Though its title purports to second the GND proposal sponsored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D MA), the article actually damns the measure with faint praise. It also endorses remedies for the climate crisis much less comprehensive and closer to what corporate America favors than to the broad worker-friendly recommendations of the Markey-Cortez proposal.
By doing so, the authors obscure the proposal’s historical connections to FDR’s daring New Deal as well as those between climate change and a failed capitalist system itself. Finally, the article’s half-measures imply an unexpressed reservation about paying for the GND that shows little appreciation of the problem’s gravity and of the fundamental socio-economic changes necessarily connected with transition to a truly non-fossil fuel economy.
Begin with the article’s faint praise. True, the Times editors rightly chastise the Trump administration’s policies as “boneheaded,” including its denial of the problem, rolling back of Obama-era limits on emissions, opening more lands to oil and gas exploration, weakening of fuel economy standards, and its formation of a special committee bent on debunking the climate crisis.
Granted: all of that reflects the thinking of GND advocates. So far, so good.
But then, the Times editors criticize the proposal first because its initial draft was poorly written by Ms. Cortez’s staff and, secondly, because the proposal is too extensive.
As one respondent in the editorial’s “Comments” section observed, the Times editorial devoted twice as much space (150 words) to critiquing the proposal’s initial “poorly written talking points” as it did to describing the actual resolution (72 words).
And what about the Times’ disagreement with the broad character of the Green New Deal?
To answer, consider the (in progress) proposal so far . . . It suggests nothing less than a complete overhaul of capitalism-as-we-know-it. In doing so, it purposely parallels the measures implemented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his original New Deal.
Following the Great Stock Market Crash of ’29, the latter didn’t content itself with bailing out banks and Wall Street. Instead it more comprehensively addressed the concerns of Main Street providing minimum wage legislation, unemployment benefits, government-funded jobs for the unemployed, and a Social Security retirement plan for all. It also legalized labor unions.
By adopting that strategy, FDR not only addressed the deep-seated problems of capitalism such as widespread unemployment, low wages and huge wealth-disparities. He also met the genuine needs of the country’s majority and secured their buy-in to the New Deal despite pressure by the elite to reduce the great depression to a technical matter solvable by the monied classes. The working class was won over; its members’ anger against the system was mollified; they put down their pitchforks, Roosevelt was elected four times in a row, and capitalism was saved.
This time around, the green version of the New Deal does something similar. It includes not merely a transition to a renewable energy economy powered by wind and sun, but rejection of any nuclear power options, of technology allowing fossil fuel plants to capture and store their own emissions, and of market-based solutions such as carbon taxes and cap and trade policies. As described by the New York Times, and in the spirit of FDR’s program, the GND proposal suggests:
- Free higher education
- Universal health care
- Affordable housing for all
- Remedies for “systemic injustices” among the poor, elderly and people of color
- Family-sustaining wage guarantees
- Adequate family medical leave
- Paid vacations for all workers
- Retirement security for everybody
Like Roosevelt’s measures, these provisions are aimed at securing the required support of the country’s majority who might otherwise be persuaded to continue ignoring the problem by the propaganda of elite climate-change deniers and by the forbidding specter of austerity measures. The generous GND provisions are intended to acquire buy-in on the part of those who also might otherwise be too distracted by simply trying to make ends meet than to comprehend and face up to the very real threats posed by climate chaos.
Failing to see all of that, the Times editorial board asks in effect, what do the social goals listed above have to do with meeting the climate change crisis? Wouldn’t it would be better, the authors imply, to be less radical and more focused on setting a national electricity standard, including the nuclear and carbon capture options along with wind and solar alternatives, providing tax incentives for electrical vehicles, improving the efficiency of buildings and the electrical grid, and intensifying efforts at carbon sequestration?
More specifically, the editors ask, “Is the Green New Deal aimed at addressing the climate crisis? Or is addressing the climate crisis merely a cover for a wish-list of progressive policies and a not-so-subtle effort to move the Democratic Party to the left?”
