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Walter Russell Mead: Feeding The Masses On Unicorn Ribs

Besides healing the planet and returning the rising seas to their natural beds, then-Senator Obama promised that his administration would create beautiful green jobs: well paid, stable, abundant jobs, unionized, with full benefits and making the earth healthier and the American people richer. As President, he stayed on message: even after the truther-enabling “green jobs czar” Van Jones left the administration, green jobs have been one of the President’s signature policies for putting the American people back to work.

Obama promised to create 5 million green jobs within ten years. Investors’ Business Daily has a list of that plan’s successes so far.

– On his recent jobs tour Obama stopped at a Johnson Controls plant in southern Michigan, which received $300 million in green grants and plans to create a whopping total of 150 jobs, at a cost of $2 million per position.

– Evergreen Solar Inc., which received unknown amounts of green stimulus funds on the hope that it would create “between 90 and 100 jobs” two years ago, filed for bankruptcy this week, $485.6 million in debt. Their Massachusetts plant once employed 800 people; in March it was replaced with a factory in Wuhan, China.

– Green Vehicles, an electric car “maker” in Salinas, California, took $500,000 from the city and almost $200,000 from the state but has failed to produce even one car.

– And as reported earlier on this site, Seattle was one of a handful of cities that received $20 million in federal grants as part of Retrofit Ramp-Up, a program designed to refit houses with more energy efficient materials. Unfortunately, as KOMO4 of Seattle reports, after more than a year “only three homes had been retrofitted and just 14 new jobs have emerged from the program.”

I’ve posted about this failing strategy before; it’s nice to see (h/t Instapundit) that the New York Times has also figured it out that the administration’s green jobs initiative is an embarrassing mess.

As the paper of record reports,

Federal and state efforts to stimulate creation of green jobs have largely failed, government records show. Two years after it was awarded $186 million in federal stimulus money to weatherize drafty homes, California has spent only a little over half that sum and has so far created the equivalent of just 538 full-time jobs in the last quarter…

The Economic Development Department in California reports that $59 million in state, federal and private money dedicated to green jobs training and apprenticeship has led to only 719 job placements — the equivalent of an $82,000 subsidy for each one.

The belief that green jobs would drive a new era of American prosperity was — like the large majority of green policy chat — intellectually incoherent.  The goods that drive renewable energy industries, like so much else in this world, are far cheaper to construct in Asia. As the NYT piece describes, SolFocus, a widely-celebrated solar power company based, only has 90 employees at their San Jose headquarters. The solar panels are assembled in China.  Whether a product is an ordinary t-shirt or an admirable piece of world saving green technology like a wind turbine has zilch, zero, nada influence on the mind of the manufacturer trying to decide where it should be made.

There are perhaps some green jobs that would be exceptions; we could eliminate all forms of welfare and food stamps and offer the unemployed minimum wage jobs pedaling stationary bicycles hooked up to electric generators, solving our budget, poverty, obesity and energy independence problems all at once — but these are not the jobs either the President or his supporters have in mind.

It’s understandable and even forgivable that a political candidate would talk about green jobs on the hustings, especially when the Democratic Party is divided between job hungry blue collar workers and fastidious greens who break out in hives in the presence of coal.  What worries me isn’t that the President’s team advised him to make a few speeches on this subject; if a candidate can’t throw chum to the base now and then what’s the point of having elections?  What worries me is that they didn’t understand that making something this bogus a central plank of his actual governing plan on an issue as vital as jobs would have serious costs down the road.

Many liberals want green jobs to exist so badly that they don’t fully grasp how otherworldly and ineffectual this advocacy makes the President look to unemployed meat packers and truck drivers.

Let me put it this way.  A GOP candidate might feel a need to please creationist voters and say a few nice things about intelligent design.  That is politics as usual; it gins up the base and drive the opposition insane with fury and rage.  No harm, really, and no foul.

But if that same politician then proposed to base federal health policy on a hunt for the historical Garden of Eden so that we could replace Medicare by feeding old people on fruit from the Tree of Life, he would have gone from quackery-as-usual to raving incompetence.  True, the Tree of Life approach polls well in GOP focus groups: no cuts to Medicare benefits, massive tax savings, no death panels, Biblical values on display. Its only flaw is that there won’t be any magic free fruit that lets us live forever, and sooner or later people will notice that and be unhappy.


Cranach: The Garden of Eden (Wikimedia)

Green jobs are the Democratic equivalent of Tree of Life Medicare; they scratch every itch of every important segment of the base and if they actually existed they would be an excellent policy choice.  But since they are no more available to solve our jobs problem than the Tree of Life stands ready to make health care affordable, a green jobs policy boils down to a promise to feed the masses on tasty unicorn ribs from the Great Invisible Unicorn Herd that only the greens can see.

Here in particular Senator Obama as he then was would have benefited from a less gushing, more skeptical press.  If his first couple of speeches on this topic had been met with the incredulous and even mocking response they deserved, he probably would not have married himself so publicly to so vain and so empty a cause.

The cost is not simply the stimulus funds wasted on “investments” that don’t produce any jobs.  It’s not just the opportunity cost as more practical and reasonable job creation agendas were shoved aside to make room for the unicorn hunt.  It’s the credibility cost.  The President cannot successfully make the case for stimulus so many of his supporters would like him to make when the opposition can cite figures like $2 million a job, or point to jobs shipped overseas and companies shut down.  Worse, the failed unicorn barbecue undermines the President’s ability to convince the American people that he knows how to create jobs.  Thirty months of poor job numbers while the White House was off chasing unicorns and hyping green jobs as a national strategy means that the administration has forfeited public confidence on the jobs issue.  That is no small handicap in times like the present.

The green jobs fiasco is not the only failure sapping the President’s credibility as an economic policy maker.  The administration was clearly caught off guard by the weakness in the economy this year, and only belatedly discovered how poorly constructed its stimulus really was.  Not even administration spokespersons attempt to defend its housing policy when it comes to topics like mortgage relief.

A quick return to economic growth would put all these concerns in the background, but on the more probable assumption that the economy will still be struggling well into if not all the way through 2012, the White House needs to figure out how to change course — and how to communicate that change of course to a country that has come dangerously close to tuning out the President when he talks about jobs.