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Why a green economy is still part of jobs solution

By Lisa Margonelli, Special to CNN
updated 3:56 PM EDT, Fri September 9, 2011
Lisa Margonelli suggests the government lend middle-class families money at low interest to buy cars that get more than 35 mpg.
Lisa Margonelli suggests the government lend middle-class families money at low interest to buy cars that get more than 35 mpg.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lisa Margonelli says Obama left out talk of the green economy in his jobs speech
  • But she says it can play a big role in middle-class savings, job creation without spending
  • Government loans for low-MPG cars can save money on gas and create jobs, clean air
  • Margonelli: Environmental protection, regulation alone can create jobs long-term

Editor's note: Lisa Margonelli, director of the New America Foundation's Energy Policy Initiative, publishes The Energy Trap. She is the author of "Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank."

(CNN) -- Unlike in previous jobs speeches, where he's been a cheerleader for clean energy and a green economy, President Obama didn't say the word "green" once in his address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night. That seems to fit the mood of the country, but in fact, Obama is missing a stimulus program in every American gas tank.

This year, Americans will probably spend about $450 billion on gasoline: That's roughly $100 billion more than we spent last year. So, high gas prices could effectively wipe out the entire stimulus that Obama proposed Thursday night from the $100 billion payroll tax break. The president said he hopes to supercharge the economy by returning $1,500 to a family making $50,000, but those families already spend more on gas and vehicles than they do on taxes or medical care.

Michele Bachmann is right when she says gas prices are killing people; I've interviewed a college grad who went without lunch to pay for gas to get to work and keep her job, and to a man in Maine who works a second job just so he and his wife can afford to commute to their other jobs. Alas, we can't reduce the price of gas to $2 a gallon, as Bachmann has pledged, but we can reduce the amount of gas we burn.

In addition to the stimulus Obama suggests, the U.S. should be working aggressively to reduce the amount of money Americans spend on gasoline. One way: The government could lend middle-class families money at low interest to buy cars that get more than 35 miles per gallon. In one swoop, we'd be increasing those families' disposable income, making more jobs in Detroit and reducing oil dependence, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. And a loan guarantee program will not draw down the Treasury.

We should use tax breaks and more direct incentives to encourage more companies to start van pools, carpools, bus services and telecommuting programs for their workers.

Finally, it wouldn't cost anything to make it easy and legal for jitneys and other for-profit bus services to carry workers on routes where there are no city services.

Despite the recent bankruptcy of green companies like Solyndra, which received government-guaranteed loans, and the disappointing results of government spending aimed at creating green jobs, Obama must not abandon the idea of a greener economy. Better to realize that environmental protections and thoughtful regulation by themselves can create jobs in the long haul.

Since 1995, California has seen "core" green jobs increase by 56% -- to 174,000 -- while all jobs in the economy expanded by only 18%, according to the nonpartisan research organization Next 10. (Biotech, heavily funded by venture capitalists, saw employment grow by just 7%. That's evidence right there that the government should not expect to create jobs by supplying capital to startups directly.) California's core green jobs were largely in air quality, landfill recycling, energy conservation and energy generation, and they were supported by a much larger number of "greenish" jobs, such as those in finance and investment.

California was successful because it never set out to create jobs, green or not. Policymakers wanted to solve environmental problems that were starting to hurt the economy: smog, landfill space problems and rapid growth in electricity demand that was causing blackouts and would require expensive expansions of power plants and the electrical grid.

The state put in place regulations that specified outcomes (cleaner air from car tailpipes, diverting waste before landfills, reducing electricity demand), and industry got to work trying to solve the problems and make a buck. Ergo: jobs.

And by solving the problems, the issue of clean air became one supported by most Californians, regardless of political stripe. With this approach, investors and entrepreneurs can concentrate on their products and worry less about how a shift in the political winds could blow away their project. (Look at biodiesel for an example of a greenish industry whose tax credits are always threatened.)

These policies have become part of Californians' culture: They might grumble about getting their cars checked for smog emissions, but no one complains about having a clear view of the mountains in L.A.

The lesson: At the federal level we would do well to identify our problems, create regulation to limit them and let industry create the technology and the jobs.

For a greener economy, our leaders need to start by looking at the red ink caused by high fuel prices, pollution and waste.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lisa Margonelli.

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