Why Progressives Should Focus Exclusively on Promoting the Green New Deal

At last, the Green New Deal (GND) has our country debating climate change in an urgent and understandable way. Though the topic of environmental chaos was totally ignored in the 2016 election cycle, that definitely won’t be the case during the coming election season. We have Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), and Ed Markey (D-MS) to thank for that.

With everybody finally talking about the Green New Deal, progressives should make sure that the conversation continues. Unlike its alternatives, the GND is easy to understand, and 80% of Americans support its provisions.

For that combination of reasons, scores of Democrats have already co-sponsored the Cortez-Markey proposal. Editors at the New York Times (NYT) have cautiously supported the GND proposal as “better than our climate nightmare.” The AFL/CIO has demanded inclusion in discussions about the scheme’s final shape. Republicans, of course, are generally ridiculing the proposal as too expensive and based on “fake science.”

This is what a national debate looks like. The Green New Deal has finally given climate change the attention it deserves.

Objections to the Green New Deal  

None of this is to deny that the debate has often been contentious even among those with unquestionable commitment to solving the problem of climate change. Some have characterized the GND’s general proposals as “off-the-wall.” They ask: what do issues like universal health care, free post-secondary education, fair housing, paid vacations, state-sponsored childcare, enhanced retirement, and increased minimum wage have to do with climate change? For their part, union representatives have expressed fears that the proposal will adversely impact the good-paying jobs of their rank and file.

Perhaps the NYT editors best expressed the currently prevailing skeptical approach when they asked, “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?”

In summary, contrarian assessment so far seems to be that the Cortez-Markey proposition is just too ambitious and disconnected from the actual issue of climate change.

My argument here will be that it is neither. To get what I mean, first of all consider the natural threat posed by climate chaos and then how the Green New Deal ingeniously attempts to meet that threat in ways that surpass any of its alternatives.

The Climate Change Threat

Never in history has the human race faced such peril. We all know about the unprecedented multi-billion-dollar disasters, like hurricane Maria and the uncontrollable California wildfires that have afflicted us in recent months. In January, the Rhodium Group identified unbridled economic growth and factory emissions as the main causes of such disasters.

Then, just since the beginning of the new year, two other dispiriting reports have emerged from the scientific community to underline the point. A study in the journal Science pointed out that the planet’s oceans are warming 40-50% faster than previous UN estimates. The result, we’re told, will be even more virulent hurricanes and other weather events (like tsunamis) in the near future. Meanwhile, the proceedings of the National Academy of Science warned that Antarctica’s huge ice reserves are melting much faster than predicted. As a result, ocean levels are about to swell and swallow up huge areas of coastal plain along with entire island-nations creating possibly billions of climate refugees in the process.

Alarmingly, scientists are warning that our window for response is closing rapidly. Current estimates are that we have no more than a dozen years before we reach the point of no return on a run-away train headed for a disastrous precipice. That’s the crisis staring us in the face as our train’s engineer commands: “Full speed ahead.”

Despite all of that, however, we shouldn’t be discouraged. After all, crises have two aspects. As President Kennedy reminded us 60 years ago, emergencies even like the one before us present a danger, but also an opportunity. I’ve just referred to the dangers; they are obvious to all but the willfully blind.

Incentives to Wall Street

The genius of the Green New Deal is that it highlights the opportunities. Instead of waving the banner of austerity, it upholds the flag of all-inclusive prosperity. It points out unprecedented prospects for improving life on our planet. Yes, it underlines astounding benefits for Wall Street. However, its main beneficiaries live on Main Street. They include our grandchildren yet-to-be-born.

The benefits for Wall Street are surprising but logical at least according to prevailing economic theory. Changing from a carbon-based economy to one based on wind, solar, and geo-thermal energy, promises to create opportunities for innumerable new businesses and entrepreneurs. The UN estimates that the transition will add $26 trillion to the global economy by 2030. Twenty-six trillion dollars! That’s good news for investors.

