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Voices of Power: Van Jones

Interview By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009 4:08 PM

INTERVIEW WITH VAN JONES, special adviser on green jobs to the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Chapter One: Greening the Ghetto?

Welcome, Van Jones, Special Advisor on Green Jobs for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

MR. JONES: Yes.

MS. ROMANO: Thanks for joining us today.

MR. JONES: I'm glad--I'm glad to be here. Thank you for your interest.

MS. ROMANO: We've been hearing a lot about green jobs-being built in a green economy.

MR. JONES: Yes.

00:04:1 MS. ROMANO: But I would venture to guess that most people in the middle of the country who are without jobs--

MR. JONES: Mm-hmm.

MS. ROMANO: --right now might not know what a green job is.

MR. JONES: Sure. Yeah. A green job and especially a green-collar job is a blue-collar job that has been upgraded and up-skilled to better respect the environment.

00:04:28 So, for instance, you're talking about the--the guys who put up the solar panels or--or the women who put up solar panels. You're talking about people who are manufacturing wind turbines and putting those up, people who weatherize and retrofit buildings, so they don't waste so much energy, but, also, you're talking about the middle of the country. We're also talking about rural green jobs.

For instance, it's not just about manufacturing those wind turbines in the cities. You've got to deploy them, and that's got to be deployed out in rural America.

You also have the opportunity to have green jobs in crops to energy, so-called "smart biofuels," or wood to energy.

MS. ROMANO: You have talked about greening the ghetto.

MR. JONES: Yes.

MS. ROMANO: Explain what that is.

MR. JONES: Well, what that concept was before I joined the administration was just the idea, let's include everybody. I think sometimes when we think about ecological solutions, we think about very high-end stuff, you know, maybe, you know, space-age technology, way off in the future.

What we forget is most of the things we need right now to reduce pollution, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions doesn't require fancy technology. You know what it requires? A caulking gun. Right?

If you teach people how to do that work, that hard-working, humble, energy-efficiency dollar--let's not talk about the solar stuff yet--can not only cut unemployment by putting people back to work, it can cut energy bills and then, because our power plants won't have to work so hard, cue pollution. Those are the kinds of things that people who live in inner cities, who maybe don't have high skills can get involved in right now.

You get them on the ground floor right now, and maybe this summer, they are blowing in insulation. Maybe they're replacing a window or a door or a boiler or a furnace that's out of date, but as these industries grow and as we get more energy efficient as a country, those firms will grow, and then you're going to see those people go from being workers to managers of their own crew, maybe next summer. Then the next summer, they can go out on their own, become an owner, an inventor, an investor.

So we're talking about green pathways to prosperity for all Americans, including urban Americans, rural Americans, all Americans.

MS. ROMANO: The stimulus bill---earmarked $60 billion. Am I correct in that?

MR. JONES: It's close to $80 billion for--for--

MS. ROMANO: It's $80 billion.

You and the Administration have estimated what, 2 to 5 million jobs could be created?

MR. JONES: Well, you know, there are--we have a potential in the total $787 billion--

--that is a part of the energy package, according to the Council for Economic Advisors, to create about 6.8 million job years total, and then, as--as we go forward, the subset of that, which is about that $80 billion, will produce green jobs. So, the total--the total number of jobs for the entire recovery package is 6.8 million job years.

MS. ROMANO: Okay. So--so where are they? We're, you know, seven, eight months into this. Where are all these jobs?

MR. JONES: Oh. Well, you know, if you look around, you can see them. For instance, we have these great success stories.

There's this company called Simonton Windows that had given up. It, you know, sent all its workers home, but it called 400 workers back just a few weeks ago. Why? Because our investment in energy efficiency, we're spending $5 billion on energy efficiency, so our buildings don't waste so much energy, that boss was able to call his workers back, say, "Come on. We--you know, we got orders coming in."

You got people in Wisconsin who are now going to be going to work making solar panels. You have people in Oregon who are using recovery dollars to retrofit, weatherize homes, and also begin to move toward renewable energy.

