Could a Socialist Plot Save the Planet?

Nationalization could slow the climate crisis. But email leaks show how hard a sell it will be to a Clinton administration.

Kate AronoffOctober 18, 2016

A new proposal suggests that taking over coal, oil and natural gas companies could be the best way to take them down. (Joe Brusky/ Flickr)

For those con­cerned about the future of earth and the peo­ple liv­ing on it, there are plen­ty of things to be wor­ried about in the lat­est round of email leaks about Hillary Clin­ton: her hawk­ing nat­ur­al gas as a bridge fuel,” prais­ing oil and gas exports and admir­ing Canada’s pipeline and extrac­tion-heavy ener­gy agen­da. Much of this, though, will come as no sur­prise to those who have fol­lowed Clinton’s career, includ­ing her well-doc­u­ment­ed role in sell­ing frack­ing to the world as Sec­re­tary of State. And even giv­en her many faults on ener­gy and the envi­ron­ment, there remains a yawn­ing divide between Clinton’s cli­mate poli­cies and those of her oppo­nent, Don­ald Trump, who promis­es to re-open shut­tered coal mines and has called glob­al warm­ing a hoax invent­ed by the Chinese.

'You’d need a manageable plan over five years or so to buy and phase out these companies. That’s doable under public ownership and it’s probably not doable using regulation, given how powerful these companies are.'

So what do the lat­est round of Wik­iLeaks emails tell us that we didn’t already know? They reveal some of the Clin­ton campaign’s strat­e­gy for defeat­ing Ver­mont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the pri­maries. With that, the emails offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how her admin­is­tra­tion might approach the cli­mate cri­sis — and what pol­i­cy mea­sures could get left off the table. In demo­niz­ing Sanders’ pro­pos­als as spend­thrift social­ism, Clin­ton may be fore­clos­ing on a poten­tial­ly key tool for cap­ping emis­sions: Nation­al­iz­ing the fos­sil fuel industry.

Like social­ism, nation­al­iza­tion has been a taboo word in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics since the Cold War and before, con­jur­ing up images of dis­as­trous five-year plans and author­i­tar­i­an­ism. But a new pro­pos­al sug­gests that tak­ing over coal, oil and nat­ur­al gas com­pa­nies could be the best way to take them down. It’s bold and exor­bi­tant­ly expen­sive and might just work. But noth­ing could be far­ther from the Clin­ton campaign’s think­ing — on either cli­mate or the economy.

Craft­ing their line of attack against Sanders, cam­paign chair­man John Podes­ta and Clinton’s senior staff sought to paint Clin­ton as the more rea­son­able and prag­mat­ic of the two can­di­dates. On Wall Street reform, for instance, advi­sors looked to fos­ter a pub­lic com­mon ground between the two can­di­dates, argu­ing that Clin­ton had the more real­is­tic plan to reign in the bank­ing indus­try. (“We don’t need to prove he’s bad on Wall Street … that’s not real­ly cred­i­ble,” one staffer wrote. We need to prove we’re ok.”) Their key dif­fer­ences, the cam­paign insist­ed, were on tac­tics, not goals. In a few cas­es, these offen­sives veered into out­right red-bait­ing, tar­get­ing Sanders’s self-described Demo­c­ra­t­ic Socialism.

In a mes­sage to senior cam­paign staff, Lan­ny Davis, Clinton’s spe­cial coun­sel, pro­pos­es orga­niz­ing a Sanders Truth Squad” of Clin­ton sur­ro­gates to flood cable news shows and chal­lenge Sanders on his non-facts and mis­lead­ing free’ pro­pos­als that will sub­stan­tial­ly raise mid­dle class tax­es or leave Mil­len­ni­als with tril­lions of dol­lars of debt to pay off for the rest of their lives.”

Stat­ing that most of our attacks haven’t been work­ing” in one email, long­time Clin­ton advi­sor Mandy Grun­wald laid out a series of digs at Sanders to be deployed in the days after the New Hamp­shire pri­ma­ry, which Sanders won in a land­slide. Why not use the old stuff,” she writes, to prove how wacky this think­ing is?”

