In this episode, Front Running looks at the jobs program called the Green New Deal, most associated at the moment with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but which has been formulated for quite some years with the ambition to provide an FDR-like jobs program to put Americans to work rebuilding its infrastructure for a post-carbon world.
Two guests join Front Running to discuss the Green New Deal; James (Jim) Howard Kunstler, author of “The Geography of Nowhere” and “The Long Emergency,” and Randy Voller, former mayor of Pittsboro, North Carolina, as well as the former chair of the Democratic Party of North Carolina.
Together they look at the ability of the Green New Deal to be a jobs program of the magnitude that could restore US infrastructure and manufacturing capacity. Kunstler believes that it is a ‘when-you-wish-upon-a-star’ program filled with ‘wishful thinking’ because we can’t keep our fantasy land of suburbia, Walt Disney World, and the US military afloat on alternative energy as these all need an underlying platform built on oil, gas, and coal. Voller has more hope that the Green New Deal can succeed and programs can be implemented locally and immediately for genuine benefit.
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Transcript is below the fold — >
MAX KEISER: Welcome to Front Running 2020. As we head to the elections, we’re looking at the key issues. Democrats, how are they handling them? Looking a little bit on the economics today. Stacy, it’s all about three magic words. Green New Deal.
STACY HERBERT: Yes. And they were proposed by AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who I guess was basing her thing on FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal. The Green New Deal is supposed to be a jobs program and a climate change deal. We have with us, James Howard Kunstler and Randy Voller. Jim, now tell us, what do you think of a Green New Deal? Is it a great jobs program? Is it a bad jobs program? Is it a good reason to have a deal?
JIM KUNSTLER: It’s a “when you wish upon a star” program because we’ve entered a kind of period in our history, which is an era of wishful thinking. I think the truth of the matter is, unfortunately, we’re not going to run Walt Disney World, the U S military, Suburbia, the interstate highway system, and our great metroplex cities on any combination of alt-fuel and alt-energy. And I’m afraid it’s going to come as a big disappointment to the American public. The main reason for that is, you really can’t fabricate the equipment for all these things and service them and maintain them without an underlying fossil fuel economy platform for that to happen under. Unfortunately, the country has not figured that out, including a lot of pretty intelligent people and people with good intentions. We’d love to keep running our stuff the way we’re running it now, by other means, it’s just really unlikely to happen.
MAX KEISER: This combines two things that really shouldn’t be combined: One is climate change denial, the ‘Green’ part, and one is that governments can’t possibly do anything positive, the ‘New Deal’ part. These are two areas that the predominant political forces like to tell us are socialist or they’re impossible or we don’t have the money for them. The branding on this is horrible. Is there a way to present this that would be more palatable? Because clearly infrastructure needs to be upgraded.
JIM KUNSTLER: Yes it does.
MAX KEISER: That’s something that governments need to do. Somebody needs to do it, and it’s crumbling. How is that going to happen? Clearly with sea levels rising and with acidfication of the oceans and with all the other problems that come with the toxicity of industrialization, there’s a problem in the climate. How to brand this in a better way maybe?
RANDY VOLLER: Why do you think branding it as a ‘Green New Deal’ is a bad idea? The New Deal was a vastly successful idea and one of the problems I think that we’ve had in America is not having aspirational programs that we had in the past that actually moved the needle. We had the New Frontier. That’s what JFK ran on. We had the Great Society. I think for the last 40 years we’ve had the Raw Deal. Isn’t it time to have a better deal, whether you call it the Green New Deal or whatever you do, isn’t it time that we aspire to doing something to fix these problems?
MAX KEISER: Well, the New Frontier had a great, like, “man landing on the moon,” and it appealed to the infantilization of the population in a great way. Little boys wanted to land on the moon. But how do you get the infantilization, which is the mean population in America to agree that cleaning up your room and eating broccoli is a good idea? It’s not the Oprah-fication of the economy.
How do you brand it and make it appealing to those hordes of millions that go see superheroes every weekend at the box office? You know you have to appeal to this kind of inner teen angst to get anything done in America.
