The following essay is adapted from an episode of The Gist, a daily podcast from Slate about news, culture, and whatever else you’re discussing with your family and friends. Listen to The Gist for free every day via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.
The goals of the Green New Deal are impossible. Which is exactly what makes it a great idea.
Huh? Don’t you get it? By asking the impossible, the Green New Deal asks us to consider the possibilities! You see, a plan’s actual workability as a plan is no longer the value of a plan. Plans are good for thinking, and thinking leads to dreaming, and dreaming is the only way that change occurs—that’s just science, folks.
We’ve blown past the era of evaluating an idea’s worth by subjecting it to the standard of “feasibility.” Workability or feasibility is no way to judge any idea put forth by the exciting and innovative Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, says Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Writing in the Atlantic of another of AOC’s headline-grabbing proposals, a 70 percent tax rate, Hamid admits he does not have a well thought out position on whether it’s a good idea.
“It probably doesn’t matter whether it is, or whether it would ‘work,’ ” he writes. “This, though, could be the most important contribution so far of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the new crop of progressive politicians—the realization that the technical merits of a particular policy aren’t the most relevant consideration.”
Well, call me a tired old watchdog, or fuddy-duddy fact finder—I do not assess policies through the lens of the charismatic and compelling Ocasio-Cortez, who has become the perfect distillation of the Trumpian, big swing, mega-MAGA hashtag, nonconstrained by literalism, post–reality-to-accuracy politics age. I tend to judge ideas by considering the opinions of experts who know more than I do. And when it comes to the Green New Deal, almost none of these people think that the United States can achieve its goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.
Pointing this out, however, is passé, or anti-progressive, or nay-saying. Guilty—I am in fact literally saying nay. And if you polled the leading experts or polled even the leading edge of renewable energy optimistic experts, they would admit that it is not possible to get to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. The Union of Concerned Scientists hope we can get to 80 percent by 2050. Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson, co-founder of the Solutions Project and 100.org—the 100 percent clean, renewable energy movement—has estimated that his goal cannot be achieved by 2030 but holds out hope for 2050. By comparison, renewable energy accounts for only 18 percent of total U.S. power generation.*
Perhaps I am naïve when it comes to the way the world works, and I should realize that knowingly unrealistic, which is to say dishonest, goals and proposals that will not work are the best ways to steer us to a better future. Instead, I worry that having impossible goals might dissuade the public and discredit those proposing them. Also, this sophisticated mind-changing technique of endorsing unrealistic goals seems to have little relation to the legislative process, which in the past two decades has been marked by the accrual of power and the crafting of maximalist legislation passed with no accommodation of the minority party.
In her rollout speech, Ocasio-Cortez cited the New Deal and the Great Society as huge ideas that everyone scoffed at. The difference is that those social welfare programs did not have, at their cores, polices deemed unrealistic by the people who knew the most about them. The great progressive gains of American society—women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights—were not won by making demands or submitting proposals that leaders knew could not happen.
Maybe I’m wrong, and you can cite an example where FDR cleverly proposed two dams in Tennessee when he really wanted only one. But my point is that accurate journalists or news assessors at the time would have been doing their jobs incorrectly if they had failed to point out: “That’s one dam too many.”
On an FAQ page released by Ocasio-Cortez’s office, the Green New Deal is compared to lofty American ambitions of the past.
It says: “If Eisenhower wanted to build the interstate highway system today, people would ask how we’d pay for it.” Well, they’d be right to, and they also did ask those questions then. In fact, paying for the interstate highway system was a dominant consideration.
Ocasio-Cortez, in that FAQ, also invokes the moonshot, saying “when JFK said we’d go to the [moon] by the end of the decade, people said impossible.”
I’m sure some did. But the best experts didn’t, and we know this because JFK asked them. He sought their advice, accepted it, and crafted his policy around it. Famed aerospace engineer Wernher Von Braun wrote to LBJ, saying that while the United States probably could not beat the USSR at having a manned laboratory in space, he estimated that the U.S. had a “sporting chance” of sending a three-man crew around the moon and that the U.S. had an “excellent chance” of beating the USSR to a lunar landing.
The strategy behind the moonshot was not to advocate for what the experts thought we couldn’t do in the hopes that it would lead to what we could do.
Furthermore, in the Kennedy, Eisenhower, or FDR eras, it was not seen as a good strategy to deride observers who accurately cited experts as being small-minded, nit-picky, or not getting the big picture. That’s more a quality of the Trump or George W. Bush eras, where snooty experts fail to see the possibilities.
It is a problem that progressives, cheering on the tactics of Ocasio-Cortez, have rewritten the gains of history to seem like failures, with Matt Stoller of the Open Markets Institute criticizing the Obama presidency as tepidly “defined by self-imposed limits.” In fact, it was defined by an expansion of health care, a reversal of economic catastrophe, and an improvement of the material circumstances of most Americans. Similarly, there is a jealousy of the detail-free triumphs of the right as expressed by Shadi Hamid.
“One reason that right-wing populists across Europe (and India and the Philippines and many other places) have been surprisingly—or unsurprisingly—successful: They seem to have relatively little interest in what works,” he writes.
The tactic of the moment—of knowingly endorsing daring ideas that do not work as tactic—strikes me as much less clever than its adherents would have us believe. If we no longer think of actual feasibility as a best practice, it is less likely that our actual policies will somehow average out into bold yet feasible improvements on the status quo and more likely that we’ll simply be stuck with failure.
Correction, Feb. 11, 2019: This piece originally misstated that U.S. energy use is only 18 percent renewable. Renewable energy accounts for only 18 percent of total U.S. power generation.