The Public Policy

Politics, Economics, and Green Jobs 


Passing the political test is no guarantee of economic success -- just the opposite, in fact.

By 6.3.09

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In politics, anything is possible; in economics, it's not. The former explains the latest fad in triangulation: "green jobs." The latter explains the green movement's greatest challenge: regardless how much some may wish otherwise, an objective standard exists that it must meet in order to succeed.

The political is forever in search of easy solutions to please, or at least appease, a sizeable majority. It is no wonder that triangulation, the idea that a third way can always be found between absolutes, is so popular. As our problems become more difficult, the search for easy solutions becomes more intense.

Having elevated global warming to "crisis" with no particular foresight, the political class is now in need of an acceptable solution -- one that appears not to cost the electorate too much in money, jobs, and convenience. Violà, "green jobs!" They will not merely clean the world, but simultaneously solve our economic problems.

The challenge that green jobs' creation and sustaining present is brushed blithely away as a modern day Space Race. Of course, the fact that the 1960s' Space Race was relatively easy -- taking a man to the moon and safely back -- is overlooked. That still amounted to taking just one person to one place. Today's green revolution proposes figuratively to transport the entire planet to another place.

The question whether this can be done "safely" is still open to debate. Or at least it should be.

While green jobs may be the answer to the political class, the economic class is still left with impertinent questions. Will the green revolution be more productive than current methods of producing and using energy? The answer is important. Only if it is "yes" can the green movement succeed in producing the jobs it promises.

Certainly it will create jobs, but it will cost them too. Yes, it will create new energy, but will it compensate for the energy sources and uses it would have us eschew?

And these basic questions beg another: If this is possible, why is it not already being pursued? If it were possible, the economic pay-off, regardless of motivation, would already exist and should have been profitably seized.

This question of productivity -- is a new mode of endeavor more efficient than the old? -- has been faced by all technological revolutions. Only if they are --in the case of motive power: sail over oar, steam over sail, coal over steam, and petroleum over coal -- is replacement possible.

Without greater productivity, change is cost-prohibitive. Prosperity springs from productivity. We are only as prosperous as we are productive. No one can successfully incur the added cost of replacement if the new method is not sufficiently more productive. As inconvenient as this truth may be, we must conform to this absolute.

This is not to say that the green revolution cannot meet this challenge, it is simply saying that it must. Failure to do so will mean our standard of living will not be replaced and the promised green jobs will not be the equal to those they destroyed.

Politics' palette is comprised of infinite shades of gray. Economics uses just two colors: black and red, as in profits and losses. When you write the laws, as politicians do, it is easy to arrive at the misconception that you also make the rules. It is not hard therefore to understand why they believe adding green could allow them to circumvent economics' black and red.

In economics El Dorado is rarely found, in politics it is rarely missed. In the political world, one does not get far on the strength of bare majorities, let alone minorities. This is why so many difficult issues go unmet. With today's problems, the temptation to accept the political route is doubly attractive. But politics' necessity still does not allow us to gloss over economics' consequences. Regardless of the infinite subjective justifications for the undertaking, there is still a single objective criterion by which success will be judged.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.