It's no secret that, as soon as Congress began debating pandemic-related bailouts and stimulus measures, special interests far and wide descended on Washington, D.C. Every industry and advocacy group seemed to think first and foremost about how it could gain advantage from the impending federal spending spree — and only secondarily about how it could contribute to America's health and recovery. That's par for the course in an age when shame and public-spiritedness seem to have been superseded by cynicism and greed.
At the top of the list of craven business interests that angled for federal preferment was the wind and solar industries. Those who follow the news will remember that congressional Democrats, serving their green energy masters, worked hard to include language in the third (and biggest) coronavirus relief bill aimed at advancing key elements of the Green New Deal. Specifically, the airlines were to be strong-armed into lowering their carbon emissions in return for a federal bailout. When Americans began asking the obvious question — what does a pandemic and a recession have to do with carbon emissions? — the Democrats backed down. Now, they're back, salivating at the prospect of a fourth stimulus bill... and another opportunity to steer federal policy and federal spending in the direction that the green energy crowd wants.
The American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association are pushing for extensions of the federal tax credits that have long undergirded their expansion and profitability. Despite bragging that they have outgrown the need for subsidies (which tend to be regressive and ineffective), these industries are now eyeing a “multi-year extension” of the federal investment tax credits that individuals and businesses receive when they install new wind and/or solar equipment and facilities. Already, tens of billions of federal dollars have propped up these companies — some of them, like Tesla, massive in size. But however many billions we, the taxpayers, throw at the green energy lobby, it's never enough.
What's more, Big Wind and Big Solar are pressing for regulatory reform in their favor, and they're even hinting that Congress might want to consider an unprecedented “direct pay option” — in other words, a stream of revenue that would flow from federal coffers right into their corporate bank accounts. Brilliant!
All this must be understood in context. We are about to enter what many economists expect to be the worst downturn since the Great Depression. In fact, some of them expect that the short-term unemployment rate could actually exceed the level achieved during the Depression. And this is the moment — when America faces unprecedented medical and financial peril — that the wind and solar industry chooses to make its move in Washington, D.C. Incredible.
Once upon a time, corporate America had a sense of patriotism, not to mention self-respect. Once upon a time, business interests never would have dreamed of trying to pad their bottom line just as the American people's backs were against the wall. Times change.
To be fair, some green energy advocates, like Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, are realistic enough to understand that now is not the time for environmentalists or wind and solar executives to pursue decarbonization. He observes that the coronavirus pandemic, and the long and difficult recovery that follows, are “going to cause extraordinary economic pain for a lot of people, most of whom don’t have the privilege of worrying about climate change... It would be tone-deaf to talk about climate change now.” No kidding!
Let's remind the wind and solar industries, and their lobbyists, that decency and selflessness may not be as fashionable as they once were, but they haven't entirely gone out of style. Now is not the time, therefore, to treat the federal government as a piggy bank. Now is the time for every American, in the immortal words of President John F. Kennedy, to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History at SUNY Alfred.