The Refuge for Realists


Cap and Trade or Dividend is an old idea, an old Republican policy, and I am told an updated version of this Trojan horse, presented as a great gift by Peter Barnes, is creaking on its wheels as it rolls into West Marin from the darkest corners of 20th century economic philosophy for us townsfolk to gawk at. Cap and Trade solves thorny problems for the timorous thinker. First, you don’t have to blame corporations. It isn’t their essential activity that is destructive to nature, and must be stopped. It is that markets have not been created to account for their behavior and “price-in” their destructiveness. Once they pay the right price for carbon, they will correct their behavior.
And who is going to enforce this new market? Well, the same politicians who are presently beholden to the corporations who pollute. Cap and Trade asks the corporations and the government to go into a room together and solve the problem. Of course, because the intellectuals refuse to take a stand directly against the corporations themselves, attempting only to modify corporate behavior over time, the politicians don’t even have the basis of resisting them. As Paul Fenn put it, “It is like putting the tobacco companies in charge of the strategy to stop people from smoking.”
Where these Cap and Trade schemes have been tried, various tricks are used, often built into the markets themselves, to allow polluters to evade the cap – to not reduce carbon emissions. These markets have failed repeatedly in practice. But how is it supposed to work in theory? Well polluting corporations, like power plant owners, have the amount that they pollute grandfathered into the scheme. Then starting from year one the cap gets lower, polluters must emit less carbon, until say 2050 when carbon emissions will be at a level that, based on the enormity of the problem, they need to be today. It is a proposal on a timeline so long that only people who believe in cryogenics won’t find themselves utterly dismayed.
That last bit, sadly, isn’t entirely a joke. Hedge fund founder and Googleian Ray Kurzweil eats 150 pills a day in a bid to live until technology will make him immortal. The grand old man of the convenient fantasy California-style Stewart Brand has his own Long Now foundation, which asks us to look forward to the year 10,000 and start planning on that basis. No wonder he is so untroubled by the half-life of nuclear waste. Not to be outdone, Peter Schwartz, business partner of Brand, both longtime consultants to Shell Oil amongst others, once told an audience in San Francisco that he wasn’t concerned about climate change because through the advances of bio-technology his son would live forever, giving him ample time to deal with the problem. Does it bother anybody that our intellectuals sound like a group thirteen year-old boys in a tree house trying to write a Star Trek script?
Cap and Trade does not even rise to the level of tragedy because either foolishly or shamelessly it serves the powerful interests that are destroying the world.  It is no compensation to be paid $5,000 a year by polluters in exchange for the loss of our future as a species. Even with this addendum of a dividend scheme, where will this money be spent in the climate change conditions that Cap and Trade cannot halt?

These ideas, like Cap and Trade, flowed from people like Friedrich von Hayek and Ronald Coase (who ultimately disavowed it) through Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, though the locals who tout them seem not to know it. They are predicated on a worldview that believes there is no such thing as a society, that only when we make a market out of the whole earth, including the air we breathe, can our problems be solved. In an effort to be “realistic”, Barnes and the serious men have become, perhaps unwittingly, dominated by the ascendant ideology of our time: Neo-liberalism. Though they probably think they are just helping the Democratic Party – thought to be a force for good – the Party leadership beginning with Bill Clinton has moved in earnest to adopt the economic policies of the right as well. I am reminded of the line from a terrible early 80’s fantasy film, “It used to be just another snake cult, but now, it’s everywhere!”

Remember that these thinkers talk to some extent about the forces that govern our world, but not about the structures that holds all of these interests in place. Those underlying structures they think of as a natural and immutable ecology of power in which we need to find the right balance between participants – a balance, for instance, between the interests of the coal industry and the people whose water and air are poisoned. This false ecological view of the world causes blind spots in their vision, narrowed further by fears they confuse for wisdom. Many of them, of course, are simultaneously rich, distracted and unevenly educated, and the combination of these cardinal West Marin qualities often compels these men and women to speak, with great confidence, opinions that are useless, trivial or demented (sadly for those dependent upon their patronage, the service population in its various forms are often compelled to listen to them).
What are these fears that pervert the minds of our intellectuals? The first and most obvious is the fear of the empire itself. Take the craven leaders of our institutions of higher learning; although universities usually allow each department a token radical, they too are increasingly entranced by “free market” ideas and are endlessly constructing new buildings that require wealthy, often corporate, donors and federal funding. To jeopardize either patron would be fatal to the growing university bubble, and their chancellors dare not alienate them. Energy corporations, like BP and PG&E, are notorious (or should be) for constraining the debate on politics and policy within universities in favor of technological research–which when it comes close to showing promise–is often defunded.
And older fears possess our thinkers when writing about changing the world for the better, based in memories of the political upheavals of the 1930’s. Remember FDR was a compromise; he was going to protect businessmen from those they more deeply feared like Huey Long. But the ultimate and to some inevitable danger of political unrest is represented by figures like Stalin and Hitler who remain bidden or unbidden in our political memory. If, like those two, a leader says he has the formula for a new and better society, to achieve our dreams of freedom and prosperity, what then will he do to those who oppose it, or whom the leader has designated as the enemies of the dream?
The consequence of these persistent half-remembered memories is an unwillingness to speak out in opposition to either corporations or the government. These are the “realists”, and their sober and stable managerial approach to crisis explains the poverty of the solutions they present to climate change or the “Great Recession.” Writers like Peter Barnes refuse to directly confront the sources of climate change or declining living standards in America for fear, I believe, of arousing political ideas. Ideas that say you can change the world by disallowing through law the abuse of the planet or its people, and that simultaneously our governments can provide investment in infrastructure to replace the burning of fuel, etc. Such direct actions are considered, “unserious” or “unrealistic”, because if we identify corporations as the culprits of global and domestic decline, the realists fear we will march toward Communism. If we identify the government as the cause of failure, we will unwittingly bring to power fascists and a greater tyranny. And let’s pull away the curtain for a moment, lurking in the shadows is the god that the portfolio men really fear, the capricious Index, like the NYSE, to whom they must make endless sacrifices in an effort raise share prices ever higher, because without those particular dividend payments, survival in West Marin is truly unimaginable.

West Marin is nestled in the center of American empire, not at some rural margin. That is why what we think, and still more to know who we truly are, is very important. Some of us believe we are really out in the country and receive the terrible events on TV or the Internet as fragments from a distant world. Our lives feel stagnant as climate change, war, government spying and declining prosperity demand serious collective answers to the question of how we and our children will survive.

Unfortunately for us, our local intellectuals are proposing answers to the big crises of our time, which in their pursuit of the “real” are ironically more utopian than any Bolshevik dream. The realist says, “Ask the polluters not to pollute, ask them instead to pay the poor.”