Enlightened economic policy doesn’t save dying industries. It saves the people who work in them. The first thing you do is to keep them afloat with health and other safety-net benefits. The second thing is to provide strong retraining programs leading to good jobs.
When Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908, America had almost no paved roads outside the cities. One of the early owners’ biggest headaches was tires punctured by horseshoe nails left on the road.
“Forget about this car thing,” Ford’s detractors might have said. “We don’t believe in government subsidies for road paving, and we’re protecting the pony cart makers. Anyhow, less than 1 percent of Americans even travel by car.”
Today’s can’t-doers must have been surprised this month when Tesla, the electric-car innovator, drove past Ford Motor Co. in market value while nipping at the heels of General Motors. Both Ford and GM have been doing well of late, but investors have flocked to Tesla stock as a growth rocket. (Days before, Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX company launched — and landed! — a real rocket.)
All this follows years of conservatives’ carping against Tesla and green energy initiatives. In 2015, the conservative Daily Caller website panned Tesla thusly:
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“Liberal entrepreneur Elon Musk’s business ventures have benefited from nearly $5 billion in government subsidies in the past few years, but apparently that’s not enough taxpayer support to stop his electric car business from losing $4,000 on every vehicle it sells.”
Just four months ago, the business press wondered what the election of Donald Trump might mean for Tesla. Talk of weaker fuel efficiency targets and premature ending of tax breaks for buying electric cars worried some investors — though obviously not all that much.
Noting that his companies would do fine without the government support, Musk famously said, “If I cared about subsidies, I would have entered the oil and gas industry.” Some estimates put direct U.S. subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry at $20 billion a year.
People of little imagination argue that wind turbines provide only 4.7 percent of our power, that solar accounts for just 4 percent and that coal generates 33 percent. Therefore, renewable energy is just not a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Nothing wrong with the numbers themselves. The conclusion based on them, however, could use some work.
A more sophisticated view would note that Iowa now gets 36.6 percent of its power from wind, with South Dakota getting 30.3 percent and Kansas 29.6 percent. In 2000, wind turbines generated 5.6 million megawatt-hours of power in the United States. By 2016, the total was 40 times that, 226 million megawatt-hours.
Enlightened economic policy doesn’t save dying industries. It saves the people who work in them. When people get laid off from a factory job because of automation or foreign competition, the first thing you do is to keep them afloat with health and other safety-net benefits. The second thing is to provide strong retraining programs leading to good jobs — and there are a lot of high-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree.
Sure, fix parts of trade agreements that aren’t fair. And not every environmental regulation makes sense. But it’s a dumb policy that regards addressing environmental challenges as job-killing rather than opportunity knocking.
China is not dumb. While Trump is hectoring China over subsidies to steel and other smokestack industries, China is shoving government money into production of solar panels. China is also hot to dominate the manufacture of electric cars and the batteries that go in them. Our conservatives, meanwhile, are sniping at Tesla.
Clean energy is the future, and our smartest competitors know it. Trump’s economic vision — to prop up coal and other declining industries — is a vision for a country that wants to lose. Drop the futile promises to stop change. What displaced workers need is help navigating it.