8. How Will We Pay For It?

How will we pay for everything socialism is promising?

This is what everyone wants to know! Let me contextualize my answer a bit, because it’s not quite as simple as drawing up a chart or fitting numbers into an equation, although if you want a quick reference with links to more in-depth plans, here’s what Sanders released last week.

There is a difference between Sanders and Warren: both are shrewd thinkers, but one has the personality of an activist and organizer and the other has the personality of a professor and policy wonk. Accordingly, the two candidates differ in their focus. The great contribution of Elizabeth Warren has been to get into the weeds and demonstrate that generous social programs can, indeed, be paid for. (Others have also joined the conversation; Sanders has recently been lauding a study in the Lancet calculating that Medicare for All would save $450 billion and — more importantly — 68,000 deaths, annually.) 

I am glad to see these plans and studies, even as they may also keep us within the realm of a certain rational framework that reinforces the profit-driven messaging of capitalism: like conservative parents asking their children how they’ll pay their bills after they’ve accepted their dream jobs, we run the risk of assuming that the future will neatly and tidily conform to the narrow expectations we’ve already set for it. 

Sanders, far more boldly than Warren the accountant (whose being “a capitalist to her bones” is, to my mind, her most significant disqualifier, in addition to the fact that she barely brings up climate change unless so prompted), is a prophet. The extravagant hoarding of wealth by billionaires (three of whom have more money than half of the United States population combined) is a moral wrong; climate change is an existential threat. And whatever we might say about paying for the Green New Deal, it will be much less expensive than trying to recover from the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis. 

“Yvo de Boer, who held the U.N.’s top climate position until 2009, remarked recently that ‘the only way’ negotiators ‘can achieve a 2-degree goal is to shut down the whole global economy.’” Klein judges this a “severe overstatement,” yet “it underlines [the] point that we cannot achieve 8 to 10 percent annual cuts with the array of modest carbon-pricing or green tech solutions usually advocated” (Klein 87). In other words, the revolution in our way of addressing the climate crisis demands a revolution in our way of thinking: yes, we should come up with the best plans to pay for our expenditures and stave off economic ruin, but we must, more than anything, “confront a logic even more entrenched than free trade — the logic of indiscriminate economic growth.” It is not enough “merely to paint our current growth-based economic model green” (86); hard-and-fast atmospheric limits also place limits on economic growth. (And who, of course, runs with and benefits from a greedy philosophy of unlimited economic growth? Not those members of our economy who have no power, but those who have gamed the system so as to launch themselves into the stratosphere of power, the .1 of 1%.)

This is the hard and honest truth behind any conversation about how we’ll pay for the progressive candidates’ policies. The best guesses may be somewhat off; but we need to implement change regardless of the cost. This is where Sanders’s approach is ultimately more important, if less convincing to some Americans, than Warren’s: it lays out the moral demand that we revolutionize our economy, come hell or high water. 

And this means that the question, “how will we pay for it?” should not distract us from the true aim of socialism, which is not giving us lots of free stuff that the government will pay for but, rather, dismantling the noxious empire of global free trade that has perhaps already consigned the planet to apocalypse. 

So all this having been said: it would be really good news if it turned out we could readily pay for everything the progressives are promising. Can we? 

I’m not an expert, but I think we can. Different plans have different sources of payment. It seems to me that Medicare for All is the most complicated proposal. I don’t feel adequate to dissect it, and in fact, I am a little chagrined that this is the number one issue most Americans likely associate with Warren and Sanders, because it’s probably the most complex change they’re proposing, the one that will take the most political capital, and the one that is least significant in the fight against catastrophic climate change. But it’s also enormously popular in countries that have it, and it would save the lives of countless Americans if it’s pulled off successfully, so here are a few resources that address how it might be paid for: one in Warren’s style, one in Bernie’s. (And I’ve already mentioned the Lancet study, above.) 

How might a Green New Deal be paid for? It’s impossible to put a price tag on it, but at least it can be said that the extravagant sums that some conservative think tanks suggest it will cost neglect the fact that much of this could be done on the local and state levels if there were some strong leadership there, as well as that some of the initial expenditures will rapidly produce economic stimuli. From one of the architects of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposal, here is a far more extensive economic analysis which I am unqualified to weigh in on but which seems to merit consideration.

Klein writes: “A 2011 survey by the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs looked at how much it would cost for humanity to ‘overcome poverty, increase food production to eradicate hunger without degrading land and water resources, and avert the climate change catastrophe.’ The price tag was $1.9 trillion a year for the next forty years — and ‘at least one half of the required investments would have to be realized in developing countries’” (110). She believes it is only ethical for the polluters to pay. They can afford it: ExxonMobil alone made $41 billion in profits in 2011 and $45 billion in 2012. They boast that they are already putting some of these profits towards research into renewable energies (at least, with one hand; the other hand is researching “new technologies designed to extract even dirtier and more dangerous fossil fuels”), but in fact, “just 4 percent of the Big Five’s $100 billion in combined profits in 2008” went to such research, while executive pay continues to go through the roof: Rex Tillerson made $100,000 a day as CEO of Exxon (111).

The fossil fuel industry will not pay out unless required to do so by law, much as the tobacco companies have had to do (or as BP had to do after its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico). Klein endorses progressive carbon taxes (which should also be levied on arms companies, car companies, the shipping and airline industry, and the U.S. military, which “is by some accounts the largest single consumer of petroleum in the world,” releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere than ExxonMobil and Shell combined) as well as nationally leveraged fees on fossil fuel extraction that can be used to establish “heritage trust funds” for a sustainable future (112-3). Klein also proposes the following measures:

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But at the end of the day, the biggest question worth asking is: how much is too much to pay to avert apocalypse? 

Read on for more.