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The Great Green Hope

Is massive investment in green jobs the answer to our economic woes?

Amid much talk in this election year about blue states and red states, another color is being heard from: green. Politicians, mindful of soaring unemployment and wildly fluctuating oil prices, are advocating job creation in clean-energy-related fields. Pundits like Thomas Friedman (particularly in his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded) are calling for enormous investment in clean energy and energy-efficient technologies, while environmental activists are arguing that creating green jobs can save both the economy and the planet.

Now, a new study produced by the University of Massachusetts’s Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) and sponsored by the Center for American Progress makes a strong case for billions in federal spending to that end. By employing blue-collar workers in some of the hardest-hit segments of the economy, a focused, short-term effort to make buildings and infrastructure more energy-efficient would significantly reduce the unemployment rate and move the United States closer to energy independence, claim the study’s authors. “This would be an effort to rebuild the energy infrastructure of our whole economy,” says Robert Pollin, co-director of PERI and an author of the study.

Called “Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy,” the study proposes $100 billion in government spending over two years in six key areas: retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency; expanding mass transit and freight rail; constructing “smart” electrical grid systems to better manage power demands; increasing the use of solar power; increasing the use of wind power; and developing next-generation biofuels. (Some of the spending has already been authorized, but not yet funded, by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.)

It sounds like a lot of money to spend, particularly given the staggering costs of the financial-market crisis and the Iraq War. But it’s less than the $250 billion stimulus package passed by Congress last April, the authors point out. And, they add, the investments in retrofitting public buildings could pay for themselves over time in lower energy costs.

In return for $100 billion, which includes $50 billion in tax credits, $46 billion in direct spending on infrastructure, and $4 billion in loan guarantees, the plan would produce 2 million jobs, contend the authors, 300,000 more than would result from spending the same amount on another short-term economic-stimulus package. Moreover, it would particularly target the hard-hit manufacturing and construction sectors.

No PHDs Required

Indeed, unlike some of the economic-development darlings du jour, such as biotechnology, a green-jobs initiative would create plenty of work that doesn’t require an advanced degree. True, a push to develop alternative fuels and further refine technologies like fuel cells and car batteries would require highly skilled engineers and researchers, but the initiative would also create lots of blue-collar jobs. In fact, Pollin prefers not to call them green jobs at all.

“Green investments will create all kinds of jobs,” he says. “The term ‘green jobs’ makes people think that it’s something really esoteric. This program would create a lot of construction jobs, manufacturing jobs, and transportation jobs.” The immediate jobs created by, say, a building-retrofit project would be followed by a supporting cast of accountants, energy auditors, lawyers, and administrative assistants. Both direct and indirect job creation would then lead to “induced” job creation: those jobs that arise elsewhere in the economy due to the spending of newly employed workers.

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