Tag: green energy

Washington Post Sees Solar Panel Duties for What They Are: Self-Flagellation

The Washington Post was channeling the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies in this morning’s succinct and insightful editorial about the foolishness of taxing imports of Chinese solar panels.

The editorial picks up a few of the themes and draws very similar policy conclusions to those we have been advocating for many years and, without stating it explicitly, presents a compelling case for major reform, if not repeal, of the trade remedies laws.

For context, last week the U.S. Commerce Department published the final rates of duty calculated in both antidumping and countervailing duty (anti-subsidy) investigations of imports of Chinese solar panels, which were initiated in October 2011. (Here are some earlier thoughts on the matter.)

Formal antidumping and countervailing duty orders will take effect, probably, next month following a final determination by the U.S. International Trade Commission that the U.S. solar panel industry has been materially injured by these Chinese imports.

The thrust of the editorial is that the antidumping and countervailing duties, which are “calculated” by Commerce using an absurdly inaccurate, punitive methodology, will hurt other U.S. companies that are downstream and upstream of the solar panel producers in the production supply chain.

Noting the transnational nature of solar panel production, the editorial states:

U.S. firms that export polysilicon, a key material in the panels’ manufacture, or machinery to Chinese solar-panel makers could lose – if not because of the direct influence of the tariffs themselves, then because of the Chinese government’s likely reaction. Analysts worry that the Chinese will retaliate by slapping duties on U.S. polysilicon. Also at risk is the U.S. solar installation business, which has thrived during this period of low-cost panels.

This is one of the critical defects of the AD/CVD regime. It focuses like a laser on assisting industries seeking protection from competition while systematically—indeed statutorily—ignoring the adverse impacts of that “assistance” on downstream U.S. industries. (Bastiat points out that people tend to err by focusing on what is immediately seen, while failing to consider the ripple effects of actions that are less readily observed; U.S. trade remedy law demands that we commit that error!)

Much more often than not (80% of AD measures in the last decade), the foreign product subject to duties is an intermediate good required by downstream U.S. industries. And these downstream firms—the overwhelming victims of AD/CVD duties—have no legal standing in the proceedings that lead to the imposition of duties that raise their costs of production and drive them offshore or out of business. Under the statutes, the U.S. International Trade Commission is forbidden from considering the likely impact on downstream firms. In this age of globalized production and transnational supply chains, nothing could be more absurd.

About the so-called non-market economy methodology used to calculate margins of dumping and, ultimately, duty rates in Chinese (and Vietnamese) antidumping cases, the editorial asks:

But how much should a Chinese-made solar panel cost? The answer isn’t obvious. Commerce’s estimating methods—using Thailand’s economy as a surrogate for China’s—don’t inspire confidence.

These Cato papers (here and here) provide the dirty details of the capriciousness inherent in NME antidumping methodology. This brand new Cato analysis from Scott Lincicome, which documents—among other things—the global green energy subsidies race, explains how the U.S. countervailing duty law does not redress foreign subsidization, but rather punishes U.S. consuming industries and end-users. Getting tough on China means America’s wealth and jobs creators take it on the chin.

In closing, the editorial states:

And if the Chinese want to subsidize U.S. solar-panel buyers for the time being, there’s a good case to let them.

This is just another example of the administration’s policies working at cross purposes. To the fanfare of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, President Obama has rhetorically championed the idea of greening our energy consumption profile. Of course, one of the biggest obstacles to that goal has been that the costs don’t justify the benefits. Hasn’t Chinese dumping and subsidization helped to reduce that obstacle? And aren’t duties on Chinese solar panels anathema to that goal?

Duties on solar panels, wind towers, and presidential interventions to block foreign investments in U.S. wind farms suggest that industrial policy—and not environmental policy—explains the president’s interest in green energy.

Recognizing in an editorial that duties imposed to benefit one industry or one firm (as is often the case with trade remedies measures) cause collateral damage to other industries is a laudable development for the Washington Post.  We look forward to the follow-up editorial calling for explicit repeal of the self-flagellating U.S. antidumping law.

