By Brian Czech
Joe Biden wants to restore the “soul of America.” It’s a noble goal befitting an elderly statesman combining Uncle Joe charm with Uncle Sam chops. And, it’s badly needed after four years of soulless, sickening corruption of the White House. It’s also a huge opportunity, not only for restoring but for reforming that soul.
Reform is needed because the soul of America was hardly spotless to begin with, on either side of the political aisle. Let’s not forget that Donald Trump, the greatest liar in presidential history, was somehow popular enough—distinctly among Americans—to con his way into the White House. What does that say about the soul of America before he was elected? A “reality” show joker, insulting and crass and unbelievably arrogant, got enough of the vote to become the face of America. That’s not a sign of a healthy soul.
On the other hand, what were the choices? If the innocent consumer finds nothing but liquor stores on one side of the street and drug dealers on the other, an edifying purchase is highly unlikely. In this case the other side of the street was Hillary Clinton. She was despised for numerous reasons, many of them unfair and owing to the propaganda of an electoral axis of evil running through the Koch Brothers, National Rifle Association, and Crossroads GPS.
Unfortunately, there were more legitimate reasons for rejecting Clinton, too. Steady staters had one complaint in particular: She was the epitome of the win-win rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” For environmentalists, scientists, and ecological economists—as well as loggers, miners, farmers, and ranchers—nothing ever seemed more cynical. It was a politically polished tarnishing of the self-evident truth that there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.
The win-win rhetoric was made all the more deplorable by Clinton’s prefacing, “Some people just don’t get it…” She’d say this with dismissive ease, and then “there is no conflict…,” as if dishonesty was second nature. For those of us in the battle for governmental truth-telling on the conflict, such insolence was especially galling.
My guess is that not a single steady stater voted for Trump, but many couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton either. They stayed home or perhaps voted for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. (Stein provides little leadership on limits to growth, but at least the Green Party of the United States features the steady state economy as an economic plank in its platform.)
Biden’s Rare Opportunity
You hate to call it an “opportunity,” when it’s borne out of such distress, yet there is no question that Joe Biden comes into the 2020 election in one of the most unique situations in American political history, including as it pertains to limits to growth. Plenty of factors and scenarios contribute to this limits-to-growth uniqueness, but let’s consider the primary themes:
Limits to growth. The USA, and indeed the world, has never been closer to limits. It might be more accurate to say that, according to ecological footprint metrics, we have never exceeded those limits by such a dangerous margin. And, while biodiversity loss and other environmental threats fail to gain traction as political issues, climate change is now thickly in the mix, helping to raise public awareness of the limits to growth.
COVID-19 pandemic. With almost 5 million confirmed cases and 160,000 deaths, no disease since the Spanish flu has stalked the land so rapidly and ruthlessly. Many millions of Americans are sitting home scared, worried about when their lives will get back to normal, and even re-thinking what “normal” means. While the pandemic isn’t a clear-cut instance of limits to growth, at least not in the sense of resource depletion or pollution, it’s hardly unrelated. It spreads fastest where people and economic activities are too crowded, and it knocks the economy to its knees.
Economic implosion. We’ve just experienced the single biggest quarterly drop in GDP ever. Not even degrowthers and steady staters can appreciate such a shock to the economy. But politically, while bombastic Trump blames the “Chinese virus,” just about everybody knows (although some won’t admit it) that Trump’s incompetent handling of the pandemic plays a large part in the implosion.
Lame duck opponent. No candidate has ever run against such a ham-handed, bridge-burning “Divider in Chief.” With 90 days left before the election, Biden finds himself with a comfortable lead because Trump hasn’t been smart or talented enough to hide his autocratic tendencies, much less soulful enough to transcend them. Enough of Trump’s erstwhile voters are finally onto him that states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are turning blue again. The salient point for steady-state purposes is that Biden has a rare opportunity to provide some unprecedented leadership on big-picture, long-term challenges, because even if it caused him a point or two, his lead is big enough to absorb the blow. It’s a political luxury of sorts, similar to what emboldened Ronald Reagan when President Carter had become a lame duck. Lame ducks leave room for sweeping policy change.
Three Distinctive Approaches for Biden
Given the themes identified above, Biden has three basic approaches available to him for handling the economy. Two such approaches represent short- and long-term perspectives, respectively: growth at all costs and steady statesmanship. The third approach would be fence-riding on limits to growth via the Green New Deal. Let’s consider each in turn.
Growth at All Costs. While the cloud of the COVID-caused recession has a silver lining, the cloud has come to dwarf the lining, politically at least. It is such an unprecedented implosion that it could very well set the stage for a political competition on who can regrow GDP the fastest.
Trump will argue that, if it weren’t for COVID-19, GDP would be growing like never before, and all because of him. Virus or no virus, he’ll tell you, he’s the man for regrowth. And he would pull out all the stops for GDP. He’s not bluffing. The truth stops there, though, because Trump is lying about what it all means for the environment, public health, and the tax-paying middle class (not to mention the fact that pulling out all the stops can backfire even in GDP terms, as his handling of the pandemic illustrated). His cavalier concern for posterity combined with his abject abuse of the truth put him in a category reserved for himself, the Dark Money crowd, and maybe Madison Avenue. While Trump hardly rules that world, he’s the epitome of its ethic, so “Trumpism” is a fitting title. Trumpism is basically the dishonest version of growth at all costs.
