Books I liked in 2014

For my last blog post of the year, I’d like to share with you some of the books that I enjoyed reading in 2014. I made a conscious effort this year to do less work-related reading, which isn’t always easy — so many books about business, sustainability and the environment come my way from publishers and authors — but I’m glad I did.

imageMy favorite nonfiction book of the year was The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, by Jeff Hobbs. It’s the story of an extraordinary young man named Rob Peace, who grew up in a poor, violent, drug-addled suburb of Newark but managed to escaped–temporarily–in part because he was blessed with devoted parents. His father, known as Skeet, was a street hustler who spent the final years of his life in jail, convicted of murder, yet managed to teach Rob both perfect penmanship and the dirty street-fighting tactics to deploy in a tight spot. His mother Jackie had little education and not  enough money, at one point, to pay a few hundred dollars a year of tuition to keep Rob in a Catholic elementary school where he was thriving, but she instilled in him a sense that he was destined to do great things. He was, in fact, not only brainy but tough and possessed of an insatiable curiosity and lifelong quest for new experience that  carried him, not just to Yale, where he majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, but to Ipanema beach in Rio (after teaching himself Portugese) and Croatia, with a high school buddy–trips that he was able to afford after taking a job as a baggage handler at Continental Airlines because the perks included free standby travel. Rob also provided for himself and helped support his mother and grandparents by dealing marijuana, in copious quantities, to his priviliged classmates at Yale.

Rob’s freshman year roommate was as aspring novelist named Jeff Hobbs, a well-to-do son  of a doctor whose father, brother and sister were all Yale grads. Rob and Jeff, who Rob mockingly calls “Da Jeffrey.” become unlikely and close friends who live together throughout their time at Yale and, while Hobbs remains mostly in the background,  his connection to Rob Peace, and admiration for him, lends this book a deeply-felt emotion. Hobbs also turns out to be a dogged reporter who reconstructs Rob’s life before and after Yale in vivid and mesmerizing detail.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, my favorite novel of the year, is alsoimage about race, class, privilege and identity. It’s the coming of age story of a spirited young girl from Nigeria named Ifemelu, who comes to New York on a student visa and, after stints as a nanny and worse, finds fame as a blogger. Her blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, and it’s hilarious. (She writes a lot about hair.) Eventually, Ifemelu makes her way back to Nigeria where she re-encounters her teenage boyfriend, Obinze, who has made his fortune in England. The book, which pushes 500 pages, sprawls a bit but it is never dull, and Adiche is a shrewd observer of human foibles.

Like many of us baby boomers, especially those with aging parents, I’ve been thinking a lot this year about growing old. I read two terrific, but very different, books on the topic. Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and a staff writer for The New Yorker, makes a compelling case that the America’s health care system has valued longevity above all else, without much consideration of the question of how we want to pass our final years. That makes it sound like a treatise and it’s not; it’s a series of stories about people growing old, including not only Gawande’s patients but his father. Equally moving is Roz Chast’s laugh-out-loud and cry-to-yourself graphic novel, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir, about what happens to her parents (and to her) when they are no longer able to live in the Brooklyn apartment they had inhabited for nearly half a century.

I’ve always been attracted to books that explain complex, arcane, even obscure subjects in entertaining ways. Michael Lewis and Elizabeth Kolbert are willing to bring their gifts for storytelling to the toughest of subjects, so I’ll read just about anything they write. Lewis’s Flash Boys is an unexpectedly lively book about high-speed trading on Wall Street, of all things. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert travels far and wide, from Costa Rica and Paris to the Great Barrier Reef, to show us how we are on a path to destroying fully half of the world’s species this century. It’s not as grim as it sounds, perhaps because she brings a wry sense of humor to science writing.

There’s been an explosion of smart journalism about food lately that has brought forth a number of excellent books, two of them written journalist colleagues and friends. In American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, Paul Greenberg explores the roots of the US’s seafood deficit, and argues that we should buy more fish that are caught (or farmed) nearby. Sam Fromartz, a Washington, DC-based writer and a skilled baker, travels across the US and Europe — baking baguettes in Paris, rye bread in Berlin and sourdough in California–to bring us In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Baker’s Odyssey. Sam’s book will inspire you to try baking. I haven’t done so yet, but maybe next year.

Other books that I enjoyed this year:

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Does spending time with groups of people invigorate you–or deplete you? If it’s the latter (as it is with me), you must read this book.

