Like What FDR Did,
Except the Trees Get Social Security
Among much else – reporter, humorist, analyst, a Yoda for the Upper West Side – the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman considers himself a phrase maker. One of his most famous coinages, “The World Is Flat,” not only describes his prose style but also his vision of the digitized society, and of course it became the title of his runaway 2005 bestseller. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that it is to Friedman that we can trace the phrase “The Green New Deal.”
In 2007, he wrote a column and gave it the catchy title. The idea was that a massive mobilization of a reinvented energy industry was the most efficient and comprehensive way to revive the U.S. economy, then teetering on the edge of recession. Now, more than 10 years later, with the economy humming along nicely, the phrase has reemerged and threatens to take over U.S. politics, at least on its leftward flank. Thanks, Tom!
The phrase today is most closely associated with the recently minted congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Even before her swearing in, AOC joined protestors occupying the outer office of soon-to-be-speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as a way of advancing the new Green New Deal. Pelosi responded – without, it should be said, an overabundance of enthusiasm – by allowing AOC and her friends to form a “Select Committee for a Green New Deal.” In Democratic Party politics today, AOC is Patient Zero: When she catches a cold, every loyal Democrat sneezes. She hadn’t been in Congress more than a few weeks before a large majority of her fellow party members were rushing to endorse her grand idea. Some polls place support for a Green New Deal among Democrats at more than 90%.
This includes the roughly 374 Democrats who are seeking the party’s presidential nomination in 2020. The competition among them has already provoked some bizarre behavior (Did you enjoy Beto O’Rourke’s livestreamed trip to his dentist?). So it stands to reason that it is suddenly mandatory for each presidential candidate to pledge loyalty to a program that doesn’t, as a technical matter, exist. Buzzfeed News, for example, reports that Marianne Williamson, the ’90s new-age guru who’s making an improbable run for the Democratic presidential nomination, was berated at a campaign stop in Iowa recently when she insisted that as president she would implement “a green new deal.” One questioner insisted she explain her promiscuous use of the indefinite article. A green new deal? Just any green new deal? Not good enough! No, she was asked, why wouldn’t she endorse The Green New Deal?
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Her answer was plausible enough – that the Green New Deal comes in many different versions. But that’s no longer quite true. For the first time since Friedman coined the term, we can say we have a good idea of what the GND entails. In early February, AOC and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced a congressional resolution outlining the GND. AOC’s office issued a Green New Deal “explainer,” a set of Q&As and talking points meant to flesh out the vague phrase. It is an amazing document, exquisite for its combination of opposites: It is at once supremely confident and supremely ignorant, highly moralistic in condemnation of other people’s moralizing, and insouciantly unconcerned about the ease with which the most difficult changes – in society and culture, in government and the economy, in human behavior itself – can be orchestrated.
Its proponents see the Green New Deal as the Swiss Army Knife of political programs – or perhaps the policy equivalent of those plastic gadgets that Ron (“Veg-O-Matic”) Popeil used to hawk on late-night TV. It does everything all at once! The explainer admits its ambition right up top: “This is a massive transformation of our society with clear goals and a timeline.” The timeline is a brisk 10 years. And if you think the timeline is impressive, wait until you see the goals the Green New Dealers plan to thrust down the country’s gaping maw. The chief transformation is to “move America to 100% clean and renewable energy” by 2030.
But as you read along you see that this transformation to renewables isn’t really the ultimate end of the GND. It isn’t even really an end in itself. It is a means to many ends. To paraphrase Popeil: This is the only government program you’ll ever need!
So here we go: The Green New Deal will: “create millions of jobs,” each with an income high enough to support a family; “ensure justice and equity” for all previously marginalized groups; give workers job training; guarantee a high-quality college education for everyone; provide “healthy food”; move “the unhoused” into new houses; and provide a “living wage” to those who aren’t working. (An early draft of the explainer said the GND would give a living wage even to those “unwilling to work.”) It will also provide “high-quality health care.” And it will “upgrad[e] all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification.” Again, you can hear the echo of Ron Popeil: Isn’t that amazing!
It is, it is! It’s also expensive! Unfortunately, after listing its goals, the explainer goes on for four and a half single-spaced pages without a specific explanation of how this massive disgorgement of government money would first be accumulated. A carbon tax, perhaps? “We’re not ruling a carbon tax out, but a carbon tax would be a tiny part of a Green New Deal.” Cap and trade, then? “Cap and trade may be a tiny part of the Green New Deal…” At last a mechanism is revealed. If the GND is going to require lots of money, the government will simply print it. “The Federal Reserve can extend credit to power these projects and investment and new public banks can be created to extend credit.”
The era of tax-and-spend is dead. The Green New Deal brings us into an era of print-and-spend. “The question isn’t how we will pay for it, but what will we do with our new shared prosperity.” Who wouldn’t want to party with these guys?
The Green New Dealers are aware that there might be some skeptics, eager to poo-poo their dreamy ambitions. The explainer tries to rebut the killjoys in advance. One technique is to cite bogus history. “When FDR called on America to build 185,000 planes to fight World War II, every business leader, CEO, and general laughed at him.” That’s not an exaggeration or even a caricature of a historical fact – it’s just wrong. “If Eisenhower wanted to build the interstate highway system today, people would ask how we’d pay for it.” Actually, “people” – congressmen and senators, most importantly – asked precisely that question about the system when it was first proposed. And it’s a good question, one that people should ask more often in Washington. Back then, their answer, and Ike’s, was a gas tax and tolls.
Still the skeptics persist. They point out that the GND’s elimination of fossil fuels would mean that all those devices powered by carbon today – from airplanes to boilers to cars – would run on electricity. This in turn would require, by some estimates, increasing our nationwide electrical output fourfold. At current levels, after a decade of generous subsidies, roughly 15% of our electrical production comes from renewable forms of energy. Let us stipulate that in the GND future, we’re going to be looking at a lot of windmills and solar panels. The question is whether there will be room for anything else. And as the Berkeley scholar Steven Hayward has pointed out, the supply chain to mine, transport, manufacture, and maintain the minerals and materials to make all the batteries and solar panels to replace fossil fuels could, in its environmental impact, easily match the present environmental impact of harvesting coal and oil.
The explainer, as informative as it is, caused some embarrassment when it was released (that line about paying people “unwilling to work” didn’t go over too well, and a reference to “farting cows” was dropped from later GND literature). But in fairness to the Green New Dealers, their magical thinking of print-and-spend isn’t much different from the way the government’s finances have been run since the 2008 recession. Still, when a mischievous Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, insisted on bringing the AOC-Markey resolution to a vote of the full Senate, nearly every Democrat, sensing they were being set up, refused to cast a yea or nay vote. Then Markey went before the cameras to declare that “we must act now.”
“For too long,” Friedman wrote not long ago in a column on AOC’s Green New Deal, “’green’ was viewed as a synonym for a project that was boutique, uneconomical, liberal, sissy and vaguely French.” There he goes, phrase-making again. He seems to think that at last the day has arrived when “green new deal” has become a synonym for “scalable, feasible, nonideological, robust, and even vaguely American.” My guess is he will have to wait a while longer.