This is part four of a five-part essay that highlights lessons from the coronavirus pandemic which could advance the fight for a Green New Deal. Part one (published on Resilience.org here) argues that money is not scarce. Part two argues that control of government policy by wealthy elites tends to produce unnecessary suffering and inadequate responses to major crises. Part three argues that plutocracy is incompatible with serious climate action. Part four explores how the public can easily draw very different conclusions and argues that the climate movement must undertake mass education to ensure these lessons are learned. Part five outlines a broad curriculum containing these lessons and many more.
A revised excerpt of this essay was published by Boston Review.
Lessons Are Lost If Movements Don’t Teach Them
If most people realized that the federal government can spend without taxing or cutting or worrying about deficits, that wealthy elites’ control over government policy tends to produce extensive and unnecessary suffering, and that plutocracy is at odds with our ability to address climate change, it would represent a new political common sense that could advance the fight for a Green New Deal. However, it’s easy for many to overlook these lessons or interpret events in ways that perpetuate political disengagement and resistance to change.
In the first place, many citizens don’t devote themselves to sharpening their mental model of political reality and therefore aren’t actively searching for new perspectives. One reason is that from a young age we are taught that by voting in periodic elections, we are in control of the political system. We don’t learn that elections alone give average citizens “little or no independent influence” on public policy, or that corporations and wealthy individuals actually dominate. With little sense of the immense struggle we must engage in to get government to prioritize public interests, many don’t develop the habit of looking for lessons relevant to that struggle.
Fatalism and high information costs are also significant obstacles to a new political consciousness. As we grow up, the democratic power we are taught we have quickly proves to be overstated; voters repeatedly see elected officials disregard their interests. We then enter the workforce, which consumes most of our energy. Developing in-depth knowledge demands that we read widely and gather enough context to think for ourselves, a major time investment. Between feelings of powerlessness and the demands of work, many find little reason and insufficient time to scour the political landscape for new insight.
Those who do venture into the world of political analysis will encounter an information ecosystem that systematically underinforms and misleads them. Political elites and mainstream media maintain political common sense within narrow limits. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media:
“the ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serve this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.”
Individuals who form their picture of the world from these sources are unlikely to come across ideas that threaten elite interests.
Consider some ways that the lessons discussed in the previous three parts of this essay can be overlooked or distorted:
Government spending must be reined in
It is a neat trick for a Federal Reserve official to type $2,200,000,000,000 onto a computer screen and suddenly Congress has the money to pay for (short-term) pandemic relief. The bigger trick is how to maintain the politics of austerity after the public sees the government create trillions of dollars in an instant. It might seem impossible, but we saw this story during the Great Recession.
In the two years following the 2008 crash of the global financial system, the Federal Reserve created around $1.5 trillion to finance the government’s bank bailout and economic stimulus. The inflation long warned of by deficit hawks did not ensue. One might think that the federal government’s ability to generate funds for public priorities would have become apparent to everyone. But in the following year, when more money creation was clearly needed, the Obama administration acquiesced to Republican calls for deficit reduction. “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same,” Obama declared in his 2010 State of the Union speech. “Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t.” Treating the new money like a debt that had to be repaid, the administration imposed austerity, and as a result the economic recovery turned out to be historically slow.
The 2008 bailout and stimulus didn’t spark widespread insight into money creation. Moderators in political debates continue to ask how we can possibly afford progressive policies. During Joe Biden’s presidential campaign last fall, a top advisor claimed that if Biden were to win the election his administration would “be limited” in its ability to spend because of “what Trump’s done to the deficit”—“the pantry is going to be bare.” With the Fed’s high-profile response to the current economic crisis far exceeding its actions after the Great Recession, we can expect eventual calls for a return to austerity. Without a credible threat of inflation, the Fed’s capacity for money creation will be limited by elites’ assertion that it is debt we must repay. Falling back on such myths helps to keep the public in the dark even in a moment of historic clarity.
