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Public Power Politics

Matt Huber

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Dr. Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to the podcast. Today I'm joined by Matt Huber. Matt is a professor and director of graduate studies in geography in the environment department at Syracuse University. He's the author of climate change his class war, building socialism on a warming planet. But we're here to talk about a piece that he wrote with Fred Stafford called in defense of the Tennessee Valley Authority today, Matt, welcome to Decouple you're, you're overdue for an appearance. Yeah, thrilled to be here. Love the show. I think we started we started talking over a year ago. And there's there's been plans to have you on ever since. So again, I'm glad to make that a reality. I give a pretty bare bones intro there, as you know, guests on this podcast, introduce themselves to a large degree. So spice it up a little bit. Tell us a little bit more about yourself. Looking forward to getting to know you in this this next hour. But yeah, help her help her listeners get a sense of what you're all about.

Matt Huber  0:57  

So I'm a geographer, which in the United States, at least usually confuses people, they think it's just about capitals and maps. And geography is a really complex and multifaceted discipline. But I actually found myself in a pretty vibrant sub discipline of geography, called Marxist geography. Where it's it's the the most cited geographer in probably in history is this guy named David Harvey, who really developed this kind of Marxist, political economic analysis of sort of the speciality and geography of capitalism. And so I was really influenced by that I got myself into geography and then and then found my way into studying energy, and became extremely interested in how to think through the relationship between fossil fuels. And capitalism as a particular mode of production is a particular political, economic, historical formation. And I wrote my first book on kind of the centrality of oil to creating a particular type of geography and landscape of of working class life in the United States in the post world war two era and how oil kind of fueled this kind of geography of private tourism, and kind of individualism rooted in home and auto, home and automobile ownership. And then eventually, how that kind of petroleum fueled private ism kind of built a political formation that helped influence what we call the kind of rightward turn or neoliberal turn of American politics in the 1970s, towards kind of anti government's anti tax. You know, some of the stuff we talk in the, in the piece about deregulation, free markets, and the rest of it. But since I've studied oil, I've just become more and more interested, but energy in general and lately, like many, and like many of your guests, I've just become fascinated by electricity and trying to understand it's really complex and difficult to understand at times, maybe more so than oil. But um, I've definitely become really sort of engaged in trying to learn more about the political economy of electricity.

Dr. Chris Keefer  3:20  

Would you say you've become a heretic yet? I know, there's sort of a brand of leftists that have started to talk positively about about nuclear energy, or would you count yourself in those in those ranks?

Matt Huber  3:31  

Well, yeah, I've publicly said positive things about nuclear, which have definitely got me in trouble with the usual suspects of sort of renewable energy advocates and environmentalists more generally. I've also sort of vocally kind of expressed a kind of critique of kind of, typically what's called like, eco socialist politics, which is more and more is basically aligned with Degrowth politics. And I tried to argue for a much more traditional Marxist view, which really thinks, you know, the basis of socialism has got to be industrial development of what he called the productive forces and that this, this kind of industrial development, including of fossil fuels actually creates the conditions for human emancipation on a on a wider scale. And, and that doesn't, that doesn't go over well. Amongst many of even people that consider themselves Marxist or eco socialists. They don't, you know, industrialism is sort of painted as inherently. They call it productive Vista. Problematic or bad. So, yeah, you know, I'm trying to trying to kind of find some friends in common allies in the struggle, sometimes it's a lonely struggle, but it's great to be on this podcast because I love the perspective that you bring to your listeners, so

Dr. Chris Keefer  4:57  

awesome. Awesome. Well, you know, it's all about the guests. I'm just the The curator, I guess I've got a little bit of an editorial line. But yeah, well, I mean, let's let's dig into this this piece that you guys wrote again, in defense of the Tennessee Valley Authority, you know, we have a very wonkish and educated listenership, but it is very international, about 50% is North America, but the rest is really all over the world. So I think we should probably start off by laying out a bit of background in terms of, you know, what is the the Tennessee Valley Authority? How did it come to be? What's its relevance? You know, what did you guys write about it?