And they’re beginning to embrace the prospects. Nonetheless, the unaided market gives little indication of mobilizing fast enough or of being focused enough to avoid the impending train wreck. Inducing Wall Street to apply breaks, lay new track and change direction will take time.

Conventional wisdom holds that Wall Street’s market-based solutions will also require hard-to-understand, top-down remedies such as carbon taxes with rebates, carbon sequestration, and carbon trading.  None of those have much hope of gaining the popular understanding or traction needed to inspire the mass mobilization required to address climate change effectively.  

Additionally, market-based solutions necessitate powerful incentives from the government in the form of tax breaks, deregulation, and outright subsidies to corporations. While virtually no one has trouble with the logic of providing such incentives, the crisis at hand requires immediate action that cannot wait for stimulants to kick in any more than it might wait for market solutions to provide timely response to attack by a foreign enemy.

Incentives to Main Street

And that brings us back to the genius of the Green New Deal. The latter recognizes that government must step in to meet a threat much larger and overwhelming than any attack ever experienced in American history or the history of the world. Doing so necessitates government-directed restructuring the economy from the bottom-up. Washington must take charge just as it would during war time – just as it did during World War II. It means DC’s becoming the employer-of-last-resort in new enterprises that Wall Street has proven incapable of sponsoring or even identifying in timely fashion.  

The GND also extends to Main Street the incentives that conventional wisdom routinely offers businesses but is unwilling to distribute to wage-earners. GND proponents understand that responding effectively to the crisis of climate change will require an unprecedented mass mobilization of a population that as yet has exhibited little awareness of the problem’s immediacy. Moreover, the public has been subject to mind-numbing propaganda on the part of powerful climate-change-deniers funded by the fossil fuel industry and by politicians bankrolled by those interests.

GND advocates understand the impossibility of mobilizing an audience like that under the banner of austerity and reduction in living standards. Instead mobilization requires convincing ordinary citizens that responding to climate change will improve their lives and make them more prosperous. It entails providing incentives for them to get on-board just as we saw it might for Wall Street investors.

And no one should object to that. It’s like what happened with Roosevelt’s original New Deal.

Back then, with their focus fixed firmly on Wall Street, Republicans objected to the overreach of FDR’s proposals. What, they asked, do Social Security, legalized unions, unemployment insurance, minimum wages, and the “alphabet soup” of programs like the WPA (Works Progress Administration) with its FMP (Federal Music Project) and FTP (Federal Theater Project) have to do with reviving the Stock Market? To them such enactments seemed completely off-the-wall. They wanted top-down solutions – bail-outs, tax breaks, and government subsidies.

However, for Roosevelt and his constituencies none of the New Deal programs were far-fetched. What Republican cognitive dissonance failed to acknowledge (but what Roosevelt saw clearly) was that those living on Main Street needed incentives too. They needed to believe that response to the national crisis of depression would take them into account as well as the rich who had little need of government assistance. Wage-earners needed subsidies too. They needed laws to improve their living standards. They needed a tax code benefitting them rather than the already wealthy. Enactment of programs based on those convictions got FDR elected four times in a row. After Lincoln, he’s generally remembered as the greatest American president.  

Paralleling FDR’s response to the Great Depression, proponents of the Green New Deal recognize that climate chaos “changes everything.” It impacts our standard of living; it threatens our family life, our health and longevity; it makes irrelevant old kinds of jobs (e.g. in fossil-fuel-related industries); it calls for new kinds of homes adapted to new weather patterns. It calls for massive re-education, and for reparations to those victimized by the old fossil fuel order.