Trump Was the Only Problem
It is also easy for people to draw conclusions only about the unique incompetence and deadly narcissism of the Trump administration in the midst of the coronavirus crisis rather than a lesson about the cruel nature of plutocracy. That’s because Trump’s response was exceptionally bad. He resisted calls to mass-produce protective equipment for health workers and ventilators for the sickest or deploy the testing, tracing, and quarantine measures needed nationwide to contain the virus. He touted treatments without evidence and encouraged protests against basic life-saving measures. He repeatedly boasted of his television ratings and lavished himself with praise. With cases rapidly rising and state economies repeatedly closing, he took to pretending that the pandemic was no longer an issue. He later hosted several super-spreader events and then claimed that the death toll was exaggerated as it stretched beyond 350,000.
One cannot argue that a president musing about injecting household disinfectant is about as unfit as they come. Against such a backdrop, no serious observer questions that if a Democratic administration had been in charge, the government’s approach to the pandemic would have been more appropriate. But as explained above, the tight restrictions on government spending that maintained an utterly inadequate social safety net and made the pandemic truly devastating were a bipartisan achievement. The spectacle of an exceptionally bad response to the latest crisis distracts from that reality.
A Democratic administration facing coronavirus from the beginning would very likely have mirrored Republicans in forcing people back to work rather than creating enough money to keep them at home until the outbreak was contained. That would have more clearly illustrated the cruelty of plutocratic governance. Recall that Democrats had full control of the government in 2009 as the Great Recession unfolded, but they produced an insufficient stimulus that left millions homeless and jobless. Obama then pivoted to spending cuts in 2010 when the unemployment rate was still nearly 10 percent. Could we expect different today? The 2019 effort by congressional Democratic leadership to enact a pay-as-you-go budgeting rule (PAYGO) suggests not. The PAYGO rule mandates that increases in spending be matched by budget cuts or tax increases to avoid federal deficit increases, dashing any chance of passing large-scale progressive policies. A Democratic administration might have emulated the pandemic response of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—providing frequent reassurances to the public while pushing billions in cuts to Medicaid. The words of one of Biden’s top advisors about the spending limits imposed by Trump’s deficits suggest more of the same. Trump’s unique incompetence can easily overshadow the fact that deprivation has been and often continues to be a commitment of both parties.
Electing Democrats Is Enough to Solve Our Crises
The same dynamics can lead the public to think that serious climate action becomes possible simply by electing Democrats, when what’s needed is a revolutionary effort to replace plutocracy with authentic democracy. The Republican Party has long ignored, mocked, and misrepresented scientists and scientific evidence, a trait Trump took to the extreme during the pandemic. In comparison, any Democrat can seem very responsible. But one party’s radical anti-science pedigree and obvious allegiance to the fossil fuel industry doesn’t mean the other party is adequate: the country’s reliance on fossil fuels has remained firm through both Democratic and Republican administrations. Continuing that trend won’t allow us to maintain a habitable planet.
Joe Biden has a $2 trillion climate plan that currently aims to make the country carbon neutral “no later than 2050,” the most ambitious proposal ever put forward by a US president. It envisions the climate crisis as “an opportunity to revitalize the US energy sector and boost growth economy-wide.” Unless the public understands just how fast things must change and the implications for the economy, Biden’s plan may seem like more than adequate. However, research shows that wealthy nations must aim to eliminate emissions between 2035 and 2040 to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and reducing fossil fuel use that quickly very likely requires the curtailment of some economic activity. With no mainstream Democrat expressing support for a degrowth approach to climate action—or even acknowledging the need for it—we cannot expect a commitment to the much faster decarbonization timeline that science prescribes. The Democratic Party is not yet offering a path to a stable climate, but it’s not difficult for many to assume otherwise.
Government is inherently corrupt
In the face of an utterly disastrous response to the pandemic, another common interpretation is that the government is inherently corrupt and incapable of adequately responding to any crisis, a view stoked by decades of elites’ anti-government propaganda. We can expect people with this perspective to react in two ways. For those who have learned to fear or hate the government, a large-scale mobilization to address the climate crisis will seem like something to fight against. Others with a less emotionally charged view may simply ignore politics altogether, believing that nothing can ever change.
