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To nationalize or not to nationalize

In the wake of CNN's climate town halls - which, by the way, I found harder than it should have been to find and watch on my TV, but that's something for a different post - I found myself finally examining one of the real policy differences between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and trying to decide how I feel about it.

It comes down to this: Sanders wants to nationalize the US energy sector, and Warren doesn't. On Democracy Now, the journalist Kate Aronoff took issue with Warren's stance as follows:

I think the problem, which I would argue with what she said, is that it’s not just that these companies are doing harm because they’re allowed to create externalities in the world that aren’t being taxed properly or that there aren’t the right rules and regulations in place; it’s that they have a business model that actually is incompatible with solving this crisis.

It's hard to disagree with this. Yes, as Warren said in the town hall, these companies create externalities that effectively force society to pay for and clean up the impacts of their businesses. But it's also true that the core business models of the energy sector are tied very deeply into the exact forces that are destroying the planet. Those companies aren't just continuing to pollute and further global warming; they're spending vast sums to smear and undermine organizations that seek to move us away from fossil fuels.

So in that sense, I can see a strong argument for nationalization. And I'm not afraid of it: American conservatives like to bring up Venezuela as a scary story to tell about socialism, but it's a pretty disingenuous tale. Most of Europe, which offers a higher quality of life to its citizens than the United States, tells a very different story. (The story I like to tell is that I owe my career in large part to going to university for free and subsequently enjoying socialized healthcare while I founded my first startup.)

But of course, Europe doesn't actually have a fully nationalized energy sector, and is progressing on some fairly aggressive (albeit potentially not aggressive enough) energy targets. It does have some significant nationalization, in the form of government investments into infrastructure, and there are fully-owned companies like France's Électricité de France, which was the world's largest producer of electricity not too long ago. Beyond electricity, nobody could argue that the Swiss or German railways are anything but efficient and well-maintained - and state ownership ensures that their prices and schedules benefit the whole economy, rather than their own bottom lines.

On the other hand, in my time in the US, I've begun to share the general population's distrust of government. This is less to do with the general concept of government, and much more to do with the fact that American politicians are terrifying, with a prevalent membership of death cults and a surprising prediliction for voting against the interests of their citizens in favor of sociopathic corporate interests. Hopefully this is changing - politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren give me hope - but I've got to admit that giving people like Mitch McConnell more than minimal power over anything at all makes me break out in a sweat (not to mention the unlikely bolus of nerve endings currently occupying the Presidency).

So I genuinely don't know. I'm not afraid of nationalization, and I'm not a subscriber to the religion of the free market (or the increasingly dubious claim that the US has one to begin with). But I also think that Warren's point that it doesn't necessarily get us to where we need to be has merit; strict regulations and targets, without worrying about taking direct control, may be more effective. It's certainly true that their business models are harmful to their core, but perhaps we can encourage them to disappear into the night by promoting forward-facing energy sources and sanctioning pollutants.

I do certainly think that pure capitalist competition will not get us anywhere near where we need to be, and that action needs to be taken quickly. Albert Wenger's alien invasion analogy is useful, and the global warming of oceans represents energy addition to a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb every single second (that's 86,400 atomic bombs a day, or 31.5 million Hiroshimas in a typical year). Having a bias towards action must be our attitude: arguing about how exactly to achieve this to infinity will see us killed. And preservation of life and civilization, rather than our addiction to profit and markets, must be our central principle.


Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash