Do good jobs imply economic growth and more consumerism or can good work have some other significance?

The proposed Green New Deal is often touted as a generator of good jobs. Good jobs are generally understood to mean good pay and good benefits although other intangible factors such inherent interest of the work and sense of doing something beneficial for society play a role as well. At present a lot of the manufacturing associated with renewable energy is located outside the United States, but installation and maintenance are jobs that cannot be outsourced. Aside from electricity generation other elements of the Green New Deal such a creating energy efficient buildings and improving public transportation systems also involve jobs that cannot be outsourced.

However, if a large new group of people are suddenly getting good pay and good benefits then presumably their standard of consumption will rise. It is true of course that part of the increased pay will go into “savings”, but saving are just investments in infrastructure which are intended to pay off in increased production of consumer goods in the future. “Healthy” saving rates are an important part of the machinery which leads to steadily increasing standards of consumption.

However, replacing working infrastructure with new infrastructure which serves the same purpose is not doing anything to directly increase our wealth, although it may help to prevent of decay of wealth by lowering the negative externalities of climate change. The creation of work is not the same thing as the creation of wealth. A home owner who discovers that the roof they installed ten years ago is defective and needs to be replaced will not regard this event as a wealth creating opportunity even though the roofing company who gets the contract will make some money.

The economic effort that was put forth in the support WWII is often cited as an analogy for the kind of effort we need to combat climate change. Although the intensity of the effort may be a good analogy other aspects of the earlier case are quite different than what we face at present. During WWII the U.S. sacrificed domestic consumption via rationing and via encouragement of high savings rates (e.g. by buying war bonds) in order to direct a large proportion of our industrial output to the war effort. Interestingly enough most of the people proposing a Green New Deal do not envisage such a sacrifice of consumption in order to dedicate more resources to infrastructure transformation. These people seem to feel consumption growth and green infrastructure growth will go on simultaneously. In the case of WWII the sacrifice of domestic consumption was temporary. During the war years our manufacturing capacity and our energy production capacity were increasing rapidly. The hope was that when the war ended we would be able to retool this infrastructure rapidly to civilian purposes and people would be able to cash in their war bonds and buy shiny new consumer goods. Some economists were skeptical that the transition from war material production to domestic production could be made rapidly enough and cheaply enough to stave off economic problems in the post war period, but these naysayers were proved to be wrong and a huge boom in domestic consumption rapidly ensued at the end of the war.

This WWII analogy, however, has limited applicability to the current situation. In the first place many people promoting the Green New Deal are not talking about sacrificing domestic consumption to speed up the process of transformation. The assumption seem to be that the infrastructure project will stimulate the economy and traditional consumption growth will take place in parallel with energy system transformation. Secondly even if we were will to temporarily sacrifice domestic consumption in order to speed up the process of transformation there are some reasons to doubt that after the transformation a domestic goods boom equivalent to the post WWII boom would take place. During the years 1940 to 1945 the U.S. was building huge new manufacturing capacity and was increasing its supplies of fossil fuels. There was obvious reasons to believe that directing this capacity to domestic consumption rather than to producing war material would result in a consumption boom. In the current situation we would be attempting to replace existing infrastructure with new low carbon infrastructure. This goal is undoubtedly worthy and necessary, but it is not clear that its accomplishment will act as a huge stimulus to the production of domestic consumption goods.

I am not opposed to an intense collaborative effort to combat climate change, but we need to be realistic about the requirements of such an effort. We also need at some point to grow up and find some other source of psychological nourishment that an endless growing production of consumer novelties. We need to ask ourselves what is the real nature of good work? Is work good only if it produces steadily increasing consumption rights for the people doing the work? Or is that work good which enables steady sustainable consumption over long periods of historical time while allowing workers sufficient leisure to pursue recreational, aesthetic, and intellectual pursuits that bring intrinsic satisfaction apart from their ability to stimulate ever increasing levels of buying and selling?

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