Time for a Brown New Deal

Political Weeds of the Polarized Green New Deal must be Pulled for Alternative Policy if Post-COVID American Infrastructure will Succeed

Photo: The MAC Farms biodigestion energy facility in central Kentucky, 2018. Samuel Kessler.

In early May 2019, I was walking through puddles in the streets between Senator McConnell’s office in the Russell building to another meeting in the Senate Dirksen Building. To make matters worse, the walking tunnels were closed and my umbrella was not wide enough to cover my shoulders from the rain. I decided to strike a compromise: my left side would be completely soaked and the right side dry, to avoid wet handshakes. Despite the many dry handshakes I had, I think the “umbrella plan” was the only compromise being made in Washington, especially in regards to environmental and energy policy.

My partner and fellow college student, Mr. Austin Gabhart, and I were in D.C. on a mission as legislative liaisons, refusing pay, on behalf of MAC Farms Inc. They are the only renewable biomass energy company in Kentucky producing energy onto the grid at an industrial level through anaerobic biodigestion, almost exclusively from bourbon industry, food, and some agricultural wastes. The carbon-equivalent emissions from those wastes are reduced by roughly 11-times as a result. After many financial and logistical challenges, MAC’s existence serves the Commonwealth with a model that has piloted unique, feasible, and environmentally responsible ways to harness renewable energy potential from our distillery wastes. They have even attracted business interests from Europe.

We had just finished discussing this and other concerns during a lengthy meeting with Senator McConnell’s policy advisors on tax and energy. The main focus of the meeting revolved around a “shortlist” containing quite a few federal policy proposals that were drafted after research conducted for a state policy effort to support agricultural energy production in Kentucky, which is now being taken by an up-and-coming ThinkTank at UofL called the Commonwealth Policy Development Coalition. Also included was a product of months spent redrafting Senator Rand Paul’s historic “Economic Freedom Zones ” bill into “Agricultural Economic Empowerment Zones,” focused on rural and urban sustainability and tax incentives for infrastructure growth before it was decided that a state policy effort for that would be more appropriate.

The “shortlist” was only short because we truncated individual proposals to directive-based paragraphs to allow room for the next proposals. It was a strategy intended to throw anything reasonable at the wall and see what would stick. An example of five policies from that list included:  

  • New ideas for expanding rural and urban funding for renewable energy under existing USDA rural development grants;
  • A funding program through the commodity credit corporation (a common financing tool used by American farmers) that would include renewables and sustainability initiatives with hard-infrastructure;
  • A redesign of the new chapter of IRS tax code on economic opportunity zones to also create opportunities for equitable private investment in decaying infrastructure areas;
  • A combined loan-matching program with state-deference for project finance decisions which would better-award existing grants and diversify current programs so more grants could be awarded to certain energy production types like biodigestion left out from historic government support; and most importantly,
  • A reinstatement of 1603 tax credits at least for those same kinds of power-production types, which allowed credit claims for energy investment and production under Section 45 of the IRS tax code.

Their origins are examples of how politics has arrived where it is today with heated debates around infrastructure policies that seemingly few used to care about. To provide some background, the 1603 tax credits were a program to provide strong subsidies to a growing renewable energy industry which occurred during the Obama presidency. They were really tax rebates, which serve like expense-based grants meant to help surge energy development growth after projects have been built. 

As a result the vast majority of total rebate claims were allocated towards projects like wind and solar that could be established quickly, with only a relative handful towards biogas or hydropower. The 1603 program was built for a short-term budget but had regularly been extended since 2009. By doing that, the government had set a standard for the American people who call themselves renewable energy developers: a promise to continue the support of their efforts. 

In terms of subsidizing and supporting renewables through programs like this, it’s important to recognize that this promise was something much older and bipartisan- any suggestion otherwise is what the Institute for Energy Research calls “The Greatest Myth of the George W. Bush Presidency.” Why? President George W. Bush also reinstated and extended energy production tax credits for wind and other sources several times, and generally included tens of millions per year for wind energy research and development grants. It paved the path for a more-expansive industry in the future, which helped allow success of the 1603 program and similar packages under the Obama administration. The recent past reminds us this issue is not so partisan as 2020 politics make it appear.

