The View From Afar
For the first time in more than 5 years, I took an international business trip this week. I went to a conference in Lisbon, Portugal (life could be a lot worse), and I had a chance to talk to Europeans in the energy efficiency business. It was very interesting to compare notes with others in a fledgling industry on a difference continent.
There is a lot of government-mandated momentum around energy efficiency. They take reduction of carbon footprint very seriously. Portugal is positioning itself as a clean-tech testing ground, with the government sponsoring all sorts of projects and industries as a way to solve high unemployment in the wake of the global financial meltdown. Their stimulus was in the form of subsidies for solar and wind power, as well as tax credits to enable solar panel assembly for export to the rest of Europe. Although there is the threat that the subsidies will soon end, it seems clear that they were really focused on creating jobs that they hope will somehow outlast the government sponsorship.
Is the kind of job creation that we should be doing the US? Clearly, some of the stimulus dollars went to high-flying clean tech companies to help them build factories and infrastructure. It’s probably too early to tell if they are creating enough sustaining jobs. In general, I don’t think that you can justify this type of investment on a $/job basis. What the government hopes to do is to get some sort of flywheel affect going that allows a new industry to start to create its own jobs, or at least start fully paying for the subsidized ones. I’m skeptical of subsidizing a business where the core business premise is uneconomic, but maybe some economies of scale will kick in to solve that.
There was a great deal of interest in US politics. I don’t think we realize how much a large part of the world looks to us to lead. They want us to lead in foreign policy and in economic policy. The prospect of the US failing to get things done in the light of post-midterm election gridlock was very disappointing to everyone. And, the US’s shift to the right over the past 15 years has really been surprising to even the most conservative people I talked to. European conservatives would almost be considered communists in today’s US political discourse. And, as they pointed out, so would Nixon and Reagan.
The most embarrassing was trying to explain how people like Christine O’Donnell, Sarah Palin, and Rand Paul could get so much support while seeming to take positions that are so much against the types of freedom that most Europeans associate with America. Our image in Europe is still one of real freedom. And, despite their cries of “freedom”, most Europeans associate the tea partiers with a loss of freedom – less tolerance, less help for those in need, and a harsher government. They are worried that the hard shift to the left for the US will be bad for the rest of the world. I just hope that the left and right can work together in the coming two years rather than having strongly entrenched views without compromise.