GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter X Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted
Green Building Blog

Stick ’Em Up, I’ve Got a Caulk Gun!

Are stimulus-funded green jobs programs symptoms of a left-wing conspiracy? A little fact checking and ecological soul searching can help you decide

Green-retrofit weapon of choice?
Image Credit: Tajima Tool Corp.

One political concept that has been heartily affirmed during the past 18 months is that no policy is off limits in the world of political gamesmanship, even if the policy seems to be as economically practical and ecologically justifiable as a program for green jobs, energy conservation research, or the cap-and-trade bill.

Recently, for example, the director of policy for the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, Phil Kerpen, produced an opinion piece for Fox News Forum that warns against “the cap-and-trade effort to restructure the global economy” and the use of stimulus funds for “left-wing political activities.”

“Green jobs programs like the ones in the stimulus bill serve a political purpose but not an economic one,” Kerpen writes in a September 2 post. “Most green jobs consist of hiring low-wage workers with caulking guns to weatherize buildings. We are trading away high-wage, high-value manufacturing jobs for these green caulking jobs. Any time you spend billions of dollars you will create some jobs, but the key question is, what the cost is when you divert resources from higher-value activities?”

Is a job worth its weight in political baggage?

Kerpen’s comment might be of interest to carpenters and construction-industry laborers who are out of work because of the housing downturn. For those folks, the distinction between “high-value manufacturing jobs” and low-wage “green caulking jobs” likely will be of less concern than paying the rent and putting food on the table. As one of our GBA editors put it, “With the housing sector so slow, won’t [stimulus-funded green jobs] return out-of-work carpenters and laborers to the job force? Won’t the guys who used to hump plywood just start squeezing a caulk gun?”

It’s also not clear that creating these “low-wage” jobs is an economic failure of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as Kerpen suggests. Further along in his Fox News Forum piece, for example, he notes that the Davis-Bacon Act – which requires that prevailing wages be paid for federally funded construction and retrofit projects – actually force “above-market” wages to be paid for ARRA-funded green projects. Kerpen makes this point while emphasizing his larger concern: the political consequences of such spending, without careful oversight, could easily take a turn to the left.

“Those green jobs are union jobs, so they are a giveaway to organized labor as well as environmental groups,” Kerpen explains. “Union bosses got provisions added into the stimulus bill applying federal Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements in an unusually broad way. Guidance from the Department of Labor said: As a result of specific language in the ARRA, all requirements of the Davis-Bacon Act apply to construction projects that receive ARRA funds, with an added provision that ‘projects funded directly by or assisted in whole or in part by and through the federal government as a result of the ARRA must also comply.’ These requirements will force above-market wages to be paid, fleecing taxpayers while paying union dues that can be funneled back into political activities.”

While Davis-Bacon, signed into law in 1931, doesn’t require workers to pay union dues, it has indeed historically been viewed as union-friendly legislation, in no small part because many union apprenticeship programs are at the forefront in training workers for jobs in the trades.

Reckoning economic prosperity with ecological reality

The workers wielding caulk guns are, of course, capable of evaluating the politics of Davis-Bacon and stimulus-funded green jobs, if they care to do so, although political considerations may not weigh all that heavily on the minds of many low-wage workers making above-market wages. (For those who do worry about the progressive agenda, Americans for Prosperity has crafted a one-page graphic, titled “The ‘Green Jobs’ Radical Network” – click here for a PDF – intended to illustrate the connections among green-jobs organizations in the left-wing cabal.)

A broader issue raised by Kerpen’s comments is whether stimulus-funded green jobs serve an important purpose beyond putting money in workers’ pockets and helping the economic recovery: Do the benefits of improved energy efficiency in homes outweigh the political dangers of a left-wing power grab and, possibly, mediocre returns on the ARRA investment?

That, of course, gets to the ecological heart of the matter. As recent GBA and New York Times blogs on the subject note, retrofits are perhaps the most expedient way to reduce energy usage in both residential and commercial properties.

The Times cites data compiled by the Clinton Climate Initiative, which explains on its “Building Retrofit” Web page that “more than one-third of energy is consumed in buildings worldwide, accounting for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In cities, buildings can account for up to 80% of CO2 emissions. The built environment is therefore a critical part of the climate change problem – and solution. Most existing buildings were not designed for energy efficiency, but by retrofitting with up-to-date products, technologies and systems, a typical building can realize significant energy savings.”

Will stimulus-funded expansion of, say, the Weatherization Assistance Program, actually lower CO2 emissions while boosting employment? Given the expectedly slow and cautious rollout of many stimulus-funded initiatives – especially the green-jobs goldmine in expanded weatherization programs – it’s still way too early tell. But ecologically at least, it seems a step in the right direction.

Make it here, use it here

Another step in that direction – though some distance from caulking our way to green living – would be developing a robust domestic market for those “high-value manufacturing jobs” that also happen to be in green industries. On September 15 in the Times, op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman, who has long advocated for advances in U.S. energy independence, wrote about his visit to the headquarters of Applied Materials, which makes the machines that produce microchips for computers, but also makes machines that make solar panels for residential and commercial applications.

What struck Friedman most about Applied Materials’ panel production was not so much its divergence from chipmaking but the fact that all of the major factories equipped with the company’s panel-making machines are on foreign soil, close to the markets where demand for the product is greatest: Germany (which has five plants), China (four), and Spain, India, Italy, Taiwan, and Abu Dhabi (one each).

“The reason that all these other countries are building solar-panel industries today,” Friedman says, “is because most of their governments have put in place the three prerequisites for growing a renewable energy industry: 1) any business or homeowner can generate solar energy; 2) if they decide to do so, the power utility has to connect them to the grid; and 3) the utility has to buy the power for a predictable period at a price that is a no-brainer good deal for the family or business putting the solar panels on their rooftop.” (The latter prerequisite is familiar to GBA readers as a system of “feed-in” tariffs.)

