The Editorial: Point Your Finger in the Right Direction
November 23, 2009
The federal government is hardly to blame for the loss of jobs at GE's light bulb assembly plants.
In July 2010, General Electric will close three of its assembly plants in Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, costing some 400 people their jobs. The plants assemble incandescent light bulbs, but GE is abandoning that product in favor of energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, which, unfortunately, the company makes in China.
In a press release, GE blamed the federal government for the closures. In 2007, Congress had the temerity to pass legislation setting minimum energy-efficiency standards for all light bulbs sold in the United States. The law, which goes into effect in 2012 for some wattages, doesn’t ban incandescent bulbs outright, but it does tilt the scale in favor of compact fluorescents.
Workers at the facilities have been all too willing to swallow the company line. “The government did us in,” an assembler at the Virginia plant groused to a local reporter.
Never mind that the design of the incandescent bulb hasn’t changed since Thomas Edison invented it 130 years ago. Never mind that skyrocketing electricity costs and nagging concerns over pollution are forcing businesses and consumers alike to look hard at the energy demands of everything around them, from the smallest light bulb to the most sophisticated manufacturing process. Never mind that GE itself actually lobbied for the legislation two years ago. Nope-the government cost these hard-working folks their jobs.
We disagree. Certainly, we can blame the government for many problems, and the legislative rolls are replete with laws that have produced unintended dire consequences. Nevertheless, let’s give the feds a pass this time. Instead, we might ask GE why it assembles compact fluorescents in China rather than the United States. We suspect that China’s low labor costs and lax environmental policies-compact fluorescents contain trace amounts of mercury-may have something to do with it.
Even without a federal law favoring compact fluorescents, ever-increasing utility bills will eventually push consumers to install at least some of these bulbs. It’s inevitable.
Every consumer wants a better mousetrap, and every engineer wants to be the one who builds it. Consider another invention of the Wizard of Menlo Park-the phonograph. Compact discs made the phonograph obsolete virtually overnight. Now, the MP3 player is quickly doing the same to CDs and even music stores themselves.
Technology marches on, and sometimes good people lose their jobs along the way. The market will favor those who innovate and reject those who cling to past successes. Manufacturers can play the blame game, or they can keep their noses to the grindstone and come up with the next big thing. So, here’s a heads up to the workers in China who are currently assembling compact fluorescents: GE researchers are working on cutting-edge illumination technologies, such as organic light-emitting diodes, that could someday put you out of work. Where will you point the finger?