The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, by Megan McArdle. The columnist and blogger argues that one of the secrets of America’s success is that we don’t hold it against people when they screw up.

All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai. A New York Times writer’s account of the collapse of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign is fresher and more relevant to today’s world of journalism and entertainment than you might expect.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts. A moral philosopher as well as an economist, Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments to guide people on how to live, as Roberts explains in this reader-friendly volume.

Vietnam, Now by David Lamb. A Los Angeles Time reporter who covered the war in the 1960s returns in the late 1990s to see what has changed, as capitalism arrives in Vietnam. I read this to prepare for my holiday trip to Vietnam and, in fact, I am posting this blogpost from Hanoi–a sentence that certainly could not have been written 10 or 15 years ago. Vietnam was part of my adolescence. I opposed and protested the war during high school (where my anti-war speech on graduation day drew catcalls) and I’m excited to be visiting this vibrant  nation of 90 million people for the first time. One thing I can tell you already–Vietnam is more peaceful and prosperous than at any time in its history, and that can be said about a surprising number of places in the world today. The world has its troubles, to be sure, but for all its woes, tomorrow is likely to be better than today, and next year is likely to better than this. And that’s one reason to look forward to 2015.

Enjoy the holidays and happy new year.

Robert Rubin, crony capitalism and an argument for a populist, pro-market agenda

No one embodies the dangers of crony capitalism more than Robert Rubin. I was reminded of this when reading a provocative new book called A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing The Lost Genius of American Prosperity by an economist named Luigi Zingales. It’s an excellent read, a populist screed that will resonate with Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party and anyone who worries that corporate power is deployed in Washington to benefit the well-to-do at the expense of most everyone else.

Rubin’s story illustrates the trouble with the unholy alliance of big business, big government and wealthy elites that rule today’s Washington. Few who travel the Amtrak corridor have a more elite pedigree: An Eagle Scout, Robin’s resume includes a Harvard B.A., a Yale Law degree, a brief stint as a Wall Street lawyer, a top job at Goldman Sachs, seven years in Washington as an economic advisor and Treasury Secretary to President Clinton, followed by a triumphant return to Wall Street, as a director and chair of the executive committee at Citigroup.

As Zingales tells the story, Rubin during his years in Washington was a leading advocate for financial bailouts, beginning in 1994 when the collapse of the peso jeopardized Mexico’s ability to repay big lenders including Goldman and Citi. Mexico avoided default but, as Zingales writes, “this move eliminated fear among lenders, and fear is an essential element in financial markets: it disciplines financial decisions.” To function properly, market capitalism needs to be about losses as well as gains, a lesson any investment banker should understand. But Rubin went on to support IMF bailouts for Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia and Brazil, each of which shielded US lenders from losses–emboldening them to take future risks as they came to believe, correctly, that governments would not permit them to take heavy losses. Here were the beginnings of “too big to fail.”

Zingales has a nice analogy about bailouts, comparing them to grandparents who spoil their grandkids when they parents want to discipline them:

Grandparents have an incentive to spoil their grandchildren, since they benefit from the grandchildren’s gratitude and from the momentary peace–but they are unlikely to suffer the long-term consequences of the kids’ bad behavior (partly because they aren’t around as much, and partly because they die sooner). In much the same way, policy makers are happy to bail out firms and countries because they benefit from the momentary improvement in the economy and from the gratitude of saved business–but they’re unlikely to suffer the long-term consequences because they will be out of office by the time the perverse results occur.

Meantime, Rubin opposed other efforts to rein in the banks. Along with Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers, Rubin beat back efforts by Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to regulate the over-the-counter derivatives, including the credit default swaps that later contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. Rubin and Summers also argued successfully for the repeal of the Glass-Steagal rules that for the most part prohibited banks that held government-insured deposits from engaging in risky and speculative investments.

His work done, Rubin exited the government for Citigroup from which he earned $126 million during the 2000s. During the 2008 financial crisis, Citi was favored with a $25 billion infusion of equity under TARP, $20 billion of equity from the Treasury and another $306 billion more in government guarantees of its so-called toxic assets. Citi never sleeps, the slogan goes, but its directors, including Rubin, evidently did, as the Wall Street Journal noted. Or at least he slept until the time came to seek a rescue from Washington.

