Cut waste, create jobs, save money — what's not to like?

With 14 million Americans looking for employment, former President Bill Clinton offers his suggestions for “14 ways to put America back to work.”

It’s a pretty good list. A few of these things were included in bits and patches and pieces in the original too-small Recovery Act but need to be done, as Clinton suggests, on a scale commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.

Clinton also includes one of my favorite ideas, one that Atrios has been beating the drum over for some time:

8. Paint ‘em white

Look at the tar roofs covering millions of American buildings. They absorb huge amounts of heat when it’s hot. And they require more air conditioning to cool the rooms. Mayor Bloomberg started a program to hire and train young people to paint New York’s roofs white. A big percentage of the kids have been able to parlay this simple work into higher-skilled training programs or energy-related retrofit jobs. (And, believe it or not, painting the roof white can lower the electricity use by 20 percent on a hot day!)

Every black roof in New York should be white; every roof in Chicago should be white; every roof in Little Rock should be white. Every flat tar-surface roof anywhere! In most of these places you could recover the cost of the paint and the labor in a week. It’s the quickest, cheapest thing you can do. In the current environment it’s been difficult for the mayors to get what is otherwise a piddling amount of money to do it everywhere. Yet lowering the utility bill in every apartment house 10 to 20 percent frees cash that can be spent to increase economic growth.

You may recall I wrote about this same idea earlier this month in a post offering my list of half-joking desperate attempts to address the jobs crisis (I was calling it that when I was still employed, so I figure I’m still allowed to do so). Here’s what I wrote then:

3. Urban Rooftops

We’ll start this project in 30 major cities, selected on the basis of: 1) high unemployment, and 2) high average temperature.

Commercial buildings and residential buildings over a certain size threshhold will be given two choices for their roofs: Paint or plants? If they choose the former, then a team of our newly hired roof-painters will show up to paint their roof white. If they choose the latter, then a team of our newly hired roofscapers will show up to plant a rooftop garden.

After finishing every roof in those first 30 cities, the project will move north until we hit Bar Harbor or full employment, whichever comes first.

As Clinton points out, this doesn’t just benefit the people hired to do the painting. It also cuts waste. And the benefit of both of those will get multiplied. Smalltown, USA, gets a grant to hire six unemployed workers — six people who at the moment constitute an untapped and unproductive resource — and they get to work on Main Street. (Or, if you prefer, the small businesses on Main Street get a tax credit for hiring roof painters — either one, or both.) They’ll work up quite an appetite painting those roofs, and that will benefit the pizza shop and sub shop and Chinese place there on Main Street. Between that little bump in sales and the sudden decrease in their air conditioning expenses they may wind up able to hire some new people themselves, or maybe they’ll be able to buy more ads in the Smalltown Gazette — saving some jobs there too. And so on, and so on.

Brittany Hsu offered a good summary of the difference between white roofs and green roofs a while back for Mother Nature Network:

If you have read my last post on green roofs, white roofs are similar in terms of cooling urban environments and reducing energy consumption but offer different advantages and disadvantages. The idea for these roofs came from Steven Chu, the … U.S. Secretary of Energy. He claims that painting roofs white (as opposed to growing plants on green roofs), can help fight global warming because they reflect sunlight and can potentially reduce 44 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Mayor Bloomberg particularly likes these roofs because they not only reduce the need for air conditioning in buildings, but also create new jobs for young people. Whereas green roofs will require skilled labor for installation, white roofs can be painted by unskilled workers (particularly teenagers) and have an overall better return investment. As my colleague, a middle school teacher, pointed out, the benefits of white roofs are seen immediately. Green roofs are more expensive to install while white roofs simply require a couple of buckets of paint. Either way, energy bills will be reduced. Nevertheless, green roofs have critical long term and environmentally sound advantages in their ability to retain, detain and evaporate stormwater runoff and create biodiversity.

Either sort of rooftop, green or white, is immensely useful and fairly quickly pays for itself in energy savings. The white-roof business model is incredibly simple. All you’d need is paint, brushes and enough workers to get the job done. You could do that yourself. This is a business you could start tomorrow and have up and running by next week.

