Wednesday, January 19, 2011

NYT's economists flunk on solar job leaks

I was interested to read the NYT's editorial debate today on "green collar" jobs after the Evergreen solar debacle, which I blogged about the other day.

But I didn't learn much from it. What a parade of conventional and classical economic dogma! Going on and on about public goods, intellectual property rights, and free trade!

It's not that I don't believe that David Rickardo still has something to teach us about free trade, or that identifying the public good nature of technical knowledge isn't important.

But really, is it appropriate to jump straight to controversial classical and neoclassical theorizing, when you haven't properly specified the area of industry you're talking about, and so you haven't realized that you're talking about two completely different industrial processes that just happen to make a compatible product?

It's as if it were the early 1900s, and Henry Ford had developed and deployed the assembly-line technology in automobile production for several years already, and you were sitting around bemoaning the fact that all the hand-built car companies were going out of business because they couldn't compete.

Let me repeat: It doesn't matter if polycrystalline technology goes to China. They have it already, in fact they've had it for several years already. They can do it with their eyes closed. Evergreen is just going to be one of hundreds of plants that assemble solar modules from raw cells.

It's the proprietary systems for the very different amorphous semiconductor techniques, such as the various top-secret recipes for thin film solar "ink" that we need to protect from Chinese industrial espionage, and that we need to add public and private capital to.

That's the future of solar power.

And while there won't be very many jobs in making the new type panels, because these new thin film factories use robots to do that, there will be thousands of jobs in installing the systems, jobs which can't be exported to China.

A couple of the economists got that part right.

I'm so glad I never had a conventional economics education. Nearly all of my econ teachers were mavericks of one kind or another, greens, Quakers, ecological economists, radical libertarians. There was even a Greek sado-marxist, from whom I learned, believe it or not, supply and demand and free trade.

And I'm also glad I worked in manufacturing and construction and other technological work at various times during my life. It sure does make it a lot easier to understand what's going on in industry.

Maybe an assembly line or mining or timber-mill or construction job should be required for all economists before we let them into MS and PhD programs.


Clayton said...

A "Greek sado-marxist" that explains a lot Mick! Just kidding, great overview though. I didn't hear about that Evergreen leaving but your completely right it's nothing new for China, and it's certainly not a game changer. Lame regardless, but oh well.

Mick said...

Hey Clay. How's the sunshine state, or did you move on?

Although I may have coined a new phrase there, I was deadly serious about this particular anonymous mentor -- Unity College students think I'm tough, but this guy used to yell at me for ten minutes at a time.

Not quite sure about his Marxism, though, since he seemed to make quite a bit of money on the side, playing those "corrupt, capitalistic" free markets.