RANDY VOLLER: Maybe it should be the ‘Avenging New Deal?’ But look, the point is, my friend here was talking about whether this can actually be done and you’re getting to the energy issue. One of the challenges when you’re dealing with solar, with photovoltaics or you’re dealing with wind powers, how do you store the excess energy? Well, battery storage is in development and that is improving. I would posit, like in States like North Carolina, when they studied the amount of excess energy you can get from wind, if you could use it in an industrial process, for instance, you put a windmill and you started making batteries and you split water and you took your hydrogen over here and your oxygen is over there.
You could use that to provide the energy of a manufacturing plant that created jobs and you were trying to make batteries by splitting water. I mean, it’s just an idea, but there are things you could do with this excess power in the interim that are job creating.
JIM KUNSTLER: My sense of all this is that there are a lot of technological stunts that you can run and a lot of science projects that you can accomplish successfully that simply don’t scale for our way of life. The general belief out there for example, is that because we’re running Suburbia and so many people live in it, we have to find some way to continue to run it and mitigate all the problems with it by running it differently. Then the proposed solutions dujour are that we’re going to … everybody’s going to drive electric cars. We’re going to change out the internal combustion fleet for an electric fleet. I think that’s another thing that people are going to be very disappointed about. There are all kinds of weird currents that are running in the background of this set of problems and predicaments that we face.
For example, the motoring system in America is probably not going to fail on the basis of the fuel issue, how you power the vehicles. What’s really happening is because the financial system is in such distress, there are fewer and fewer people who are capable of buying cars the way Americans are used to buying them on installment loans and making payments on them every month. We’ve been to every possible method we can to allow them to continue to do that, like seven year loans for used cars. A parallel proposal is that we’ll have this driverless car fleet of vehicles that operate like taxi cabs, and there’ll be therefore that many fewer vehicles to run.
The problem is, is that the way the car industry is scaled, they have to sell about 17 million cars a year in order to maintain their business model. They can’t just sell 3000 cars a year or 1,000,005 cars a year. So, there are many hidden problems in this whole matrix of green energy predicaments.
STACY HERBERT: In terms of this green energy, of course, Barack Obama hailed himself as making America the greatest energy producer in the world. As a result of fracking in particular, natural gas, natural gas by many on the left and the Democrats hail it as a great green energy. When in fact the new data shows that indeed all of the global warming, the massive acceleration in the last three years, is due to the methane from fracking. So that has increased the output of greenhouse gases.
JIM KUNSTLER: What’s more is the whole fracking industry has really amounted to a financial stunt of providing a lot of zero interest loans or very ultra low interest loans to the fracking companies who have spent the last 10 years demonstrating that they can’t make a red cent fracking oil.
STACY HERBERT: Yes, but it did create some great jobs, very high paying jobs.
JIM KUNSTLER: And also a very impressive rise in oil production, but for a very brief amount of time.
STACY HERBERT: But even something like the Economist just had a headline saying, we don’t actually know about fracking, we don’t know what it’s doing and this is 10 years after it’s happened. So we don’t know the consequences. We don’t know about the radioactive waste involved in it. We don’t know about what it’s doing to our water supply. We don’t know those things. That’s what I’m saying. With the Green New Deal, is there a chance that they could just be running into a similar thing?
RANDY VOLLER: Possibly, but the move toward natural gas was, in part, about air quality. This whole issue was about coal, and coal fire plants, and other legacy industries. And so they were saying, “Okay, how can we improve the air quality and have a clean burning gas that’s abundant and cheap.” To his point there, they were saying we’re going to fuel an electric fleet with that. The problem with fueling the electric fleet of course, is we pay for our highways by the gas tax. We don’t pay by vehicle miles traveled. So consequently in states that you get an uptick or if you got a lot of electric vehicles, you would start getting decline in revenues to pay for fixing these highways.
So Jim’s right, and you’re right, there’s a lot of other unintended circumstances making these moves. But when they made these moves, they thought they were moving to something that was more environmentally sound. But there were a lot of us who had seen Gasland in its infancy and read up on hydraulic fracturing and warn that it’s not something that’s proven. Yes, it could actually help us in the interim. But there are unintended circumstances, especially with the methane.