So why do Bill and I think the government needs to be involved at all? This isn’t like building bridges or highways or levees, it’s not an enormous multi-year, multi-billion dollar undertaking, so if it really makes as much economic sense as we’re saying, why don’t we just leave it up to the market and wait for rising energy costs to bring about a boom in the roof-painting business?

That could happen, eventually, some day, maybe. But with unemployment near 9 percent, the free market isn’t really in great shape just now. Aggregate demand has ground to a halt. Companies won’t start hiring in earnest or giving raises again until consumers stop pinching their pennies, and consumers won’t stop pinching their pennies until companies start hiring in earnest and giving raises again. That Catch-22 means that neither businesses nor consumers are willing or able (respectively) to start spending money again to get the economy moving from its current standstill.

And that standstill makes it a really bad time to be an entrepreneur with a paint roller.

Hence the need for the government to give things a push.

In the meantime, every business in America is losing out on 14 million customers, we’re all losing out on the untapped productivity of those 14 million people, and we’re wasting a ton of money and fuel air conditioning black-roofed buildings.

  • Anonymous

    Except that black rooftops are better for heating in the winter, and AC costs less than heating.

  • Tesmith3

    My roof is already white in the winter – it certainly would be nice to take advantage of a white roof in the summer.

  • Mark Z.

    Black rooftops lose more heat at night.

    And whether “AC costs less than heating” obviously depends on where you live.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    Except that black rooftops are better for heating in the winter, and AC costs less than heating.

    Not where I live. My heating costs are about 1/3 of my air conditioning costs.

  • Matri

    Considering that rooftops are covered in white snow during winter, you’d have to expend the energy to get the snow off (and continue expending energy to KEEP it off) in order to get your supposed benefits of a black roof in winter.

    A properly-built insulated house keeps heat loss to a minimum anyway.

  • Emcee, cubed

    Off-topic, but: MARRIAGE EQUALITY PASSES IN NEW YORK!!! WOOHOO!!!!!!!!

  • Anonymous

    “AC costs less than heating”
    Oh come on! Now you’re not even trying!

  • http://www.fiftystarowl.com Philly_Adam

    Fred, I think it’s a fine plan, but in a moment I think it’s clear why the task hasn’t already been undertaken by entrepreneurs or the government.

    Assuming everything works as anticipated, painting roofs white has a substantial impact for a small initial cash outlay.  The crutch is “assuming everything works as anticipated.”  If there was no regulation of wages, and no tort law, then you could know exactly how much the roof-painting costs and presumably homeowners would be happy to pay that amount so long as it would reduce their aggregate utilities spend.

    The problem is that if either the government or a properly licensed contractor took on the job, they would have to charge enough to cover not only the wage and materials costs, but also the enormous tort liability associated with sending unskilled workers up ladders onto roofs.  Depending on the city, they may also have to pay out a living wage rate to the crew.  And identifying the owner with the appropriate authority to consent to the roof-painting or green-roofing would take time, and all of the consents would need to be properly recorded.  A private citizen painting a roof white without my permission has committed trespass, if the government does it it’s a “taking” and the owner is entitled to compensation for the invasion of private property–in either case, making the property owner whole again would require paying someone to “unpaint” the roof, another expense.

    And just imagine the workmans compensation and health insurance set-asides!

    Now, there are two ways around this problem.

    One is to just ignore the liabilities until they happen.  The City of Philadelphia is currently grappling with the consequences of that strategy regarding its own budget.

    The other, and probably the better solution, would require Congress to pass and the President to sign a law granting civil immunity to the federal roof-painting / green planting crews, and going ahead and setting a statutory payment to satisfy the takings clause, and finally setting a very short review period for the courts to respond to any suits attacking the constitutionality of the roof plans.

    So it could work, but it would require very strong federal action.

  • Jam

    i have just one tiny little concern about white roofs.  If they reflect sunshine and there are many, many white roofs, will they create enough glare that could interfere with a pilot’s ability to fly a plane?

  • Anonymous

    Uh, just two choices for rooftops? Paint’em white or green’em?

