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Sustainable Stimulus

Solving our economic problems, and those energy and environmental ones, too Now that we've given our flatlining financial markets a life-restoring $700 billion jolt, expect scores of prescriptions for nursing the American economy back to health. The best repairs will recognize one simple fact: our greatest..

Solving our economic problems, and those energy and environmental ones, too

Now that we've given our flatlining financial markets a life-restoring $700 billion jolt, expect scores of prescriptions for nursing the American economy back to health.The best repairs will recognize one simple fact: our greatest national challenges-the "three Es" or economy, energy, and environment-are entirely intertwined.If the massive and imperfect Wall Street bailout has proven anything, it's that we can gather enormous amounts of money in times of perceived crisis. Which raises the question: Why wait for a crisis? Our sputtering "Main St." economy, stubborn dependence on energy from abroad, and rapidly warming planet can be dealt with concurrently for a fraction of what we taxpayers just coughed up to the bankers. As Van Jones, who just released a book outlining such an integrated solution, wrote: "Let's find another $350 billion, [which] absolutely and positively could retrofit and repower America using clean, green energy-and create millions of new jobs, in the process."Jones isn't alone. Progressive think tanks and respected thought leaders alike are starting to push this concept into the mainstream. Two weeks ago, Thomas Friedman-champion of the marketable, pithy maxim-wrote, "We don't just need a bailout, we need a buildup." He adds that what makes the energy technology revolution so exciting is that it affects the entire economy, "from green-collar construction jobs to high-tech solar panel designing jobs."There's a swirling cesspool of problems that draw together the "three Es:" the dollar is weak; the housing bubble collapsed; energy and food prices are high; unemployment is increasing as domestic factories and banks close their doors; our oil comes from areas rife with geopolitical conflict, so we fund threats to our national security when we fill our gas-guzzling tanks; greenhouse gas concentrations in the earth's atmosphere are fast approaching catastrophic levels, causing temperature and sea levels to rise.Al Gore got at the essence of our American problem when he pled: "We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change."A convergent solution is-to be sure-a heavy lift. It will require a unified national effort not seen since perhaps Roosevelt's New Deal, a comparison not lost on many proponents. (Nor on this column.), a non-profit founded by aspiring economics wonk Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry's fame), is promoting the "NextNewDeal." Both Jones and Friedman have called for a "Green New Deal," a title echoed overseas by an UK economic think tank, and, just this week, in an incredibly ambitious UN initiative. (Even as far back as 2001, Mother Jones writer Mark Hertsgaard was making the case for a "New Green Deal.")Here's the gist of these proposals: The banks and AIG aside, an economic jumpstart is still essential for those off Wall Street. A smarter, more sustainable (in every sense of the word) stimulus would encourage more than mere consumption, it would create long-lasting jobs in domestic industries-particularly in those centered around clean energy, efficiency, and transportation.Bracken Hendricks of the Center for American Progress (CAP) recently broke down the benefits of a sustainable stimulus on the public radio program "Living on Earth:" "That money stays locally-you can't outsource jobs retrofitting buildings for efficiency or building transit systems. Put aside the environmental benefits. Investing in a green recovery is better economic policy, and it puts us on a faster road to recovery." It just so happens that CAP has released the most well-developed plan I've seen.Penned by Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts' Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), "Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy" calls for $100 billion investment over two years to "jumpstart a comprehensive clean energy transformation for our nation." Half of the funds would exist as tax credits to private businesses and homeowners for investing in clean energy systems and building retrofits, like better insulation and more energy efficient windows to reduce heating and cooling costs (and emissions). The government itself would spend most of the other half to expand mass transit and freight rail infrastructure, start a national smart electrical grid, and invest in large-scale clean energy projects. The investment should create two million jobs in two years-four times the number that investing the same amount in the oil industry would create, and triple the number of "good jobs" (defined as those paying at least $16/hour.)All told, the "Green Recovery" plan would lower national unemployment from 5.7 percent to 4.4 percent (figured at the time of the report's release in early September, though unemployment is now up to 6.1 percent). The 800,000 construction jobs lost over the last couple of years-they'd be, at minimum, recovered almost immediately. In addition, more stable oil prices should result from the increased investment in efficiency and mass transit.All this for one-seventh the cost of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (or, as you know it, the bailout). Seems too small a price not to pay.Photo of rooftop solar panels from Flickr user Pink Dispatcher

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