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Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

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Our Economy Can't Win a Thrown Fight

Posted: 09/01/11 03:50 PM ET

Yesterday, America learned that that Solyndra, a Bay Area solar panel company, was shutting its doors.

The beauty -- and danger -- of capitalism is that it's survival of the fittest. Some companies, a few of them, survive and thrive. Many -- most -- don't. Unfortunately, Solyndra didn't.

It's unfortunate primarily because, in a difficult economy, the loss of 1,100 jobs is a tragedy, with deep impacts on hundreds of families. But it's also unfortunate because Solyndra was helping to lead the charge toward the inevitable green economy.

There is a critical point we must make. Capitalism's survival of the fittest only works on a level playing field. Solyndra -- like many other clean energy companies -- are competing evenly in the United States, but on an extremely slanted field globally. Solyndra was facing, in particular, Chinese companies that received massive subsidies from the Chinese government. The investment our government made in Solyndra wasn't a hand-out; it was an attempt to help balance the playing field. But that attempt was one-tenth, one-twentieth what its Chinese competition saw. That Solyndra competed at all is remarkable and laudable.

This isn't an attack on China. What the Chinese government is doing is what the American government should do -- and has done in the past. As Energy Secretary Steven Chu noted this week, government investment vaulted the American aerospace industry into the global lead last century. The American government to this day heavily subsidizes the petroleum industry, even though oil companies lead the Fortune 500.

The right, meanwhile, has seized on Solyndra's collapse as proof that the President's push for a competive American economy has failed, that we should stay mired in the tar of the 20th century. Oil companies and their allies on Capitol Hill are patently not interested in progress. They claim that investing in clean energy technology is Washington "picking winners and losers." Sort of -- if they mean that the government is deciding that America and American workers should win the renewable energy fight over the long term. This isn't about keeping the doors of a failing business open. It's our leaders making the decision that America should be in a fair economic fight.

We have a choice. We can choose to compete in the global economy, or we can choose to import our solar panels -- and our batteries, and our water, and everything else -- from overseas. We can choose to fight harder to keep jobs for workers like those at Solyndra; we can choose to make feeding those kids a priority.

Or we can give up on our nation's future. It's our choice.

A shorter version of this piece was released yesterday as a statement to the press.

 

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