In another land–one where the press was more aggressive, and power brokers like Rubin were held accountable for the damage they help to cause–this set of actions might send a man into hiding, or at least retirement. Not so here–he remains a respected voice in Washington and a Harvard trustee. Indeed, Rubin has now earned honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Penn and Columbia, fully half of the schools in the Ivy League. (Why Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown and Cornell have passed him over, so far, is anybody’s guess.)

I write this not to single out Rubin, who quite probably believed he was doing the right thing, as did his successors at Treasury, Hank Paulson (who I wrote about in 2008 and came to respect back) and Timothy Geithner. But, as Zingales argues, many of us who believe that capitalism and robust markets and  competition can be powerful forces for good have become complacent about the dangers of well-meaning but corrupt elites who have rigged the system for their own benefit — with corporate bailouts, vast expenditures on lobbying (a staggering $3.3 billion in 2011), regulations that protect entrenched interests, tax policy that favors the rich, the ever popular “public-private partnerships” that transfer wealth from public coffers to private owners and an ever-expanding array of market-distorting subsidies for farmers, manufacturers, automakers, oil and coal companies and, yes, the wind and solar power industries, too. [click to continue…]

China, cappuccino and cell phones: reasons to cheer!

Let’s start the new year on an upbeat note:

When we focus on the day’s headlines, or get caught up in the petty frustrations of everyday life, it’s easy to overlook how dramatically the world has changed for the better in the last decade or two.

We get frustrated when a call gets dropped on the cell phone, forgetting that mobile phones were a luxury until the mid-1990s. I got my first phone–no texting! no photos! no maps! no web access!–in 2001.

We don’t like to wait in line for cappuccino, forgetting that few Americans had the chance to enjoy such brews until recently.  Hard as it may to believe, there were a mere 165 Starbucks’ stores in this great land of ours when the company went public in 1992. Today, there are more than 11,000. We forget, too, the magic that goes into the making of a cappuccino.

More importantly, we worry–as well we should–about the state of the U.S. economy, but we overlook the happier news that about half a billion people have emerged from poverty in China since 1990. Well, that’s China, you says, but even here in the U.S. — despite legitimate concerns about income inequality and declining social mobility — Americans are demonstrably wealthier, healthier and more free than we were at any time in our history.

Declinism–the idea that things are getting worse–has a long history, and it remains fashionable on the left and on the right.

But if history is any guide, and it is, there’s overwhelming evidence that life on this planet, and in this country, is, in the words of Lennon & McCartney, “getting better all the time.”

I’m feeling unfashionably upbeat at the moment because I’ve been reading The Rational Optimist (Harper Collins, $26.99) by Matt Ridley, a sweeping history that attempts to explain how prosperity evolves.  The book is controversial, especially around the issue of climate–here’s an attack by George Monbiot, and Ridley’s response–but its core argument is persuasive: That prosperity is driven by man’s unique ability to trade, specialize and innovate. (“The propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another” is the way Adam Smith put it.) Ridley’s claim that the world is richer, healthier and kinder seems to me to be unassailable, based as it is on both statistical and anecdotal evidence:

Ridley writes:

In 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer….She was more likely to be literate and to have finished school. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a bicycle. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is, by any standard, an astonishing human achievement.

They had it right: It is getting better all the time.

He goes on to say:

The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going rapidly upwards for 200 years and erratically upwards for 10,000 years before that: years of lifespan, mouthfuls of clean water, lungfuls of clean air, hours of privacy, means of travelling faster than you can run, ways of communicating farther than you can shout. This generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light years, nanometres, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles and, of course, cash than any that went before. They have more Velcro, vaccines, vitamins, shoes, singers, soap operas, mango slicers, sexual partners, tennis rackets, guided missiles and anything else they could even imagine needing.

Ridley’s book is an intellectually ambitious, touring 10,000 years of human history and building upon the insights of Smith and Charles Darwin. (The prologue is called “when ideas have sex.”) How prosperity evolves is through trade–simply put, the idea that people are always working for one another, whether they know it or not. Trade is among the most boring of journalistic topics, but if you set aside the back-and-forth about negotiations with Columbia or Korea, it is a marvelous thing. [click to continue…]

American deadbeats

Some years ago, we decided to cover up a small indoor swimming pool (don’t ask) in our home in Bethesda, Md., and turn it into a sunroom. The cost was about $25,000 and, although I tend to be averse to debt, we applied for a home equity loan to pay for the renovation. We had, by my reckoning, a couple of hundred thousand dollars of equity in the house,  perhaps a bit more. So we asked Bank of America, our mortgage holder, for a home equity line of credit for $25,000.