The policies in the shortlist were broad, but they were tailored indirectly from discussions with members of Senator McConnell’s field office so we could ensure that the rhetoric would not be similar to that which originates in the Green New Deal (GND). To what extent that improved discussions remains uncertain. 

I have a term for what happened to us that day, being “carded out the door” – perhaps just slightly removed from being kicked out of a bar underage and/or with an obvious fake ID. The meeting process had amassed me quite a set of federal business cards from policy advisors from both sides of the aisle who either did not have the time of day to deal with a young person, or rejected further consideration or negotiation of what was brought to the table on a political basis.

We tried the facts. We illustrated how the roots of renewables support that led to the 1603 policy had a foundation in the Bush Presidency, discussed how Sen. McConnell had served as a co-sponsor to Rand Paul’s former bill which was more extensive than what was passed in the new chapter of tax code for Qualified Opportunity Zones, and demonstrated ways to easily adapt either to encourage new public or private infrastructure investment. 

Yet, we were told by the advisors that it was “too early to tell how the new tax code will work” since there had not been many claims; therefore, it was too early to pass any other measures. Their responses tempted me to believe that the vast majority of the United States Congress had passed an entire new chapter of tax code blindly without gauging whether it would be successful. The advisors were also adamant in suggesting that the rebates were simply an “Obama era program;” therefore, it would not be considered for further negotiation in terms of either investment or production, or so we were told.

The only policy on our list that gained an interest of the advisors was one based on a political concern. A concern voiced on behalf of our client, with the appearance of trends of how development grants were disproportionately awarded in Iowa following presidential campaigns there under President Obama, and whether the program oversight measures could be strengthened further in terms of political influence or if this could be investigated. I wonder if the tables were turned, would they have been concerned about that at all? We did leave with some offers of assistance from the federal office, but unfortunately nothing close to the kind of proper remedy legislation could provide.

As thunder started rumbling over  D.C. , we quickened our pace towards the Dirksen building. By setting up a referral meeting suggested by one of the field offices of the Senate Majority Leader, we had managed to finagle our way into booking a meeting with the senior finance counsel from the Bipartisan Finance Committee to Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley. When the finance counsel came into the waiting room, he seemed confused as to why two college students were the individuals that the majority leader’s office had instructed to meet with him. 

Nonetheless, what happened in that meeting and in the next few months was very insightful. I didn’t know it was possible to cause a senior senate finance counsel a headache, but we somehow managed to do it by describing the ins and outs of financing biodigestion projects and the various policies on the shortlist that we had written. After discussing how previous tax credits had failed to support longer-term finance projects like biodigestion, and hoping to receive some suggestions or assistance, we instead learned some valuable information.

At the time, the House Finance Committee was negotiating on whether or not to renew the Section 45 tax credits which we were told in the previous meeting was a pipedream. It was, supposedly, a bipartisan interest deep-down, but the issue was that there was not a consensus on what broad scope would be included. Political rhetoric strikes again, nonetheless—but that was truly the only barrier.

So what is the potential when political weeds are pulled to remove that barrier? In the next few weeks after the meetings in Washington, we were encouraged to keep in touch but heard nothing else of the discussion in the House on renewing portions of the 1603 program. We assumed that the issue had been abandoned- which was perhaps true in terms of whatever additional measures some committee members on both sides of the aisle wanted to include that were leading to a stalemate.

However, months later, after two college students were told that there was no way the credits would be renewed, that they were an “Obama-era program” that would not be negotiated, this issue had time to remove itself from that rhetoric. Meanwhile, dialogue and argument about the GND became more pronounced. 

In December 2019, after the consistent pleading of the American Biogas Council, a bipartisan deal was struck to enact part of the exact same policy that was a small part of what my partner and I had proposed in May: an extension and reinstatement of the Section 45 credits on energy production from the 1603 credit package for projects like biodigestion and hydro-power. 

