Published April 19, 2019 in Warp & Woof
Green New Deal
Where Did it Come From? Where Is it Going?
The Green New Deal was not invented by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Although it was introduced by her and Sen. Ed Markey as a pair of resolutions in the 116th Congress, the origins of the concept (and the name) go back at least ten years.
Thomas Friedman used the term in a New York Times column in 2007. He was discussing the need to institute major structural reforms of the American (and world) economy if there were to be any hope of “greening” the future. He saw it mostly concerning the electric grid, but still made the case that it couldn’t happen without a massive public investment comparable to the project of the New Deal 75 years earlier.
In 2012, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein promoted the same name, using it for the party’s platform. That platform also called for major structural reforms in all western economies, combined with an “economic bill of rights” for the large number of workers who would likely be displaced. It claimed to owe its origins to other “Green New Deal” programs of European Green Parties.
These earlier proponents, like Ocasio-Cortez, believed that the power of established corporate elites in local and national institutions was so great that the force of law (as well as incentive) was needed to counteract it. More moderate carbon-trading schemes, and free market pressures, could not begin to deal with the scope of the problem.
The scope of the problem is reflected in the current GND proposal. Its three pillars introduced in early 2019, and further elaborated by the new think tank, Data for Progress, are:
The latest IPCC reportfrom the United Nations now says that serious decarbonization worldwide is necessary over the next twelve years, or global warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius will be unavoidable. Catastrophic climate effects (more violent storms, sea level rise, drought, famine, fires). Research into decarbonization technology needs a significant boost, quickly, to help. And, carbon taxes, incentives for renewables, all are required — even investment in nuclear energy.
The challenge also entails displacement of jobs for everybody who earns their living in the fossil fuel and factory farming sectors. Thus, job creation and retraining must be a significant part of any GND program, including a jobs guarantee to get the necessary political support for the disruption.
Finally, justice must be served by ensuring maximum equitability for impacts of climate change. The bad effects shouldn’t fall disproportionately on marginalized, poor communities.
While there are definite technological challenges facing decarbonization, most critics agree that the greatest challenge is political. And, the core of the political opposition seems to be either fear of who will be hurt, or fear that we just can’t afford to pay for decarbonization. The jobs and justice components of GND are meant to address the first fear, and a new economic theory catching fire among left-oriented economists at many institutions called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is meant to address the second fear – “how do we pay for it?”
The basic idea behind MMT is that our government (at least the U.S.) prints its own money! There is NOT a finite supply of money. National debt is a myth, and the sole purpose of national accounts statistics is to measure social benefit. Most supporters of the GND are also supporters of MMT. But, even without reliance on the still controversial economic theory, there is accounting based on opportunity costs – what does it cost society to do nothing?
So, Green New Deal proponents have a battalion of economists, social theorists, climate scientists, and historians of 20thcentury America, to support their program. But do they have people in leadership roles in Congress (or the Executive Branch)? Right now, that seems to be a major tactical hurdle. Famously, Sen. Diane Feinstein (a very senior Democrat, who thinks she knows best) harangued a gathering of school children representing the Sunrise Movement (Ocasio-Cortez’ youth movement promoting the GND) outside her office. And, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when asked what her position would be on the formation of a Select Committee on the Green New Deal, disparagingly referred to the “Green Whatever,” saying she would not support such a committee.
We all know what the White House position on climate change is — denial. Indeed, the Republican Party is now almost uniformly falling in line behind the White House position. Markey’s resolution failed in a 57-0 vote in the Senate.
What is the way forward? Certainly, elections must count for something. And, public enthusiasm is clearly on the pro-GND side. But the opposition will not go away. Grass roots lobbying of Members must be a nationwide activity. They should want to be on the right side of history. And, their constituents have children and grandchildren who will be on the receiving end of the worst climate effects. It should not be necessary to rely on children, themselves, to make the case. (I’m sure the Sunrise Movement, with some justification, thought the kids would be sympathetic for media coverage at Feinstein’s office).
Part of the opposition to the Green New Deal Resolution is the obvious guiding role played by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (with Bernie Sanders as an early co-sponsor). She has ties to Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); i.e., like Bernie, an avowed socialist. This is still problematical in American politics – across party lines. Is the whole plan really nothing more than a roadmap to socialism? Does that make it a scam, invented solely for that purpose? Many of its supporters have indicated, explicitly or implicitly, that yes, it is just that! Capitalism and the future of the planet are simply incompatible, they assert.
Final question, then: what does all this portend for the future of the program, after 2020? Does the “socialist” label matter that much? Whatever you may think of the merits of the specific Ocasio-Cortez/Markey resolutions, it comes down to being, intentionally or not, a referendum on the role of socialism, of radical government activism, in American democracy.