Toronto’s approach to homelessness is inhumane.
Small government is no match for a crisis born of the state’s twin addictions to market fixes and fossil fuels.
Since the power went out in Texas, the state’s most prominent Republicans have tried to pin the blame for the crisis on, of all things, a sweeping progressive mobilization to fight poverty, inequality and climate change. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal,” Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said Wednesday on Fox News. Pointing to snow-covered solar panels, Rick Perry, a former governor who was later an energy secretary for the Trump administration, declared in a tweet “that if we humans want to keep surviving frigid winters, we are going to have to keep burning natural gas — and lots of it — for decades to come.”
The claims are outlandish. The Green New Deal is, among other things, a plan to tightly regulate and upgrade the energy system so the United States gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewables in a decade. Texas, of course, still gets the majority of its energy from gas and coal; much of that industry’s poorly insulated infrastructure froze up last week when it collided with wild weather that prompted a huge surge in demand. (Despite the claims of many conservatives, renewable energy was not to blame.) It was the very sort of freakish weather system now increasingly common, thanks to the unearthing and burning of fossil fuels like coal and gas. While the link between global warming and rare cold fronts like the one that just slammed Texas remains an area of active research, Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, says the increasing frequency of such events should be “a wake up call.”
But weather alone did not cause this crisis. Texans are living through the collapse of a 40-year experiment in free-market fundamentalism, one that has also stood in the way of effective climate action. Fortunately, there’s a way out — and that’s precisely what Republican politicians in the state most fear.
An Energy-Market Free-for-All
A fateful series of decisions were made in the late-’90s, when the now-defunct, scandal-plagued energy company Enron led a successful push to radically deregulate Texas’s electricity sector. As a result, decisions about the generation and distribution of power were stripped from regulators and, in effect, handed over to private energy companies. Unsurprisingly, these companies prioritized short-term profit over costly investments to maintain the grid and build in redundancies for extreme weather.
Today, Texans are at the mercy of regulation-allergic politicians who failed to require that energy companies plan for shocks or weatherize their infrastructure (renewables and fossil fuel alike). In a recent appearance on NBC’s “Today” show, Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, summed it up: “We have a deregulated power system in the state and it does not work, because it does not build in the incentives in order to protect people.”
This energy-market free-for-all means that as the snow finally melts, many Texans are discovering that they owe their private electricity providers thousands of dollars — a consequence of leaving pricing to the whims of the market. The $200,000 energy bills some people received, the photos of which went viral online, were, it seems, a mistake. But some bills approaching $10,000 are the result of simple supply and demand in a radically underregulated market. “The last thing an awful lot of people need right now is a higher electric bill,” said Matt Schulz, chief industry analyst with LendingTree. “And that’s unfortunately something a lot of people will get stuck with.” This is bad news for those customers, but great news for shale gas companies like Comstock Resources Inc. On an earnings call last Wednesday, its chief financial officer said, “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices.”
Put bluntly, Texas is about as far from having a Green New Deal as any place on earth. So why have Republicans seized it as their scapegoat of choice?
A Shock to the System
Blame right-wing panic. For decades, the Republicans have met every disaster with a credo I have described as “the shock doctrine.” When disaster strikes, people are frightened and dislocated. They focus on handling the emergencies of daily life, like boiling snow for drinking water. They have less time to engage in politics and a reduced capacity to protect their rights. They often regress, deferring to strong and decisive leaders — think of New York’s ill-fated love affairs with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the 9/11 attacks and Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Large-scale shocks — natural disasters, economic collapse, terrorist attacks — become ideal moments to smuggle in unpopular free-market policies that tend to enrich elites at everyone else’s expense. Crucially, the shock doctrine is not about solving underlying drivers of crises: It’s about exploiting those crises to ram through your wish list even if it exacerbates the crisis.
To explain this phenomenon, I often quote a guru of the free market revolution, the late economist Milton Friedman. In 1982, he wrote about what he saw as the mission of right-wing economists like him: “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”
Republicans have effectively deployed this tactic even after crises like the 2008 market collapse, created by financial deregulation and made deadlier by decades of austerity. Democrats have, largely, been willing partners. This seems counterintuitive, but it all comes back to Friedman’s credo: The change doesn’t depend on the reasons for the crisis, only on who has the ideas “lying around” — a kind of intellectual disaster preparedness. And for a long time, it was only the right, bolstered by a network of free-market think tanks linked to both major parties, that had its ideas at the ready.