MAX KEISER: Right, but was also understood from the very beginning that this was a net cash flow negative industry that it can never be cashflow positive. And it reminds me so much of the other parts of the economy, like the gig economy that goes public on Wall Street, whether it’s Uber or these other gig economies that are just burning money all the time and they never have any hope of making any profits.
It seems, to your point on the scaling issue, if the basic underlying assumption is that nobody will ever make money ever, that you can always borrow money for zero or less than zero and it’s just about getting an incremental quarterly gain. How can you do something like infrastructure that needs you to look out 5, 10, 15 years into the future? Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Program looked at the big map, created the big highways. You know, that was a big project for strategic reasons, for a lot of different reasons. If no one can look out and make those types of decisions and they’re only looking quarter to quarter, to your point, can you ever, ever get to the point where you’re going to have an infrastructure, no matter how you brand it as green or a new deal or what have you, if you’re just looking for quarterly profits?
JIM KUNSTLER: There are a number of additional thinking problems that attend this whole discussion. Notice for example, that in our discussion about how we’re going to mitigate Suburbia with our petroleum quandary, there’s almost no discussion at all about walkable communities and walkable cities. The reason for that is simply that Americans are not interested in that. The reason they’re not interested is because of what I call the psychology of previous investment. The idea that we’ve sunk so much of our national wealth into this living arrangement with no future, that we can’t imagine letting go of it or even reforming it substantially.
The one thing that we could do probably just to reduce the general larger problem of too much mass motoring, and burning of gasoline and diesel fuel, would be places to live that people could walk around in or take public transit in or a combination of both of those. In point of fact, the places where those exist in the world, like many of the cities and towns of Europe are the places that are the most rewarding and psychologically pleasurable places to live in the World. Yet, Americans refuse to think about making those kinds of changes, which they’d get a lot more bang out of then they would from all of this fantasizing about green energy.
MAX KEISER: Right. Let’s take a quick break. The Green New Deal, is it an economic problem or is it a mass psychological problem? Much more coming your away on Front Running.
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MAX KEISER: Welcome back to Front Running 2020. You know, Stacy in the first half on this Green New Deal, we were talking mostly about the green, but then there’s the New Deal and that implies jobs. Where do we go from there?
STACY HERBERT: Well, Jim Kunstler, I want to turn to you because you ended on the last half saying that we have this psychological commitment to our prior investments and that’s why we have Suburbia. But many studies have shown that the new Millennials, the Generation Z, who made Brooklyn a livable place, they’ve turned this into a livable, thriving community. So, they do like to live in livable places, but how do you turn that into a huge jobs program? Because this is what they want. They want the shovel ready projects.
JIM KUNSTLER: The question for the Millennials, really for all of us, is what are the assumptions we’re making about the structure of what work is going to be and what economic activity is going to be and right now? I think the assumption is, well, we’ll just continue to have this large corporate matrix of giant companies that provide enormous amounts of jobs for people. I think what we’re going to see really happen, in what will be a long range contraction of economic activity, will be the re-localization and the downscaling of economic activity. What we really need are not so much jobs but vocations and economic niches for people to occupy that also come with a social role in their community. This was in fact the kind of country that we were pretty much before 1950. This is the country that we were from the Jimmy Stewart movies of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Where people had a role in their community and they had an economic place in their community. The placelessness of Suburbia is very much like the placelessness of people who have no place in this country and in their community because there is no community for them to be in. You could see a lot of this behavior, for example, in the rise of the chain store world of the 1980s-1990s and present time, in which we eliminated all of the local business in America. And we forget that those people who ran businesses in small town America and the cities of America, they employed people in their community. They had a vested interest in the success of their community. A lot of the money stayed in their community. They supported the civic life of the community. They supported the little league teams. They sat on the hospital boards. They sat on the library boards. None of this happens with the Kmarts, the Walmarts, the innumerable chain store operations of America. Not only does it have to change, you can bet that it’s going to change.
