Greens economics (3): The Greens go to market

by · September 2, 2010

If we are indeed going to witness the return of the state, and enhanced need for security and resources that only a government can provide, then we should be paying greater attention to the things that states can do.
—Tony Judt, Ill Fares The Land, 2010, p198

Australia must tackle climate change and that reducing carbon
pollution by 2020 will require a price on carbon.
—From text of ALP-Greens agreement, 1 September 2010

Yesterday Lord Nicholas Stern, the UK’s guru of climate economics, was speaking at the National Press Club, and the line he was pushing was hard to discern from that of the just-formalised Labor-Greens agreement. Brimming with enthusiasm for action despite the setback at Copenhagen, he focused on the need to maintain the fight for carbon pricing and spoke of governments needing to involve private capital more deeply in what he termed “the Industrial Revolution of our century”.

Since Kevin Rudd suicidally dropped his pledge to introduce an emissions trading scheme, many commentators have remarked that the only party still committed to market mechanisms for climate action is the Greens. Even the Rudd and Wong’s climate advisor Ross Garnaut, hardly a sympathiser, endorsed the Greens’ strategy. While this has garnered the party respectability, it also makes clearer a fundamental tension in its economic approach, which I summarised as:

The Greens are divided about how much they want the logic of markets (and capitalism) overridden by democratic social control in the interests of the environment and social justice.

It was this ambivalence about markets that led sympathetic left-wing economist Bill Mitchell to proclaim, “Neoliberals invade the Greens” last year. Mitchell pointed to how acceptance of neoliberal ideas around financing of state investment and balanced budgets sits uneasily alongside progressive industrial relations and social justice policies. I would argue that the problem runs deeper, reflecting the surrender of much of the Left to economic rationalism after the retreat of the workers’ and other progressive movements in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a topic I will return to in my next post.

The dangerous obsession with cap & trade

But you can see how this works on climate change. As the global elite consensus firmed more and more on cap & trade, with the absence of an alternative model from inside environmental NGOs, the pressure increased for the Greens to fall in line with mainstream opinion. In 2007 Christine Milne suddenly released a report, Re-Energising Australia, which endorsed cap & trade uncritically, despite the fact the party had never seriously debated the issue. There was no evidence base to support the shift (there still isn’t!) and the argument relied mainly on reiterating idealised projections of how markets should work if neoclassical theory held true. But this also represented a political move to locate the Greens “inside” the elite debate, in part driven by a sense of desperation that some action must happen as soon as possible. Yet has being inside the mainstream debate strengthened the possibility of the kind of action we need?

When Stern called climate change “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen” it was not to argue for non-market solutions. Rather he sought an adaptation of markets to the service of climate action. The approach of “designing markets correctly” is very odd in that virtually no markets have ever been “designed”, but have grown out of the competitive relations between capitals. Given that carbon-based energy production and use is at the heart of the global capitalist economy (and a historical product of its market mechanisms), it is hard to imagine how state-manipulated “price signals” can be powerful enough to overcome deeply entrenched interests.

The notion fits, however, with the dominant neoclassical mantra that rational, self-interested and atomised economic actors can produce socially or environmentally beneficial outcomes. Such a claim is hard to sustain in the face of the historical record, but even more so after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression ripped through the world economy. That this was a crisis initiated in complex derivatives markets didn’t seem to cool the ardour of some for the creation of similar markets in carbon credits. The abject failure of the European ETS should have served as a lesson about going down this path, but the weakness of cap & trade in terms of susceptibility to powerful economic interests was also its strength in terms of saleability to the corporate sector.

Capitalism is very poor at “internalising externalities” precisely because its measure of value is not related to social and/or ecological good. Imposing a price signal can easily provoke a “relatively inelastic” response — other factors may make the impact of such a change at best marginal. This was demonstrated when the dramatic increase in oil prices in 2007-8 had a much smaller effect on petroleum consumption, simply because fossil fuels are so essential to the operation of wide and varied parts of the world economy. If the Greens’ current proposal for a carbon price is expected to produce a 2 percent cut in emissions, it is difficult to imagine how high prices will have to be driven up to cut emissions anywhere near the 90 percent Australia needs to achieve to contribute proportionately to effective global action.