When Hurricane Katrina broke through New Orleans’s long-neglected levees in 2005, there was, briefly, some hope that the catastrophe might serve as a kind of wake-up call. Witnessing the abandonment of thousands of residents on their rooftops and in the Superdome, small-government fetishists suddenly lost their religion. “When a city is sinking into the sea and rioting runs rampant, government probably should saddle-up,” Jonah Goldberg, a prominent right-wing commentator, wrote at the time. In environmental circles, there was also discussion that the disaster could spur climate action. Some dared to predict that the collapsed levees would be for the small-government, free-market legacy of Reaganism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for Soviet Communism.
None of it happened. Instead, New Orleans became a laboratory for the shock doctrine. Public schools were shut down en masse, replaced by charter schools. Public housing was demolished, and costly townhouses sprang up, preventing thousands of the city’s poorest residents, the majority of them Black, from ever returning. The reconstruction of the city became a feeding ground for private contractors. Republicans used the cover of crisis to call for expanded oil and gas exploration and new refinery capacity, much as Mr. Perry is doing right now in Texas with his calls for doubling down on gas.
Many tried to stop them. Teachers’ unions, despite having their members scattered throughout the country, did their best to fight the privatizations. Residents of public housing and their supporters faced tear gas to try to stop the demolition of their homes. But there were no readily available, alternate ideas lying around for how New Orleans could be rebuilt to make it both greener and fairer for all of its residents.
Even if there had been, there was no political muscle to turn such ideas into reality. Though the environmental justice movement has deep roots in Louisiana’s “cancer alley,” the climate justice movement was only just emerging at the time Katrina struck. There was no Sunrise Movement, the youth-led organization that occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office after the 2018 midterms to demand “good jobs, and a livable planet.” There was no “squad,” the ad hoc alliance of congressional progressives whose most visible member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sent shock waves through Washington by joining the Sunrisers in their occupation. There had not yet been two Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns to show Americans how popular these ideas really are. And there was certainly no national movement for a Green New Deal.
Lying in Ruin
The difference between then and now goes a very long way toward explaining why Mr. Abbott is railing against a policy plan that, as of now, exists primarily on paper. In a crisis, ideas matter — he knows this. He also knows that the Green New Deal, which promises to create millions of union jobs building out shock-resilient green energy infrastructure, transit and affordable housing, is extremely appealing. This is especially true now, as so many Texans suffer under the overlapping crises of
- racial injustice,
- crumbling public services and
- extreme weather.
All that Texas’s Republicans have to offer, in contrast, is continued oil and gas dependence — driving more climate disruption — alongside more privatizations and cuts to public services to pay for their state’s mess, which we can expect them to push in the weeks and months ahead.
Will it work? Unlike when the Republican Party began deploying the shock doctrine, its free-market playbook is no longer novel. It has been tried and repeatedly tested: by the pandemic, by spiraling hunger and joblessness, by extreme weather. And it is failing all of those tests — so much so that even the most ardent cheerleaders of deregulation now point to Texas’s energy grid as a cautionary tale. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, called the deregulation of Texas’s energy system “a fundamental flaw.”
In short, Republican ideas are no longer lying around — they are lying in ruin. Small government is simply no match for this era of big, interlocking problems. Moreover, for the first time since Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s former prime minister, declared that “there is no alternative” to leaving our fates to the market, progressives are ready with a host of problem-solving plans. The big question is whether the Democrats who hold power in Washington will have the courage to implement them.
The horrors currently unfolding in Texas expose both the reality of the climate crisis and the extreme vulnerability of fossil fuel infrastructure in the face of that crisis. So of course the Green New Deal finds itself under fierce attack. Because for the first time in a long time, Republicans face the very thing that they claim to revere but never actually wanted: competition — in the battle of ideas.
A team in the Houston Police Department is trying something new when addressing complaints associated with people living on the streets.
There are limits to what ordinary people are willing to endure to secure their employers’ bottom line.
Chris Christie, a Trump supporter and a former New Jersey governor, pleaded with Americans on May 5 to risk disease and death by returning to work. “Everybody wants to save every life they can,” he said, but “we’ve got to let some of these folks get back to work.” Otherwise “we’re going to destroy the American way of life in these families.”
The “American way of life” is shaping up to be a battleground.
