Green Jobs

The Broken Planet Fallacy

The Solyndra boondoggle illustrates the folly of treating global warming as an economic blessing.

|

When Solyndra went belly up last month, less than a year after it started making solar arrays in Fremont, California, an Energy Department spokesman insisted that the $535 million the federal government had loaned the company was well spent. "The project that we supported succeeded," he said. "The facility was producing the product it said it would produce." 

That rather short-sighted definition of success exemplifies the loopy logic of President Obama's "green jobs" agenda, which justifies subsidies based on good intentions and employment opportunities rather than profitability or cost-effectiveness. This policy is rooted in the broken planet fallacy, which treats global warming not as an environmental threat to be handled as expeditiously as possible but as an economic opportunity to be milked for all the jobs it can provide. 

When he took office in January 2009, Obama promised to "help create five million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next ten years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future." The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which he signed the following month, included a down payment on that plan, described by Vice President Joseph Biden as "more than $20 billion for investment in a cleaner, greener economy," aimed at showing "how investing in green jobs will help build a strong middle class." 

A month later, Obama put the figure at "$59 billion invested in clean energy and in tax incentives to promote clean energy." By that fall, the number had expanded to "about $80 billion" for "projects related to energy and the environment." 

Administration officials may not have been sure how much they were spending on green jobs, but they all agreed it was totally worth it. In fact, according to presidential adviser Van Jones, the administration's designated "green jobs visionary," it was "the most fiscally conservative part" of the stimulus package," since "every dollar spent on green jobs is going to be out there working double time, triple time." 

To understand how this works in practice, consider the $5 billion allocated to the Weatherization Assistance Program, which was supposed to create jobs while helping people make their homes more energy-efficient, thereby cutting their utility bills and reducing their "carbon footprint." The administration was so excited about this program's economy-stimulating potential that in October 2009 it issued a report entitled "Recovery Through Retrofit." 

Explaining why the government needs to subsidize weatherization, the report noted that "homeowners face high upfront costs" for "retrofits that pay off over long periods of time," and they worry about "recouping the value of their investment if they choose to sell." According to EnergySavvy.com (which promotes retrofitting and therefore has an interest in making it seem worthwhile), spending $25,000 to make a pre-1977 home more energy-efficient might save $1,000 a year in fuel costs, meaning it would take a quarter of a century to recover the investment. 

Is it any wonder that homeowners are not leaping at this sort of opportunity? While it's true their calculations may not include the environmental impact of the energy they consume, the Obama administration considers that factor in only the most cursory way. Since it makes no effort to weigh the environmental benefit of retrofitting a home against the cost, it has no way of saying whether the investment makes sense, even taking carbon emissions and global warming into account. 

To tip the balance in favor of retrofitting, the administration cites the jobs created by such projects. But if work is not worth doing—whether it's weatherizing homes or making newfangled solar arrays that prove to be uncompetitive—the money paid for it is an unjustified cost, not an economy-boosting bonus. Obama, who bragged about the 3,000 workers who built Solyndra's factory and the 1,000 who were employed there, ignores the possibility of alternative, more productive uses for resources squandered on bad, government-subsidized investments. Those uses would create jobs too, although not ones for which he could take credit.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: Tea Time

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. When was the last time you won a Thomas S. Szasz Award, Sullum? Huh?

    1. 2004

      Doherty is in good company.

  2. This Solyndra investigation, even if something turns up, will mean what? That Obama and his cronies are corrupt? Like we didn’t already know that. Yet tens of millions of assholes will vote for him anyway, even if it’s proven he signed the loans with the blood of gay orphans.

    1. even if it’s proven he signed the loans with the blood of gay orphans.

      I smiled.

      1. And I now know what to do with my credit card rewards points (camera phones on weather balloons are so cliche)

    2. he signed the loans with the blood of gay KITTEN orphans.
      FIFY

    1. When we asked [Seattle police Sgt. Sean] Whitcomb about the department’s duty to inform attorneys about the loss of evidence he replied, “I think on a case-by-case basis that’s necessary. I don’t know if there was any deliberate intent to make a secret of it.”

