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President Clinton’s overenthusiasm for growth in green jobs

at 01:00 PM ET, 09/22/2011


(Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg)

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell : “If you look at the stimulus bill, what did we get out of that? Turtle tunnels and Solyndra. More money was lost on Solyndra than came to my state to fix roads and bridges out of the entire stimulus package last year, and now he’s asking us to do it again.”

Former President Bill Clinton: “I heard what Senator McConnell said about that one project, but the hard truth is that in America, in spite of his hostility to it, green technology jobs have grown twice as fast as the overall job-generating capacity of the economy in the last eight years, where all job growth has been anemic. You’re going to have a lot of that.”

— comments about stimulus funding during NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sept. 18, 2011

Republicans have frequently faulted the Obama administration for using economic-stimulus funding to spur green-sector job growth. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney dedicated a section of his 160-page jobs plan to the issue, calling clean-energy investments an inefficient – if not totally ineffective – way of spurring employment growth.

Clinton’s remarks on “Meet the Press” were striking in light of all this criticism, not to mention the news reports – including one from The Washington Post – showing that job growth has lagged in this sector.

Clinton no longer holds a public office, but he’s still an influential figure, so we decided to examine the accuracy of his claim. For good measure, we also investigated McConnell’s claim that Solyndra funding dwarfed stimulus allocations for roads and bridges in his home state.

The Facts

We asked the Clinton Foundation for proof that green-job growth had outpaced overall gains during the past eight years. Spokeswoman Betsy McManus gave us a report titled “Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment,” which comes from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

We dug through the report and found a statement to support Clinton’s assertion – kind of.

“During the middle of the recession – from 2008 to 2009 – the clean economy grew faster than the rest of the economy, expanding at a rate of 8.3 percent. This is likely due, in part, to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which channeled large sums of public spending towards clean energy products through much of 2009.”

So green-sector jobs did grow at roughly twice the rate of combined U.S. industries, but not for the past eight years, as Clinton claimed during his interview. The superior green-sector gains only occurred during the recession – with lots of help from economic-stimulus money.

How does this compare with the eight-year span Clinton was talking about? The Brookings report says:

“Clean economy establishments added half a million jobs between 2003 and 2010, expanding at an annual rate of 3.4 percent. This performance somewhat lagged behind in the national economy, which grew by 4.2 percent annually over the period (if job losses from establishment closings are omitted to make the data comparable).”

The operative phrase here is “lagged behind.” Clinton actually was incorrect, according to the report his own foundation provided for us. Green-jobs growth didn’t outpace overall employment. It trailed by 0.8 percent.

We asked McManus to clarify how the Brookings report supports Clinton’s numbers. She pointed out a passage (second-to-last paragraph on page 21) showing that the youngest green businesses experienced more job growth than the overall economy.

Here’s the quote: “The 13 segments in which the bulk of establishments date to later than 1996 grew by 8.3 percent annually from 2003 to 2010 – a figure that easily outstripped the 3.2 percent growth of older segments as well as the 4.2 rate for the national economy over the same period.”

So it appears Clinton selected only green businesses that launched since 1996 to make his point. The figure would have been much lower if he included all clean jobs as defined by the Brookings report, which sums up the situation this way:

“The clean economy grew more slowly in aggregate than the national economy between 2003 and 2010, but newer ‘cleantech’ segments far outperformed the nation during the period, as did the clean economy overall during the recession.”

In fairness, the newer green-economy businesses are the ones frequently associated with stimulus packages (solar energy, wave/ocean power, renewable energy services, electric-vehicles technologies), and that segment outperformed the overall economy in terms of job growth.

It’s worth noting that the Brookings report doesn’t account for jobs that died, so there’s no telling how many of the gains were short-lived – meaning they came and went with the stimulus.

Indeed, the Brookings report calls the clean economy “an enigma: hard to assess,” saying that the industry involves all sectors of the U.S. economy and that “strikingly little is known about its nature, size, and growth at the critical regional level.” This casts a shadow of doubt over any assessments of how the green economy has performed, regardless of whether they paint a rosy or gloomy picture.

Now for McConnell’s comment. A state-by-state analysis by the Wall Street Journal shows that the government awarded $471 million in transportation-infrastructure funding to the Kentucky senator’s state through the economic stimulus packages.

Solyndra, on the other hand, received $535 million in guaranteed loans from the Energy Department. That’s not quite the same as direct government funding. Except in this case it is because the 1,100-employee solar-energy start-up filed for bankruptcy last week, putting taxpayers on the hook for its debt.

So McConnell is right: Federal funding for that one solar-energy start-up dwarfed the money his state received for bridges and roads.

Overall, Kentucky received nearly $3.7 billion overall in stimulus funding between 2009 and 2011, according to the government-run stimulus-tracking Web site Recovery.gov.

The Pinocchio Test

We find no fault with McConnell’s claim about Solyndra funding versus Kentucky’s stimulus money. But Clinton misled viewers with his remarks about job growth in the green sector. The study cited by the Clinton Foundation clearly shows that the overall clean-jobs sector did not outpace the overall U.S. economy in employment growth.

Clinton earns two Pinocchios: He relied on selective data that would support his case while ignoring other relevant numbers. (A Clinton spokesman declined to comment on our analysis.)

Two Pinocchios

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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