Paying for the Green New Deal, One Way or Another

A few days ago a video of Sen. Dianne Feinstein lecturing some school children that the Green New Deal can’t be paid for and isn’t going to pass went viral. The video encapsulates what is so exhausting about the Democratic Party old guard — they’re over cautious, stuck in the past, and still playing defense against being called “tax and spend liberals.”

The children were part of the Sunrise Movement, a a youth-led organization promoting a Green New Deal. Someone might explain to Sen. Feinstein that these young people will be the ones to pay for her inaction. Climate change will demand payment, one way or another.

Bill McKibben writes in the New Yorker,

Well, maybe. But Feinstein was, in fact, demonstrating why climate change exemplifies an issue on which older people should listen to the young. Because—to put it bluntly—older generations will be dead before the worst of it hits. The kids whom Feinstein was talking to are going to be dealing with climate chaos for the rest of their lives, as any Californian who has lived through the past few years of drought, flood, and fire must recognize.

This means that youth carry the moral authority here, and, at the very least, should be treated with the solicitousness due a generation that older ones have managed to screw over.

Sen. Feinstein let the children know she didn’t respond to ultimatums, and she also told them she had her own proposals for dealing with climate change. McKibben continues,

Later Friday evening, Feinstein’s aides released portions of her proposal, and on first view they appear to be warmed-over versions of Obama-era environmental policy: respect for the Paris climate accord, a commitment to a mid-century conversion to renewable energy.

It’s not that these things are wrong. It’s that they are insufficient, impossibly so. Not insufficient—and here’s the important point—to meet the demands of hopelessly idealistic youth but because of the point that the kids were trying to make, which is that the passage of time is changing the calculations around climate change. …

… The irony is that, when Feinstein said she’s been “doing this for thirty years,” she described the precise time period during which we could have acted. James Hansen brought the climate question to widespread attention with his congressional testimony in 1988. If we’d moved thirty years ago, moderate steps of the kind that Feinstein proposes would have been enough to change our trajectory. But that didn’t get done, in large part because oil and gas companies that have successfully gamed our political system didn’t want it to get done. And the legislators didn’t do anywhere near enough to fight them. So now we’re on the precipice. Indeed, we’re over it. The fires that raged in California last fall were the fires of a hell on earth.

Sen. Feinstein isn’t the only Dem who doesn’t get it. When asked about the Green New Deal in an interview, Nancy Pelosi responded, “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive. The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?” If she wasn’t ready to endorse it, she could have said something like “Yes, that’s one of the exciting proposals we’re considering.”

David Roberts at Vox wrote in December,

If the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to be believed, humanity has just over a decade to get carbon emissions under control before catastrophic climate change impacts become unavoidable.

The Republican Party generally ignores or denies that problem. But the Democratic Party claims to accept and understand it.

It is odd, then, that Democrats do not have a plan to address climate change.  … Plenty of Democratic politicians support policies that would reduce climate pollution — renewable energy tax credits, fuel economy standards, and the like — but those policies do not add up to a comprehensive solution, certainly nothing like what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests is necessary.

There are a lot of details to be worked out. The Green New Deal as it currently exists is more about the goals to be achieved than how to achieve them. It is, essentially, a proposal to mobilize the nation and put solutions to climate change on the front burner. David Roberts:

As we will see, the exact details of the GND remain to be worked out, but the broad thrust is fairly simple. It refers, in the loosest sense, to a massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, meant to transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy. It is meant both to decarbonize the economy and to make it fairer and more just.

So let’s talk about paying for it. “We can’t pay for it” is not an answer. A little girl who confronted Feinstein asked why there was infinite money for a military but not to address climate change. Feinstein brushed off the question. But in fact, climate change is becoming a bigger threat to the nation than other nuclear powers.

Let’s ask an economist about this — Here’s Paul Krugman:

Specifically, let me suggest that there are three broad categories of progressive expenditure: investment, benefits enhancement, and major system overhaul, which need to be thought about differently from a fiscal point of view.

So, first off, investment – typically spending on infrastructure or research, but there may be some room at the margin for including spending on things like childhood development in the same category. The defining characteristic here is that it’s spending that will enhance society’s future productivity. How should we pay for that kind of outlay?

The answer is, we shouldn’t. Think of all the people who say that the government should be run like a business. Actually it shouldn’t, but the two kinds of institution do have this in common: if you can raise funds cheaply and apply them to high-return projects, you should go ahead and borrow. And Federal borrowing costs are very low – less than 1 percent, adjusted for inflation – while we are desperately in need of public investment, i.e., it has a high social return. So we should just do it, without looking for pay-fors.

Much of what seems to be in the Green New Deal falls into that category. To the extent that it’s a public investment program, demands that its supporters show how they’ll pay for it show more about the critics’ bad economics than about the GND’s logic.

