Government expenditures are not free. Economists know this and most others recognize it when they take the time to think about it. Unfortunately, it seems not everybody takes that time.

In a story fit for satire in The Onion, a renewable energy research group, bankrolled by a $1.1 billion subsidy from the Department of Energy, concludes that huge government subsidies for renewable energy don’t reduce employment after all. However, their reasoning works only so long as the subsidies don’t come out of anybody’s pocket—a practical and theoretical impossibility.

Two environmentalists at the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC (see ASE brag about the billion it gets from Uncle Sam, here ) on contract to the National Renewable Energy Labs authored a research paper that tries to undermine the widely circulated research from a Spanish think tank.

The Spanish research, directed by economist Gabriel Calzada, at King Juan Carlos University, analyzed the subsidized expenditure necessary to create the green jobs in Spain. It compared those funds to the private expenditure needed to support the average conventional job. Supported by other data as well, they conclude that each subsidized green job in Spain eliminated over two conventional jobs.

While there are multiple problems with the ASE critique of Calzada’s work, the flawed foundation of their critique is best illustrated by the following statement:

Furthermore, there is no justification given for the assumption that government spending (e.g., tax credits or subsidies) would force out private investment.”

That is, the environmentalists do not see government expenditure as having a cost. They employ the same free-lunch fallacy that underpins essentially all the analysis showing green-energy subsidies increase employment.

The first week of every principles of economics class goes over the problem with free-lunch assumptions. The labor and material used to make windmills or solar panels or to install insulation cannot simultaneously be used to make refrigerators and automobiles. When government spends more money, it necessarily diverts labor, capital and materials from the private sector.

Dr. Calzada simply calculated how many jobs, on average, would have been supported with these resources had they been left to the private market. The ASE critique doesn’t even recognize that the costs exist. Therefore, the ASE critique can hardly be used to undermine the credibility of the Spanish conclusion—subsidies for green technologies reduce overall employment.