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.
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.
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.
The New New Deal by Michael Grunwald, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012 is available here.
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