On one side is the working class. From Amazon warehouse workers to striking sanitation workers in New Orleans, there are limits to what ordinary people are willing to endure to secure their employers’ bottom line. Resistance to oppression and exploitation is a familiar experience for millions of workers in this country. And when workers have not found justice or relief in mainstream politics, they have turned to more combative ways of mobilizing to secure it.
On the other side is the Republican Party, led by the Trump administration, which has accelerated its call for states to “reopen” the economy by sending people back to work. While President Trump admits that some people will “be affected badly,” nonetheless “we have to get our country open.”
Public health experts disagree. Instead, they argue that testing rates must “double or triple” and that we need a more intense regime of “contact tracing” and isolation. This has been the established pattern in countries that managed the coronavirus with success. But without these measures, forecast models predict a sharp rise in fatalities. A conservative model that in mid-April predicted a ghastly death toll of 60,000 by August now estimates 147,000 fatalities by August. Just as the rate of infection drops in cities like New York and Detroit, new outbreaks threaten to emerge elsewhere where restrictions are being relaxed.
But if we expect tens of millions of people to stay at home for even longer, that is possible only if people have access to income, food, stable housing and reliable health care. If people cannot work, then these things will have to be provided by the federal government. It is that simple.
For Republicans, the “American way of life” as one with big government social welfare programs would be worse than the pandemic. At the core of their vision of the United States is a celebration of supposed rugged individualism and self-sufficiency where hard work is valorized and creates success. Of course, the contrapositive is also believed to be true, that when people have not been successful it is because they did not work hard enough.
Buried within this is the false notion that the U.S. is free from the hierarchies of class. Instead, Republicans and most mainstream Democrats would argue, America has fluid social mobility where a person’s fortitude determines the heights of his or her success. This powerful narrative has motivated millions to migrate to this country. But for tens of millions, this view of ‘the American way of life’ has no bearing on their lives.
Typically, the contradictions of our society are buried beneath the American flag, suffocating hubris and triumphalist claims of exceptionalism. But the pandemic has pushed all of the country’s problems to the center of American life. It has also highlighted how our political class, disproportionately wealthy and white, dithers for weeks, only to produce underwhelming “rescue” bills that, at best, do no more than barely maintain the status quo.
The median wealth of a U.S. senator was $3.2 million as of 2018, and $900,000 for a member of the House of Representatives. These elected officials voted for one-time stimulus checks of $1,200 as if that was enough to sustain workers, whose median income is $61,973 and who are now nearly two months into various mandates to shelter-in-place and not work outside their homes. As a result, a tale of two pandemics has emerged.
The crisis spotlights the vicious class divide cleaving through our society and the ways it is also permeated with racism and xenophobia. African-Americans endure disproportionate exposure to the disease, and an alarming number of videos show black people being brutalized by the police for not wearing masks or social distancing, while middle-class white people doing the same things are left in peace. In New York City, 92 percent of those arrested for violating rules regarding social distancing and 82 percent of those receiving summons for the same offense have been black or Latino.
Our society imagines itself to be impervious to the rigidities of class, but it is overwhelmed with suffering, deprivation and hunger. Food banks across the country report extraordinary demand, producing an almost shocking rebuke of the image of a country of universal abundance. According to one report, a food bank along the affluent New Jersey shore has set up a text service allowing people to discreetly pick up their food.
Elsewhere, the signs of a crisis that looks like the Great Depression are impossible to hide. In Anaheim, Calif., home to Disneyland, cars formed half-mile-long lines in two different directions, waiting to pick up free food. In San Antonio, 10,000 cars waited for hours to receive food from a food bank. Even still, Republicans balk at expanding access to food stamps while hunger is on the rise. Nearly one in five children 12 and younger don’t have enough to eat.
That “way of life” may also begin to look like mass homelessness. Through the first five days of April, 31 percent of tenants nationwide had failed to pay their rent. And while more people paid in May, continued payments seem unsustainable as millions fall into unemployment. Forty-three million households rent in the U.S., but there is no public rental assistance for residents who lose the ability to afford their rent. With only a few weeks left on many eviction moratoriums, there is a thin line between a place to shelter in and homelessness for tens of millions of Americans.
Many elected officials in the Republican Party have access to Covid-19 testing, quality health care and the ultimate cushion of wealth to protect them. Yet they suggest others take the “risk” of returning to work as an act of patriotism necessary to regenerate the economy. This is duplicitous and obscures the manipulation of U.S. workers.