      Police spokespersons are like politicians. They’re trained to give useless answers. Just post a “It Depends” sign and save taxpayers the cost of the position.

      1. Sounds an awful lot like Dunphy…


    2. McKay has sued SPD over the department’s failure to turn over public records. McKay believes refusing to reveal records has become standard department policy.

      All together now: “It’s just a few bad apples!”

      1. 99% of police give the rest a bad name.

  3. Even beyond what this article states, the whole global warming movement and even the standard pollution movement is supported by many (not all) because it is a perfect weapon to attack capitalism with. It is not about companies running profits selling solar panels, it is about having politicians with the correct ideological leanings supporting it. Does anyone believe that the average left wing protester is going to start supporting someone like BP, if they suddenly made 90% of their profit from solar power, I doubt it.

    1. Well, to some extent, I think you are right. Exxon does a fair deal of research on biofuels, and some chemical companies have made significant progress (ie, production-scale chemical plants that use renewable feedstocks), yet some people will still hate them. I don’t think that makes this an issue worth ignoring, though. It only makes it all the more imperative to prevent Solyndras.

      1. Corporations should always be guided by the wise hand of government. If they would only stop fighting us on tax policy we could make some real progress in this country.

        1. Not even the real Tony is that dumb.

          1. Tony is a smart guy. I disagree with him on a lot of points, but I’m not going to go so far as to say the man lacks intellect.

            1. His idiocy is systemic; it comes from a basic lack of either reasoning capacity or lack of will to follow arguments to their logical conclusion. I stand by my statement.

              1. The old cognitive dissonance argument eh? Well I’ll let Tony answer for that one. In the mean time, stop stealing his identity.

    2. Actually, if BP turns over all their corporate authority to the Obama Administration like GM did, they and the left will be best friends regardless of how they affect the environment! 😉

  4. “The project that we supported succeeded,” he said. “The facility was producing the product it said it would produce.”

    Great, you produced ten tons worth of nails. Now try to find someone who needs a ten ton nail. This administration is beholden to so many historically disproven economic fads that it is not credible that they are so ignorant.

    1. In Soviet Union…. ah screw the jokes we are so fucked!!!!!

    2. We elected a faculty lounge intellectual President. In faculty lounges they actually believe this shit. It is as if 1989 never happened.

      1. Intellectual my ass. The guy went to law school, big deal. So did I, and I can tell you that it’s not the calling of intellectuals. This guy knows jack shit about economics and doesn’t care to. His policies have one purpose: to slowly but surely attack the flanks of capitalism. Every dollar he taxes and spends is a dollar he can control, and that’s all he cares about. The evidence we’ve already seen is that no one in the administration believed Solyndra was viable when they made this loan and they simply did not give a shit.

        1. I said “faculty lounge intellectual”. That is a pretty low bar. Yes, faculty lounge intellectuals are not particularly intellectual and don’t know a damn thing about how the real world operates or the realities of markets and economics. But sadly, they think they know a lot.

          1. Well on that we certainly agree.

      2. It’s more like common sense never happened.

  5. Obama promised to “help create five million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next ten years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future.”

    Picking up on Jacob’s “subsidies based on good intentions”, note that Obama could just as well have said “help cure cancer” or “help put a woman on Mars by the end of the decade”. Help Win The Future!

    1. How about all these Obama supporters run off and try to win the future on their own merits?

  6. Might as well pay people to dig holes and fill them back up again.
    The end result would be the same.

    1. Now we’re cooking!

      (ummm….can I be in charge of it?)

      1. Let’s put several people in charge of it. That will maximise resource use with minimum actual results thus improving the economy even more. Krugman is ideal for one of these positions.

  7. Obama failed them, he should have ordered government agencies to buy up Solyndra’s product.

    1. +1

      Or, dare I say it, ordered American citzens ….

      1. Oh, stop with your conspiracy mongering. It would be so unconstitutional for the president to force people to purchase a product from a private [cough] compan… [COUGH HACK-ACK]

        Aw, snap! I choaked on my own sarcasm. Dammit.