Could Biden be baited into a GDP challenge, pulling out all the stops as well, or promising to do so? We can’t rule it out. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and—just like Trump—Biden is no young’un. As with virtually all politicians of his era, his mind is pro-growth programmed. There will be plenty of neoclassical economists, straight out of the 20th century, advising him in that direction, too.
Steady statesmanship. We can have a moderate level of hope for Biden taking up the mantle of steady statesmanship, or at least for raising awareness of limits to growth. Biden is known as a no-nonsense exposer of bunk, and he’s known as the antithesis of Trump. He cares about the truth, and he cares about posterity. That’s a combination made for steady statesmanship.
Let’s think about what a steady-state speech could sound like—Joe Biden’s intonation and all—incorporating elements of the themes we explored earlier. It could conclude thusly, following an articulation of the daunting problems we face in the midst of the COVID-caused recession:
Yes, we have to get the economy back on track. But not the way it was, folks! Not the way Donald Trump ran it, tearing up our hard-won environmental protections, burning bridges with our friends abroad, bringing us to the brink of a cold war with China, and threatening posterity with his blatant disregard of climate science. No, we’ve seen what a sociopathic obsession with GDP looks like, and we’ve had enough! It’s cost us our biggest treasure of all: precious American lives as Trump has rushed moms and dads back to the workplace—and kids back to schools—just so his GDP numbers would be on the upswing in time for the election.
Friends, the world doesn’t revolve around GDP. Just ask any parent with a sick child, or anyone who’s lost a friend to COVID. The economy is supposed to be for us, not the other way around. We don’t live to grow the GDP. GDP was never supposed to rule our lives, trash the environment, or push us to the brink of war. Trump’s blind pursuit of GDP growth—growth at all costs—is like miles per hour being the only thing that matters when driving a car, instead of smartly and safely avoiding the obstacles. It’s like consuming as many calories as we possibly can, instead of the right amount for healthy bodies and sharp minds. It’s like building as many towers and casinos and golf courses as we can squeeze onto the landscape, instead of maintaining our national parks and forests and heritage sites.
Aside from ruining our environment and risking our lives for the sake of his GDP numbers, Trump doesn’t know anything about the economy. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and knows nothing about the struggle of everyday Americans. You know what he knows about? He knows about Manhattan real estate, luxury living, and beauty pageants. He knows about discriminating, rigging, and cheating. He knows about grifting, grabbing, and getting away with it. There’s a reason—probably many reasons—he won’t show us his tax returns. This is a president who lies as part of his everyday life, as part of his business model, as part of his golf game, as part of his politics, as part of his presidency. He’s the world record holder with over 20,000 lies and counting.
Friends—and I mean Democrats and Republicans alike—we can’t afford to leave the economy in the hands of a con man. We need experience, expertise, and intelligence for managing the economy. When you elect me, you’ll have experience on your side. And I, instead of shuffling pawns and yes-men in and out of the West Wing…I’ll have the best possible advisors on my side, men and women gathering the most relevant intelligence. I’ll have a team, not of “elites,” but of smart, devoted subject-matter experts thinking in advance of the big-picture, long-term problems as well as the immediate crisis. Together, we’ll all steer this economy through the pandemic in a way that balances all of our concerns for the environment, public health, human decency, stable jobs, and most importantly, the soul of America!
It’s not at all far-fetched to envision Biden making such a strong, steady-state pitch, is it? The words make too much sense at this point in history and in this specific political context. While the Joe Biden of our hoped-for speech doesn’t go so far as to propose the steady state economy per se, he sets the stage for it unmistakably. His connotations are all over limits to growth, the stupidity of growth at all costs, and the dark underbelly of Trumpism. Yes, moving away from GDP growth as economic policy is a paradigm shift; it would be a major political gamble under normal conditions. But conditions have never been less normal, and Biden can afford to push the envelope as Trump’s duck gets lamer by the day.
Green New Deal. Perhaps the easiest way out, politically, is to avoid either growth at all costs or the steady-state stance. Biden has to have some kind of economic platform, though, so avoiding growth at all costs and steady statesmanship entails a third distinct approach. It would almost have to be the Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal (“Green Deal”) certainly incorporates a healthy concern for posterity, but it has a debilitating truth problem called “green growth.” Green growth is an oxymoron and synonymous with the Clintonian win-win rhetoric that helped get Trump elected to begin with. While perhaps the most famous face of the Green Deal, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, seems firmly grounded in 21st century reality, many other Green Deal principals (Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, for example) are confirmed “green growthers.”
Where does Joe Biden stand? Evidently, according to Joe’s Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice, “Biden believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.” Thankfully, Joe’s plan says nothing about green growth, at least not yet. So, despite the bow to the Green Deal, Biden could yet end up in any of the three camps (that is, the camps available to those refusing to wallow in the soulless swamp of Trumpism).
Please think about it, Mr. Biden. Stay off Green Growth Street, which is like that twisted street of liquor stores and drug dealers. The people there have a distorted perception of reality. “Green growth” is bunk; it’s definitely not you. If you find yourself tempted to venture down Green Growth Street, remember the wisest words ever spoken by a Reagan: “Just don’t do it!”
Brian Czech is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.