No problem, said the banker who called me back. We’re giving you $250,000. Assuming that an extra zero had been added to the loan amount by mistake, I told him we’d asked for $25,000. Yes, the banker said, but we’ve qualified you for $250,000, and so the line of credit will be $250,000. You’re under no obligation to use it, he added, unnecessarily.

Is this predatory lending? Carelessness? Rational behavior? Or some mix of all three?

Regardless, we know now that banks across the country were acting the same way–throwing money at some people (like us) who didn’t want it and at others who would soon prove unable to pay it back. I’ve read and thought a lot about how and why this happened; my three favorite accounts are Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, the radio broadcast The Giant Pool of Money by Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson, of NPR’s Planet Money fame and a paper and podcast from economist Russ Roberts of EconTalk called “Gambling with Other People’s Money: How Perverted Incentives Created the Financial Crisis. All are eye-opening and fascinating–I kid you not.

The housing meltdown is, needless to say, still with us today. It’s the single biggest reason why millions of Americans are unemployed, people aren’t spending and the economy remains choppy, at best. It’s also a cause of what, at the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy, looks to me like an erosion of moral values, as many thousands of borrowers simply refuse to pay what they owe.

Under the headline Debts Rise and Go Unpaid, as Bust Erodes Home Equity, The Times reports today that delinquency rates on home equity loans are soaring, in part because people choose not to pay them back: [click to continue…]

Black swans, an oil spill, hubris and debt

Black_swan_family_2If there is one thing we can learn from the headlines of the past week or so – Market Plunge Baffles Wall Street, Size of Spill in Gulf of Mexico is Larger Than Thought, ‘Amateurish’ Bomb Defused in Times Square—it is that we cannot reliably forecast the future, that the world is bound to surprise us, frequently in unpleasant ways, and that, as the poet Robert Burns wrote, the best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry.

Shit, as they say, happens.

And yet we keep on devising those well-laid schemes, don’t we? We extrapolate the future based on the past. We imagine that we can make useful economic forecasts (because now we have more data than we did before). We imagine that regulation will protect use from the meltdowns of markets (as well as off-shore oil drilling platforms and nuclear power plants). We imagine that the Department of Energy can lead us to a clean energy future, or that scientists can make geo-engineering safe. We imagine that we understand things better than we do. And we forget the words of that other poet, John Lennon, who wrote that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

So the timing is excellent for this week’s updated version of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which includes a new essay called “On Robustness and Fragility.”  I’ve haven’t read the essay yet, but Taleb discussed the book and much more with my friend Russ Roberts, the Hayekian economics professor, at EconTalk. Their 67-minute conversation is never dull. [click to continue…]

Faith-based economics

Did the stimulus package jump-start the economy? Will climate regulation create jobs? Are clean energy subsidies an efficient way to curb pollution? Is health-care spending worth it? And how worried, really, should we be about budget deficits?

Those are questions for economists. With those issues in the news, economists are in demand. They’re quoted in the press, invited to conferences, even sought out at cocktail parties. But what, really, do they have to tell us?

Russ Roberts
Russ Roberts

“It’s a very funny time to be an economist,” says Russ Roberts, an economics professor at George Mason University and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “Our reputation isn’t very good. Probably shouldn’t be very good. We didn’t predict the recession. We don’t have a theory on how to get out. Yet people ask us for guidance. It’s bizarre.”

Russ is an unusual economist because he spends a good deal of time trying to explain his trade to a broad public. He hosts an excellent weekly podcast called EconTalk. He has written “an economic romance” called The Invisible Heart. He blogs at Café Hayek and, most recently, produced a rap video showdown between Frederick A. Hayek and John Maynard Keynes that has amassed an astonishing 500,000 (!!!) views on YouTube.

But when Russ spoke the other day during a  day-long media colloquium at Hoover, where he was joined by John Taylor and Robert Hall, who are distinguished Stanford economists, he titled his talk: “Is Economics a Progressive Discipline?”

