Chapter 8

Raw Bullshit: The Lie That A Green New Deal Is Expensive

“Looks like we’re in trouble.” – The Lone Ranger, fictional do-gooder
“What do you mean ‘we’, white man?” – Tonto, appropriated sidekick

The oldest and most daunting myth about global warming is that addressing it will be expensive. In reports and stories about a potential Green New Deal, millions of dollars quickly turns into billions of dollars, which then shoots straight up into the trillions before John Q. Taxpayer even has time to get outraged.

The problem with this idea isn’t merely that it’s wrong (although it is), it’s that it is based on some truly ass backwards assumptions. The first and most obvious is that ‘expensive’ can mean wildly different things to different people. Millionaires who see their top marginal tax rate go up 10% might consider that expensive, but people who lose their house and all their belongings to a wildfire or a hurricane have a much better claim on the word. For those unfortunate folks, ‘expensive’ means ‘everything’.

Even after teasing out the ‘expensive to who?’ question, there are equally huge assumptions about ‘expensive to what?’. The reflexive answer is some combination of the government, the stock market, and the economy as a whole. But this, too, obscures more than it reveals. None of them are vengeful deities, nor are they immutable facts of life. They are systems built by people, and they are continually changing and adapting.

Consider that the U.S. Government once got almost all of its revenue from tariffs and presided over a small, agrarian economy that depended on slaves for its very survival. That, ah, isn’t the case any longer.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (which is what most people think of when they hear the term ‘stock market’) is just a list of businesses, and it changes all the time. Of the thirty companies on that list in 1988, only eleven-and-a-half of them are still on it today.[1] Fortunes were made and lost in that transition, and nobody batted an eye.

The economy is even less tangible than that. It’s just the word we use to represent how money changes hands as people go about their days: buying and selling, serving and making. It changes daily, and even the dimwitted chatterboxes on the business channels don’t expect Americans thirty years from now to be doing the exact same things we do today. Certainly no one in 1988 thought 2020 would be just like their time.

The bottom line is that even if global warming was something we never had to deal with, things would change in ‘expensive’ ways. So fretting over hypothetical costs is like complaining that water is wet or that night is dark. The government, the stock market, and the economy are all going to change, and those changes will cost some people and benefit others. Welcome to the way things have always been.

Once the fake nuts question of expense is set aside as the rhetorical silliness it is, you get to the real issue: what will it cost to deal with global warming directly compared to waiting until disasters arrive? We’ve made a big mess in our atmosphere, and we’re going to have to pay for it one way or another. The choices we have aren’t about whether or not to pay those costs, they’re about who pays more and who pays less.

We could continue with business as usual, denying the magnitude of the problem and dragging our feet with cutesy pie greenwashing like carbon offset schemes and tax credits for rooftop solar installation. This would mean that the already wealthy people and conglomerates who’ve done the most to make the mess would pay the least. And since this would also cause the maximum amount of overall damage and suffering, it would be stupid, foolish, and immoral. But it’s what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years, so it’s certainly possible we’ll just continue along. Except, of course, that the weather and the seas won’t let us.

The uncountable billions of dollars invested in coastal housing are going to come off somebody’s books (probably sooner rather than later). More droughts the size of 1988’s are inevitable, and they’re going to reach into the pocketbooks of everyone who happens to eat food. What are snowless winters going to cost the people, places, and companies that live on ski income? Or the farms and cities that rely on the meltwater for everything from irrigation to bathing? These expenses also reach quickly into the trillions,[2] and John Q. Taxpayer is on the hook for them every bit as much as money spent preventing those catastrophes in the first place.

The other option is to tackle climate head-on and begin changing the economy, the stock market, and the government in deliberate positive directions, away from a thoughtless (and doomed) focus on abstract economic growth and toward better and more durable lives and livelihoods for everyone. And if that sounds idealistic and expensive, just remember that all important question of ‘to who?’.


The Heist of the Millennium

“Never steal anything from someone you can’t outrun.” – Selina Kyle, philosophical thief

The media-politico shorthand for the US economy is GDP, or Gross Domestic Product (heavy emphasis on gross). In the climate era, that topline number has grown four times over, from about $5 trillion per year in 1988 to about $20 trillion per year today. That gaudy increase looks fabulous on stock tickers, corporate earnings statements, and government econ reports, but it conceals a nasty reality: an outright majority of American households are poorer now than they were in the 1980s.[3]

That something so enormous can largely slip past the national attention is why the economist who originally designed GDP as a measurement warned against using it as a stand-in for overall economic health.[4] All GDP does is measure spending in the abstract (on everything from shoelaces to supercomputers); it takes no account of what that spending is used for. To GDP, a billionaire buying another ivory backscratcher looks exactly the same as a family’s annual food budget.

