Economist Fadhel Kaboub on the Green New Deal and Democratic Socialism

Fadhel Kaboub:
"What we have right now is a Green New Deal resolution, which is essentially an invitation for the country to come together and think about our priorities and the issues we care about the most. The issues we face today is that we have a climate economic inequality crisis, a social justice crisis...Just like we did in the 1930s to sort of reboot the system and address mass unemployment and poverty and starvation issues, we're going to do the same today except it's not just going to be about unemployment and inequality. It's also going to be about the climate crisis. The good news is that we live in a democratic system and a democratic system is supposed to be participatory, which means a government for the people, by the people, of the people, except right now it's not because we've abdicated that responsibility to corporate elites. What we need to do is elect 535 lawmakers into office who actually answer to the needs of the people...It's not going to happen by accident. It's going to happen thru organizing at the local level, which means be vigilant. Who are your representatives? What do they stand for ? Who do they represent? If they take SuperPAC money, Wall Street money, Big Pharma or fracking money, chances are they are not representing you. So what do we do? We come up with candidates who ...don't take corporate money, who are funded by the power of the people and when they're in office, they're going to be unbought, unbossed and they're going to represent the needs of the people. All it takes 535 of those lawmakers. It's not a big number for a country like the United States. But it takes a lot of hard work at the local level to educate the local community about the needs, about the possibilities, and to organize to unseat anybody who is not representing the democratic process and not representing their people."

I asked Kaboub about the extent to which this should involve organizing beyond the Democratic Party, as a way of building strength-of-numbers.

"I'm talking about representatives of the people, (of both main political parties). Both Democratic and Republican representatives are bought and sold by corporate interests. When we're talking about clean air, clean soil, clean water, good paying jobs, these are not Democratic or Republican priorities. These are things everybody wants, except we're told by the dominant narrative that those things can only happen via fracking. We're told only fracking can bring good jobs to Ohio. You can't change the systen if you accept the dominant narrative.So what are we doing? We're organizing..We're going to call their bluff. We're saying, 'No, these are not the only jobs. We can get better paying jobs, more sustainable jobs for the longterm because fracking jobs are going to go away as soon as the well is dry. And what do they leave behind? They behind pollution, cancer, asthma, and polluted soil. That's what destroys communities. So the question for us is. Would we rather not regulate and eliminate the fossil fuel industry today and instead keep the status quo and pay the costs of the cancer treatment and the social and physical pain and financial loss in the longterm. So when they say the Green New Deal is too expensive, to me the status quo, this system, is way too expensive in terms of quality of life and financial costs."

I asked Kaboub how he came to question majnstream economics.

"Sometimes you have to be a little bit of a critical thinker and say 'All of these theories, all of these textbook models are nice puzzles.' They're interesting. They're like mental gymnastics. But then you look around in the real world and you say, 'Does this really make sense in the real world?' Then you start to challenge these things. As a student, you can't really solve the whole puzzle yourself so you start looking for other major thinkers in the profession and sometimes beyond the profession who challenge those textbook ideas. I was fortunate to have some of those thinkers as an undergrad. They sparked my interest in thinking differently about economics and then I went to grad school at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, which was one of the best places in the world to think about alternative ideas in the economics profession...By the time I got into the profession as an economist, I started paying attention to climate scientists. You just can't ignore it anymore. So to continue teaching the same simplistic textbook models that ignore climate and that use the planet as just a source for extracting resources for economic growth, I just can't live with myself as an economist if I teach my own students those same narratives from a standard textbook. So a few years ago, I just stopped using textbooks. I still teach economics, the mainstream version but I add the critical perspective to it and I teach the alternatives. The students love it "

I asked Kaboub what those alternatives are.

Laughing, he said there are many alternatives.

"You teach political economy ...ecological economics, post-Keynesian economics."

During his presentation at the Green New Deal town hall, Kaboub talked about Modern Monetary Theory, whereby the federal government can finance its expenditures different from a state or municipality.

"There is a wide variety of schools of thought: feminist economics, Marxist economics, post-Keynesian economics. When you think of mainstream economics departments, probably here at OSU as well, you would think they banned alternative thinking from the cirriculum. For example, the course that really got me going into the economics profession as an undergrad was History of Economic Thought. It's like the filing cabinet of ideas. You learn about Marx, Keynes, and all the different schools of thought, including the mainstream Classical and Neo-Classical economists...Because it takes you through a comparative perspective, that course has the potential to turn students into little rebels who now can think differently and critically.That creates some nuisance for professors who want to teach only the mainstream perspective .So what did most universities do in the US and around the world? They stopped teaching that course, with the exception of a few universities."

He said it's possible for some students to graduate with a PhD without learning about alternatives to mainstream thinking.

"The alternative schools of thought are on the rise right now, not because the economics profession decided we should include them, but because the public is saying the mainstream of the economics profession is not making any sense."

He said the public sees that mainstream economics is wrong on climate change, on inequality, and on the 2007/8 financial crisis.

"The media is gradually looking at alternative ideas. The public is seeking alternative ideas, and the economics profession is just digging their heels in, as the gatekeepers of the establishment "

I asked Kaboob about pros and cons of using the term 'democratic socialism.'

"I think it's generational. The baby boomers who went through the Cold War, were conditioned socially and politically, to fear anything that sounds like socialism. Even if you had 'democratic' to it, it's still socialism. But who are the democratic socialiats across the country on the rise organizing right now? It's the younger people who didn't live through the Red Scare, and who don't buy those (scare) tactics that say more government involvement is a slipperly slope to communism. That's nonsense. We're not saying the government should take over the means of production and turn the system into communism. We're saying, 'Regulate the power structure in the system so that a pharmaceutical company is not allowed to charge hundreds of dollars for an epipen, or for life-saving drugs."

I suggested to Kaboub 'expanding political and economic democracy' as the essence of democratic socialism. He agreed.

"Democratic socialism is a term Bernie Sanders has put on the map in recent years. But it's also a hindrance for the older people in this country who are stuck in the 1960s and 1970s political rhetoric. But I think those fears are on their way out, when we look at Sunrise Movement and the DSA's around the country. That's going to overwhelm the centrist narrative."

I asked him if he thought 'democratic socialism' is the most honest term to describe the aims of many emerging grassroots movements.

"There are so many ways of labeling things. When you talk about capitalism, for example, you can think of a spectrum of varieties of capitalism: where Wall Street dominates or where industrialists dominate or where agriculture once dominated the economy. So it's really about managing the power structure. So you can think of democratic socialism as another variety of capitalism where the rules of the game is much more flat and democratic and participatory. Think of the founding documents of this country "We the People" and think of Lincoln's 'government for the people, by the people, of the people.' We want a participatory system, but not in the sense that we participate in an election and then disappear for fours. That's like handing them the keys. As an academic I don't buy into labels. I want to know the details. But I recognize that for the general public, sometimes labels are everything. So it's a matter of engaging with people in the details of what you mean by 'democratic socialism' and what kind of capitalism you're talking about. You know, 'Show me the receipts.' How does it actually work? But to start a conversation, you need to define those labels."

I said to Kaboub that detractors use the label 'socialism' to discredit any organized attempt to address the needs of everyday people.

"The more prominence Bernie Sanders and his narrative has on the national stage, the more people are warming to the idea of democratic socialism, and discounting the scare tactics in mainstream media.