Q&A: Van Jones on Politics, Student Loans, and the Access Economy

*Van Jones speaks June 13 and 14 at the Sustainable Industries Economic Forums in Portland and Seattle – click here for more info.

In 2007, Van Jones was featured on the cover of Sustainable Industries magazine. His work and advocacy for green jobs, as well as his first book, The Green Collar Economy, stirred interest all the way to Washington D.C. In it, Jones is brimming with optimism about the growing green economy and what that could mean for our country. He sets forth several recommendations for the next president to maintain momentum toward more resource conservation and clean energy solutions, and create opportunities in sustainable industries for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

When Jones keynoted the Sustainable Industries Economic Forum in December 2008, he shared the news that he had been tapped to join the Obama administration as its green jobs czar. Jones’ tenure in Washington ended too soon after a relentless media campaign threatened to obstruct further progress. He details his departure from the White House in his new book, Rebuild the Dream. Between the two books is a huge chasm of attitude shift caused by a crippling recession, high rates of unemployment, and collective shattering of faith in business and fierce infighting in government. Rebuild the Dream analyzes what has gone wrong in the past few years, what the administration has done right, and where Jones thinks we should go from here to regain the optimism for a green economy we had in 2007, and why it is so important to rebuild our middle class. We talked to Jones about his work, his books and what he thinks of the access economy.

Sustainable Industries: Your first book is quite optimistic and visionary advocating for green jobs. In your second book, you outline what the administration did right and wrong, including failing to refute negative campaigns effectively or trumpet the successes they’ve had to counter disenfranchisement. Do you think they realize how crucial it is to support the green economy and communicate that to the people more effectively in the future?

Van Jones: I don’t think anyone knows what they [the administration] have learned or what they might do. So many people spend so much time trying to guess what one guy is going to do (President Obama), yet we live in a country with 310 million people in it, and if you look at the Tea Party movement, the Keystone Pipeline, 350.org movement, or Occupy Wall Street, it’s pretty clear that people’s movements matter and can make a big impact. The book was really designed to make us think about what we the people can do, regardless of what happens in Washington DC.

The question is: Will the rest of us learn the lesson not to spend so much of our time hoping, praying that the White House will do something, and move more powerfully ourselves? The environmental movement does not fight smart. We’ve fought hard, but not smart in that two-year window that we had to get climate change done. Congress had the chance to pass comprehensive climate change legislation, and the environmental community, rather than saying, You’ve got to pass this, or there’ll be hell to pay – we’ll go after anybody, Republican or Democrat, who opposes the right answer here and people will try to unelect you, and put billboards up in your district about anything that will hurt you,” and take a very hard line – we didn’t do that. Had we done it, maybe Washington would have taken us more seriously – not just the White House, but the entire political establishment. Because we did not know how to play hardball, and got talked into supporting whatever solution came out, that hurt our ability to get the job done.

SI: Many of the viral actions you describe in your writing (Tea Party movement, Keystone Pipeline protest, Occupy Wall Street) are borne out of people’s extreme frustration. How do we get people motivated outside of that extreme emotion?

VJ: People are trying to do that all the time. We’re in a position where the argument for defending American industry, American clean energy industry from illegal trading practices from China and sticking up for the need for green jobs is more pertinent than ever.

SI: What do you think about the rise of the Access Economy?

VJ: I think it’s the next step in coming up with something sustainable. The challenge that we’ve got now is that the whole economy collapsed (between the first book and the second book) and now we need to add to that cornerstone two other ideas. One is the return to the kind of macroeconomic policy that helped build the American middle class in the first place – things that we were willing to do in the last century that we’re reluctant to do in this century, which is to tax the people who have a lot of wealth and to use those dollars to reinvest in our infrastructure. We need to return to some of those ideas – we can’t just have wealthy people benefitting from being in America and all the stability that we have here and the support that we have here, and not want to reinvest in our country. We have to fight that. In the 10-point contract in Rebuild the Dream, I lay out the roadmap for how we might start regaining some lost ground.

