GELFAND’S WORLD--The Green New Deal is starting to attract a following. It is a serious attack on global warming, but its importance also includes the fact that it provides a concise definition of American progressivism.
It's a proposal that would, if enacted, put the U.S. onto the equivalent of a wartime footing to deal with climate change while, at the same time, providing for jobs, healthcare, and housing for the least among us. You can read the text here. It is being pushed by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is already gaining a following to the extent of being known by her initials AOC.
AOC is joined by senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts in introducing the GND.
The Vox summary and discussion
An essay by David Roberts at Vox.com is getting a lot of play. Roberts takes an unabashedly progressive (what I like to call liberal) viewpoint. He talks about Justice in his essay:
"Ordinary people matter. Emissions matter, yes. Costs and money matter. Technologies and policies matter. But they all matter secondarily, via their effects on ordinary people. The role of progressive politics, if it amounts to anything, is to center the safety, health, and dignity of ordinary people.
"That means that justice — or as it’s often called, “environmental justice,” as though it’s some boutique subgenre — must be at the heart of any plan to address climate change. The simple fact is that climate change will hit what the resolution calls “frontline and vulnerable communities” (who have contributed least to the problem) hardest. And attempts to transition away from fossil fuels threaten communities that remain tied to the fossil fuel economy. "
In an earlier story, Roberts presented The Green New Deal, explained which goes into the political infighting among Democrats in the House that is still not entirely resolved.
At one level it's focused on the climate disaster. On another level it's aspirational.
On the downside it may be overambitious, but on the upside, it condenses and summarizes an approach to American economics that deals with our problems across the board. It would require a substantial redistribution of income -- from the very rich to the rest of us -- but it begins by vowing to deal with global warming and poverty as core principles.
The proposal is already being attacked using that taunting word socialist, in spite of the fact that the proposal really has nothing to do with socialism in its traditional sense.
We Need Another Word for What is Not Socialism
The recent calls by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others for a return to marginal tax rates approaching those of the Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy eras have resulted in the expected catcalls and insults. It seems that any attempt at using federal tax revenues for uplifting the poorer among us or, in this case, for dealing with the slow-motion emergency of global warming, will automatically collect assertions that the proponents are socialists or worse.
In fact, people of a certain age may remember the bumper sticker that said, "Liberalism -- Socialism -- Communism." It was an illogical and unfair suggestion that liberalism led to socialism led to communism, but back then, it was also a paranoid era in which the Soviet Union controlled most of eastern Europe and Red China controlled much of the Asian landmass. Communism was viewed as something akin to a contagious disease and even home-grown Americans could be suspected of being in danger of being infected.
Income redistribution within the capitalist system vs. theoretical socialism
In college, I knew a fellow living in the same dormitory who explained that he was a socialist. When I asked how he defined socialism, he explained socialism as being the system where the workers own the means of production. This is a compact sort of phraseology, suggesting in the mind's eye a picture of a factory that builds railroad locomotives, and that factory being owned and managed by its workers. I think that the definition was supposed to be taken more broadly, meaning that the workers of the country owned the farms, factories, and businesses as a whole.
Of course, this is not what AOC and other Democratic Socialists are referring to. It's perhaps unfortunate that a few Americans such as Bernie Sanders even use the word, because of that historical connection to the old Soviet Union style of socialism. In the GND, we have a style of American progressivism that relies on income redistribution through progressive taxes.
A fairly typical conservative response to AOC and her followers is the commentary by Andrew Klavan who disputes the capitalist underpinnings of American progressivism by waving his magic wand and calling it socialism:
"So, socialism has now changed where you get to keep the means of production, but when you make a profit, they steal your money, so that's a different thing, it's a different thing than what Marx started out with. They know that when you take over the means of production, you don't make any money, so they let you keep the means of production, but then they steal the money that you've made and they spread it around to buy votes with programs that don't work.
"That destroys countries much, much slower, because what it destroys is your incentive to work. You work to make money, you work to improve your condition and they just take that right away from you by saying "no no, we know how to spend your money, you earned it but we know how to spend it."
In other words, if Klavan and others don't like something, they just call it socialism.
What's important to point out is that taking taxes from income earners in a capitalist system is not socialism and does not lead to socialism.
The two ideas have nothing to do with each other. Our current economic system is based on private ownership of land and businesses.
If a Silicon Valley business owner develops an income that runs into the tens of millions of dollars and the federal government taxes that income at a level that runs from nothing for the first few thousand dollars up to 39 percent for the middle millions, and then taxes the ten-million-and-first-dollar at 70 percent, this has nothing to do with whether our system is capitalist or socialist. The business owner still owns his business, regardless of the personal income that gets taxed away.
High taxes may be something that the Andrew Klavans of the world don't like, but that practice has nothing to do with capitalism vs. socialism.
And by the way, the idea that 70% marginal rates destroy incentive is questionable to say the least, in spite of conservative arguments to that effect. Consider how well this country did in the immediate post-WWII era,
The big nag
Right wingers and some conservatives like to brand pretty much anything other than their own emotionally cramped ideology as socialism. They like to call the proponents of anything remotely liberal as socialists. It's not really a legitimate critique. It's really just a nag. It's a way of saying that there are differences of opinion between those who would tax the rich heavily and those who would not. It's just a scare tactic.
Redistributionist capitalism as a third way
There is a conservative ideology that stresses the obligation we all have to make our own way within the private sector economy. Although even conservatives generally don't make this ideology into an absolute, the idea is that it is more honorable to earn our own way than to accept anything on the public dole. And words like "the dole" and "welfare" are intended to flog this concept.
But what shall we do about the current trend in which fewer and fewer people make a decent living, while the very few earn the most dollars? Traditional conservatism is failing when it comes to this argument. As automation increasingly takes over the workspace, the situation will only become worse.
This unpleasant fact may be the beginning of an ideology that justifies income redistribution through high taxes as both a practical matter and a moral necessity. The first part of the argument is that capitalist economies work just fine in the presence of high marginal tax rates. The second part of the argument is that some variant of that system is becoming increasingly necessary.
The GND as Stimulus Package and investment
Rebuilding our energy production infrastructure would be, just by itself, a project that matches the wartime mobilization of the 1940s for ambition and difficulty. It would be many times more difficult from a political standpoint. But as hurricanes and heat waves increasingly demolish large regions of the United States, perhaps people will buy into the need for drastic action.
When that realization comes, the GND or its successor will provide a mechanism for replacing those coal-fired power plants and gas fueled cars, and in so doing, it will provide a whole generation with universal employment. The only other thing that is needed to make the GND a reality is for our society to establish rules on how business owners treat their employees and how much they have to pay them.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)