Where the real trade-offs and obstacles to decarbonization lie
J. W. Mason is Associate Professor of Economics at John Jay College, City University of New York and a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.
Cross posted from J. W. Masons blog The Slack Wire
Photo: United States Department of Energy
In the world in which we live, large-scale cooperation is largely organized through payments of money. Orthodox economics conflates these money flows, on the one hand with quantities of real social and physical things, and on the other hand with a quantity of well-being or happiness. One way of looking at Keynes’ work is as an attempt to escape this double conflation and see money as something distinct. Eighty years later, it can still be a challenge to imagine our collective productive activity except in terms of the quantities of money that organize it. But this effort of imagination is critical to address the challenges facing us, not least that of climate change.
The economic problems of climate change are often discussed, explicitly or implicitly, in terms of the orthodox real-exchange vision of the economy, in which problems are conceived of in terms of the allocation of scarce means among alternative ends.
In the real-exchange framework, decarbonization is a good which must be traded off against other goods. From this point of view, the central question is what is the appropriate trade-off between current consumption and decarbonization. The problem is that since climate is an externality, this trade-off cannot be reached by markets alone; the public sector must set the appropriate price via a carbon tax or equivalent. In general, more rapid decarbonization will be disproportionately more costly than slower decarbonization. A further problem is that since the climate externality is global, higher costs will be borne by the countries that move more aggressively toward decarbonization while others may free-ride.
This perspective does leave space for more direct public action to address climate change. Public investment, however, faces the same trade-off between decarbonization and current living standards that price-mediated private action does. It is also limited by the state’s fiscal capacity. Governments have a finite capacity to generate money flows through taxation and bond-issuance (or equivalently to mobilize real resources) and use of this capacity for decarbonization will limit public spending in other areas.
The claims in the preceding two paragraphs may sound reasonable at first glance. But from a Keynesian standpoint, none are correct; they range from misleading to flatly false. In the Keynesian vision, the economy is imagined as a system of monetary production rather than real exchange, with the binding constraints being not scarce resources, but demand and, more broadly, coordination. From this perspective, the problem of climate change looks very different. And these differences are not just about terminology or emphasis, but a fundamentally different view of where the real trade-offs and obstacles to decarbonization lie.
In this paper, I will sketch out the central elements that distinguish a Keynesian vision of the economics of climate change. For this purpose, the Keynesian monetary-production framework can be seen as involving three fundamental premises.
1. Economic activity is coordination- and demand-constrained, not real resource-constrained.
2. Production is an active, transformative process, not just a combining of existing resources or factors.
3. Money is a distinct object, not just a representative of some material quantity; the interest rate is the price of liquidity, not of saving.
These premises have a number of implications for climate policy.
1. Decarbonization will be experienced as an economic boom. Decarbonization will require major changes in our patterns of production and consumption, which in turn will require substantial changes to our means of production and built environment. In capitalist economies, these changes are brought about by spending money. Renovating buildings, investing in new structures and equipment, building infrastructure, etc. add to demand. The decommissioning of existing means of production does not, however subtract from demand. Similarly, high expected returns in growing sectors can call forth very high investment there; investment can’t fall below zero in declining sectors. So even if aggregate profitability is unchanged, big shift in its distribution across industries will lead to higher investment.
2. There is no international coordination problem — the countries that move fastest on climate will reap direct benefits. While coordination problems are ubiquitous, the real-exchange paradigm creates one where none actually exists. If the benefits of climate change mitigation are global, but it requires a costly diversion of real resources away from other needs, it follows that countries that do not engage in decarbonization can free-ride on the efforts of those that do. The first premise is correct but the second is not. Countries that take an early lead in decarbonization will enjoy both stronger domestic demand and a lead in strategic industries. This is not to suggest that international agreements on climate policy are not desirable; but it is wrong and counterproductive to suggest that the case for decarbonization efforts at a national level is in any way contingent on first reaching such agreements.
3. There is no trade-off between decarbonization and current living standards. Real economies always operate far from potential. Indeed, it is doubtful whether a level of potential output is even a meaningful concept. Decarbonization is not mainly a matter of diverting productive activity away from other needs, but mobilizing new production, with positive spillovers toward production for other purposes. The workers engaged in, say, expanding renewable energy capacity are not being taken away from equal-value activity in some other sector. They are, in the aggregate, un- or underemployed workers, whose capacities would otherwise be wasted; and the incomes they receive in their new activity will generate more output in demand-constrained consumption goods sectors.
4. Price based measures cannot be the main tools for decarbonization. There is a widely held view that the central tool for addressing climate should be an increase in the relative price of carbon-intensive commodities, through a carbon tax or equivalent. This make sense in a vision of the economy as essentially an allocation problem where existing resources need to be directed to their highest value use. But from a Keynesian perspective there are several reasons to think that prices are a weak tool for decarbonization, and the main policies need to be more direct. First, in a world of increasing returns, there will be multiple equilibria, so we can not think only in terms of adjustment at the margin. In the orthodox framework, increasing the share of, say, a renewable energy source will be associated with a higher marginal cost, requiring a higher tax or subsidy; but in an increasing-returns world, increasing share will be associated with lower marginal costs, so that while even a very large tax may not be enough to support an emerging technology once it is established no tax or subsidy may be needed at all. Second, production as a social process involves enormous coordination challenges, especially when it is a question of large, rapid changes. Third, fundamental uncertainty about the future creates risks which the private sector is often unwilling or unable to bear.