As debates around the GND continued to dominate the airwaves, little media attention was ever given to this bipartisan success. But nonetheless its sign of hope that when political rhetoric is removed tangible solutions can still be developed in Washington

This story may seem detached from everyday life – but reality is exactly where the effects of policy, or lack thereof when it’s blocked by politics, are observed. The legislative disconnect from that reality is why I felt the obligation to go to Washington on behalf of MAC Farms in the first place. The effects of that disconnect are perhaps the most “real” part of the story.

In 2014, after making promises that Congress would continue tax support for renewables, debates in the Senate led to government shutdown. As I was told by staffers, negotiations between the White House and Senate majority finally decided that to strike a deal to save funding for the agreeable provisions of the Affordable Care Act and pass the rest of the budget, something else would be sacrificed. That something else was none other than the 1603 tax credit program.

Meanwhile, the CEO of MAC Farms in Campbellsville was left with two things: a broken promise and debt upwards of $3 million to complete construction of his facility . For the first time in years, rebates could no longer be claimed. Passions for a cleaner environment for his children, the future of his business, to be a sustainable energy producer and have a new revenue stream for his farm became diluted with fear. The kind of fear that makes one question if they can continue to provide for their family. But, he was determined to not let fear win. Out of hope, resolve, and faith, he invested all he had to finance the project in spite of the rebates that he didn’t have – his retirement account. 

He continued to innovate and learned from failure, making no assumptions until the biodigestion company was self-sustainable. If a federal promise was kept, his struggles would have been alleviated and there may have been even greater development. Very few are able to take the kinds of risks MAC Farms was required to take. That risk was unreasonable, and none should be expected to undertake such burden in order to grow American infrastructure. This burden has no other proper remedy than legislative relief, which is why we went to Washington. 

The large-scale implications for Kentucky on what MAC’s CEO has done with his craft would be impressive- but for now, those implications are still a dream along with several others from visionary farmers or potential renewable energy producers across the country that may never come to fruition across a national scale any time soon. That fruition seems impossible because political rhetoric within and surrounding the “Green New Deal” has stopped the germination of supportive policy from being enacted. 

Political Rhetoric and the GND: A Match Made in American Politics

If infrastructure is to escape a path of decay in the United States, and if we will actually turn hope into a reality for renewable and alternative energies to be widely available, then political rhetoric must be uprooted from the entire concept of a “Green New Deal.” Because the weeds of rhetoric are deeply-rooted there, removing them would lead us to effectuate something entirely different yet entirely necessary- whether from a climatic or economic perspective.  

That is the alternative and bipartisan concept defined here as a “Brown New Deal”: a legitimate hard-infrastructure development plan, both urban and rural/agricultural, without the political rhetoric, limiting the most broad directive-based language. Concrete policies, focused on supporting growth for renewables with tangibly-related economic stimulus- without “soft-infrastructure” being bill-tagged along. 

 “Soft-infrastructure” can be broadly defined as the measures that support cultural, governance, economic and social patterns of a society. This is in contrast to “Hard infrastructure”, like utilities, roads, or energy sources, which may be broadly defined as functional networks with physical elements which provide goods or services.

Before discussing the necessity of a “Brown New Deal” and why the alternative suggestion is needed, the issues surrounding the GND in terms of the text itself and political rhetoric around it require attention. There is no better place to reflect on this the 2020 Presidential Debates, or perhaps, none worse.

The 2020 Presidential Debates were contentious and all over the place regarding renewable energy and the GND. There was perhaps more off-the-cuff discussion on the GND than ever observed before, it was a spectacle to behold.

In the final debate, President Trump suggested that now President-Elect Biden supports the Green New Deal as a “100 trillion…AOC + 3” plan that would want to “shrink windows.” He suggested that “we have the cleanest air…water” while simultaneously supporting lowering vehicle emission standards and suggesting that Obama-era regulations were responsible for the decline of the fossil fuel and specifically the coal industry, though economists are now in wide agreement that the inherent economics and not regulations are what have killed coal plants apart from few exceptions. There was no direct answer or focus in either debate focused on renewable job creation, or what many would call a serious acknowledgement of climate concerns. The President focused more on energy consumers instead.  In a heated moment when Trump asked whether President-Elect Biden would “end” the oil industry, he stated in a very affirmative tone that he would “transition” away from the industry and roll-back subsidies.

