Let’s say something simple about the “Green New Deal” outline recently revealed by the left wing of the Democratic Party: It’s a collection of big ideas in response to formidable concerns. Woe upon us the day we no longer welcome ideas of all shapes and sizes.
Let’s also say something basic about the response: People are duly skeptical of the proposal’s methods and means. Woe to us the day we embrace ideas without scrutiny.
This is how it works. Some aspect of society is problematic and moribund. A movement arises to jiggle the needle. Others, with a critical eye, assess costs and benefits and suss out unintended consequences. Some big ideas make it through. Some are refined. The process shakes loose still more (and maybe better) ideas from other quarters. It’s wise to be receptive to all of this — to revel in the exploration.
The GND has factors in its favor. A Pew Research poll of U.S. respondents — this was in 2016, and it’s echoed by a survey conducted by Yale University in December 2018 — determined that 83 percent were making an effort at least some of the time to live in ways that help protect the environment. Sixty-one percent believed that Americans as a whole will make major changes to their way of life to address climate change within the next 50 years. (There’s disagreement on how, but remember those numbers. We’ll get back to them.)
Then again, the Green New Deal is not just a plan for carbon-free energy. It’s a manifesto of progressive guarantees on matters ranging from health care to higher education to jobs “with a family-sustaining wage.” All before 2030.
Barack Obama had a phrase that could be applied to this sort of thinking — the “audacity of hope,” which he made into a book. Whether you like or dislike the 44th president, consider what those words could mean to your own goals — because no one holds a patent on hope or audacity.
After all, it was audacious in 1994 when, two years after the election of a young Democratic president, Bill Clinton, members of the Republican minority in the U.S. House developed a “Contract With America,” a set of proposals originated by a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. The “contract” was not a shrieking success in the end — there was overreach — but it helped shift the power balance in Congress for the first time in decades, and several proposals were implemented. One reason? Its initial ideas were those for which polling suggested at least 60 percent support among the people.
Kind of like those 2016 numbers about the environment. But what about the Green New Deal’s social guarantees? Well, 60 percent of Americans say health care is the federal government’s responsibility (Pew, 2018). Free college? Anywhere from about half to two-thirds like it, depending on the poll. Jobs? Getting cooler, but still 46 percent (Rasmussen, 2018).
So there’s reason for the promoters to be selective. The rest of us would do well to understand that although the GND is at this point only a nonbinding resolution, the forces behind it have the power to move the needle.
There are signs that conservatives get this. As David Brooks recently noted in the New York Times, an example is the lead essay in the newest issue of the journal National Affairs, in which economist and commentator Abby M. McCloskey argues that “[e]conomic growth alone — however beneficial, however necessary — is unlikely to address some of the biggest challenges that the American economy faces in the 21st century.” Although McCloskey sees the far left’s solutions as “devastating,” she writes that Democratic “themes of inclusivity, fairness, and equity strike a chord because, by many measures, the gains of economic growth have not been reasonably shared — and Republicans have done little about it.” She explores several alternatives, including a reworking of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a concept with bipartisan support.
Because we should want any desirable change in the country’s direction to be sustainable, such ideas — less viscerally satisfying than a “New Deal” — should also be part of the debate.
Imagine your ship of state as an oceangoing vessel. To turn fast, you’d tell your helmsman to apply full rudder. With an actual ship, that’s roughly 30 degrees of reorientation for the rudder at most — beyond that, laws of fluid dynamics make the action ineffective. Most ships limit rudder action with physical stops.
Even a standard turn, held long enough, will point you back in the direction from which you started. Probably sooner than you’d expect.
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.