So the--the green recovery is--is beginning to work, but the most exciting thing I can say is this. When you're talking about an $80 billion investment in the U.S. economy that is pointed toward the clean energy revolution that the President has been talking about, you also have to recognize that puts us back in a leaning-forward position in our competition with the world on the clean energy race.

00:09:27 What people, I think, in America don't understand, China has already decided that it wants to corner the market on building the renewable energy resources that we need. China would love to see us go from importing dirty energy from the Middle East to importing clean energy from Asia. They've decided they're going to spend $12 million an hour--$12 million an hour--to corner the market on renewable energy, including wind turbines, smart batteries, solar panels, et cetera.

We can't let that happen. If we want the jobs of tomorrow, we've got to begin to produce the products of tomorrow.

You know, Google is a great company. It didn't build the Internet. The government invested, though, to build the internet, got the rules right, so everybody could compete, and then we got the top five Internet companies in the world are all American companies.

Now, look at the energy sector where we haven't made the investments to get--to get our grid strong, to do the things that we just did in our recovery package, and where we--where the rules are not right. The top five wind companies, wind energy, only one's American. The top ten smart battery companies, only two are American. The top ten solar companies, only one is American.

We are falling behind in the global competition to create the clean energy jobs of the future. What this administration is committed to is to unleash the American entrepreneur on this problem by, first of all, getting the investments right. That is the $80 billion that we're talking about in a recovery package, but also getting the rules right, that's what our climate and energy bill is all about, to make sure that we've got the incentives in place, those long-term price signals that will let us begin to produce here in America clean energy, begin to grow--home-grow our energy and stop relying on other countries to do for us what we could do for ourselves and create jobs for Americans here.

MS. ROMANO: How does the Administration define a green job? I mean, is there a unified standard of definition, so that you can quantify what green jobs are?

MR. JONES: Well, the way that we talk about green jobs in this Administration is that they are good jobs that are good for the environment. That--that is the fundamental approach, and the way that we are tracking that is we've identified those parts of the recovery package that we believe will produce those kinds of jobs.

For instance, smart batteries, people don't think about batteries when we talk about energy. People tend to think about either solar panels or something like that, but actually being able to store energy better is a key part to being able to have a--a better grid.

MS. ROMANO: So you're saying it's a moving target, the definition. There's no--there's nothing in writing that I could look at that says, this is what a green job is?

MR. JONES: Well, I think--I think what you could--what you can look at is--are those parts of the recovery package that are targeted toward the clean energy--energy sector--

--and targeted toward environmental cleanup. Those are--that's--that's--those are the--the corners that we've put on the recovery package, and we're looking there to--and that's what our expectation is where the green job growth will come from.

MS. ROMANO: But--but still, there's not--there's not a really good way to quantify at this point how many green jobs are out there and how many the stimulus is creating.

MR. JONES: Awhere we are in the process right now is that we are moving the money out the door at a remarkable clip. For instance, if you take the money that is going out the door for weatherization, for energy efficiency---$5 billion is supposed to go out. It's supposed to go out the door. We have put out about 2.1 billion. We're halfway spent out on a program that is going to be about a two-year program.

What will then happen is that as that 2.5 billion hits the street, people will--you're going to be seeing people putting up the--putting in those new windows, weatherizing buildings, retrofitting buildings with all those new appliances, and those jobs will continue to go. And then once we're--once we've crossed that initial 2.5 billion spend-out, then the rest of it will go out.

00:14:45 So what we're--what we're talking about at this point is creating jobs in the energy efficiency sector, where we haven't had that many jobs.

MS. ROMANO:

There's a concern that this model really amounts to a zero-sum game--

MR. JONES: Ah.

MS. ROMANO: --so you create some jobs, but then you're taking the same jobs away from other areas of the energy sector.

And so net-net, you might not even be up any jobs at all.

MR. JONES: Right.

MS. ROMANO: Can you address that?

MR. JONES: Yeah. You know, that--that's one of those--those great myths.