In the Vice Presidential Debates, Harris clarified that the Biden-Harris plan was not the GND, that they supported the Paris Accord and meeting emission reduction goals by staying focused on job creation and renewable industry growth, and that they did not oppose fracking as a step in this direction.Vice President Pence also lauded several bi-partisan efforts in conservation, such as the Great American Outdoors Act which was sponsored by the late and honorable Congressman John Lewis. These efforts were not as pronounced by Vice President-Elect Harris.What many moderates and conservatives may not be satisfied with with is VP-Elect Harris’ previous sponsorship of the GND including the soft-infrastructure measures that the bill held, in addition to the more baseline measures most publicly promoted from the Biden-Harris plan.

The debates underscore the much deeper-rooted weeds plaguing our ability to achieve infrastructure policy. Those weeds are rooted both in the Green New Deal itself and the rhetoric surrounding it – as a result, perhaps we’re seeing them surface with renewable energy policy in general. The rhetoric is a roadblock to achieving infrastructure support that is both widely supported, and widely supportive. To illustrate this point, the recent past of national debates around the Green New Deal must be examined, and the findings are unusual.

Finding the Weeds to Pull: A Tale of Two Surveys

Two surveys were conducted just months apart in 2018 and 2019 reporting completely different statistics on the support of a “Green New Deal.” One reports that 88% of independents at least somewhat support the GND, and the other reports the same statistic at less than 50%. Something is off, so what’s the deal?

Survey (Left) Completed December 11th, 2018. Yale Program for Climate Change Communication & George Mason center for Climate Change Communication. Survey (Right) Completed March 6th, 2019. The Green Advocacy Project, as reported by Vox

According to the study conducted by George Mason and Yale University centers for climate communication, 64% of Republicans supported the GND as of December 11th, 2018. This included 52% of moderate Republicans and 46% of conservative Republicans “somewhat supporting” the GND, with 23% and 11% “strongly supporting” it respectively. At this time this study also reported 82% of American voters had heard “nothing at all” about “a policy being proposed by some members of Congress called the Green New Deal.” 

In March 2019, a new survey was conducted by the Green Advocacy Project for supporting renewable energy investment, and was later reported by Vox. The study focused on how ideologically informed Americans are about the GND itself (proposed in February), then suggested that 80% of Republicans strongly oppose the GND, including 91% of viewers of Fox News. This leaves a sharp contrast in this category from the other survey, suggesting only 20% of Republicans either somewhat or strongly support the GND. 

Follow-up results in April from the George Mason & Yale study verify this suggestion. A similar question was asked “how much do you support this idea,” showing only 22% of Republicans who watch Fox News more than once a week strongly or somewhat support the GND. The study also reported that only 42% of MSNBC viewers at the time strongly supported it, and of all sub-groups within their sampling, Republicans were the most informed of any party by far. 

Two distinct reasons can be observed for the staggering difference in these results. The first is the most obvious: something must have changed over the course of these three months. The Yale & George Mason study, which was fully published in April 2019, agrees . It found that while the largest differences occurred in the Republican category in decreased support, Fox News was observed to have more reporting on the GND in these months than CNN and MSNBC combined

However, it would be wrong to suggest that issues with the GND and it’s support are simply based on reporting.

Based on the university studies, as of April 2019 there was around a 36% difference in “somewhat supporting” a GND between Republicans who watch Fox once a week or less, and Republicans who at least “somewhat support” the GND in general as reported by Vox

By examining the precise questions of these surveys, and what created this difference, demonstrates how the weeds of political rhetoric are perpetuated on both sides of the aisle.

Conducted after the final version of the bill was filed, the Vox study on GND awareness by party identified it as a single-idea and asked “How much, if anything, have you heard about a policy being discussed called the Green New Deal.” Likewise, the follow-up survey in April conducted by Yale & George Mason did not seem to include the same policy descriptions from their first survey. These questions do not immediately conjure up any thoughts of concrete policy objectives, but rather, they encourage thought about the GND that would be an inherently reflective function of the political rhetoric surrounding it. The nature of these questions is appropriate for yielding conclusions on the impact of reporting; however, the differences between these two sets of surveys demonstrates something deeper about political rhetoric around and within the GND.