The response usually raised is that high carbon prices will make renewable industries competitive and so drive innovation and investment there. Theoretically it sounds nice but just because competitive advantage exists, there is no guarantee that investment will occur, and especially not on the scale needed to address the problem. Major infrastructure is rarely driven entirely by the private sector, and the seven solar-thermal plants we’d need in NSW to make coal-fired power generation obsolete are not likely to be taken on as projects by private capital. Even PPPs can be risky, as simple toll tunnels have proven in recent years! Yet the Greens, influenced by the wishes of the local renewables industry, have refrained from serious talk of state intervention to drive change and see government action very much in terms of massaging markets and creating relatively peripheral regulatory frameworks.

It’s not the science, stupid!

The weakness in progressive climate policy in this country is that it cannot articulate a truly alternative politics to that of the failed mainstream, despite having “the science” on its side. This stands in contrast with efforts elsewhere to fuse a social program with climate action. So, one look at the inspiring Beyond Zero Emissions report, Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan, exposes a complete void when it comes to what actors and interests will drive change. In one sense it is trying to be apolitical so as not to narrow its appeal (and its message that real action is achievable is welcome) but the lack of a political strategy can easily lead to despair that change will happen. “The science” cannot tell us whether we rely on the state or the private sector, whether capitalism is friend or foe, or what the balance of pro and anti action forces is and how to deal with them. The Greens, by being locked into an elite ideological approach, could create the same kinds of problems if they get their “price on carbon”. If it doesn’t work (or more likely has marginal effect), the bigger task may still seem as insurmountable as ever. It’s not a reason to reject a carbon tax, but it is a reason not to oversell its significance.

Australia’s escape (to date) from the global crisis has allowed neoliberal ideas to maintain their grip on the public debate longer than in many other countries. It has also meant that sections of the Left, in particular the Greens, have not had to seriously reappraise received wisdom on big questions like market versus state, private versus public, and economic versus social. Even when they supported the Rudd stimulus, the Greens did so from a position of relatively uninformed political pragmatism. As one Greens member, now an MP, said during an impassioned debate on cap & trade at a national party meeting in early 2009: it would be a tragedy if state intervention saved the financial system, only to find it was not allowed to be used to save the planet.

In the concluding post: Why progressive politics defers to regressive economics

Discussion9 Comments

  1. Ben Courtice says:

    The saddest thing is that the Greens I know are not generally presenting their policy in favour of an ETS as that: they just say "a price on carbon" and imply that this means a carbon tax. Maybe they actually prefer a carbon tax (as I do, somewhat) but it's not yet Greens policy as far as I can tell. I don't know if this fudge is outright dishonesty, probably more wishful thinking and/or trying to build support for a carbon tax, but given that many of the climate change activists are now against any likely form of carbon trading, it would be good for the Greens to discuss it openly with the movement.

  2. dwight towers says:

    Ah, the "agency problem" – we know what needs to be done, but don't see who can do it, social actors being thin on the ground. On the broader problem, of ideological capture, I very much like Patrick Eytchison's concept of "Green Confucianism", which I have blogged and youtubed about-

  3. Boris Kelly says:

    Hello Tad,Thanks very much for this series of posts, the first detailed critical analysis I have seen of the Greens economic and associated policies. A version of the text would make a very fine article for The Monthly, if only they were brave enough. I can't comment with any authority on the theoretical aspects of your analysis but I am interested to know how your critique leads to a constructive argument for alternatives to the 'steady state' approach. I have been quite impressed by the Tim Jackson model but I see you are pointing toward a more conventional (in the theoretical sense)model of economic policy derived, I suspect, from Marxist orthodoxy. I sense a preference for a revolutionary economics resulting from the need for a sharper distinction between the political status quo and an emerging revision of the socialist project. If that is the case, I wonder what form that project could possibly take in Australia, and whether it, rather than the Greens' project, is, to use your term, 'utopian'.

  4. Dr_Tad says:

    Ben,The Greens remain officially committed to a "good" ETS, although interestingly their original defence of cap & trade in Milne's "Re-Energising Australia" seems to have disappeared from the MP & party websites. An ETS remains part of their Safe Climate Bill that died a death as soon as it was released.The party is internally divided on the question of cap & trade but carbon taxes attract many people (especially in the NSW party).The issue of how the party relates to the climate movement is a more interesting one. There is simply no sense of how the party might shape the movement unless it is to channel it towards the Greens acting in parliament. You could see how it worked when they pushed the argument for the interim carbon price at the Climate Summit this year.

