Economic progress, like progress in any field, cannot be achieved by freezing the status quo in place. Government attempts to do so result only in delaying rather than advancing progress.
Following Gov. Chris Sununu’s June 19 veto of two bills to subsidize New Hampshire’s biomass power plants, three of those plants announced that they were winding down their operations. Some blame the governor for the plants going idle. That’s like blaming the National Endowment of the Arts for the demise of jazz.
Jazz, once America’s dominant form of music, in 2014 tied classical as the least popular genre. Chuck Berry, a huge jazz fan, released Maybellene in 1955, dooming the genre that put the “roll” in rock ’n’ roll.
Musical tastes changed, and no subsidy from Washington elites could’ve protected the big bands of the 1940s or the quartets of the 1950s from the rock ’n’ roll revolution.
In the economy, industries rise and fall too, moved by forces that are beyond the control of public officials or elite taste-makers.
The forest products industry in New Hampshire has suffered a decades-long decline triggered by cultural and economic changes no government meddling can reverse.
In 1957, when Berry released his classic song “Rock and Roll Music,” 7,810 people were employed in paper manufacturing in Coos County alone. By 2013, when Robin Thicke topped the charts with “Blurred Lines,” UNH’s Cooperative Extension service reportedthat 7,756 people were employed in the forest products, maple and Christmas tree sectors combined in the entire state. That year, 3,000 more people were employed in forest-based tourism occupations than in production.
(By the way, by 2013 rock ’n’ roll had all but vanished from the Billboard Hot 100, replaced by pop and hip-hop. Only one rock band, Paramore, had a year-end top 100 song that year. If only federal taxpayers had subsidized Guns n Roses….)
Cake, one of the last great alternative rock bands, had a single on its last album called “Federal Funding” in which it mocked government funding for the well-connected. Cake got it what many people don’t. Government subsidies benefit political insiders at the expense of everyone else.
No one wants loggers to lose jobs they love. But the notion that the state’s timber industry can be saved by forcing electricity ratepayers to subsidize a handful of inefficient biomass power plants was never based in a realistic assessment of the New Hampshire economy, the forest products industry, basic economics or clever alternative rock lyrics.
New Hampshire’s economy has evolved over the centuries, as all economies have done since the rise of capitalism and democratic governance. Subsidies for favored industries can only delay the inevitable, and at a high cost.
A report last year concluded that Maine has spent $250 million to prop up its fading biomass industry. New Hampshire, which has for years forced electricity ratepayers to subsidize the industry, would make its economy weaker, not stronger, by continuing this practice.
Biomass plants are in trouble because it’s cheaper to create electricity by burning natural gas than by burning wood. If forcing people and businesses to buy more expensive wood-generated electricity was good for the economy, then we would have the best economy in the country simply by passing laws mandating that people buy only New Hampshire-made goods and services.
Imagine. Instead of driving dangerous automobiles, we could all be riding around in luxurious Concord Coaches. Instead of using national airline companies, we could sail to Europe on gorgeous tall ships built in Portsmouth. Sure, it would be hugely expensive and wasteful for consumers, but think of all the jobs that would be saved!
Sadly, that’s not how the economy works. States can only hurt economic growth by forcing people to pay higher prices for locally made goods and services.
Trying to freeze some economic sectors in time is never good policy, but it’s especially bad when the state has so many job openings that it’s experiencing a severe worker shortage. The best move is to let people transition from jobs in declining industries to jobs that are in higher demand and offer a brighter future.