(See what I meant by “faint praise?”)
In other words, the Newspaper of Record, wants readers to focus narrowly on remediating climate change while overlooking what GND advocates identify as the root cause of the catastrophe. It wants its readers to ignore what Green New Dealers consider the indissoluble link between capitalism-as-we-know-it on the one hand and worker exploitation along with environmental destruction on the other.
The Capitalism Connection
Think about the connections first with workers and then with the environment. (Sorry: but doing so might evoke painful memories of ECON 101.)
With both workers and the environment, capitalists are forced by the logic of market competition to adopt exploitative practices whether they want to or not. That’s because, for one thing, wage workers in particular are compelled to enter a labor market whose compensation level is set by rivalry among laborers seeking the same job.
As a result, each prospective employee will bid his competitors down until what economists have called the “natural” wage level is attained. Marx for one, found this “natural” level below what workers and their families need to sustain themselves in ways worthy of human beings. In other words, wage competition represents nothing less than a race to the bottom. Capitalism’s unregulated labor market assures an inadequate wage for the working class.
Similarly (and this is the major point in the context of climate change) the capitalist system also necessarily devastates the environment. That is, the market’s reliance on competition all but eliminates the presence of environmental conscience on the part of producers.
Thus, for example, environmentally sensitive entrepreneurs might be moved to put scrubbers on the smokestacks of their factories, and filters on the sewage pipes to purify liquid effluents entering nearby rivers, streams and oceans. Doing so would, of course raise the costs of production, Meanwhile, however, competitors who lack environmental conscience will continue spewing unmitigated smoke into the atmosphere and pouring unfiltered toxins into nearby bodies of water. Their lowered costs will enable them to undersell the conscientious producers, and eventually drive the latter out of business. In this way, the market rewards absence of environmental conscience.
In other words, fighting climate change and protecting workers’ rights are intimately connected. They are both aspects of resistance to the destructive logic of capitalist competition.
According to proponents of the Green New Deal, such realizations uncover the failure of the market system itself. That system has proved incapable not only of addressing climate change. It has also failed to provide a living wage for its unskilled workers, jobs for those displaced by technology, affordable housing to the working class, and inexpensive health care – not to mention repair of the country’s crumbling infrastructure. That array of problems calls for remedies far beyond the band-aid solutions suggested by the Times board. It also requires extensive buy-in from the affected majority including those who work for wages. The GND achieves both ends.
Paying for the Green New Deal
Not far in the background of almost any criticism of the Green New Deal is the question unspoken or emphasized, how are we going to pay for such “generous provisions?” The incredible and ironic implication here is not only that it makes sense to do a cost-benefit analysis about saving the planet and the lives of our grandchildren. The implication is also that some price might be too high or some social change (like abandonment of capitalism-as-we-know-it) too drastic!
But overlooked in such mystifying thought processes are the considerations that, among other benefits, abandoning a fossil-fuel-dependent economy will:
- In the end provide very low-cost energy to consumers
- Save government subsidies currently extended to the fossil fuel industry
- Make unnecessary the resource wars currently waged against countries in the Middle East and threatened in Venezuela
- Therefore, render unnecessary the tremendous expenditures such wars entail
- And remove a major stimulus to terrorism
- In summary, necessitate a basic restructuring of our economy including precisely the provisions sought by GND advocates
It’s that fundamental restructuring of everything that the Green New Deal anticipates. The proposal of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ed Markey recognizes that necessity far better than the editorial board of the New York Times.
As Naomi Klein has put it, the climate crisis “changes everything.” It calls for a comprehensive New Deal – for a new start beyond business as usual. It requires recognizing the intrinsic weaknesses of capitalism-as-we-know-it and remediating those weaknesses by incentivizing and including the working class in any solution that has the slightest hope of success.