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The Politics of The Green New Deal: Part 1

The Green New Deal starts with the recognition that drastic changes to society and the economy are necessary to cope with the dangers of climate change. I see two basic assertions behind the Green New Deal. First, it says that the pain and costs of restructuring the economy will not be borne by the working class, as has been the case in every other economic disruption. Second, as a nation we cannot allow capitalists to dominate our future. There is a lot to unpack in these two issues, so this is the first of a short series.

In the course of the first part of my neoliberalism project we saw the effects of capitalism on the working class*. This aphorism from Thucydides sums up human history nicely: “the strong do what they can and the poor suffer what they must”. We saw this in the history of the English enclosures discussed by Polany; the use of state militias to break strikes in the US; and in Foucault’s discussion of the way the state forced people into becoming good little factory workers, supervised closely, but largely self-governing, self-controlled.

Republicans have hated the New Deal since forever. The Democrats started cringing over it right after WWII amid Republican fear-mongering about Communists. The Democrats gave the capitalists their first win with the passage of Taft-Hartley in 1947 and their aggressive purge of every element of leftist thinking in their ranks. Liberals joined the Capitalist Celebration; they gradually embraced deregulation, and they did nothing to protect unions, the source of worker power. Democratic wonks became experts at explaining the virtues of the market and the evils of Big Government, and crafted ever more complicated solutions to the problems created by rampant capitalism.

It was with this mindset that the US confronted the biggest crisis facing the working class, globalization. Clinton and the Democrats embraced NAFTA, and so did Democratic wonks. Paul Krugman wrote an article for Foreign Affairs attacking unions for saying that NAFTA would cost US workers their jobs. Nonsense, said Krugman. The impact would be marginal, and the Fed would simply cut interest rates to keep the economy roaring; special bonus: job training programs. This mentality continued to dominate US politics and Democratic party wonks as manufacturing jobs vanished. The promised solutions didn’t work. Capitalists got rich, and the burdens were pushed off onto the working class and small towns across the country.

Here’s a recent defense of NAFTA from the Council on Foreign Affairs. It admits that NAFTA contributed to the decline of US manufacturing jobs, but ignores what happened to the fired workers. It claims that NAFTA provided benefits to the economy as a whole, without specifying who reaped those benefits. It adds this:

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says anxiety over trade deals has grown because wages haven’t kept pace with labor productivity while income inequality has risen. To some extent, he says, trade deals have hastened the pace of these changes in that they have “reinforced the globalization of the American economy.”

Translation: capitalists replaced well-paid manufacturing jobs with cheaper foreign labor, to their benefit and that of their corporations. They ignored the impact on workers, who lost their livelihoods, their insurance, and more. The impact of free trade with China is even greater, according to a recent study, and neither party lifted a finger to help.

The Green New Deal recognizes that climate change is going to create massive disruption, including staggering losses in economic output and damage to property and infrastructure. In the ordinary course of things, the costs of coping with these disruptions would be borne by the working class. After all, the entire point of capitalism is rising profits for capital, and if that imposes costs on the working class, so be it.

To meet the goals of the Green New Deal we will have to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Coal mining jobs are already vanishing, and jobs in oil and gas production are next to go. The latter sector currently employs an estimated 2.1 million people directly and indirectly. Every one of those jobs lost in these and other fields will cost families their incomes, their health insurance, their physical and mental well-being, and their hope of retirement security. Their home lives will be damaged as they cope with unemployment. Marriages will be lost, children will be injured, and elderly parents will be affected in their own financial security, and the pain of seeing the injuries to their children and grandchildren.

New jobs will be created, but where? If the jobs are far away, the unemployed will have to bear the cost and emotional drain of moving. It’s especially difficult for older workers, and the strains of moving teen-agers adds another layer of difficulty. For some, moving will be a positive, an opportunity to start over. But for many others, it’s the loss of a sense of place, the connection to the people and places in which they are comfortable.

One critical roblem is the loss of a home. Home ownership has decreased from 68.6% to 63.7% since the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, but for many Americans the home represents a significant part of family wealth. See Tables accompanying the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, Tables 9.07, line 6, and 9.16 line 6 and line 89 et seq. If there is mass migration to new jobs, there will be substantial losses of wealth for many families. To the extent people are forced to move from areas with low-cost housing to high-cost housing, there will be financial difficulties.

The Green New Deal says that we need to deal with these problems directly, not through some complicated 60 point plan relying on some newly created market or capitalists, but by direct government intervention. Section 4.5 requires the government to direct :

… investments to spur economic development, deepen and diversify industry in local and regional economies, and build wealth and community ownership, while prioritizing high-quality job creation and economic, social, and environmental benefits in frontline and vulnerable communities that may otherwise struggle with the transition away from greenhouse gas intensive industries;

Section 4.15 directs the government to provide

…all people of the United States with—
(i) high-quality health care;
(ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing;
(iii) economic security; and
(iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.

Taken as a whole the Green New Deal rejects the neoliberal program of protecting capital at all costs, in favor of putting people and the planet first.

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* I’m going to use the term working class in this series, because as I see it, the conflict is between the working class and the capitalists. In general, by working class I mean everyone who must sell their labor in order to eat. I’ve been in the habit of using the term “workers” but I’m tired of euphemisms. This definition covers a wide range of incomes, but it’s stupid to pretend that middle class people living paycheck to paycheck or people with much higher incomes who have little wealth have interests that are differentiable in any meaningful way. The Fed says that 40% of US households could not pay for an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing or selling an asset. The most recent Survey of Consumer Finances (2016) says that the conditional mean value of retirement accounts for the group with income between the 50th and 90th percentiles is $157K, from which I’d estimate median net financial wealth for that group is in the range of $300K. That means they have to keep working. I’d guess that most of the people in the top 10% of wealth could mostly make it if they were forced out of work, but certainly not all of them. They may think of themselves as wealthy because they own real estate and financial assets, and they may identify with the truly wealthy more than the working class; but I see it their real interests are aligned with those of the working class, because if that group fails, their wealth will be worthless.

