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A Proposal to Save the Middle Class … by Cutting Carbon Pollution

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page and our Organic Transitions page.

During the climate-bill fights of 2009-10 - how long ago they seem! - my main interaction with fans of the policy known as "cap and dividend" was listening to them complain about the Waxman-Markey bill. They were one of many factions in the climate coalition who thought they had the extraordinary luxury of derogating actual, live climate policy proposals in favor of fairy-tale alternatives. After all, everyone knew by then that America was going to do something about climate change, right? Why not dig in one's heels on wonky policy distinctions, like a petulant child incensed at receiving the wrong brand of toy?

Of course, we now understand that the American Clean Energy and Security Act was the one credible chance at comprehensive climate legislation we are likely to see in the U.S. for the next decade at least - by which time our emissions should have peaked if the world is to have a chance at avoiding disastrous climate changes. It was our shot. There's a good chance it never could have passed the Senate even with unified support from climate hawks, but we'll never know, will we?

Anyway. All that is in the past. I'm over it now. Wait   hang on. [Takes deep breath.] OK, now I'm over it.

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All comprehensive climate policies are equally impossible in our current political milieu, so we might as well have some blue-sky discussions. It was in that spirit that I recently read With Liberty and Dividends for All: How to Save Our Middle Class When Jobs Don't Pay Enough, the new book by Peter Barnes, co-founder of Working Assets and the earliest and most articulate defender of cap-and-dividend. Barnes stopped by the Grist offices to chat about it last week (and made an elevator pitch for the idea - in an actual elevator).

Yes, I keep saying "cap and dividend" without explaining it, which is annoying. Before getting to that part, though, let's take a step back and look at Barnes' larger framework.

He starts with a simple premise: The good-paying jobs that created and supported the U.S. middle class in those halcyon decades after World War II are never coming back. The reasons range from globalization to automation to hyper-capitalism that favors capital over labor, but none of the trends show any signs of reversing. America has disguised this grim situation with cheap consumer goods and cheap consumer credit, but those are no longer enough. Stagnant wages, low-paying jobs, and escalating inequality are the new normal.  
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