What a Green New Deal Should Look Like: Filling in the Details

Now that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Senator Markey have introduced their nonbinding Green New Deal resolution, the right-wing snowflakes are melting down while respectable centrists are calling the idea “crazy”.  On one side, global political and economic elites are doing almost nothing to stop climate change from running out of control, and on the other side AOC and company are proposing a solution whose size and scale are up to the task.  Which side is the crazy one?

Ross Douhat complains that the Green New Deal is a plan to implement much of the Left’s boldest ideas. Exactly. The economy is not working for most people, the result being the rise of a troubling right-wing form of populism heavily tinged with racism. In order to avert these unhealthy trends, while engendering enough public support to do something about climate change, there needs to be something in it for just about everybody. Climate change will only be adequately addressed when it is wrapped in a wider set of policies designed to help most Americans and ensuring that the transition doesn’t disproportionately penalize workers in targeted industries and their communities.

AOC and Markey’s nonbinding resolution lays out a wide list of aspirational goals that need to be implemented if we are going to prevent the worst of global warming, while at the same time endeavoring to improve the lives of the vast majority of our citizens.  The details will apparently be filled in during the coming months.  I have been researching and writing about just such an agenda for over 10 years, so I’d like to kick off the search for concrete Green New Deal programs that could fulfill the requirements laid out in the resolution.  The idea of a Green New Deal will encounter many setbacks, frustrations, pushback and ridicule, so it needs as much intellectual support as possible.

The projects I will describe share a number of elements in common.  First, the projects should be planned, managed and owned by the Federal government, with as much input as possible from state and local governments.  In other words, the market should not play the primary role in organizing the transition and allocation, aside from the private firms that would do the actual building.  Market-based systems are largely insensitive to equity considerations.   The programs therefore should neither be constructed as ‘positive incentives like tax credits or not-too-onerous regulations’, (as Paul Krugman has proposed), nor should they depend on the tender mercies of Thomas Friedman’s ‘Father Greed’.

At the same time, having the federal government take the lead does not mean full-blown socialism/communism/fascism or whatever other scare words the Right will attempt to use to invalidate a major role by the public sector.  Totaling close to $2 trillion per year, these expenditures would add less than 10% to a $20 trillion economy.  During World War II, a much less technologically complex country spent one third of its wealth on a destructive war, and even now the U.S. spends over $1 trillion per year in spending for all military activities.

As I have previously argued, periods of widely shared prosperity and economic growth, as occurred for thirty years after WWII, are created by bursts of government infrastructure building. Societies never move forward without governments creating new infrastructure – the most recent example being the government-created internet – and we need to move, quickly, or we will fall back into environmental catastrophe and/or a fascistic resurgence. Governments must take the lead in establishing the regulatory framework, infrastructure and market incentives for the creation of well-paid, secure, healthy, satisfying environmentally-friendly jobs with particular attention to appropriately meeting the needs of affected workers and their communities.

The second aspect that these projects have in common is that they are all funded with Federal grants, not loans, so they can not only pay for own operation when they are finished, they should be able to return revenues to the Federal government, thus potentially decreasing middle class taxes – stealing the thunder of conservative tax cutters. Since these projects increase the wealth of the United States, it would not be inflationary to simply create the money to build the Green New Deal, just as private banks createat least $500 billion per year to reflect the wealth their investments create.  In addition, AOC, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, among others, have offered ways to increase tax revenues from the rich and big corporations.  The Right has continuously used the specter of too much spending to scare off the Left and the public from advocating policies that would help the economy.  It’s time to go on offense.

Third, these projects will all provide affordable and high-quality goods and services, including electricity, housing, transportation, internet and education, which in addition to Medicare for All will create the kind of good society that can be used as a rallying cry for the Democratic party for decades to come. According to the latest science, we need to eliminate virtually all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at the latest, and the projects explained below will take 20 years, so a Green New Deal needs to engender the kind of overwhelming support from the public that can withstand years of propaganda from the fossil fuel industries, right-wing billionaires and conservatives in general (I’m slightly revising AOC’s call for decarbonizing electricity in 10 years, my plan essentially reduces greenhouse gases at the same rate).

