The good news is that neither the House nor the Senate version of President Obama’s $825 billion so-called economic stimulus package opens the sluicegate of federal slush-funding for higher-education construction projects as wide as many college presidents would like.
Back in December some 31 university presidents and trustees, representing some of the biggest public university systems in America, published a two-page “open letter” to Obama, paid for by the Carnegie Corp. of New York, grandiosely asserting that, say, $40 to $50 billion in stimulus dollars funneled their way to build new classrooms and student centers would be just what America needs to “propel the nation forward in resolving its current economic crisis and lay the groundwork for international economic competitiveness and the well-being of American families into the future.” Congress and the Obama Administration turned out to be not quite so enthusiastic about the proposed taxpayer-financed building spree as the college administrators were. The House Appropriation and Ways and Means committees’ version of the stimulus would allot a mere $8.7 billion to public and private colleges for “infrastructure support,” as it is called, while a summary of the Senate Appropriations and Finance committees’ version (the bill’s full text has not yet been officially released) looks stingier still, providing for only $3.5 billion for college infrastructure, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Furthermore, very little of the money under either bill could be spent on new construction. The bill specifies that the federal funding go for renovating and repairing existing structures.
It is hard to see how billing the federal government for performing what is essentially basic periodic maintenance (upgrading the heating system in a dorm, for example) would do much to “propel the nation forward,” which brings us to the bad news: that a major portion of the spending in both bills must be on so-called “green” technology. “Energy efficiency” is the watchword.
As Ben Lieberman, economic and environmental analyst for the Heritage Foundation, writes, it’s bad enough that massive government spending doesn’t really stimulate gains in economic productivity but simply redistributes purchasing power from one set of taxpayer to another (after deducting a bite from the bureaucratic middlemen), but a “green stimulus” would be downright counterproductive economically. That’s because, as Lieberman explained, “[t]he environmental movement itself is, by design, anti-growth. After all, these are the individuals and organizations that regularly fight to stop new factories, power plants, and construction projects. For them, environmental concerns, real or exaggerated, almost always trump economic ones, and it is rare for them to be lacking an excuse to oppose a project….The environmental movement’s many successes in imposing this agenda has for decades been a drag on the economy and a net destroyer of jobs, especially high-wage blue-collar jobs in such areas as manufacturing and energy production.”
As might be expected, colleges are already gearing up “shovel-ready” green projects in order to qualify for the federal boodle. W. Richard Merriman, president of Southwestern College in Kansas, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he had sent his facilities manager around the campus to come up with a list of to-do items ranging from replacing drafty windows to installing wind turbines. Anything dealing with wind is a favorite of the clean-energy crowd, but as Lieberman writes, “If renewables like wind and solar energy or biofuels were economically competitive, they would already be in growing use without federal subsidies. The fact that they currently enjoy many government handouts and apparently need even more from the stimulus package is a red flag that they cost too much.”
So if Obama’s green-loaded stimulus package passes and America’s colleges get their $8.7 billion or even their $3.5 billion, not only would the funds be unlikely to produce any economic growth, but they would probably produce exactly the opposite, burdening taxpayers and students with the added expense of needlessly costly construction whose only benefit is to make green enthusiasts feel good.