How the recession is good for Barack Obama's green agenda.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 16 2008 8:22 PM

The Green House

The recession is the best thing that could have happened to Barack Obama.

US president-elect Barack Obama gives a press conference on energy and the environment. Click image to expand.
Joe Biden and Barack Obama

For President-elect Barack Obama, the sagging economy is the gift that keeps on giving. First, it helped get him elected. Now it's giving him a mandate to spend more than he ever could under normal circumstances.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on climate change. When Obama rolled out his "green team" Monday, he made it clear that he doesn't see saving the environment and saving the economy as incompatible. Quite the opposite: He thinks they're complementary.

Take the example of green buildings: "We know that there are buildings—school buildings, in particular, but I think public buildings generally—that need to be retrofitted to make them more energy-efficient," Obama said. "We will get that money back so that not only are we creating jobs, but we're also making those operations more efficient and saving taxpayers money over the long term." In other words, "green-collar jobs"—jobs created when government policy encourages people to install solar panels or research wind power or "weatherize" homes—are a kind of magic puzzle piece. They'll stimulate the economy in the short term (by creating jobs) and save money in the long term (by reducing emissions and making us more energy-efficient).

Advertisement

That sure sounds good. But there are a few complications. For one thing, you may have heard we're in a recession. If people are cutting back on food, clothing, and gas, are they really going to pay more for pricey doodads like solar panels and wind turbines? Obama's answer is that they won't have to. He says the efforts will be paid for by revenues generated by a new cap-and-trade bill, which will make energy companies pay for their emissions. Never mind that the last cap-and-trade bill to land in the Senate never gained much traction. Obama promises this one will be more aggressive.

Consumers may also avoid paying more for their energy use because the government is covering it. Obama has pledged to commit $150 billion over 10 years for a "clean energy future"—which includes paying for infrastructure, often the costliest part of alternative energy. The idea is that since the government is paying for the new equipment, energy companies won't pass the costs on to the consumer. (At least, not initially.) So, in theory, you won't have to pay more for electricity.

And even if you did, some economists argue that you won't be for long. As the price of bad, dirty energy goes up, the price of good, clean energy will come down, and "those lines will cross because of economies of scale," says Dan Weiss of the Center for American Progress. In other words, the only reason solar panels and such cost so much is because no one makes them en masse. Yet. Not everyone is convinced. "It's not an economy-of-scale problem," says Patrick Michaels of the Cato Institute. "It's a physics problem. … If the sun got hot enough to be an efficient provider to solar energy, we'd burn up."

So can the government really afford to pay for all this? Surely we can't spend and spend without future generations picking up the tab. Ah, but we can, say economists on the left.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

iOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. Then I Married Someone Like Him.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 12:02 PM Here It Is: The Flimsiest Campaign Attack Ad of 2014, Which Won’t Stop Running
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 17 2014 1:46 PM A Salute to Defiant Scots on the Eve of Their Possible Secession
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 1:26 PM Hey CBS, Rihanna Is Exactly Who I Want to See on My TV Before NFL Football Games
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 1:01 PM A Rare, Very Unusual Interview With Michael Jackson, Animated
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 12:35 PM IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.