    What about solar panels on as many (every roof with good potential) roof tops as possible?

    A few years ago, analternative energy proponent and scientist said that if every available roof in NYC (all 5 boroughs) had the lower efficiency solar panels of the time and the weather patterns of the area, that would provide electricity not only for the entire city of NY, but for the surrounding metropolitan area.

    More expensive than white paint (which sould probably be done anyway), but perhaps not all that much more expensive than green roofs. Part of that expense involves strengthening roofs for gardens or turf. Many roofs will need to be re-enginer, rebuilt, to handle the heavy weight of water-laden earth, and that is not a quick fix. But it would mean even more jobs.

    With solar, there would be immediate payback environmentally in not using carbon for a huge number of electricity consumers.  Also, since this area tends to use oil for heating, perhaps electric heat pumps should be offered at subsidized –or at least discounted rates– to outlying suburbs. Electric heating might be possible at lower electric rates (NYC metro area has some of the highest electricity rates in the country, iirc). 

    Of course, Newark, other cities and even surrounding business parks could be brought into the solar grid all over the densely populated East Coast. Rooftops are, well, everywhere.

    My theory is that rooftop electricity would not be the “property” of the bulding owner, but rather part of the commmunity pool of eletricyt.  The bldg owner would have first use of the electricity generated by its rooftop solar panels, but the rates would be perhaps just the same as for all the area users or possibly charged at a slight discount.  But this must be seen and treated as area project, like a municipal power generation facility. 

    What’s not to like? 

  • Anonymous

    Uh, just two choices for rooftops? Paint’em white or green’em?

    What about solar panels on as many (every roof with good potential) roof tops as possible?

    A few years ago, analternative energy proponent and scientist said that if every available roof in NYC (all 5 boroughs) had the lower efficiency solar panels of the time and the weather patterns of the area, that would provide electricity not only for the entire city of NY, but for the surrounding metropolitan area.

    More expensive than white paint (which sould probably be done anyway), but perhaps not all that much more expensive than green roofs. Part of that expense involves strengthening roofs for gardens or turf. Many roofs will need to be re-enginer, rebuilt, to handle the heavy weight of water-laden earth, and that is not a quick fix. But it would mean even more jobs.

    With solar, there would be immediate payback environmentally in not using carbon for a huge number of electricity consumers.  Also, since this area tends to use oil for heating, perhaps electric heat pumps should be offered at subsidized –or at least discounted rates– to outlying suburbs. Electric heating might be possible at lower electric rates (NYC metro area has some of the highest electricity rates in the country, iirc). 

    Of course, Newark, other cities and even surrounding business parks could be brought into the solar grid all over the densely populated East Coast. Rooftops are, well, everywhere.

    My theory is that rooftop electricity would not be the “property” of the bulding owner, but rather part of the commmunity pool of eletricyt.  The bldg owner would have first use of the electricity generated by its rooftop solar panels, but the rates would be perhaps just the same as for all the area users or possibly charged at a slight discount.  But this must be seen and treated as area project, like a municipal power generation facility. 

    What’s not to like? 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2WG3OOQBCR5C7H4XAMFHQEW56U Robert Knop

    There is an additional benefit to painting lots of rooftops white : it increases the albedo (reflectivity) of the Earth.  That could help mitigate global warming.  (Example link: http://www.nonoscience.info/2011/03/02/white-roofs-and-global-warming/ )

  • https://profiles.google.com/ravanan101 Ravanan

    Not really. Snow, ice, and water are all highly reflective (snow and ice even moreso than the white paint, not sure about water), and pilots have little to no problem with those things being on the ground.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t understand the disadvantage of a black roof in the summer.  If Mark Z is right, and black roofs are much stronger radiators in the IR than white roofs are, then shouldn’t you more or less balance out daytime absorption with nighttime emission?  Solar intensity at the earth’s surface is something like 200-500 W/m^2, I think, and that’s roughly the same as blackbody emission at normal temperatures.  Is black paint actually strongly reflective in the IR, or what am I missing?

  • Ken

    Cut waste, create jobs, save money – what’s not to like?

