Politics

Wishing Will Not Make Solyndra Go Away

|

Sgt. Schultz sees nothing.

As the disappearance of half a billion taxpayer dollars in the Solyndra bankruptcy continues to draw public outrage and bipartisan congressional attention, deniers are pretending they can't see the basic outlines of the story

In the Times of New York, columnist Joseph Nocera says there's nothing to see here because the FBI investigation of Solyndra (which, like the investigations by the Departments of Energy and Treasury, was initiated by President Obama's executive branch, not by the congressional Republicans Nocera talks about) probably won't result in any convictions of Solyndra executives: 

If Brian Harrison and W. G. Stover, the two Solyndra executives whotook the Fifth Amendment at a Congressional hearing on Friday, ever spend a day in jail, I'll stand on my head in Times Square.

It's not going to happen, for one simple reason: neither they, nor anyone else connected with Solyndra, have done anything remotely criminal. The company's recent bankruptcy — which the Republicans are now rabidly "investigating" because Solyndra had the misfortune to receive a $535 million federally guaranteed loan from the Obama administration — was largely brought on by a stunning collapse in the price of solar panels over the past year or so.

Meanwhile, Grist writer David Roberts gives his own version of the Sgt. Schultz defense in an interview with Salon: 

What is the basic Republican narrative in this case, and what exactly is being alleged about the Obama administration?

As is typical in these kind of faux scandals, it can be hard to tell exactly what is being alleged. There's just a lot of sort of sturm und drang and hand-waving going on. But if you drill down, basically what Republicans are saying is that it was knowable that this company was in trouble and had a terrible business model but because it was politically connected, Obama officials leaned on the Department of Energy to rush through the approval for the loan guarantee. The broader charge is, "This is what you get for propping up the kinds of energy that are dependent on subsidies. This is what you get when the federal government mixes itself up with specific funding decisions and picking winners and losers and so on."

Neither of these columns really merits a refutation, but since it's an overcast day:

Joseph Nocera isn't sure he sees anything either, but he knows he wants to eat it.

Nocera sets up a straw man and then dares to say it's full of straw. Nobody was talking about criminal activity until Eric Holder's Department of Justice, Steven Chu's Department of Energy and Timothy Geithner's Department of the Treasury started tearing through Solyndra's files. It's extremely suspicious that the executive branch has taken such a hot interest in a company none of its highest officials have been briefed on or even claim to remember—an interest that is conveniently timed to interfere with a very productive congressional investigation. Yesterday this interference bore its first fruit as Harrison and Stover used the FBI investigation as a pretext for their refusal to testify. Nocera doesn't even know what story he's opining about, let alone what the story means.

Roberts' declaring the issue a "faux scandal" out of the gate doesn't invite much response beyond pointing out that the English language has a perfectly good word, "fake," that you can use in place of "faux." In fact, if you "drill down" you don't find Republicans "saying" Solyndra's poor market prospects were "knowable." They're trying to figure out how much of it was known when the Obama Administration committed $535 million of your money to the company. So far, they have been trying to find it out without cooperation from President Obama, Energy Secretary Chu, top advisor Valerie Jarrett, former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel or anybody from DoE or Office of Management and Budget who was actually involved in the loan. 

Despite these handicaps, the investigation by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan) has already provided immense public service. In fact, the House investigation that began in February may have been instrumental in bringing Solyndra's problems to light and preventing the company from burning through another $469 million in public funds. (Certainly the feverish and strange behavior of the DoE this past spring and summer indicates how the administration has been playing catch-up with the congressional probe.) 

In a more sober piece for Time, Brian Walsh explains why the Solyndra story continues to grow even while Nocera and Robertson say it's fading away. Among other things, the knowability Robertson scoffs at was not as unknowable as all that: 

Solyndra's solar modules didn't use silicon—and a couple of years ago, when the loan guarantees were being considered, silicon prices were high and the company's business model might have seemed sound. Silicon prices fell sharply, and suddenly Solyndra was at a major competitive disadvantage—a turn of events that led directly to its collapse.

Unlucky, perhaps, but [investment banker Michael] Butler believes Energy officials should have seen it coming. "Most market people thought that silicon prices were going to fall," he says. "This was not a hard call."

The unpredictable collapse of silicon prices is a fairly recent effort at Solyndra denial. It is no more persuasive than previous attempts to blame Bush and blame The Chinese. But at least it's an effort. Deniers like Nocera and Robertson aren't even trying. 

Update: I didn't follow the whole when-will-MSNBC-say-"Solyndra" too closely, but it looks like the Lean Forward newsnet has finally bent over and accepted the news. First order of business: Resurrecting the 12-days-discredited claim that President Bush is the one who made the loan.