STACY HERBERT: But what about the jobs? Because where you live in upstate New York, you said have mills, paper mills, clothing mills, you had all sorts of jobs there. And then those sort of communities, those local communities developed around there. Now we just have finance capitalism or we have Hollywood or Silicon Valley. So of course New York City is getting a huge infrastructure spend with the building up the seawall along there to prevent flooding in the future. But does it have to be a more local or state level thing or can the federal government? Can a Green New Deal? Can AOC and Ed Markey’s Green New Deal help across America?
JIM KUNSTLER: I think the assumption that the federal government is going to continue to be a competent and effectual management system for this part of North America may be assuming too much. I would say that the trend ahead is because we’re going to have to relocalize and we’re going to have to go down the hierarchy of governance that the federal government is. We could expect it to become only more ineffectual, more impotent, and more incompetent.
MAX KEISER: On this idea of bringing relocalization, the localizations have become completely toxic. If you look at Los Angeles or San Francisco, where the reintroduction of medieval diseases, or you have these encampments on the street where the tech giants and the Hollywood giants. There’s a cognitive dissonance going on . . . right there in their backyards is a devolving degrading, collapsing economy and a country that they don’t seem to think they have any role in having created that mess. We can’t even go back to localization because we’re going back to the Middle Ages.
JIM KUNSTLER: Well, we can go back to it, but my guess is that we’re going to be dragged kicking and screaming back to it. Not because we want to go there or have an organized plan to go there. I think the key to understanding where we’re at in this country is that we cannot construct a coherent consensus about what’s happening to us and, therefore, we can’t construct a coherent plan for what to do about it.
MAX KEISER: I think that’s an excellent point actually. We can’t really describe what’s going on, what’s happening, what are the elements that are contributing to this? The discussion seems to be relying on the tropes and the talking points from 20 years ago, 30 years ago. But so much has happened in the last ….
JIM KUNSTLER: And a lot of those tropes are dedicated to a programmatic destruction of the common good and the sense of a common culture and a common purpose. As far as I’m concerned, I remain a registered Democrat, as strange as that seems, but the Democratic party has all but destroyed the idea of a common culture and common purpose in America with their program of multiculturalism, which is really at odds with the idea of a common culture.
STACY HERBERT: Randy, you were a mayor of a small city in North Carolina. If AOC and Ed Markey’s bills pass through the Congress and the Senate and it becomes law and Green New Deal comes into effect, what happens? What do you do with the money?
RANDY VOLLER: Every municipality operates an Enterprise Fund, which is your water and sewer. No water, no town. You’ve got to supply clean water. You’ve got to handle waste. So of course if you brought in money, you’re going to repair your distribution system. You might build a new wastewater treatment plant. You might build a new reverse osmosis water treatment plant. Or, you might run a reuse water plant to 3M, which is south of town, which we did when I was mayor. Instead of sending them potable water, we send them actually water that comes from our sewer treatment plant, which is more environmentally sound and smarter. There are a lot of things that local governments can do that put people to work like filling in potholes and building sidewalks so you could walk to the schools in the community or building parks that help the quality of life.
STACY HERBERT: Well, one of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s… the resolution within her bill that she proposed was an upgrading of all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, so weatherproofing them and things like that. That of course could provide a lot of security in terms of not only jobs but also energy security, bills security … electric bills.
RANDY VOLLER: Yeah. I mean that’s an idea that those of us that have worked in the industry know about, I mean some of the low hanging fruit is essentially taking existing buildings and making them more energy efficient, making the quality of living in the building better. Those jobs can’t be outsourced because you have to actually do them in town.
MAX KEISER: Yeah, right. Well, it just seems that there’s no role for government in the current thinking. That it’s all about individual enterprise and survival of the fittest and aggrandizement and getting rich at all costs and externalizing all risks including environmental and financial risk. To Jim’s point, without a common culture, at some point, this situation is only going to become more fractious and more degrading. So how do you even bring about this idea of a common culture that would be needed to tackle a huge infrastructure project or a huge green project without it being spun as a return or an introduction of socialism and all these other catch phrases that are used by the corporate media and American media is, I would say, 98% corporate led media?