While the recent stimulus bills doled out trillions of dollars to corporate America and the “financial sector,” the smallest allocations have provided cash, food, rent or health care for citizens. The gaps in the thin membrane of a safety net for ordinary Americans have made it impossible to do anything other than return to work.
This isn’t just malfeasance or incompetence. Part of the “American way of life” for at least some of these elected officials is keeping workers just poor enough to ensure that the “essential” work force stays shows up each day. In place of decent wages, hazard pay, robust distribution of personal protective equipment and the simplest guarantees of health and safety, these lawmakers use the threat of starvation and homelessness to keep the work force intact.
In the case of the meatpacking industry, there is not even a veil of choice, as those jobs are inexplicably labeled essential, as if life cannot go on without meat consumption. The largely immigrant and black meatpacking work force has been treated barely better than the carcasses they process. They are completely expendable. Thousands have tested positive, but the plants chug along, while employers offer the bare minimum by way of safety protections, according to workers. If there were any question about the conditions endured in meatpacking plants, consider that 145 meat inspectors have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and three have died.
The statements of the two senators from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, vociferously opposing the extension of $600 supplemental payments to unemployment insurance, offer another stark example of how workers are being compelled to return to unsafe work environments. Mr. Scott referred to the supplement as a “perverse incentive” to not work. He and Mr. Graham argued that the payments were more than some workers’ salaries, which is an indictment of the jobs and the companies, not the employees.
This is not the first time Southern politicians have complained that government aid to poor or working-class people would undermine their perverse reliance on low-wage labor. During the Great Depression, Southern leaders opposed new systems of social welfare over fear it would undermine “the civilization to which we are accustomed,” as a newspaper in Charleston, S.C., described it. The crude version came from an official in Alabama who insisted that welfare payments to African-Americans should be lower because, “Negroes just don’t want to work.” The logic was that if you could pay black men a nickel then white men would celebrate being paid a dime. Meanwhile, the prevailing wages elsewhere were significantly higher than both. This is why wages are still lower across the South than elsewhere in the country.
American progress means that Mr. Scott, an African-American senator from South Carolina, now voices these ideas. But then as now, complaints about social welfare are central to disciplining the labor force. Discipline in the U.S. has always included low and inconsistent unemployment and welfare combined with stark deprivation. Each has resulted in a hyper-productive work force with few benefits in comparison to America’s peer countries.
This is at the heart of the conflict over reopening the country or allowing people to continue to shelter-in-place to suppress the virus. But if the social distancing and closures were ever going to be successful, it would have meant providing all workers with the means to live in comfort at home while they waited out the disease. Instead, they have been offered the choice of hunger and homelessness or death and disease at work.
The governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, made this painfully clear when she announced that not only was Iowa reopening, but that furloughed workers in private or public employment who refused to work out of fear of being infected would lose current unemployment benefits. She described these workers’ choices as a “voluntary quit.”
The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services is also instructing employers to report workers who refuse to go to work because of the pandemic. Part of what’s going on is the crush of people filing for benefits means state funds are shrinking. This is exacerbated by the reluctance of the Trump administration to bail out state governments. That the U.S. government would funnel trillions to corporate America but balk at sending money to state governments also appears to be part of “the American way of life” that resembles the financial sector bailout in 2008.
This cannot all be laid at the feet of the Trump administration, though it has undeniably made life worse for millions. These are also the bitter fruits of decades of public policies that have denigrated the need for a social safety net while gambling on growth to keep the heads of U.S. workers above water just enough to ward off any real complaints or protests.
The attacks on welfare, food stamps, public housing and all of the attendant programs that could mitigate the worst aspects of this disaster continue to be bipartisan. The loud praise of Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, in contrast to the poor performance of President Trump, has overshadowed protests against his $400 million cuts to hospitals in New York as the virus was raging through the city.
There will be many more examples of Democrats wielding the ax in response to unprecedented budget shortages in the coming months. With the increasing scale of the crisis — as unemployment grows to an otherworldly 36.5 million people while states run out of money and contemplate cutting Medicaid and other already meager kinds of social welfare — the vast need for government assistance will test the political class’s aversion to such intervention.
During the long and uneven recovery from the Great Recession, the warped distribution of wealth led to protests and labor organizing. The crisis unfolding today is already deeper and much more catastrophic to a wider swath of workers than anything since the 1930s. The status quo is untenable.