To me, this is the difference between can’t and won’t. We can pay for whatever we want to pay for. It’s just a matter of priorities. If we borrow money to invest in improvements that will create great value, if not direct financial returns, that is good investing, especially if the alternative is letting the nation rot or even putting it in danger.

Put it this way — if we found out that an asteroid was about to take out most of the midwest, and stopping it would take spending the equivalent of our entire GDP for the year, would we do it? Or would we sit around and argue about paying for it? And for that matter, when are we going to fix the infrastructure?

See also The Green New Deal Is Better Than Our Climate Nightmare.

18 thoughts on “Paying for the Green New Deal, One Way or Another

  1. " The video encapsulates what is so exhausting about the Democratic Party old guard "

    The video is also a selectively edited hit piece more in the vein of FAUX news dirty trickster James O'Keefe than it is a serious piece of journalism. Feinstein is a moderate for sure but she also has five bills dealing with climate change right now: two on capping carbon and a two on fuel efficiency, and making California's fuel standards federal. She had those kids (12-15 years old) in her office and listened to what they had to say. From I've read the whole interaction is being mischaracterized by many. What's she supposed to say; yes I'll do exactly as you middle school kids say? The so called "green new deal" contains very little specifics and seem to be more than an aspirational starting point. They want to decrbon the economy in ten years? That aint going to happen, not without wiping out our economy? If democrats are going to use support of a vaguely worded document with impoosible standards as a litmus test we are going to beat ourselves. Lets get real.

    • “The video is also a selectively edited hit piece more in the vein of FAUX news dirty trickster James O’Keefe than it is a serious piece of journalism.” The one I linked to is unedited. She’s slightly less annoying in the unedited video, but she’s still annoying.

      “Feinstein is a moderate for sure but she also has five bills dealing with climate change right now.”

      Yes, the post discussess Feinstein’s proposals. They would have been great if they’d passed 30 years ago. Now they amount to holding back a hurricane with an electric fan. The fact that she thinks they are enough tells us she doesn’t have a clue.

      The point of the post is Feinstein’s claim that the Green New Deal is a non-starter because it can’t be paid for. That’s not true.

      • Well nothing can be paid for (without debt) until we come to grip with the fact that we are pissing away all of our tax dollars on an over-inflated wasteful and unnecessary military. Instead of trashing moderate democrats because they don't support an impossible undefined piece of legislation introduced by a freshman congress-critter we should be trashing republicans who want to drill for oil in the grand canyon. I mean really, the repugs have withdrawn from every global climate change effort (mild as they might be) but our side sets out to trash our own side for not wanting to eliminate all carbon emissions in ten years? The republicans want to burn more coal and supporters of the GND answer is for all to ride bicycles starting tomorrow?

          • Krugman seems a bit flowery to me on this one? Look my only point is if we are going to have a green new deal then maybe we should let the only political party that would consider enacting such a thing, actually write the policy?

          • “maybe we should let the only political party that would consider enacting such a thing, actually write the policy?”Nobody has said otherwise.

  2. IMO, the Democratic party machine has a prime directive which they follow religously. Protect the donor class that pays the Democratic establisment.

    There's a corrolary directive also built to ensure survival, (though not success.) Don't piss off a donor class bigger than your donor class.

    You don't see the Democratic Party Machine confronting big oil, big pharma or the banks. The Democrats are willing to nibble at the edges of reform in ways that irritate the GOP donor groups, but not enough to provoke a full assault. IMO, the GOP goes by the same rules. The only full exceptions in the 2020 race are Liz Warren and Bernie Sanders. The other candidates are less bad then HRC, but they will follow the established norms, protect the Democratic Donor Class and not offend the GOP Donor Class with a direct assault.

    It's all about the money.


    • " It's all about the money "

      I agree, the question is do you start with the democrats or do you start with the repugs. The GND looks like a bomb to me, designed to burn down the democrats, it can only hurt the left. I'm not a bot that is just what I think?

  3. If how we spend public resources is a reflection of who and what we are, the reality doesn't paint a pretty picture. 

    We spend trillions on "defense" and tax cuts without a second thought.  This is money earmarked essentially for the 1%.  And the implication behind the "how we're going to pay for it" argument is that money isn't well spent  if its to be spent on those other than the rich.

    Climate change really informs just how far down the rabbit hole we've gone with this immorality of greed when even money to be spent saving the planet must be held back to give to the wealthy.

    Its sad.

  4. I watched Bill Maher's show the other night, and they were talking about climate change, and its effects and costs.

    One guest said, "The total losses from just the fires in just CA alone last year could exceed $400 Billion! 'How are we going to pay for this?"