Matt Huber  5:32  

Yeah, so I think the Tennessee Valley Authority is is kind of like a crown jewel of this era that, you know, you've talked about with previous guests about the sort of renaissance of public power, particularly in the US and the 1930s. You know, basically, in the early 20th century, we created what one historian called this kind of utility consensus, where we handed over particular territories to investor owned utilities and guaranteed them profits, as long as they sort of subjected themselves to regulation by these Public Service Commission's, but that system really did was prone to monopoly, power profiteering, really price gouging. And, you know, Samuel Insull, sort of this notorious power trust robber baron type capitalist who was really seen as this this evil personification of private power. So, so there's all this movement for actually, this is a critical resource, not no longer a luxury people's, we're starting to see electricity as like a basic thing that everyone needs. And, and Franklin Roosevelt, you know, came into power. First, as the governor of New York State, he actually set up something that we now call the New York Power Authority, where he created these, this public utility that developed massive hydroelectric power in New York State. And it's still with us today, the largest public utility at the state level. Then he went on and became the president, and very early and when he in his term in 1933, he got together with another huge critic of the private power industry, someone named George Norris, from Nebraska. And they tried to put together this vision for public power. And in an already existing part of the country in the Tennessee Valley, where there was some public development due to World War One, they set up the Tennessee Valley Authority. And from the start, the goal was really to build public hydroelectric power, and offer this as a cheap alternative to the private utilities in the region. And they did this thing they called it the yard stick program where they were really trying to offer such cheap power that it would either force the private utilities out of business or, or basically, you know, force them to shut down essentially, and, and in so doing, they also were trying to build up their own kind of demand. They were encouraging municipal municipalities to create public utilities to buy the power that the Tennessee Valley Authority was creating. And they also encourage rural communities to set up these rural coops to help deliver the power from the Tennessee Valley to a variety of regions around the South. And so is this incredibly broad, big vision of public power that helped electrify the countryside, which in 1934, only 10% of farms had electricity. By 1950, it was up to 90%. And so it wasn't just in the Tennessee Valley. They set this up in the Pacific Northwest, the Bonneville Power Authority, and they set up the Rural Electrification Administration, which helped give cheap financing to rural coops all over to help electrify the countryside. And so, you know, it's an incredible vision of, you know, public development for public benefit, offering cheap energy to masses of people. This wasn't a TVA thing, but I always bring up have a hired Woody Guthrie, the folk singer to sing songs about the Columbia River doing work for the people. And it's, you know, you look at climate politics today. And you could never imagine like some folk singer singing songs about carbon taxes or whatever climate policy we have on the agenda today, like this vision of kind of like inspiring populist power. And you know, the TVA slogan was a linked electricity for all like, that kind of vision I find just incredibly inspiring. And we, if you look at the electricity market today, you don't see a lot of that big public power vision that we advocate for in the piece.

Dr. Chris Keefer  9:47  

I mean, it's so interesting, putting yourself or trying to put ourselves you know, as people who live in, in the wealthy industrialized West, into the shoes of the kind of pre electricity era Um, you know, and you know what you're talking about in terms of electricity being this this public common good is something we still take for granted unless, you know, maybe we've traveled somewhere where there's just absolute destitute poverty and either unreliable electricity or electricity at all. And, you know, I've had the opportunity to be in a place like that. But you know, it's, it reminds you of those, I think the slogan of Vladimir Eliot's Lenin, which, which said that communism, you can finish the quote, for me, probably, but

Matt Huber  10:28  

communism is Soviet power, which means kind of worker power plus electrification of the whole country. And he was, you know, the, the Russian Revolution happened in a backward peasant country of Russia, where electricity was nowhere near much of the country. So he he saw very, and again, this is why kind of old Marxism is very much different than the kind of new versions of things you've talked about, like eco socialism or energy democracy. I mean, he, it was very clear to Lenin like, well, if we want communism, we have we need to bring electricity to the country, like as soon as possible.

Dr. Chris Keefer  11:08  

And then the TVA, if I'm understanding correctly, a lot of it was about sort of breaking up the monopoly of the sort of electricity robber barons, and either out competing them, like either forced them to bring their prices down to levels that are reasonable or just out competing them. And that's, that's just something that's so hard to imagine in our, our sort of present neoliberal reality. But, you know, you've talked a little bit about this kind of eco socialist response. And you know, Edgardo and I did a show on energy democracy and its Discontents and talked a bit about Jamal Bowman and Corey Bush's resolution. But why don't you sketch out for us again, in a little bit of detail, this this phenomena and this kind of smallest beautiful merchant generator prosumer model that seems to be sort of so in vogue, in the in the new left, and the way in which it's undermining the TVA or undermining these these historical examples of public power?