Political Support for Energy’s Loan Guarantees

Several weeks ago, 127 House Republicans joined 155 Democrats to defeat an amendment introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) that would have shut down the Department of Energy’s Title 17 loan guarantee program. That’s the program that gave birth to Solyndra, which has come to symbolize the failure of the Obama administration’s crony capitalist policies.

Why would members of Congress, and Republicans in particular, continue to support this federal boondoggle incubator? A new paper from Cato adjunct scholar Veronique de Rugy that looks at the Energy loan guarantees explains:

One reason is it serves three powerful constituencies: lawmakers, bankers, and the companies that receive the subsidized loans. Politicians are able to use loan programs to reward interest groups while hiding the costs. Congress can approve billions of dollars in loan guarantees with little or no impact to the appropriations or deficit because they are almost entirely off-budget. Moreover, unlike the Solyndra case, most failures take years to occur, allowing politicians to collect the rewards of granting a loan to a special interest while skirting political blame years later when or if the project defaults. It’s like buying a house on credit without having a trace of the transaction on your credit report.

Veronique notes that most of the money for the loan guarantees issued under section 1705 of Title 17 have gone to large and established companies:

These include established utility firms, large multinational manufacturers, and a global real estate investment fund. In addition, the data shows that nearly 90 percent of the loans guaranteed by the federal government since 2009 went to subsidize lower-risk power plants, which in many cases were backed by big companies with vast resources. This includes loans such as the $90 million guarantee granted to Cogentrix, a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs. Currently, Goldman Sachs ranks number 80 on the list of America’s Fortune 500 companies.

In recent testimony before the House Budget Committee, Chris Edwards and I also discussed the crony nature of the president’s “green” energy subsidies:

President Obama’s green energy programs illustrate how corporate welfare creates corrupting relationships between businesses and politicians. The Washington Post found that “$3.9 billion in federal [energy] grants and financing flowed to 21 companies backed by firms with connections to five Obama administration staffers and advisers.” It also noted that the “main players in the Solyndra saga were interconnected in many ways, as investors enjoyed access to the White House and the Energy Department.” According to the New York Times, Solyndra “spent nearly $1.8 million on Washington lobbyists, employing six firms with ties to members of Congress and officials of the Obama White House.”

American businesses, of course, have a right to lobby the federal government. But given that reality, Congress throws fuel onto the corruption fire by creating business subsidy programs. When subsidy money flows out the door from Washington to businesses at the same time that money flows back from businesses to Washington for lobbying, it’s no surprise that we get influence-peddling. Corporate welfare undermines honest and transparent governance, and Americans are sick and tired of the inevitable scandals.

Unfortunately, most members of Congress apparently aren’t sick and tired of it.

The Trouble with Centralization

Jay P. Greene’s discussion of national education standards in the Wall Street Journal applies to more than just education:

Proposing that all children meet the same standards is essentially proposing a nationalized system of education. Some reformers may argue otherwise, but the truth is that standards drive testing, which in turn drives what material is covered, as well as how and when it is taught.

Such uniformity would only make sense if: 1) there was a single best way for all students to learn; 2) we knew what it was; 3) we could be sure the people running this nationalized education system would adopt that correct approach; and 4) they would remain in charge far into the future. But that isn’t how things are.

Those are good cautions to keep in mind when we discuss centralized and mandatory plans for anything, from subsidizing green energy to nation-building in Afghanistan.

Solyndra: A Political-Energy Company

Good reporting shouldn’t go unnoticed just because it appeared during the week after Christmas, so let me draw your attention to a comprehensive article on the front page of the December 26 Washington Post by Joe Stephens and Carol Leonnig:

Meant to create jobs and cut reliance on foreign oil, Obama’s green-technology program was infused with politics at every level, The Washington Post found in an analysis of thousands of memos, company records and internal ­e-mails. Political considerations were raised repeatedly by company investors, Energy Department bureaucrats and White House officials….