  5. Dr_Tad says:

    Boris, thanks for the kind words. At least The Monthly published my letter critical of Guy Pearse's dreadful feature on the Greens. Not sure I'll get much further with them…Being an unreconstructed Marxian type I am indeed interested in a revolutionary transformation of production to subordinate it to human and (hence) environmental need. But in the meantime there is a project to raise demands on the state to act for the environment (e.g. on climate) to negate (at least partially) market logic rather than vainly try to utilise it.On Jackson's work… I think a democratically-planned socialist economy would be close to steady-state. But he (and Daly) get confused about the drivers of growth and what cutting growth mean *within* really existing capitalism. They also miss that such a system would have to be done against the wishes of the ruling class. Nevertheless, there are aspects of their analysis that opens a good debate about what sort of social organisation we need.

  6. Boris Kelly says:

    "But he (and Daly) get confused about the drivers of growth and what cutting growth mean *within* really existing capitalism."As I understand it, Jackson argues that growth is essentially driven by a mass market induced addiction to novelty. The consumerist obsession with 'the new' drives growth and,thereby, depletes finite resources and destroys the natural environment. The escalation in consumption since the Industrial Revolution, and especially over the past century, has resulted in climate change as the single most evident symptom of global decline. Therefore, Jackson would argue (I think),in order to stem the rot,growth needs to be stabilised and resources, and the means of production, directed to sustainable, equitable living. I may be misunderstanding the steady-state crew, but if, as you say, they 'get confused about the drivers of growth' etc. what is your counter-argument? Secondly, it seems to me that one area of the status quo economic model which escapes public airing is the quantification of the distribution of wealth. In particular, the means and degree by which company profits, especially those in the resources sector, either flow offshore or into a very narrow band of local investors, mostly institutional (and from there who knows where?). The mining lobby makes much of its contribution to the Australian economy but, in reality, how much does it put into the pockets of workers or taxpayers compared with the benefits that accrue to global capital? It surprises me that this topic is not taken up more forcefully and in greater detail in public forums by those who champion a shift to a more equitable, sustainable economic model. Surely, the statistics and methods, once explained, would send a powerful message.Sorry to be so demanding, Tad. I don't mean to invite a tutorial from you but you are really having a go at the Greens (in a good way) and I'd like to understand your thesis.

  7. Dr_Tad says:

    Boris, the whole history of capitalism has been marked by rapid growth rates, not just the modern era that appears more "consumerist". Indeed, some periods of very rapid national economic expansion have been dominated by production of means of production rather than consumer goods, with concomitant environmental catastrophe (e.g. the British industrial revolution, the state capitalist expansion of high Stalinist Russia, China's low-wage expansion today).Accumulation is driven by competition between capitals, classically through price competition, as they seek to capture a greater market share. They can only do this by increasing productivity, most reliably by investing in plant and machinery that is labour-saving. The alternative to expansion is being outgunned by their competitors. I would argue that to see the problem in consumption gets the problem ass-about. Indeed, capital accumulation drives the creation of new consumption markets so that capital can find profitable investment outlets. This leads to the kind of waste we see with electronic goods with built-in obsolescence (hardly a new problem).To overcome rapid growth would mean negating inter-capitalist competition, which is at the heart of how the system operates… anarchic and unplanned as that is. Jackson & Daly seem to be arguing for a regulated growth without addressing this, which is why I am sceptical of their vision. Worse, they are uncritical of the other key contradiction of the system; that workers create the value that the capitalists accumulate.Environmental degradation itself is a more complex issue. At one level it can be read off rapid growth rates, but at a deeper level it reflects the fact that capitalist value treats nature as a "free gift". This is not an ideological issue, but one about the way that value is measured and compared in the process of production and competition.Then there is the issue of climate change, which is a little separate, IMHO. With climate change we don't just have reckless use of natural resources or "pollution". Rather, capitalism is (for contingent reasons) a carbon-centred system. So in some ways the problem is theoretically easier to solve than general environmental destruction… what needs to happen is the decoupling of carbon from the economic system. Politically, given the sectional vested interests involved and the scale of the problem, such a decoupling is much harder to achieve.

  8. Dr_Tad says:

    On your second point I completely agree there is a silence on the distributional aspects. In my final post on Greens economics I will both look at some of the data and try to explain more generally why the Greens (and the Left) lack a forceful critique of this phenomenon… and where I think we should start.

  9. Boris Kelly says:

    Thanks Tad. I look forward to the next post.