The Best Argument for a Climate Jobs Bill

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Like all political movements out of power, the American climate movement has perennially faced one question over the past twenty-five years: when our allies control Congress and the Presidency, what major decarbonization legislation should they attempt to push through?

After years of failed attempts to woo the right with market-based policy proposals like the infamously watered-down Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade proposal of 2009, climate leftists are electing for a different approach. Recently groups such as the Sunrise Movement have attempted to harness the newfound enthusiasm and influence within the Democratic Party base for leftist policy ideas like Medicare for All and a jobs guarantee, advocating for a version of the latter that would dramatically overhaul American energy infrastructure. Unlike complicated schemes such as cap-and-trade, a jobs guarantee plan is relatively straightforward: the federal government would promise a living-wage job to any American who wants one, putting millions of Americans to work on public decarbonization projects. Such a proposal, advocates argue, could leverage the machinery of the state to rapidly cut emissions while reducing poverty, assist displaced fossil fuel workers with labor market transitions, and improve the bargaining power of workers overall by reducing the supply of privately-available labor.  

From a movement-building standpoint, this move is shrewd. Rather than designing austerity-heavy, issue-specific proposals like revenue-neutral carbon taxes and fruitlessly begging the broader left to spend significant political capital on them, climate leftists are embracing a policy framework that simultaneously advances the priorities of multiple coalition partners and spotlights an integrated analysis of their concerns. Joining Team Job Guarantee, furthermore, increases the chances that climate hawks will have a seat at the table post-2020, when the apportionment of jobs guarantee spending will hypothetically be decided amongst congressional Democrats.

Despite their popularity among activists and Democratic 2020 hopefuls, however, jobs guarantee proposals have received a lot of criticism from some leftists on three fronts, each usefully summarized by Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project. The first is that positions created by a jobs guarantee would either require skills that are not readily obtainable by those who are structurally unemployed (think electrical systems engineering), or conversely be so trivial as to yield little social benefit (think picking up trash on the freeway). The second is that a jobs guarantee effectively attaches a Clintonian work requirement to welfare provision, and that the latter ought not to include the former. The third is that reducing private labor supply too much could lead to cost-push inflation, as wage increases from a tight labor market are offset by cost-of-living increases produced by rising labor costs.

In my view, the first two concerns can be addressed somewhat with proper policy design, especially if the bill were to expand its scope beyond poverty reduction to include emissions reduction. A jobs guarantee program could be expanded to include a larger part of the workforce than those who are currently unemployed, shifting some skilled and semi-skilled workers from the private energy sector and elsewhere to more lucrative, unionized positions under project labor agreements and opening up lower-skill jobs in the process. Many renewable energy-sector jobs such as installation, meanwhile, require comparatively cheap training, and a jobs bill tackling climate would require significant spending on mass training and technological research anyway to achieve an energy transition at the scale and pace required.

Similarly, a climate jobs would admittedly act not to reduce poverty with absolute maximal efficiency, but instead to achieve a good amount of poverty reduction jointly with a rapid energy transition. A jobs guarantee, moreover, is not mutually exclusive with welfare: salaries could be set at a rate higher than still-adequate levels of unemployment insurance to incentivize activity. The public health and social benefits obtained by such a transition would also reduce strain on the welfare state itself, allowing for the expansion of provision and public goods.

Even with these amendments, however, a climate jobs guarantee undoubtedly remains a sub-optimal approach to both decarbonization and poverty reduction, and questions remain surrounding its effects on the economy overall. In response, climate jobs bill proponents have largely acknowledged these downsides, choosing instead to advance a political economy argument of ex-ante feasibility. They point to the fact that a jobs guarantee is incredibly popular among the public, clocking in as “one of the most popular issues ever polled.” Besides melding the climate movement to the broader left, they argue, a jobs guarantee will bring millions of currently unregistered or otherwise unsupportive working class voters to the polls for Democrats in 2018 and 2020, building a majority in Congress and dramatically improving the changes for substantive action in a way other climate policies can’t. Insurgent congressional candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have begun to put this strategy into practice, invoking the language of the “Green New Deal” to describe their climate platform. Knowing voters have fond memories of the original New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez and her allies are trying to capitalize on those up-front associations to rally the public around a theoretically imperfect but politically achievable vision of climate justice.

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Despite these efforts, many climate advocates on both the left and in the center remain skeptical. This is to be expected: pragmatic appeals to political constraints will always face skeptics. Still, I think the climate jobs bill approach undersells itself. The chief virtue of a climate jobs bill in relation to politics isn’t its passability; regardless of what proposals exist within the realm of possibility, no single piece of legislation passed by Democrats in 2021 could possibly have the scope or foresight to implement complete and long-term decarbonization of the American economy. Whatever is passed will have to serve as a starting point, a basis upon which to improve and enact even more ambitious and politically difficult measures in the decades ahead. In order to build a durable majoritarian coalition capable of hurdling these obstacles, climate advocates should consider not just the feasibility or social welfare effects of different policies, but their effects on the political landscape—how they set us up to acquire more control over future policymaking processes, especially on the federal level. Thinking more than one step ahead reveals a climate jobs bill as superior to any other policy option.

In order to understand why, it’s important to think about why the legislation that a climate jobs bill is often compared to—the New Deal—remains so politically popular eighty years after its enactment, even among Republican voters who support candidates intent on dismantling its remnants. While economists left and right hold mixed opinions on the overall success of the employment programs, public works projects, financial regulations, and social welfare agencies aimed at ending the Great Depression, research indicates that the New Deal had profound effects on the political socialization of Americans, particularly the working class. Through their presence and visibility in local communities and the immediate provision of material benefit, these policies demonstrated to a wide variety of Americans that actions taken by the state towards a common social goal can be a tremendous force for good. The creation of Social Security and the Wagner Act led to new and expansive forms of leftist political organization, contributing to a durable political coalition that lasted for more than forty years. This was by no means an accident: Roosevelt, the labor movement, and their Democratic allies understood that to enact public policy is to create feedback effects that shape future politics in ways beyond social “outcomes” or even the ephemeral popularity of politicians. A strategically-designed climate jobs bill could operate to build the same affection and working-class organization around the state function of redistributive, poverty-fighting decarbonization.

Engineering policy feedback is not a new idea among climate policy wonks—see, for example, Jonas Meckling’s research on how green industrial policy builds constituencies that can offer more heft in future policy battles. But ways in which it this could be done aren’t necessarily leftist—say, using tax credits to build the power of wind energy trade associations and their shareholders to the detriment of labor. A climate jobs bill would build political support instead by bolstering labor unions, targeting investments in communities of color, and sponsoring high-profile transportation infrastructure improvements that revitalize rural and urban areas. The positive affinities that a climate jobs bill has, therefore, are not just ones based on social-democratic nostalgia: they would be set in motion by the implementation of the program itself. How the details of program design and implementation stand to affect the ensuing politics must be a crucial consideration of leftist policy wonks and political economy strategists as we prepare for a post-Trump world.

Johnathan Guy is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying wealth inequality, social relations, and decarbonization. He is active in Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. He tweets @johnathanjguy.