Matt Huber  12:05  

Yeah, if I could, I think it'd be useful to kind of situate it in the history of capitalism and how capitalism developed in that period of the TVA in the 30s, you have this kind of all this restructuring that happened that put into place, what many people in political economy call this kind of Fordist, or Keynesian kind of consensus where you had extremely powerful unions, and you had a strong state that, you know, tax, the rich at high levels, redistributed wealth to a lot of social programs, welfare programs, Social Security programs. And this was a form of capitalism that was quite stable in some would say prosperous for a good bulk of the working class for the post war period in the 40s 50s. And 60s, unions were very strong. And this is the same period where institutions like TVA, and even some of the private investor owned utilities, were able to kind of create a heavily unionized, integrated, vertically integrated electricity system that was growing and prosperous in that post war era. But then you get the crisis of, of the 1970s, which is beset by a kind of what is called stagflation, you get, right, which is familiar today, rising prices of commodities, alongside of a recession, increasing global competition for this kind of forest production system, from places like Germany and Japan. And profits are starting to decline for capitalists and they are starting to not be so so friendly to give their profits over to wage gains requested by unions or taxes requested by the state. And so you get this real backlash against that system that we often refer to as neoliberalism. And that in the 70s, you start to see a move toward deregulation of of tax cuts for the rich and wealthy corporations and the move the move towards a really like free markets, but also trying to break apart capitalism into little smaller, more efficient entities. And that's where you really get this attack on on the big investor owned utility complex, because essentially, during the 70s, like everything that was big, like unions, or the government or these big organizations had had built up during the Fordist era, were seen as like inflexible and rigid and corrupt. And and so the consensus became we need to kind of smashed these, these these these things. So unions were the thing they wanted to smash number one, but another thing they wanted to smash was these incredibly massive unwieldly Um, regulated utilities that own generation transmission distribution. And they were these big things. So what they thought would be great is to basically subject these utilities to deregulation, where you, you the utility itself wouldn't necessarily own all the generation, you could open up the market, to what are merchant generators who can find more efficient and cheaper ways to produce electricity. You know, the main one that comes on the scene after this is, you know, more efficient natural gas type generators, but also renewables. And this is precisely the time in the 1970s, where as your previous guests have talked about, Amory Levin's comes on the scene starts talking about basically how this kind of centralize utility system is sort of inherently corrupt. He even critiques unions for being having too much power, too much unchecked power over this energy system. And he advocates this, you know, the soft path of really breaking up these big utilities,

investing in smaller scale generation all over the country, whether it be solar or wind, or, or even he advocated, he advocated people having little oil fired power plants in their own homes. He really was more about this dispersed decentralized geography, even above the renewables aspect of it. And that aligned very well with these wider neoliberal forces, which wanted to deregulate airlines, deregulate trucking, deregulate everything, and they eventually succeeded in deregulating a lot of the electricity markets. And that tended to be rolled out on a state by state basis. Not all states have gone through this. But a lot of states started going through this deregulation, which opened up the market for these merchant generators. And the the thing we bring up in the piece is essentially, for a variety of reasons, we can go into all renewable production sort of benefit benefited from this deregulation, and the only way they were able to get into the market was to try to basically come into it via this becoming this sort of new, efficient merchant generator that could try to compete and offer this, this this cheap, renewable energy alternative,

Dr. Chris Keefer  17:25  

it strikes me, you know, just being limited to being a merchant generator and selling in, you know, power from your own facility and being responsible for the functionality of the entire grid that suits renewables quite well. And I mean, that fits into this kind of skewed logic that wind and solar are, you know, the cheapest form of energy generation to add to a grid, I guess, when you're just talking about selling electricity to a wholesale market, and not the actual end user experience of you know, reliability or of affordability when the weather doesn't cooperate, is that sort of what you mean about them only really working as as part of this merchant generator model?

Matt Huber  18:05  

Yeah, it's quite a transition. Because when you have the old system of vertically integrated, regulated utilities, I mean, for as profiteering as they might have been, they at least were planning, controlling a whole system of electricity. They were kind of in charge of all aspects of the grid. And they were heavily regulated by these public utility Commission's. So that and that so that you could see that there's this this process of kind of planning and social control over this vital service that we all rely on. So when we deregulated it, it created all these merchant generators, who can just get into the generation market and try to compete and sell. And they have no concern for the overall system of transmission and distribution, which is just left to these other entities. And their only concern like anyone in capitalism is to make money, make profit, and do so in whatever way possible. And so one thing that's frustrating to me about when you see renewable advocates always talking about, oh, it's so cheap. It's so cheap, and perhaps it is cheap. And, you know, Marx has this distinction between exchange value and use value. Well, exchange value might show Oh, cheap prices for renewables, but if you actually look at the use value of like, what this this resource actually can usefully give you, in the actual grid system, you can see its use values exactly is very limited. And it can only give you power at certain times of the day, and it needs to be backed up. And, and, and obviously, anyone that's concerned about the grid system as a whole is going to have to take that into account. But these merchant generators who are just trying to make money off generation don't have to worry about that. And, and and that's, that's the price Um, we've basically broken up the electricity system in and subjected it to competitive markets, when it really is not a system very well designed to be subjected to chaotic boom and bust markets. Like, it's not only, you know, you have to balance supply and demand and these grid systems it's it's it needs like socialized planning for it to function and and so it's like the they tried to kind of like graft on a neoliberal ideology of a free market onto a physical grid system that really relies on careful socialized planning. So it's really weird, actually. No,

