Obama’s Green Albatross

by William Yeatman on November 15, 2011

in Blog, Features

Post image for Obama’s Green Albatross

Stimulus spending on environmentalist policy is a green albatross around the neck of President Barack Obama. Inspectors General are having a field day auditing stimulus-funded programs for so-called “green jobs,” and the media LOVES stories about wasted taxpayer money. What started as a sop to his environmentalist base, now threatens to become a slow-drip nightmare of negative press. The timing couldn’t be worse for the President. It takes time to disburse scores of billions of dollars, so we are only now starting to scrutinize stimulus spending. By November 2012, we’ll be able to account for most of the money, and unless the current trend changes radically, the Executive in Chief is going to look conspicuously incompetent.

Here’s the back-story: In early 2009, the Executive and Legislative branches of government had a popular mandate to defibrillate America’s moribund economy with a huge injection of taxpayer dollars. Instead of limiting this “stimulus” to state bailouts and infrastructure spending, the Obama administration (led by climate “czar” and former EPA administrator Carol Browner) and the Congressional majority (led by House Energy and Commerce Chair Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills)) also sought to advance environmentalist policy.  As a result, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. the stimulus, included almost $70 billion in spending for green jobs and renewable energy infrastructure.

Every single link along the green energy supply chain was showered with subsidies. There was funding for green jobs training, funding for factories to make green products, and funding to incentivize demand for green goods and services. It was as like a green Gosplan!

Most of the money went to the Energy and Labor Departments. Budgets ballooned. To cite a typical example, in 2008, the Department of Energy’s weatherization program budget went from $450 million to $5 billion. Making matters worse, federal bureaucrats were told to spend the stimulus as fast as possible, in order to jumpstart job-creation. Exploding budgets and a mandate to rush money out the door—that’s a recipe for poor stewardship of taxpayer dollars. This is borne out by an increasing number of watchdog reports concluding that stimulus spending for green goals was wasteful. Here’s a laundry list of what they’ve found so far:

  • On November 2, Eliot P. Lewis, the Department of Labor’s IG, testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the Labor Department received $435 million to train 96,000 people in the renewable energy trade. The goal was to create 80,000 green jobs. Through June 30, according to Mr. Lewis’s testimony, the Labor Department had spent $130 million, which is 30% of the program budget, and created a scant 1,336 jobs, which is 2% of the program target.
  • On November 7, the Department of Energy Office of the Inspector General issued a “management alert” regarding the Western Area Power Administration’s $3 billion, stimulus-created loan program to facilitate the transmission of electricity from renewable energy projects in the west. According to the IG alert, “Western had not implemented the necessary safeguards to ensure its commitment of funding was optimally protected.”
  • In October, Resources for the Future released a report suggesting that the $3 billion, stimulus funded “cash for clunkers” program, whereby the government subsidized the purchase of fuel efficient cars for consumers that agreed to junk their less fuel efficient cars, was an economic and environmental failure.
  • Since February, the Energy and Commerce Committee has been investigating Solyndra, the California solar panel manufacturer that declared bankruptcy in September, leaving the taxpayer on the hook for a $535 million stimulus-funded loan guarantee from the Department of Energy.

Why is the green stimulus failing? As I note above, ballooning budgets and a mandate to spend fast are conducive to waste.

More fundamentally, central planning of the economy is a loser. Invariably, politics corrupts the process. Members of Congress are less concerned about the economic viability of the industries into which they invest taxpayer money, and much more concerned with getting pork to their districts. Civil servants, no matter how disinterested, know that their political overlords are watching their decisions carefully, so as to ensure that taxpayers give-aways reach their constituents. (For an archetypical example of a Member of Congress browbeating a civil servant, see this post about Sen. Al Franken shaking down Energy Secretary Steven Chu).

When parochial politics isn’t interfering, crony capitalism is. According to “Throw Them All Out,” a new book by Peter Shweizer, $16.4 billion of the $20.5 billion in loans granted by the stimulus-created loan guarantee program (whence the Solyndra debacle) “went to companies either run by or primarily owned by Obama financial backers.” Of course, political payback is a poor substitute for sound financial analysis.

Gross fiscal mismanagement by government attracts media like flies to dung. So far, most coverage is by local papers reporting on local failures. (See “Seattle’s Green Jobs Program a Bust,” by the Seattle Post Intelligencer and “Stimulus Funds Provide Training, But Openings Few in State,” by the Detroit News.) However, even the New York Times, whose editorial board supports green energy subsidies, published a story titled, “Number of Green Jobs Fails to Live up to Promises.” Expect many more of these types of articles as the watchdogs continue to do their work.

As the negative press mounts, the President will become ever-more burdened by his foolish bet on green energy.

Previous post:

Next post: