18 Million Green Jobs in 3 Years?

By Nancy Folbre, Economics Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Not enough jobs and too much heat; sagging payrolls and global warming.

Why not address both problems with a major public program to directly put people to work saving energy?

Plenty of green-job advocates have offered practical details, including my University of Massachusetts colleague, Robert Pollin. Yet no one in Congress or the White House seems willing to plant this garden.

I’m trying to figure out why green job-creation proposals have gotten stuck in the mud. Maybe environmentalists as a group are viewed with suspicion because they make us all feel guilty. Certainly, we’ve seen a conservative backlash against promotion of green jobs, linked to skepticism about the threat of global warming.

Sometimes political differences generate interesting debate — as in an exchange published in The Economist between Van Jones and Andrew Morriss. But partisan bickering also discourages public engagement.

Maybe expectations were set too high. Hopes that new tax credits in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would lead to a burgeoning of manufacturing jobs in renewable energy were dashed by disclosures that most new industrial capacity in these emerging technologies is now situated outside the United States — much of it in China.

But green jobs are definitely on the rise in the United States, as they are elsewhere. A recent Pew Foundation report estimates that the number of them grew nearly two and a half times faster than overall jobs between 1998 and 2007.

And as Professor Pollin and his co-authors James Heintz and Heidi Garrett-Peltier have shown, enormous scope remains for improvements in energy conservation in public buildings and private homes. Doing energy audits and retrofitting insulation require modest training, but no high-tech expertise. Such jobs could be widely distributed across communities.

Cash-strapped state and local governments can’t invest on their own. Neither can homeowners, many of whom are having a hard time just meeting their mortgage payments.

Some economists, including my fellow Economix blogger Edward Glaeser, worry that public infrastructure projects can be wasteful. Yes, they can be. But it’s hard to imagine anything more wasteful than prolonged unemployment. Smart planning and performance-based incentives — making continued financing contingent on successful results — could substantially improve public infrastructure efforts.

While I support some more market-based alternatives — like tax credits for employers that hire new workers — these too require careful design. Participation rates are unpredictable and net job creation could prove small.

Many public projects aimed at job creation have created infrastructure of lasting value. Like many Americans, I enjoy a local park whose beautiful stone walls and dams were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. Why not create a legacy of bike paths for future generations?

Some critics claim we can’t afford a public works program. But Professor Pollin makes a persuasive case for affordability. His plan would mobilize private as well as public capital by expanding federal loan guarantees to encourage banks to invest in energy-saving projects.

The potential benefits are huge: the direct and indirect effects of his proposed initiative could add up to 18 million jobs over the next three years.

Even if national political will is lacking, a strong state or regional pilot project should be undertaken — a serious experiment in public job creation.

Of course, there’s no need to spend money to create jobs or save energy if you think the market will take care of these problems on its own. Likewise, you don’t need to water your own garden if you’re confident the rain will always come on time.

Read the original blog in the New York Times. By Nancy Folbre, Economics Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. July 12, 2010.