The audacity of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a Green New Deal (GND) provoked action, enthusiasm, excitement and opposition. It followed earlier GNDs and pulled forward later ones from Sanders, Warren and others. Runaway global warming moved onto the list of national priorities. Thanks to many GNDs, Greta Thunberg, thousands of organizers and millions of marchers, it will stay there.
Without explicitly addressing the spending of the rich and the aspirations of the rest of us, the many GNDs risk the result of Business As Usual (BAU) but with clean energy. That would be tragic. Success in stopping runaway global warming and mass extinction while achieving environmental and economic justice requires grounding climate activism in a vision of the world we want to create.
Working five days a week, fifty weeks a year, for fifty or sixty years of a person’s life is a grim prospect. It is not possible, furthermore, to have such a life in developed countries while elsewhere development is thwarted because the atmospheric and oceanic dumps have already been filled. A new vision must change the aspirations of the American public toward a better life not centered on material consumption.
The behavior of the rich
Kevin Anderson is professor of climate change leadership at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. He’s also chair of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester in Britain. His response to the IPCC 1.5 C Special Report in the fall of 2018 has been widely quoted — through not nearly widely enough — as follows:
The responsibility for global emissions is heavily skewed towards the lifestyles of a relatively few high emitters – professors and climate academics amongst them. Almost 50% of global carbon emissions arise from the activities of around 10% of the global population, increasing to 70% of emissions from just 20% of citizens. Impose a limit on the per-capita carbon footprint of the top 10% of global emitters, equivalent to that of an average European citizen, and global emissions could be reduced by one third in a matter of a year or two. (i)
Anderson is not revealing new information here. Emissions by income level have been well known for years, reported on by Steven Pacala, Pope Francis, Oxfam, Chancel and Piketty, Magdoff and Williams, and many others. But Anderson tells us where to look for results on stopping climate change. The many GNDs must include a policy to get those results.
Cutting the emissions of the rich requires cutting their incomes. This is not Liberation Theology or a preference for the poor. Cutting high incomes is climate policy. Cutting the incomes of the affluent, North and South, is required climate policy. It simultaneously reduces income inequality.
Sharply diminished material consumption for many — and “many” is at least the top 30% of the income distribution — is necessary. Some climate activists, including prominent ones, implicitly or explicitly deny that necessity.
Years before Anderson’s statement, Pope Francis proposed two cuts for the affluent; the first to bring exploitation of the Earth within “acceptable” levels, the second to deal with poverty. Pope Francis wrote:
We all know it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sections of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable levels and we still have not solved the problem of poverty. (ii)
The big question is how to cut the income (and separately the wealth) of the richest people on the planet. Taxing the rich, appealing as it is, is not the most effective way to reduce their incomes. Reducing the incomes of the rich can best be accomplished by cutting the workweek, with no cut in pay for the workers. What now is distributed to the owners as profit and to CEOs as income, will become pay for the workers. This places the fight for environmental and economic justice at the workplace.
The aspirations of the rest of us
Waylon Jennings described — and lamented — the current aspirations of most of us in his 1977 hit single, Luchenback, Texas:
We've been so busy keepin' up with the Jones’
Four car garage and we're still building on
Waylon Jennings, Luchenback Texas
We learn our aspirations. We learn from the consumption of those with a higher income than ourselves. We observe what neighbors, workmates, bosses, and, yes, the Jones’ —have already learned to like. This is not emulation or jealousy but learning. The affluent also continue to learn. They try new experiences, buy new things, bigger airplanes and yachts, of course, but also more and bigger houses, newer and bigger cars. The rich are our constant teachers. They have the money to try new experiences, buy new objects, and as they learn, we learn from them.
The many Green New Deals must reduce overall demand, slow, and finally stop the growth of the economy. Emissions can be quickly cut, as Anderson asserts. But the aspirations of the rest of the public will be changed as well.
If the most affluent — the top quintile — is emitting 70% of the Green House Gases, as Anderson says, why are the aspirations of the rest of us of concern?
The aspirations of the lower quintiles — say the lowest 70% of the income distribution — are important, but not because their individual emissions are so large. Aspiration rather than consumption is the problem. Politicians from mayors to governors and presidents get elected by saying “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The perfect excuse for doing nothing on runaway global warming is “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Our aspirations now embrace that excuse. Aspirations must be changed.
