Once in a rare while, an idea actually takes the nation by storm. It may not necessarily be a new idea, but it is articulated in a new and exciting way that captures the political imagination. Such an idea is the "green jobs" agenda, which attempts to conceive of a move to a green economy in a way that actually increases jobs and income, rather than taxing us back to preindustrial times. My new buddy Susan Helper described this set of ideas fairly concisely in a new paper for the Economic Policy Institute. Among the arguments she presents and summarizes:
- A 2-3 degree Celsius increase in temperature could lead to mass species extinction and flooding; in order to avoid this and other consequences, carbon emissions (which lead to global warming) in developed countries must be reduced 80%. While this sounds very daunting, and indeed it is, there are relatively small investments that could be made in energy efficiency and renewable energy that can take us there. Thus the green jobs agenda.
- At the same time, U.S. workers are hurting. Less than 10% of the workforce is currently in manufacturing, and key industries like the tooling industry are nowhere near where they need to be to move to a green economy. Thus, greening could potentially lead to more offshoring - not the nail in the coffin that the American worker needs after a generation of wage stagnation.
- Despite that doom and gloom, manufacturing is still responsible for a majority of U.S. innovation, and U.S. manufacturing companies - especially when they empower their workers to self-manage - can have significant productivity advantages over more top-down competitors both domestic and international. They can also pay high wages.
- Then, very helpfully, Sue shows how the "high-road" policies people like her and Dan Luria have been talking about for a long-time can and should dovetail with the green jobs agenda.
Sue's proposals have many good counterparts, and virtually every candidate and many many union and environmental groups are coming up with their own proposals.
But even an emergent discourse like green jobs can get hampered by inherited discourses, like that promoted by the boosters of our current NAFTA-WTO style trade policy. Former U.S. trade officials are arguing that we mustn't pursue any policies that are WTO-illegal, while even our good friends are feeling pressure to justify their policies in the lens of the WTO.
I don't know about you, but the first institution that pops in my head when I think of saving the planet is not the WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION. I dunno, maybe it's because its judges have ruled against so many good environmental policies both here and abroad. By bending over backwards to claim WTO legality, I think we sell ourselves or the planet short on the discussion we need to be having about reinvigorating local democracy and economies.
Part of addressing the global warming crisis will involve immediate action to reduce some of the redundant trade that is taking place (where we ship the same heavy items back and forth across oceans), to correct global trade imbalances, and to empower policymakers and workers to take more control over their economic destiny. (This is what I think is what Sue is talking about in her proposals for everything from the shop floor to a national economic strategy.) I think the public is very ready to have this discussion, as can be seen from discussions of trade policy playing so prominently in the campaigns. I don't think we have to wait until 12 years to start addressing competitiveness issues either, as many of the proposals before Congress currently do. After all, much of the offshoring of U.S. production to Mexico and China happened in considerably shorter time periods.
In other words, we need to decide what is to be done, and then figure out how to overhaul the WTO to meet our targets, rather than starting from the unhelpful premise of ensuring WTO legality.