FROM WIRED | FEB 12, 2019
The unveiling of a Green New Deal last week provoked a mix of enthusiasm and derision. For each voice embracing the radical vision to decarbonize the American economy within a decade, revamp capitalism, and attend to a panoply of social ills, there was another voice decrying the plan as economically unrealistic, technologically impossible, and politically untenable.
Given the plan’s sweeping nature and lack of concrete details, it made an easy touchstone, and in an insta-age, a perfect media foil; its vagueness allowed both proponents and opponents to cast it in whatever light they chose. Maybe that was part of the intent: Articulate sweeping, revolutionary goals, catch the attention of a media hungry for broad, simple and controversial themes, and watch the debate spin.
Whatever your view of the merits, though, the plan highlighted how the United States has retreated from big ideas begetting bold action. For more than 20 years, most of our political upheavals have been reactive: ending welfare as we knew it; the War on Terror in response to 9/11; Obamacare’s massive unruly tweak to a chaotic health care system; and the id of Trump’s election without any substantial legislative agenda.
That record contrasts sharply with a long period in American history, beginning with the Progressive Era in the early 1900s and continuing well into the 1980s, of the “Big Idea” driving federal politics; that now seems like distant history.
Take this language for instance: “We possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.” That was John F. Kennedy appealing to Congress in May 1961 for a multi-year, multi-billion dollar effort to put an American astronaut on the moon before the end of the 1960s. We know, of course, that it worked, that Neil Armstrong leapt over moon rocks in 1969.
The Green New Deal, of course, invokes the first New Deal, that plethora of 1930s projects, agencies, and laws passed under Franklin Roosevelt. No one speech or plan launched the New Deal. FDR as a candidate had pledged “to a new deal for the American people;” he began his administration on March 4, 1933 with a call for action, with the famous words that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Today, critics would belittle such a speech as lofty but empty words. Roosevelt’s point, however, was that fear is so enervating that it creates “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Shifting the public mood, he believed, was a prerequisite to meaningful action.
Later calls to the public to rise to the moment include the Marshall Plan to rebuild post-World War II Western Europe; JFK in June of 1963 demanding civil rights legislation, and Lyndon Johnson re-affirming and expanding that a year later, and then articulating a vision for a “great society” that launched a series of government programs ranging from public housing to Medicaid.
Like these efforts or not—and Americans then and now are hardly united in their view of these dramatic and society-altering initiatives—they began not as detailed blueprints but as ambitious and vague ideas. The vision of a better future brought about by people acting collectively, spurred by government initiative, led to a successful space program, to the various reforms of the early Progressive Era such as child labor laws, and arguably to the innovations of Silicon Valley in the 1980s and 1990s, which benefitted immeasurably from Cold War defense spending on everything from the early internet to semiconductors.
Government is one mobilizing force. Ambitious individuals and companies are another. The early misfits of the personal computer age and the internet exhibited the same big think. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, in their 1994 book Built to Last, coined the term “BHAG,” for a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. They cited examples ranging from that JFK moonshot to Bill Gates’ vision of a computer on every desk. As Gates put it, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years.” Gates carried that mantle for years; Elon Musk bears it today. So too does Google, with its many and costly self-proclaimed “moonshots.”
Yet, the culture of 2019 is not nearly so forgiving of big goals articulated with soaring words and precious little substance. In our outraged time, idealism gets little respect, given how often such idealism is, admittedly, bullshit. But the easy dismissal of moonshots becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy. If attempts to be big and audacious are met with pre-emptive dismissal and reputational damage, that creates an incentive to the incremental and small. Sometimes that’s just fine, but it comes with a serious opportunity cost.
It’s also, potentially, a competitive disadvantage versus the US’s only serious economic competitor today—China. Under Xi Jinping, China has excelled at articulating its moonshots, from Made in China 2025, to the Belt and Road initiatives to connect the world to China through global infrastructure projects, to its domestic 5G wireless plans. China is thinking big, thinking long-term, and thinking transformatively. It will almost certainly fail to achieve all of these dreams, but they serve as organizing principles to marshal the resources of more than a billion people.
The Green New Deal is easily criticized as ill-defined and unrealistic. Unlike the moonshot, some of its goals (such as guaranteeing everyone a living wage) are peripheral to the “green” part, and some (such as making air travel obsolete) are both impossible in a decade and of questionable desirability. But what should not be criticized is the drive to frame big goals as a needed first-step towards achieving them. The US was built on a series of impractical, unrealistic ideas. Losing that would be more than a shame. It will prevent Americans from collectively solving problems–some self-created, others not–and ensure that we endlessly spin our wheels, pining for a lost past and unable to create a vibrant future.