The first sug­ges­tion, enti­tled YOU PAY FOR SOCIAL­ISM,” advis­es that Clin­ton go after Sanders on the basis of how much his reforms — from free health­care to free col­lege to expan­sions in Social Secu­ri­ty — could cost taxpayers.

Bernie Sanders says he wants to restruc­ture America’s econ­o­my to make it work like it does in the social­ist coun­tries of Europe,” the memo reads, But Sanders does not men­tion that the mid­dle class picks up the bill in these coun­tries, pay­ing near­ly six­ty per­cent of their income in taxes.”

Oth­er sug­ges­tions go on to accuse Sanders’ plans of increas­ing gov­ern­ment spend­ing by 50 per­cent and deceiv­ing vot­ers as to the true cost of his proposals.

The same memo warns that Sanders pro­posed the com­plete gov­ern­ment takeover of all oil com­pa­nies, gas com­pa­nies, elec­tric util­i­ty com­pa­nies, phone com­pa­nies, health care com­pa­nies, and all tele­vi­sion net­works.” The jab is a ref­er­ence to Sanders’s time in Vermont’s Lib­er­ty Union Par­ty (LUP), where he served as par­ty chair in the ear­ly 1970s before leav­ing in 1977. At a ral­ly in 1973, he chal­lenged his state’s con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion to give seri­ous thought to the nation­al­iza­tion of the oil indus­try,” and lat­er called for a pub­lic takeover of all pri­vate­ly owned elec­tric util­i­ties in the state.” After leav­ing the LUP, to run for office as an Inde­pen­dent, Sanders con­tin­ued to call for nation­al­iza­tion, though soft­ened on the ques­tion over the years until it fad­ed from his agen­da entirely.

Nation­al­iz­ing fos­sil fuels

For some, though, nation­al­iza­tion is not such a rad­i­cal pro­pos­al. A new work­ing paper from the Next Sys­tem Project (NSP) — authored by Gar Alper­ovitz, James Gus­tave Speth, Ted Howard and Joe Guinan — out­lines a plan for the U.S. gov­ern­ment to take over the fos­sil fuel indus­try, using $1.15 tril­lion in pub­lic funds to do it. If the red-bait­ing tac­tics Clinton’s cam­paign used against Sanders are any sign, mak­ing it hap­pen under her admin­is­tra­tion will be an uphill bat­tle, to say the least.

Nation­al­ized nat­ur­al resources aren’t a nov­el idea. Six­teen of the world’s 20 largest nation­al oil firms are state-owned, and the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund esti­mates that — world­wide — the fos­sil fuel indus­try rakes in $10 mil­lion of gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies per minute.

What the NSP lays out is quite a bit dif­fer­ent. Rather than prop­ping up coal, oil and nat­ur­al gas firms indef­i­nite­ly, the authors pro­pose to take over the com­pa­nies, wind them down, and do it in a way that does not load the tax­pay­ers with the costs.”

The idea that such a tax­pay­er friend­ly pur­chase is pos­si­ble is root­ed in some­thing called Mod­ern Mon­e­tary The­o­ry, a sub-genre of Post-Key­ne­sian eco­nom­ics that holds that gov­ern­ments can print and spend mon­ey in a way that isn’t direct­ly cor­re­lat­ed to tax­es, and with rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle risk of infla­tion. Mod­ern Mon­ey,” or fiat cur­ren­cy, isn’t backed by gold, as it was in the Unit­ed States before 1971. Instead, its cre­ation is con­trolled by a series of com­put­ers housed in the Fed­er­al Reserve Bank. More impor­tant­ly, those deci­sions rest with the White House-appoint­ed offi­cials who con­trol those com­put­ers, like Fed Chair­woman Janet Yellen.

