Green Fiascoes and Boondoggles

Economist Mark Hendrickson, a member of CF's Council of Scholars, looks at the failure of government funded "green energy" projects in his latest column for the Center for Vision and Values.  He identifies  key lessons from these government fiascoes, for which the Solyndra scandal is only the most famous of many examples at the federal and state level.

There are at least four important reasons why we should stop funding "green" government programs:

First lesson: government-appointed experts are incompetent economic planners—a fact of life that any intelligent adult should know after the spectacular failure of central economic planning in the socialist experiments of the 20th century. No matter how brilliant and how well-intentioned government planners may be, they do not and cannot know what consumers want and how much they are willing to pay for it. Only free markets can solve this challenge. If electric cars are to be a viable industry, private companies will make them so.

Second lesson: The government's involvement in Solyndra raises troubling questions about possible corruption. While I think the Solyndra deal stinks to high heaven, I wonder whether any laws have been broken. Where is the dividing line between influence peddling, legitimate lobbying, political deal-making, and actual crime? Many farm-state Republicans have supported the uneconomical ethanol boondoggle for decades in exchange for generous support of their electoral campaigns, so the practice is bipartisan.

Third lesson: Government job programs are a blatant failure. They have never been economically beneficial. In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had the department of agriculture hire 100,000 Americans to monitor how much acreage American farmers were cultivating. These federal jobs produced no wealth. Their jobs made no more economic sense than paying people to dig holes and then fill them up.

Today's green workers are economically nonsensical, too. True, they sometimes produce something, but the economic value is invariably less than the amount of tax dollars needed to subsidize their job. In other words, federal jobs make us poorer.

Fourth lesson: Finally, we simply can't afford these green boondoggles. Uncle Sam's official debt is now $15 trillion, and when you include off-budget items and unfunded liabilities, the situation is far worse. Given this fiscal reality, it is the height of irresponsibility to throw taxpayer dollars at any special interests, and it is particularly egregious to subsidize enterprises that are plainly uneconomical.