Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has brought a new zing to the stalling climate conversations by introducing the Green New Deal (GND). Although still aspirational and lacking a legislative road map, the GND has presented new ideas (and repackaged old ones) on how to address the most critical issue facing humanity.
Yet the GND is also facing a backlash. Some question its practicality. But its policy viability is threatened by a deeper problem: the ideological baggage of “socialism.” Typically, socialism pertains to the public ownership of the means of production. At the extreme, it suggests Soviet-style collectivization, with central planning replacing the market as the resource allocation mechanism. AOC claims to be a democratic socialist. This should be good news; look at the rise of Bernie Sanders and the support for socialism among Democrats. However, the GND’s policy challenge is to attract support among independents and moderate Republicans. The socialism talk will probably fail in this regard.
We see three problems with socialism framing. First, socialist countries have poorer human rights and environmental records than capitalist countries. Second, FDR’s New Deal sought to reform capitalism, not replace it with socialism. Third, socialist framing is bad politics, at least in America. Labels are important. If you want a Scandinavia style social democracy, say so. Do not call it socialism.
Let us start with historical evidence. Socialism, as it was practiced in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, seems to have had terrible consequences for society. Venezuela is a tragedy in the making. In Hungry Ghosts, Jasper Becker suggests that 30 million died during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. In Red Famine, Anne Applebaum estimates that more than 5 million perished in the Ukrainian famine of 1931-34.
But did central planning deliver less pollution? It did not: the environmental performance of Eastern Bloc economies was horrible. Think of the destruction of the Aral Sea by diverting waters for cotton farming. With the end of the Cold War, experts called for an ecological Marshall Plan in Eastern Europe. The bottom line is that Western capitalist societies outperformed the socialist bloc on environmental protection.
If socialism is problematic, does it mean that we need to adopt a laissez-faire capitalist model? It does not. Capitalism is a beast with lots of energy and potential to innovate. But the beast needs to be controlled; otherwise, it becomes destructive. This is the lesson from the Great Depression and the 2007-2009 economic recession. The regulatory retreat evidenced in the gutting of the Glass-Steagall Act and the rolling-back of environmental regulations shows the terrible consequences of laissez-faire capitalism.
The GND seeks to ride on the legacy of the New Deal. But FDR did not bring “socialism” to America. He did not opt for large scale nationalization of private property. Instead, he proclaimed he was saving capitalism from itself by creating a regulatory state and introducing measures of social and labor protection. While FDR may be termed as a “traitor to his class,” he saved capitalism from its excesses.
GND wants to encourage government funding for R&D in new technologies. However, this does not require socialism; capitalist governments have actively supported R&D and in the process even fostered new industries. Neil Sheehan’s book, The Fiery Peace of the Cold War, documents how the massive governmental R&D spending to develop a long-range bomber and inter-continental missile facilitated the major breakthroughs in the U.S. aerospace industry. Similarly, the Internet, now the backbone of the information economy, was initially a Department of Defense project.
AOC has cast the GND boat in a very turbulent sea of partisan polarization. For GND to succeed, climate change will need to become a bipartisan issue. If AOC overloads the boat with excess baggage, such as her talk about socialism, the boat will probably sink. Of course, one could argue that the GND is different from AOC, but can one really separate the message from its messenger? Can we think of GND without AOC? If one follows this argument, the GND will not be judged only from the 14 page House and Senate Resolutions, but in light of AOC’s political and economic views.
Just as “global warming and climate change” labels frame the issue differently, “socialism” and “regulated capitalism” labels will shape the climate debate in different ways. The road to a low carbon economy does not go through socialism, with or without prefixes. It goes through FDR-styled regulated capitalism.