January 11, 2009

Of Steel-Toed Boots and Solar Panels

So there's a tiff that went on this week between Joe Romm, on one side, and Robert Stavins and his fellow environmental economists, on the other, concerning Van Jones' green-collar jobs movement. Stavins starts off with this comment in the latest New Yorker:
“Let’s say I want to have a dinner party. It’s important that I cook dinner, and I’d also like to take a shower before the guests arrive. You might think, Well, it would be really efficient for me to cook dinner in the shower. But it turns out that if I try that I’m not going to get very clean and it’s not going to be a very good dinner. And that is an illustration of the fact that it is not always best to try to address two challenges with what in the policy world we call a single-policy instrument.”
To which Romm replies:
In short, whatever we do to address climate must not attempt to create jobs. And whatever we do to create jobs should make no effort whatsoever to get off our self-destructively unsustainable economic path. That would not be a Pareto optimum, I guess.

Seriously, Dr. Stavins, just because you haven’t figured out how to walk and chew gum at the same time, doesn’t mean nobody else can.
That's rather unfair, as Tim Haab and others have pointed out; it shouldn't be controversial to say that, conceptually, the problems of economic recovery and curbing carbon emissions are distinct, and may -- may -- require separate policy tools to address. That said, there's no reason why, if there is an overlap between the two areas, why we shouldn't tackle both at the same time. Starting a nationwide effort to install more energy-efficient insulation, windows, etc., for example, could be a significant boost to the construction sector, which just lost about 100,000 jobs in the last month alone. (See, e.g., the Center for American Progress' recent proposal to green the nation's stock of federally-assisted affordable housing.) It would certainly be a more sensible allocation of resources than, say, building more McMansions.

To me, there are two things that need to be thought about in regards to a green jobs agenda. First, there's the question of how many people can be put to work on projects that could qualify as "green" (besides energy-efficiency retrofits, things like mass transit and alternative energy development) within the time frame of the next two years. Economic stimulus plans don't work unless they're done rather quickly, and the number of infrastructure projects that can get started quickly (i.e., have had all their environmental impact statements done, have overcome any NIMBY resistance) doesn't appear to be all that great -- and that's before you divide it into "green" and "not-green" projects. To the extent that this country needs changes in its infrastructure that reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, funnelling stimulus money toward green projects makes sense as a down payment, as it were. But a down payment doesn't buy you a house.

The other thing about green jobs relates specifically to Van Jones' take on the matter: that greening houses and developing a clean energy infrastructure can serve to revitalize parts of the country, particularly urban areas, where jobs are scarce and crime is high -- "greening the ghetto," as Jones puts it. That's an excellent idea that shouldn't be forgotten, whether we're talking about infrastructure or carbon pricing or whatever. But two points of contention spring up: 1) Much like with renewable portfolio standards, there's a danger that trying to direct jobs to specific areas can be distortionary, in the economic sense -- what positive features do places like west Baltimore and southeast DC have as a labor pool for green-collar jobs? and 2) Are job opportunities enough to break the vicious cycle that many poor urban communities find themselves in -- or does an environment in which poor schools, high crime, high drug use, poverty, and unstable families feed on each other need more than jobs to turn around? Now, Jones has been working on this issue for a long time, so I won't presume to know more about it than he does. And there are concrete examples of what Jones has in mind, like the Oakland Green Jobs Corps. But even that has yet to be fully tested as being effective, much less scalable.

Again, I'm not against the idea of green jobs -- investing in a low-carbon economy has the potential to be a driver of economic growth well into the future, and we should try to have as many people share in that growth as possible. But I'm beginning to think of a green jobs agenda as more of an overlap between two separate policy domains -- climate change and poverty -- than as a pure identity. To use Stavins' metaphor, there are some things you can use in both the kitchen and the bathroom, e.g., soap and washcloths. But you wouldn't use a frying pan in the shower, nor would you use a plunger to make scrambled eggs.


  1. Isaac. Interesting thoughts on the Green Jobs movement. While evaluating this idea, it is important to remember that this public policy happens to bring labor unions, environmentalists and poverty advocates under one tent with a common purpose that will help unify the Democratic Party. It is no coincidence that the Center for American Progress, run by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, is aggressively marketing green jobs.

    Also, the benefits of green jobs are largely oversold to the public and it is impossble to determine and measure what is and isn't a green job, especially when asked to evaluate how many "new" jobs green jobs spending will create.

    For example, there is little difference in skills needed by a plumber to install a low flush "green" toilet vs. a regular toilet. So if some government program funds retrofitting toilets in HUD federal housing, will the work of the plumber be classified as a normal job created, or a new green job?

    Policymakers need to evaluate the benefits of green job creation using honest and transparent standards using real economic measurement and data.

  2. Agreed that the term "green job" is a little fuzzy -- better, perhaps, to focus on the results, like houses that consume less energy, than on the types of jobs being created by doing so.