A missed opportunity

Friedman goes on to criticize a lack of regulatory certainty in the U.S. that he says would, far more extensively than existing subsidy programs, encourage homeowners, commercial property owners, and businesses to invest in PV installations. Of course, if you like relying on imported petroleum or are politically predisposed to dislike green initiatives, he says, stick with what you’ve got.

“If you read some of the anti-green commentary today, you’ll often see sneering references to ‘green jobs.’ The phrase is usually in quotation marks as if it is some kind of liberal fantasy or closet welfare program (and as if coal, oil and nuclear don’t get all kinds of subsidies). Nonsense. In 2008, more silicon was consumed globally making solar panels than microchips,” Friedman notes, citing data supplied by Applied Materials CEO Mike Splinter.

“We are seeing the industrialization of the solar business,” Splinter told Friedman. “In the last 12 months, it has brought us $1.3 billion in revenues. It is hard to build a billion-dollar business.”

Would folks like Kerpen regard growth of solar-panel production in the U.S. with the same suspicion he regards weatherization jobs? It might be a good while before we find out, considering the pace of domestic manufacturing growth in that sector.

But it is a huge mistake to dismiss Kerpen’s potential influence when he demonizes green-jobs programs of any sort. A lot of people take the trouble to research issues, analyze them, and articulate their concerns about government policy – be it the bailout, the stimulus bill, health care legislation, or any other important initiative – with substantive discussion. But far too many others take in every political rant and screed on the Internet and cable TV, and then swallow them whole.


  1. Steve Fortuna | | #1

    Paranoia for the fun of it
    Hard to believe anyone at a "Green" publication would quote anyone from Americans for Prosperity, who are exclusively funded by the same Big Oil and Coal (Exxon & Koch family) interests as the 'climate change deniers and rabid ant health care reform crowd.

    Oh heavens (Gasp!) some ARRA money may wind up in the hands of union members? You think every electrician and pipefitter and plumber with a union card is a terrorist or something? This fear-mongering and kvetching about someone who is not you making a fair wage for fair work has got to stop. You're talking about hard working people with families, some unemployed for months, on the verge of losing homes and hope, and this stimulus represents their best and final chance of staying in the middle class. Look around you Maybe writing blogs fanning class warfare pays you really well, but many of your neighbors are struggling regardless of what kinds of cards are in their wallets. A lot of union guys are pretty right-wing NRA members

    I recently wrote a $2M grant request for ARRA renewable energy money. If I get the award, I'll hire 25 people and will be happy to pay Davis-Bacon wages. I'm in a right to work state, so probably not one of them will be in a union, but I'd be happy to pay it and their families would be happy to earn it. Energy stimulus money is no more a boon to the left than our national defense budget is a boon to the right. Get a life and show some compassion for the vanishing middle class pal. Millions of folks would rather be welding together wind turbines than serving up fries to know-it-all bloviators like you.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Evidently the subtleties were lost in translation
    I think your concern is premature. If you read Richard's opinion piece more carefully, you'll understand that he is responding to views expressed in "political rant[s] and screed[s]."

    It's important for those of us who support the use of stimulus money to fund weatherization projects to be aware of the extreme views being arrayed against green jobs programs, and to arm ourselves with cogent arguments in order to respond rationally. That's how I read Richard's intent.

  3. GBA Editor
    Richard Defendorf | | #3

    I hope the discussion continues
    Martin Holladay is correct. My citing of comments by Phil Kerpen is most definitely not an endorsement of his views, and certainly not an endorsement of Americans for Prosperity. The blog is intended to show how Kerpen’s comments fare under rational interpretation and factual analysis. I also tried to point out what a lot of political observers and media types have been noting of late: it’s probably not a good thing that many of us (myself included) often discount the effects of politically charged commentary from the far right or left. We tend to write it off as the product of politically polarized crazies or radio and cable entertainers whose primary interest is boosting their ratings. The reality, though, is that a lot of this stuff is not only nutty and/or nefariously misleading, it is dangerously well received by a lot of people. The radio and cable ratings are evidence of that.

  4. gcastillo5665 | | #4

    How it Should Be
    Even though I'm old enough to understand how our society really works, it still saddens me deeply that our elected officials can't just stand up to their powerful campaign contributors to effect the change that needs to be made in order to make our country great again. By leading the way into this new and complicated century, the ideal that America can be that "guiding light" that illuminates the rest of the world on environmental and economic issues should be more than just beautifully written words in a presidential speech. What do we gain by having the super rich become richer... If they're allowed to continue to pollute and bankrupt the country than what will we have left? All these issues aren't about Republicans vs Democrats or the rich vs. the poor. We're all in this together, and until we realize that we'll continue down the dire path that we're currently on...

  5. Patrick White | | #5

    Fundamental Values and Bare Facts
    Whenever those who wrap themselves in our nation's flag claim it affords them the "insulation" (political or otherwise) to protect us all from others, we ought to immediately suspect that what truly lies beneath are the Emperor's New Clothes-

  6. Paul Lesieur | | #6

    Stick em up, I've got a caulking gun.
    I'm not a green builder but I am a builder and also the founder of Remodel Crazy Forum and Blog.
    Why is it always politics with you guys. There would be a lot more people interested in green build and creating jobs if the inane I'm right and they are wrong positions were softened to include an equitable exchange.

    I'm a carpenter who ended up a business owner who now would love to promote education to small contractors who would welcome learning new things, but it always seems to boil down to scholastic discourses.

    Millions of people don't care because they don't understand what everyone is yakking about.

Log in or create an account to post a comment.



Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |