Jobs and Environment Discussion Series: Principles for Threading the Needle

Harmonious Concept? (foto: Leon Rice Whetton)

This post was co-authored by Michael Renner and Gary Gardner

We continue to wrestle with the following question: is it possible to build economies that provide ample jobs, without stoking the fires of consumption? What will provide job creation if people are not spending as much on personal consumption? Below, we offer some basic principles and ideas to guide policymaking. Note that many green initiatives appear to require complementary policies to ensure that jobs are not lost as the environment is protected. We invite readers’ views.

1. Tax extractive activities like mining, logging, and oil drilling. This is a high-payoff option, because extractive industries tend to create few jobs but lots of pollution. For example, it takes only about 5 percent of the energy to create an aluminum can from recycled materials as it does to create the can from virgin ones. Taxing extractive activities could be a major stimulus for building a robust, job-creating recycling industry, and for generally boosting the durability of products.

2. Tax waste more and workers less. Taxes on air and water emissions, garbage collection, landfill use, and other forms of waste would stimulate the adoption of cleaner methods of production and consumption. Revenues could be used to reduce taxes on labor, stimulating employers across the economy to hire. Germany [large PowerPoint file] already has some experience with this kind of tax shifting.

3. Steer disposable income toward less materials-intensive uses. Fewer sales of cell phones, cars, and oversized houses, offset by greater purchases of music lessons, soccer tickets, and visits to national parks, would surely lower the environmental impact of consumption. The net effect on employment would depend on the labor intensity of the particular mix of changes adopted, but this arguably could be shaped by regulatory and fiscal incentives to favor outcomes that maximize employment and reduce materials consumption. Wages are another consideration, since manufacturing jobs typically pay far better than most service jobs.

4. Restructure manufacturing and retail to meet people’s needs in a green way. Instead of selling products with a the-more-the-better attitude, manufacturers would provide a desired service. Consumers lease or rent products rather than buy them outright. Manufacturers remain responsible for proper upkeep and repair, and ultimately recover components and materials for recycling or remanufacturing. This would create jobs in repairing and reconditioning goods, and these jobs are less likely to be automated or outsourced. In retail, proficient and well-paid sales personnel would advise consumers on the best product options available.

5. Restructure businesses to favor job creation and preservation, and to reduce environmental impact. Worker co-ops, as envisioned by University of Chicago philosopher David Schweickart, are governed by workers and capitalized from a public fund rather than private shareholders. The result is greater priority to job preservation, even as the co-ops operate in a competitive market system that requires efficient operation. Additional incentives, such as requirements for a minimum share of recycled content in products manufactured, could give Schweickart’s vision a green twist.

6. Explore the implications of a (partial) consumption shift from the realm of private to public choice. Capitalist economies thrive on making available a bevy of private choices. Think of private automobiles versus public transit, or private swimming pools versus municipal pools. In transportation, a multiplication of vehicles (millions of cars instead of thousands of buses or rail cars) doubtlessly creates more manufacturing jobs. Yet public transit involves a large number of employees running systems. The net job benefits will vary from one sector of the economy to another, and the public option may not always be the best from a jobs perspective. Yet a fundamental examination of public versus private options seems in order. Creative thinking about public provision of goods and services, as seen in the experiment with co-production—involvement of public agencies, their clients, and the larger community in the provision of services—could have some interesting employment benefits as well.

Creating vibrant green economies that provide adequate employment without depending on endless consumption as an engine of growth will require tools of all kinds and sizes, from the structure of business to incentives created at the national and international level. Although not intended to be an exhaustive list, the above ideas are our starting set. What do you think? What would you add, delete, or change? Keep the conversation going.

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