        1. Or take money from GE and then make it illegal to sell ordinary lightbulbs, allowing Ge to close American factories and then force Americans to buy GE $40 LED bulbs.

          Man that’s too much for me to make sound funny.

          1. Have you shopped for a flashlight lately?

            All that is available are these LED pieces of shit that don’t light anything more than ten feet away and cost a minimum of ten bucks.

            It’s total bullshit.

            1. Whatever. You stumbling around in the dark and breaking your ankle is how we WIN THE FUTURE. Sacrifices have to be made. One of those sacrifices is you. Have fun with the fat embolism that’s rushing toward your brain, brave eco-warrior.

            2. All that is available are these LED pieces of shit that don’t light anything more than ten feet away and cost a minimum of ten bucks.

              Well, yeah, if you buy a $10 flashlight, you get what you pay for.

              I’ve got a fistful of LED flashlights that will actually blind you temporarily if you get the beam in the face.

              1. I’ve got a fistful of LED flashlights that will actually blind you temporarily if you get the beam in the face.

                I’d be happy to pay a dollar for a plastic tube containing a spring, a wire and a fucking incandescent fucking light fucking bulb fucking fuckity fuck! Batteries not included.

                1. I use cordless LED lights at work pretty often. Of course, the good ones cost roughly $90, plus another $100 battery. But damn do they produce some good light!

                  In contrast, a standard corded droplight costs about 10 bucks.

            3. I love it how making things way too expensive “wins the future.” How about these morons try living for today since they can’t seem to put light on their future any better then their worthless “inexpensive” lightbulbs.

            4. There are some phenomenal LED flashlights on the market.

              SureFire makes great ones, as does Elzetta.

              The flashlights they sell at Walmart are for old women. Stop being a nancy and get a decent one.

              1. “Stop being a nancy and get a decent one.”

                I don’t WANT a decent LED flashlight.

                I want the liberty to purchase a cheap inefficient incandescent light bulb powered flash light because flashlights get misplaced and lost.

                I don’t want to spend a bunch of money on something that my wife or children will lose.

                I want something cheap and effective yet disposable since I can’t count on my family to take care of it.

                Eh?

              2. “Stop being a nancy and get a decent one.”

                What if you can’t afford a decent one you silly ass?

            5. Ok, I am as anti-socialist govt as any libetarian here, but stop overreaching about LED flashlights.
              First of all they are brighter, and they last longer, and they cost less, I have seen them for $2.
              Don’t lose credibility on real things by overstating unrealities.

    2. This argument is being made in many liberal circles.

      Nationalize it to make it profitable!

      1. Not quite. Profits are evil, remember?

        Nationalize it to make it profitable keep the workers employed!

        ftfy

        1. Not quite. Union jobs are profits to collectivist nitwits.

          Remember: Words only mean what they say they mean… “profits” can just be sacrificed on the rhetorical altar like aggression, coercion, voluntary, consent, spending cut, war, trust fund, investment, insurance, pension, contract, lender, stockholder, capitalism, liberal, etc…

          I suspect they with go after “a,” “and,” and “the” next.

          1. *will* go after. I’m gettin’ too old for this shit, Riggs.

            1. Depends on what the definition of “is” is.

          2. They’ve already gone after person.

    3. Yeah, they could have done something productive with them, like fire them at the Libyans or a Pakistani wedding party.

  8. That green lightbulb in the teaser photo looks like an incredulous alien in a turtleneck. Even Gloknar of the Krendaab Nebula can tell that Obama is full of it.

    1. LOL, Fist! That was exactly *my* first impression.

        1. Apophenia +humor. Nice.

  9. In the end, the factory’s machines will be bought up by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Inc and shipped to set up some slave factory in the interior.

    1. And people will flock to the factory because the standard of living for a “slave” is better than the hand to mouth subsistence living in the countryside.

      1. Everybody wins!

    2. China doesn’t do much slave-factorying. That’s more of a Haitian thing. As it turns out slaves aren’t very good at making most stuff – even in the Southeastern US they were only used to work the easy farmlands.

