Why Are We Even Responding to John Delaney?

John Delaney is completely insignificant. But he’s echoing common talking points about the Green New Deal. They’re all lies.

Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney smiles during the 2020 Public Service Forum hosted by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) on August 3, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

John Delaney is not a fan of the Green New Deal. He’s said it’s about as realistic as “Mexico paying for the wall.” When he was asked about this statement at the last Democratic Debate, he argued that the Green New Deal proposal goes wrong by including too many nonenvironmental reforms.

“It ties its progress to other things that are completely unrelated to climate. Like universal healthcare, guaranteed government jobs, and universal basic income. So that only makes it harder.”

Why Delaney Is Wrong

There are at least three problems with Delaney’s analysis. First, while it’s true that a summary of the Green New Deal that appeared at one point on a congressional website included language that seemed to indicate support for a universal basic income, no such proposal made it into the text of the resolution itself.

Second, whatever one makes of the long-running intra-left debate on the respective merits of a UBI or a Federal Jobs Guarantee, it’s simply not true that either proposal would be “completely unrelated to climate.” As union activists and environmental justice advocates have emphasized for decades, any move toward green energy must include a just transition for workers whose livelihoods would otherwise disappear in the process.

It’s all very well to argue that job losses in carbon-emitting industries will be balanced out by new jobs created in carbon-neutral ones, but it’s a bit too much to hope that the invisible hand of the free market will give those new jobs to unemployed middle-aged oil workers.

Third, and most importantly, the claim that packaging together the green aspects of the Green New Deal with broadly popular social-democratic measures makes it less politically viable reflects a fundamental political misunderstanding.

Corporations that profit off of carbon emissions have successfully fought against environmental measures far milder than the ones envisioned in the Green New Deal resolution. Defeating those vested interests requires a powerful and mobilized majoritarian coalition. Tying the long-term ecological payoffs of the transition to a green economy to the short-term interests of ordinary people is good politics as well as good policy.

Expanding the Green New Deal

Far from the Green New Deal proposal being too radical as it stands, socialists should push for it to go even further and include a plank for the promotion of worker cooperatives. Such firms are only mentioned in passing (along with unions, civil society groups, and so on) in a single sentence of the Congressional resolution.

One of the Green New Deal’s most prominent backers, Senator Bernie Sanders, is a longstanding advocate of worker-owned firms. Sanders’s Agenda for America on his Senate page states:

“Study after study shows that when workers have an ownership stake in the businesses they work for, productivity goes up, absenteeism goes down, and employees are much more satisfied with their jobs.”

Any realistically imaginable version of the Green New Deal would involve a windfall for private contractors. (This is true as a matter of course even for far less ambitious government initiatives.) A policy granting such contracts wherever possible to worker cooperatives rather than traditional hierarchical companies could lead to a massive expansion of the cooperative sector. This would be valuable both for the reasons mentioned by Sanders, and our wider socialist ideological goal of spreading economic democracy, and because increasing the percentage of businesses organized as cooperatives would be good for the environment.

The Link Between Climate and Worker Ownership

Workers who collectively own and direct their firms have very different incentives than the outside owners of traditional businesses. The effects of fracking on drinking water, for example, are far more likely to be a problem for the employees of oil and gas companies and their families than for executives or wealthy investors.

This argument might seem to have less force when it comes to industrial practices whose environmental impact is less immediate. What if greenhouse gasses are being emitted but the water supply isn’t being fracked up in the process?

Even in these cases, cooperatives are a better environmental bet. One reason for this is that profit-per-worker is a far less powerful incentive for environmentally destructive business decisions than the total profits of outside owners. Another has to do with the innate advantages of giving a larger set of constituents a say in the matter.

This point shouldn’t be exaggerated. Cooperative ownership isn’t a panacea, and such companies might well behave in destructive ways. They’ll need to be closely regulated by a strong state. That said, executives in traditional corporations whose only responsibility is to the bottom line of distant shareholders are all but guaranteed to prioritize short-term gain over long-term environmental impact. Workplace democracy could help to give environmentally responsible outcomes a fighting chance.

Far from the Green New Deal being too expansive for it to be of any use to us, we need to continue pushing our demands in the direction of economic democracy.