Reign­ing eco­nom­ic dog­ma paints a direct rela­tion­ship between tax­es and the fed­er­al bud­get; for every dol­lar we spend beyond Amer­i­cans’ col­lec­tive tax rev­enue, the nation­al debt grows. Politi­cians—Clin­ton and Trump includ­ed—com­pete over who can cap spend­ing and low­er tax­es the fastest and most fair­ly across income brack­ets, while meet­ing their bud­get pri­or­i­ties. As Guinan argues, though, sov­er­eign gov­ern­ments around the world cre­ate mon­ey out of thin air all the time. It’s the dirty secret of mon­e­tary and fis­cal policy.”

Free mon­ey?

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment spent $3.7 tril­lion back­ing major banks and insur­ers after the finan­cial cri­sis, effec­tive­ly nation­al­iz­ing firms like AIG with a few key­strokes known as Quan­ti­ta­tive Eas­ing (QE). That fig­ure puts the seem­ing­ly mas­sive $1.15 tril­lion need­ed to buy out the fos­sil fuel indus­try in per­spec­tive, as does the $2 tril­lion spent on the Iraq War between 2003 and 2014. Absent con­cert­ed action, cli­mate change itself could end up cost­ing mil­len­ni­als $8.8 tril­lion in the com­ing years.

Clear­ly we couldn’t buy and shut down these com­pa­nies overnight,” Guinan tells In These Times. You’d need a man­age­able plan over five years or so to buy and phase out these com­pa­nies. That’s doable under pub­lic own­er­ship and it’s prob­a­bly not doable using reg­u­la­tion, giv­en how pow­er­ful these com­pa­nies are.”

If there were anoth­er way to beat them that would be great, but we don’t seem to be win­ning and the clock is run­ning down,” he added.

Keep­ing warm­ing below the 2 and 1.5 degree Cel­sius guardrails agreed to at the Paris cli­mate talks last year means leav­ing the vast major­i­ty of the fos­sil fuel industry’s known reserves buried. This, of course, con­tra­dicts that industry’s busi­ness mod­el, to find and sell as much coal, oil and nat­ur­al gas as pos­si­ble — a mod­el it spends mil­lions lob­by­ing each year to pro­tect. The ben­e­fits of such a buy­out, then, would be two-fold: Bring­ing an end to a world-wreck­ing indus­try and kneecap­ping its abil­i­ty to stymie the tran­si­tion away from it. Iron­i­cal­ly, the move might also result in a bet­ter deal over­all for fos­sil fuel exec­u­tives, who would receive the full val­ue of their com­pa­nies rather than wait­ing for them to with­er away into bank­rupt­cy under the weight of impend­ing reg­u­la­tions and cli­mate rules.

The last time the U.S. gov­ern­ment used QE, it bailed out the banks. If enact­ed, the NSP’s pro­pos­al would bail out the cli­mate — at least to the extent that any one, heav­i­ly-pol­lut­ing nation can. Com­pli­ment­ing the pro­pos­al, Guinan sug­gests, would be a Green Invest­ment Bank cre­at­ed by the Trea­sury and with bonds tak­en out by the Fed, using the Euro­pean Invest­ment Bank as a loose mod­el. Such a bank would allow for the cre­ation, and sus­tain­able fund­ing, of things like an equi­table and com­pre­hen­sive job tran­si­tion pro­gram for fos­sil fuel work­ers, a mas­sive scal­ing-up in renew­able ener­gy sources and research and devel­op­ment into new green technologies.

As Guinan admits, there are sev­er­al pieces left to fig­ure out about such a mas­sive pur­chase, includ­ing its impact on finan­cial mar­kets and — per­haps most urgent­ly — how to make it palat­able to a polit­i­cal land­scape defined by fear-mon­ger­ing about deficits and enti­tle­ments. While social­ism is gain­ing legit­i­ma­cy, espe­cial­ly among mil­len­ni­als, Clin­ton staffers’ tac­tics in the pri­maries show just how tough a sell pub­lic own­er­ship could be. Key, in this con­text, will be loos­en­ing the dog­ma around tax­es and nation­al­iza­tion that seems to reign every­where from the far-right to the Clin­ton cam­paign. If NSP’s pro­pos­al takes root in the cli­mate move­ment, Sanders might be just the tip of the pub­lic own­er­ship ice­berg for Clin­ton post-Elec­tion Day.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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