The One Bi-Partisan Issue: Jobs

President Obama’s axing of the F-22 fighter jet suggests there could be a new day dawning for pork. While most of the bad press was directed at the pet projects that members of Congress added to the budget, this was chump change compared to the obsolete Cold War weapons systems which have larded the defense budget for decades.

The Cold War has been over for a long time but we’ve yet to find a suitable bi-partisan substitute for all those jobs. The Pentagon and its civilian allies in the Military-Industrial Complex had perfected a system for allocating these jobs on a state-by-state, district-by-district basis.  They give members of Congress the privilege of announcing all the job-rich contracts that fall to their districts.

But the bi-partisan substitute is now obvious. It’s green energy, which will need massive defense-style investments for many years to come.  It offers the same bi-partisan appeal of defense spending.  Who can say “no” to national security? Even the Pentagon lists dependence on oil imported from unstable regions as a major threat to national security.  And President Obama hopes that renewable energy will erase some of the nation’s trade deficit, which largely reflects the nation’s dependence on imported petroleum.

But it is China that, with generous government subsidies and other support, is positioning itself to be the world’s leading exporter of renewable energy. By contrast, the U.S. Congress has never seen fit to make tax breaks for renewable energy open ended, with the result that stop-and-go U.S. supports may have hindered the industry more than helped it.  But the Obama administration is determined to change this. The Energy and Treasury departments announced this month that they would give $2.3 billion in tax credits to clean energy equipment manufacturers. It’s a start.

Still, as the New York Times points out, “Many worry that Western companies may have fragile prospects when competing with Chinese companies that have cheap loans, electricity and labor, paying recent college graduates in engineering $7,000 a year.  Since March, Chinese governments at the national, provincial and even local level have been competing with one another to offer solar companies ever more generous subsidies, including free land, and cash for research and development. State-owned banks are flooding the industry with loans at considerably lower interest rates than available in Europe or the United States.”

A more strategic approach would be to build bi-partisan support for renewable energy based on the jobs that would be created in each and every state and district.  If Democrats and Republicans can agree on anything, it’s jobs and national security. 

Under this bi-partisan banner, America has built the world’s mightiest military, shoveling half of the federal budget into this maw year after year. The Cold War, which was the rationale for all this military spending, is a fading memory.  And yet military spending currently stands at almost half of all U.S. tax outlays, without including domestic security costs or even nuclear weapons sequestered in the Dept. of Energy budget.

The justification of the spending need not change if it shifts from arms to renewable energy.  It’s still national security. Hawks may argue, but we can be sure they will succumb to lure of jobs for their constituents.

Obsolete Cold War weapons systems have lingered on for decades for lack of a suitable job-creating substitute. Renewable energy is it.

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Mark Braly was energy advisor to the mayor of Los Angeles during the 70s energy shock, author of the city's prize-winning energy plan, and president of a State of California non-profit corporation which made loans to renewable energy businesses. Now retired, he is a City of Davis, California, planning commissioner working on the city's zero-carbon program. He is president of the non-profit Valley Climate Action Center.

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