IBJOpinion

GROSSMAN: Just what are 'green jobs,' anyway?

Peter Z. Grossman
November 7, 2009
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Indiana officials appear to be working hard to get our share of the 5 million “green jobs” President Obama says he’ll create.

Sounds like a good idea, except for one problem: No one can really say just what a green job is. Perhaps we can agree that assembling windmills counts as one. But what about supplying the windmill maker with steel, plastic and copper? And if suppliers are “green,” we should probably add the copper smelter and copper miner; the windmill doesn’t get made without copper.

And what about the bureaucrats that are administering government green programs—are those jobs green? And if we count the bureaucrats, maybe we also need to include the accountants totaling up the “green job” subsidies, the congressional reps who passed the legislation (there’s 535 green jobs right there), the lawyers who work for the windmill companies, and maybe also the lawyers suing the copper mine for pollution.

Actually, not so fast on the last one. Polluters may actually be “green”! Solar photovoltaic production gets a green nod, but it generates toxic waste that is sometimes improperly handled. Ethanol is another product that produces various environmental costs but gets tagged as green—mainly because it’s not gasoline and has farm-state legislators behind it.

Green then will depend on which kind of pollution you’re talking about. Excluded may be, surprisingly, recycling jobs. Most would probably think recycling is green, but not everyone agrees because the practices of many recyclers are considered detrimental to the environment.

In fact, there is no common definition of what constitutes a green job. A recent study showed nearly everyone writing on the subject defines green jobs differently, and often the definitions seem completely arbitrary. For example, one report counts existing jobs in nuclear power as green but excludes new jobs in the field, notwithstanding the fact that nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases, offering a benefit that might help the environment more in the future than the present.

In the end, the answer to the question of what makes a green job is this: It’s anything the government wants it to be. With billions of dollars to hand out and swarms of lobbyists eager to obtain the money, Congress is sure to blur any distinction between green jobs and pork.

Some would say that, regardless of what we call them, we need this as a jobs program. But whether a green jobs program actually will create many or any jobs overall is unclear. According to one study in Spain, a country that has invested large resources in wind energy, it has cost more than $700,000 for every alternative-energy job that’s created. But higher electric costs are said to be taking as many or more jobs away from other sectors of the Spanish economy.

A series of ads run here in Indiana has argued that we need to urge our senators to support green jobs because, if we don’t create them, China will. That is, our senators should vote large subsidies to create jobs that the market won’t so China doesn’t get the jump on us. If we have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for every one of these jobs, I don’t know why we’d be losers if China spends that kind of money instead.

The green jobs program has faded into the background as Congress, the president and most of the nation have focused on health care. But the Obama administration still seems determined to spend billions of dollars on a program no one can really define.•

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Grossman is the Clarence Efroymson professor of economics at Butler University. He can be reached at pgrossma@butler.edu.


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