobs in renewable energy that it is shutting down, sticking taxpayers with the bill for $535 million in federal loan guarantees. Solar panel maker Solyndra’s decision to close its manufacturing plant in California and file for bankruptcy will put more than 1,100 people out of work.

Conservatives are having a field day arguing that Solyndra’s demise illustrates the folly of government involvement in the market. It is hilarious to hear many of the same lawmakers who refuse to end subsidies to the ethanol industry and tax breaks for Big Oil get indignant about assistance to wind and solar companies.

It is also amusing to see Republicans try to turn the Solyndra debacle into a story about Obama Administration stimulus cronyism. Solyndra was approved for loan guarantees in 2007 by the Bush Energy Department based on the Energy Policy Act passed by Congress in 2005, though funding for the program was not appropriated until the 2009 Recovery Act.

The real issue is why Solyndra, even with the loan guarantees, was not able to succeed in a market that is supposed to be the wave of the future. And it’s not just an issue of this one company. Evergreen Solar, which received more than $40 million in state government subsidies in Massachusetts, filed for bankruptcy recently. Other U.S. renewable energy firms are also facing difficulties.

Rather than simply debating this country’s half-hearted industrial policy, more attention should be paid to the failures of the companies themselves. U.S. solar panel producers, for instance, were slow to get started and allowed foreign competitors to gain a strong foothold in the international market.

It is customary for firms such as Solyndra and Evergreen to cite low-cost producers in China as a key reason for their plight. What the U.S. renewable energy manufacturers fail to mention is that some of them helped develop the Chinese solar industry by locating some of their own facilities in that country. At the same time, companies like First Solar and SunPower Corporation have intensified global cost competition by building plants in other cheap-labor havens such as Malaysia and the Philippines.

Some European companies have shown it is possible to compete without depending on low wages offshore. Germany’s SolarWorld, which is in the top tier of global producers, does most of its manufacturing in its home country and in the United States (including a plant in Oregon that has received state subsidies). In June it sold off its share in a joint venture in South Korea, saying that it had “decided in favor of production at locations with the highest quality, environmental and social standards.” Imagine a major U.S. corporation saying that.

The fact that many U.S. companies—green or otherwise—cannot or will not compete by adopting a high-road approach does not bode well for the country’s future. As long as wages remain low or stagnant, the buying power of American workers will remain weak, and this in turn will keep the economy in a funk.

Compounding the problem is that, apart from a few tech sectors, innovation in American business seems to be limited to finding new ways to lower tax bills and increase executive compensation. A new report by the Institute for Policy Studies does a good job of linking the two, showing that numerous large corporations are now remunerating their CEOs more each year than the firms are paying in federal income taxes. Many of these same companies are not hiring in the U.S., preferring to rely instead on those offshore labor havens and extracting more work out of their existing domestic employees.

This is the dilemma facing the job proposals of the Obama Administration and state governments: they all ultimately rely on action by corporations whose outlook these days is dominated by executive self-enrichment, tax dodging and labor exploitation—not the creation of quality jobs.  Happy Labor Day.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.