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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Rendering unto Caesar
December 5, 2008 - 5:54pm

So, I'm reading Daphne Wysham's pretty good article on Foreign Policy in Focus, about the costs ... errr ... investment opportunities inherent in global society's need to mitigate greenhouse gasses. And I'm saying to myself, how can we frame this as a growth industry? If what the world needs now is better climate, why can't providing that be the kind of economic engine that addressing the world's other needs (transportation, communication, nutrition, destruction) has always been? And the answer is almost immediately obvious -- there's no way to control access. If a needy consumer wants to get on the train, drive away in the car, talk on the phone, eat the food, shoot the gun, (s)he's got to get the product from the individual or company which creates or controls it. Climate, by its very nature, is universally available. Consumers don't have to acquire climate, they just get it. (For better or for worse.) Climate is the ultimate public good.

And I'm listening on NPR to the latest in a series of stories about how the auto executives are on Capitol Hill again, asking for money. And the reporter is going on about how the CEOs really get it this time -- they have plans to build more efficient vehicles, and they drove in hybrids to DC rather than take their corporate jets, and they're acting really regretful, and they're willing to share the burden by taking major pay cuts during the bailout period, and ... just ... everything! And I'm saying to myself, they have PLANS to build more efficient vehicles? They're going to take pay cuts DURING THE BAILOUT PERIOD? Even the Federal government couldn't screw things up any worse than these management teams have done. And you know that if the big dogs take a temporary pay cut, they're gonna get real healthy immediately after the auditors stop looking. So you and I are supposed to lend these folks many billion dollars, betting on what? We're being asked to be not bankers but venture capitalists. To outfits with lousy track records, minimal assets, major liabilities and no viable business plans. Venture capitalists sometimes invest in that sort of a business (if they REALLY like the concept), but they do it by buying the damn thing, not by lending it money. High risk requires high reward, and the most common way to get high reward from a business is to own it.

So why shouldn't the country buy GM, Ford and Chrysler? My friends in the Chicago School will immediately object, calling such an idea "socialism", but that kind of begs the issue. If one of the successes of American capitalism is the fact that anyone can own a share in any corporation, why is it bad for EVERYONE to own a share in any corporation? Stockholders very rarely exert any real influence on major corporate decisions, so what difference does it make who (or how many) those stockholders are? If I buy a car which is made by a company in which I (and every other American) own stock, how is that any more evil (I mean "socialistic") than my participating in a farmers' co-op or buying life insurance from a mutual company or living in a cooperatively-owned Manhattan apartment building?

See, we've got some serious blinders on, and they're preventing us from solving our problems. (Einstein said that we could never solve the serious problems of the world with the same sort of thinking we used when we created them.) Corporations can serve public needs by creating privately-controlled goods, but that's not the only way to serve public needs. Governments have always provided the necessities of life (security, market structures, legal frameworks) that enabled corporations to operate, but upon which corporations (or other individual actors) couldn't realistically make a profit. If the Detroit 3 can't make a real profit addressing the public's transportation (and employment) needs, but those transportation (and employment) needs aren't going away any time soon, then what's wrong with a national cooperative ownership structure and a new (gotta be an improvement) management team? Down the road, if the auto industry makes money, then devolve the shares to each of us formally, and let us sell them at a profit. No harm done.

And, if that can work (and it does, in lots of other countries and a wide range of industries), do we still really need about consumers' uncontrolled access to climate? (Remember climate? You thought I forgot about climate, didn't you?) If you and I and all of our neighbors own the climate company and consume the high-quality climate our company produces, what's wrong with that? It's really no different from any other necessity we buy, and the price is only (by some estimates) about 2% of gross income. Think of all the things you spend 2% or more of your gross on: cigarettes (if you smoke), caffeine, cable, cellphone, calories (empty), cinema (often even emptier). Stock in the Citizen's Cooperative Climate Corporation could probably never be traded, because the dangers of monopolistic (or even oligopolistic) ownership are simply too great, but even without that payoff opportunity at the end, it's a pretty good deal. (Certainly better than the mutual life insurance policy, and what you have to do to collect on that!)

 

 

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