At this moment, we can’t say that Kansas has its own version of Solyndra, the subsidized and politically-connected solar energy firm that recently shut down its operations and declared bankruptcy. But as far as absorbing the important lessons from Solyndra, we may have another chance to learn them in Kansas.
Solyndra is a failure in several ways. Much money was lost. It may be that corrupt or criminal activity was involved; we don’t know that yet. It appears that Solyndra will be a useful political scandal for Republicans to exploit, especially in the upcoming election campaign against the president. We can be sure that Republicans will keep us informed on this.
But the largest and most important lesson from Solyndra is one that many politicians — Democrats and Republicans both — don’t want to recognize: Government intervention in the economy is wrong for the health of the country.
The problem is that when government intervenes in the economy, it almost always gets it wrong. It’s not that Obama and other politicians aren’t smart. It’s the problems inherent in government interventionism: There will be both routine and spectacular examples of waste, as people — politicians and bureaucrats, especially — are not spending their own money. Decisions will be made to benefit the well-connected and for political, not market-based reasons. Cronyism and corruption flourish, as many will find it easier to compete in the marketplace for politicians rather than in the free market where fickle consumers rule with their fleeting tastes and preferences.
But politicians and bureaucrats love to intervene. For bureaucrats, intervention — government programs, that is — provides jobs, and well-paid jobs, too. Since much government intervention in the economy is in the form of subsidies, it allows politicians to dispense other peoples’ money and take credit for having “created” jobs or having built a bridge, probably to be named for them later on.
Other government intervention is in the form of creating unneeded regulations or tax loopholes that favor politicians’ friends or harm their competition.
All of this means that economic activity is directed according to political, not economic, considerations. It’s wasteful. It’s harmful. It diminishes market-based investment, that is, investment made according to what people really want and need. It reduces the freedom, liberty, and prosperity of everyone.
Back to Kansas: Last week the Department of Energy announced the award of a $132.4 million loan guarantee to Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas, LLC. This is the same federal agency and the same loan guarantee program involved in the Solyndra matter. The difference is that it’s an even newer so-called green energy technology involved: cellulosic ethanol production.
The plant in Kansas is to be at Hugoton, in southwest Kansas. The press release from DOE promotes the number of jobs that will be created.
Cellulosic ethanol is produced from plant material that is usually considered waste, such as corn stalks or wheat straw. That’s different from the usual input to ethanol production in America, which is corn that would otherwise be used as animal or human food. Because of this, cellulosic ethanol is thought of by many as the “silver bullet” that will dramatically improve the path of America’s energy future. That may be the case, or it may not be. Because of the reasons listed above, government is particularly unsuited to make that decision and to participate in the scientific and entrepreneurial experimentation that will produce the answer.
At one time President George W. Bush praised the potential of this fuel. A Reuters analysis from July opens with: “The great promise of a car fuel made from cheap, clean-burning prairie grass or wood chips — and not from expensive corn that feeds the world — is more mirage than reality. Despite years of research, testing and some hype, the next-generation ethanol industry is far from the commercial success envisioned by President George W. Bush in 2006, when he pledged so-called cellulosic biofuels would be ‘practical and competitive’ by 2012.”
That hints at the problem: despite much effort, scientists haven’t been able to demonstrate cellulosic ethanol production on a commercially-successful scale. According to the Wall Street Journal, as of this summer, no commercial cellulosic ethanol has been produced.
The loan guarantee is not the only form of government subsidy and boost ethanol producers received. There is a tax credit for each gallon produced and a tariff that protects producers from cheaper imported ethanol.
Despite these very large measures of government intervention, cellulosic ethanol backers blame the government for lack of progress in the industry, citing the government’s failure to mandate production levels and provide assurances that the industry would receive subsidies. And the loan guarantees are not made fast enough, they add to the list of complaints. An analysis by ClimateWire that appeared in the New York Times in January had industry boosters blaming the federal Department of Energy for its slow pace in issuing loan guarantees.
We won’t know the success or failure of the Abengoa plant in Kansas for some time, and now we taxpayers are placed in the position of hoping that it succeeds. But it has the pedigree of a government plan to correct a perceived market failure, and that’s a danger sign.
Both Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran have spoken approvingly of this plant despite the government intervention involved; Moran in a statement after the announcement, and Roberts in previous years as plans were being made. U.S. Representative Tim Huelskamp, who represents the district where the plant is located, has not commented on this plant, and offered no comment for this story.