That misleading tendency is how American GDP can quadruple in thirty years while paychecks stagnate and everything else gets more expensive: housing, education, transportation, medical care, you name it. Quarterly economic reports get written up as ‘roaring’ or ‘healthy’ while somewhere in paragraph seventeen there’s an aside about wages being ‘flat’ or ‘stagnant’ and nevermind that wages are the only income most Americans have.

And, of course, GDP says nothing about systemic discrimination. The pay gap between men and women used to be shrinking quickly, but has stalled out in the climate era, closing by a mere eight cents since 1990.[5] Meanwhile, the pay gap between white people and everyone else has actually grown larger.[6] Not that most white guys are benefiting. These days, how much money your parents have all but determines your lot in life, regardless of sex, skin color, hours worked, education attained, or bootstraps pulled.[7]

In climate denial America, if you’re born rich, you’re probably going to stay rich. If you’re born poor, you’re almost certainly going to stay poor. And if you’re born middle class, you might be able to hang on (possibly maybe, assuming nothing too unlucky happens).[8] When it comes to affording the basics of a decent life, the overwhelming majority of Americans are worse off now than they were in the time of hair metal bands, pet rocks, and The Cosby Show.*

(*And if you’re black, even if you’re born Huxtable rich, you’re more likely to end up poor than a white kid in similar circumstances.[9])

That silent disaster is the stark fact of the U.S. economy over the last few decades. Economists can even put a dollar figure on it: $17,867.[10] That’s how much straight cash climate denial is already costing the average middle class household. And it’s not a lump sum. It’s annual. So unless you’re wealthy enough that $1,489 extra each month wouldn’t matter to you, a Green New Deal or something like it would be to your immediate personal benefit.

For an idea of where (some of) that missing money went, consider all the government cash Republicans showered on rich people in 2001 and 2003. The Bush Cuts are closing in on twenty years old and have collectively cost us over $6 trillion ($6,439,000,000,000). The 2017 Ryan-McConnell cuts are, by contrast, fairly tiny, clocking in at a mere $664 billion ($664,000,000,000) so far. Combined, tax cuts for rich people just since 2001 have cost $7.1 trillion ($7,103,000,000,000).[11]

That’s money that wasn’t spent on things that would have simultaneously stabilized the climate while improving the economy for everyone (better roads, better rails, better housing, better jobs). In broad economic strokes, correcting that mistake is what a Green New Deal would do.

A lot of trucks. Several hundred per year.

With just a fraction of the money given to the already wealthy, the government could be buying solar panels and wind turbines the way it bought tanks and bombers in World War II. It could be paying coal and gas plants to shut down, stopping them from incurring ever more costly climate debts. The science budget could be set to ‘Firehose’, giving money to as many researchers in as many fields as possible to maximize our chances of getting the energy transition right. We could be shoveling money to construction workers and contractors to build the new infrastructure we need and renovate everything else.

Simply put, there is a lot of urgently needed work going undone so that rich people can dodge their taxes. When climate deniers, media pundits, and right wingers yelp about the supposed expense of doing something about global warming, that’s what they’re arguing against: good jobs that stabilize the climate. And all so that America’s richest and worst polluting people, most of whom inherited their money,[12] can continue to sit on their asses and count their doubloons.

That future is bleak, and they want to keep it that way because ignoring global warming has been exceedingly good to their balance sheets. There’s a childlike stubbornness to this attitude: “We wanna stay in Neverland and keep things like this forever and ever!”

Charitably, we can call them naive. But these aren’t children, they’re adults, and they’re willing to hurt the rest of humanity (including their own descendants) so that they can play pretend for a few more years. It ain’t cute, and it won’t matter how rich you (or your parents) used to be if no one can venture south of Anchorage without an air-conditioned exposure suit.

Happily, both the ‘climate is warming’ problem and the ‘everything is expensive’ problem have the same solution. Even better, it is an overwhelmingly popular solution.[13] And it can be found in the optimistic past, the economic golden age of the 1950s and 1960s: we make the rich, especially the polluting, dirty rich, pay their fair share.

First, though, we have to defeat the Reds.


