Mr. Jones Goes From Washington, But His Green-Jobs Voodoo Economics Remains


There is no improving on Jacob Sullum's take on Green Czar Anthony "Van" Jones, who resigned over the weekend. Excerpt:

More troubling than any of this, because it is potentially far more consequential, is Jones' belief, expressed in his book The Green Collar Economy, that dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions not only won't cost anything but will actually benefit the economy by creating jobs. I debated this subject with Jones on a radio show last year, and my impression was that he is a true believer in the broken planet fallacy. The problem is that Jones was hired not despite but because of this nutty idea, which his boss also espouses.

That pretty much sums up my interest in the underlying, Glenn Beck-fueled controversy. But post-resignation, it's been fascinating to watch the many media witnesses to Van Jones' defense. "Beck's goal in Jones case: Scare whites," thundered Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell. "[L]et's stop pretending that the fierce opposition from the right isn't racism. It is."

More interesting than the reflexive racism claims are attempts by Jones' friends to explain just how perfect he was for that job. Interesting, because each extended testimonial to the man's dazzling abilities makes me less, not more, inclined to want him anywhere near the public teat.

For instance, today I received an e-mail touting "Van Jones' Greatest moment," which was apparently this December 2007 pep talk to nonprofit workers. Inspiring stuff, I am sure (well, minus the mythical "socialist paradise" he invokes, in which "everything's going well, people are being served, and all the children are happy"), but what exactly does an aimed-at-activists inspirational speech (one in which he claims that he's "never even met a Republican") have to do with helping create environmentally friendly jobs?

Arianna Huffington, in her widely linked apologia, says that what Jones "does best" is "inspire and energize groups around the country. Student groups and labor groups and small business groups and middle class Americans everywhere who are losing jobs and losing homes and losing hope." Again, oratory skills are impressive, but what does that have to do with the price of solar photovoltaic cells? More Huffington:

Back in 2002, I wrote

about how the staid and anything-but-radical heads of the World Economic Forum had invited him to their conference and honored him as a "Global Leader for Tomorrow." Jones had been protesting the World Trade Organization in Seattle and the International Monetary Fund in Washington. But that didn't keep him from exchanging ideas with the rich and powerful at the Forum, or from keeping an open mind.

"The people I've met here," Van told me at the time, "are much more thoughtful, complex, and concerned about social issues than either the left or the media portray them to be."

That's a sound bite you're not likely to see being endlessly replayed on Fox News. But that's the real Van Jones, not the caricature the Fox echo chamber has been pummeling for the last few weeks.

So: The "real Van Jones" protests against international trade agreements and the global elite, and then has some nice things to say about the Davos crowd after they gave him an award. Sounds like a very successful activist and self-promoter, and possibly someone with some curious-at-best notions about economics. Is that good enough for government work?

Oh hell yes, says Eboo Patel, in a Washington Post post entitled "Van Jones, Patriot." Says Patel: "Any company would want Van as its chief executive officer, any church would want him as a bishop."

To bolster this argument Patel (like many others these past few days) linked to this January 2009 New Yorker profile of Jones, written by Elizabeth Kolbert. Though it is an extended piece of highly credulous flattery (headline: "Greening the Ghetto: Can a remedy serve for both global warming and poverty?"), the article contains enough reporting to demonstrate convincingly that Jones–who only moved to environmentalism about five years ago, after being previously concerned with criminal justice issues–has no earthly idea just how his "Clean Energy Jobs Bill" can be transformed from four-word Democratic campaign slogan to a policy that actually creates, you know, green jobs. On the other hand, you walk away convinced that Van Jones is a helluva speaker, and very effective at convincing people to give him money. Sample:

He began contacting environmental groups. Most were so eager to shed their all-white image that, knowing next to nothing about him, they invited him to speak to their members and put him on the programs of their conferences. He also began applying for grant money, which he planned to use to bring green jobs to Oakland. In 2004, he persuaded a New York-based philanthropy called the Nathan Cummings Foundation to give him two hundred and fifteen thousand dollars.

"We called all these community meetings, did these retreats, and at the end of the day we had some great photographs, a couple of pamphlets, and not one job," he recalled. "It was a complete and utter failure." Jones went back to the foundation and asked for another two hundred and fifteen thousand dollars, which he got.

"Then we wasted it all again," he said. "Because we still didn't know what we were doing." Gradually, Jones came to see that businesses weren't going to locate in Oakland because some well-meaning nonprofit asked them to. Instead of doing freelance economic-development work, he began to think that he should focus his efforts on public policy. […]

In June, 2007, a measure authorizing the U.S. Department of Labor to spend a hundred and twenty-five million dollars to train workers for green jobs was introduced in the House. The bill, now called the Green Jobs Act, provided targeted funds for low-income trainees. A few months later, the bill was incorporated into a much larger piece of legislation, the Energy Independence and Security Act, and was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in December, 2007. Around this time, Jones left the Ella Baker Center to found Green for All. The organization now has a staff of twenty-five and an annual budget of four million dollars. […]

Still, the mechanics of creating green jobs—or even what jobs should qualify for the title—have yet to be worked out. At the same time that the President-elect has said that he wants to promote "green" economic growth, much—perhaps most—of the stimulus package is likely to be devoted to projects, like highway expansion, that will have precisely the opposite effect. In the days that I followed Jones around, I heard several people who ran training programs in green professions complain that once their students had graduated they couldn't find work. (Jones's response was that they ought to lobby for more federal support.) […]

Jones's response to such critiques is, in effect, to do them one better. Yes, it may be difficult to address climate change and poverty at the same time, he says, but it's even harder to do so separately. "You've got to have a holistic, integrated set of solutions or you're going to wind up with half your energy being used up to fight 'Drill, baby, drill!'" he told me. "People say, 'Oh, we'll take a shortcut.' Well, those shortcuts are a lot longer than they look."

This is economic policy by sloganeering, and, when that fails to deliver, hitting the federal government up for more money. Ultimately that should be more embarrassing, and is definitely more telling about the economic policies of this administration, than signing some Bush-knew petition.

For a beyond-sloganeering look at clean-energy technologies, bookmark Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey's great June cover story, "It's Alive: Alternative energy subsidies make their biggest comeback since Jimmy Carter," and its companion piece on "Energy Futures." As for Van Jones' favorite two-word euphemism, start here.