You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Absurd Politics of Counting Green Jobs

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, working at an antique dealer, used clothing, or used record store. Galvin didn’t know if some of these were considered green or not, but having met with the people at the BLS who did manage and analyze the survey, we know that Galvin was not one of them, so why should he know? 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’s lead, which was based, in part, on prior work by statistical agencies like Eurostat, as well as the EPA. It turns out that John Cusak’s slacker character in “High Fidelity” wasn’t part of what we or the BLS consider the green economy.

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. In other words, the BLS recognized that green companies were spread throughout many industries but not all of them. To save taxpayer money, they did not even survey industries pre-determined to have zero green jobs. Gas stations were not included in the survey, so it is not possible that someone who pumps gas for a bus--as their primary task--would have been included. All clothing stores, used or otherwise, were explicitly excluded from the survey. So were bicycle shops and antique stores. Green-oriented business and industry associations were included by BLS, but there is no reason to think that oil lobbyists were, since the associations have to be an environmental advocacy or business organization to be counted.

The final BLS results do report green jobs in odd industries like used merchandise stores, which may be why Issa thinks that used record store clerks were included, but the detailed BLS pre-report listing clarifies what these jobs must be. Only jobs related to the repair of Energy Star-certified electronic products were counted. So, a music store clerk would have to repair the latest Energy Star DVD player, or something similar, to be counted.

There are legitimate questions about this. Our research team believed that repairing Energy Star products was not inherently green and was not fundamentally different than repairing non-Energy Star products, so we did not count them. Similar reasoning led us to depart from the BLS’s decision to include jobs at zoos, advocacy organizations, environmental news media, and environmental studies faculty at colleges.

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. We both agreed that bus drivers are providing a green service because riding a bus is inherently more energy efficient than riding in a car or plane, according to the Department of Transportation. We both counted any employee of any company that only makes green products, like First Solar, even if that employee “sweeps the floors” (though we are not aware of any workers who only sweep floors for 40 hours a week at the same factory).

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.