09/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Put the Unemployed First

Las Vegas -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid assembled the biggest cast yet in support of a new energy economy at his third National Clean Energy Summit -- former President Clinton, former Vice-President Gore, two U.S. Senators, two Cabinet Secretaries (Energy's Chu and Labor's Solis), Boone Pickens for Republican flavor, the leaders of the solar, wind, and energy-performance industries, key labor and environmental figures. The pronouncements of these luminaries will get most of the ink. But for the attendees, I suspect that the most important voices were those of the unemployed, who came here to describe their plight and that of millions of their fellow Americans. In Northern Nevada, among workers in the construction industry, unemployment is now at 50 percent -- in the peak building season. Here in Las Vegas, it's at 30 percent, with two huge projects winding down and no others in the pipeline -- so 50 percent is coming soon. Those are higher numbers than in the Great Depression.

Although still speculative, all the economic analyses of the economic crisis tend toward the same view: that growth might recover but employment won't. The seven million jobs that we've lost since the collapse are not coming back. Bill Clinton drove this point home in his controlled but angry remarks that we have been "piddling" in response to this jobs crisis. He compared the goals that the Obama administration has set with the results we are actually achieving and with what is actually needed -- and then laid out at least one concrete strategy (involving using much higher leveraging of federal investments in energy-performance upgrades for buildings as loan guarantees, so that banks might confidently take the $9 trillion that's sitting on their balance sheets and use it to capitalize a huge energy upgrade) that would double or triple employment in the building sector.

We did learn one lesson from the Great Depression: Keep credit flowing. And doing that may well have avoided a second complete collapse. But we haven't learned the other lesson -- put the unemployed first. Until we do, it'll be harder and harder to move forward with positive agendas on energy, climate, and the environment. Because the anger we are seeing explode at Congressional meetings this month is, at its heart, fueled by fear: "I might be the next to lose my job. And if I do, I can't get a new one."