In Our View: 'Green' Jobs a Murky Issue

Government has a role, but private sector is the key performer

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Few issues can raise political and philosophical hackles these days as quickly as the notion of a "green economy."So it was with particular interest that we noted a study released last week by the Employment Security Department -- a report estimating that green jobs in Washington declined by 18 percent from 2009 to 2011. According to the study, about 60 percent of the decline occurred in the government sector, while private-sector green jobs also declined.

As detailed in a Columbian article by Gordon Oliver, several points must be made about this study:

• It is difficult to ascertain exactly what is a green job. The state defines it as a job in which workers are helping to increase energy efficiency; produce renewable energy; or prevent, reduce, or clean up pollution. Many modern jobs include some element of those activities, meaning that they might or might not be counted as a green job. In addition, the state typically does not include hydroelectric power in its definition of "renewable energy," a fact that is incongruous with reality in this part of the country.

• Researchers lack comprehensive data from previous years, resulting in a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. The 18 percent decline comes from examining industries that were surveyed in both 2009 and 2011, perhaps leaving other green-friendly occupations out of the equation.

• The survey asked employers to identify how many of their employees had jobs in which green duties are a primary focus. Again, this can skew the numbers as the lines between a green economy and a traditional economy become blurred.

That said, the information provided by the study can be valuable in examining how best to position Washington's economy for growth. And it can be valuable in examining the role of government in deciding which industries have the potential for growth. Much has been made in recent years of the need for a green economy, and the fact that Washington is studying the lack of growth in this area indicates the importance the state is placing on those industries.

In some circles, the notion of "green" jobs has become a pejorative, viewed as social-engineering project being foisted upon the public. This idea received some justification with the bankruptcy last year of Solyndra, a California-based manufacturer of solar panels that had received a $527 million government loan approved by the Obama administration.

That is where the philosophical questions come to the forefront. It is reasonable to doubt the role of government -- be it at the local, state, or federal level -- in supporting selected industries. For example, starting with the Grain Futures Act in 1922, the United States has provided agricultural subsidies for generations, creating a cycle of dependency upon government support when letting the free market take its course might have been the more prudent path.

On the other hand, the auto industry bailout that started under President Bush and was expanded under President Obama likely helped save thousands of jobs and helped preserve the domestic auto manufacturing industry.

Government can have a role in assisting industries to grow and thrive, yet in a perfect world that role should be limited to the development of an infrastructure that allows business to do its job more efficiently. Roads, electrical grids, and water and sewage services are economies of scale that are unreasonable for individual businesses to provide for themselves.

But when it comes to deciding which kinds of industries can be successful in the market place, the economy is better off without government influence.