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Solar Energy Jobs Are Economic Potemkin Villages

A productive sector has the fewest number of people producing the greatest number of things we need. Solar does the opposite.


The above scene meets every requirement of a robust green energy program. Employing Americans as bus pushers would mean jobs. These jobs would be “labor intensive,” so we could “create” plenty of them. Bus pushing, need it be said, would also benefit the environment. Getting rid of buses would go a long way in helping avert a global catastrophe. And since these jobs are largely untethered from any market forces, “we” can pay workers great salaries by relying on government subsidies. So, win, win, and win.

Reductio ad absurdum, you say? I don’t know about that. The other day, American Enterprise Institute scholar Mark Perry wrote this post detailing the astonishing unproductivity of the solar sector, which boasts of 20 percent of all electric power payrolls yet produces less than 1 percent of the electric power in the United States. Perhaps there is a strong argument that funding a “clean energy” economy is worth the trouble because one day it will save the Earth, but right now it exists only as a morally pleasing proposition that serves little economic purpose.

The reaction to Perry’s tweet, though, was a revealing exposition of progressive economics ideas. Which is to say, productivity doesn’t matter if your heart is in the right place. Take Sally Kohn, a CNN analyst, who mocked Perry’s article by saying, “In case you mistakenly thought conservatives mean it when they say they believe in creating good jobs…”

(Incidentally, do liberals really believe conservatives have some ideological hostility to “creating” good jobs for Americans? What would be the motive for such nihilism, I wonder? Who does Kohn believe the plutocracy will steal from, if not Americans with jobs?)

Celebrating economic inefficiency is typically the work of those championing state-run economies. Yet Kohn wasn’t alone.

Kohn and friends probably remind many of you of one of Milton Friedman’s most celebrated (and likely apocryphal) statements: “Then why not use spoons instead of shovels?” So, yes, lolool. The objective of any healthy sector is have the fewest number of people producing the greatest amount of things — not to sponsor the most “labor-intensive” jobs to keep people busy. Productivity creates self-perpetuating jobs, drives output and growth, and improves the quality of goods and services in our lives.

It’s one thing to preach the morality of clean energy, which is why we spend three or four times the money to generate electricity using solar and wind power (which, incidentally, must always be backed up by fossil fuels). It’s quite another, however, to try and bend the laws of economics to comport with a progressive vision of the future. Hey, I would have loved for mid-sized newspapers like the one I worked for to continue employing tons of journalists — it was good for democracy and all — but should taxpayers subsidize our jobs with tens of billions of dollars even if no one wants the work we do?

This is a far more consequential question when it comes to cheap energy, one of the leading reasons we live the way we do. As Matt Ridley noted not long ago: “If we learn anything from the Industrial Revolution it is that improvements in energy sector productivity are the elixir of growth, while a massively over-capitalised system of low productivity, like the one we are now building, will lead to national poverty.”

Yet this is exactly the sort of brittle sector the Left hopes to create. Democrats continue to try and make energy artificially expensive, either by taxing it or by creating fabricated “markets” to punish those who depend on it the most. By trying to kill fracking jobs, productive technology that’s created work for millions and has helped push down prices for consumers, and injecting billions into “clean energy,” Democrats are artificially propping up a sector that exists mainly though the charity of taxpayers.

One day that can go away. And according to Kohn it should:

If solar is also CHEAPER why do we need subsidies and state mandates? Surely Americans would turn away from fossil fuel immediately if this were the case. I know I would. Now, the piece Kohn linked to (but didn’t read apparently) only forecasts that prices will be cheaper, while ignoring the many supplementary costs of creating an entire new infrastructure, not to mention the cost of the fossil fuel capacity necessary to back up a system that runs on the vagaries of sunlight. But that’s another story.

Right now, only 1 percent of the world’s energy is generated by solar power. It does very little to mitigate environmental concerns. The only reason rooftop solar is at all competitive in the United States is due to state subsidies like solar investment tax credits and net metering that insure the rest of us bear the costs of backing them up. Moreover, there are numerous other ways in which solar proponents puff up their numbers. (Oil companies are also subsidized! Well, if you want to get rid of the tax cuts oil companies enjoy, I support you. As Big Oil has gotten in on the boondoggle of “green energy” in a big way, they deserve it.)

Now, I realize this is the same economic instinct that leads many conservatives to argue that we should be “saving” or “bringing back” inefficient manufacturing jobs, even if doing so hurts everyone else in the economy. With populism’s rise, Friedman’s free market arguments are less politically potent than they have been in 40 years probably, not only on the Left but also on the Right. But that doesn’t make them any less true.