The Green New Deal

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (ACO) was not quite four weeks old when the Eastern European wall fell. She experienced the Soviet Bloc’s “third way” during her childhood and amazing global growth throughout her teenage years. Similar to the U.K.’s Jeremy Corbyn and US Bernie Sanders, she now identifies as a socialist. Her democratic socialism is more than simply redistributing wealth; it is a state intervention that may be a new way to think about democratic capitalist societies.  

This freshman New York Rep. and veteran Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey — sponsored a new policy entitled The Green New Deal. It comes at a time when Americans are frustrated, sensing the urgency, and are ready for fresh ideas that cut-through partisanship while creating wealth, distributing opportunity more equitably, and addressing the climate crisis at scale and speed. Five Democratic contenders for the next U.S. presidency have endorsed the plan.

AOC’s framework is ambitious for future congressional legislation. It aims to build a clean economy and eliminate the U.S. carbon footprint by creating jobs and opportunity across the economic spectrum. It links equity, economic growth, and environmental outcomes – the classic three Es (or three Ps as in SP3). 

The Green New Deal could lead to incremental change in addition to its stated moon-shot character. I praise the resolution’s anti-incrementalism, because there are virtues in trying to offer not just a technical blueprint but a comprehensive vision of the good society, and virtues insisting that dramatic change is still possible in America, that grand projects and scientific breakthroughs are still within our reach.

The more moderate left and right have many concerns about this approach to sustainability.  They are against policies that explicitly appropriate private wealth for the common good. They see the confiscation of private property as an infringement of liberty – some on the far left see this as supporting freedoms – giving voice and power to those on the margins. 

In a recent Gallup poll in the U.S., positive views of capitalism and socialism by Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents showed a dramatic increase in positive attitudes toward socialism and a decline of positive attitudes toward capitalism. So, phrasing the Green New Deal in terms of rephrasing capitalism and embracing socialism may resonate with more people than one would think.  

Many articles, variously, celebrated the framework’s bold aspirations, criticized it for its lack of specifics, was appalled at the sheer impractical, audaciousness of getting it enacted, or analyze each of its myriad components. Progressives and liberals loved the idea, if not all the specifics. Conservatives berated it as socialism.

The core conservative suspicion is that when liberals talk about the threat of global warming, they’re seizing opportunistically on the issue to justify socialism — the economy’s seizing to implement the most left-wing possible agenda. A conventional liberal would dismiss that belief as simply paranoid and science-denying attitudes.

Ross Douthat, New York Times columnist, pointed out that the plan confirmed every Republican suspicion of what global-warming alarm is really all about.

Wired magazine analyzed the plan’s transportation component — “it won’t work for everyone,” it offered, backing up that thesis with a critique of the inequities of driving, bicycling, even public transit.

A Wall Street Journal editor commented: “Conservatives have long suspected that progressives want to use climate change to justify a government takeover of the free-market economy, but we never thought they’d be this candid about it.”

Michael Levitin, writing for The Ethical Corporation Newsletter, states a few facts relevant to the Green New Deal’s acceptance.  860 companies worth nearly $17trn in market capital, equal to 20% of global GDP, have committed to steps reducing their carbon footprint, from food and beverage giants like Nestlé, Kellogg and Coca-Cola, to Gap, Citi Group, General Motors and L’Oréal. 

According to Chicago City Treasurer Kurt Summer, “No city can afford to sit back and wait for the Green New Deal to come to them from Washington, DC. Our office has developed a first-of-its-kind public environmental, social and governance (ESG) screening for all of our corporate securities… Our hope is that Chicago’s work in ESG investing can lead the way for more government portfolios to consider the risks of not taking these factors into consideration and align themselves with the Green New Deal.”

The notion of a Green New Deal has been around for a dozen years. For example, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman suggested the idea in 2007. Van Jones, Achim Steiner, and Jill Stein’s two Green Party presidential platforms, in 2012 and 2016, are also previous examples.

Most of the critiques of the Green New Deal are myopic. Yes, it’s a grand vision that’s vague on details. No, it’s not likely to be enacted in its current form. Yes, it can be improved in any number of ways. No, it’s not going away any time soon — both the left and right seem to want to keep it alive, each for its own reasons. It’s a big idea, born of common sense, that potentially empowers and engages all Americans. We have a chance to have an adult conversation about America’s future.

The Green New Deal proposes a 10-year plan for decarbonizing the American economy that would involve the kind of “war socialism” unseen since World War II (a model the policy authors explicitly evoke).

If the Democratic Party makes the Green New Deal vision its own, that shift will empower climate-change skeptics, weaken the hand of would-be compromisers in the G.O.P., and put the kind of climate-change package that could win at least 51 votes in the Senate even further out of reach; and possibly help Donald Trump.

Moving somewhat away from the longstanding centrist emphasis on pricing carbon — via carbon taxes or a cap-and-trade system — toward a focus on direct spending, the left might be moving away from theoretical efficiency toward political feasibility.

The developed world’s experience is that carbon pricing schemes look good in theory, but get compromised toward inefficiency in practice or inspire populist uprisings like the gilets jaunes in France. The command-and-control vision of the Green New Deal is a more modest alternative. It has an emphasis on research and resilience, allocating more money to basic science, alternative-energy adaptations, and mitigation in various vulnerable communities.

Instead of centrists compromising to raise energy taxes that often fall heavily on the working class, one could imagine left-populists and right-populists focusing on public works, on infrastructure projects that don’t pretend to solve climate change but do mitigate its consequences.

Going to be an interesting ride with the new members of the U.S. Congress!


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