“Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”
—Robert F. Kennedy
By Matt Polsky, Jillian Connelly, Candace Barr, Jazmine Garcia, Dillon Negrao, Dana Ogden, Zachary Potter, Matthew Wojciechowski, Brian Woodward, Andrew Wortman, Margaret Cawley, Mary Dragone
An open letter to:
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
229 Cannon HOB
Washington, D.C. 20515
The Honorable Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez:
For the course I teach at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey, Economics, Ecology, & Ethics, we studied the Green New Deal in the last third of the spring semester. We read and discussed articles and viewed videos about it, featuring both its fans and critics. This was after we had explored the course theme: how do we best put economics and the environment together, pulling in equity issues, while learning to identify economics ideas inconsistent with sustainability.
We find that your Resolution already is doing much that is right and is unusually admirable. It is extremely bold, because, as you have pointed out, it has to be to deal with the problem of climate change. It also boldly integrates economic and social issues with it. It is blunt. Its approach is unusual and very challenging, but consistent with tenets of the sustainability field that it invokes.
Much of this, though, has bought the Resolution a lot of criticism, both fairly and unfairly.
The eleven students and I aim to provide ideas to you, your staff and advisors that would build on its strengths, while providing responses to some of the criticisms. For example, as the Resolution has been criticized as “light on details,” this report provides more of these.
In any group report it is best not to assume that all contributors agree wholeheartedly with every point or recommendation, although no one expressed any reservations to anything in the report itself. As this was largely the students’ report, while I guided their exploration, for the most part I went with their views. The nuclear one was tricky. I concurred with it, partially because of the stakes, and the power of their arguments and those of some guest speakers we had. But I want to point out the necessity of the associated conditions with that recommendation discussed there for reluctantly “coming out” on the “pro-nuke” side. Another is the hope that the “new nuclear technologies” advocates cite really does result in less waste and potential for proliferation of plutonium, although I’m still not persuaded that the argument “nuclear waste is a political problem, not a technical one” gets us anywhere. But—still—as climate change is one of the biggest challenges for the next generation… there is that compelling “carbon-free” argument.
Perhaps this could be a meta-model for personal re-consideration and the associated discomfort and even occasional torment that many of us may need to go through as we seek the absolutely necessary broader convergences and compromises to bring many others into the battle to boldly address the wicked problem of climate change. The finally emerging drive we’re now seeing to make climate change a high priority issue, to which you and others have contributed, cannot continue to be seen as belonging to just one wing of American politics. To get beyond it, none of us are likely to get everything we want.
Beyond the students’ ideas, I include some of my own that either build on what is in the actual Report, or go beyond it:
- Regarding the inaccuracies often heard about the Green New Deal, such as banning hamburgers, air travel, or barbeques, there are three sets of ideas.
- Take the larger picture approach of aligning the challenges of climate change with restoring our diminishing democracy, as we’re not going to succeed in one without the other. Where efforts have been made with specific individuals or groups to correct clear misconceptions, and they still continue with those charges, seek to raise the playing field by saying, “Disagreements and debate can be fine, and suggestions are welcome, but deliberately mischaracterizing facts debases our democracy.”
- Complementary to this is to creatively publicize an ongoing list or memes of “The Top 5-10 Myths about the Green New Deal,” perhaps adding “That refuse to die” (and perhaps further adding: “Why is that, you think?”). There are even some positive things said about it that aren’t in the Resolution (yet). These, too, could be corrected
- In the spirit of “making lemonade,” some form of: “No, we’re not taking away your barbeques. However, you might have heard that some are thinking about that. Hopefully, that will never happen. But if some of the harshest impacts of climate change occur (pick a few) and can no longer be avoided, that is what might have to happen. Isn’t it better to get on-board the Green New Deal, which gives us the best chance of keeping your barbeque?”
- While certainly mentioned from time to time in the Resolution, the concepts of “sustainability” (“to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century,” “build a more sustainable food system”) and “transformation” are not really getting noticed in the discussion about the Green New Deal. These are too important to be minor actors, with fields built around the former and starting to develop around the latter—both with ideas worth mining. For instance, President Clinton’s Presidents Council on Sustainable Development had members from different parts of society that don’t usually cooperate. They also held public hearings, which informed their reports. That effort should not be lost to history.