Dr. Chris Keefer  20:43  

no, absolutely. I mean, you know, you referenced in the piece, David Hughes, or someone I've talked about before, with a certain amount of contempt. You know, but I think he argues that, you know, the intermittency is a good thing. It's, it's something that we should really align our lives to doing so that we harmonize more with nature and don't overuse nature. And of course, as someone who had a son who was in an incubator for five weeks, you know, absolutely reliant on ultra reliable electricity. The the Malthusian ism of Mr. Hughes, strikes me very deeply, very deeply. But you know, one of the things you guys say is this smallest, beautiful, decentralized energy provides ideological cover for a ruthless form of renewable energy capitalism, which threatens our fight to halt climate change. I was hoping you can elaborate that on that a little bit more.

Matt Huber  21:33  

So there's a number of aspects to the argument we make. And essentially, we've already talked about the first part that renewables have welcomed and relied on reckless deregulation of our electricity system, they've thrived on it. The second thing I'd mentioned is they've, like the whole renewables market is been constructed through this financialized system called renewable energy certificates. This is another thing, neoliberalism has been really trying to do it, a colleague of mine named Kathy McAfee says, we're going to sell nature in order to save it. So they've created all these like clever commodification of natural systems. Like, I have a friend who studies wetland banking, where they're trying to kind of like if some corporation destroys a wetland, they can offset it by doing like buying some wetland credits. And of course, we know about carbon credits and emissions trading, and so forth. So as it happens, the lovely corporation known for helping the grid be stable Enron, which basically invented this thing called renewable energy certificates, which the article we cite that that that credits them for inventing, it basically has a footnote that says, They did that because they know it would help create markets for Enron traders. And so they created these renewable energy certificates which allow renewable energy merchant generators to not only sell electricity on the grid into the wholesale markets, as we talked about before, but they can create these little certificates for each megawatt of energy they create that can then be sold to other entities that want to get credit for renewable energy. And the main market for this has been created by renewable portfolio standards. At State utility levels, you'll notice they aren't often called clean energy portfolio standards, and new nuclear often does not apply. So they're literally renewable energy portfolio standards. And if utilities want to abide by these regulations, they have to basically buy up these renewable energy certificates. And it's really, Enron was quite clever, because they understood that renewable energy is intermittent. It's not something that any entity can know that they're, you know, if the renewal if the if the Renewable Portfolio Standard says you need to get 70% of your energy from renewables, it's hard to know like how you get to that number with renewables coming on and off, and all this kind of stuff. So if you can get these certificates, and you kind of basically get the authorities to bank them and credit them for renewables, you can kind of basically look at the energy you're consuming and accumulate enough of these RT C's to kind of equate with what you're supposed to have for renewables. And and therefore, you're able to get credit for having renewable energy. So the other huge market for this are some of the most powerful corporations like Amazon, we cite Microsoft, you know, you probably see in the headlines like Microsoft announces we've gone to 100% renewable energy, it just means they've they're consuming on the grid like the rest of us, and they buy up enough of these RT C's to equate with their consumption to basically make it seem like they've created some sort of renewable energy utopia where they're just, you know, relying on the sun and wind to power their their server firms or whatever. So that's the second thing I

Dr. Chris Keefer  25:01  

only drink, you know, 100% renewables Coors Light beer, you know, just as as my sort of big climate contribution, but

Matt Huber  25:08  

oh my god, if I can, there's one more thing that I think's the most crazy thing about renewable energy development, which is that, since the 1970s, when you get this push towards neoliberalism and deregulation, a lot of states and a lot of eventually, the federal government decided that if we want to incentivize renewable energy development, we need to create tax credits for it. And there's these things called the production tax credit and the investment tax credit. And essentially, it creates, essentially, if you're a renewable energy developer, you can get these tax credits. And what that has created as a situation where some of the wealthiest people in the society are the ones who have so much wealth, they want to shelter from public coffers from the tax people. And so they're the ones in the market for tax credits of all kinds, but particularly renewable energy tax credits there, I have to shout out my colleague, Sarah Knuth, who's wrote a really incredible article about this, the long history of this. And basically, they're called tax equity investors, they, they basically gobble up these renewable energy tax credits from these merchant generators. And essentially, they are able to shield their wealth from from taxes this way. And so if you look at who's investing in renewable energy tax credits is some of the most powerful entities like Bank of America, Goldman Sachs. And of course, I think on this podcast at some point, you've mentioned the Warren Buffett quote, where he says, there's no point of building wind farms, unless you're going to get the tax credit. And I think in the piece we'd cite, that's I forget the number Warren Buffett or Berkshire Hathaway has something like 35 million or millions of dollars invested in renewability of billion with a B. So so incredible. You know, like this has become a sort of redistributive process where renewable energy development is basically shielding a tax shelter for the wealthiest people in the country.

