To Win Climate Policy, We Need a New Social Contract
Download Breakthrough's Memo on the focus groups. (PDF)
What makes the current economic downturn different from previous ones? According to two focus groups Breakthrough just held in Edison, New Jersey, people perceive this one as the result of individual - rather than government or institutional - failures. Whereas previous slumps in the economy were more centrally focused on job loss, the current situation is characterized by declining purchasing power due to the weak dollar, rising energy prices, and tight consumer credit.
In contrast to job loss, declining purchasing power is something that is experienced on a daily basis by many Americans. Layoffs, downsizing, and outsourcing are easily attributed to external forces, but rising debt and declining purchasing power have a tendency to incite feelings of failure at the individual level. Focus group participants said that individuals in debt have "spent beyond their means," and that people who can't afford to buy everything they want need to "reevaluate their priorities."
The lesson here for policymakers is that a successful solution must focus on personal responsibility. Since financial success or failure was largely attributed to individual behavior, we should be talking about how to create a new, asset-based social contract that turns America from a nation of debtors to a nation of savers. Participants responded positively to the idea of "Baby Bonds" and seeding a savings account for every child; for the men in particular, it brought up memories of others setting up savings accounts for them when they were young, or of having done so for their own children. This could serve as a powerful metaphor moving forward, balancing the belief in personal responsibility with the experience of someone assisting them in getting on the right track.
What does a new social contract have to do with global warming? As the recent gas tax holiday proposals show, where there is price anxiety, there is also political pandering. Studies show that when people feel secure, they are also more generous and altruistic. An economic downturn isn't the most conducive environment to enacting climate policy that could increase energy prices. A sense of national economic security will be a necessary precursor to strong action on global warming and a shift away from the old, fossil-fuel based energy economy.