Around 100 million eligible voters (nearly half of the total) generally do not vote, in large part because they believe elections will never produce a government that represents them. This poses a major obstacle to progressive policy, as a fatalist attitude towards politics and repeated non-participation may lead to disengagement from all political work. Outside of election time, most people remain inactive even though their participation in social movements could elevate authentic champions of public interests and produce meaningful choices for the next election. Mistaking excessive corporate representation in government for inherent government corruption helps to keep elites in control.
Any of the perspectives above may be the lesson learned by millions of people. At best, they will remain political spectators, voting for a Democrat but uninvolved in movement-building or active support of pathbreaking candidates. At worst, they will be primed to resist the Green New Deal over a reinforced hostility towards deficit spending and government-led economic mobilization.
We need to turn the public’s notion of fiscal responsibility on its head. Political elites’ commitment to treating money like it is scarce is not just accepted but respected by too many people. Widespread understanding of the basic principles of modern monetary theory is the remedy. Without dispelling the years of propaganda we’ve received about “living within our means,” voters will continue to elect politicians who will gladly place needless limits on government spending. The power of monetarily sovereign governments to create vast sums of money has been demonstrated. The public’s well-being is much more affordable than we have been allowed to think. Federal deficits are not a barrier, and inflation is not currently a significant threat. We just need enough people to learn the lesson. And we must only elect representatives knowledgeable about and committed to fiscal reality.
A new perspective on money must be accompanied by a new perspective on debt. Economist James Galbraith pointed out that the economic shutdowns are poised to trigger a reckoning over private debt, because mounting debts can’t be paid even as workers return to their jobs. Will they be forgiven, as they should be, or will elites launch a massive campaign to seize homes and other assets? Any cancellation of household debt would reinforce the lesson illustrated by massive deficit spending: that the economic system is far more malleable than we’ve been allowed to think. It offers a vital teaching opportunity for activists working to transform the economy. Alternatively, if elites attempt to collect on this debt by robbing the public en masse, it may trigger an uprising that activists could help to channel in a productive direction. Economist Michael Hudson’s research shows that nearly all ancient societies recognized a periodic cancellation of private debt was absolutely necessary. Without it, unpayable debts would grow until creditors had totally impoverished or enslaved the public, and societies would collapse as a result. We will increasingly hear pundits say that all debts are legitimate and must be repaid. Learning about the history of debt empowers us to reject these assertions.
Citizens must also be able to put American democracy in context. Most adults have the right to vote (though that right is constantly being taken away for many), but because political campaigning is dependent on money, viable candidates are typically the ones who will reliably meet the demands of the wealthiest investors in politics. Both parties have maintained a society that needlessly deprives millions of people of their basic needs. Existential issues facing humanity are either met with an insufficient response or none at all. We need the public to look beyond the differences between Republican and Democratic politicians to see the political system’s general deference towards business interests. The state’s deadly negligence towards major crises is a result of this deference, not an inherent feature of government. We can address the issues we face if we build enough people power to replace plutocracy with truly democratic governance. As more people recognize that, political apathy and anti-government sentiment should recede. We’ll then be better positioned to organize a powerful mass movement and launch a Green New Deal.
We also need the public to understand what serious climate action looks like. That means learning about the carbon budget concept and the factors that shape it, as well as ways that society may change when transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. To take the central example covered earlier: adhering to a small carbon budget to maintain a habitable climate seems to require a contraction of some economic activity. The pandemic revealed that we can quickly hit the brakes on the economy, but opponents of the transition will paint a threatening picture by linking it to the worst aspects of the virus-driven shutdowns. The success of the energy transition depends on extensive awareness of why it is necessary and how it would prioritize public well-being.
Knowledge is an essential component of democratic self-governance. It is key to appropriate outrage as elites limit government spending by claiming that money is scarce. It allows us to see through the falsehood that simply electing Democrats will open the door to serious climate action. It combats the fatalism inherent in thinking that public interests aren’t affordable or that politics doesn’t matter. If the public doesn’t internalize the right lessons, elites remain in control. If we’re to create a sustainable and democratic society, we need the climate movement to recognize that mass education is one of its core responsibilities.