Most of all, the simultaneous operation of all of these programs will provide so many good jobs – well-paying, high-skill, amenable to advancement, and secure – that anyone who wants a good job can get one. Every politician says they want more jobs, but only a Green New Deal presents a credible way to create them. The programs listed below would create over 20 million jobs, and a Federal Job Guarantee could be implemented that would be used to hire anyone who wanted to work on the Green New Deal. This means that it will be very easy to implement a ‘just transition’ for workers from one industry, such as fossil fuels, to another, such as manufacturing wind turbines. In addition, we can guarantee that all communities, of whatever color, economic status or geographic location, will see their standards of living improve to such an extent that we should be able to totally eliminate poverty in the United States.

The key to enabling the Green New Deal to accomplish these employment goals is to require that all the goods used to build these infrastructure systems be produced in this country.  In other words, local content rules should be applied, including eventually domestically producing the industrial machinery used inside factories to make the manufactured goods.  All of the factories that produce these goods should be required to be unionized, and new factories could be required to become employee owned and operated after a few years.  The combination of a Federal Job Guarantee, domestic content requirements, tens of millions of new jobs, unionization and employee control would give working people the power to claim their fair share of the economic growth of this country, something that has been denied to them since the 1970s, when manufacturing started to decline.  The working class would finally get a permanent raise, now and in the future.

Manufacturing could rise from employing 9% of the workforce to 20%, as occurs in middle class countries such as Germany and Japan, which would reinvigorate white, African-American and Latino communities, all of which have been devastated by deindustrialization over many decades. Contrary to popular myths of a post-industrial society, manufacturing continues to be the foundation of a prosperous economy.  A Democratic party that can promise to directly help the entire working class will have enough long-term support to defeat right-wing nationalism as personified by Donald Trump, and if progressive political parties around the world were to adopt a Green New Deal, they could turn back the tide of rising fascism around the world.

All of these programs are technically possible, but politically difficult; they fulfill the requirements of science but threaten the power of political and economic elites.  Think of it this way: physical laws cannot be changed, but political reality, no matter how daunting, can be.  Here are the ten sets of projects, including the greenhouse gases they eliminate and the approximate costs, which can be further refined in the coming months (Further details on cost and job estimates are available in my book chapter and at GreenNewDealPlan.com):

At the center of a Green New Deal, as AOC’s resolution points out, must be a national electrical system that uses only renewable technologies like wind, solar and geothermal to generate electricity. That doesn’t mean we should shut down all the nukes, coal and natural gas plants tomorrow; depending on the circumstances they might stay open for a while, but a modern system should eventually be 100% renewable. The best way to do that is for the Federal government to create a nation-wide system of strategically placed wind and solar farms in what we can call an Interstate Renewable Electricity System, adopting part of the name of the popular Interstate Highway System. This system would also rewire a smarter and more efficient national electrical grid, and would include plenty of battery storage.  This program could even include buying up half the stock of the top 50 utility companies in the country, so that we don’t have to deal with their obstruction tactics against a Green New Deal.  This system would eliminate 27% of greenhouse emissions directly and much more in other sectors, would clear up pollution from coal, minimize the risk from nukes, improve public health, and should cost on the order of $300 billion per year, including buying shares of utilities.

An Interstate High-Speed Rail System would use the electricity from the electrical Interstate, and follow many of the routes of the current Interstate.  This system could eventually eliminate all jet travel within the continental United States, would make long-distance travel more pleasant, and would reconnect smaller cities to national life.  Since freight rail would also be part of the system, and is many times more efficient than trucking, most long-haul trucking could be eliminated too – and remember that there would be plenty of better jobs for truckers. This would take care of up to 10% of emissions, decrease air pollution, improve public health, and cost about $100 billion per year.