When the precise questions are compared from Spring 2019 to the survey question in December 2018, we see that the 2018 survey from Yale & George Mason clearly yields a focus on gauging support behind multiple policy-based descriptions. All of these were basically defining directives for “hard-infrastructure” policy – but they went no further. It bundled specific infrastructure policy-descriptions into a collective definition to form a concept of “a Green New Deal,” which had not yet been fully-proposed for the purposes of the survey, asking the question: 

“Some members of Congress … say that a Green New Deal will produce jobs and strengthen America’s economy by accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. The Deal would generate 100% of the nation’s electricity from clean, renewable sources within the next 10 years; upgrade the nation’s energy grid, buildings, and transportation infrastructure; increase energy efficiency; invest in green technology research and development; and provide training for jobs in the new green economy.”

It’s clear that a reader being questioned with how much they support these words would be likely to strongly or somewhat support or oppose a concept of a green new deal based on the number of specific policy implications that a survey responder would agree with, not rhetoric alone. 

This description left out any soft-infrastructure in the GND, such as healthcare, which received more reporting across all media stations once the total substance of the Green New Deal was filed on February 7th, 2019. The combination of those factors left less room for subjective definitions or understanding of infrastructure policy based on individual political rhetoric. It likely did not reflect as many concerns from conservatives or moderateDemocratswith also financing soft-infrastructure measures from the same proposal- because at that time, they weren’t included in any proposals.

Most Americans want a “Brown” New Deal, not a Green One

As a result, the 2018 survey provides that 81% of Americans think that they would support “a Green New Deal,” including 40% indicating that they would strongly support such a deal. With the analysis of the question in mind, it’s not surprising that these statistics are nearly identical to those measuring support for hard-infrastructure policy at large. As reported through the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) infrastructure “report card” program survey, as of April 2020 “80% of Americans support rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure more than almost any top issue facing the current administration.”

And just how low is the U.S.’s report card grade? As of 2017, the nation’s  infrastructure has a D+ grade from the ASCE. One of the primary issues of concern were water and electric utility usage electric utility infrastructure. While our infrastructure quality has declined, the acceleration in the polarization around energy and environmental policies has not. To some extent the trends of political polarization around what were formerly more bipartisan conservation and environmental issues has consistently occurred since the late 1970’s, but never to the extent seen in recent years. By analyzing these two surveys there’s a suggestion that stripping away political rhetoric from questions and media delivery yields a maximum 44% difference in responses of whether a Republican would at least somewhat support a hard-infrastructure only concept of a so-called GND, like that surveyed for in the 2018 survey. Effectively a “Brown New Deal” by definition.

Likewise, this last point suggests that the ‘so-calling’ itself is the real issue with the GND —  its language and political handling. Compared to the 2018 survey, there were undoubtedly differences from the hard-infrastructure concept of a GND and what the much wider-scope that the policy proposed in February last year actually provides. Although there is need, by their own merit, to thoroughly debate solutions for soft infrastructure policies called for in the GND (in Section 4, subsections H, I, J, N, and O; for guaranteeing high-quality healthcare for all, workplace safety and labour, collective bargaining, ensuring against “unfair” market competition for businesspersons, affordable housing, general economic security, and education) it’s questionable whether these measures belong inside any hard-infrastructure bill.

This point relates to the true issue behind the weeds of political rhetoric and the GND, which I would suggest is not a burden resting with either party or sitting President alone. The true problem is in the difference between “Brown” and “Green”; a hard-infrastructure “Brown New Deal” concept, and the existing text and public understanding of the Green New Deal as-proposed which includes soft infrastructure, with broad directive and intent-based language, and the resulting political rhetoric that this sweeping policy and language allows for.

