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Lawrence Summers, Goodbye & Good Riddance: Obama's Winter of Neo -Liberal Discontent

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"I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low [in pollutants] compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City."1

- Lawrence Summers, the Economist , Feb. 1992


Now that Lawrence Summers is leaving the President's cabinet and rebellions against neoliberalism and its austerity programs are washing over Europe, one might hope for a shift in President Obama's corporate and bank-friendly policies. But such optimism is not warranted.

While the options for capitalist planners such as Summers may differ in accentuation from administration to administration, the competition for corporations to maximize profits and for the government to "protect them" is invariable; and in times of economic crisis such as the one in which the U.S. -- and indeed, the world -- is currently mired, the space for avoiding the worst aspects of unemployment, ecological devastation, poverty, vast reductions in public services and expansion of imperialist wars are circumscribed by the urgency, for capitalism, to strip down to essentials to control natural resources and repress all forms of organizing and resistance.

The case of Lawrence Summers is instructive for examining the neoliberal framework, and for understanding the policies of the United States government on the brink of collapse.

I've intentionally omitted from this essay discussion of the numerous scandals in which Summers personally has been involved at Harvard and elsewhere unless they shine some light on Summers' effect on U.S. government policy and the new forms of the capitalist market.

* * * * *

Once Upon a Time, Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet. He also laid claim, along with the rest of the Clinton administration, to having "reinvented government." Now he has re-invented himself as a modern-day Paul Revere galloping across the country on his white horse crying, "To arms, to arms, the Climate is Changing." Yet back in the 1990s while the rest of the world, through the Kyoto Treaty negotiations, was agreeing to mandate reductions in the industrial emissions punching holes in the Ozone layer, it was none other than Al Gore, Vice President of the United States, who took those negotiations hostage and prevented a ban on targeted emissions. 2

Gore commandeered the Kyoto movement. The U.S. government, he said, would not sign the Accord -- as limited as it was -- if it imposed emissions reductions on polluting countries. Instead he demanded that the rest of the world adopt his proposed mechanism that would allow industrial nations like the U.S. to continue polluting by establishing an international trade in carbon pollution credits. In other words, Gore proposed the buying and selling of "rights to pollute" as though they were any other commodity. The free-market trade in "emission rights" would simply shift around pollution and spread it out more evenly while hiding responsibility for it, without reducing the total amount of ozone layer-depleting greenhouse gases.

In proposing (and imposing) that mechanism, Gore and Clinton were enacting a policy -- trade in pollution credits --that had first been put into effect in a more limited way by President George H.W. Bush, under the 1990 extension to the Nixon administration's "Clean Air Act" and developed subsequently by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The global trade in industrial waste emissions credits would require new regulations and agencies to administer them. And so, Clinton and Gore constructed an elaborate set of structures such as the World Trade Organization, and treaties such as NAFTA, GATT, and the FTAA to do just that. Under the new trade bureaucracy, countries would not be allowed to exempt themselves from trade -- including trade in pollution credits -- regardless of environmental or social justice considerations. The entire edifice institutionalizes the complex of mechanisms designed to save capitalism from the demands of the growing grassroots environmental and global justice movements.

In his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance -- much praised by many of the large environmental not-for-profit corporations vested in the current economic system -- Al Gore laid out the ideological basis for his flawed pro-capitalist solution to environmental destruction and climate change: Rely on voluntary self-regulation by corporations and the governments they control. Forget that corporations have been the primary source of toxic pollution. The evidence is overwhelming that corporations, to remain competitive within the existing system and maximize profits, cannot voluntarily end pollution if it is cheaper for them to pollute. Gore disregarded that fundamental capitalist dynamic that propels corporations to basically use the earth as their ashtray in reckless disregard of the consequences to human health and the ecology of the planet. Instead, he built the rationale for his framework upon the fiction that corporations could and would play the necessary role in cleaning up the environment. 3 Despite the literally world-shaking consequences of global climate change that Gore documents in his film "An Inconvenient Truth," he refuses to challenge the system that has driven the planet to the brink of destruction.

A number of key environmental organizations accepted Gore's delusion that corporations, working with government and consumers, would or could save the environment while maintaining the same set of economic relationships and expansion of capitalist trade. And when seven of the largest Environmental groups -- National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, National Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, and Defenders of Wildlife -- came out in support of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),4 trouncing opposition by smaller, more radical grassroots groups, they provided Gore and Clinton with carte blanche for proceeding wistfully down that yellow brick road.

Gore and the pro-NAFTA environmental groups asserted that establishing "free market" trade in pollution credits would propel corporations to deliver the world from the ravages that they themselves had caused. What little justification there was for such nonsense utilized the curious proposals for the disposal of toxic wastes being propagated at the same time as Gore's book by a key analyst and policy-maker: the World Bank's Lawrence Summers.

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Author of "The Fight Against Monsanto's Roundup: The Politics of Pesticides" (SkyHorse, 2019). Member of the Brooklyn Greens / Green Party, and coordinator of the No Spray Coalition, which has been fighting against the indiscriminate spraying of (more...)

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