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Green Job Blues

The Washington Post’s Alec McGillis had a great piece this weekend revealing that the $25 billion “green jobs” portion of the stimulus bill has, well, yet to produce more than a few dozen green jobs. It’s a complex issue but the crux of green jobs seems to be this: If you are first concerned about global warming or whether federal and state governments use energy in an efficient way, it’s a promising program. If you are first concerned about job creation, “green jobs” stinks.

Via Energy Dept. grants to states, buildings, which cause 40 percent of global warming-causing carbon dioxide emissions, are being retrofitted to be energy efficient. State governments are also auditing how they can more efficiently use gas and electricity.  The commissioner of public buildings at the General Services Administration, the government agency that manages federal contracts, tells McGillis these grants have addressed exactly where federal building projects need to be five years from now.

But wasn’t the stimulus bill intended to be a short-term rescue of the economy, not part of a long-term energy policy? McGillis offers a definition that says it was both:

Nine months after Congress passed the $787 billion stimulus package, there is little tangible to show for one of its biggest single areas of investment, the $25 billion energy-efficiency effort. That points to one of the central tensions of President Obama’s landmark stimulus package: His goal was to inject money quickly into the economy while at the same time laying the groundwork for his broader, transformational agenda on energy, education and health care.

Officials overseeing the energy-efficiency effort want to fundamentally alter the way the country uses energy. They are trying to craft initiatives that will produce real savings to build the case for continued private or public investment. And they are putting safeguards in place to avoid any spending scandals that could tarnish the effort.

All this deliberation comes with a tradeoff: The full force of the spending will likely not be felt until well into next year, potentially undermining the job-creating aim of the stimulus.

This is problematic: the stimulus bill was sold to the American people as a vehicle to create jobs. Most members of the media, and, presumably, most non-Wall Street Americans, measure the economy by whether they can get a decent job. Yet the stimulus bill indirectly creates jobs: the jobs are a secondary effect to the economic growth and energy policies the bill calls for.

This might have an unintended consequence — the fact that this green jobs program stinks as economic stimulus could hurt green jobs long-term popularity and political viability. Which would be too bad because inexpensive ways to make buildings use less electricity and emit less carbon dioxide is good national-local policy: a painless way to curb global warming and save money. Such goals should have been presented by the Obama administration and Congress as end in themselves — not as part of the stimulus bill.

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