This article was adapted from Juliet Schor’s book Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.
Now that we’re in the endgame of financial reform, and a second stimulus is off the table, it’s looking more and more as if the nation’s jobless will be fending for themselves. The punditocracy has declared that the recovery is for real, so 26 million officially unemployed and underemployed Americans will be getting a promise of future growth. But a return to business as usual—”jobs and income will trickle down via growth”—is a disaster, on economic and ecological grounds.
First, it won’t work. The Economic Policy Institute calculates that we’d have to add half a million jobs each month for three years to get back to the pre-crash unemployment rate. Given that the biggest monthly job growth number we’ve seen in this recovery has been 162,000, with a hefty chunk of that attributable to temporary Census jobs and stimulus spending, half a million is an order of magnitude larger than what we can realistically expect. Globalization means that many of the new jobs will be created offshore. Even more significant, growth-induced productivity increases and labor-saving technical change are reducing employers’ need for workers. Robots are being used to clean up the gulf oil spill; customer service representatives are no longer people but machines. This is mostly a good thing, but only if the displaced find a livelihood. As Robert Pollin recently argued in these pages, the aggregate output, or overall growth, approach won’t get us back to 5 percent unemployment until 2017.
The other flaw in the “grow our way out of unemployment” approach is that it’s ecological suicide. The latest findings on climate change are that we have already passed critical, frightening thresholds. We must reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million as quickly as possible even to have a chance at forestalling catastrophe. As Americans, our responsibility to reduce emissions is unique. Our 4 percent of the planet’s population accounts for 28 percent of its total carbon legacy, and our annual per capita carbon footprint is twice the size of many Western European countries’. It’s more than quadruple that of China. A bottom-up, technology-based shift to cleaner energy is essential, but its effects will phase in gradually. It’s nearly impossible to meet emission targets only by reducing the carbon intensity of each dollar spent. But we can get results immediately by changing the path of aggregate output. As American GDP fell in 2008, so did greenhouse gas emissions.
Progressive economists have mostly responded to the economic crisis with retro-policy, advocating financial reform and spending on infrastructure, including on green jobs. These things are necessary. But New Deal 2.0—expanded federal spending—still relies on climate-destabilizing growth. The retrofits and conservation measures that result from green jobs programs in effect mimic reductions in the price of energy. They free up purchasing power for other goods and services, the production of which causes more emissions. Unless we find a solution that does not rely on expanding overall demand, we’ll be addressing unemployment by unleashing even more climate chaos.