The Soviet American Economy

“Marge, I agree with you in theory. In theory, Communism works. In theory.” – Homer Simpson, working man and taxpayer

To comprehend just how ludicrously fucked up tax evasion and climate denial have left the U.S. economy, you need to take a step back, drop the ideological blinders, and compare it to the only other recent(ish) country that can match it catastrophe for catastrophe: the old Soviet Union. That can sound backwards and perverse. After all, they had communism and turnip rations while we’ve got capitalism and plentiful Extreme Ranch Doritos. But once you look past the flags, musty textbooks, and self-congratulatory press releases, there are a number of worrisome similarities that all boil down to a single, fundamental problem: the people in charge face no accountability.

Before we get to that, however, some very abbreviated history must be recounted. As monstrous and anti-human as the USSR was, it didn’t last very long, only 74 years. So when international communism’s leaky tub of a flagship finally sank in 1991, there were still people alive who could remember the Tsar. It was that short, but it was one wild ride.

First there was a ferocious and bloody civil war, which lasted from 1917 until the mid 1920s. Once the Bolsheviks secured the state, Stalin took over, killed everyone else in power, and starved millions of his own people more or less because he could, turning the country into the world’s first totalitarian nightmare. And then Hitler invaded.

That the Soviet Union survived World War II is a tremendous credit to the people who lived in it. For all the war nostalgia in the United States (‘greatest generation’, countless WWII movies, books, and video games, etc.), what rarely gets mentioned is that the U.S. was a minor player in the European theater. The Soviets inflicted three out of every four Nazi casualties.[14] The British, French, Americans, and everyone else combined only got one. And then, after what was arguably the greatest military triumph in history, they spent the next four and a half decades slowly collapsing.

Like so much of history, it seems obvious in hindsight, but it was a mind blowing reversal that caught the entire world by surprise. The USSR of the 1950s and 1960s was a world-straddling colossus, recovered from war, technically sophisticated, industrially bottomless, and very scary to an awful lot of Americans. By the 1970s they were begging for grain. And by the 1980s the game was up; even their front line military equipment couldn’t get through a simple training course without breaking down and catching fire.[15]

The simple explanation for that stunning implosion is that the Soviet economy sucked. It was all a fraud, a big machine that belched a lot of smoke and looked impressive from the outside but never actually worked. Given enough time, it sputtered to a total halt under the weight of its own gears. That’s basically true, but it’s worth looking at the mechanisms a little closer, especially since so many of them look frightfully like the current U.S. economy.

If that sounds fanciful, think about what’s happening in American farm country. Stalin collectivized farms across Russia, Ukraine, and every other part of the USSR by throwing people off their land, shooting many of them, and then declaring the soil to be permanent state property. In the last forty years, US agriculture giants have been scooping up farms left and right, often because farmers can’t pay bills that the agriculture industry itself is responsible for raising.[16] It’s much less violent, but the end result is powerfully similar: displaced farmers and land controlled by distant bureaucrats who wouldn’t last a morning at actual farm work. Even the small farmers who hang on often have no independence. These days, many areas have only a single buyer for staples like meat and milk, and suicide hotline numbers are sent along with the ever decreasing dairy checks.[17]

Fine, but what about free speech and independent media? Well, books, newspapers, magazines, movies, radio, television, and the internet have all come under increasingly wealthy and concentrated ownership in the last few decades.[18] So, for example, while it’s true that you can get hundreds of TV channels, almost all of them are owned by four very chummy companies (AT&T, Comcast, Disney, and Viacom). Comcast, consistently the most hated company in America for completely valid reasons,[19] doesn’t just own NBC and a slew of other channels. It also owns the studios where the shows are made. And it owns the physical cable that comes into your home to show you the shows. Oh, and the guy in charge inherited the title from his father.

His customers usually have no choice but to use his service, spend hours on hold when something goes wrong (which is often), and pay ever increasing monthly bills. Only a few of them know his name or even that he exists. So for all practical purposes, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts is a deputy commissar for media, one of a tiny handful of faceless, unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats who run things at the expense of everyone else.