    All of the above, actually, if I happen to be a Republican who makes his money selling energy and wants to see a bad economy for the 2012 election.

  • https://profiles.google.com/ravanan101 Ravanan

    You’re missing the actual ambient temperatures.
    In the summer, heat loss from a building at night isn’t generally going to be THAT extensive. Remember that heat tends to transfer to the equilibrium point and no further without putting in work; furthermore, the rate of heat transferrance generally slows as you reach equilibrium. So if it’s 20 degrees Celsius outside and 22 degrees inside (68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively), your rate of heat loss will be rather minimal. During the day, however, it might be 30 degrees out (86 deg Fahrenheit), meaning your rate of heat input wil be much higher. However, you’re trying to maintain the temperature LOWER than the outside. Troll-logic aside, AC consumes much more energy than heating (yay thermodynamics). When the environment is exerting a greater influence at a time that you must spend more to maintain your temperature ANYWAYS, it simply compounds the problem.
     
    Examine the case in winter. I live in an area where daytime temperatures in winter are in the 60s to 70s Fahrenheit, while nighttime temperatures can reach below freezing. In that case, I have the white paint reducing the effect of outside temperatures, meaning I reduce the sun’s influence in heating the house. But on winter nights, the reduction of heat loss means I won’t be spending as much on night-time heating.

    The white paint simply means that the environmental temperature has less effect in general on your interior temperature.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is that if either the government or a properly licensed contractor took on the job, they would have to charge enough to cover not only the wage and materials costs, but also the enormous tort liability associated with sending unskilled workers up ladders onto roofs.  Depending on the city, they may also have to pay out a living wage rate to the crew….

    And just imagine the workmans compensation and health insurance set-asides!
    That’s absolutely tragic. We have to pay people (gasp) health insurance. And maybe even enough for them to live on.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    The tragic part is not that we have to pay for health insurance, the tragic part is that we live in a culture that is so greedy it has a two-fold problem here: 

    First, that companies consider paying for minimum-wage labors health insurance to be an unnecessary expense to be cut. 

    Second, that our country is so litigation-happy that companies are afraid to allow employees to take any kind of voluntary risk for fear that they will be sued. 

    That second point is, I speculate, part of the reason why I found myself unemployed without explanation after I volunteered to work extra hours without pay, my compensation being pride in my own work.  The company would rather just take advantage of the at-will, no-fault nature of work contract law in my state and let me go instead of risking a potential legal entanglement with laws designed to protect me from worker exploitation.

  • Anonymous

    The suggestion was made in “Still Life With Woodpecker” that blackberries be planted on the roofs of the buildings of Seattle. This would serve the purpose of providing shelter from the rain, relief from constantly hacking back the aggressive berry vines, a snackie in summer, and camouflage in case anyone got mad at us. I think it could work!

  • http://www.cactusjungle.com/blog Peter

    I don’t have air conditioning, as I live in coastal northern california, so no savings for painting the roof white. Except it would help reduce the overall heat of the city, so a common benefit without any personal cost savings. So government could get involved.

    On the other hand, I sell green roof plants, so I happen to be of the opinion that green roofs solve all problems.

  • Anonymous

    Even the problem of the existence of the National Organization for Marriage?

  • Anonymous

    Feed them to the triffids.

  • http://aaron.acephalo.us/ Aaron Em

    Oh, they’d make them a lovely snack! Not for nothing, after all, do they acronymize as NOM.

  • Anonymous

    When I lived in Houston, our Home Owners Association had to approve the color of shingles for roofs.  The approved colors were all dark.  And just to make things even zanier, the life expectancy for “25 year” shingles is about 10 due to the excessive heat but you weren’t permitted to do anything as reasonable as installing a long-lasting metal roof because the sound of rain on a metal roof was considered annoying.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    What? Your life experiences are not exactly like Monotroll’s in every way? UNPOSSIBLE!

  • Silus

    If you’re referring to the Himalayan Blackberry (large, rigid vines) then they would probably overcome the sides of the roof and climb down the sides of the building within a few weeks tops.  It is an incredibly tenacious plant.


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