The Green New Deal is Our Moment

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“Earth” by kristian fagerström is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The name “Green New Deal” has become more apt than ever.  It was always a good idea to emphasize that fighting climate change can bring important benefits elsewhere in society.  However, post Covid-19 the name means more.

We’re in a deep hole, and both “New Deal” and “Green” are now policy imperatives.  That means we have to think more broadly about what the Green New Deal needs to be.  A new New Deal with a climate focus is the way out.

This isn’t a matter of changing the legislation but of realizing its aspirations.  There is much that was left deliberately unspecified in the initial draft.  Here are some suggestions for what there needs to be.

  1. We need a national plan.

The two recent stimulus measures (whatever their value) are examples of what we cannot afford to keep doing—quickly hacked-together combinations of incomplete and conflicting policies with problems in implementation.

Green New Deal is huge undertaking.  The climate side alone is a combination of many rapidly-changing technologies with major architectural choices and all sorts of issues with competing interests and local versus national administration.  In the new scope we have even more to do in making sure that our choices deliver economic and social benefits.  Business isn’t going to do it.  State and local interests aren’t going to do it.

The Green New Deal proposal already talks about modernizing the electrical grid.  That’s important but not the whole story.  We need a comprehensive plan including priorities at each stage of development. That effort needs to be funded, competent, and free of corruption.  It will take an organization charged with planning (starting even now) and a feedback process to work with all constituencies.

  1. Don’t limit the scope of jobs.

It’s true that fighting climate change will create many jobs.  But that was never the end of the story.  The country needs infrastructure of all kinds—and not just roads and bridges.  Education and healthcare are infrastructure too.  We don’t need make-work or “universal basic income” to stimulate the recovery; we just need the work that needs to be done.

The American Society of Civil Engineers keeps a website with a breakdown of national infrastructure requirements.  We currently rate a D+, and the inventory of problems is long.  We also need to restore our much-diminished upward mobility, through education and healthcare as mentioned but also with more mundane needs such as public transportation.  As a practical matter we also need daycare.

We also need to worry about the negative side—job loss.  The changes in fighting climate change will be significant; you only have to think how many people will be affected by the move to electric cars.  We have to guarantee that people will be made whole and plan how we’re going to do it.

  1. This really can be a locomotive for social justice.

The original New Deal was also conscious of this kind of goal, for example in bringing all regions of the country into the 20th century.  However its impact was more limited in matters of race or national origin.  For those we needed an even bigger national project—the mobilization of the population in World War II—to achieve some success (though blacks were explicitly excluded).  For many groups US history divides neatly into before and after World War II.

World War II was enough of a success to say it can be done.  The Green New Deal has to provide equal opportunity for everyone—again without corruption.  Fighting both climate change and a depression will require all of our resources in another nationwide battle against an existential threat.  Everyone has a part.

  1. This isn’t the 1930’s (any more than it was the 1950’s).

MAGA was a failed attempt to return the US to the 1950’s.  The failure was explicit: manufacturing was in recession before the virus hit, and essentially no jobs were ever brought home.  We have to be careful not to make a similar mistake about the 1930’s. This is a different economy.  As we’ve noted before, the transition of the US economy from manufacturing to services is a long-term trend with strong reasons to continue.

More and more companies are functionally software companies—with no skilled manufacturing career paths.  Amazon’s warehouse workers are not on track to the corporate offices in Seattle.  We can raise the minimum wage, but no combination of tariffs or other government policies is going to change the need to educate everyone for the good jobs that will exist.  We need a safety net and stronger unions, but above all we need to give people the tools to succeed.

We also need to think about government revenue in a different way.  Software companies are different—there is a strong tendency to monopoly, and cost of production is much less of an issue than product differentiation. Successful companies will tend to be highly international and with monopoly power.   The high profit margins and barriers to competition mean they should be taxable, but–as amply demonstrated by Apple—it’s seriously hard to do it.  That’s an international problem that needs to be solved.

  1. Don’t shortchange the international side.

Discussions of climate change tend to be parochial—solar panels on the house, then state issues, then national issues, and usually not beyond.  It’ll be tough to get carbon neutral, but then our job will be done; it’s up to everyone else to do the same.

In fact international issues are at least as important.  We control at most 15% of what happens to our atmosphere.  Our per capita energy consumption is twice anyone else’s, and we are by most measures the richest country in the world; it’s simply not going to happen that the rest of the world will just take care of itself.  We will need to be involved internationally, both for the underlying technologies and for their deployment.

The only international framework that exists for climate is the Paris Agreement.  That is entirely based on voluntary compliance in service of a common need.  There is no other mechanism.  We can’t bomb or tariff our way out of it.  We have to make it work.  Solving climate is a cooperative venture.

At worst this is a mess.  At best it is a model for international cooperation in other areas as well (trade, labor standards, taxation, environment standards).  The unanimity of the Paris Agreement was a major achievement of the Obama people.  The collapse of discussions since we opted out shows the risk.

  1. Need to create ongoing institutions.

For any activity with a fixed target—such as keeping carbon dioxide under the scientists’ limit—there is a tendency to think of reaching a new era where problems will finally be behind us. That’s a dangerous mindset.  For one thing it can produce a kind of eco-paralysis—with so many problems to be solved at once that you can’t make progress on anything.  (The recent Michael Moore movie is a symptom.)

More generally we have to recognize that even though we’re solving an existential problem for mankind, that will still leave plenty to do.  Having enough clean energy will help in many areas, but even for the environment we won’t finish all the problems we know.  And there will always be new issues beyond that.  So part of the job is making sure we will have the right institutions to go forward.

On the domestic side that means strengthening the regulatory agencies we have, and determining what is missing.  It’s possible that we will need more direct federal supervision or even operation of the power grid, for example.  We certainly need decades worth of large-scale spending on energy research.

On the international side there is also much to be done.  It should be recognized that the Covid-19 crisis was less an act of God than a failure of international governance.  China’s quarantine of Wuhan should have been matched by coordinated actions of other countries throughout the world.  That such an obvious consequence didn’t happen shows the vacuum created by the US abdication of power.  It also shows how we cause ourselves to suffer.

Most international institutions were our creation.  We had learned that the best way to exercise power was with rules we were willing to obey for ourselves.  We’ve now rejected that approach.  However, as a country, we have actual historical experience with such a situation.  The Articles of Confederation after the Revolutionary War almost destroyed the US before it could get started.  The solution was not more chaos, but an appropriate structure for success.

There’s another historical parallel worth mentioning.  After the second World War the US experienced unprecedented prosperity brought on in part by our rebuilding of Europe, including Germany.  The Marshall Plan paid real dividends.  The world has a similar opportunity in the developing middle classes of China, India, Korea, and elsewhere.  Instead we’re fighting a non-productive economic war with China that neither country will win, but virtually everyone will lose.  That’s not to say we have no issues with China, but in our eagerness for war we’ve shot ourselves in the foot.

 

The Green New Deal has become the defining task for our national moment.  For many issues—economic, political, racial, environmental, international—it represents a coherent way forward.  It is not the same task as the original New Deal, but certainly as challenging in its scope.  We have to recognize that we have it in our power to create a bright future for ourselves and for humanity.  The founding fathers of this country rose to their occasion.  Will we?

 

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