“A $100 Trillion here, a $100 Trillion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

The “wizard of ooze”

I’d apologize to Everett Dirksen, but according to those who’ve actually checked, he never really said, “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.” Some argue his actual quote was “a million here, a million there,” but that by the time he voiced the idea, it was already necessary to inflate the figure considerably to have any desired impact. So people did; hence “billions.”

Perhaps you’d rather read about something other than the Mueller probe this weekend. But you want subject matter that’s comparably weighty. 

Here’s a candidate: $100 Trillion. 

LOTRW readers might recall that mention of this tidy sum has come up before. Today’s context is a bit different, but related.

Brian Riedl, an economist at the Manhattan Institute, recently tweeted this admittedly back-of-the-envelope figure as his estimate of the cost for the proposed Green New Deal. Unsurprisingly, opponents of the so-called Green New Deal quickly made this notional price tag a rallying cry. For example, the president is quoted as saying “They want to take away your car, reduce the value of your home, and put millions of Americans out of work, spend $100 trillion, which, by the way, there’s no such thing as $100 trillion [sic].”

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Some commentary:

Some proponents of the Green New Deal are pointing to the lack of any deep underlying analysis behind this conservative pushback. That’s true enough. Green New Deal advocates could also note that most of the total – perhaps 90% – is the “cost” of guaranteed jobs and universal healthcare, that is, the New-Deal part versus the Green part. But Green-New-Deal proponents haven’t carefully done the sums either; order-of-magnitude estimates might therefore be a good place to start.

Perhaps better to note that expenses and incomes roughly balance. Economists have taught us this. For smaller transactions, say $100, payers and beneficiaries might be different. But when scaling up by a factor of a trillion, the money involved cascades through a series of transactions. It can’t be confined to a single segment of the population. No small group pays, nor can benefits be collared by some single small faction. Everyone is paying, but all are also benefiting. We’re essentially compensating ourselves. What’s more, through multiplier effects, the pot is growing; it needn’t be zero-sum.

To continue, there is such a thing as $100T. Global GDP already approaches this figure – and is steadily ratcheting up, year on year, in response to population growth and innovation. Economists figure global GDP will likely top $200T/year by 2050 and $500T/year by 2100. By then, the quadrillion dollar global economy will be in sight. The Green New Deal bill doesn’t come due in any single year; it’s spread over decades. A figure that today looks intimidating will feel like chump change by the end of the century.  

What’s more, the $100T is money we have to spend anyway. Spending $100T necessarily creates jobs; it does the opposite of putting people out of work. Some – the merest handful – may not consider healthcare a universal right, but it’s hard even for them to deny it’s a universal need. And the 10% of the Green New Deal, the green $10T that’s targeted at U.S. critical infrastructure – energy, agriculture, transportation, dams and levees, etc. – is a bill that has long been due. None of us wants to live in a world where the majority of people are out of work, have no access to necessities such as food and healthcare. No national leader can allow his/her country to enter such a swoon – as Venezuela’s Maduro is discovering.

But a very real challenge does remain. Given that we have the money to spend, and given that we have to spend the money (two different realities), the sums are so vast we have to spend wisely. We can’t simply squander these funds, whether through poor governance (e.g., Venezuela) or simple ignorance. We must invest– and realize a high return on that investment. 

Toward this end, environmental intelligence is vital.  We need to identify – in advance, not after the fact – energy-, food-, and water resource development that is sustainable and won’t be compromised by future extremes of flood or drought or by climate variability and change. We need to build resilience to hazards before disaster strikes. We need to preserve ecosystem services, rather than allow them to degrade and only belatedly attempt to restore them. Success here requires both advances in scientific understanding and accelerated application of emerging new knowledge – at the front end of the $100T investment, in time to guide it. 

Though such capabilities are not yet at hand, they are within reach – and the remaining investments in Earth observations, research, and services are relatively inexpensive. They amount to mere billions of dollars, not trillions. 

To paraphrase the Senator – a billion spent on environmental intelligence here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking trillions of dollars return on investment.

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