Much of the policy agenda of Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders can be fairly categorized as “progressive,” in the sense of helping poor and working people, including through the redistribution of wealth.
Raising the minimum wage would help some of the poorest people in society increase consumption, and perhaps even their savings.
Paying for child care would reduce costs for low-income parents.
And Medicare for All would not only help uninsured people get the medical help they need, it could also prevent them from being crushed by debt.
Whether or not you support these policies, there is a reasonable case that they could increase labor productivity, and thus increase economic growth and societal wealth.
Medicare for All could triplethe percentage of time that doctors and nurses spend with patients, by eliminating paperwork, thereby saving billions in labor costs.
Paid child care would make child care more efficient, allowing more children to be cared for by fewer adults, and thus free up parents to work more.
And raising the minimum wages would increase the incentive by employers to adopt automation, as McDonald’s did with its touch screens for ordering. Such machines may reduce workers at the site of production, but economists agree they increases wealth, growth, and demand for labor though the rest of the economy.
The same can’t be said for Sanders’ $16 trillion Green New Deal. Rather than being progressive, in the sense of redistributing wealth, or labor-saving, and growth-encouraging, the proposal is regressive. It would disproportionately hurt the poor by making them pay more for basic goods like food and energy. And it would slow economic growth by reducing labor-productivity.
Sanders may deny that his Green New Deal would increase energy prices, but in boasting that it will create 20 million more jobs, he is pointing to the reason why energy prices would rise. Making anything more labor-intensive makes it more expensive.
And by making energy, the master resource of the economy, more expensive, Sanders’ plan would slow growth, which would in turn reduce wage growth, and reduce the societal wealth needed for Sanders’ social programs, home-building, and more liberal social attitudes toward minorities, women, and children.
How is it that so much of Sanders’ agenda is progressive while his energy agenda is regressive? To answer that question, we need to go back in time — back to the invention of the Green New Deal in the 1970s.
An Unholy Alliance
Socialist thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles, like most educated elites in the mid-19th Century, understood perfectly well that economic growth was driven by labor-productivity and fossil fuels. They knew the industrial revolution couldn’t have happened with wood fuel, for inherently physical reasons.
Marx and Engles didn’t imagine abolishing cheap energy. On the contrary, they wanted future worker-controlled socialist societies to benefit from labor-saving devices and fuels.
In 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt, progressive Republicans, and Democratic socialists similarly understood the necessity of cheap energy and food for lifting people out of poverty. That essentially materialist and progressive vision continued through President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs of the sixties.
That all changed in the 1970s. It was then that Malthusian conservationists and socialists in the US and Europe argued against helping poor nations develop as they had done, with dams, fossil fuels, industrialized farming, and factories.
In a widely-used 70s-era textbook, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich and future Obama advisor John Holdren claimed agricultural industrialization through fertilizers, better seeds, and mechanization was bad for poor nations because they resulted in “the flood of landless poor farmworkers who are migrating to LDC [least developed countries] cities.” The result would be food shortages.
In reality, throughout the industrial revolution, the opposite had happened: the landless workers gained better paying jobs in the city, and farmers used fossil fuels to increase yields.
Ehrlich and Holdren denied such a thing could work for poor nations. In addition to claiming industrialization increased unemployment, they insisted fossil fuels were scarce. The two men, both affluent academics, believed humankind needed to play “triage” where some “will die regardless… India… was probably in this category. Bangladesh is today a more clear-cut example.”
What nations like Bangladesh needed was not labor productivity but rather the opposite: “much greater use of human labor and relatively less dependence on heavy machinery and manufactured fertilizers and pesticides.” Such labor-intensive farming “causes far less environmental damage than does energy-intensive Western agriculture,” they claimed, wrongly.
But the Malthusians had the same problem Malthus had: their proposals violated common standards of human decency.
Environmentalists were “self-righteous, elitist, neo-Malthusians who call for slow growth or no growth,” complained civil rights legend, Bayard Rustin, to Time Magazine in 1979. The Malthusians, he said, “would condemn the black underclass, the slum proletariat, and rural blacks, to permanent poverty.”
The Malthusians knew they needed a way to rationalize their agenda as moral. They did so by adopting the progressive language of wealth redistribution.
The unholy alliance between Marxists and Malthusians was partly inspired by an argument between Ehrlich and the ostensibly socialist New Yorker writer, Barry Commoner, over the issue of population control and poverty. Commoner blamed poverty for food crises, where Ehrlich blamed overpopulation.
The clash resolved itself when Ehrlich accepted Commoner’s redistributive agenda of rich nations assisting poor nations with development aid, so long as that money went to charity and not things like infrastructure.
Poor nations, the two men agreed, could develop a little bit without destroying the planet, though only so long as rich nations transferred their wealth to poor nations, and implemented a Green New Deal to move toward a low-energy, renewable-powered society.
Some of this was driven by fear and loathing of nuclear energy, which they believed would result in the apocalypse. Where in the 1950s many experts believed economic growth would drive the transition from fossil fuels to nuclear, just as it had driven the transition from renewables like wood to fossil fuels, Malthusian-socialists sought to do the opposite by fleeing backwards through time, first away from nuclear to coal and then, eventually, to renewables. Along the way, society would have to revert to agricultural life.
Climate activists embraced the Malthusian vision, as did many journalists. In his 1989 book, The End of Nature, New Yorker writer and Sanders ally, Bill McKibben, argued that humankind’s impact on the planet would require the same Malthusian program developed by Ehrlich and Commoner. Rich nations would return to small community agrarian life while transferring wealth to poor nations so they could improve their lives modestly but not industrialize. Economic growth would end. And the human population would shrink.
Marx and Engles, who viewed industrial capitalism as a huge improvement over agrarian feudalism, would have been horrified. “The bourgeoisie,” they wrote in the Communist Manifesto “rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”
Why It Won’t Work
Is a Green New Deal likely to work? Ours didn’t. In the early 2000s, my colleagues and I dusted off the Green New Deal created by Commoner and called it a “New Apollo Project.”
All of the basic elements were the same: massive taxpayer investments in renewables, organics, efficiency, mass transit, and much else in the progressive agenda that can be justified as somehow reducing emissions.
Twenty-five billion was wasted on biofuels. Tens of billions more were wasted on energy efficiency programs that cost more than they were worth. Well-connected venture capitalists got rich. Wealth was distributed upwards. And the renewables it subsidized contributed to rising electricity costs.
If Sanders were really so concerned with climate change he wouldn’t ban nuclear, he would expand it. Between 1965 and 2018, the world spent about $2 trillion for nuclear, and $2.3 trillion for solar and wind. At the end of the experiment, the world received about twice as much electricity from nuclear as it did from solar and wind.
Today, France spends a little more than half as much for electricity that produces one-tenth of the carbon emissions of renewables-heavy German electricity. Meanwhile Russia is scaling up nuclear in part so it can export its natural gas.
Both nations are able to do so thanks to the public ownership, socialism, of their electricity sectors.
Some Sanders supporters get it. “We need to rapidly clean up our electricity generation, and renewables alone are not up to the task,” wrote Leigh Phillips in The New Republic four years ago. “This is where democratic socialism comes in—or should. There is no getting around the fact that any mass build-out of nuclear will have to be public-sector led.”
Nuclear energy would lift the poor up, he argued, not keep them down. “The world is crying out for cheap, dependable, scalable, clean, public electricity,” wrote Phillips, “especially the billions of people who don’t have electricity at all. Sanders has always been on the side of the little guy. I hope he’ll change heart on this one issue.”