‘Green collar’ jobs will reduce prosperity

The article in April started this way: “...[Aberdeen] was hemorrhaging jobs. Mother Jones tells it like this: ‘Families were break-ing up and moving out. There were suicides. It was really a hard time.’” The author goes on to note that “Grays Harbor and four other Washington counties are exemplifying another new trend in small-town America: life expectancy is declining among the rural poor.”

  • BY Wire Service
  • Saturday, August 9, 2008 5:00pm
  • Opinion

The article in April started this way: “...[Aberdeen] was hemorrhaging jobs. Mother Jones tells it like this: ‘Families were break-ing up and moving out. There were suicides. It was really a hard time.’” The author goes on to note that “Grays Harbor and four other Washington counties are exemplifying another new trend in small-town America: life expectancy is declining among the rural poor.”

But, good news is on the horizon says the environmental activist who wrote the piece: the “green” economy is coming. The nearby Hoquiam mill is now producing 100 percent recycled paper. On that cheery note, the original cause of the suicides and decline in life expectancy in Grays Harbor, environmental regulation that wiped out a community, is forgotten for a few new “green” jobs. Aberdeen isn’t a cautionary tale, the author argues, but a model to be replicated.

Now, some politicians want to replicate that model across Washington, claiming new regulations on energy will create thousands of “green collar” jobs.

The truth is that Washington’s proposed policies on climate change will reduce our prosperity and replace family-wage jobs with lower-paying jobs. One can argue that policies to reduce carbon are worth the price. Arguing that such policies will create jobs is simply inaccurate.

This isn’t the first time activists have engaged in wishful thinking. The phrase “green collar jobs” was coined by Alan Durning in his book of the same name. Written in 1999, it has a tone of easy come, easy go. He says “The jobs-versus-environment drama has played out dozens of times in recent decades in the Northwest, usually according to the same script: representatives of declining resource industries predict economic catastrophe ... politicians make bold proclamations; and then, when people have stopped paying attention, expansion in the Northwest economy quickly offsets lost resource jobs.” Nearly 10 years later, Grays Harbor is still waiting to offset those job losses.

Such wishful thinking dominates the drive for “green collar jobs.” But it can’t overcome some basic economic realities.

Nuclear, hydro and other “non-green” energy sources produce more power per worker than “renewable” alternatives. Moving from efficient to inefficient energy means more people are needed to do the same amount of work. It is akin to banning tractors in order to increase farm jobs. The number of jobs increases but they pay poorly.

Environmental activists argue there is a fix. Using taxpayer dollars, we should subsidize “green” technologies so salaries can be high and costs can be low. This approach, however, is bad for jobs and the environment.

Subsidies are designed to encourage investment in green projects. Doing so, however, takes money away from projects that may create more prosperity. Such a policy increases costs to consumers and taxpayers just so we can say we have a renewable industry.

It also fails to reduce CO2 emissions. Rather than buying windmills from the lowest cost producer, we try to build them here at higher cost. As a result, it takes longer to grow the renewable energy base, requiring us to continue to rely on carbon-based energy.

Some argue that we don’t have green jobs because Europeans are unfairly subsidizing their green sector. European subsidies, however, hurt them and benefit us. When we purchase a subsidized European windmill, the price is lower than it would normally be. Instead of costing us $1 million, let’s say, it costs $800,000. European taxpayers are putting $200,000 in our pocket.

Doesn’t this take jobs away from American workers? Won’t we forgo the profits that the green sector will create? No. With our savings, we can hire workers to do other jobs in other sectors. We may not meet an artificial jobs target in a particular sector, but we have more money to invest, hire and profit in other sectors.

It is enticing to believe that we can pick and choose the economy we want. Politicians, however, have an extremely poor record of trying to micromanage the economy. The biofuel fiasco is the latest evidence.

Washington workers should do what we do best. If that is green energy, it will emerge. If it is software, airplanes and biotechnology, we should do that and buy green energy from others. We shouldn’t turn Bill Gates into a windmill manufacturer unless that’s what he’s best at. Bill Gates should sell software and buy lots of windmills, rather than making them in his back yard.

That is the real path to good jobs and a clean environment.


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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He is a former president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. Contact thebrunells@msn.com.
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