Sustainability | Ecotrope

Want More Green Jobs? 5 Tips From A Policy Wonk

Ecotrope | Feb. 16, 2012 10 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:32 p.m.

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Jared Bernstein is the former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden. He spoke in Portland about green jobs and the economy at the Green Professionals Conference today.

Jared Bernstein is the former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden. He spoke in Portland about green jobs and the economy at the Green Professionals Conference today.

President Obama unveiled his new budget this week. It covers all kinds of environmental priorities: Boosting energy efficiency, cutting oil subsidies for the oil industry, growing the country’s sources of clean energy …

Jared Bernstein, former chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden, listed them today in his keynote address to the Green Professionals Conference. But he didn’t dwell on them. With a “dysfunctional” political process in Congress, he said, it’s far from certain that they’re actually going to happen.

Bernstein, now a prolific blogger and cable TV pundit, gave a stark overview of a dismal decade of job growth in the U.S. from 2000-2010.

He wasn’t, as he said “rah, rah green jobs” as a way to pull the economy out of its rut. But he said green jobs do have a role to play in future job growth. How big a role? That’s where the politics comes in. And he didn’t mince words when it came to how green jobs could get more support from the federal government. Here are 5 tips I picked up from his talk:

1. Better Know A Lobbyist:

If there’s one thing the clean energy industry can learn from titans in the auto and airline industries, he said, it’s the value of lobbying. “You’ve got to play the power game, and that costs money.”

Other countries “get” the green economy better then the U.S., he said. And they don’t have to negotiate with the U.S. Congress. China has moved aggressively into clean energy development, he said. “Now, I’m not a communist, but they’ve proven it’s easy to get things done without Congress.”

In response to a question about the corruption that comes with money and power in D.C., he said: “If I have to have corrupt people, I’d rather have corrupt people producing solar and wind energy.”

2. Remember The Internet:

In the public policy realm right now, Bernstein said, suggesting the government play a bigger role in anything is “verboten.” But he believes the government should be playing a bigger role in developing the technologies that make clean energy viable.

The federal government has payed a crucial role in developing economic breakthroughs in the past, he said: Think railroads, transistor radios, lasers, global positioning systems, and of course, the Internet, which stemmed from a project funded by the Department of Defense.

Many of the technologies the clean energy industry depends on – such as a smart grid or advanced batteries that help store and efficiently transmit renewable wind and solar power – can’t be developed by one private company, Bernstein said. There are too many barriers to innovation that need to be overcome by many different industries to make it all work together.

3. Don’t Pick Winners:

The federal government could help create green jobs, he said, but not by “picking winners.”

“We’re already spending billions on picking winners,” he said. “We’re just not doing it thoughtfully. We’re doing it based on how connected your lobbyist is.”

Instead of helping in individual companies or industries, he suggested, government leaders should be charting a course toward green economic goals with the right incentives (more on those in No.5).

“Rather than putting all your eggs in one basket versus another, you should look out there and say: “Is there a smart way to produce clean energy?” he said. “The role for the federal government is to look into the future and say: What path is important for our economy to go down vis-á-vis the environment and energy needs? … To say we can’t support clean energy because we don’t know where things are going is crazy,” he said. “It’s incontrovertible that some country will grab the lead in clean energy industries like advanced battery technology, wind energy, geothermal. If we don’t, it’s our fault.”

4. Know When Enough Is Enough:

The clean energy industry is growing, Bernstein said, albeit slowly. Part of the problem it faces has to do with negative externalities, i.e. government subsidies for not-so-clean energy. Another problem? “We’re not investing enough in renewables,” he said.

He put up a chart of wind turbine installments in the U.S. from 1999 to 2011. Every year the federal government offered a production tax credit, the installments went up, and when that incentive was removed, installments went down.

One economist argued that the chart proves the wind industry is a bad investment, Bernstein said, “that the economy doesn’t want or need wind energy.”

But he sees it differently.

“Every important innovation looks exactly like this,” he said. “The government should get in and get out, but it has to get in.”

The government “got in” with the oil industry to help it overcome barriers once upon a time, he said. “The problem is, it never got out.”

5. Put A Price On Carbon:

Chief among the Bernstein’s tips for how to grow more green jobs is the highly contentious notion of putting a price on carbon.

“It would internalize the externality to properly price fossil fuels with respect to the environmental damage they cause,” he said. “It would create the incentives that would help us move in the direction we want to go.”

But, he said, seeing as that is not likely to happen soon, he also advocates for “strategically placed” tax credits, government loans for weatherization (like Oregon’s Cool Schools program) that can be repaid through energy savings over time, and other energy efficiency spending that would save money and improve infrastructure long-term.

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