By Karl Smith
The debate over green jobs continues at the Economist. The polls show that Van Jones is winning this debate so far, taking an early lead away from his opponent:
(Click to enlarge)
I suppose one does not rise to the stature of Czar without the ability persuade people of the usefulness of whatever it is one will be Czaring over.
I think Andrew Morriss is losing because he failed to immediately make clear that there are things the government should do. Since the more radical forms of libertarianism are often what people have in mind, it’s important when arguing for libertarian ideas to establish that there is a legitimate role for the government (only, of course, if there is in fact a legitimate role for the government). Coming out of the gate crowing “Let the market handle it,” when the problem at hand is a classic market failure, will solidify you in peoples' minds as the extreme libertarian caricature they generally default to anyway.
That said, Morriss does a much better time this round. He makes the case for innovation prizes, and argues against fighting dirty energy subsidies with clean energy subsidies:
Rather than get rid of wasteful subsidies that transfer money from consumers to special interests in fossil fuels, his solution is to give others their chance at the trough.
Both are sensible ideas, and both define a legitimate role for the government. He should have opened up with this point.
Jones' rebuttal drives home three points:
- Green energy is more labor intensive than dirty energy.
- The market is already distorted in favor of dirty energy.
- Doing nothing is not a good option.
If one is to argue for green jobs, this is the tract to take. One of his weakest points this time around is an argument that quite frankly works against him:
Mr Morriss claims that the work of moving to a cleaner economy is hampered by the lack of a universal and timeless definition of the term “green jobs”. This is a red herring. In public policy, we continually debate, revisit and reshape what should be included under any important label, whether the term is “American made”, “organic food” or “green jobs”. In a democracy, these kinds of debates are continuous and any resolution only provisional.
It would agree with everything he said, except to replace “continuous” with “ridiculous,” and “provisional” with “arbitrary.”
He has two points near the end I’d like to highlight. The first one is completely false and highlights an unfortunate thinking that I think drives a wedge between progressives and libertarians who actually agree on the second statement:
One, we do not have infinite amounts of carbon in the ground to burn. At some point, our earth will run out. Thus, it is sensible for governments to create incentives for alternatives to carbon-based fuels on a grand scale, now.
Two, our atmosphere does not have infinite capacity to absorb all the carbon that humanity could potentially extract and burn. If we emit too much, we will do irreparable damage to the climate.
There are very few useful things on this earth that we have an infinite capacity of. It is absurd to claim that a lack of unlimited supply of something we value justifies immediate government action on a “grand scale.” The fact is that we have alternative, non-carbon-based ways to create energy now, and if scarcity drives the price of carbon based fuels up (which is exactly what scarcity does), people will begin buying them.
If Jones is right and higher prices of carbon-based fuels would not lead consumers and firms to begin demanding clean energy technologies en masse, then we should not be spending a single dollar on existing clean energy technologies, since they are apparently far from being cost effective.
Disclosure: No positions