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Saving Democracy from the Oligarchs

By Derrick Crowe
March 19, 2018

Democrats should heed Hawking’s warnings about the future, but first they must get party insiders get out of the way.

We live in a time of extreme political and environmental danger. We need leaders to tell the truth about the urgency of the moment and to propose policies sufficient to deal with the crises and challenges we face. And then we need them to campaign on those policies and win.

Two crises in particular demand our immediate, vigorous attention: automation-driven inequality and climate change. In Washington’s frame of reference, those have been tomorrow’s problems, at best. But tomorrow is about to become today, and if we cannot lift our eyes to the oncoming catastrophes of the 2030s in 2018 and 2020, an unbelievable amount of human suffering will be the foregone conclusion.

The forces arrayed against us in this fight — people like Robert Mercer, who believe it is in their selfish interest to keep us from addressing these crises — have revealed themselves to be committed enemies of democracy. They know that as the impacts of these crises crawl higher up the pyramid of power in our society, pressure to act will increase. So, they’re working furiously to undermine the agency of the electorate through highly sophisticated information warfare techniques aimed not at a foreign enemy, but the American voter. Paired with the escalating corporate control of our politics in the wake of Citizens United, the attack epitomized in Cambridge Analytica could wreck any possibility for real democratic control of our economy and democracy just when we need it most.

In response, however, the Washington establishment is failing to back candidates who speak clearly about these crises. In fact, the more vigorously one opposes the oligarchs, the more likely the party insiders will attack you, as Laura Moser and I recently learned here in Texas. While the anti-democracy movement embodied in the modern Republican Party has declared war on anti-oligarchy progressives, the DCCC and other center-left political organizations seem dead-set on stacking Congress with people taking the oligarchs’ money.

If we are going to survive, we need Democrats to tell people the truth about the crises we face. And then we need the consultants and Democratic pundits to stop trying to make our “big tent” so big that it includes the people who want to burn down the tent with us inside of it.

Right now, we are celebrating the life of Stephen Hawking, who died just a few short days ago. He is known for unmasking the secrets of the universe with his brilliant grasp of the physical and mathematical mechanics of the cosmos. Immediately after the upheavals of 2016, he also shed his brilliance on the workings of our economic system and our climate in a column for The Guardian appropriately titled, “This is the most dangerous time for our planet.”

The picture he painted in this column echoed the deep alarm about the future that led me to run for Congress. He warned that the convulsions of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were the “a cry of anger by people who felt they had been abandoned by their leaders” in “a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing.”

Hawking wrote:

The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.

This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.

Hawking’s anxiety about automation and its impact on economic inequality reflected a growing consensus about the catastrophic job losses on the horizon due to automation and AI. USA TODAY, paraphrasing a November 2017 report from McKinsey Global Institute, warned that “16 million to 54 million workers — or as much as a third of the U.S. workforce — will need to be retrained for entirely new occupations” — by 2030.

The report puts the challenge in the mildest possible terms:

“[T]here are few precedents in which societies have successfully retrained such large numbers of people.”

Hawking’s column puts it much more stark terms: massive migration and social upheaval are coming. In fact, they have already begun, and the social convulsions these phenomena drive are worsened by the fact that the idealized lives of the elites are rubbed into the faces of unemployed and underpaid classes via social media. (It’s worth adding to Hawking’s anxiety here: not only does awareness of injustice drive societal conflict, but the simple awareness of being screwed in a social arrangement actually creates severe health impacts and heightens perception of racial differences.)

In his final Reddit post, Hawking described the current and soon-to-intensify class struggle heightened by automation, even though he did not explicitly use the phrase:

“If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

This class struggle, as Hawking noted in his column in The Guardian, will take place in the context of “awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans.”

Hawking’s column sped past those challenges, but it’s worth taking a good long look at them to understand the scope of the crises with which a real policy platform should grapple. And, it’s important to understand that even policymakers acting in good faith on climate change may not have a full grip on how desperate our situation is.

Ten years after Dr. James Hansen warned us that 350 parts per million was the maximum safe atmospheric carbon dioxide level, NOAA reports that the we are sitting at about 409 parts per million. That’s 59.98 parts per million over the line postulated by Hansen. He warned at the time that, “If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produces a number of models to show the impact of various carbon emission scenarios to help elected officials make policy to avoid those catastrophic effects. Unfortunately, Prof. Kevin Anderson of Britain’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester has shown that these carbon scenarios also include blatant errors and unrealistic technological assumptions to soften the blow of their conclusions. Anderson’s math shows that we are 2–12 years away from busting the carbon budget, or the amount of carbon we can pump into the atmosphere before we miss a realistic chance avoiding catastrophic climate change effects.

In fact, when you remove the bad assumptions, it’s apparent that even good-faith policymakers have been assuming we had twice the actual carbon budget to play with.

In other words, we are in a lot of trouble.

