Honoring his birthday two years ago, I told a story about Friedman’s insight on the responsible use of resources. It is a story that may be more Friedman-esque than actually having come from Milton Friedman himself. It is a story that is even more relevant today and a lesson that is worth repeating.
Traveling in Asia, Friedman was shown a canal project being built by the government and noted that workers were using shovels instead of machinery. It was explained that this was a jobs program and that using shovels allowed the creation of more jobs.
“If you really want to create jobs,” Friedman replied, “then by all means give these men spoons, not shovels.”
It is a sign of the power of Friedman’s ideas that stories such as this become attributed to him even if it is unclear whether the words truly came from his mouth. The concept that wealth comes from using resources wisely – whether those resources are people or natural resources – is one he embraced.
Sadly, it is a simple lesson that is still unlearned by many who believe we should crate “green” jobs by lavishing subsidies on wind and solar power. Advocates of types of energy often brag about the fact that they require more labor and resources to create energy than natural gas or other types of energy.
For example, the Seattle Times’ own “business” columnist Jon Talton once wrote that government spending on “green” jobs “produced more ‘job hours’ than tax cuts or traditional infrastructure spending.” Just as moving from shovels to spoons would have created more “job hours” for canal diggers, Talton believes we should move to renewable energy using the same logic.
This is what passes for “business” journalism these days.
Talton, however, is not the only person claiming to be an environmentalist while advocating policies that do more with less. He is not the only person claiming to be concerned about scarce resources and then actually encouraging waste to achieve a “green” future.
Last year the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts released a graphic demonstrating that spending on solar energy created three times as many jobs dollar-for-dollar. They called this “The Truth About Job Creation.” It is a rule of political rhetoric that if something purports to be “The Truth,” it isn’t.
The Institute released a graphic (which I’ve modified slightly), showing the amount of job creation in a number of economic sectors related to energy creation and conservation. In their telling, natural gas is the worst, because it generates large amounts of energy while creating few jobs. Solar, on the other hand, requires more jobs to create the same amount of energy.
I decided they were simply not ambitious enough. Why settle for 14 jobs per million dollars invested when we could put people on bicycle generators and employ 1,610 jobs? People could pedal for eight hours a day, lose weight and generate electricity.
If this seems absurd, it is. Yet, if the goal is to create “job hours” or “job creation,” bicycle generators are the best option. Judging policies based on these types of claims, however, is not merely anti-prosperity, it is anti-environment.
Concern for the environment is, at its core, a desire to do more with less and a concern about scarce resources. Left-wing environmentalists, however, too often promote policies that do less with more and waste resources. They ignore the lost opportunities to put people and resources to work doing other great things for the environment. To make use of prosperity and discretionary income to promote clean air, healthy forests and wildlife protection.
Unfortunately, the left probably won’t learn the lessons of Milton Friedman and resource use. It is ironic that on his birthday, it is Milton Friedman who has given a gift to us and those who truly care about the environment.
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