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The Green New Deal: Economics and Policy Analytics

The Green New Deal (GND) is a set of policy proposals, some more concrete than others, with the central advertised goal of ameliorating a purported climate crisis by implementing policies that would reduce US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero, or to “net zero,” by 2050 in some formulations. In addition, GND incorporates other important social-policy goals as a means of forging a majority political coalition in support.

The GND’s central premise is that such policies — either despite or by reducing sharply the economic value of some substantial part of the US resource base and the energy- producing and energy-consuming capital stock— would increase the size of the economy in real terms, increase employment, improve environmental quality, and improve distributional equity. That is a “broken windows” argument: The destruction of resources increases aggregate wealth. It is not to be taken seriously.

Moreover, notwithstanding the assertions from GND proponents that it is an essential policy to confront purportedly adverse climate phenomena, the future temperature impacts of the zero-emissions objective would be barely distinguishable from zero: 0.173°C by 2100, under the maximum Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change parameter (equilibrium climate sensitivity) about the effects of reduced GHG emissions. Under an assumption consistent with the findings reported in the recent peer-reviewed literature, the effect would be 0.083°C by 2100, a policy impact not measurable against normal variation in temperatures. This conclusion is not controversial and suggests strongly that the GND’s real goal is wealth redistribution to favored political interests under the GND social-policy agenda and a dramatic increase in government control of resource allocation more generally.

A GND policy would yield no benefits in its central energy, environment, and climate context, but it would impose very large economic costs. Simple correlations among variables do not demonstrate causation, but the historical data on energy consumption and production, growth in gross domestic product, employment, rising incomes and energy consumption, and poverty make it clear that the GND would yield large adverse effects in each of those dimensions. In particular, because rising incomes result in greater energy demands and because the GND intellectual framework views conventional energy as a social “bad,” parameters that increase individual and national incomes — such as education and health investment, technological advances, and investments in productive plant and equipment — also must be viewed in a negative light. Accordingly, one logical corollary to the GND policy agenda is a reduction in such direct or indirect investments in human capital. Thus does the GND reveal the essential antihuman core of the modern opposition to conventional energy.

The electricity component of the GND is the least ambiguous. A highly conservative estimate of the aggregate cost of that set of policies alone would be $490.5 billion per year, permanently, or $3,845 per year per household, an impact that would vary considerably across the states if the GND were financed through electricity rates rather than the federal budget. Under such a ratepayer finance assumption, the lowest household cost of $222 per year would be observed in Vermont. The highest would be observed in Wyoming: $17,103 per household per year.

The GND electricity mandate would create significant environmental damage—there is nothing clean about “clean” electricity—and massive land use of over 115 million acres, (about 180,000 square miles), about 15 percent larger than the land area of California.

Because of the need for conventional backup generation to avoid blackouts in a “100 percent renewable system” and because those backup units would have to be cycled up and down depending on wind and sunlight conditions, one ironic effect would be GHG emissions from natural gas–fired backup generation 22 percent higher than those resulting in 2017 from all natural gas–fired power generation. And those backup emissions would be over 35 percent of the emissions from all power generation in 2017.

Without fossil-fired backup generation, the national and regional electricity systems would be characterized by a significant decline in service reliability — that is, a large increase in the frequency and duration of blackouts. Battery backup technology cannot solve this problem. It is unlikely that a power system characterized by regular, widespread service interruptions would be acceptable to a large majority of Americans. Accordingly, the emissions effects of backup generation as just described in fact would be observed, which is to say that to a significant degree the GND is self-defeating in its asserted climate goals. That is another reason to conclude that the true goals are an expansion of wealth transfers to favored interests and the power of government to command and allocate resources. Moreover, the reduction in individual and aggregate incomes attendant upon the GND policies would yield a reduction in the collective political willingness to invest in environmental protection over time.

As shown in the following summary table, the annual economic cost of the GND would be about $9 trillion. These figures exclude the costs of the massive shifts in the transportation sector mandated by the GND, the costs of the building retrofit objectives, the costs of high-speed rail, and other policies. Those components of the GND are far more ambiguous than the electricity dimension and thus lend themselves less to a rigorous cost analysis. The figures also exclude many of the economic costs of the adverse environmental effects of the GND electricity mandate and the costs of the inexorable increase in government authoritarianism attendant upon the GND, an effect difficult to measure but very real nonetheless.

The claim from some supporters of the GND, based on a set of arguments subsumed under the heading Modern Monetary Theory, that it can be financed with money creation is deeply dubious. The use of money creation to finance the GND means that the resulting inflation would be fully anticipated, so that the inflation would constitute an explicit tax on currency, with a substantial set of such adverse consequences as a degradation of the currency as a store of value, adverse behavioral responses by holders of currency, and the like. The use of money creation as an instrument to service debt incurred to finance the GND also is deeply dubious, as any such approach would be based on an assumption that purchasers of government debt instruments would deliver real resources to the government with no expectation of receiving repayment in an equivalent amount of real resources plus interest. Lenders to the government are not so myopic. Moreover, the use of inflation as a mechanism for the acquisition of real resources for the government imposes its own set of large costs; the literature suggests that annual inflation rates of 10 percent or 20 percent would impose economic losses of about $2 trillion and $4 trillion per year, respectively. This effect is crudely analogous to the excess burden of the explicit tax system. Modern Monetary Theory is little more than the latest example of the old argument that there is available a free lunch, as illustrated by the argument from a prominent proponent that “anything that is technically feasible is financially affordable.”

The GND represents a massive erosion in the ability of individuals and businesses to use their resources in ways that they deem appropriate. As the adverse consequences of the GND emerge and grow, it is inevitable that government will attempt to circumvent them by increasing explicit rationing and politicizing energy use, a process that inexorably will expand government surveillance of energy use and erode individual freedom and privacy. That has been the recent experience in California in the face of perceived water shortages. Thus would the GND lead inexorably toward an expansion of authoritarianism under American government institutions. The GND proposals for the transportation sector would create large wealth transfers from rural, exurban, and suburban regions to urban ones, and they would reduce individual mobility sharply by increasing the ability of government to control transportation patterns.

The expansion of employment under the GND—in particular, the expansion of “green” employment—will prove illusory. The resource “sustainability” rationale for the GND is fundamentally incorrect analytically. Future generations rationally would vote in favor of policies maximizing the value of the capital stock to be bequeathed to them; policies engendering massive resource waste by the current generation are inconsistent with that goal. The current body of evidence on climate phenomena supports the hypothesis that some part of ongoing temperature trends and climate phenomena are anthropogenic in origin, but it does not support the argument that a climate crisis is present or looming. And the experience of Ontario under its Green Energy Act should give pause to policymakers considering the GND policy proposals.

The GND at its core is the substitution of central planning in place of market forces for resource allocation in the US energy and transportation sectors narrowly and in the broad industrial, commercial, and residential sectors writ large. Given the tragic and predictable record of central planning outcomes worldwide over the past century, the GND should be rejected.

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