Reading Between the Trees of the Sustainable Argument

In an ode to sustainable development (in which I play a bit role as the other side), Frank Carini points out how the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) led to the income inequality that we see around us today:

… average compensation for the chief executive officers of the top 350 U.S. firms was $15.2 million in 2013, up 2.8 percent since 2012 and up 21.7 percent since 2010, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

Also, according to EPI, from 1978 to 2013, CEO compensation, adjusted for inflation, increased 937 percent — more than double stock-market growth and substantially greater than the 10.2 percent growth in a typical worker’s compensation over the same 35 years.

In 1965, five years before Nixon created the EPA, the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio was 20 to 1, and by 1978 it was 29.9 to 1. In 2013, the ratio was 295.9 to 1, according to EPI.

OK. You caught me.  I’m playing games, here.  Carini’s point wasn’t that the correlation of a regulatory explosion with increasing income inequality proves the former cause the latter.  His point is that the correlation of said regulations and economic development proves that there is no causation.

But it is interesting that he uses statistics of income inequality as the evidence that environmental regulations have not “strangled the U.S. economy and undermined economic competitiveness,” as if a growing economy is implicitly something to benefit the 1%.  The economic development of the sustainabalists implicitly acknowledges the idea of “trickle down” economics, although it seeks to let the government (and progressives) do the trickling.

This curious insinuation rises up throughout the piece — throughout the whole sustainable development argument — like radon in a basement.  Consider:

This flipped-upside-down economic model would feature policies that call for sustainable practices, reduced energy use, the efficient use of resources and a fairer distribution of wealth, according to its advocates. They say a sustainable economy focuses on eradicating poverty, educational empowerment and environmental protection.

Carini’s article is already long, but it should have been longer if “the focus” of sustainable development actually puts an emphasis on social welfare goals, rather than the environmental goals on which he spends most of his words.  Progressives can’t just assume that doing things they believe are good for the environment will magically (praise Gaia) be good for the poor, too.  They might be, but it’d be an extensive argument.

They also can’t ask the lower classes simply to trust them to rebuild the income ladder.

Indeed, some of the history of economic development that Carini complains caused environmental devastation involves poorer families working themselves through to the middle and upper classes by utilizing the resources (like fish) that abound in this part of the world.  When turning to the future, the article gives some sense of what a “sustainable economy” might look like.  There’s a good bit of talk about the value of vacationland and amenities for white collar workers:

In fact, there are those who believe a more vibrant local food scene would make the region more attractive to business professionals, students and tourists.

“People want a high quality of life and food is s big part of that,” said Leo Pollock, network coordinator for the Rhode Island Food Policy Council. “We already have a strong food culture here, and there is momentum to build on.”

Of course, in addition to jobs facilitating (rather than taking) vacations and leisure, there will also jobs to be found in government, and in industries created by government mandates, as can be read between the lines when Carini writes, “environmental protection is no less an industry than, say, the manufacturing of costume jewelry.”  Another missing piece, though, is the acknowledgment that the money has to come from somewhere.

“Sustainable development” starts to sound like a planned economy in which poor, working, and lower-middle-class people can’t do anything except work menial jobs serving the wealthy or filling seats created by government, directly or indirectly.  The one opportunity will be if they pursue the careers that the central planners tell them to pursue.  (The progressive-backed bill H5226 comes to mind, because it would give college grads two years worth of free college loan payments at the expense of the rest of us.)

The dystopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is highly “sustainable,” and in it, human beings are raised up as resources and cultivated to fulfill their preordained roles in the society, from the Alphas to the Gammas.  Central planning may not have caused that dehumanization of humanity, but it certainly did correlate well with it, and schemes like RhodeMap RI will, too.

After all, one thing to be sustained is the income and power of those doing the planning.  They can’t have any upstart déclassé entrepreneurs messing with their vacation spots and leaving their favorite restaurants with a shortage of busboys while simultaneously siphoning off the output human money mill toward things that people actually want.

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