By Walter Borden
To address the long term unemployment crisis in 2013, the U.S. must increase investment in its clean economy and infrastructure. U.S. citizens own the world’s most robust non-profit, namely the United States Government. The U.S. can act now for a reason that trumps profit: the General Welfare. Renewable energy, infrastructure, and pollution remediation increase labor demand and thus, long term, sustainable employment. By contrast, the dirty energy sector primarily provides temporary and short term jobs. Fossil fuels, automation, and de-unionization have converged to aggressively drive down the middle class share of profits generated by our national economy. The outlook for labor is further complicated by rapid uptake of capital-biased technology: machine intelligence that further shifts profit away from labor by replacing its participation in the economy with robots.
The TAKRAF RB293 is a giant bucket-wheel excavator used in coal mining. (Click to Enlarge)
Dirty energy outputs unsustainable amounts of seemingly cheap energy and goods. Coal extractionists value coal at low domestic prices to skip large royalty payouts when mining federal land all the while fetching much higher prices on international markets. The inevitable societal costs of damaged environments and cleaning up pollution reveals this bargain to be Faustian and, as such, provides a diminishing benefit. Further, environmental protections and clean energy factor into job growth with wages and salaries that accrue to the economy as opposed to rentier payments that primarily fill Swiss bank accounts.
Restraining dirty energy shifts capital to labor thereby counterbalancing the decadal trend of asymmetric capital accumulation to a shrinking few. Corporate profits continue to surge to multi-year record highs. Yet, as a share of GDP, wages have declined over the past thirty years. This has become in its own way a kind of hidden inflation. Clean energy policies address this imbalance with greater quantities of quality jobs.
Currently in the U.S., our most pressing problem is one of high, long term unemployment. Deficit and debt to GDP ratios matter; yet, the primary driver of deficits is a lack of employment growth. History and empirical evidence show how these ratios, as well incomes inequalities, quickly come down as revenues grow due to greater employment at living wages. Further, industry sits on record hoards of capital, yet chooses not to invest. Now is the time to increase public sector spending to create low impact demand. Clean energy is an optimal starting point for increasing demand per capita in sectors that are sustainable and regenerative.
Resource Rents North America vs. East Asia and Pacific (Click to Enlarge)
The moral dimensions are plain and demand constant consideration. Most people in most societies feel that extreme inequality is problematic and favor an equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of their society. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg‘s proposed a stage of moral reasoning which considers life to be more valuable than property rights or profits, and that this is a more adequate moral position for making policies to achieve distributive justice. Immanuel Kant held that morality presents itself as an categorical imperative. Aristotle observed, “It is in justice that the ordering of society is centered.”
A Clean, Compassionate Economy Is A Path to Sustainable Prosperity
Alleviating contemporary unemployment and ensuring that its does not become a long term crisis requires rejection of classical economic conventions, namely, that labor is only a cost to be mercilessly driven down and that search frictions are a hard, growing reality: i.e. in the real world, it’s expensive to relocate and retrain. For the long term unemployed, it is next to impossible.Yet, social innovation and impact investing policies can restore balance.
Some argue that the subsidies required to launch a green economy are too steep. But, that assertion has little evidentiary support and fails a common sense test as well. In reality, clean energy drives labor demand via its need for large, scaled up amounts of infrastructure, operation, remediation and, of course, R&D.
Jobs fell much further and faster during the Great Recession than in the previous 2 (marked by the lines to the left of the zero point on the x-axis) yet job growth in the current recovery is similar to job growth by this point in the previous 2 recoveries. (Click To Enlarge)
Reduced labor costs are not resulting in shared prosperity. Does the private sector truly want a continued collapse of labor prices in the U.S.? Labor is a cost in classical economic thinking. Lower costs mean cheaper goods and services; a greater general welfare in principal – as long as producers do not loose their incentive to pass on cost efficiencies to consumers. Yet, in an era of record corporate profits, employment growth has steeply decelerated. Core CPI has been low, but when stagnant wages are considered along with higher education and healthcare costs, the benefits of lower CPI seem rather ephemeral.
Here again, a green economy points a way forward. A recent MIT carbon tax study lays out scenarios where a carbon tax could either be revenue neutral or partially so when the excess revenue is used to reduce debt or build infrastructure. In addition to raising revenue, it would reduce pollution by incentivizing the transportation industry to generate more efficient products. This is an instance where the tax code can help create more progressive outcomes, and in this era of ever rising inequality, which recent data suggests is increasingly decoupled from recoveries, can address that inequality. Restructuring the code needs to be a major, bipartisan goal.
The Private Sector Isn’t Using Its Multi- Year Trended Record Profits for Shared Prosperity