Acton Institute Powerblog

Top 5 Lessons from the Solyndra Failure

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The green tech firm Solyndra secured at $535 million federal loan guarantee in 2009 and was touted as an example of a promising green future. A month ago, the company went bankrupt. Here are the top five lessons we should learn from Solyndra’s collapse.

5. Both sides of the aisle are involved. Republican support of federal “investment” is routine — in fact, the DOE program that made Solyndra’s loan was approved by President Bush. It is true that Solyndra’s original application to the Bush era loan program was denied by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but then stimulus bill was passed, with Republican support in the Senate.

4. Stimulus tends to be wasted, and gigantic stimulus is wasted gigantically. The DOE guaranteed loan program’s budget was almost doubled by the stimulus bill, and it became more a money-shoveling operation than a subsidized bank. As Steven F. Hayward wrote in The Weekly Standard, “More than one DOE staffer told me at the time that they didn’t know how they were going to be able to spend all the stimulus money being thrown at the department.”

(Personally, I thought the stimulus bill was great — stimulus money disbursed by the NIH funded my part time job in a lab through college and a lot of the fancy equipment I got to use, but it’s unclear how that use of public money accomplished the Congress’s goal.)

3. Government money turns businesses into consumers, not producers. The Washington Post reported that Solyndra began spending money wildly once it received the DOE loan. “After we got the loan guarantee, they were just spending money left and right,” said a former engineer at the company. And as the Energy Department found itself disbursing money rather than “investing” it, businesses that wanted that money adjusted their efforts accordingly. Investing decisions are made based on a company’s product: can it sell enough to profit its investors? Free money is passed out with considerably less forethought.

Businesses that are serious about getting their share of government cheese (especially businesses like Solyndra for whom the government loan is four or five times the amount of a private investment) turn their focus away from producing something in a financially sustainable way, and become as dependent on government as the clients of the Roman Senate.

2. This story is applicable to the rest of green jobs. Solar trade groups have been defending federal support of the industry, saying for example “You can’t judge an industry by the bankruptcy of one company.” But though Solyndra had its personal demons — its chief competitive advantage evaporated, for instance, when the price of polysilicone fell 85 percent — there’s nothing to distinguish the main faults of this loan deal from any other the DOE might make. These types of disbursals, whichever bureau they come from and whomever they go to, encourage consumption instead of production.

1. Entrepreneurs drive economic growth. Government subsidies pervert the natural incentives of a free market, which is why they’re a bad way to create jobs. They also pervert the nature of work, and in that way violate the Christian vocation. As I explained in an Acton Commentary, the government commodifies workers when it buys jobs, because it strips them of the dignity of productive work and treats them like so many votes to be bought.

Kenneth Spence