Dr. Chris Keefer  27:14  

And so, you know, in this context, you have folks in the environmental movement, and then the green left, who have become the unlikely allies, I guess, of this process, and of these enormous financial corporations and billionaire individuals, and who have become enemies of these institutions of public power like the TVA, how do you how do you explain that, that evolution and where are things at right now in terms of attempts to break up the TVA by, by environmentalists and focus on the green left?

Matt Huber  27:49  

One thing we argue in the piece is that the green left has sort of attached itself to this, this very hard to achieve demand of 100% renewable energy, you know, Bill McKibben has sort of been shouting that now, the science has shown that we can we can reach 100% renewable energy. And by having this extremely narrow vision of renewable energy, they basically are going to promote renewables wherever they can. So the problem is, when you look at these big public entities that we think should be driving the energy transition like TVA, or even in New York State like NIDA, the New York Power Authority, they, because they're public entities, they literally cannot build renewables, because they can't take advantage of these tax credits. You know, they they pay tax, they don't pay taxes. So they it's not cheap for them to develop these renewables only private entities. So literally, TVA has some renewables, but it's contracting out to private developers to do this. And so because of this very weird system, where it only makes sense for private merchant generators to do renewables, when environmentalists are saying we must do 100%, renewables are basically saying we should have 100% private power, we should have 100% highly competitive, deregulated markets. And and so I think, I think one thing we're trying to get in this piece is to get them to think a little more broadly about a wider suite of technologies that we're going to need for the energy transitions beyond 100% renewables. And what you find is that they're there they have such a narrow fixation on solar and wind that they aren't able to consider the benefits of even what environmentalists would would consider to be like, a no brainer storage technology for intermittent renewable power or something like green hydrogen, where you use renewables to create hydrogen which can be used at all hours of the day. I've done some work with public power are advocates in New York State, where they've drawn up some public power legislation which tries to empower NIDA to build renewables. But they basically say that when we say build renewables, we don't mean, nuclear, we don't mean green hydrogen. And, you know, it's not surprising that environmentalists are gonna redirect reject nuclear, but that the fact that they put green hydrogen in there means they don't even, they're not even willing to consider perhaps one of the most viable storage possibilities for for renewable power. So it's, it's frustrating. And, and so essentially, these environmentalists, when they're promoting renewables all the time, are essentially promoting this system that that is only going to be private, it's only going to be market and to change that we'd really have to change the very structure of these markets, and change these, these crazy tax credit incentives that and make it possible for for entities like TVA and NightBot, to actually be able to build out clean energy in the way we need it.

Dr. Chris Keefer  31:05  

Right, right. I mean, I just was invited to my nation's capitol to give some testimony on this idea of just transition. And I had a few things I could talk about. And, you know, I've resisted the pressure, I think, to self censor on this, I think there's a huge amount of, of social pressure not to, not to talk smack about, about wind and solar. And it's almost like, I don't want to compare it to identity politics, but it's, it almost has the feeling of like, you know, the perception is that you're you're kind of smacking a vulnerable child in the face or something when, in fact, you know, this is a 300 plus billion dollar a year industry, that's as you've just laid out, you know, largely financed and backed by, you know, our wealthiest institutions and individuals. But, you know, the reality of, of this, this renewable vision is, is one that is really quite worker LIS, particularly for workers within, say, North America, where the supply chains to make wind and solar are almost exclusively offshore, there's been a race to the bottom, you know, they're very cut modifiable in terms of the ingredients, you know, for the for the energy generation tools. And once installed, they're their worker lists. And so it sets up this real tension between environmentalist and labor. And I think we've seen that, you know, all over the place from Illinois, where the legislation that the unions put forward to try and save the nuclear plants was resisted by environmentalists, because environmental said that prevailing wage would discriminate against potentially people of color who wanted to, you know, build small scale renewable operations and take advantage of cheap labor in order to do it. And it would you know, it's just like a very bizarre situation. So like, can you talk a little bit about the the tension there between labor and environmentalists? And that kind of, like, what is the green left? Is it the kind of infection of the old left with environmentalism, which is made the politics kind of completely unrecognizable to folks like you and myself?