In fact, all the credible studies show that as you begin to shift from the older forms of energy and especially the way we used to do the older--

-forms of energy, you actually need more skilled workers, more expertise to deploy, and--and you actually will be creating more jobs. Both the transition creates more jobs as you go about retrofitting buildings, improving our grid, also investing in science, research and development. That also begins to grow our science commitment which we're, you know, really committed to here.

And also, on the other side of it, you know, as you have a more dispersed and diverse energy portfolio, which will be more robust--in other words, we won't be relying so much only on one form of energy but many forms of energy--you'll have more firms, more enterprises, and also more people working.

00:16:21 So it's a myth that the transition and the final outcome is--is a net zero. You actually can grow economies.

MS. ROMANO: How do you ensure that the money is being spent in the right place? Are there standards in place? Are--do States have their own discretion to declare what a green job is, or do they have guidelines they're following?

00:18:38 MR. JONES: We have a number of safeguards in place to make sure that every dollar is spent properly.

00:19:06 For instance, we have that stage gate approach where, you know, we put out 10 percent, make sure they use that right. Then we put out the next 40 percent, make sure they use that right. So you don't just get all the money.

MS. ROMANO: Mm-hmm.

00:19:16 MR. JONES: You actually get the money as you perform.

Now, let's--you check, oh, wait, these people are having a problem. You can send in technical--technical assistance. You can make sure that they're able to perform.

We also are requiring, for instance, at the State level that the States actually do actual boots-on-the-ground inspections of--

MS. ROMANO: Okay.

MR. JONES: --10 percent of the homes to make sure that the actual work is being done and being done the proper way, and then we're doing both announced and unannounced inspections through our Department of Energy.

00:19:47 So those are the kinds of protections that we have in place. You want to go fast, but you also have to go for it in an accountable way and make sure that every dollar is spent appropriately, and we--we are--we are doing that.

Chapter 2 : "As you begin to shift from the older forms of energy, you need more skilled workers and you actually will be creating more jobs┬┐ There's a lot of people that don't know what retrofitting a building means."

MS. ROMANO: Tell me exactly what--what your job is.

Is it a bully pulpit because you've done this before?

If you think about the--the need to--to coordinate policy and--and those kinds of ideas, that's really what the Council on Environmental Quality is all about. It's about making sure that we have good--good policies, that they've been well thought through, well vetted, and people at my level help to coordinate that discussion, get people to think through the best ways to implement things, make sure we aren't implementing things that are cross-purpose with each other, have people from different departments and agencies in communication with each other, but I don't have a budget to be able to write checks to people to, you know, put up solar panels or whatever. Those kinds of things happen at the department and agency level, and at--at this level, we are mainly a coordinating body.

MS. ROMANO: You--you personally appear to be a good communicator, and you've done a lot of public speaking, and I--and you are a community activist. Do you view that as part of your portfolio to sort of educate America?

MR. JONES: Well--well, sure. I think some of these ideas are complicated for people when they first hear them. Most people--there's a lot of people that don't know what retrofitting a building means, or they haven't heard of, you know, what is a smart biofuel, and so a lot of times, people just sort of go yes, yes, but they don't--they aren't really following you.

MS. ROMANO: Right.

00:21:45 MR. JONES: And so, because I was working to get these kinds of jobs to happen in places where people were--were more low-income, I got pretty good at explaining this stuff where people can understand it, and so I got a chance to do some of that, but my main job is actually helping to coordinate a lot of the policy discussion and making sure that we've got the best ideas.

MS. ROMANO: Have you considered that your--your vision might be far ahead of--of reality and what's really going on in the country?

I know you're--I know you're familiar with Tom Friedman's book, but he says that we're really not truly in a green revolution, we're having a green party.

00:23:07 MR. JONES: Yeah. I've heard him say that.

[Laughter.]

MS. ROMANO: Where, you know, we all dabble a little bit--

MR. JONES: Yeah.

MR. JONES:

If you take a problem this big, the only force powerful enough to really deal with this energy transition, in my view, is the American entrepreneur, American innovation.

00:23:44 Why? Because once we get the rules right and the price signals are right, we will unleash a swarm, a stampede of innovators and inventors. People will be coming out of the woodworks with new products, new--new ways forward.

