In early October the federal government released its monthly employment statistics. The numbers were stunningly dismal. According to the Labor Department, the economy lost 263,000 jobs in September, and unemployment ratcheted up to nearly 10 percent. The jobs report included an additional bit of bad news: a revision of the numbers from March 2008 to March 2009 revealed the economy had lost 800,000 more jobs than previously thought.
So where are all the green jobs we have been promised? It wasn't enough that the Obama Administration claimed that passing the massive stimulus bill in February was necessary to prevent unemployment from reaching as high as nine percent (if only!). But the White House and its supporters also assured us of an employment boom coming from a government-sponsored transition to a post-fossil-fuel economy. Well, the government sponsorship is in evidence, thanks in large part to the stimulus bill authorizing more than $60 billion for energy and environmental projects. A green-shooted economic recovery, however, so far is not.
One of the problems with the green economy is that there is no accepted definition of what constitutes a green job. A report issued by Vice President Biden says green jobs are "employment that is associated with some aspect of environmental improvement." But because this definition is so broad, the report states, "it is impossible to generate a reliable count of how many green jobs there are in America today."
Is your job green? The guy weatherizing your house has a green job, as does the scientist in the lab cooking up the next alternative to oil. But so might the truck driver in the fuel-guzzling 18-wheeler who is carting mammoth wind turbine parts along hundreds of miles of Texas highway. As well as, arguably, the United Nations official who jets all over the globe to hector about climate change.
Not having any baseline to start from doesn't stop advocates from predicting the number of jobs that their enlightened policies will create. The president himself has promised to create five million green jobs by spending $150 billion over ten years. The Center for American Progress suggested that federal outlays of $100 billion over a two-year period would create 2 million green jobs. The Apollo Alliance said $500 billion would be necessary to create 5 million green jobs. (Asked by the Wall Street Journal to explain the vast discrepancy between President Obama's expensive jobs figure with the Apollo Alliance's three-times-more expensive figure, an official with the organization replied, "Honestly, it's just to inspire people.")
The obvious dilemma with these estimates is that they depend on government action to spring these jobs into being. This makes clear that the economy otherwise does not value them enough to create them as part of a robust economic climate. Green jobs don't really exist in the free economy. The green economy is, in essence, an artificial construct, legislated into existence by politicians unbothered by the costs involved. The jobs boom of the Reagan years was never predicated on how much money the federal government would shell out. The coming green boom is. And it isn't just the money that federal and state authorities will shower on everything from weather-stripping to smart meters to biofuels production. Government also wants to guarantee the markets for uneconomical green-energy sources, as with so-called renewable portfolio standards that mandate the amount of costly green power that utilities must provide.
Yet another absurd example of the government "creating" green jobs was New York City's breathless announcement last week that it would double citywide green employment -- from 6,500 to 13,000 jobs -- by establishing itself as the center of the global carbon permit trading market. These are jobs that will exist only by virtue of Congress passing an onerous and economically debilitating cap-and-trade bill. In much the same way that every new set of regulations brings more work for lawyers and accountants, cap-and-trade will require clerks and financial experts and other functionaries to ensure the smooth operation of a scheme that the market neither wants nor values. Forget all the harping on Wall Street and the financial community over the past year's financial crisis; the "greed-is-good" brigade will be doing the Lord's work when it starts trading credits in an artificial market created by politicians.
Still, those jobs are in the future. Most green jobs seem to be. Though the stimulus bill was passed in February, and billions of dollars started being dispersed months ago, green jobs proponents don't point to any progress on their part in combating the economic downturn. The jobs they promise are always yet to be created.
At the Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas a few months back, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced, "Today, August 10th, here in Las Vegas, we're firing the first shots of a new revolution to regain that prosperity and restore that leadership -- a clean-energy revolution that will create millions of jobs across America." The first shots? Then what was the $60 billion gift to the renewable energy industry in the stimulus bill?
It turns out that the green jobs promise can mean all things to all people. And all pressure groups. The Women's Economic Security Campaign, for instance, is turning its focus to green jobs as a pathway out of poverty for low-income women. Inner-city poverty groups likewise think the green jobs express can revitalize the ghetto, and can also help return ex-cons to the mainstream. For groups like these, green is the new uplift.
For others, green jobs is a vehicle for interest groups to get theirs. Labor wants the newly created green jobs to go to union members to help pad dwindling rolls. The American Public Transportation Association claims that spending on their projects is a surefire way to create green jobs. Well, of course they do.
Meanwhile, none of the news coming out of Washington about jobs in the real economy is encouraging. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act appears to have been far less stimulative than advertised. In time, one imagines, employment figures in the green economy will head north. How can they not, given the fact the government is guaranteeing them? So we will have our green job boomlet. But there's a hitch, which is that those green jobs come with a hefty price tag. They'll cost us a bundle, and will be worth a whole lot less to society than what the government paid for them.