That said, the other supplemental idea has to be more bottom-up (rather than top-down). We need some good bottom-up solutions that people can do that have positive effects. The sharing economy is, I think, the next important step. First of all, if we share more, we’ll waste less – so it’s a very smart strategy to de-carbonize and de-materialize the economy. It takes a lot of energy to produce goods, and its very wasteful when those goods are very quickly thrown in the garbage can. Having this throwaway economy puts strain on the Earth’s resources. If you’re sharing, you don’t have to chop down as many trees, dig up as many minerals and make as much crap.

It’s a very interesting extension of green thinking, this idea of the sharing economy, but it also can have positive benefits of increasing social capital. When you begin to replace natural capital and financial capital with social capital, you save money and you save the earth, but you also save communities  and save ourselves from isolated, consumerist hell – which most of us have been brought up with and don’t even recognize how barren it is. So there is a world out there where you can imagine the United States having as a cornerstone a commitment to greening our energy and food systems, creating lots of jobs, and saving a lot of lives in that process. You have a top-down macroeconomic policy that says that those who have done well in America now need to do well by America and pay America back and reinvest in people and infrastructure. AND you could have a whole new series of enterprises and culture shifts that have us, from the bottom up, helping each other and being more of a nation of neighbors.

SI: Annie Leonard (The Story of Stuff), also believes in the importance of community.

VJ: The more friends you have, the more people you have in your network that you can rely on, the less money you have to spend and resources you wind up wasting, because the things in your house are being used by others, and you‘re using other people’s stuff. If done properly, you’re not just saving money, you’re also building social wealth. A wealth of connections to others. Which right now, money sometimes lets us, in the short term, substitute that. If you have enough money, you can pay someone to do that – financial capital subsistutes for social capital, chokes off social capital and leaves us isolated in our homes full of crap and our pockets full of credit cards, but no friends. Not real friends – Facebook friends, which are not the same. So that’s a dystopian future that consumerism promises, but the Earth can’t deliver on that promise to seven billion people. That’s why I’m so fascinated with the shareable economy. It’s an elegant solution not just for our ecological crisis or a balm for our economic crisis, it may hold some answer to our spiritual crisis.

SI: Does the shareable or access economy tie in to your 10-point plan to get our country back on track?

VJ:They are complementary to each other. If Washington D.C. acts right and stops wasting money on wars and stops wasting money on big tax breaks to people who don’t need them and redirects those dollars back into our neighborhoods, into our schools, into our roads and bridges, into clean energy projects – then our communities will start to recover. And then, while that’s happening, if ordinary people will reach out to each other and support those businesses that help them share (and not consume more resources and buy more things), then we can see the economy start to heal. I think you have to have both that 10-point top-down plan and bottom-up shareable economy approach.

SI: How do you feel about the progress our country is making now?

VJ: The entire green agenda has been delivered a big setback by our failure to pass a climate bill in either 2009 or 2010. It is a huge failure, a huge disappointment for the world and may have catastrophic consequences for all life on Earth. You can’t sugarcoat that. We spewed more planet-damaging carbon last year than in any year prior, so we’re still going in the wrong direction, we’re accelerating in the wrong direction.

That said, we have 2.7 million green jobs in America right now compared to 80,000 coal mining jobs. So, the green economy continues to grow, against gravity and despite Congress being missing in action but, on the energy side, we have real problems. Republicans refuse to pass the Cap and Trade bill that their candidate, John McCain ran on, China is now flooding the American market with artificially cheap solar panels, which is knocking out American green jobs, and fracking to produce artificially cheap natural gas has disrupted the business model for large-scale wind.

We have to rethink our approach here. In Rebuild the Dream, I point to ways we can engage rural audiences, conservative audiences, even Libertarian audiences in the fight – at least rhetorically. I think we’re going to need a lot more action like what 350.org is trying to do if we’re going to win people over, back to where they were in 2007, believing there is a problem and believing there is a solution, and believing that the solution will create more jobs than doing nothing. That’s where we were in 2007. In 2008 we got hammered by an incredible backlash of far-right wingers and pollution-based mega-dollars, including coal.

SI: The election is coming up. What do you think will happen if there is a change in the White House?