    And Maher quickly countered, "And how are we going to pay for THIS!  All of… This?" 

    Point made.

    If the WWII era folks were "The Greatest Generation," then we Boomers might be the worst.

    The older Boomers were hedonist's for a good chunk of their lives – or at least the lucky ones who missed Vietnam, or physically and mentally survived it.    "Sex, drugs, and Rock & Roll" was the mantra for the 60's and early 70's, and "Greed is good" in their young prime.  Woodstock ended, the war ended, and Wall Street beckoned.

    We younger Boomers left childhood in the first Nixon administration, matured during the Oil Crisis, the Disco craze, and as conservatism began to expand like the cancer that it is – and then we had Reagan and AIDS in our young prime.  Oy…

    Most of us Boomers can't complain (especially the ones whose timing was perfect). 

    The Vietnam War ended.  We held the first Earth Day.  We had some fun!

    But then, like our elders, we proceeded to start new wars, and polluted away like there's no tomorrow.  And now, barring a technological miracle, unless we take quick and decisive massive action, there may not be any tomorrows for humanity.  Or, those tomorrow's may still be there, but the local  weather around the globe will be nothing like it is today. And, of course, the wars that will result as people's fight over H2O.

    What I guess I  want to say to the younger generations is this, "Sorry for the disasters we're leaving you.  The ongoing endless and pointless wars, and the dying planet.  I don't know what else to say, except,… Uhm…  "Good luck?!?"


  5. One thing I've wondered since my parent's home heating oil went through the roof during the Oil Crisis:

    This might be stupid, but why didn't we ever start trying to see how houses built BELOW the ground would do? 

    A house built with most of it in the ground would be cheaper and more efficient to keep warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. 

    Maybe there's something in our human psychology that we couldn't live happily in what essentially would be a large upholstered bomb-shelter?

    But we humans may have to adjust to doing just that to survive anyway, so why not try it? 

    Hell, I'd volunteer!  As long as I can get the internet and cable tv, I'd give it a go for the team!  And air, water, and food too, of course.   And, since I'm Slavic, it should go without saying that of course I'll need beer and booze in copious quantities!  Now we're talkin'!

    So, what say you to underground homes?  Dumb, huh?

    • Check with your cities building codes.  I am sure most municipalities do not allow basement homes.  You can have a basement, but you have to have a building on the basement.

  6. Problems. oh problems and debts no nation can hope to pay.  On top of that we elected another problem who is not solving problems, making a huge carbon footprint, and running up debt like a spendaholic in the Mall of America on Black Friday.  So to focus on Feinstein trying to bridge too big of a generation gap is just a perfect diversion.  We will see that fumble more often than that uncalled pass interference that kept the Saints out of the Super Bowl.  Wait until Sean Hannity hits an pompous righteous  stride on that one.  He will tap into that fetish for the emotional roller coaster ride that fuels the right wing hate addicts escape addiction.  

    Waiting for American politics of either party get green is like waiting for the Vatican to solve the moral and ethical problems of it's church.  How many hundreds of years have these problems been going on?  That inquisition phase with all those torture devices was the Dick Cheney utopia, which he attempted to recreate since he missed it's heyday.  Doug has a huge point which Feinstein put the big fumble around.  At that age children's thinking is very high on the magic scale.  Running a close second are those who think climate change can be solved by going on a Vegan diet.  Magical thinking surrounds the issue as few have the metal to face so much harsh reality.  Feinstein certainly understands the money power that Doug mentions, and the political reality and system limitations we all face.  Her mistake was trying to impart all that wisdom too early in child development.  It is a silly as teaching Calculus to Kindergarteners.  The majority of high school and college student can't get their mind wrapped around that subject and few achieve mastery. 

    Anyway, my rambling is feeble in comparison to the pair of minds who presented at the Commonwealth Club.  Listening to this podcast takes an hour, so those with widget based attention deficit disorder will need to mute their phones and find a safe from distraction area.  It is worth both listening to, and taking notes on, in my opinion.  But please, you be the judge.

  7. Feinstein exhibits the same “political realities” reasoning as Obama did.  Yet they don’t seem to take into account that the other party (being more influenced by plutocrats), will do whatever it takes to win.  And it's a supremely selfish highly rationalized kind of win.  The new democrats seem have it right when trying to getting the concerned youth to understand the latter reality.  They know the next generation doesn’t want to be the generation that gets to “hit bottom”.

  8. Your posts in the new format seem longer and better. More like short but well researched and thought out magazine articles.

    And I agree with your points about what's needed.

    I turned 70 in January.

    Old white guy who voted for O twice.

  9. Sorry, forgot to mention.

    Geezers have grandchildren they generally love.

    So if you get them past Fox News' Republican climate change denial they'll likely come around.

    Some of them (us), anyway.


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