“Joe Biden has embraced the Green New Deal.” That’s how Slate’s Jordan Weissmann began a recent story on the clean energy plan released in mid-July by Democratic Party presidential candidate Biden. “In substance and spirit, the Democratic nominee has signed on to the concept’s most important pieces, while doing away with some of its more controversial, and less essential, trappings,” Weissmann wrote.
When congressional Democrats unveiled their Green New Deal resolution in early 2019, the agenda was praised by pundits on the left and vilified by their counterparts on the right. But observers across the political spectrum seemed to agree that the resolution was “radical” and perhaps even “socialistic.” Both sides had it wrong. The essence of that proposal, now at the center of Biden’s climate policy, is not only the Green New Deal we need; it’s profoundly conservative.
Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, a founder of Americans for Democratic Action, called the original New Deal deeply conservative: “It was intended to preserve the social tranquility and sense of belonging without which capitalism could not have survived—and still will not survive.” The same is true today with the Green New Deal, which, at its core, aims toward jobs for all Americans while attacking climate change. And Biden makes that the heart of his climate plan, which links a jobs strategy to an agenda for organizing “on an epic scale” to meet our environmental challenge.
President Franklin Roosevelt mobilized the federal government to combat a depression at home and the threat of fascism around the world. Today, supporters of the Green New Deal aim to mobilize government to address a silent depression that has festered for decades and to save the planet from an ecological catastrophe.
The silent depression has been with us for a long time. While most commentators and policymakers focus on the stock market and a few overall economic indicators, working families across the country have for decades seen their financial security eroded by plant closings, offshoring, wage stagnation, reductions to healthcare and retirement benefits, and careers leading to dead ends. The first Americans to get hit by this depression—as far back as the early 1970s—were factory workers and residents in industrial towns of the Northeast and Midwest. Over time, however, large numbers of people at all education levels and in all regions have been affected.
The warning signs were always there, but largely ignored. In the mid-1990s, my colleague Wallace Peterson warned that economic life had so battered the middle class and polarized society that he anxiously saw those developments as “the raw material for a bitter, divisive conflict in America.” And that’s exactly what we have today.
The spreading silent depression began as an economic problem but is now a social, public health, and political crisis. It threatens our sense of community, exacerbates our racial divisions, fuels our opioid epidemic, and causes young people to lose faith in capitalism. Our inept national response to the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the crisis.
The warning signs have been there for global climate change as well—we’ve seen ecological trouble brewing for decades. But lawmakers took little action. Now, reports from the US government make it clear that serious adverse effects of climate change are here, costly, and slated to get much worse. Research coordinated by the United Nations concludes that nations must quickly and sharply reduce carbon emissions to avoid an irreversible calamity triggered by planetary warming.
The time to address our nation’s silent depression is now. We must end our economic and social crisis before it gets worse—and in the process we must use our talents to stave off the looming ecological disaster.
The congressional Green New Deal and the Biden agenda both include the goal of ensuring that Americans can work at family-supporting jobs, with healthcare and retirement security. That would be a huge first step toward ending our silent depression, especially since artificial intelligence and automation are likely to increase worker insecurity in the years ahead. And the jobs goal fits perfectly with the Biden vision of a more environmentally sustainable future organized around resilient infrastructure and clean energy. Creating a green economy will be a huge undertaking—there will be much work to do.
To be sure, any version of the Green New Deal will require costly investments. But inaction has also been costly. And continued inaction means not only that more people may lose faith in American capitalism, but also that we risk the capacity of the planet to sustain human life. With so much in the balance, Biden’s version of the Green New Deal is as vital as it is deeply conservative.
Charles J. Whalen is a research fellow in the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, University at Buffalo. He is a past president of the Association for Evolutionary Economics, whose members and associates helped to shape the New Deal and Great Society.