The Absurd Politics of Green Jobs Counting

This week, the debate over the economy and environmental policy reached a new low. Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.), and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform which he chairs, made Bureau of Labor Statistics officials go through a list of jobs and say whether or not they were counted as green in their “Green Goods and Services Survey” in order to ridicule it.

In a comical exchange between Issa and BLS Commissioner John Galvin, Issa lists at least seven jobs that are both pedestrian and far from the sorts of cleantech jobs highlighted as dynamic jobs of the future. These included putting gas in a school bus, being an oil lobbyist, working at a bike shop and working at an antique dealer, used clothing, or used record store. Galvin didn’t know if some of these were considered green or not. Issa, on the other hand, was sure that the BLS did count them as green jobs.

Issa and Galvin were both misinformed. In doing our own green jobs study, we largely followed the BLS lead, which was based, in part, on prior work by statistical agencies like Eurostat, as well as the EPA.

How do we know? Because the BLS released a super-detailed list of every industry that they included in their survey and those that they did not. Gassing up school buses did not make the cut.

Certainly, there are legitimate questions about this. Our research team believed that repairing Energy Star products, which the BLS counted, was not inherently green and was not fundamentally different than repairing non-Energy Star products, so we did not count them.

Yet, by and large, we were in agreement on most of what the BLS did, and even these disagreements are relatively minor and debatable points.

Measuring green jobs is difficult. Not only is there confusion and debate about what “green” means, classifying workers into any industry or sector of the economy is an inherently complicated analytical process. Yet, it really is not significantly more difficult than measuring jobs in other cross-cutting super-sectors like the “oil and natural gas industry,” or the biotech or IT industries.

The bland and inherently non-partisan facts of the BLS report have not stopped critics of the Obama administration from seizing upon it as an example of malfeasance and exaggeration. Of course, the administration set itself up for all of this by taking credit for the 2.7 million green jobs that we found existed as of 2010, whereas most of them were created long before they came into office and have little to do with signature presidential policies. Republicans rightly noted this fact, but then went overboard trying to illustrate the folly of any effort to study green jobs. Alas, lobbyists on both sides are eager to portray their clients as more important to the economy and therefore more deserving of favorable political treatment, which is obviously not how policy decisions should be made.

And so the problem with all of this is that it has been unnecessarily infused with political importance. The relevant political questions are not: “How many green (or non-green) jobs do we have, or which party created them?”, but “How do we best promote environmental sustainability and energy efficiency, while continuing to raise living standards?” The proliferation of green goods and services help us reach that goal. Knowing something about which sectors are providing these jobs, there geographic location, and how quickly they are growing can shed light on which policies might best reconcile the potentially competing goals of economic prosperity and sustainability. Whether or not a bus driver is counted is really beside the point.