Acton Commentary

Solyndra and the False Hope of Green Jobs

Photographs taken of the president’s tour of Solyndra in 2010 have accompanied almost every article written about the company’s bankruptcy, but they are more significant than most newspapers probably realize. The president looks as though he is visiting his own factory, and indeed, a $535 million federal loan was as much the cause of Solyndra’s new plant as the company’s entrepreneurial founders. The subsequent collapse of this green jobs poster boy is a painful reminder that work -- truly human work -- is not mere employment, and policy made in ignorance of this fact will fail.

Stimulus efforts like the Solyndra loan come from Washington’s concern for jobs, which is well intentioned. Millions of people have lost their jobs since the 2008 crash, and an economic recovery is directly in line with the common good.

But a concern for jobs, simply, is dangerous. The dignity of a man’s employment does not come from his salary per se. Rather, it comes from his nature -- man is called to work, to till the soil, from the very beginning, and the nobility of his labor is wrapped up in both the activity itself and in its ends. It does not befit a man to do work that is of no consequence.

Sadly, in the rush to “create jobs” by government stimulus, little thought is given to what work really is, or how more of it can be created. It is considered enough that a job run from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon, and that it come with a regular paycheck.

The green jobs movement is especially guilty of this unthinking attitude -- indeed, it has never been defined what a green job is, and various bodies give widely varying definitions. If it’s not known broadly what a green job is, it won’t be possible to know whether all green jobs are compatible with the dignity of human labor, and whether governments are really capable of spurring their creation.

The indefinite nature of a green job is among the many problems  noted in a March 2009 paper called “7 Myths About Green Jobs,” by Andrew P. Morriss et al. (Yes, it was published the very same month that the Energy Department announced Solyndra’s loan.) Every myth raised and debunked by the authors, every systemic problem with publicly funding green industry, has its root in an empty understanding of work.

For example, green jobs policy emphasizes increasing employment over productivity, and that results in less productive, poorly paying jobs. To quote the 7 Myths authors, “Green jobs estimates promise greatly expanded (and pleasant and well-paid) employment. This promise is false.” (Also see the new book, The False Promise of Green Energy by Morriss, et al. Cato, 2011). You can provide greatly expanded, and pleasant, and well-paid employment if you invent the Google search algorithm. Otherwise, more pedestrian growth is to be expected.

Ironically, the narrow focus on jobs created by green businesses means that advocates measure the industry according to the resources it consumes, not what it produces. Lawyers, accountants, and other support staff do meaningful work, and without them business could not go on, but you couldn’t have an economy made up only of consultants and their lawyers and accountants.

What at first seemed like a mystery -- how we could spend half-a-billion dollars on 1,100 jobs, and after two years everyone gets fired -- becomes clearer. As the 7 Myths study found, “A constant in the green jobs literature is the idea that maximizing employment, not maximizing human welfare, is the goal.”

If the federal government and the green jobs lobby do not understand human work, who ought to be relied upon for job creation? The entrepreneur. The photos of President Obama at Solyndra depict the replacement of entrepreneurialism by government, and that’s the most troubling thing about the story.

The risks taken within the free market by an entrepreneur are calculated to yield a profit. That profit is, as Pope John Paul II put it, “the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society.” The entrepreneur must create meaningful jobs, or else face the consequences imposed by the market.

Governments, because of their coercive power, do not feel the consequences of failure. The Department of Energy is the entrepreneur’s antagonist: it has just taken $535 million and flushed it, over the course of two years, down the drain. The loss was unintentional, but predictable, and we should expect that it will happen again, because the department’s work as a regulatory body is to consume, not to produce—as long as it is pretended that a job is nothing more than a desk and a salary, “jobs” will be created at a loss.

No arm of the government can purchase jobs as commodities and promote the common good, because such a purchase commodifies the worker and strips him of the dignity of real work.

Kenneth Spence is a communications associate at the Acton Institute.