POLITICS

The Germans are beating us on solar, and the North Koreans are beating us on really tall hotels

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Timothy P. Carney

Germany and Spain are beating us in solar panels. China is beating us on clean coal. We need to catch up!

This is the refrain of many Democrats and enviro-writers. In a piece published by Reuters, Zachary Shahan writes "the U.S. is missing out on some serious global investment in cleantech as our completely dysfunctional Congress is taken hostage by Tea Party extremists."

President Obama often sounds this note. In his State of the Union, Obama likened renewable energy to the space race. At Georgetown last month, Obama said this:

Other countries are now exporting technology we pioneered and they’re going after the jobs that come with it because they know that the countries that lead the 21st century clean energy economy will be the countries that lead the 21st century global economy. I want America to be that nation. I want America to win the future.

It's a clever rhetorical frame. Liberals weren't winning on "Save the Planet," so Obama made green policy be about the economy and jobs. The Left never won anyone over saying "we need to be more like Europe," so Obama says, we can't let those wussy Europeans beat us!

But I say, why not?

Here are some problems with this we must beat Europe at clean energy schtick:

1) Who is "we"? Obama speaks as if he is CEO of America, Inc., and we're all shareholders and employers. This is not the case.

2) It's often okay to let others lead in industries. "We" don't have to beat the Swiss at watchmaking. We don't have to make better beer than the Belgians. Trying to be the best at everything diverts resources away from what we are actually the best at.

3) Most importantly, it's not clear to me why "green energy" is an area where we would ever want to lead. North Korea is building the world's only 100-story hotel. This is an incredible waste of money. As of now, solar and wind electricity are not economically sensible ways to generate electricity -- they require subsidies in order to be profitable. That means these technologies are a net drain on our economy.

"Leading" on money-wasting technology like solar and wind is different only in degree from "leading" in the building of really tall hotels.

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