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October 18, 2007

The Harsh Economics of “Green Collar Jobs”

– or Tom Friedman strikes out, again.

I was first surprised, then pleased, then depressed by Thomas Freidman’s column in The New York Times yesterday. The “Green Collar Solution” began with such promise, in part because it featured Van Jones of Oakland – whose optimism in black-and-green is so sorely needed in our time – but also because Tom Friedman actually wrote a column suggesting that poor black Americans were in his field of vision.

The idea of green-collar jobs – like Van Jones’ suggestion that a green federal government could resuscitate the job market for modestly educated people by retro-fitting government buildings to become far greener – is so right, yet so inadequate. I am a macro-economist who has spent the better part of a decade trying to find a way off the merry-go-round of poverty, unemployment and prison that awaits modestly educated young people in this country, especially young men of color. Green collar manual labor jobs are certainly a help, and we should try to create as many of these jobs as possible, but there is no green collar road to the middle class for badly educated people. None.

Why not?

The blue collar road to the middle class has collapsed because the global economy is a unified labor market awash in mobile unskilled labor that migrates from country to country in search of work. Green collar construction jobs, should these materialize in large numbers, will attract both native born and immigrant labor from around the world for precisely the same reasons that Filipino, Bangladeshi and Kenyan workers migrate to Dubai to work on construction crews – for a chance to work and feed their families. A substantial portion of this immigrant construction work force will be undocumented – and therefore both cheap and compliant, much more attractive to contractors and the governments paying the bills than native born black and Latino workers who both know their rights and demand that these rights be respected.

Could the US government, or state and local governments pursuing the green collar option, limit jobs to natives only? Of course, just as government can use punitive fines, various tax policies and other measures to force employers to refrain from hiring undocumented labor in most sectors of the labor market. But do we want to turn green collar job growth into another arena for immigrant bashing, pitting desperately poor native workers against desperately poor immigrant workers from around the world? Do we really want to add fuel to the fire of racial conflict across the all too tense black/brown color line? Perhaps we have no choice, but we need to understand what we are doing and be prepared to admit just who we are harming, and by how much.

Then there is the nasty fact that Americans do not like to pay taxes, and green color jobs employing only native-born workers will pay higher wages and benefits, and therefore require a bigger tax bite than the same jobs performed by undocumented labor. No one in his or her right mind wants a green-collar sweatshop exploiting undocumented workers in the interest of promoting clean buildings and low taxes at the same time. But promoting opportunity for native-born men and women is an expensive proposition – whether by creating green collar jobs or by offering high quality educational opportunities to children of all colors and conditions in this country.

Of course, the best green collar jobs are those to be created and claimed by well schooled men and women who will design, build and manage a new economy no longer dependent on fossil fuels or that pumps green house gases skyward (or into the ground, for that matter). Building the green society will be the work of generations, but it will also be work done on the basis of the hierarchies of privilege and poverty we permit to flourish, with all the ugly inheritance of rank and misery that goes with the American race-class nexus. I note, with sadness, that Friedman’s picture of a green-collar society does not seem to connected to what we really need: a green and truly fair society that finally breaks with the race-class nexus at the same time that it refits our energy system.

In the end, Friedman’s column enhanced my appreciation for Van Jones as a black-and-green visionary even as it sickened me by demonstrating, again, why elite opinion makers just reinforce the systems of power, control and abuse that constitute the American race-class system. Elite opinion makers always run away from the nasty side of the American system, suggesting small moves while failing to address the hard truths about the American racial system. Offering a small palate of green jobs while refusing to address the structural inequalities that lock millions of people in the American social basement is an example of what can go wrong with green ways of thinking that refuse to see “the blood on the floor.”

I submit that green power, if it is anything more than a device for cleaning up our common environment while preserving, or even extending, contemporary hierarchies of privilege and suffering, must be much, much more radical than anything Tom Friedman could imagine, much less support. Tom Friedman swings and misses, again.