There are two ways to decrease emissions from automobiles, which constitute about 17% of emissions in the U.S (total transportation emissions are 28% in the U.S., 13% globally).  The obvious way is to electrify them, although we don’t know how easy it will be scale up electric car production; the politically and culturally more difficult way is to make it unnecessary to rely on a car by reversing sprawl, that is, recreating the walkable neighborhoods in our population centers, or what used to be called citiesand towns.  Except for parts of some cities such as NYC and SF, urban areas are now mostly suburbs with a central business district, which like industrial districts of yore become deserted at night.  Only 5% of urban areas, according to one study, are now ‘walkable’, including being served by transit; but 30% of the public would like to live in a walkable community.  As anyone who tries to live in NYC or SF knows, housing costs are out of reach for most of the middle class.

It is time to acknowledge that the market has failed to provide sufficient affordable housing, and that the Federal government should create tens of millions of residential units in new apartment buildings and townhouses, thus creating main streets and livable city centers with a Walkable Community Construction Program, costing about $250 billion. This would include a Regional Transit Plan, for about $100 billion, providing each urban area with enough good transit to provide a truly preferable alternative to automobiles.

The Green New Deal resolution only mentions making housing affordable.  I understand the reluctance to suggest that people might prefer urban living to suburbs – but this mixes causes and effect:  suburban sprawl is often a consequence of the lack of affordable housing within the cities themselves.  Very few people relish the idea of a 90 minute commute to work, replete with traffic congestion and expensive parking.  In fact, there is increasing evidence to suggest that Millennials (the next generation of potential car buyers), place less priority on owning one.   Everything about these projects should make them so attractive that people will voluntarilywant to participate; there is nothing compulsory about any part of a Green New Deal.  It’s basic marketing – talk up the benefits and don’t go on the defensive.  Because the Green New Deal offers so much for so many, it is well-designed to be successfully marketed to the public.

The second way to deal with car emissions is to convert the national car fleet to electricity.  If, say, one quarter to one half of the population didn’t need a car because they lived within walking distance of transit in a walkable neighborhood, then we could decrease car ownership by half, subsidize the purchase of electric cars, and make it much easier to build out an electric car infrastructure, such as charging stations.  For example, at $100 billion per year, if half the vehicles become electric, that’s a $20,000 subsidy per vehicle over 20 years – such a deal!

Apartments and townhouses in urban areas are much easier to heat and cool, which causes 11% of emissions, because they share walls, unlike single family homes.  But we could strive to make all buildings energy self-sufficient by putting ground source heat-pumps underneath, retrofits around, and solar panels on top of buildings, in what might be called a Building Energy Self-Sufficiency Program, costing about $200 billion and providing millions of local, neighborhood jobs.  The solar energy could even provide much of the electricity for the electric cars described above.

A third new Interstate, an Interstate High-Speed Internet System, would move the U.S. back to the forefront of world internet systems in terms of speed, reliability, and access.  Just as the original New Deal created the Rural Electrification Administration to extend electricity to rural areas, so the internet Interstate could do the same for rural areas and for underserved urban areas.  This system could serve as the backbone for an expanded role for the Federal government in education: universal pre-K and childcare, aid to public schools (such as guaranteeing that no classroom size goes over 15 students), and free technical school and public college.  The total might come to about $100 billion per year.

An Infrastructure Reconstruction Program, at about $200 billion, could repair and upgrade the infrastructure that is falling apart today– much of which was built by the original New Deal.  This would include water systems, of which the disaster in Flint is a good negative example.  It also turns out that suburbia is slowly going bankrupt because it is too spread out to provide the tax revenues to maintain its water systems and roads, according to the civil engineers at StrongTowns.org.  So why bail out a failed economic model? Because part of the Green New Deal should be a series of political ‘deals’ – a part of the electorate gets something in return for their support for a Green New Deal.  In the case of the suburbs, they could get a new infrastructure for a few more decades – and so would the cities, which use their infrastructure much more efficiently – and in return, the voters in the suburbs would support a Green New Deal.  Suburban voters would also be benefitting from subsidized electric cars, while urban voters would be getting cheaper housing and better transit.  Another good deal!