Okay, farm country is dying, TV sucks, and Comcast is media Satan, but at least we still live in the golden age of beer, right? Except that our old friend InBev, the titanic global beer company that broadcasts fake Super Bowl ads about wind power, is now busy assimilating independent breweries left and right. And since InBev also controls the distribution channels, selling out to them is often the only way a small brewer could ever hope to reach a larger market.[20] Overall, InBev and one other company sell three out of every four beers in America.[21]

Air travel? Four companies.[22] Pharmacies? Three companies.[23] Mattresses? Two companies.[24] Eyeglasses? One. A single company most people have never heard of makes and sells almost half of the glasses in the U.S., they own Lens Crafters, Pearl Vision, and Sunglass Hut, among other brands.[25] Calling much of the American economy a free market is a bad joke. It’s as structured and devoid of competition as a central planner’s wet dream.[26]

(If you feel like you need a drink after all that, try not to think about the fact that the liquor market is dominated by just three companies, none of whose names are familiar to most cocktail enthusiasts.[27])

In finance, the crookedest and least useful of all the industries, one of the only four banks left in America recently said – in court! – that customers should know better than to trust them.[28] Private equity firms (which is legalese for “extremely rich people who would prefer to remain anonymous”) routinely buy up profitable, stable businesses that are working fine and cut them to ribbons so that banking databases will award them an extra zero. Their little money games, whose only real world effects are to shutter buildings and throw employees out the door, have so far killed (among others) Mervyn’s,[29] Toys ‘R Us,[30] and a lot of newspapers.[31] We don’t call it censorship when a nameless elite fires journalists for fun, but we sure would if it happened in the old Soviet Union.

And then there’s the boundless, soul sucking, time wasting, life eating bureaucracy. Most state DMVs aren’t too bad these days, but heaven help you if your cable company overcharges you,[32] or your health insurance won’t cover something it said it would,[33] or if your bank decides to illegally take your money,[34] or your car,[35] or your house.[36] Through no fault of your own, you’re in for hours on hold, runaround conversations with bottom-rung employees who can’t help, and paperwork that would make any fur hatted apparatchik stand up and clap at the maddening inefficiency of it. And if you can’t navigate their labyrinth, unemployment and homelessness could be your punishment.

To reach truly Soviet levels of bureaucratic absurdity, though, you need to look at the tax system. Two companies, Intuit and H&R Block, have spent decades and millions of dollars preventing the government from simply doing most people’s taxes for them.[37] That’s right, the IRS has the capability to send you a little card that has your taxes already figured out. All most people would have to do is sign it and send it back. No more attaching schedules W, X, & Y, no more two hundred pages of tiny font instructions, no more panic at the post office on April 15th.

Instead, Intuit (makers of TurboTax) and its pals┬áhave spent millions of dollars (legally) bribing Congress so that hundreds of millions of Americans have to spend hours staring at forms and carrying numbers from this line to that box (or pay someone else to do it for them, wink-wink, nudge-nudge). It’s makework for the sake of makework. And thanks to all that confusion and unnecessary bureaucracy, the IRS misses hundreds of billions of dollars of (illegally) withheld revenue per year, mostly from the very, very wealthy.[38]

Our once fair and progressive tax system has been rigged to be difficult to use, easy to corrupt, and fail badly at its main task. The Byzantine Empire itself couldn’t have come up with something more byzantine.

If things were working reasonably well, all of this could be dismissed as a ‘who cares?’ kind of problem. But things aren’t working. Diabetics struggle to get insulin,[39] and tens of millions of people ration their own medicine,[40] a situation that would be decried as an inevitable commie failure if it were happening in the USSR. Millions of children don’t get enough to eat,[41] something American media would lambaste as famine in any other country.

Most frightening of all, the people who built this awful machine are cementing it into place so their incompetent kids and grandkids can take over for them. Our educational system worships tests and metrics that are easily gamed by anyone with money.[42] Parents with means can (legally) open their wallets to pay institutions directly[43] or (illegally) pay individuals under the table.[44] This farce of meritocracy camouflages upper class incompetence and funnels idiot failsons to key positions in organizations they shouldn’t even be working at, much less running (see: Bush, George W; Kushner, Jared). How is this very different than the children of Communist Party officials getting cushy jobs at GOSPLAN or the Ministry of Whatever?

The same as late Soviet officialdom, the upper ranks of American business and media are teeming with lucky sperm who fell out of jackpot vaginas. They float above us in a personalized world of seclusion and private jets and they are very good at producing stellar GDP numbers and lauding themselves on the pages of Pravda, Izvestia, and The Wall Street Journal. But as those numbers diverge from the lived reality of ordinary people, they become just so much paper. And on the ground in America, things are getting worse.