Matt Huber  33:14  

Yeah, it's, it's really hit me how the role of NGOs has just completely taken over what we call the left. And so a lot of climate advocacy and public power advocacy, particularly the kind that informed like Cory bush and Jamal Bowman's what I thought was a great resolution energy as a human right. I love that. But it was firstly paragraph was awesome. Yeah. And that were completely, completely driven by NGOs that you didn't see, there was one Union on there signatories in it, like from Puerto Rico. And so what we trace in the pieces that actually the unions were right there fighting deregulation, from the start, they saw it as a threat to their members, because, and not only a threat to their members, because it could lead to the closing down of all sorts of power infrastructure, whether it be power plants, but also like, we quoted some, like basically some of the most prominent socialist labor activist and in in the field, but and they were concerned with grid stability, they were concerned that deregulation would lead to shutting down a lot of the excess capacity that you need to balance in the summer months when you're getting that crazy load and and so they were you know, in the the Pete, the workers in this in this industry know it really well, they care about the service they're bringing to the people and so any socialist any leftist should place the workers demands and interest and concerns about this, this crucial infrastructure that should be the center of our organizing efforts. But because the so called left has been, I'm gonna sound like a conspiracy theory is hijacked by NGOs. owes and all these kinds of academic institutions that don't actually, unfortunately, the more I learn about this, they don't actually understand how the infrastructure in the grid system really works, how these deregulated wholesale markets work, they just don't understand it. And they have this sort of ideological, cultural fixation on 100% renewables. So basically, like these movements, these climate movements, these public power movements are just not engaging much with the unions that are in the heart of the sector, we need to transform to solve climate change, so and so, surprisingly enough, like the unions are pushing back on a lot of this legislation, they're feeling like they weren't informed. But But there have been these and we cite them in the piece, there's been a few cases. And I think you've may have talked about them, like in the Illinois climate jobs coalition that brought unions together and climate activists and actually came basically put the unions at the table from the start. And when those come together, of course, they want to keep nuclear plants open. And they want to ensure they'll combine it with some renewables development, particularly if you can get project labor agreements, where it's good union labor that builds those utility scale renewable developments. That's great. And so there, there have been instances where unions have been at the center of organizing around Green New Deal, public power, climate types of things, and, and those types of initiatives have really won. But when unions are ignored, and unions are sidelined, it's it's not the way anyone on the left, or anyone who calls himself a socialist should should go about it, we really need to put unions and the workers at the center of this, this effort for sure.

Dr. Chris Keefer  36:44  

And so much of the just transition conversation, you know, particularly amongst amongst the left, is this idea that, you know, well, we can just legislate you know, high degrees of unionization, we can legislate high wages, we can guarantee those to people, no matter what the technology is, or what degree of skills you need in the job to to, you know, assemble the technology. And it's interesting, you're referencing the the climate union jobs act, or what, you know, whatever that legislation was, or that that proposal was, you know, unions were able to force prevailing wage. But that's because they come from a place of existing power, if those nuclear plants are no longer open are those workplaces where workers actually have some power, because they have high skills that can't be replaced easily by scab labor and have the ability to go on strike, if they lose that power, and the only power they have is kind of working sort of on these transient temporary jobs in low skilled labor putting up wind and solar farms, they're not going to have the power to say there should be a prevailing wage, or there should be a certain, you know, safety in their working conditions. Like, to me that's this is what was so sort of surreal, you know, looking at at the just transition arguments being put forward by by, you know, what I used to call my tribe by by by the left is just this detachment from the his the labor history and the history of you know, how just working conditions are won in the first place? How will the just transition be one? Well, it'll be one by workers who, again, are high skilled, who can't be replaced by scab labor, and who work at facilities with lots of workers in them, who can withdraw their their, their their work, in order to put pressure on management to win concessions. And I just think that's so so fundamental, but I'm sort of going off on my own tangent here, I'm still high off of that auto experience. And I do want to zoom back in on the last few points from the article. You know, I'm not trained in economics at all. And so this idea of, like, the rent ta class, yeah, it's something that I think is really important, something that, you know, the benefit of having this podcast is I get to really fill in my weak points here. So can you talk a little bit about that, that element of the story?