Material aspirations can never be met by a growing GDP, moreover, because aspirations grow along with GDP. Living our lives on a hamster wheel destroys the environment. Emissions will be cut not by ranting at the fossil fuel companies but by changing the aspirations of 300 million Americans.
Cutting the Work Week
All of the GNDs have jobs creation components. All depend on only two tools for job creation: monetary and fiscal policy. Managing the supply of work hours is a third tool for managing the economy. The original New Deal taught us to manage acreage for corn and wheat when supply and demand are mismatched. Cutting the work week can reduce the gap between the demand for labor and the always excess supply. Such a cut has happened repeatedly over the past 150 years in the USA. Cutting standard work time is the way to get jobs for all who want a job.
For Labor now, and for its sympathetic think tanks, cutting hours is ignored (not to say rejected) in deference to the Keynesian remedy of government spending. We have supported employment (inadequately) for the last 70 years through Monetary and Fiscal policy which, from the beginning of the Cold War through today is Military Keynesianism. Military spending is the US employment policy. (iii) The US choice has been war instead of unemployment. Advocates for a cut in the Pentagon budget, advocates against war, should be advocates for cutting standard work time.
Reducing the work week creates jobs, raises pay, and redistributes income from the rich to the rest. It opens jobs for excluded minorities, and slows economic growth as profits are reduced by becoming wages. By fighting at the job site for “no cut in income” when we work fewer hours, we address income redistribution at the source.
At the start of the original New Deal in early 1933, the “30 Hour Bill” passed the Senate by a vote of 53-30. (Yes, the US Senate.) House passage was assured. But President Roosevelt succeeded in killing it. As the Depression wore on and a new slump in 1937 began to be called “the Roosevelt recession”, Roosevelt finally did support the “Wages and Hours Act” which sharply cut working hours and brought us the weekend. (iv) Global warming requires cutting hours, as does a job for all desiring one.
Reformist Demands versus Revolutionary Demands
When worker and public unrest looms, as now, business interests will offer material concessions through the government. The climate movement’s demand for massive investment, plus the threats to jobs from robots and Artificial Intelligence, have forced renewable energy, the Jobs Guarantee, and the Libertarians’ Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) into the national discussion. These reforms, welcome as they may or may not be, are not revolutionary. They can serve to quiet unrest while the party and exploitation of the planet goes on.
Anchor Businesses fiercely resist the immaterial concession of free time. This is a revolutionary demand because it potentially could change the public’s vision of what a good life means. The nightmare for the Chamber of Commerce is that workers learn the benefits of free time and aspire to more of it.
The demand for cutting hours, say the demand for the four day week as a start, can help build coalitions to bring deep changes. The Poor People’s Campaign could stress Andre Gorz’s maxim: “Everyone must be able to work less so that everyone can work.” The Extinction Rebellion which seems to mobilize without demands, could adopt cuts in working time. If Military Keynesianism were superseded by the fight for shorter hours, the antiwar movement would embrace it. Some unions, not all, will be a harder sell, as seen in the fights over oil and gas pipelines and elsewhere.
It is time to move beyond Reformism.
Eugene P. Coyle has consulted for low-income and environmental groups on energy and natural resources. By invitation he spoke with the US Congress and several state legislatures. In opposition to utility privatization he addressed the full House of Representatives of Brazil, and, more than once each, government bodies in Korea and Mexico. He has a Ph.D. in economics. Feedback is welcome at email@example.com.
ii Laudato Si, page 22., Encyclical letter, Pope Francis, 2015
iii Michael Kalecki, in “Political Aspects of Full Employment”, 1943, both supported Keynes’ ideas for managing business slumps but explained why fiscal policy focused on military spending. Kalecki wrote “The reasons for the opposition of the ‘industrial leaders’ to full employment achieved by government spending may be subdivided into three categories: (i) dislike of government interference in the problem of employment as such; (ii) dislike of the direction of government spending (public investment and subsidizing consumption); (iii) dislike of the social and political changes resulting from the maintenance of full employment
iv For the US history of cutting working hours, including the period of the Great Depression of the 1930s and Senator Black’s 30 Hour Bill, see Our Own Time, by David R. Roediger and Philip S, Foner, Verso, 1989.