We're on our way, and my expectation is that Congress recognizes it's kind of a rare opportunity for us as a country to get out there ahead of some of our friendly competitors and create jobs here, will act on the President's call and move us forward.

MS. ROMANO: Is there any way right now, sitting here today, that you can quantify how many green jobs the stimulus package created that are existing now, not that can be created but--

MR. JONES: You know, the--the Department of Labor is crunching those numbers--

MS. ROMANO: Okay.

MR. JONES: --and working through those numbers. So we don't have numbers that are ready to go right now.

What we know is there's a lot. We get news stories every day, all day long.

00:25:29 MS. ROMANO: Anecdotal evidence?

MR. JONES: Anecdotal evidence that is--

MS. ROMANO: Mm-hmm.

MR. JONES: --incredibly encouraging, and --and the Department of Labor is--they crunch those numbers for--for the Federal Government, and they will be available as they come forward.

00:25:41 MS. ROMANO: Skeptics say that all this really does, creating this green economy and green jobs, is that you're creating a lot of low-paying jobs.

MR. JONES: I've heard that before too.

Ms. Romano: They're construction jobs or they're installation jobs, and that some of the white-collar energy jobs are still being outsourced.

In fact, one report said that 22,000 jobs ended up in India of R&D and engineering. If we--if that's accurate and we're not developing white-collar jobs, isn't the--aren't the blue-collar or green-collar jobs just going to stall in their tracks?

MR. JONES: You know, if that were the outcome, that would be a very negative outcome, but that's really not the outcome that we're headed toward.

I mean, if you look at the way that the green part of our recovery package is designed, we really are supporting growth, as I say, literally from the GEDs to the PhDs. That's really not the--the trajectory that--that we're on at this point.

00:26:40 The other thing I'll say is--is this. The--we do have a commitment that even those more entry-level jobs be good jobs, be good-paying jobs, and have a pathway to success.

Secretary Hilda Solis, who is the Department of Labor head, is really passionate about this point. She wants to make sure that we are training people not for dead-end, short-term jobs, but really better term green careers.

If you get people in on the ground floor of a growing industry, they can grow that industry. It's kind of like Jack and the Beanstalk. You know, you grab, and you go up.

We're trying to grow it and improve it and upgrade it.

MS. ROMANO: Well, you're trying to educate people--

MR. JONES: True.

MS. ROMANO: --to--to kind of accept this green economy, so that they will then utilize some of the apparatus that's involved and create these jobs, but what incentives are in place for me? Like, why would I move to solar panels? I like my house, and it's working fine for me.

MR. JONES: Yeah, sure. Well, that was the way that we used to approach it, you know, hoping that kind of, you know, each individual--

MS. ROMANO: Retail.

MR. JONES: Yeah, yeah.

I think the better approach is to--to get the macro signals right, so that maybe someday your utility company would say, you know, "Hey, would you mind if we work together to--we want to deploy solar here as a part of, you know, meeting our renewable energy standards. Maybe we could partner on that." Right?

00:28:59 So the--so the better way to think about it is as we begin to put a price on the heat trapping carbon pollution, that right now you can just sort of dump for free, if you put a price there and say, you know what, we're going to cap that, we don't want all that heat trapping pollution come out, you know, more and more every year we're going to put a cap on that, we're going to actually put a price on it, that changes the way that people begin to think about, hey, maybe I should create a company that will deploy some of this stuff at a lower price point.

00:29:31 Now you're going to have people competing, "Hey, well, I can get that solar panel up quicker and cheaper and better, or I can help to retrofit your home, you know, with a--with a cool pink boiler or furnace," and what you're going to begin to see is much more competition.

MS. ROMANO: In 2006, a group called Earth Justice did a study and said that the U.S.'s ecological base of people was 90 percent white, affluent, upper middle class.

Why is that?

And does that make your job harder as you go into the inner cities trying to sell kind of a green economy, green jobs?