  10. Anyone remember the knock that Bush would not admit mistakes? Well isn’t this far worse? Here we have an obviously failed government loan and the administration can’t even say “whoops, our bad. Sorry everyone.” Instead they are (pointlessly and stupidly) trying to convince the american people that they shit sandwiches served up by Obama are really chocolate ice cream.

    1. Of course Bush did admit mistakes. He fired Rumsfeld and changed his approach to Iraq after the 06 elections. He also signed the Post Katrina Emergency Reform Act that radically changed the way we respond to disasters after Katrina, although it is debatable that was a good thing. But Bush did sign it and change course after Katrina. Obama got slapped worse in the 2010 mid terms and didn’t fire anyone or change a single policy as a result. Has Obama ever made a correction as a result of a failure?

      1. he hasn’t divorced his wife yet.

        1. He should hurt you for saying that. I’m not joking.

    2. He does not make mistakes, it is the right propaganda machine that is making it look like mistakes.

      1. And it’s the left propaganda machine that makes you make asinine comments like this.

        1. Successful troll is successful.

    3. Chocolate ice cream sandwiches. With the vanilla wafers.

  11. Soylandra is people! It’s peeepuuaaal!!!

    1. God that is a convenient name.

    2. If only Charlton Heston was still alive.

  12. What’s with the beefy Obama in the picture, anyway? It looks like he plays free safety for someone.

    Note to libs: Your President is a skinny geek.* Deal with it.

    *NTTAWWT

  13. “The project that we supported succeeded,” he said. “The facility was producing the product it said it would produce.”

    You mean it succeeded before it failed? Well that’s why I was for it before I was against it.

  14. It’s not the earth that’s broken Jacob, it’s man. Everything is good in this universe but man.

    At least they’ll allow us 25,000 hunter-gatherers when it’s all done. The rest shall be fed to crocodiles.

    1. Good idea, but that will just lead to a new Obama in 25,000 years.

    2. The Tree of the Knowledge of Conservative and Liberal?

    3. By the way, wasn’t it supposed to be burning sulfur, not crocidiles? I guess they’ll have to visit Hillary Clintons medicine cabinet.

    4. That’s how they’ll fill the moat

  15. “The facility was producing the product it said it would produce.”

    This is the same logic communists in Eastern Europe used for decades.

    Today, with those countries becoming more and more capitalistic, we’re becoming more and more like they were.

    And will suffer the same exact fate.

  16. Obama, who bragged about the 3,000 workers who built Solyndra’s factory and the 1,000 who were employed there, ignores the possibility of alternative, more productive uses for resources squandered on bad, government-subsidized investments. Those uses would create jobs too, although not ones for which he could take credit.

    The last sentence is the heart of the matter. Americans always want the president to “do something,” and Obama obliged them with “See? Looky here! Now vote for me in 2012!”

  17. It’s not the earth that’s broken Jacob, it’s man. agree…

  18. It’s not the earth that’s broken Jacob, it’s man. agree…

  19. ” This policy is rooted in the broken planet fallacy…”

    That’s a good one.

    I’ll have to remember that for future reference.

  20. Can anybody counter the argument that the Capitalistic system and Free Market are the most powerful “environmental” forces on the planet? How else are scarce resources applied to their maximum efficiency than by each individual making their most informed decisions, with their own resources at stake, considering the best information they can access?

  21. I’ve been making this argument for years. Government jobs are simply welfare with a shovel. Wouldn’t it be much more cost effective to just give the unemployed enough food stamps and healthcare to get by while they look for a real job? It wouldn’t cost 200,000 dollars per person, that’s for sure.

    The only argument against such a proposal is that people would lose valuable skills while unemployed. Newsflash! People don’t forget everything in a few years of unemployment. And how much were they going to learn in a couple of years? Maybe their “career” will be slowed down a little, but the idea of national sclerosis occurring because people sat home for three years seems a bit extreme. Besides, people learn new things in their free time these days than ever before.

  22. My favorite was the free golf cart program, cash for clunkers came in second.

  23. There is no anthropogenic global warming.

    In other words, mankind does NOT cause global warming.

    However, the climate DOES change on its own – blame it on nature.

