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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Runaway green jobs inflation

Last month, the Brookings Institute published a report entitled “Sizing the Clean Economy” which promises:
The “green” or “clean” or low-carbon economy—defined as the sector of the economy that produces goods and services with an environmental benefit—remains at once a compelling aspiration and an enigma.
The report claims to offer a definition of green jobs, but that was done several years ago by a San Mateo consulting firm working for a Next10, a California advocacy group.

Of more concern is that Brookings is perpetuating — if not magnifying — the use of “green” as a political statement rather than an economic concept. For as reputable a group as Brookings — the most prestigious economic thinktank on the left — this is troubling.

In previous incarnation as a green jobs project director, I decided that the “green” jobs concept seemed like sausages — you didn’t want to see how they were made (calculated) or it would make you squeamish.

An article from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (in Michigan) shows how we should ignore the command to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” — because (as in the movie) he is no wizard. (Yes, Mackinac is trying to unmask the wizard while Toto is just a naïve little dog, but…)

I was aware of one of the problems in the existing definition. Suppose a building contractor switches from installing inefficient windows to energy saving windows? Voilà! We’ve created a green job!

At least that building contractor (or roofer or electrician) is doing something to make the world a greener place by reducing the need for carbon-based fuels. However, what happens if a janitor switches from traditional chemical cleaning solutions to natural ones? Voilà! Another green job!

Jack Spencer of Macinac interviewed one of the authors, Brookings analyst Jonathon Rothwell, and it gets worse.

First, all mass transit jobs are counted. So if we had bus drivers 20 years ago or Pullman porters 75 years ago, they were working in green jobs and they didn’t even know it.

Then there’s the unappealing matter of garbage. As Spencer puts it:
Regarding the matter of waste industry jobs being included as part of the “clean economy,” did the report include everyone from the designer of a landfill to the person who picks up the trash from the curb?

“Yeah, that's pretty much it,” Rothwell said.
In other words, much of what is counted as “green” jobs are jobs that already exist, have existed for decades, and (unless we have gross labor inefficiencies) are not really growth areas of the economy.

If you add up all the bus drivers and trash truck drivers, it certainly dwarves the number of people working in companies that make renewable energy products. It probably even dwarves the people in the building trades installing solar panels, double-pane windows and CFL light bulbs.

Meanwhile, advocates, politicians, and reporters are republishing these estimates without reservation or qualification. The politicians are intentionally misrepresenting the truth — because they want to claim credit for private sector job “creation”. VCs seeking government subsidies also want to exaggerate the benefits of their tiny little companies. I guess (as in other stories) the reporters are merely economically ignorant naïve.

This is not particular to green jobs, but is a problem anywhere politicians get involved. The arguments for attracting sports teams and their stadia are similarly suspect, both because of the “multiplier” effect but also because money visibly spent at a pro football game is money not spent on a college game, movie, or just a 24-pack of beer. (The problem of unseen substitution is exactly as predicted by Frederic Bastiat 160 years ago).

Again in my efforts to develop renewable energy jobs, we found there weren’t all that many in California, and that the perception this was a growth area exacerbated the mismatch of supply and demand by attracting more job seekers than there were jobs.

One of these days people will realize how much fewer jobs have actually been created (as opposed to shifted) by green technologies. I look forward to the day when we measure such jobs the same way we measure IT jobs or aviation jobs — in specific (identified) companies and industries. Certainly that’s the only measure that matters to entrepreneurs, employees, investors and others that have real skin in the game.

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