AOC must reset a conversation stolen by the GOP: The Green New Deal is an economic stimulus program

Progressive Dems left the GND's pro-growth message unprotected, while the GOP barked about a "willingness to work"

Published March 10, 2019 8:00AM (EDT)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Getty/Lars Niki)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Getty/Lars Niki)

Sadly, in our twitter age all it takes is a lonely sentence fragment to reduce a visionary document like the Green New Deal bill introduced in the House by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into a late night comic’s punchline.

In the case of the Green New Deal it wasn’t even any of the words in the legislation that went viral and put Green New Deal boosters on the defensive and in damage control mode. 

The sentence fragment that inspired the around the clock right wing derision and mockery was actually found in the Frequently Asked Question document created by the ambitious bill’s boosters. It said the GND would provide “economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work.” 

The red meat for the defenders of late stage vulture capitalism was in that “unwilling to work” phrase that fit so nicely into their caricature of idealistic millennials whose world view has been shaped by equally clueless left-wing professors.

For tens of millions of households, who continue to struggle week to week, and work multiple jobs to provide for their family, the notion of society paying people who are “unwilling to work” strikes at the organizing principle of their life. They need a kind of practical relief right now and they are conditioned at this point to want to work for it, maybe just not as hard as they have had to since the 1970’s when worker productivity went up, but wages declined and stagnated.

And for those struggling to pay this month’s rent or mortgage, worrying about global warming and climate change may feel remote — even though it shouldn’t — when the cataclysm they fret over is eviction or foreclosure. 

My hunch is that to build mass movements which drive meaningful political change you have to meet people where they are — in the struggles they are immediately caught up in. In fact, it was exactly that sort of appeal that helped Rep. Ocasio-Cortez upend longtime Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley.

For the GND detractors it did not matter that just above the paying people who are “unwilling to work” bullet point was the pledge to “build on FDR’s Second Bill of Rights” by guaranteeing “a job with a family sustaining wage . . . safe, affordable housing” and an “economic environment free of monopolies.”

Regrettably, the Green New Dealers historic reference in the FAQ to FDR’s second bill of rights is relatively obscure for most Americans. In his 1944 State of the Union speech President Franklin Delano Roosevelt advanced a radical vision for a permanent inclusive national prosperity, which Michael Moore referenced poignantly in his 2009 documentary “Capitalism: A Love Story.”

In that speech the President, who led the country out of the Great Depression and through most of World War II, challenged the nation with a vision as radical for its time as the Green New Deal is today. FDR exhorted Americans, no matter how comfortable their standard of living might become, to never “be content . . . if some fraction of our people — whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth — is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.”

And that, Roosevelt reasoned, required going beyond the country’s existing  “inalienable political rights”  because as our nation had “grown in size and stature . . . as our industrial economy expanded — these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”
“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” proclaimed FDR, 168 years after 1776, observing that needy men were “not free men” and that people that were hungry and out of a job were “the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

FDR got granular, proposing that the second bill of rights would be “a new basis of security and prosperity that would include a guarantee to a “useful and remunerative job” that provided “adequate food, clothing and recreation” for every American.

The enumerated new rights, which never gained the force of law, included the “right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.”

There’s some of that same language in the Green New Deal which also accurately describes the continued deterioration of the American circumstance since WWII, including the decline in our life expectancy and that these days “basic needs, such as clean air, clean water, healthy food, and adequate health care, housing, transportation, and education, are inaccessible to a significant portion of the United States population.” 

While the Green New Deal correctly catalogues the debilitating side effects of capitalism, it doesn’t go directly in for the kill and explain why in its current form capitalism threatens the viability of the planet and the people on it. This virulent vulture capitalism that runs on fossil fuels puts our planet at risk because it privatizes the profits and leaves us the smog and toxic waste it generates.

That’s what the bosses call an “externality” a.k.a. not their problem.

Similarly, we are in a time when huge corporations take their capital and invest it in ‘labor saving technology’ that automates entire industrial sectors. And, even though much of the technology was spawned by taxpayer funded research, these masters of the universe, who often avoid taxes, pocket the profits and leave us as a society to figure out what to do with the millions of folks their innovations have left idle.

A 2013 Oxford University analysis of over 700 different job titles concluded that 47 percent of those jobs they researched were vulnerable to being lost to computerization over the next 20 years.

For John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents workers in mass transit systems across the country, this brave new world is already here with driverless buses.

Samuelsen was one of the speakers at a March 4-5 Vatican conference on climate change, technology and transport and made his case that driverless buses would both undermine public safety and cause the loss of several hundred thousand jobs in the U.S. alone. 

The three-day conference, which included dozens of transport union leaders and manufacturers from around the world, was a follow-up on Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical calling for “swift and unified global action” to combat climate change that at the same time advances economic and social justice.

“My main point is that these driverless technologies were being advanced very quickly with very little thought about the impacts on both the public safety and the transport workforce,” Mr. Samuelsen said in a phone interview. The union has been engaged in countering automation drives in Ohio and just recently prevailed in Columbus where it settled a contract that kept human bus drivers behind the wheel of that city’s bus fleet.

“We fought back successfully against what some people believe is the inevitable mass-loss of transport sector jobs,” he said. In his pro-driver pitch Mr. Samuelsen worked in real world accounts where the presence of a human bus driver saved a life, prevented grievous injury or “took a very pregnant young mother right to the hospital.”

As far as the Green New Deal, Samuelsen says boosters increase their odds of winning over labor if advocates for GND not only push “for the greening” of the economy but for creating “societal structures that protect working families.”

“It’s simply not sufficient enough to talk about worker protections abstractly, almost as an afterthought,” he said.  “FDR recognized that driving societal change required the creation of legislated structures to enshrine and cement New Deal worker protection programs such as Social Security and the 40-hour work week with the Fair Labor Standards Act.” 

He continued, “The amount of wealth that corporations and individual billionaires are going to generate in this scary new future is unfathomable, immeasurable. They will succeed eliminating workers in some, if not many, areas of our existing economic system. There is no current substantive policy discussion about this negative impact on workers and no discussion of worker protection structures that will accompany the advancement of technology.”

Perhaps, the Green New Deal’s legislative preamble needs to explicitly reference FDR’s second bill of rights, so Americans are clear that a truly sustainable green economy depends on insuring that meaningful work is respected as a human right.

After all, saving the planet is ALL about work not about avoiding it.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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