- Some of the groups that support this effort (discussed in the Appendix) are proudly and justifiably advocacy-oriented. This is fine for agenda-setting, getting attention, lobbying, education, and social media presence. They helped this issue get to this point. But if we’re really seeking transformational change in our society and economy, and eventually bringing in most of American society, that is not going to be enough. Prompt them to consider how they can evolve to show their leadership in new ways. This might involve some think tank-type work, negotiation, consideration of language, continued discussions with less-than-receptive audiences, publication of a “What we still don’t know how to do?” list, so ideas are welcome. While their uber-young identity is an obvious strength, they should allow space for the not-as-young. This would also be consistent with more broadly practicing diversity. As it will often be unclear how to do all these things, a learning orientation within their organizations would be helpful—as it would be for all of us.
- Realize that some disagreements are coming from places of ideology, “politics,” a different “theory of change” even among those who favor action on climate change, or are even personal. How you deal with these are a different, if overlapping, subject. But part of the answer is pointing out that the climate change issue is too important to let these get in the way (I have written about mindset issues hampering the efforts to address climate change, even among those who want to do so, here.)
- While mentioned in the Report, please really consider the recommendation to take advantage of, and extend, the sustainable business revolution. For some reason, the potential of this one gets lost. But it can make this extremely difficult challenge somewhat easier. Marianna Mazzucato, Director of the University College London Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose, gives one way that is specific to the Green New Deal: government purchasing should favor companies “willing to adopt…Green New Deal goals,” such as using renewable energy and reducing their waste (Meyer, 2019). The Sierra Club concurs, suggesting a “Buy Clean” addition (Sierra Club, n.d.).There are many other possibilities available from the evolution of the sustainable business field. Why not utilize this untapped opportunity?
- Take advantage of the best thinking available, including retrospective studies if available, on how best to make green jobs training work. Vachon equates the “just transition” phrase in the Resolution as meaning that fossil fuel workers would receive the same pay in solar jobs as they had received in their former work (Vachon, 2019). That’s a high, aspirational bar. But at a minimum the drop in pay should be as little as possible.
- Beyond the “Green Jobs Guarantee” section in the Report, Roberts states that some of the criticism about its “costs” are “ludicrous guesswork” (Roberts, 2019).
- Regarding the criticism of “too bold,” use themes such as:
- “Who Says the U.S. can’t ‘do great’ anymore?” “This is how we now pursue greatness”
- Conventional wisdom isn’t going to resolve the problems, which is an argument that could be extended to many areas
- A sweeping but appropriate quote used three times in this Report, by Benjamin Finnegan of the Sunrise Movement, is: “What is needed to avert the climate crisis is a massive restructuring and mobilization—an overhaul of our economy and society the likes of which has not been seen since World War II” (Lavelle, 2019)
- Meyer says “Fighting climate change means remaking the economy” (Meyer 2019A). So we might as well get on with it
- Despite strongly favoring transformational over incremental change, the latter shouldn’t entirely be seen as inappropriate—as long as it’s within the framework of, and works towards, the former, particularly if legislation passes early during the next Administration. If it does, go for a few quick wins, even if they’re incremental, and publicize these. Do so even if they’re not completely successful as part of a “lessons learned” component, which would show a willingness to question another conventional wisdom that “you never admit imperfection”
- Beyond addressing the criticism of the GND being “too comprehensive” or “a liberal wish list” discussed in the Report, consider Tienhaara‘s “it is politically savvy to link issues that voters clearly care about to the fight against climate change.” She also points out that Naomi Klein charges that “the prevailing (conventional) view places issues into silos… and can only be overcome with a holistic vision for social and economic transformation;” and Pavlina Tcherneva’s “just transition,” meaning “…people who lose their jobs in the fossil fuel sector as a result of the transition to a green economy should not be left behind” (Tiernhaara, 2019). Klein adds the silo “mindset” makes it easy “to dismiss a sweeping vision like the Green New Deal as a laundry list” (Klein, 2019). Klein adds two more statements defending the often-criticized comprehensiveness: (1) “make the case for how our overlapping crises are… inextricably linked,” and (2) ”connecting the dots” can be made “into an irresistible story of the future” (Klein, 2019). Making things more tangible, perhaps, Klein says “A jobs guarantee… would… lower the pressure on workers to take the kinds of jobs that destabilize our planet” (Klein, 2019), and Gunn-Wright says “we should expect a great many to (physically) move… to be part of a renewables revolution. And when they do, unlinking employment from health care means people can move for better jobs…”(Klein, 2019). Some of my own ideas on addressing “comprehensiveness” are:
- Acknowledge that it is pretty holistic, as the latter is not common and as, I’ve found, not easy for everyone, or every media source, to grasp. Some reflexively reject it. So simply admitting it might help a bit
- Point out, though, that while not always easily digestible, issues truly are interconnected, and failing to recognize that risks creating new problems and missing creative ways to address them. Comprehensiveness doesn’t go away just because you don’t want to talk about it
- It is not necessary to be equally bold about resolving every non-climate change issue in the Resolution in the same 10 year period as long as these have been successfully put on the mainstream agenda and suitable progress attained. Even within the energy area, it is not absolutely necessary for every building in the U.S. to be inspected and made more efficient within a decade
- After achieving sufficient attention, it is acceptable if some of the needs of the non-energy area are separated out from an evolving eventual Bill and work their way through the Congress in other legislation and/or outside of government
- Its comprehensiveness is consistent with the tenets of sustainability
- Don’t assume audiences are that familiar with the New Deal the Resolution is named after, its transformational goals and effects, even if there were mistakes in its execution. Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement (see the Appendix) says “The only mobilizations that are in any way remotely analogous” “to the unprecedented, war-time-esque mobilization (needed) are the economic mobilization around WWII and the New Deal era…” (Dickinson, 2019). Klein states “The New Deal showed how every sector of life… can be transformed under the umbrella of a single, society-wide mission (Klein, 2019). (For more about the New Deal, see the “Financing“ section.)
- Occasionally mention the research behind the Green New Deal. As Tienharra points out: “…each of the key elements of the framework… is backed up by an extensive body of academic research” (Tienhaara, 2019).
- Beyond the ideas in the student’s Report about addressing the “Socialism” charge, consider:
- In the Resolution there are these statements contrary to some notions of what socialism means in the political and common culture: “transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with… business” and “working collaboratively with farmers.” You have been quoted saying there “could be public-private partnerships” and “contracting” (Meyer, 2019A), which are inconsistent with centralized government ownership and control. Roberts says it “does not shun the private sector” (Roberts 2019). Meyer, while calling it “a leftist resurrection of federal industrial policy [see immediately below for why the latter isn’t a bad thing], it is not an attempt to control the private sector… it is a bid to collaborate with it” (Meyer, 2019A)
- While risky—and what isn’t—consider seeing it as, and even calling it, industrial policy. (The latter has been called “the policy which dare not speak its name;” that is, when it exists, historically or otherwise, proponents cannot admit it.) Meyer says such an industrial policy would “throw all of American government and industry behind an attempt to make renewable energy cheap” (Meyer, 2019A)
- Meyer also states: in a way, the originator of the Green New Deal could be seen as Alexander Hamilton, who (industrial policy-like) “used the power of the federal government to shape the fate of the U.S. economy.” Meyer sees the Green New Deal as following that precedent, and suggests changing your own communications about it to a “plan to resuscitate American industry” as consistent with that (Meyer, 2019A)
- Further, Hyman, who teaches history at the ILR School at Cornell University, states “The New Deal took great strides to encourage private investment” (Hyman, 2019)
- To those who say that it is anti-capitalist, say “This is how capitalism must evolve if it is to stay viable to what the times are demanding”
