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Green collar jobs to the rescue?

By Michael M. Bates
web posted March 31, 2008

It's the latest.  It's the greatest.  Green collar jobs are going to help turn around the economy if Democrats have their way.

Senator Barack Obama last month promised the government would spend $150 billion to create 5 million such jobs.  At $30,000 a pop, that's placing a great deal of faith in federal job training.

Even your typical white person has hopped on the green bandwagon.  Also last month, Senator Hillary Clinton argued in a debate: "We can create at least five million new jobs. . . I helped to pass legislation to begin a training program for green collar jobs.  I want to see people. . .  trained to do the work that will put solar panels on roofs, install wind turbines, do geothermal, take advantage of biofuels."

In all the excitement and all the campaign promises, it's painless for them to overlook, if they ever knew, that federal job training programs have been less than a rousing triumph for many years.

Franklin Roosevelt initiated the Work Progress Administration to ease the mass unemployment of the Great Depression.  My Mom lived through that era and said that WPA ended up standing for We Piddle Along to some Americans.  Another observer noted that the WPA gave a bad name to leaning on a shovel.

Still, the experience did nothing to diminish political calls for Washington to provide job training.  Many programs such as the Job Corps and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) followed.  All were hailed as panaceas that would take people off welfare rolls and place them on payrolls.

No doubt that happened.  Occasionally.  But in many instances the programs were found to be loaded with shaky claims and phony success rates.  Writing for the Cato Institute, James Bovard cited a General Accounting Office (now known as the Government Accountability Office) study that reported those completing Job Corps training materially did no better in terms of employment than those who dropped out of the program early.

CETA's success rate was comparable.  According to Mr. Bovard, fewer than one in six CETA recruits found unsubsidized work in the private sector.  A wretched outcome, especially when you consider the government had spent $53 billion on the program.

So why do government training programs remain the cure-all of choice for so many politicians and voters?  One explanation is it just sounds so good and they're hoping no one is paying attention.

Another reason is that the politicians who implement job training programs only want to hear how wonderful they are.  And here I am compelled to confess my own complicity.

Years ago, I was partly responsible for running a relatively modest government job training program.  Just trying to reign in the fraud and waste soon consumed a good portion of my paper-shuffling day.

Twice I was called on to testify before a relevant Congressional subcommittee to report on how the program was going.  The oversight hearings were orchestrated with the intricate precision of a professional wrestling match.

Each time my testimony had to be submitted in advance to staffers who obligingly suggested what changes to make.  They didn't want to hear about fraud and waste.  Neither did their bosses.  The emphasis was on what I was doing to shovel as much money out of the door as quickly as possible.  Most importantly, I was warned, there were to be absolutely no surprises in my comments or answers to questions.

The hearings came.  Members of Congress took note of what a fine fellow I am and commended me for doing a splendid job.  Then they commended one another for putting such a terrific program in place and addressing the issues.

I kept my own job, a priority at the time.  But I also developed a healthy skepticism about how Washington operates.  The characters there are able to isolate themselves from reality.  Little wonder they always enjoy colossal success in addressing the issues.

Do any of those proposing federal training for these green collar jobs have a clue as to the actual requirements of solar power and alternative energies?  One prominent physicist estimates that it will take 127 square miles of movable mirrors, mirrors that would need washing every few days, to produce as much energy as a typical nuclear plant.  Moreover, if a wind farm were intended to provide that same amount of energy, it would have to be a mile wide and almost 350 miles in length.

Going green may have a certain appeal, but few politicians apparently realize how complicated it will be.  John Christy is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for warning of global warming.  Mr. Christy's pointed out that if every American immediately switched to the hybrid Prius, the car that says "I Care," the change in global temperatures would be measured in terms of a thousandth of a degree, if that.

Taking money from the comparatively productive private sector and throwing it into ineffective federal job training programs for opportunities that may or may not exist in the future isn't sensible.

Senators Obama and Clinton have a different vision.  They see a country in which Americans earn a living by installing solar panels on each other's houses.  After we've been trained by the government, of course. ESR

This Michael Bates column appeared in the March 27, 2008 Reporter Newspapers.


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