With that in mind, the GND provides new kinds of jobs to do work that the private sector has proven unable or unwilling to provide. It offers massive re-education that will emphasize not only science and technology, but the arts, literature, philosophy, and theology (where the wisdom and moral roots of human civilization are to be found). More specifically, to meet the severe dislocations related to understanding our changed world, to health problems caused by the fossil fuel economy, to energy-inefficient housing, to declining living standards caused by job-loss in a more traditional economy, and to the practice of locating polluting industries in poor and minority communities, the GND demands:

  • Free higher education and the cancelling of student debt
  • Universal health care
  • Affordable, energy-efficient housing for all
  • Family-sustaining wage guarantees, especially for displaced workers
  • Paid vacations for all workers
  • Adequate family medical leave
  • Retirement security for everybody
  • Remedies for systemic injustices among the poor, elderly, and people of color

Grandchildren as Overriding Incentive

As already indicated, all of that is easy to understand and far more likely to secure popular buy-in than cap-and-trade explanations or complex discussions of carbon sequestration or carbon taxes with mathematically calculated rebates for the poor. Everyone can understand higher wages.

However, what’s easiest of all to understand are the benefits such buy-in, popular mobilization, and rapid response will secure for our grandchildren whose very lives are threatened by the inaction rendered likely by those more arcane measures.

To begin with, the Green New Deal will secure for those younger ones we love not only a healthier planet, but longer lives less threatened by war and terrorism. That point is by no means trivial and even goes a long way towards answering the question: How will you pay for it all?

Certainly, the Green New Deal will have to be financed in the same way FDR paid for his original program – by drastically increasing taxes on those most able to afford them. In Roosevelt’s time (and up until the 1960s) the highest tax bracket was 91% on incomes over $400,000. AOC has suggested a 70% tax on incomes over $10 million.

The truth is that enactment of some version of the GND with its transition away from carbon-based energy provides another rich income-source that will benefit our grandchildren. The Green New Deal promises to make wars-for-oil obsolete. So, our descendants will not have to fight such wars or worry so much about the blow-back from “terrorists” created by those foreign adventures. That in turn will enable our government to shrink its military budget by at least 50% and to reinvest the resulting resources in GND programs.

To put a finer point on it: what we’re talking about here is a kind of inverted thinking about military spending. That is, to meet the challenge to national security represented by climate change, we must reduce and redirect rather than increase our bloated military budget. Meeting the financial challenges presented by an alienated and angry Mother Nature calls for a drastic disinvestment from the military and reinvestment in the provisions of a GND – precisely on national security grounds.

Conclusion

Yes, we’ve finally arrived at a point where Americans have a proposal before them that they can both understand and whose provisions they overwhelmingly support. It’s got the public’s attention. So, progressives should make it their business to support its general direction and to take part in refining its provisions. Everybody needs to get involved in that project: wage earners, mothers, fathers, children, the unemployed and homeless, and not merely the usual suspects, viz. politicians, lawyers, economists, and business leaders.

Widespread citizen involvement should have progressives pushing for hearings on the GND throughout the country and well before the Democratic presidential debates. Then the suggestions of local meetings should be collated and processed into final form. To reiterate: this is not merely or even principally the job of professional politicians, but of our national community. After all, the Green New Deal is by no means a finished product.

In short, our unprecedented climate crisis calls for New Beginnings – for a fresh start. That’s what the “New Deal” meant historically. It’s what the Green New Deal should embody today. None of its general provisions are “off the wall.” Each is connected to an actual dislocation caused by the switch to a non-carbon-based economy.

So, progressives should not be intimidated by gas-lighting nay-sayers, technocrats, politicians and lobbyists. Remember, their precise point is to discourage as unrealistic what the world needs to effectively meet the unprecedented emergency presented by climate change.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

3 thoughts on “Why Progressives Should Focus Exclusively on Promoting the Green New Deal”

  1. Mike if the zombified, brainwashed, deluded American public had one tenth of the energy, insight, and enthusiasm you display, then they might help save humankind. On the other hand I don’t think that pandering to the obsession of capitalism for more, more, more of everything is a real way out of our problems. The austerity that you brush aside is an aspect of any real answer to our dangerous syndrome of addictive greed. No we can’t “have it all”, and to base our awakening on this premise is untenable.

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    1. I agree, Mike. But the ones needing an austerity program are not workers who haven’t seen a real increase in wages over the last 40 years or more. Their billionaire employers, corporation heads and bangsters are the ones who need a dose of austerity.

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