Book Review: The New New Deal Finds that “Weatherization Works”

This is personal. When I heard reports about rampant waste and abuse in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that turned out to be false, I thought of all the people I know who worked tirelessly to meet one goal of ARRA—to weatherize 600,000 homes before March, 2012—and it made me very angry. The men and women of the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) met and exceeded that goal, with minimum fraud, abuse, and waste. In fact, they reached 1-million homes weatherized with money from ARRA as of September 30, 2012. According to federal auditors, the amount of waste out of the approximately $800-billion effort to stimulate the economy was about $7.2-million, an amazing 0.001% of the total. Can any organization in government or the private sector claim that kind of record?

And because of ARRA, those 1 million weatherized households are saving $400 a year on energy costs.

When I picked up and read Michael Grunwald’s book The New New Deal my anger turned to pride at being a very small part of the weatherization efforts. (Home Energy magazine exists to provide practical and useful information to those working to make homes energy efficient, affordable, healthy, and comfortable.) I was also pleased that a well-known and respected journalist with a national audience took a long sober look at ARRA and found it to be more successful than anyone believed at 1) stimulating the economy and 2) creating a path and taking the first steps on that path to a sustainable economy. Whether or not we will continue on that path, or return to the status quo depends on the outcome of next Tuesday’s election.

Book Review: The New New Deal Finds that “Weatherization Works”

The Do-Nothing Congress

Grunwald interviewed dozens of public and private sector experts and authorities in preparation for writing his book, including Office of Management and Budget Watch director Gary Bass. Bass is quoted from Governing magazine: “The stimulus has done more to promote transparency at almost all levels of government than any piece of legislation in recent memory.” The responses of the some Congressional leaders to ARRA told a different story.

“If he was for it,” explains former Republican senator George Voinovich of Ohio, “we had to be against it.”

“A lot of Republicans thought the stimulus was necessary,” [Senator Arlan] Specter says. “They just wanted it to pass without their fingerprints. It was all so partisan. You had the sentiment: ‘We’re going to break Obama.’”

The right-wing media also chimed in and sometimes got personal. When John Stossel appeared on Glenn Beck’s show, he made a startling claim. “We found that the head of the weatherization department of the Department of Energy is sleeping with the vice president of policy for the company!” The company Stossel was speaking about is efficient window manufacturer Serious Windows, which got some green tax credits, like other window manufacturers, but produces windows that are just too expensive for the Weatherization Program.

Cathy Zoi, the head of DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which includes Weatherization, was sleeping with an executive of Serious Materials—because she was married to him. And Zoi wasn’t with DOE when Serious Windows was recognized by the Obama administration.

There are many other examples in the book that may make your blood boil. It did mine.

What a Nightmare

The book does not glaze over the problems with Weatherization’s efforts during the ramp up from weatherizing 30,000 homes a year to 30,000 per month. One section in The New New Deal is titled “What a Nightmare.” The ramp up was slow at first and rife with problems. It took months to resolve the issue of pay for weatherization workers when the Department of Labor decided that these workers would be subject to the Davis-Bacon laws, which requires workers on projects receiving government funds be paid the local prevailing wage. But prevailing wage for who? Construction workers? Laborers? And the Weatherization bureaucracy at DOE, after nearly a decade of neglect by the Bush Administration, had become rigid and needed some serious shaking up. Top people in the government and at DOE were calling the Weatherization and Intergovernmental Program the Turkey Farm.

In an e-mail conversation with the author, I asked him why he was so hard on the Weatherization Program. Grunwald wrote me back, “The main point of the weatherization story was that with better leadership the so-called Turkey Farm got the job done.” Fair enough. And I was peeved at President Obama, for not speaking up about the success of the ARRA efforts, including Weatherization. I asked Grunwald why he thought Obama had not mentioned the word “weatherization” in public since 2009. “Well, his administration has said the word. DOE is pretty proud of getting 1-million homes weatherized. I think in general the president has been reluctant to talk about ‘the stimulus,’ because it became so politically toxic, but I don't think he’s got anything against weatherization in particular. He just moved on to other issues after the stimulus—the auto bailout, health care, Wall Street reform, etc.” Again, fair enough.

Read It!

The New New Deal covers much more than the Weatherization Program. It gave me a sense that I was in the room when the ARRA legislation was being prepared and debated, and after reading it I know more about the personalities of the decision-makers, both the heroes and the villains. I learned every other word out of the mouth of Rahm Emanual, Obama’s former Chief of Staff, is the f-word. And Joe Biden is kind of a quirky but likeable guy, who was passionate about ARRA and lead the effort out of the White House, and that he likes to say “literally,” a lot—literally.

If you can, try to pick up the book and read it this weekend. It may influence how you vote next Tuesday.

- Jim Gunshinan

This article originally appeared on HomeEnergy.org.

THE NEW NEW DEAL by Michael Grunwald, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012 is available here.

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Comment by Jim Gunshinan on November 5, 2012 at 11:37am

Hi Robert. I suspect you may be right, but I'm operating under the assumption that you aren't.

Comment by Robert Riversong on November 5, 2012 at 11:26am

Jim,

The global growth-demanding economy is like the "unsinkable" Titanic. Turning it around doesn't change it's fate. We need to abandon ship and start building a sustainable Ark.

"The odds are no better than 50-50 that our present civilization on earth will survive to the end of the present century."

Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century – On Earth and Beyond, by Martin Rees, British cosmologist and astrophysicist, Astronomer Royal, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, past President of the Royal Society of London

Comment by Jim Gunshinan on November 5, 2012 at 10:48am

Hi Robert. The "creating a path and taking the first steps on that path to a sustainable economy," were my words, and I stick by them. To me, Obama has begun to turn the economy around, like the captain of a huge ship in the open sea. It will take years more of pushing to change the direction of our economy to a more sustainable one. That's why I think this election is crucial.

Comment by Robert Riversong on November 5, 2012 at 10:10am

First, I must say that this comes across much like the big corporations "advising" their employees how to vote in the presidential election. The election of "leader of the free world" is far too important to base on single-issue politics or one's own financial benefit.

Second, I have to take issue with Grunwald's assertion that the stimulus package is "creating a path and taking the first steps on that path to a sustainable economy". Only a tiny percentage of the total package went to "green" technologies, and it's arguable that the greening of the current economy is merely a bandaid on a fundamentally dysfunctional and environmentally-destructive system that must be radically changed to be anything close to sustainable (i.e. steady-state vs. growth oriented).

While improving the energy efficiency of 1 million homes may seem impressive, that amounts to less than 1% of the existing housing stock in America, and the jobs created have done little to bring down an unsustainable unemployment rate (which has increased in the last four years).

P.S. Don't confuse my criticism of this political pitch article for support for Obama's opponent, since I don't see either one as offering a path to sustainability. Only the Green Party and the Justice Party have platforms that would shift the values and priorities of America towards sustainability.

Comment by Greg Labbe on November 5, 2012 at 10:00am

Jim,

We're all crossing our fingers even in Canada, because "Living next to you," as Minister Pierre Trudeau told an American audience in a speech to the National Press Club in 1969, "is like sleeping with an elephant; no matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

Peace,
Greg

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