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.
unleashed a war of atrocity against his ethnic rivals in the Ndebele tribe, promising that he would pursue his enemies “until all dissidents are eliminated
.. The scale of Mugabe’s killing, estimated as high as 20,000
.. When will they stop confusing national independence with individual freedom, liberation with liberty?
.. As for the other Mugabes, Fidel Castro tyrannized Cuba for decades, yet was paid flattering tributes on his death last year, including from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
.. Naomi Klein has any regrets about her fervent championship of the Bolivarian Revolution
.. Joseph Stiglitz has any second thoughts about his close ties to the ruinous Argentine government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
.. Western thinkers have been tempted by the prospect of influence abroad, along with the power that comes with it, particularly when both are denied to them at home.
.. The visiting economist calls for heavy deficit spending or a currency devaluation, but collects his speaking fee in dollars and doesn’t live through the eventual default.
.. Zimbabwe’s tragedy is just a fuller version of a post-colonial story of disastrous ideological experiments accompanied by foreigners who cheered those experiments and then looked the other way when they failed. There needs to be a reckoning with them, too.
So, I think we need to understand that Trump is not playing by the rules of politics. He’s playing by the rules of branding. And, you know, there have been presidential conflicts of interest before. There have been presidents with business interests before. But there has never been a fully commercialized global brand as a sitting U.S. president. That is unprecedented.
And the reason that’s unprecedented is because this is a relatively new business model. It is—the business model that has been adopted by the Trump Organization is really not one that existed before the 1990s. It is what I called in my first book, No Logo, the hollow brand model, right? And the model comes out of the fact that in the—so, the original history of branding is you have a product—you know, maybe it was rice, maybe it was beans, maybe it was shoes—you’re a manufacturer first, but you want people to buy your product, so you brand it. You put a logo on it. You identify it with, you know, some sort of iconic image, like Uncle Ben’s or whatever it is, right? You give it a kind of personality.
.. an advertising executive who said, “Consumers are like roaches. You spray them and spray them, and they become immune after a while.” It’s just lovely insight from a marketer, yeah, about how they see customers. So, marketing started to get more ambitious, and then you started to see these companies that position themselves as lifestyle brands. And they said, “No, we’re not product-based companies. We are in the business of selling ideas and identity.” Nike was the ultimate example of this. Nike CEO Phil Knight stepped forward and said, “We are not a sneaker company. We are not a shoe company. We are about the idea of transcendence through sports,”
.. Starbucks wasn’t a coffee company; it was about the idea of community and the third place. And, you know, Disney was family.
.. So, Trump was more of a traditional business in the 1980s. And Trump was just sort of like a guy who built buildings, but—built buildings and had a flair for marketing. But the game changer for him was The Apprentice. That’s when he got to—he realized he could enter the stratosphere of the superbrands.
.. And his business model changed. It no longer became about building the building or buying the building. That was for other people to do. He was about building up the Trump name and then selling it and leasing it in as many different ways as possible. So you’ve got the Trump water and Trump Steaks and Trump’s very so-called dodgy university.
.. Trump’s big idea, the idea at the center of his brand, is the power that comes with wealth. And so, the more powerful he is—and, of course, he happens somehow to have got himself the most powerful job in the world—that fact alone is massively increasing the value of his brand, which his sons are cashing in on busily on every front by selling that name for inflated prices.
.. this idea that we’re going to somehow catch him out, damage him by proving that he is corrupt, you know, that he treats people awfully, that’s his brand.
His brand is that he’s the boss, and he gets to do whatever he wants.
.. The Apprentice, as you so aptly describe, was really based on selling a cutthroat brand of capitalism to the American people as the way that people should be.
.. Yeah, it’s televised class war. I mean, it opens up with an image of a homeless man sleeping rough on the streets of New York, and then cuts to Trump in his limousine. And it’s basically like “Who do you want to be? The homeless guy or Trump?” Right? And so, you know, this happens. You know, the show launches at a time when people understand that this—that neoliberalism is not lifting all boats. It is this cutthroat world of winners and losers. And which one do you want to be?
.. I didn’t know that in later seasons they deported half of their contestants into tents in the backyard. They called it Trump’s trailer park. And, you know, they would overlay the sound of like howling dogs at night. And it was this idea of creating drama out of the massive inequalities of our economic system. The people who were sleeping in the backyard, who had been deported into Trump’s trailer park, would peek over the hedges to look at the people living in the mansion, you know, drinking champagne and floating around in the swimming pool, right?
.. if you play by my rules, you end up in the mansion. And it will be even sweeter because people are sleeping outside, right? Because you won.
Part 2 of our interview with Naomi Klein about her book, “No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.”
When there is a crisis
- They have a long wishlist
- They told us we we’re safe and then it turned into a dictatorship.