Editorial do WSJ
The more we learn about the Solyndra solar-company debacle, the more the Obama Administration leaps to defend the $535 million loan guarantee. "There were going to be some companies that did not work out; Solyndra was one of them," President Obama told reporters Thursday. Earlier in the week he told ABC News "if we want to compete with China, which is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into this space . . . we've got to make sure that our guys here in the United States of America at least have a shot."
And there you have America's Solyndra economy, as the White House understands it: Washington allocates capital, and taxpayers pick up the tab if those choices go bust. Through this political lens, the August bankruptcy of the Fremont, Calif. company was a necessary casualty in the greater campaign to steer the U.S. economy toward Mr. Obama's noble goals. Private competition that winnows out losers is so yesterday.
As it happens, we're getting a look at what this world of political investment entails thanks to Administration emails released last week by House Democrats on the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and the White House. Democrats say the emails reveal a "vigorous internal debate" about the Solyndra deal and dispel accusations of crony capitalism.
The opposite is closer to reality. Solyndra received federal help in 2009 and never turned a profit. In March 2010, PriceWaterhouseCoopers raised questions about the company's solvency. The next month, a White House Office of Management and Budget staffer worried that the Department of Energy "has one loan to monitor and they seem completely oblivious." Another said it was "terrifying" to consider that some of DOE's next projects would make Solyndra look "better."
Insiders raised alarms, too. Obama donor and venture capitalist Steve Westly wrote to senior White House aide Valerie Jarrett in May and said "many of us believe the company's cost structure will make it difficult for them to survive long term." Ms. Jarrett wrote to Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff, Ron Klain, who contacted the Department of Energy. But DOE expressed confidence in Solyndra, with one official noting that "we believe the company is okay in the medium term, but will need some help of one kind or another down the road."
Instead of launching a more serious inquiry, Mr. Klain supported a pending Presidential visit to Solyndra's factory, advising Ms. Jarrett of "risk factors" but adding that "it looks like it is OK to me, but if you feel otherwise, let me know." Ms. Jarrett replied "I'm comfortable if you're comfortable," and Mr. Klain responded, "The reality is that if POTUS visited 10 such places over the next 10 months, probably a few will be belly-up by election day 2012—but that to me is the reality of saying that we want to help promote cutting edge, new economy industries."
Here's more "reality." On August 20, 2009, a DOE staffer asked "how can we advance a project . . . that generates a working capital shortfall of $50 [million] when working capital assumptions are entered into the model?," adding "it also simply won't stand up to review by oversight bodies." Solyndra's federal loan guarantee closed the following month.
Then there are the still-hazy insider dealings, another inevitable feature of government-led investment. An Obama fundraiser, Steven Spinner, took an advisory role at DOE and pushed for the loan to proceed, even as his wife's law firm advised on the same deal. (DOE and the couple deny any undue influence.) Earlier this year, DOE reworked the Solyndra loan guarantee as the company floundered and put private creditors ahead of taxpayers. This newspaper reported Friday that Treasury raised alarms about the legality of such a move, although it's unclear when that happened.
Brad Jones of Redpoint Ventures got to the heart of the Solyndra economy in a December 2009 email to then-National Economic Council director Larry Summers: "The allocation of spending to clean energy is haphazard; the government is just not well equipped to decide which companies should get the money and how much . . . One of our solar companies with revenues of less than $100 million (and not yet profitable) received a government loan of $580 million; while that is good for us, I can't imagine it's a good way for the government to use taxpayer money."
Which is precisely the point. The emerging sophisticated defense of Solyndra is Mr. Obama's suggestion that if China subsidizes its industries "of the future," then we must too. But in a free-market economy, which America used to be, private investors decide which industries will succeed in the future, and bet their own money on it. The proper role for government is to support basic research, not commercial ventures that become exercises in taxpayer risk but private reward.
When government takes $535 million and invests in a loser, it not only wastes taxpayer money but it also denies that capital to some other project in the private economy that might have succeeded. The Solyndra emails show how ill-equipped government is to predict the industries of the present, much less the future.