Matt Huber  38:53  

Yeah, if I can, though, I just want to follow up on what you were just saying, because I think it's so important. And, and I actually just want to say, cuz I'm not sure Marx gets brought up on this podcast that often that it's like, basic Marxism, that what he what and I had some quotes from Marx in the piece, and I think the editors wisely just said, we're not quoting Marx in here. And, but But essentially, what he argued is that what capitalism does is it actually centralizes the productive forces into centralized areas that bring tons of workers together. And that actually makes organizing that those workers much easier because they're right, they're all centralized with the productive forces and, and that kind of optimistic Marxist tale, the marks that it brings, it's, it's centralizes, the productive forces, the workers are there, they organize easily, because it's all in one central place, like a nuclear power plant. And then they're able to take over the very production system that they already know how to do because they are the ones that run it. Right? So that's a sort of kind of basic Marxism and there's this way in which D centralizing workers A has been a way to defeat worker power for the last, I don't know, half a century, right. And the way in which environmentalists are always advocating for decentralized energy system, it's They don't take into account it's kind of going to inherently be an anti worker type of geography because it's really much harder to organize workers when they're dispersed all around and solar farm over there and a rooftop over here and all that stuff. But that that connects well, to the rentier question, because what, what a lot of renewable development is because as your listeners know, it's extremely land intensive, right? So in capitalism, if you want access to land, you have to negotiate with owners of that land. And if you want to do a solar farm or a wind development, those owners are going to want rents on those lands. So a lot of who benefits from renewable development are the landowners, right? The landlord class, if you will, who are able to extract rents from these developments, because they're getting permission to put these infrastructures on their land. And so we argue that you basically take a very centralized industrial high wage into electric industry based on centralized power plants, and you replace it with this dispersed kind of rentier where landlords are extracting rents, and they are the rent years in this situation, from these renewable energy developments. The other thing we bring up is that you could actually position you know, rooftop solar, you know, people that have solar panels on their homes, because of this varies by geography. But if you have this thing called net metering, like that has been this controversial thing in California, essentially, it means you're getting paid more for the solar you're producing than it actually is giving to the system as a whole. And then the people that don't have solar are paying the the grid costs for the whole system through their rates. And so those solar homeowners who tend to be wealthier tend to be a fluent, very wealthy people are getting these kinds of extra economic benefits, which is another word for rents from this rooftop solar situation. It's the poor working class people who are paying the higher rates to deal with it, the whole system. And so those are in another class of kind of Marx would call it petit bourgeois property owners who are getting these benefits from their their solar panel panels on on on their homes.

Dr. Chris Keefer  42:35  

It's very few it's very feudal like Neo feudal, like it's it's not like it's not a system that's based in, you know, industrial production or making things or, you know, workers getting together and producing value. It's exciting this this equipment on land and extracting rents, as you're saying,

Matt Huber  42:51  

Joe Manchin, the villain of everyone, right, and I'm no fan of Joe Manchin, he's, he's a disaster. He's very aligned with private fossil fuel, capital and all that stuff. But like he's, he's proposed this idea we should close, we should replace coal fired power plants with nuclear plants. And I know many others in the nuclear advocacy think that's a no brainer. And it shouldn't be a no brainer for a leftist, right? Because your coals bad like we need to get away from coal. If we're concerned about climate, that's obvious. But if you're able to actually repurpose existing coal power plant infrastructure with nuclear and just transition it completely to zero carbon, and maintain the high skilled high wage workforces that come with centralized power generation, like, well, what's wrong with like, how was that bad? Unless you have this, this this sort of just anti nuclear position from the start?

Dr. Chris Keefer  43:45  

I guess, in closing, how was the piece been been received? How have you been received? You know, how have things been for you? I know that you were like involved, I think in Sunrise, you've been involved in the I'm not sure if it's the New York Public Power or something. Rather, I know, You've been very involved in these these kinds of movements. And again, I was only partially joking about that, that heretic element and kind of excommunication, but it is it is hard for for folks who take these kind of principled positions, you know, and whose sort of tribe you know, may reject them, like, Are you winning people over? What what sort of cognitive dissonance are you running into or your, you know, former allies running into senior senior work? I think it's

Matt Huber  44:30  

the pieces gone over pretty well. We sort of expected a few. A few months ago, the TED Nordhaus Nordhaus published this sort of pro industrial agricultural piece and Jacobin that went after kind of the small scale, kind of agroecology people and that got roundly denounced by all the people you'd expect to denounce and everyone sort of freaked out and we kind of thought that might happen with this piece of it just go through this sort of Twitter churn of denunciation and moral you know, moral defamation and but honestly, like, there wasn't a lot of that to be to be more accurate, we got a lot of positive responses and, and some some of it seems to be kind of reluctant like praise like this pretty good. We agree with this. But but but on the most part from kind of like the the people we were critiquing, I would say it's just been silenced. Like they haven't really brought it up to denounce it or to call attention to it or to anything. So we think that's maybe a small victory that the silence means at least maybe they're if they've even read it, like, maybe they're taking some of the arguments seriously, because a lot of these people are leftists. They do understand that neoliberalism is bad. They do understand that deregulation is bad. They do understand that Warren Buffett's bad. So maybe we're reaching some of those people. Maybe we're getting them to rethink this kind of ideologically blinkered focus on decentralized renewables as the only option we have. But it's, it's hard to say I hope, I hope it continues to get out there and people read it and the conversation continues.

