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Opinion

The 'green jobs' con job

There are a couple of serious problems with the so-called "green jobs revolution."

The first concerns the serial overpromising of new jobs from politicians of all stripes. And it's easy to understand why the overpromising is so rampant: All of us want to believe alternative sources of energy will free us of our overdependence on foreign (and often hostile) sources of energy. Throw in the possibility of thousands of new technology jobs and you have plenty of eager politicians ready to sell a green jobs platform. For context, check out the initial job-creation predictions that followed the Obama administration's $535 million loan guarantee on behalf of Solyndra Corp.

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This overpromising phenomenon is not new. Recall a few years ago when a social-justice narrative led to a "homeownership for all" campaign? A mortgage crisis ensued, followed by a housing-generated recession. Seems that income and creditworthiness remain fairly good barometers of one's ability to meet his financial obligations.

Similarly, it is now popular to market the promise of thousands of new green jobs on the stump. A tepid recovery and 41 straight months of unemployment over 8 percent (and underemployment at 15 percent) make such pronouncements attractive for a subset of snake oil salesmen — er, political leaders.

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A prime example of this problem occurred a few weeks ago at a congressional oversight hearing regarding how the federal government goes about the business of counting green jobs. The main combatants were Bureau of Labor Statistics acting commissioner John Galvin and Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa. The testimony contained the following exchange:

Mr. Issa: If you sweep the floor in a solar panel facility, is that a green job?

Mr. Galvin: Yes.

Mr. Issa: Thank you. If you drive a hybrid bus — public transportation — is that a green job?

Mr. Galvin: According to our definition, yes.

Mr. Issa: Thank you. What if you're a college professor teaching classes about environmental studies?

Mr. Galvin: Yes.

Mr. Issa: What about just any school bus driver?

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Mr. Galvin: Yes.

Mr. Issa: What about the guy who puts gas in the school bus?

Mr. Galvin: Yes.

Mr. Issa: How about employees at a bicycle shop?

Mr. Galvin: I guess I'm not sure about that.

Mr. Issa: The answer is yes, according to your definition. And you've got a lot of them. What about a clerk at the bicycle repair shop?

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Mr. Galvin: Yes.

Mr. Issa: What about someone who works in an antique dealer?

Mr. Galvin: I'm not sure about that either.

Mr. Issa: The answer is yes. Those are — those are recycled goods. They're antiques; they're used.

What about someone who works at the Salvation Army in their clothing recycling and furniture?

Mr. Galvin: Right. Because they're selling recycled goods.

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Mr. Issa: OK. What about somebody who opened a store to sell rare manuscripts?

Mr. Galvin: What industry is that?

Mr. Issa: People sell rare books and manuscripts — but they're rare because they're old, so they're used.

Mr. Galvin: OK.

Mr. Issa: What about workers at a consignment shop?

Mr. Galvin: That's a green job.

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Mr. Issa: Does the teenage kid who works full time at a used record shop count?

Mr. Galvin: Yes.

Such illuminating testimony is relatively rare on Capitol Hill. The abject silliness of the categorizations is a stark reminder about how far afield some will go in order to promote a politically popular agenda.

A related development: It appears the thousands of new green jobs promised by proponents of California's 2006 Climate Change law have failed to materialize. Two recent independent studies suggest that new environmental rules and cap-and-trade taxes on carbon emissions will actually contract California's GDP by between 3.5 percent and 8.9 percent by 2020. This, of course, means slower growth and fewer jobs. It also signals the (well reported) continued exodus of companies out of California.

All of us look forward to the day technological innovation ends our dangerous addiction to foreign fossil fuels. To the extent innovation produces new jobs, good for us. But such progress is not generated by press conferences or political wish lists. Real new jobs (green and otherwise) come about when technology allows the private market to turn a profit. Until then, we should be honest about our ability to produce the types of green jobs that will sustain a 21st century economy.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" (a book about national politics) and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.


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