VJ: I don’t think there will be a change, but if there were, everything would get much worse very quickly from the economy to the environment to even social cohesion. When you have someone running for office somewhere to the right of George Bush on every major issue, when you have someone that far to the right taking office, I think you have to be very concerned about what’s going to happen in the next scene, when the deficit is fixed by decimating social programs that our grandparents and parents fought for – necessary, vital programs that are available to pretty much everyone. There’s no reason that someone like Romney, who, on his best day comes across like Thurston Howell III, should wind up president of the United States.

SI: Rebuild the Dream is not just the title of your book, it’s the name of your organization. In addition to advocating for a greener economy, what other issues are you focusing on?

VJ: On Rebuildthedream.com we’re running campaigns right now to ease the pain of student loan debt and underwater mortgages. The reason we’re fighting on those two fronts is because the key to getting into the middle class and out of poverty used to be: go to college and get a house. Now those two things are trapdoors – poised to throw the middle class into poverty. People are graduating with such high debt loads and no good jobs in sight, and a quarter of all homeowners, 11 million American families, are not gaining wealth by trying to own a home, they’re draining their wealth because they are putting more money into the house than they will ever get out of the house. So we are trying to push Fannie and Freddie to stop overcharging Americans to stay in their houses, and we seem to making some progress there. And we are pushing to make sure Congress doesn’t allow the interest rate on these Stafford student loans to double. And those are our two main fights.

People think I give speeches all the time, but I’m part of an organization that’s got 600,000 members, located in every congressional district in America and we’re fighting the real bread and butter issues that confront ordinary Americans and we do that in the name of a 10-point plan that not only includes green jobs, but also deals with other issues to achieve a happy and healthy economy.

Years ago taxpayers were happy to foot a lot of the bill (for college), not to help any particular individual, but because it was good for the country to educate millions and millions of young people. A low-cost education is part of what made America this powerhouse, and we’re fighting to get back that investment in people, but we wind up hearing people say, “Why should I have to pay more in taxes for someone else’s kids to go to school?” It was never about anyone’s individual child, but about the country. And you should pay taxes to try and make the country stronger, because you’re going to be stronger in a strong country. But we’ve gotten so far away from that because of individuals that call themselves patriotic – and I think it’s the opposite of patriotism.

Rebuild the Dream: “The American Dream means different things to people, but the center of gravity is always the same: an ordinary person—who was not born with great wealth, but who is willing to work hard and play by the rules—should be able to find employment, live in a good community, make progress financially, retire with dignity, and give his or her children a better life.”

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

4 responses

  1. There are powerful stories by college graduates about how their economic futures have been decimated by the loan repayment processes have worked over time. Perhaps he and other activists could use a website that collects those stories. Are you aware that you sign a contract with one bank. That bank can sell all or a portion of your loan causing you to make two or more payments at the amount to each multiplying your costs by a factor of 2 or more – depending? Defaulting on that type of debt is crippling and you have not recourse but to pay it. On a default, you can pay usury plus interest rates. Worse than Payday Loans.

      1. Absolutely. After one year, my loan was split. I then had two payments of $75 each. In less than 8 months one of those split with repayments at $75 each. No amount of protestations were helpful. Without an increase in pay, I could not afford to pay and defaulted. I was in my late 40s with sick parents to care for.. Can you imagine if I was in my early 20s. Go home to mom and pop?

        A consensus of some of my fellow graduates clearly showed that I was not a Lone Ranger.

  2. “push Fannie and Freddie to stop overcharging Americans to stay in their houses”

    I don’t think that’s the problem.  The problem is the way that our cities are built and the way our culture obsesses over ownership and the house with a two car garage.

    First of all, no one forced anyone to buy a home.  Don’t get me wrong, I dont’ want to sound like a republican here, but I’m equally tired of hearing people blame the banks for making their own dumb financial decisions.

    I agree that seductive marketing influences people to go beyond their means and buy a suburban home and two cars, but I blame the entire culture and not the marketing per-se.

    As for “overcharging Americans to stay in their houses”, I say nonsense.  Get them out of those houses.  Bulldoze them back to desert and farmland and build new, affordable houses in the cities that can be bought or rented for more reasonable rates.  While we’re at it get laws passed that make it easier to build walkable transit friendly new neighborhoods.  People will save enough money to make it easier to afford that home.

    As for stubborn people who still want to live in new gated las vegas sub divisions? Fine, but don’t ask me to bail you out if it all goes south.

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