MR. JONES: You know, all across America, you have people who are being thrown out of work, blue-collar workers maybe who used to be able to make cars or make other things. If you go to them and you say, "Hey, guess what? We think we can put people back to work making advanced cars that--or--and smart batteries and wind turbines," they're with you.

00:32:40 I think that what we are seeing is that this new vision of the environment, which isn't so much about maybe trying to spend more money but maybe earning more money and saving more money is an everybody environmentalism that people are buying into all across the country.

MS. ROMANO: Why has it--historically, why has the environmental movement been historically, you know, just white upper middle class?

MR. JONES: Well, because everything has to start somewhere. I mean, you know, if--because, at first, we didn't--I'll tell you what, at first, we didn't have the--the vision at the governmental level to say this is an important thing for the country. We talk about it: Oh, we need to be more energy independent; oh, solar panels or whatever. But nobody did anything about it.

00:33:28 And because then you didn't have the right rules at the government level, you didn't have the right investment, well, then only a small number of people could participate. That's the past, though.

00:33:38 What we have right now is Congress gets it, the President gets it, the media's beginning to get it. Lots of people get it. So once you have--once you cross that tipping point where you can get the right rules and the right investments, then everybody gets to play.

MS. ROMANO: Earlier you--you gave me some anecdotal evidence in different States where the green economy is booming, and industries are hiring and calling people back to work, but, if I Google "layoffs in green jobs"--I also find an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence that say that the green industry is not immune from the recession, and they're getting hit equally as hard.

00:34:54 MR. JONES: Well, nobody is immune from the recession, and that's why we--we're--we acted so aggressively to put a $787 billion recovery package on the table to blunt the damage and begin to--to bring us back as a country.

I think what--what you will see and are seeing is that those companies that are committed to make the products of tomorrow are the ones that are most attractive for private sector financing. They're most attractive for college graduates coming out of school and hold the most promise for this country going forward.

MS. ROMANO: One final question. You have spent most of your career as a community activist. You started a couple of organizations, and you could be autonomous and sort of see, you know, the impact of your visions. How has this transition been working in a bureaucracy?

00:35:51 MR. JONES: Well, you know, when you are at this moment in history where people, you know, want these kinds of changes to happen, then, you know, being a part of a government that is committed, that is passionate, that believes in innovation--I mean, I think one of the great things about this Administration is it has a very clear view of where the jobs are going to come from.

We're talking about private sector jobs. We're not talking about a big government works program. We're talking about putting the incentives in place and the opportunities in place for the private sector to get out there and do what it does best, solve problems in the most efficient way, the lowest possible price, with the highest amount of innovation.

00:36:34 And, you know, having, you know, come out of the private sector, I knew how tough it was for some of these brilliant entrepreneurs--I mean brilliant--to begin to get market share, and the barrier was not the lack of innovation. It was not the lack of interest from financiers. It was not the lack of even, you know, some demand that was beginning to build an economy from the consumers.

00:36:56 The barrier was that we didn't have a fair playing field for these new technologies to get in there and complete, and so seeing the opportunity to come in and help to coordinate some of the discussion at this level, that might lead to more opportunity for more people, I said, "Geez, I can actually do a lot better helping from this level than I could if I had stayed in the private sector." So that's why I came. It's been great.

MS.ROMANO: So how did you--how did you make a transition from, you know--you know, community action to environmental causes? It's kind of unusual.

MR. JONES: Yeah. But, you know, people need to have the opportunity to be a part of industries that are going someplace. And so, when you're working in communities where people don't have a lot of hope for opportunity, you--you say, geez, you want to fight but hard to get people jobs that you know are going to be dead end or can you find them a job in a--in a part of the economy that's going someplace.

And so that was a question.

And so then I saw that, you know, these firms were going places, and so that was my--that's when I got totally jazzed.

Ms. Romano: Was it a hard sell initially?

MR. JONES: No. I think anytime you introduce new ideas--that people haven't heard it before, it can be--it can be challenging, but--I can't complain because--when you look at how---big the conversation got, I mean, it was--it's hard to feel sorry for yourself.

MS. ROMANO: Great. All right. Well, thank you very much.

MR. JONES: Okay. Well, thank you.

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