    Human beings adapt to changes in climate. That’s what makes us so bad-ass. Other animals, they tend to go extinct. Us? Not so much.

    You cannot stop global warming.

    You cannot stop global cooling.

    Neither can you start either one of them.

    I’m beginning to think that all of this AGW baloney at Reason.com is the result of the staff using a little too much “Mother Nature”…try cutting back.

    1. I got the impression that Reason was subtlely against AGW theory; that was my take on it.
      I think they have to couch it that way so as not to be dismissed outright in certain circles that they are otherwise popular in.

  24. I think the liberals who are seriously steeped in this global warming frenzy are on the verge of anti-human psychosis….possibly mental collapse. Next thing you know, they’ll be terrorizing The Discovery Channel for “encouraging humans to multiply”

  25. “According to EnergySavvy.com … spending $25,000 to make a pre-1977 home more energy-efficient might save $1,000 a year in fuel costs, meaning it would take a quarter of a century to recover the investment.”

    Not to nitpick, but the reality is actually worse than that. Unless that $25,000 is available at a cost of less than 4% per annum, the investment will never be recovered.

  26. I think these types of articles are a bloody waste of time, totally accurate though they usually – as in this case – are. Readers either already in general agree, and gain only a little more evidence of which they already have an abundant supply, or their Faith prevents them from considering such an argument or such truths, and they will therefor in almost every case not read them at all or ignore them if read.

    1. True. I’ve always preferred more eclectic, unconsidered material in my blog. It’s more likely to persuade if it totally knocks the guy a new one.

  27. time value of money seems to be a concept lacking from ALL green initiatives.

    Take $100,000, get back $2000 per year and in 50 years you are making money! Unicorn accountants all agree.

    1. but, but, what about all the bankruptcy attorneys whose jobs were made or saved?

  28. To liberals, the economy is this big thing that you push and prod with taxes and regulations and more taxes and more regulations and presto, out of it will come jobs, jobs, jobs! It is a child-like vision out of the 1970s from which liberals never left – except to move left.

    1. So true.
      The mentality is magical thinking.
      Liberals somehow at the gut level think that if it is money “coming from the govt” that it is free money instantiated out of thin air. They do not consider that the money actually came from hard working people who are not getting a benefit from ‘discretionary’ spending some govt geek decided to pay.
      I am also quite skeptical of this ‘multiplier’ effect liberals seem so fond of citing. Govt money put into some endeavor, has already taken that money out of the economy. That notwithstanding, where does this extra multiplied money come from. The hope for catalysis in sheer investment, where the new money just comes from somewhere, is more magical thinking.

  29. Also missing is an analysis of how much GHG is generated to construct and install the windows.

  30. But global warming (if it occurs) would be an economic blessing. The last time we had significant global warming (around 1000 AD), agriculture flourished and humanity with it. Greenland became inhabitable and the Vikings settled there.

  31. I know when someone is legitimately concerned about climate change and greenhouse gases when they advocate strongly for deregulation of nuclear energy. The industry doesn’t need subsidies or anything (though I know some investors lobby for them anyway.) If nuclear was not so heavily regulated it would easily compete with coal and other sources on its own.

    Some individuals have said nuclear is just like a conservative version of green energy and that it can’t perform on it’s own. The reason we haven’t seen more plants built is purely due to regulation, not lack of profitability.

    Anyone who wants to keep nuclear from expanding on its own is insincere. Most of the green movement doesn’t want green energy, they want less energy and fewer people using it.

    1. I believe what you are saying too.
      Nuclear energy is a net, and profitable, gain to society, AGW notwithstanding.
      But Stossel had some guests that claimed that Nuclear NRG absolutely required govt subsidies, and protection from lawsuits to exist.
      I am not so sure.

  32. Great article. We all need to hold our government to account.

    I’d love to see a comparison of promised jobs to actual jobs. That first Obama promise of 5M jobs with $150B works out to $30K per job created. Hahaha. We’ve seen after-the-fact estimates of millions per job created.

    Part of the appeal of subsidizing new industries is our collapsing national self confidence. We no longer believe we can compete on even footing. Sad. http://bit.ly/owKUrZ

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.