- Relatedly, mention that the Resolution already contains these conservative-friendly phrases (to the probable surprise of many): “climate change constitutes a direct threat to the national security of the U.S… by acting as a threat multiplier,” “depopulated rural communities” and “de-industrialized communities,” “all people of the U.S. may be full and equal participants in the Green New Deal mobilization” (Ocasio-Cortez, 2019). Kelton states: “A Green New Deal can… help bridge our political divides. Rural communities in the Midwest have as much to gain economically… as coastal urban areas (Kelton et al, 2018).” In the months ahead, try to develop more connections to conservatives, showing that diversity applies to them, too. Meyer makes the astonishing statement (or…maybe, not so much upon reflection), the Green New Deal “can even feel a little… Trumpy.” You “can start to see the potential for a certain kind of play… an attempt to integrate Trump’s working-class nostalgia with the urgency of remaking the economy to fight climate change” (Meyer 2019A). (If interested, for more on reaching out to Trump voters—and I realize how that would shock everyone, see any of the eight articles of my series about that, https://medium.com/@innovator3/the-speaking-to-the-trump-voter-series-uncertainties-recommendations-conclusions-final-thoughts-12e717023084)
- Regarding the “How are you going to pay for it?” question, proponents have used a few responses, such as “Why does this only get asked around ‘useful ideas’ like this and not ‘wasteful’ ones?” (Hockett, 2019), “What about the cost of not doing it?” or “In an emergency you just do it.” These are acceptable answers, particularly in the political arena. But as it is an important question—even if asked for political reasons—it needs a more substantive answer, to the degree one (or more) can be provided. The “Financing” section in the Report, without naming it, cites the most substantive answer to date; that is, in a number of possible ways the government could create the money and, contrary to longstanding conventional economic wisdom, as the U.S. would be “borrowing its own currency” (Dudley, 2019), this need not be inflationary or damaging. Hockett, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Cornell University, calls the former “a silly canard” (Hockett, 2019). Hockett adds there isn’t even “a ‘pay for’ [it] challenge” (Hockett, 2019). This is even more acceptable as the “Financing” section also discusses the historic precedent for “creating money” for needed investments during the New Deal. But… we’re not quite there yet. Conventional wisdom is not—yet—so accepting of the unnamed doctrine, called Modern Monetary Theory—although the latter does seem to be making progress gaining acceptance into the mainstream with the first textbook about it recently published (Coy, 2019). But Bill Dudley, former head of the New York Federal Reserve, says: “Alas, there is no free lunch.” “The constraints are real.” It is “wishful thinking” (Dudley, 2019). Coy states “there’s a lot of debate around MMT,” with an opponent calling it “a bizarre, illogical convoluted way of thinking…” while a proponent, in turn, cites conventional thinking as “part of a degenerative paradigm that has lost credibility” (Coy, 2019). Coy also notes this “state of confusion” “suddenly matters” because MMT, once confined to blogs and a handful of colleges… [but now] the left wing… is citing [it]” (Coy, 2019). Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez is aware of it, saying “MMT should be ‘a larger part of our conversation” (Coy, 2019). That is correct and it can even be used. However, be aware and monitor the parallel economics debate on MMT, looking at whether it becomes more accepted. Don’t fall victim to confirmation bias, the temptation to like and use it because the theory is supportive and provides the least painful substantive answer. Don’t become dependent on MMT and be open to alternative ways to finance the Green New Deal, such as offered by the Green Party US (Green Party, n.d.)
- Perhaps even semi-independently of the Green New Deal, look for ways to extend and deepen attention to the fairness issue. For instance, our class spent some time exploring rarely made connections between sustainability and dimensions of mental health. Others are voting rights and the very poor in developing countries.
- Try to make a little time to help support Green New Deal efforts in some of the states. Finding synergies between the states and the federal level is always desirable.
I very much hope you find this Report useful. I anticipate it will soon also be available online.
If you are interested in going further into other ways to integrate the economy and the environment beyond the Green New Deal, particularly but not limited to the sustainable business area, and/or how such initiatives can go off-track to better understand “lessons learned,” I refer you to the Report issued by last year’s class. Theirs was somewhat similar, but pre-Green New Deal, and sent to New Jersey’s Governor.
Here is that report:
Best of luck on these issues, both during the next two years and into the long-term.
Professor Matt Polsky
191 Summerfield Rd.
Belvidere, N.J. 07823
Download the full report here: DefendingtheGNDJun2019