Dr. Chris Keefer  46:12  

Well, you know, I mean, I will say that renewables are the organic fruit of the of the energy system. So but But it's interesting, I mean, I, you know, I think we have similar sort of political traditions that we emerge out of, you know, my focus has really been, you know, after spending a lot of time arguing with the people that yell back the loudest, aka, my former sort of tribe, on the green left, I've just found them to be often like, quite irrelevant from the perspective of actual power and making change. And I think that's different in the United States and Canada, because the green left in the US in the NGO industrial complex is so empowered by the other great sort of tax evasion tool that that your bourgeoisie or oligarchy has in terms of this ability to create foundations and dodge being taxed by by making these donations and generating this, you know, multi, multi, multi billion dollar nonprofit industrial complex, which is able to sustain so many of the bloated budgets of environmental groups like National Resource Defense Council, or Sierra Club, club, we don't, they don't wield that kind of power in Canada. It's very interesting how that shifts the politics, but, you know, I've been focusing most of my communications efforts on you know, getting on talk radio, and just trying to talk to everyday Canadian voters, and very much bring this language and this messaging, you know, minus the marks references. But it's, you know, it really is seeming to ring true and I'm optimistic so it's, it's, it's interesting kind of walking this path and meeting like minded people, you know, from from a similar political past. Matt, before we go, I wanted to I wanted to give you a chance to plug your your new book. I think it just came out in March. So yeah,

Matt Huber  48:01  

it's May 10. May 10. A week, a week from this Tuesday, it'll be out.

Dr. Chris Keefer  48:05  

Okay, cool. So yeah, let's let's let's get the Decouple, we'd like to sort of have a lot of breaking stories and, you know, get the first hot take on things. So yeah, could pitch your book for us.

Matt Huber  48:15  

So it's called Climate Change. It's class war. And it's it's trying to resuscitate some of the things we've talked about today, this kind of old socialist Marxist tradition of of class struggle over industrial production, is really applicable to the climate crisis. I mean, that's what we're dealing with, we have to completely transform our industrial system. And so the book basically has three parts, the first tries to in classic socialist terms, to really re conceptualize how we think about class and responsibility for the climate crisis, because we tend to think about, it's all about consumers and their carbon footprints and sort of de centric and decentralized behaviors and lifestyles of people that really matter. But socialist class analysis really focuses on production, who owns and profits from material production, who owns the means of production. And everything we consume is can be linked back to someone profiting off of the production of the stuff, and that includes energy, so tries to shift responsibility more to the owners and producers of energy, and that's who we need to struggle against and not have this kind of moral lifestyle, politics, about lowering your carbon footprint and all that kind of stuff. And the second part really resonates with what we talked about today. It's about how climate politics as a whole is driven by the professional class or the PMC, professional managerial class, and how this kind of class position creates these ideological kind of climate politics, whether it's a focus on science and believing or denying the science or knowledge or This kind of this, what I call carbon guilt sort of anxiety about your own consumption leads you to promote a politics of less consuming less Degrowth and all the rest of it. And then the last part, the most important part is about how to build a working class climate politics that could be grounded in these type of big rollout of public goods like the TVA, or like the New Deal or like the our green New Deal, but also one that really centers unions. And I actually have a couple chapters on electricity, and how that's the strategic sector for climate but should be a strategic sector that we think about from a labor organizing perspective and trying to organize in electric unions, to get them on board with the energy transition, because honestly, like we've talked about today, if the unions and the electric sector aren't proactive and aren't strategic about their members, future, that they're going to be swept away by this kind of green energy transition towards private renewables, non union renewables. And so it's in their interest to kind of start organizing and building a an energy transition plan, that that can actually make sure that energy transition is union based and based on union labor, and so yeah, that's, that's what it's about. Thanks for giving me a chance to talk about it here.

Dr. Chris Keefer  51:23  

Yeah, no problem. Yeah, one of the things that, that I'm working on our next our next major, I guess, kind of Decouple media slash Canadians for nuclear energy project is creating a policy report on this idea of the just transition, sort of building off the themes of my testimony in Ottawa, looking at technological specificity in terms of what you know, what Decarbonization technologies can offer, and cannot offer in terms of just transition, and examining, and showcasing the Ontario coal phase out as a as a template of just transition where we use nuclear for 90% of the power to phase out coal, but also looking at some of the unjust sort of de transitions in terms of the Indian Point closer and examining, you know, issues of supply chains jobs, and again, negotiating power of workers based upon what sort of energy technology they're operating in centralized versus decentralized and nuclear versus renewables. So yeah, maybe matal. I'll get you to jump on to help with little peer reviewing on that sounds like we're swimming in a lot of the same waters here.

Matt Huber  52:26  

Absolutely. We could definitely use some help in the US building that power as you were talking about earlier. Awesome. Anita, we need a playbook, a Canadian playbook that you can export to us.

Dr. Chris Keefer  52:37  

Well, first, we got to smash the NRDC, which is not going to be so easy, but anyway, it's very nice talking to you, Matt. It's again, been been a long time coming. And I'm sure we'll have you back soon. So thanks for taking the time.

Matt Huber  52:49  

Thanks so much. It was really great to be on. Bye for now.

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