Guest post by Timothy Nerenz, Ph.D.
Earlier this year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced the Green New Deal (GND), a public policy initiative whose central goal is de-carbonize the U.S economy in 12 years. She described GND as her millennial generation’s “World War II” and dismissed the question of how to pay for it with the response, “you just pay for it”. With all due respect to the Congresswoman, you don’t “just pay for it”, you pay someone to do it.
Just what is the “it” and who is the “someone” of the Green New Deal? In a recently published peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Human Resources and Sustainability Studies, I examined the scope of industrial mobilization that would be required to realize GND sustainability goals and proposed a conceptual blueprint and strategy to achieve them in the shortest feasible timeframe. Those who care to read it in its entirety can to so here: Thinking Inside The Box
But for those who wish to avoid slogging through the methodologies and citations of an academic paper, the bottom line is this: the millennials’ war on carbon might actually be winnable in a 20-year time span, but only if they are willing leave college and devote their working lives to producing the roughly $53 trillion of Green New Things which must be in place before carbon energy can be banned without completely collapsing the U.S. economy and starving the population. The journal article takes no position on climate change issues and does not argue for or against GND, it merely fills in the blanks so advocates and opponents alike can have some sense of what they are actually proposing and opposing. In strategic decision-making, the common vernacular for this step is a “sanity check”.
We know how many more wind turbines it will take to generate 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy, and we know how many of miles of high-speed rail it will take to replace aviation. We know the number of farms to be re-fitted with electric tractors and combines and such; we know the number of cars and trucks on the roads, and the numbers of off-road trucks, bulldozers, cranes, shovels, graders, and other diesel-powered equipment to be replaced. We know the number and configuration of new production facilities – factories, mills, refineries, mines, shops, etc. – that will be needed to make and service all this new stuff.
From there it is a matter of applying appropriate industry costing rules of thumb and available statistics on capacities and productivity curves for various construction and production processes to model out a matrix of time versus human capital applied to produce $53 trillion of Green New Things, and then identifying the barriers that would have to be eliminated to shorten the duration. The math is not particularly difficult – not nearly as complicated as predicting the average temperature of the whole planet at some distant point in the future. 24 million (mostly) millennials immediately repurposed to urgent GND industrial production could conceivably pull it off with a 20-year surge in manufacturing output and new product development. The keyword is conceivable, not certain or probable.
The historical record of World War II mobilization provides a template for the requisite urgent industrial mobilization of GND – Rep. Ocasio-Cortez got that one right. In constant dollars, GND is 26 times greater of an undertaking than the earlier wartime mobilization, but the blueprint left to us by the millennials’ great-grandparents offers the pathway to 20-year GND realization, provided a three-part strategy to replicate its productive ecosystem is immediately undertaken as the nation’s #1 priority, with numbers 2-n placed into indefinite hibernation:
• doubling of the current U.S. industrial base: building new factories, steel mills, mines, refineries, power generation facilities, and logistics terminals to produce Green New Things
• deconstruction of 65% of post-secondary education: repurposing of students, faculty, and staff to industrial mobilization, replicating the intellectual bandwidth of the 1940s mobilization workforce
• roll-back of the regulatory climate to 1940 levels: re-creating the conditions under which wartime mobilization was entrusted to the capable hands of capitalist industrial entrepreneurs.
Wait, what? Why deconstruct post-secondary? Because the most underappreciated characteristic of the Greatest Generation’s astonishing World War II achievement – indeed its secret sauce – was the intellectual profile of the work-force that was repurposed to wartime industrial production. In 1940, less than 5% of the adult population held college degrees, leaving most of the right half of the IQ bell curve available for duty in the nation’s factories, mills, mines, ports, and terminals, where 600,000 private firms and 24 million bright young housewives and farmhands spontaneously ordered themselves overnight to win the “war on can’t”.
And where we find an available not-working source of similarly suitable human capital to be immediately repurposed to GND mobilization? The first 16 million are sitting in college classrooms pursuing market-surplus and unwanted degree majors; the next 3 million are recent degree holders who are unemployed or under-employed and planning to return to school in hopes of salvaging sunk costs. Vacated classrooms will not need professors and staff and administrators, so another 1.5 million can be added to the tally. Each year, more will graduate from high school to volunteer for service in the cause of averting planetary extinction.
As one might expect, a proposal to deconstruct post-secondary has not been met with wild enthusiasm by my colleagues in academia, despite their overwhelming support for GND in the abstract. But to borrow another idea from the original New Deal, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Deconstructing post-secondary by 2/3 would simply return it to the population proportions of 1972, my freshman year in college. There was no acute shortage of doctors, lawyers, teachers, therapists, nurses, philosophers, historians, architects, engineers, scientists, accountants, managers, and myriad other degreed professionals back then. We will be ok.
The second GND show-stopper is the current regulatory climate, which must be almost completely abolished, another idea not warmly received by GND advocates on campus, but necessary nonetheless. A case in point: replacing commercial aviation will require installation of over 46,000 miles of high-speed rail in 20 years, and operating within the current regulatory regime, the California HSR Authority has spent ten years and billions of dollars not-building a planned paltry 800 miles of the stuff. When the project was finally abandoned this year without a single usable mile of trackway to show for their trouble, the projected completion date had stretched to infinity, plus or minus never. We can have GND or we can keep the regulatory state, but we cannot do both.
And so there it is – a strategy for GND realization from a most unlikely source, a retired industry executive turned B-school professor. To win the millennials’ war on carbon in 20 years, we must immediately double industrial sector capacity, deconstruct post-secondary education by 65% while repurposing its inhabitants to a lifetime of industrial production, and roll back regulations to 1940 levels so that our American capitalists are left alone do what they do best unimpeded, namely get things done.
If the alternative to GND is indeed the certain Climate Change apocalypse its advocates promise, it is difficult to imagine what objections they may have to a plan that would avert it. And it is equally difficult to imagine why GND’s ideological opponents might take issue with re-industrialization, deregulation, and reliance on free-market capitalism, regardless of their opinions of climate science. “Moral truths” aside, the plain truth of GND is that $53 trillion of Green New Things will not build themselves, they will not be Tweeted into existence, and they will not appear magically by government decree.
So let the GND debate resume, only with a clear understanding of what it will take to walk the talk should it adopted as the nation’s top public policy priority.
Nerenz, T. (2019). “Thinking inside the box: A blueprint for Green New Deal industrial mobilization and strategy for human capital repurposing”. Journal of Human Resource and Sustainability Studies. Vol 7 No.3 Sept 2019
Timothy Nerenz, Ph.D is a retired manufacturing industry executive turned business professor who has written and taught graduate courses in strategy, strategic decision-making, leadership, transformational change, and business law & ethics. He is currently a professor in The Graduate School at University of Maryland Global Campus and teaches in the MBA program at UMGC locations throughout Europe.