They hate the idea of cost efficiency, which you would need to solve these problems. That, of course, means that their profits would be decimated. So where does that come from? From what I’m hearing you say, it won’t happen. There’s going to be a collapse and then it’s going to have to come from the rubble. Do you agree with that from where you’re sitting in a small city in North Carolina? Is there a way to maneuver toward a future or must we just wait for this collapse to happen and rebuild from the rubble?
RANDY VOLLER: My experience in working in local, regional, state government and politics is there’s actually three types of people, not two. Those that say that that cup is half full. Those that say that it’s half empty, but the third type is someone that spills the glass and makes chaos. So we may get to the situation Jim’s talking about because there are groups in our country that are pushing chaos and that’s why, for example, we can’t agree on what being an American is. In my town right now, we have Neo-Confederates united with Nazis arguing about Confederate flags and monuments. We don’t really have an idea of what our common culture is. That has nothing to do with providing clean water or making sure that your roads are safe and the potholes are filled and that your schools are good. These are other external issues from the past and the present that are putting pressure on having that common American culture.
STACY HERBERT: So there is a place where there is a successful Green New Deal. Many of the Millennial voters want a Green New Deal. There is a Green New Deal and it’s in China. China has built 45 nuclear power plants over the past decade. They have a plan, of course, China’s allowed to plan. They have an energy development strategy action plan 2014-2020 and they are building 15 war nuclear power plants at the moment. They’ve built hundreds and thousands of miles of high speed rail. They’re able to do it. Are we ever going to be able to do this, Jim Kunstler?
JIM KUNSTLER: I think that the experience in China was a remarkable achievement. However, it may not represent what it appears to be. It’s true that they’ve built a great deal of nuclear infrastructure, but again, you have to get back to the question, can they continue to maintain and run that stuff without a petroleum supply?
STACY HERBERT: That doesn’t matter. That doesn’t matter. They have been able to build it. They have been able to put people to work. We say we can’t do it. We’re Americans. We can’t do it. We don’t have the ability. We can’t put people to work. We can’t come up with a deal.
JIM KUNSTLER: But they built a giant machine for this giant country for living in that may not be maintainable in any case.
RANDY VOLLER: I disagree with the notion that we can’t do it. I think we can do it and I think that we have other issues that are affecting our ability to do it. For instance, we have a debate on immigration. We need immigrants in this country in order to fuel this building.
STACY HERBERT: Green New Deal. What about that?
RANDY VOLLER: That’s to the Green New Deal. In order to have a Green New Deal with building infrastructure you need workers ….
STACY HERBERT: So you’re going to tell the population, all those Republicans vote for more immigrants because we need a Green New Deal? That’s a vote loser.
RANDY VOLLER: Not really. We rely on people coming into this country. You need 2.11 people to replace the ones that are here. We’re not actually replacing the people that are here. Our population is aging.
JIM KUNSTLER: But the people who were taking opiates and shooting meth in the Midwest because they’re leading purposeless lives of an anime and ennui they’re not the ones who are anxious to bring in millions of other new workers to replace them. I said earlier that societies are emergent and self organizing. And reality has mandates of its own that go beyond what our wishes and preferences are and our Utopian visions may be. We’re going to be subject to the mandates of reality and we’ll do what we’re required to do. We’ll do what we’re compelled to do. I think that the human project is going to continue. I think it will represent a timeout from the kind of technological progress we’ve enjoyed. It’s something we might have to consider.
MAX KEISER: Okay. Green New Deal. This is a flash round. Will it happen, won’t happen Jim Kunstler?
JIM KUNSTLER: We’re going to get a New Deal, but it may not be the Green New Deal that people are expecting. We’ll get the Green New Deal that we deserve.
RANDY VOLLER: I think we are going to get a Green New Deal because the Green New Deal encompasses things beyond just straight infrastructure. Healthcare’s in that New Deal. There are other elements, if you go back to when it started in 2006, that we are going to get and that are popular in this country.
MAX KEISER: All right, well, it’s all comes down to branding. That’s how I see it. America’s great at war. How about the war on apathy? That’s it for this edition of Front Running with Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert. Until next time, bye y’all.