The House of Representatives didn’t know what hit it.
The Green New Deal, introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in February, energized politicians on both sides of the political spectrum with its twin goals of carbon neutrality by 2030 and the promise of jobs for every American. It also polarized them. Critics have one main question: How the hell are we going to pay for it?
As the guy responsible for the plan’s “jobs guarantee,” Andrés Bernal, 32, has a lot to answer for. And he’s more than happy to. The Colombia-born, Texas-raised advisor to Ocasio-Cortez spends most of his time thinking about the people who need that kind of job security and how to pay their salaries. In fact, he’s one of them.
When he’s not advising the most galvanizing congresswoman on the planet on progressive economics, he’s a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer of urban studies at Queens College in New York City, making him part of one of America’s most notoriously underprotected workers’ groups.
See also: Support Scientists Who Work for the Public Good, by Andrés Bernal.
When I meet Bernal in New York City’s tree-lined Union Square, a location historically known for its pro-labor rallies, the red button on his denim jacket pops. It reads “UNION PROUD,” bearing the initials PSC-CUNY, the labor union representing 30,000 workers in the City University of New York system. He’s late — the rickety trains and buses coming in from Queens were delayed, as always. To top it off, the sole on one of his shoes came off. “I’m limping,” he jokes.
Later, Bernal will tell me about his vision for 2030, which includes free public transportation as a citizen’s right. But first things first: He wants to make it clear that the money America needs to support the Green New Deal is available. In fact, he believes it’s already here.
“Right now, the conversation that we can’t afford anything because we have to find the money somewhere is not necessarily true,” he says. Bernal is a scholar and proponent of Modern Monetary Theory, the once-fringe economic idea that emerged from the blogosphere to the floor of Congress as a result of the Green New Deal and economists like Stephanie Kelton, Bernie Sanders’ former senior advisor.
In a nutshell, the theory’s perspective on money and where it comes from shifts the conversation away from “Where do we get it?” to “How can we print more and support its value?” The short answer is through jobs — the same ones Bernal helped build into Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.
"My proudest moment is bringing up the jobs guarantee to her platform."
“I did a lot of work advocating for her to understand and consider the MMT perspective, and to introduce that to the conversation,” he says. “My proudest moment is bringing up the jobs guarantee to her platform.”
Bernal’s journey from philosophy scholar to campaign advisor surprised him as much as anyone. “I had no idea any of this would happen,” he says. “She had no idea.”
But as he describes his trajectory, it’s clear that Bernal has always been excited about empowering people who are marginalized by mainstream society: people of color, undocumented immigrants, women, and countless others. As an immigrant growing up in a Hispanic community, he understood and saw what it was like to feel unsupported by a new environment.
“So you’re here in this new country, and you’re like, ‘What’s my role here?’ Some people don’t want me here. Some people think that I’m below them,” he says. “‘How can I make a contribution?’”
Existential questions like these led him to pursue a master’s degree in leadership studies in San Diego, feeding into his emerging interest in worker-owned cooperatives. Finding himself working at Spain’s famous Mondragon Cooperatives, he saw that a democratic workplace where earnings were split among workers was viable, and then wondered how it could be scaled up. His interest in New York City’s burgeoning cooperative initiatives, like the immigrant women-owned cleaning company Si Se Puede and Cooperative Home Care Associates, which trains 400 low-income women each year, redirected his scholarship to the East Coast. There, he ran into an old acquaintance from his teenage years — Alexandria.
They’d met as members of the National Hispanic Institute, a leadership development organization that let Latinx teens experience what it’s like to run for office, participate in a government, pass legislation, and “be someone important,” as Bernal puts it.
He and Ocasio-Cortez, a “star” at the Institute, became co-directors of the program, which prepared them for the years ahead in ways they never imagined.
Bernal was pursuing his Ph.D. in policy management and environment at the New School for Public Engagement when President Donald Trump won the election in 2016. By then, he had already come across Modern Monetary Theory at a conference but hadn’t thought much about it.
After the election, Bernal realized “it’s time,” leading to his pivotal role in the Green New Deal in the summer of 2017.
The Green New Deal and Modern Monetary Theory are ideas so far outside of the box that most people find them difficult to take seriously. Bernal knows this.
"If we don’t address climate change, we’re all screwed."
“If we don’t address climate change, we’re all screwed,” he says. “Imagine if aliens came down to Earth, and they were like, ‘The planet was dying, and they didn’t do anything because it was too expensive — they couldn’t find the money.’ Imagine aliens being like, ‘What’s money?’”
If America bands together to create — not find — the money, Bernal believes sustainable living will follow. When people are given ownership, they will do what they need to protect it, just like he sees in the cooperative workplaces he’s studied.
“What I envision in 10 years, if things go well, is that we will have a population that’s a lot more organized and aware of the things that shape their life,” he says.
In Bernal’s 2030, it’s a given that everyone who can work has a job.
Petty squabbling over the Green New Deal has given way to the need for a more cooperative country — one that’s building networks of renewable high-speed rail to replace a decreasing number of cars and accommodate growing fleets of bicycles. Solar panel-lined rooftops are a reality, and the power they create feed into cooperatively-owned energy companies run by neighborhoods, not corporations.
People eat better, too, in part because they have a hand in farming their own healthy, sustainable food, much as the people of Flint, Michigan, and Cleveland, Ohio, have already done out of necessity. Free public transportation, like public wifi, is a right; “We don’t pay for elevators!” Bernal says. And as the Green New Deal reorganizes the nation’s wealth around its people and the planet, it will create both physical spaces called “Commons” for citizens to take ownership of as well as mental space to help alleviate the psychological ills that plague us today.
Bernal describes this vision with conviction, even as, all around us in Union Square, the subway system fails, the unemployed seek change, and honking trucks cough smoke into New York’s gray air. But the public park hosts a market for local farmers, crowded with pedestrians and cyclists on Citi Bikes, the local bike-sharing system. It’s a scene out of Bernal’s vision — though in his version, the bikes “aren’t owned by Citibank,” he laughs — and it is an encouraging one.
“I don’t fault people for being bleak, but I just don’t see the point in it,” he says. “I don’t see any other choice but to try our best to be as optimistic as possible.”
For now, Bernal’s plan is to continue helping Ocasio-Cortez promote the Green New Deal as a viable and necessary intervention to course-correct our planet’s trajectory. Resistance from all sides is not going to make that easy, but he’s not against someday stepping in and doing the work alongside her by running for office himself. “I love AOC, but she can’t do it alone,” he says. “She needs more and more support, and I believe that I might be able to be somebody that can do that.”
Now Read This: Support Scientists Who Work for the Public Good, by Andrés Bernal.
Andrés Bernal is a member of the Inverse Future 50.