Green New Deal

by John Quiggin on January 14, 2019

The idea of a “Green New Deal” seems to be everywhere, quite suddenly, although Wikipedia suggests it has been around for quite a while and that the phrase was coined by the ubiquitous Tom Friedman. There’s quite a good summary of the various versions by David Roberts at Vox (for those who don’t know him, an excellent source on climate issues in general).

The fuzziness of the term is, in a sense, unsurprising. It seems obvious that any progressive policy for the US must fit this description in broad terms. That is, it must be a modernized version of the New Deal and it must imply a shift to an environmentally sustainable economy. So, I’m going to put up my own version, without claiming that it is the One True GND.

As far as the “Green” part is concerned, it’s urgently necessary to decarbonize the economy, shifting to a fully renewable electricity system and electrifying the transport system. The time when this could be achieved by a price-based policy (carbon tax or emissions permits alone) has passed. A carbon price is needed, but so is systematic regulatory intervention.

Compared to politics as usual, this is a big deal, involving trillions of dollars in investment a complete restructuring of the energy sector, and radical changes to transport systems. It also has the potential for substantial net gains in employment – solar energy already employs three times as many US workers as coal.

But relative to the US or world economy as a whole, a transformation of the energy and transport sectors is not a big enough deal to form the basis of a New Deal. Energy and transport together account for around 10 per cent of the economy, and replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy in this 10 per cent is not going to make a fundamental difference to the operation of capitalism.

Quite a few ideas involving more radical economic changes have been proposed, including a Job Guarantee and Universal Basic Income. I’ve argued for a combination of these. In the specific context of a Green New Deal, the most important demand should be a reduction in working hours, with no offsetting change in wages. That amounts to taking the benefits of increased productivity, and progressive redistribution, in the form of increased leisure rather than increased consumption. It goes along with research findings suggesting that experiences, rather than material goods, are a better source of lasting happiness. To make the argument work completely, we need the further proviso that experiences arising from participation in family and community activities are more genuine than those offered by commercial providers such as tourism operators. I’d be interested to know if there is evidence on this point.

I’m at an early stage on this, so I’ll stop here and leave it open for discussion.