The Politics of a Green New Deal
The idea is simple enough: the government invests in green infrastructure and stimulates the private investment needed to decarbonize and modernize the American economy. The devil may be in the details, but following FDR’s original New Deal, what is important is the effort to innovate and the urgency of that effort. Climate change is a crisis, our transport and energy infrastructure are decaying, and a national effort to invest in the future could reduce pollution and stimulate the economy. We don’t know exactly what is needed but we will learn by doing―or, to quote FDR, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” It is a mistake to assume that the money spent will be pure subsidy. Properly designed, the Green New Deal is an investment, not a handout.
The ideological mindset we are stuck in these days requires you to be either pro-free enterprise or a socialist. What if you are both? What if you understand the need for capitalist incentives but also think that health care, education, a clean environment, employment and opportunity should be a right rather than a privilege? FDR’s New Deal was designed to save capitalism. At the time he was considered by some a “traitor to his class”, but he instinctively understood Keynesian economics and understood that for an economy to grow, workers had to make enough money to buy things. He also knew that extreme economic inequality that forced hard working Americans to live in poverty was politically destabilizing. People needed a stake in the future. Parents will sacrifice to benefit their children, but if there is no chance that your children will do better than you, and you are struggling, you have no reason to support those in charge.
Climate change, toxics, contamination of aging water systems and crumbling bridges, trains, and roadways all call for investment in new infrastructure. That could be the heart of the Green New Deal. The jobs created could provide a bridge for those unable to adapt to the educational requirements of the modern service economy. As I mentioned in a piece I wrote in early December:
“It is true that the current Congress will never enact a Green New Deal and even if they did, the current president would never sign it. The proposal and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez will soon feel the full force of the right-wing attack machine. She is already feeling those broadsides but has proven to be quite good at resisting them. The proposal will be attacked as expensive and infeasible, but the key point is that the Green New Deal is now on the institutional agenda. Congress will need to address these ideas. Moreover, the level of public support for a Green New Deal will be high. Young people who feel economically insecure and are worried about the fate of the planet will gravitate toward these ideas.”
In the six weeks since I wrote those words, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has been called ignorant, unsophisticated and naïve, but she has proven to be one of the most talented advocates to appear on the political scene in quite some time. Already nicknamed AOC, with appearances on many major news venues and with a growing presence in the social media, neither she nor the Green New Deal show any signs of disappearing.
The effort to delegitimize government intervention in the economy is intense, well-funded and will continue. Lobbying is, after all, a thriving business. Right-wing lobbying groups are effective in large part because they are not attempting to forge the compromises that result in government action; they are mainly focused on keeping ideas like the Green New Deal off the political agenda. When they can’t keep something off the agenda, they attempt to shape it so they can profit from it. Obamacare is the perfect example. Its complexity was a direct result of intervention by the health insurance industry. This seems to be the American way: simple policy ideas become complicated by the compromises needed to obtain a majority in congress. Campaign fundraising is well over 50 percent of the job of our elected officials, and so industry and wealthy interests have a magnified voice in American politics.
So how will we ever get a Green New Deal? First, we won’t see it while Donald Trump is president. But there is big money in infrastructure―green, blue or red. And a policy to invest in modernizing the electric grid, subsidizing renewable energy, promoting electric vehicles and making our homes and businesses more energy efficient can be a political winner. Powerful economic interests and labor unions will support infrastructure investment. The heavy lift will be raising the tax rates on the wealthy to pay for it. America has gotten used to paying low taxes and living in debt. It will take real political leadership and sustained grass roots mobilization to make this happen.
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke are examples of the type of leaders that could bring about the Green New Deal. They are excellent communicators, and both have demonstrated skills in grassroots organizing and mass small contribution fundraising. The only force that can defeat the political money of the right is the mass mobilization of the non-right. We first saw this in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, when his ability to raise small contributions through the internet defeated the big money dollars of the “Clinton Machine”. A Green New Deal will require at least five years of the same effort we saw during the Ocasio-Cortez, O’Rourke and Obama campaigns.
Tying economic development to environmental protection is a winning political strategy. Instead of focusing on enacting regulations and taxes that punish polluting behavior, we invest in infrastructure and tax incentives that promote environmental sustainability. The goal is to lower the cost of renewable energy rather than raise the cost of fossil fuels. It also ties environmental protection to employment. The urban sustainability plans such as Mike Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 did exactly that at the local level. The idea was to make the city more attractive to business and new residents by setting and reaching a series of goals related to energy, public space, transportation, and climate resiliency.
The absence of specificity of the Green New Deal is a strength and not a weakness. FDR’s New Deal was a series of improvisations in response to specific problems that were stalling economic development. There was no master plan, many ideas failed, and some were ended after a period of experimentation. But some, like social security and the Security and Exchange Commission’s regulation of the stock market, became permanent American institutions. The Green New Deal will be very technologically dependent. We do not yet have all the technology we need to decarbonize. We are close, and with a little more investment and invention we will get there. We also don’t know the correct mix of public-private collaboration that will work. Advocates should avoid the trap of attempting to spell out every detail of a program that should be innovative and experimental and not set in concrete.
The labeling and sales pitch for a Green New Deal is inspired and a very important political development. It will be a long journey to enact and implement a Green New Deal. In addition to its advocates in Congress, the Green New Deal will need a president committed to its vision. But the process begins with its articulation and that has now begun.