What could that trouble look like? Hansen’s 2016 paper warns of much deeper, faster changes than previously contemplated by climate scientists even if we limit warming to 2°C, emphasis mine:

[M]ulti-meter sea level rise would become practically unavoidable, probably within 50–150 years. Full shutdown of the North Atlantic Overturning Circulation would be likely within the next several decades in such a climate forcing scenario. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise, and the attendant increases in storms and climate extremes, could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.

To try to head off these “catastrophic effects,” the U.S. joined the other nations of the world in the Paris Agreement in 2015. The agreement commits its participants to:

“Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels…” (Art. II)

But remember: the international community that signed the Paris Agreement is the same international community that has relied on the IPCC scenarios. To hit these targets without the “magic and time travel” assumptions Anderson decries, the developed nations of the world would have had to reduce our emissions by 40 percent by 2018, on our way to a 90-percent reduction by 2030 for a 50:50 chance of staying below 2°C. To put it mildly, on our current course, we aren’t even in the ballpark.

Grappling with the stark climate change reality, Oil Change International released a study in 2016 with an unequivocal warning:

“No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built, and governments should grant no new permits for them.”

This isn’t some academic debate about a time far off into the future. Climate change is here, now, and its costs are already staggering. On Sept. 27, 2017, National Geographic’s Stephen Leahy reported:

Extreme weather, made worse by climate change, along with the health impacts of burning fossil fuels, has cost the U.S. economy at least $240 billion a year over the past ten years, a new report has found.

And yet this does not include this past month’s three major hurricanes or 76 wildfires in nine Western states. Those economic losses alone are estimated to top $300 billion, the report notes. Putting it in perspective, $300 billion is enough money to provide free tuition for the 13.5 million U.S. students enrolled in public colleges and universities for four years.

Decisions about how vigorously we fight climate change are not sterile, academic questions. They determine who migrates, who starves, who lives, who dies. Even staying below the red lines we’ve established for ourselves writes off the suffering of a huge number of people. Hansen’s warming of a civilization torn apart by “forced migrations and economic collapse” fits snugly with the image painted by Hawking’s warning of a humanity pulled apart by intense inequality. And keep in mind, these are two overlapping scenarios that could be unfolding at the same time.

We need a climate change mitigation and adaptation agenda that sets as its unshakable goal a net-zero-carbon energy system by 2035, and the immediate implementation of an agenda for economic justice of sufficient depth to handle a disruption greater than that of the Industrial Revolution. There’s no tiptoeing around this. If we do not take action to stop the intense societal upheaval caused by automation-driven super-inequality and the collapse of a sustainable ecology, no one should imagine that anything remotely approaching a democratic and prosperous United States will survive.

Hawking put the struggle exactly right:

“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”

The machine owners understand the situation, and have fully committed to the fight against sharing the wealth. Robert Mercer is described by The Guardian as “a pioneer in AI and machine translation” who “helped invent algorithmic trading — which replaced hedge fund managers with computer programs.” Cambridge Analytica, the data monster instrumental to the alt-right rise of Donald Trump, brought together Steve Bannon’s ideology and Mercer’s money. “And the idea they bought into was to bring big data and social media to an established military methodology — ‘information operations’ — then turn it on the US electorate.”

In other words, the machine owners know what they want, and they’re waging war to get it.

There are encouraging signs that the backlash to Trump is rousing the electorate to action, but the lessons being drawn by party leaders are murky at best. The special elections of this cycle have provided lots of people lots of evidence for whatever political ideology they have held on to prior to finding their new evidence. Some point to Lamb as an argument for “big tent,” i.e. ideologically flexible, Democratic candidates. Others point to Lee Carter, the democratic socialist who won deep in Republican country, as an example of turning out a strong progressive base.

But let’s take a step back here and posit something larger: taken together, the diverse set of candidates winning across the country may mean there are many ways for Democrats to win. When the door is open to rapid change, how we choose to win matters.

So I say again: We live in a time of intense political and environmental danger. We desperately need political leaders willing to tell the truth about the dangers we face. We need national leadership focused on the minefield we must navigate between now and the early 2030s, and we need them in office immediately. We need candidates who refuse money from Wall Street and corporate PACs so that they aren’t tempted to chase donations from the very sectors trying to bury us. We need a national party structure that understands not only that those challenges require bold agendas like urgent climate change action, College for All, and Medicare for All as the basics of a real economic justice agenda — but also that it is their job to build political support for these policies with the electorate.

If we emerge from 2018 with elected officials that oppose Trump but not the Robert Mercers, the Wall Street executives, and the other oligarchs who put Trump in office; who say they favor reducing inequality while deregulating the banks; who say they back climate change action but are happy to allow fracking to continue; then we’re sunk. The changes we need to save our democracy can’t be made at the margins. We need radical change, and we need it now. Asking us to vote for less isn’t worth the trouble, and people know it.

If we don’t change the political climate, the economic climate and the actual climate are going to kill us. The only “big tent” worth building is a policy agenda that saves the biggest number of people. And we’re the last generation that can build it.

We are the only ones standing between the future and the fire. We better start acting like it.

Paid for by the Derrick Crowe for Congress Committee