5. Central bank support for decarbonization must take the form active credit policy. As applied to central banks, carbon pricing suggests a policy to treat “green” assets more favourably and other assets less favourably. This is often framed as an extension of normal central bank policies toward financial risk, since the “dirty” asset suppose greater risks to their holders or systematically than the “green” ones. But there is no reason, in general, to think that the economic units that are at greatest risk from climate change are the same as the ones that are contributing to it. A deeper and more specifically Keynesian objection is that credit constraints do not bind uniformly across the economy. The central bank, and financial system in general, do not set a single economy wide “interest rate”, but allocate liquidity to specific borrowers on specific terms. Most investment, conversely, is not especially sensitive to interest rates; for larger firms, credit conditions are not normally a major factor in investment, while for smaller borrowers constraints on the amount borrowed are often more important. Effective use of monetary policy to support decarbonization or other social goals requires first identifying those sites in the economy where credit constraints bind and acting directly to loosen or tighten them.
6. Sustained low interest rates will ease the climate transition. A central divide between Keynesian and orthodox macroeconomic theory is the view of the interest rate. Mainstream textbooks teach that the interest rate is the price of saving, balancing consumption today against consumption in the future — a trade-off that would exist even in a non-monetary economy. Keynes’ great insight was that the interest rate in a monetary economy has nothing to do with saving but is the price of liquidity, and is fundamentally under the control of the central bank. He looked forward to a day when this rate fall to zero, eliminating the income of the “functionless rentier”. As applied to climate policy, this view has several implications. First, market interest rates tell us nothing about any trade-off between current living standards and action to protect the future climate. Second, there is no reason to think that interest rates must, should or will rise in the future; debt-financed climate investment need not be limited on that basis. Third, while investment in general is not very sensitive to interest rates, an environment of low rates does favour longer-term investment. Fourth, low interest rates are the most reliable way to reduce the debt burdens of the public (and private) sector, which is important to the extent that high debt ratios constrain current spending.
7. There is no link between the climate crisis and financial crisis. It is sometimes suggested that climate change and/or decarbonization could result in a financial crisis comparable to the worldwide financial crisis of 2007-2009. From a Keynesian perspective, this view is mistaken; there is no particular link between the real economic changes associated with climate change and climate policy, on the one hand, and the sudden fall in asset values and cascading defaults of a financial crisis, on the other. While climate change and decarbonization will certainly devalue certain assets — coastal property in low-lying cities; coal producers — they imply large gains for other assets. The history of capitalism offers many examples of rapid shifts in activity geographically or between sectors, with corresponding private gains and losses, without generalized financial crises. The notion that financial crises are in some sense a judgement on “unsound” or “unsustainable” real economic developments is an ideological myth we must reject. This is the converse of the error discussed under point 6 above, that measures to protect against the financial risks from climate change and decarbonization will also advance substantive policy goals.
8. There is no problem of getting private investors to finance decarbonization. Many proposals for climate investment include special measures to encourage participation by private finance; it is sometimes suggested that national governments or publicly-sponsored investment authorities should issue special green bonds or equity-like instruments to help “mobilize private capital” for decarbonization. Such proposals confuse the meaning of “capital” as concrete means of production with “capital” as a quantity of money. Mobilizing the first is a genuine challenge for which private businesses do offer critical resources and expertise not present in the public sector; but mobilizing these means paying for them, not raising money from them. On the financing side, on the other hand, the private sector offers nothing; in rich countries, at least, the public sector already borrows on more favourable terms than any private entity, and has a much greater capacity to bear risk. If public-sector borrowing costs are higher than desired, this can be directly addressed by the central bank; offering new assets for the private sector to hold does nothing to help with any public sector financing problem, especially given that such proposal invariably envision assets with higher yields than existing public debt.
These eight claims mostly argue that what are widely conceived as economic constraints or trade-offs in climate policy are, from a Keynesian perspective, either not real or not very important. Approaches to the climate crisis that frame the problem as one of reallocating real resources from current consumption to climate needs, or of raising funds from the private sector, both suffer from the same conflation of money flows with real productive activity.
I will conclude by suggesting two other economic challenges for climate change that are in my opinion under-emphasised.
First, I suggest that we face a political conflict involving climate and growth, this will come not because decarbonization requires accepting a lower level of growth, but because it will entail faster economic growth than existing institutions can handle. Today’s neoliberal macroeconomic model depends on limiting economic growth as a way of managing distributional conflicts. Rapid growth under decarbonization will be accompanied by disproportionate rise in wages and the power of workers. There are certainly reasons to see this as a desirable outcome, but it will inevitably create sharp conflicts and resistance from wealth owners that has to be planned for and managed. Complaints about current “labour shortages” should be a warning call on this front.
Second, rapid decarbonization will require considerably more centralized coordination than is usual in today’s advanced economies. If there is a fundamental conflict between capitalism and sustainability, I suggest, it is not because the drive for endless accumulation in money terms implies or requires an endless increase in material throughputs. Rather, it is because capitalism treats the collective processes of social production as the private property of individuals. (Even the language of “externalities” implicitly assumes that the normal case is one where production process involves no one but those linked by contractual money payments.) Treatment of our collective activity to transform the world as if it belonged exclusively to whoever holds the relevant property rights, is a fundamental obstacle to redirecting that activity in a rational way. Resistance on these grounds to a coordinated response to the climate crisis will be partly political and ideologically, but also concrete and organisational.
This is the extended abstract for a piece J. W. Mason is writing for “The Great Turnaround,” a collection of essays on the economics of decarbonization from ZOE-Institute for Future-fit Economies and the Heinrich Böll Foundation
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