The documents reviewed by The Post … show that as Solyndra tottered, officials discussed the political fallout from its troubles, the “optics” in Washington and the impact that the company’s failure could have on the president’s prospects for a second term. Rarely, if ever, was there discussion of the impact that Solyndra’s collapse would have on laid-off workers or on the development of clean-energy technology.

Did you know that when the president visits a factory, his aides tell the workers what to wear? Keep digging in the documents:

Like most presidential appearances, Obama’s May 2010 stop at Solyndra’s headquarters was closely managed political theater.

Obama’s handlers had lengthy e-mail discussions about how solar panels should be displayed (from a robotic arm, it was decided). They cautioned the company’s chief executive against wearing a suit (he opted for an open-neck shirt and black slacks) and asked another executive to wear a hard hat and white smock. They instructed blue-collar employees to wear everyday work clothes, to preserve what they called “the construction-worker feel.”

This story has all the hallmarks of government decision making: officials spending other people’s money with little incentive to spend it prudently, political pressure to make decisions without proper vetting, the substitution of political judgment for the judgments of millions of investors, the enthusiastic embrace of fads like “green energy,” political officials ignoring warnings from civil servants, crony capitalism, close connections between politicians and the companies that benefit from government allocation of capital, the appearance—at least—of favors for political supporters, and the kind of promiscuous spending that has delivered us $15 trillion in national debt. It may end up being a case study in political economy. And if you want government to guide the economy, to pick winners, to override market investments, then this is what you want.

More on Solyndra here and here.

The Solyndra Story Keeps Unfolding

Is the taxpayers’ lost $535 million in the green-energy company Solyndra just an unfortunate business failure, or is there something more scandalous involved? You should read every word of this front-page New York Times article. Sure, it says that “no evidence has emerged that political favoritism played a role in what administration officials assert were merit-based decisions.” But the story is full of smoking guns.

Here’s the opening:

President Obama’s visit to the Solyndra solar panel factory in California last year was choreographed down to the last detail—the 20-by-30-foot American flags, the corporate banners hung just so, the special lighting, even coffee and doughnuts for the Secret Service detail.

“It’s here that companies like Solyndra are leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future,” the president declared in May 2010 to the assembled workers and executives. The start-up business had received a $535 million federal loan guarantee, offered in part to reassert American dominance in solar technology while generating thousands of jobs.

But behind the pomp and pageantry, Solyndra was rotting inside, hemorrhaging cash so quickly that within weeks of Mr. Obama’s visit, the company canceled plans to offer shares to the public. Barely a year later, Solyndra has become one of the administration’s most costly fumbles after the company declared bankruptcy, laid off 1,100 workers and was raided by F.B.I. agents seeking evidence of possible fraud.

Solyndra’s two top officers are to appear Friday before a House investigative committee where, their lawyers say, they will assert their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

And there’s more:

[Solyndra’s] lobbyists corresponded frequently and met at least three times with an aide to a top White House official, Valerie B. Jarrett, to push for loans, tax breaks and other government assistance… Energy Department preliminary loan approvals—including the one for Solyndra—were granted at times before officials had completed mandatory evaluations of the financial and engineering viability of the projects.

…[T]he company spent nearly $1.8 million on Washington lobbyists, employing six firms with ties to members of Congress and officials of the Obama White House. None of the other three solar panel manufacturers that eventually got federal loan guarantees spent a dime on lobbyists… Solyndra’s loan guarantee was the highest of the four companies…

Five lobbyists employed by the McBee group eventually worked on Solyndra’s behalf, including Michael Sheehy, a former top aide to Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader. Solyndra has paid McBee Consulting $340,000 since 2009…

Solyndra and its lobbyists continued to provide assurances to the White House and the Energy Department, which still could have stopped the flow of federal money…

The story might well be read in conjunction with yesterday’s Washington Post story, which stressed “questionable spending by management almost as soon as a federal agency approved a $535 million government-backed loan for the start-up… ‘Because of that infusion of money, it made people sloppy.’”