Dealing Green

Tom Easton

The 2018 midterm elections brought to the U.S. House of Representatives a flood of new Democratic talent with a propensity to say “We need to do things differently.”

This propensity has taken notable form with House Resolution 109,[1] better known as the “Green New Deal,” introduced in the House by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on February 7, 2019. The Resolution has been attacked as unaffordable, impractical, a threat to the economy, and of course (gasp!) socialist.[2] The Green Party loves it, saying that it “will convert the decaying fossil fuel economy into a new, green economy that is environmentally sustainable, economically secure and socially just.”[3] The Sierra Club approves.[4] Some commentators are saying the Democrats finally have a worthy cause.[5]

What does the Resolution actually say?

It begins by noting that global climate change is real, human activity is the dominant cause, and it threatens immense damage to biological diversity, public infrastructure, the national economy, national security, and human lives. This much is not arguable. The scientific consensus is clear about the data and their implications, and even the Trump Administration’s own reports (e.g., the November 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment[6]) back it up. The Resolution then calls for the U.S. to take the lead in reducing net global carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

Whether reducing carbon emissions that much that soon can actually be done is not at all certain, but the Resolution is not a proposal for specific action or even legislation. It is a list of goals to work toward. Inability or failure to achieve a specific goal by a specific date is thus not a reason to dismiss the goal as unachievable. We can at least start working on it even if it may take longer than we plan or wish.

The Resolution next addresses social justice issues, noting declining life expectancy, wage stagnation, deindustrialization, antilabor policies, and increased income inequality, with disproportionate impacts on “indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.” There is thus a need for millions of good, high-wage jobs to improve prosperity and economic security for all Americans. There is also a need to counteract systemic injustices. Therefore the Federal government has a duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs, invest in infrastructure and industry, and ensure that future generations of Americans can enjoy clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; a sustainable environment; and justice and equity.

The Resolution then offers a long list of specific steps—including providing everyone with high-quality health care–to be taken over the next ten years to move toward these goals. Many of these steps have been recognized as necessary by environmentalists for more than half a century. Social justice issues have come to the fore more recently. All deserve attention in any society that believes a nation’s government is supposed to benefit all its people, not just a small (one percent) subset of its people.

It will be expensive to do it all, but as the Resolution notes, we are facing a loss to the national economy of $500 billion a year by 2100, just from the effects of climate change, as well as a loss of $1 trillion in damage to infrastructure and coastal real estate. It may thus be more expensive not to do it all, or at least to try.

Can it all be done? Much of it can, but at least one important component probably cannot, except in the very short term. This is the “providing jobs” component.

The jobs are needed in part because so much of American manufacturing has left the country for venues where labor is cheaper and regulations are fewer. Conservatives say we can get the jobs back by getting rid of regulations and warding off the push for a livable minimum wage. That isn’t going to happen.  

In the post-Depression era of the original New Deal, the nation provided jobs by creating the Civilian Conservation Corps[7] and the Works Progress Administration[8] to help people make it till the economy improved. But many of those manual-labor jobs—such as road construction–are now done with the aid of heavy machinery.  If we put people to work on such jobs without the aid of the machinery, when they know the machinery exists, the feeling that the jobs are make-work jobs will be hard to escape. People need to feel that they are doing something useful.

And as I noted earlier in this series of essays, employment is under threat by Artificial Intelligence (AI), meaning extreme automation. The impact of AI is already visible—even in fast-food restaurants–and projections are for it to become ever more pervasive. The need for jobs is going to increase tremendously. Very few people think it is possible to ban AI, though taxing it at a level that makes human labor more competitive might help.

Or is it really the need for jobs that will increase? Again as I noted earlier, it may be more realistic to recognize that the real need is for income, at a level that allows people to meet at least their basic needs, to buy goods, and to keep the economy alive. With neither jobs nor income, the economy crashes.

When the government provides income without jobs, this is a “Guaranteed Basic Income” program. It has to be paid for, of course, but taxes can be levied on thoise who have income above the basic level. A more progressive income tax would also help. Nationalizing selected industries (healthcare, anyone?) might also be useful. So might deciding that the constitutional separation of religion and government should mean that religion does not deserve special tax breaks.[9]

Why didn’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez include Guaranteed Basic Income in the Green New Deal? It’s unavoidable, eventually. But at present it is a radical notion without roots such as other components of the Green New Deal have (the original New Deal, the original union movement, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the minority and women’s rights efforts, and more). It also smells of anti-capitalist “to each according to their needs” Marxist communism. Thus a national Guaranteed Basic Income program is very unlikely to make it past conservatives in Congress. After all, they say, if you don’t have a job or are poor, it’s your own fault, you’re just lazy, or—that old-time Puritan ethic—you’re a sinner and it’s God’s judgment on you, and it is not government’s role to argue with God. It is also not government’s role to argue with Profit. After all, the One Percent is responsible for a great many campaign contributions.

If the job-related impact of AI actually develops as projected, that will change, just to keep the economy working.  Until then, the Green New Deal as it stands before Congress may be the best we can hope for as a list of worthwhile goals and a guide to future policy and legislation.

And let’s face it: Even without a Green New Deal, protecting the environment, improving wages and working conditions, making sure housing and health-care are affordable, and trying to give everyone a fair break should be on the agenda.









[9] The rash of sex abuse scandals engulfing both Catholic and Protestant institutions argues against the idea that churches should have any special status at all.

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