As reported by Politico, “The Green New Deal” is not an ideal name if you want to attract bipartisan support. Especially relevant to the argument for excluding soft-infrastructure in a hard-infrastructure proposal, the Director of the Think-Tank ClearPath suggested “There’s a lot of distrust of these home-run giga-packages. It’s been a lot more effective to try to hit some singles and doubles.” To some extent, the inclusion of soft-infrastructures and political rhetoric are one in the same- bill-tagging these into an infrastructure proposal is a political tactic pursuant to satisfying the same political rhetoric of its sponsors, which unfortunately is a strategy that occurs in many “home-run” proposals with both parties and is done with policies sometimes even more unrelated to each other than these.

Political rhetoric goes both ways here- for example, the same Politico article also equates some of the ideology of the Green New Deal as idealizing the success behind President Obama’s green stimulus and dares to characterize that as a miniature GND. It is true that the 1603 program was part of one of the largest stimulus packages to-date and GND sponsors are likely fond of it. But, from our examination of support from the Bush Presidency which primed the industry to successfully receive a large stimulus for growth, it’s clear that characterizing the enacting of necessary renewable stimulus as a partisan idea or facet of the Obama presidency alone is a political bias itself. It’s worth considering that if the late and honorable Senator John McCain had won the presidential election in 2008 and later advocated the same necessary support for renewables growth,  perhaps a more left leaning Think-Tank would have been quoted by the Politico article to characterize the policy in a similar fashion or as coming up too short.

Perhaps a final issue of rhetoric to illustrate is how the Green New Deal itself is inherently directive based, meaning, it calls for specific policies themselves to be developed by Congress without actually enumerating or developing them. Although widely supported concrete policies may be contained under broad directives, those directives themselves are inherently more rhetorical. By their broadness they can allow for widespread blockage of some potential policies, done in the name of going against others which have also not taken form. That blocking itself is often rooted in political rhetoric from across the aisle of the bill sponsors. In 2020 and beyond, merely resolving the “intention” of Congress to support something is not enough to actually effectuate that support, and worse, it leaves enough room for wide speculation on what that could entail. 

Build or Die: A Post-COVID Brown New Deal

As what is perhaps the most significant barrier to achieving needed infrastructure policy, the continued growth of rhetoric weeds around infrastructure and renewable energy development will come with the cost of halting progress. From the successes in bipartisan support we know that a way forward towards success is possible if those are pulled. With the current state of our infrastructure and our country facing the COVID-19 pandemic, and a new President Elect, we must pull the weeds immediately to enact new solutions.

There is no better time to enact a “Brown New Deal” than after the COVID-19 pandemic, especially given the economic toll that the virus has had on the country. The chairman of the Federal Reserve has essentially suggested that “flattening the curve” is likewise the key towards starting economic recovery; however once recovery starts and a vaccine is distributed, that must continue in order to pull us out of economic recession.

Professor Mark Pelling, a human-geographer at King’s College, London has researched risks as a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). His work has included analyses around human response to natural disasters and post-disaster development as noted in his novel, “Adaptation to Climate Change.” 

Since pandemics are a form of natural disaster, something valuable can be noted by applying Pelling’s framework. The United States undoubtedly meets the classification of being in a current state of “disaster politics.” This can be classified by the fact that the country is dealing with a “natural hazard,” in such a way that it is “interacting with the existing political order.” Primarily in our case, causing changes politically and economically.

Pelling’s theory is based on an analysis of past human civilization. When we consider those civilizations’ efforts to overcome disasters, we can characterize those efforts in three ways: a change that brings return to the “status quo,” a gradual transition into improved conditions, or change that resulted in societal collapse. All of these suggest some form of adaptation, or a failure to adapt adequately in the last instance. A clear trend throughout history is that within the societies which have adapted positively, there has consistently been some form of significant post-disaster investment to advance infrastructure– whether we consider examples like Europe after the Black Plague or the post-war reconstruction from military conflicts in the U.S. and abroad

To truly recover the economy after COVID-19, the United States cannot continue the trillions of dollars of debt to its obligation to support American hard-infrastructure whether it is infrastructure currently relevant and physically decaying, or new infrastructure holding promise for a future that is struggling to develop.

It’s time for political weeds in the way of that prosperity to be pulled for our economy, environment, citizenry, and its future generations. It’s time for a Brown New Deal.

By: Samuel Kessler

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