Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Green New Deal?

Yesterday, Barack Obama laid out a plan for economic recovery that looks a lot like Roosevelt’s New Deal in ambition and scope. Its purpose is to help revitalize the economy by pouring hundreds of billions of federal dollars into public restoration projects, focusing primarily on repairing roads and bridges that have been widely neglected by state and local governments due to insufficient funds. The short run consequences of the plan include another massive blow to the federal deficit, as well as the creation of myriad new jobs, with governors predicting 40,000 jobs will be created with every 1 billion dollars spent.

In the long run, according the Obama transition team, the country will be able to preserve hundreds of thousands of jobs, while creating up to 2.5 million more. With last month’s job losses in the US being the highest since 1974, it’s hard to imagine a better way to help the economy get back on track than creating millions of jobs. And jobs for the public good can’t be bad, can they? They’ll be preventing disasters like the bridge collapse in Minneapolis last year, maintaining our national parks, and retrofitting schools and other public buildings to be more energy efficient, among many other projects that have been left on hold pending funding.

Still, many conservative economists believe that public works spending is not an effective way to bolster the economy. Alan Viard of the American Enterprise Institute told the New York Times that creating such jobs in the public sector would only take jobs away from the private sector. I guess that’s ignoring the fact that 533,000 Americans, most of whom were probably in the private sector, just lost their jobs last month? I appreciate fiscal conservatives’ point of view, but it seems like in cases like this, where the very livelihood of our country is at stake, we should be taking bold, drastic measures that will seek to address the problems in a responsible and publicly beneficial way, rather than sitting on our hands and hoping the markets will readjust and take us back in the direction of prosperity. Wasn’t putting too much faith into the markets a big part of what got us into this mess?

Perhaps the most promising part of the plan, though, is Obama’s dedication to energy conservation, efficiency and clean energy. He says that at least a portion of the federal funding will go toward energy-efficiency retrofitting in public buildings, mass transportation, updating electrical grid systems, and installing renewable energy generators. This is one of the most important steps toward fixing our energy problems: inciting an energy revolution that will create millions of jobs, actively push the country toward energy independence, and cut carbon emissions to desired levels.

Advocates like Van Jones even cite the societal advantages of getting youth and ex-convicts involved in the green revolution, a two-birds-with-one stone approach that can help to alleviate our nation’s considerable prison enrollment ills. Perhaps taking such an outside-the-box look at ways to clean up our economic problems, while also cleaning up other problems, is exactly the right idea. But one thing is certain: if we don’t focus on energy and climate change as part of our solution to the economic crisis, we’ll only be further hurting ourselves economically in the long run.

Now is an opportunity, as bad as times are in our country, to make an impact on other impending crises, the consequences of which will cost us much more if we don’t prevent them than they will cost to mitigate. That is, using government money to adapt to climate change (or even the future costs of “energy dependence”) will greatly outweigh the costs of cutting emissions now. Obama is right to focus on energy issues in addressing the economy, but the focus has to be sweeping, unrelenting, and pointing drastically in the right direction (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.). It’s too late at this point to let politics get in the way of progress.

Images: Obama/Roosevelt (Time Magazine), Unemployment (, Solar Installers (Saint Francis U.), Van Jones (San Francisco Sentinel)

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