Thursday, February 28, 2019

Before There was a Green New Deal, Detroit had its Own Green New Deal

Ten years ago, long before there was a Green New Deal on the tongues and in the minds of impertinent school kids who would later accost Dianne Feinstein in her Senate office, there was a celebration of sorts in Detroit over the city's success in limiting its own carbon footprint.

A study that I wrote about at the time by the Brooking's Institute indicated that Detroit rated 37th best among America's largest cities in green house gas emissions.  It was a small silver lining behind a large rain cloud. 
The Detroit area did surprisingly well in a 100-city comparison of global warming gases, although it's not clear how much of that standing reflects economic doldrums and an increasingly older mix of residents in a place where the population is not growing. By most measures, including the degree of sprawl and lack of mass transit, metro Detroit hardly seems like a candidate for a city with a lighter carbon footprint than most.
It did "surprisingly well." I think a walk down memory lane might be useful here. 

In 2008 Detroit was not a vibrant place to do business.   Many large employers had already left the city and a few of those remaining were on the brink of exodus.   Factories closed, the epicenter of American automobile manufacturing had shifted southward and, while the Detroit Lions and Detroit Tigers had made major investments in the midtown area, most major area commerce, as a general rule, took place outside of Detroit in counties to the north and west. 

And the population of Detroit in particular and Michigan as a whole was shrinking.  According to the US Census Bureau the city lost over 200,000 residents in the years 2000-10.   Most of these folks wound up in suburbia but the state over the same time period lost over 50,000 residents, the only recorded decade of population loss in Michigan's history.  (Around here we like to call this the Jennifer Granholm effect.)

Detroit city schools were crumbling both physically and academically.  Parents, not wanting to see their children raised in the octagon, grabbed their kids and took them across 8 Mile.  (If you want to see a city's population shrink make sure a cornerstone of your strategy includes exposing the children to the dangers of violence, drugs and a disruptive learning environment.)  A child who entered the first grade in Detroit in the year 1996 had approximately a 30 percent chance of graduating in 2008, and those that did graduate were most likely in need of jump start courses if interested in college.

So people left.  They left in cars and in moving vans. For sale signs first dotted and then dominated the landscapes.  Houses went feral.  Sidewalks and side streets crumbled.  Street lights went dark.

The good news, we were told in 2008, was the smaller carbon footprint.

But maybe this is not so surprising after all. 

Carbon footprints are to a great degree a measurement of economic activity.  Fossil fuels, the major culprit in global climate change, is still inarguably the least expensive and most efficient energy source on the planet.  Wherever people live, wherever they congregate, wherever they travel, and wherever they produce, they consume energy and today that means they create carbon emissions.

The Green New Deal largely tries to combat these emissions by shifting away from fossil fuels and by choking off energy usage that benevolent (and all-knowing) bureaucrats feel is unnecessary. So, shut down the coal plant, erect some windmills and get granny to turn her thermostat down to 63 degrees. 

And yet, a growing and robust economy jumps existential hurdles as a matter of due course.  The wealth created by charging economies fuels solutions to problems that appeared almost insurmountable to those who previously lived in periods of crises.

A poor world cannot.

A poor world could not cure the plague.  It could not feed the starving.  It could not reliably raise its children into adulthood.  It could not tell the people of Galveston to flee the hurricane, and today's world, as wealthy as it is, cannot currently alter the carbon trajectory of this planet. 

But a more wealthy world, given time and motivation, could. 

And this is where the Green New Deal, for all its rose petals and sprinkles of promise, will fail.  For in its economy crippling efforts to combat a problem for which it cannot solve, it will crush the only mechanism on Earth that could possibly provide a solution in the future, that being the American free market.

The ballpark price tag for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal is on the order of $90 trillion dollars over the next ten years.  We don't have that much cabbage.

According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the GDP of Michigan in 2017 was approximately $509 billion.  (I made about half of that mowing lawns.)  In order to fund the Green New Deal it would take confiscating every cent of GDP in Michigan that year and then borrowing another 175 times that much from Al Gore.

Which brings me back to Detroit and 2008.

The most effective current way to control carbon emissions is to debilitate a society.  Detroit proved that.  Strip from its people the need to move, to congregate, to recreate and to reproduce.  Close the shutters and lock the doors.  While it was effective it was a pretty big price to pay for a society that for the first time in history had solved existential crises of disease, pestilence, hunger and conflict. 

The Green New Deal authors do not consider that they will separate man from his carbon by also separating him from his wealth.  Their minds are too deeply wrapped around setting up roadblocks and forcing behavior changes than to think about what the effects of these changes will have on the affected.  Then again, those "in charge" never have to suffer as perilously as those who actually live on the front lines of policy.

But today's Detroit is not in 2008.
The city is experiencing a stunning rebirth due to new business investment.  While the tendrils of this economic expansion have yet to reach every downtrodden neighborhood, work is now available in the city for nearly anyone who is willing to strap on a hardhat or swing a hammer.  We can predict that carbon emissions will rise with such growth but so will wealth.

The future technologies that a wealthy society can create will answer the daunting questions of today such as climate change and a mousetrap I can depend on, and will provide answers for crises of the future that we cannot yet envision.

Wealth in the hands of inventors and innovators will solve our problems.  The GND will make the ultimate solution impossible. 

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