Current discussions of the Green New Deal only briefly mention ‘greening’ manufacturing, but this is another area where the concept can really shine.  Instead of imposing various regulations or giving tax breaks, the Federal government could initiate a Manufacturing Clean Machinery Program, at about $100 billion, that could radically improve the environment in many ways, by replacing much of the machinery of current and new factories, in order to implement the following goals: first, use electricity for heat processes that now directly use fossil fuels, that account for 16% of emissions; second, eliminate, as much as possible, all air and water pollution (what is called ‘zero waste’); and third, and most difficult, redesign products so that they can be recycled or reused (called ‘cradle-to-cradle’), thus allowing us to shut down almost all mining.

Taken in aggregate, all of these measures would help slow or even stop the destruction of ecosystems, and would improve public health.  But most importantly for the general population, this program would provide a long-term market for a revived manufacturing and industrial machinery sector, which as the examples of world-leading Germany and Japan shows, supports a thriving middle class, just as the U.S. had when it was the leading industrial machinery supplier.  As Seymour Melman argued, manufacturing gives working people more power.  Corporations receiving this aid could be required to give their employees representation on their boards of directors, thus further empowering working people.

Our current agricultural system is broken in many ways.  The government subsidizes corn which is used for unhealthy processed foods, but instead we should be subsidizing the growing of organic crops and livestock. Pesticides and artificial fertilizers foul our soil, food and water, which together with belching and farting cows leads the agricultural sector to emit 13% of emissions (plus 3% for landfills). An Agricultural Reconstruction Program, at $100 billion, can help farmers convert to organic farming, place many farms nearer to cities and towns, and set up networks of urban gardens.  In addition, a new Civilian Conservation Corps could do what the original did in the 1930s: restore ecosystems destroyed by bad agricultural and mining practices, at $50 billion.  Also, a National Recycling Program could be set up to help with the industrial system and recycling compost to farms, at $100 billion. All of these programs could provide good jobs and support for a Green New Deal from rural voters.  But there is one more problem that is even worse than agriculture:

Global deforestation is causing about 17% of global emissions, and is destroying critical ecosystems (the U.S. is actually reforesting).  Most of this is being done to expand livestock production, mostly for cattle, in other words, the planet is being intentionally burned down so we can have cheaper burgers.  The global nature of deforestation is part of the global nature of the climate problem, so we need an international agreement, perhaps using the Paris process as a framework, that would create a Global Green New Deal.  The ‘deal’ in this case would be that developing countries would protect, and let the developed countries help them protect, their forests, grasslands and other ecosystems; in return, the developing countries would get clean industrial machinery from developed countries, say at $100 billion per year from the U.S. and more from other countries.  This would allow poorer countries to industrialize and help their own people, while the developed countries’ industrial machinery sectors would get another boost until the developed countries got up to speed; this is what happened when the Marshall Plan was used to reindustrialize post-war Europe and Japan.

Donald Trump and the Republicans have been engaged in a decades-long campaign to cripple the capacity of the Federal government to do anything constructive for the economy.  The shutdown was only the latest manifestation of what Steve Bannon called ‘the deconstruction of the administrative state’.  Their goal is to free corporations and billionaires from any constraints on their ceaseless desire for more power. At a similar moment in the 1930s, FDR and the Democrats passed the original New Deal, which directly and indirectly employed millions in order to create infrastructure and improve the lives of most of the society.  This government-led growth continued through LBJ’s Great Society, until he impaled the Federal government on the disaster of the Vietnam War.   The Green New Deal is the first comprehensive – and comprehensible —  progressive economic proposal that has attracted significant public support since the 1960s.  For the sake of the planet and our global civilization it is time that we start, as AOC put it, ‘picking up where we last left off’.

Jon Rynn is the author of the book ‘Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class’, holds a Ph.D. in political science, and is a fellow at the CUNY Institute of Urban Systems.  His twitter handle is @JonathanRynn, and his blog, EconomicReconstruction.org, contains a longer description of a Green New Deal and other writings.