EXCLUSIVE: Political Rhetoric Is Not Always Literally Accurate

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m always struck by the extent to which political rhetoric that invokes the concept of “green jobs” is subjected by the press to an almost unique double standard.

Here’s the general schema of the problem. The way an economy works is that it has some potential level of output. Then the quantity of jobs that exist in the country is determined by the extent to which macroeconomic stabilization policy succeeds in causing actual output to equal potential output. Voters, however, aren’t familiar with the phrase “potential output” and voters are very concerned about the labor market. So when politicians want to talk about economic growth, they tend to talk about “jobs.” Absolutely all politicians do this. When governors want to brag about how lots of people have moved to their state, they say they want to “create jobs.” When critics of carbon pricing say that cap-and-trade will “destroy jobs,” what they mean is that it will slow economic growth. When Newt Gingrich says we can “create jobs” by drilling for oil everywhere, he’s saying that he thinks the optimal long-term growth strategy for the United States is to try become more of a natural resource extraction economy. It is true that when Barack Obama touts “green jobs” as the future of the American economy, he’s saying something that doesn’t literally stand up to scrutiny. What he means is that he wants a higher productivity economy that also has less pollution. But the only analytic error he’s making here is the exact same analytic error that all politicians are making when they talk about “job creation.” Over the long-term, the quality of economic policy determines productivity and wages, not the quantity of jobs.

If you cover politics for a living, you have basically two honest choices. One is to subject all politicians’ claims of “job creation” to the same kind of pedantic scrutiny and the other is to let it pass the same way you let it pass when people say that soldiers are “defending freedom.” But most publications seem to have opted for a weird third category wherein “jobs” talk gets an absolute free pass unless it’s “green jobs” talk. It drives me insane. The actual debate happening in the United States is not hard to understand. We’re having an argument about whether doubling-down on fossil fuel extraction or promoting efficiency and renewal energy would be better economic policy. With my wonk hat on, I would rather hear the participants on both sides talk about “prosperity” rather than “jobs,” but it’s not even a little bit confusing and the green side of the debate is behaving completely in line with the norms of American political debate.