The Costs of Equal Opportunity in a Neoliberal Economy

Eric Loomis has a nice discussion of an article in the WaPo titled “White Americans long for the 1950s, when they didn’t face so much discriination.” The article reports these findings:

• 43% of all respondents said discrimination against whites is as much of a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minority groups.

• 60% of the white working class respondents said discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

• White Americans feel put-upon and mistreated — and large shares of non-white Americans do not seem to have any knowledge of the challenges that white Americans say they face.

Loomis concludes that these feelings are the basis of the appeal of Donald Trump:

I will however say that the numbers of the white working class are particularly important because the economic insecurity of an outsourced and automated economy, the effects of which are swept under the rug by the many proponents of unrestricted globalization, are very real. I have said for a long time that if you want a stable society you have to have good paying jobs. Without those jobs, racial and religious prejudice becomes even more powerful than it usually is. That is part of what we are seeing in this recent rise of proto-fascism. It’s scary and should make us rethink a lot about the society we want to build before it’s too late. Emphasis added.

I absolutely agree with Loomis, but there’s more to be said. So here’s a story. I was accepted at Indiana University Law School in the Summer Session of 1971. My college grades were mediocre, but I got a very good score on the LSAT and had two years in the Army to encourage me to study harder. My law class had 200 people of whom 20 were women, as I recall. I graduated 20th in my class, and 10 of the people ahead of me were women. I assume that all the white guys with better credentials than mine got in, so it’s fair to guess that I would have graduated at least 10th if not for those really smart women. As it happened, it didn’t affect my ability to get a great job with a brilliant mentor, Stanley Schwartz, who taught me how to be a real lawyer. But that was a good time for lawyers and for hiring in general. And if I had wanted a job in New York City with a big firm, that move down the graduation rank would have made that unlikely.

The same thing happened to athletes when African-American players were allowed to compete. Lots of really good white players lost their scholarships to better players. The same things happened when police forces opened the doors to everyone on more or less equal terms. The number of jobs didn’t increase much, so the competition meant that some white men who would have been cops or office administrators or anything else didn’t get those jobs. It wasn’t a great problem until the decent jobs were disappeared by the rich. With the vast number of good jobs that had cushioned the entry of women and people of color gone, the previously privileged people, mostly white men, didn’t automatically win. Instead, they had to deal with the fact that there many previously disqualified people who were smarter and better prepared than they were, and many more were at least as smart and well-prepared as they. Just like me, they lost their previous rank.

That is an actual loss for white men. It isn’t just an appearance, or an excuse, it’s a genuine loss.

That was bad enough, but it got worse. When the rich started their drive to collect all the money from work in the Reagan years, they explained to the working people that they needed to be better and smarter, and they needed more education, which the workers were expected to pay for. Then college tuition shot through the roof, and states cut support, first for higher education, and then, in the wake of the Great Crash, for all education. But at the same time, Republicans tell workers it’s their fault, they need to work harder and longer and better and smarter. It’s a horrible double bind. I think the result is that some people respond by blaming themselves, and others respond by blaming the people who beat them out, or the liberals who made equal opportunity more of a real thing.

No one, especially politicians and economists, blames the people who shipped all the good jobs out of the country. Not a single politician or economist points out that if Intel and Apple and IBM don’t ship physical, financial and intellectual capital to Taiwan, there won’t be any semi-conductor manufacturing low-wage jobs there. No one says out loud that if the heavy equipment used to manufacture washing machines isn’t shipped to Mexico, there won’t be washing machine plants in Mexico. Economists of all stripes applauded the hollowing out of US industry on the absurd theory that the benefits to some outweighed the costs to society, assuming, of course, that there are economists who think about the interests of society beyond money. Neoliberal policies, specifically the massive support for unrestrained movement of physical, intellectual and money capital, produced the current state of the US economy.

Certainly, restraints on free movement of capital might not have permanently insured that these jobs remained in the US. But the central lesson we learn from Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation is that the pace of change is of crucial importance. See p. 39. The sudden and massive changes in the US economy have produced unnecessary misery, just as the Industrial Revolution did in the early 1800s in England. Whatever benefits there are in cheap foreign labor haven’t gone to the working class in the US, or even to most of the middle class. A government that cared about human beings would have acted to slow down change so society could protect itself. But we had Reagan and a crowd of crappy Democrats.

All this not only explains why people are so angry at both parties, it answers a basic question: why don’t the poorest among us vote? These are the people who benefit from the scraps of safety net left after years of efforts by neoliberals of both parties to destroy it. This is from the NYT:

While Mr. Bevin did not win Louisville, a Democratic stronghold, Mr. Conway did not win by nearly as big a margin here as Democrats usually do. William Benton, a Family Health Centers patient who voted for Mr. Conway, said he was not an inspiring candidate even for committed Democrats.

“A lot of people felt really justified not voting,” said Mr. Benton, a musician and part-time bakery worker who signed up for Medicaid this month to get help for his depression.

Not inspiring? That barely begins to describe a Democratic Party supporting neoliberalism at the expense of poor and the middle class.