By progressive, he didn’t mean left of center. (Not at Hoover!) Instead, he was asking whether economics, like physics, evolves, to develop deeper or more precise knowledge about how the world works. “Do we make any progress?” he asked. His answer, in sum, was not much. Unlike physicists or mathematicians (or even, I daresay, climate scientists), economists today can’t agree on what would seem to be very fundamental questions. [click to continue…]

Rappin’ economists: Keynes v. Hayek

Here’s a treat for those of you, like me, who are interested in economic theory. (I know, I’m a bit of a geek.) My favorite economics teacher, Russ Roberts, who’s at George Mason U. and the Hoover Institution, has put together a rap video with a Spike TV producer named John Papola that, believe it or not, illustrates the debate between free-market economist F.A. Hayek and macro-economist John Maynard Keynes. You may have heard about it on Planet Money or NPR’s All Things Considered. Russ is a multi-media threat–he’s written a “economic romance” novel called The Invisible Heart, he hosts a terrific podcast called EconTalk and now he’s branched into video. Last time I looked, some 250,000 people had watched this on YouTube. Enjoy!

Obama’s dumb $8-billion car loans

Yesterday I blogged about economist Steve Fazzari and his arguments on behalf of the Obama administration’s $8 billion in loans to automakers Ford, Nissan and Tesla to make electric and fuel-efficient cars. Today, an opposing view comes from Russ Roberts, a libertarian economist who is a professor at George Mason University, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, the host of the excellent podcast EconTalk and a blogger at

Steve, Russ and I spent time together recently at a retreat for journalists and economists organized by the Murray Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.  What struck me was how smart, thoughtful economists can see the world so differently. If you’d like to delve further into these issues, you can listen to my podcasts with Steve and Russ at The Energy Collective, or listen to an in-depth conversation about Keynesian economics between Russ and Steve here at EconTalk. A correction to my podcast: Although I say that the administration is giving loan guarantees to the automakers, the government in fact is making low-interest loans directly to Ford, Nissan and Tesla—a concept that Russ finds troubling, and not just because Tesla builds $100,000 sports cars for millionaires.

Tesla roadster
Tesla roadster

The economy’s a mess, Russ Roberts says, in part because the government promoted cheap credit and fueled a housing bubble. The Fed kept interest rates too low for too long, while government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac poured money into risky mortgages. So, he goes on, “it’s kind of ironic that, as we try to cope with that mess, we continue with the same fundamental idea–let’s try to artificially alter the rate at which people can borrow so they can do more of what appear to be good things.”

“In the past, it was home ownership,” he says. “Now it’s manufacturing and green technology.”

[click to continue…]

Obama’s smart $8-billion jolt for electric cars

I’m trying something different this week on the blog, in part because I’m on vacation. Recently, I had the great pleasure of attending a retreat for journalists organized by the Murray Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis. The event was held on Cape Cod, at the lovely Wianno Club in Osterville, Mass., and while time was set aside for golf, tennis or sightseeing, we engaged in a lot of  learning, discussion and debate with economists and political scientists from the Weidenbaum Center and elsewhere.

I spent time there with a bunch of smart, interesting and lively people, including two economists, Steven Fazzari, who teaches at Wash U.,  and Russ Roberts, who teaches at George Mason and hosts one of my favorite podcasts, EconTalk. Steve is a Keynesian and Russ is a libertarian, so I thought it would he interesting to talk to them about the Obama administration’s aggressive efforts to promote clean energy and create green jobs. We discussed the U.S. Department of Energy’s recent decision to make $8 billion in loans to Ford, Nissan and Tesla “for the development of innovative, advanced vehicle technologies that will create thousands of green jobs while helping reduce the nation’s dangerous dependence on foreign oil.”

Today’s blogpost explains why Steve Fazzari thinks this is a good idea. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Russ, is pretty sure that it isn’t.

Cape Cod sky photographed by Russ Roberts

Ask Steve Fazzari what he thinks about the government loan program for electric and fuel-efficient cars, and he says:

[click to continue…]

The phony green jobs debate

As the battle over climate change legislation heats up, several Big Green groups–the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club–are rolling out TV and Internet ads designed to persuade voters that regulating greenhouse gas emissions will create green jobs. David Yarnold, the president of EDF’s Action Fund, sums up the message in an email: “Carbon Caps = Hard Hats.” Clever. Here’s an ad from EDF’s campaign, launched in partnership with the United Steelworkers union and the Blue Green alliance, a group of enviromental groups and unions.
Think of this ad, and the one below, as the “Harry and Louise” ads of the campaign to pass global warming legislation. You remember Harry and Louise, right? They were the couple who turned a devilishly complicated issue, health care reform, into a soundbite (“If we let the government choose, we lose”) and helped kill the 1994 Clinton health plan. These ads take what may be an even more devilishly complicated issue, climate change regulation, and use images of brawny construction workers to turn it into an even shorter soundbite: “Green jobs.” Take a look at this spot from The Blue Green Alliance:

Maybe I missed it, but did you hear an environmental message in either of those ads?

