“There’s always a bull market somewhere,” goes the old Wall Street saw, and it’s a principle that Washington needs to keep firmly in mind as it contemplates its trillion-dollar financial bailout. Today, that bull market is in green investing, which includes everything from wind and solar power to forest conservation.
Since 2001, the wind industry has grown 339 percent; the solar industry has grown a whopping 579 percent; both are projected to continue their blockbuster double-digit annual growth into the foreseeable future. In contrast, the Dow Jones average has climbed just 2 percent during the same period, and is only barely hanging on at those levels because of the artificial boost produced by talk of the bailout.
Instead of shoveling good money after bad, Congress should put its money into developing this booming green economy even further.
Truly green companies aren’t just providing returns to investors. They’re also an employment engine that is offsetting the job losses related to the high price of oil and the housing collapse. Tens of thousands of people are today employed making wind turbines, installing solar panels and making American cars more efficient. But those jobs could be only a very small beginning compared to what is possible.
A recent report report by the Center for American Progress estimates that investing just $100 billion in the green economy (one-seventh the amount contemplated in the administration’s proposed Wall Street bailout) would create 2 million new jobs, with a significant percentage of those coming in the struggling manufacturing and construction sectors. In contrast, investing that much money in the financial services sector would generate just 1.1 million jobs, according to an analysis conducted by the study’s authors, Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier of the University of Massachusetts. In other words, Wall Street’s offering about half the jobs for the same money: hardly a smart bet for the taxpayer.
A green investment on the level of the Wall Street bailout could create growth on a much larger scale, almost entirely eliminating unemployment and significantly raising middle-class incomes. Instead of golden parachutes for CEOs, the government could finance America’s transition from an oil- and fossil-fuel-dependent economy into one run completely on clean energy. Instead of buying up bad McMansion mortgages, we could pay people to retrofit their houses with high-efficiency appliances and green roofs.
The green stimulus could reach far beyond the energy sector to provide income and employment for rural America as well. It could finance the conservation of tens or hundreds of millions of acres of wildlands, providing income to farmers and other landowners–and make possible a whole new generation of national parks. (Many of those lands are now under threat exactly because of too-easy credit: without limits on lending, it’s been all too easy for real estate developers to find the cash to pave over back-country wilderness for sprawl and ranchettes).
This money also could seed a new technological revolution in agriculture–away from land-, energy- and water-intense cultivation and towards exciting new developments like skyscraper farms–essentially huge, multi-level urban greenhouses powered by clean energy that use a fraction of the land, water and pesticides of conventional agriculture.
There would be major indirect economic benefits as well. As clean energy took over from oil, fuel costs would plummet, removing a major impediment to growth: running a plug-in hybrid on clean energy, for instance, costs the equivalent of less than $1.50 a gallon.
But the biggest benefit of this green recovery will come from solving a looming financial threat as great or greater than the current one: global warming. Conservative estimates place the costs of increased disease, flooding, drought, extreme weather, insect infestation and other impacts of the climate crisis at somewhere between 5 percent and 20 percent of global economic output. For the United States alone, that adds up to a conservatively estimated $3.8 trillion drag on the economy–every single year. A big green investment now would take a huge bite out of the climate problem while we wait for the political stars to align behind comprehensive global warming legislation.
Of course, spending money on a green stimulus instead of a bailout would have consequences for the big firms at the root of the financial mess. Some of the failed Wall Street behemoths that are relying on teachers, soldiers, policemen and small-business owners to bail them out would probably sink.
In their place, however, a whole new multibillion-dollar green economy will rise–and with it the kind of massive financial opportunity that could get not only America but also Wall Street back on its feet.