Life expectancy is decreasing.[45] Height is decreasing.[46] Whole cities and regions don’t have clean drinking water,[47] suicide is way up,[48] and ladies, especially poor and minority ladies, increasingly die in childbirth from preventable causes.[49][50] There’s been a housing shortage for twenty years now, and no one in authority can think of how to solve it except to keep doing the same things that caused it in the first place.[51] The once dynamic, broadly prosperous economy that put the Soviet one to shame is now a stultified aristocracy where parental wealth is the single biggest predictor of a child’s economic prospects.[52] And the people in charge are fiddling while the world burns.

That’s the real problem: the high and mighty are a bunch of well connected fools who rarely earned their place, barely pay their taxes, and never learn from their mistakes. They are mostly (though far from exclusively) Republicans, a sorting that has frozen the nation’s previously fluid politics into an increasingly corrupt and bitter war of attrition.

But here’s the good news, the gospel truth: this is an old problem and we already know how to solve it, the same way they did in the 1940s . . . tax the bastards.


Tax the Rich, Save the World

“You’re all businessmen here, don’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? What’d you say just a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent home? Wait! Wait for what? Do you have any idea how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars?” – George Bailey, hero and economic expert

As Stalin and Hitler were killing millions in the 1930s and 1940s, the United States elected Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman to five consecutive Presidential terms (with unified Democratic majorities in Congress for eighteen of those twenty years). They implemented policies that were considered heresy by America’s wealthy: raising huge sums with taxes that drove millionaires batty, taking the country off the failed gold standard, encouraging Americans to unionize in record shattering numbers, and straight up paying money directly to workers, farmers, and the elderly. They changed the very rhythms of American life and society, capping the work week at 40 hours, banning child labor, and codifying the weekend.

It was all decried as socialism and communism and many dire predictions about the future of American freedom were made. Yet that economy fixed the Great Depression, won the war, and ushered in decades of productive prosperity stretching all the way to the energy shocks of the 1970s (when everything went to hell).

That was the original New Deal. It wasn’t a coherent plan or even a set of bullet points, it was a great big leftward push by the whole country, and it lasted for twenty years.

It was also, of course, not without its problems. The racism was every bit as explicit and harmful as you’d expect from Jim Crow America. Deficit hysteria pulled the plug on a lot of good programs before their time. And sabotage by Republicans and conservative Democrats hobbled and even reversed many of the most important reforms (especially around unionization).

So set aside any notions you may have about the Green New Deal being a single grand piece of legislation or a relentless march of progress. The first New Deal wasn’t handed down from the White House or passed quickly by Congress. FDR didn’t have so much as a single powerpoint slide for it. It was a process, one that extended from Washington to every state capital, county seat, and town hall. It hit snags and lost fights but kept on going because it was working.

For a Green Deal to accomplish what is needed to stabilize the climate, it will need to persevere just as the New Deal did, through setbacks, mistakes, midterm elections, hidebound court rulings, and bitter intra-lefty feuds. To survive, it will need to improve daily life everywhere Americans live and work.

But it will not be expensive. Quite the opposite, the Green New Deal would pay for itself by saving money, saving energy, and dethroning incompetent plutocrats. Anyone who tells you that we can’t afford it is lying, or rich, or both. And if you’re not sure, ask them one simple question:

“Have you ever flown in a private jet?”

Only one chapter to go, and it’s all good stuff! (Well, not quite *all*.) Continue to Cliffhanger: Chapter 9 – The Promise and Peril of the 2020s


Endnotes for Chapter 8:

[1 –, the eleven survivors from the Dow 30 of 1988 are 3M, American Express, Boeing, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Exxon, IBM, McDonald’s, Merck, Procter & Gamble, and United Technologies. The half is DuPont, which, through a series of mergers, acquisitions, and other financial masturbation became Dow, but it’s only kinda the same company.]
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[11 –, cumulative costs arrived at by summing annual costs from the chart on page 7.]
[12 – Billionaires and Stealth Politics by Benjamin I. Page, Jason Seawright, and Matthew J. Lacombe, University of Chicago Press, 2019; p 18-24]
[13 –, raising taxes on the rich has been the majority position of the American people as a whole for decades. That it’s considered economic lunacy in major American media is a testament to the power of money.]
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[15 – Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War by Andrew Bacevich, Metropolitan Books, 2010, p 4-6]
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[36 – Chain of Title by David Dayen, The New Press, 2016. No, I’m not going to cite a page number. Just read the goddamn book, it’s short and a better window into how untouchable elites operate than anything in this chapter.]
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