Of course, there’s research to support the claims about green jobs. In the interests of full disclosure, I need to say here that I’ve been doing some freelance work for EDF and NRDC—organizations I admire a great deal. But these claims about green jobs deserve greater scrutiny.

Last June, for example, the Blue Green Alliance, Sierra Club, NRDC and the steelworkers issued a green jobs report from the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. It said:

…millions of U.S. workers—across a wide range of familiar occupations, states, and income and skill levels—will benefit from the project of defeating global warming and transforming the United States into a green economy.

A second report from PERI, issued last September under the auspices of the Center for American Progress, got more granular. In my home state of Maryland, for example, the authors project that a $100 billion green economic recovery program would create 36,739 jobs. They would be created in such industries as building retrofitting, mass transit and freight rail, smart grid, wind power, solar power and advanced biofuels.

It sounds great, doesn’t it?

Not according to the four lawyers and economists who produced “7 Myths About Green Jobs,” a 97-page report published by the University of Illinois College of Law.  They argue that “the green jobs literature is rife with internal contradictions, vague terminology, dubious science, and ignorance of basic economic principles.” Studies by conservative think tanks go further, claiming that climate legislation will destroy millions of jobs. A 2008 Heritage Foundation study claimed that passage of last year’s Lieberman-Warner bill would create “extraordinary perils for the American economy” and cause annual job losses of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 after a few years of job gains. (This report was pretty thoroughly discredited by NRDC.) The best thing I’ve read about this debate (and one of the most balanced) is this fine Slate article by Eric Pooley, my former editor at FORTUNE, who finds that there’s an emerging economic consensus that the costs of dealing with climate change are significant but manageable–and that given the risks, those costs are likely worth paying.

My point here is not that economists disagree. My point is that the climate change debate shouldn’t be about green jobs. It’s intellectually dishonest to pretend that we can forecast, with any degree of accuracy, the impact of a complicated government policy on a dynamic global economy decades into the future. Both sides know that their projections are based on a host of assumptions which may or may not come true. What if we decide as a nation to turn to nuclear energy as a source of low-carbon power? That probably won’t create many long-term jobs. What if there’s a breakthrough in the solar PV business in China? That may not bring green jobs here. Are farmers who grow corn for ethanol doing green jobs? That hasn’t turned out so well.

Let’s get real: We can’t predict oil prices 12 months out. Last spring, virtually no one anticipated the global financial crisis of last fall. And we are projecting the number of green jobs that will be created or lost on a state-by-state basis by a law that won’t take effect until 2012? Who are we kidding?

I called Russ Roberts, an economist at George Mason University who hosts the fine EconTalk podcast, for some guidance on how to think about green jobs and the economics of climate regulation.  “Creating green jobs is easy,” he told me. “We could employ millions of people picking up litter, and we could make them very good-paying jobs if we want. But of course that would make us poorer as a nation. There’s a cost to providing those jobs that would have to be borne by other people in the economy.”

It’s not just the cost of higher taxes that needs to be factored into the equation, he noted. To the degree that the government makes policy that favors, say, vast construction of wind turbines throughout the upper Midwest, the people doing those jobs will be drawn from somewhere else, maybe even from more productive work. If policy leads to the hiring of  thousands of contractors to do energy efficiency, the cost of building a new home or renovating your basement may go up because many of the good construction workers are busy.

“As voters and citizens and readers, what we want to think about is the big picture—are we moving in the right direction when it comes to environmental policy?” Roberts says. Put another way, are we spending enough money today to head off the threat of global warming in the future? Because if anyone tells you that we can deal with climate change at no cost, they probably shouldn’t be trusted.

Maybe that’s what bothers me about the green jobs ads. They’re like political campaign ads. They promise something for nothing. They treat the voters like children. They’re emotional and not educational. And they’re not helping to build a movement around climate change.

Other than that, they’re fine.

And I do hope they work.