Green jobs and climate

George Will has an important column today about the economic cost of Spain’s wind energy program. Unfortunately, as is his habit, he allows himself to be entranced by the sound of his own voice and wit, and forgets both what he started out to talk about and the part of his story that separates a well-reasoned essay from ideological entertainment.

The facts under review are two: Spanish windmills are very expensive measured in the usual way (short-term economic cost) compared to other ways of getting electricity (this from a paper he gets points for linking to rather than just mentioning) , but the Obama administration touts green energy (and other green stuff) as economic stimulus that will create jobs and make us more prosperous soon. Unfortunately, while neither Will nor I am an economist, Will seems to think he doesn’t need to pay careful attention to his friends who are. His demonstration of the cost of the windmills commits a tyro error of treating jobs as benefits rather than costs. He seems to have some idea that paying more for green energy is justified by benefits like another century or more of Gulf Stream operation in the future, but ridicules this perfectly sensible idea by pointless snark that amuses him (“environmentalists with the courage of their convictions should argue that the point of such investments is to subordinate market rationality to the higher agenda of planetary salvation”) and hides the real point of the deal. In fact, he hides it from himself, so the article winds up tilting at, um, a windmill, namely the wrong idea that the reason for green energy is to increase GNP now, and another windmill, which is the implicit proposition that all environmentalists think anything green is good for everyone in every possible way.

OK, one more time, George: Sustainable energy is available in many different forms, all of which cost more now than the way we’re accustomed to power society. If they didn’t, we’d be using them without government subsidy or regulation. Duh. But some are worth their cost. Like a year of college, even though neither you nor the student would pay the tuition bill and forego a year’s wages just for one year of Gaudeamus Igitur. Some aren’t worth it yet but may become so as we learn to get better at them. Others will never be a good deal.

The ones that buy more climate benefits down the line than they cost now only pay off down the line, in the future. Now, they’re expensive: to keep Florida and Bangla Desh above water, we will have less stuff now, and the benefits of climate stabilization are so spread out that no-one can make a profit selling them in the usual way. That’s why we have government, to do things the market is no good at, like keeping kids in school when they’d rather be out having fun (or their parents would rather send them to the dark Satanic mill).

If Will could resist his urges to ridicule the idea of taking a long forward view of human society (how different is this than the long backward view conservatives justly take pride in, actually?) and to prance around with the trophy of a short-term-costly program on his pike, he could do a real service, the one he lost focus on in this piece. That is to caution Obama (who is extremely careless about this) and environmentalists to resist the temptation to claim benefits for good policy that it does not possess, in this case that green investments will make us richer on the spot, not just after decades. They won’t, and servicing our worst infantile desire for immediate gratification as a trick to get this or that legislation passed is misrule and leadership malpractice. The windmills are expensive. Are they worth it evaluated as investments? Is there a cheaper way to stop burning coal? These are the right questions, and they can be answered without pretending water is not only good for drinking and irrigating and washing up, but will flow uphill and contains all the vitamins you ever need and cures cancer.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.