Bill McKibben’s 5 Rules for Subsidies
1. Don’t subsidize those who already have plenty of cash on hand. No one would propose a government program of low-interest loans to send the richest kids in the country to college. (It’s true that schools may let them in more easily on the theory that their dads will build gymnasiums, but that’s a different story.) We assume that the wealthy will pay full freight. Similarly, we should assume that the fossil-fuel business, the most profitable industry on Earth, should pay its way, too. What possible reason is there for giving Exxon the odd billion in extra breaks? Year after year the company sets record for money-making — last year it managed to rake in a mere $41 billion in profit, just failing to break its own 2008 all-time mark of $45 billion.
2. Don’t subsidize people forever. If students need government loans to help them get bachelor’s degrees, that’s sound policy. But if they want loans to get their 11th BA, they should pay themselves. We learned how to burn coal 300 years ago. A subsidized fossil-fuel industry is the equivalent of a 19-year-old repeating third grade yet again.
3. Sometimes you’ll subsidize something for a sensible reason and it won’t work out. The government gave some of our money to a solar power company called Solyndra. Though it was small potatoes compared to what we hand over to the fossil-fuel industry, it still stung when they lost it. But since we’re in the process of figuring out how to perfect solar power and drive down its cost, it makes sense to subsidize it. Think of it as the equivalent of giving a high-school senior a scholarship to go to college. Most of the time that works out. But since I live in a college town, I can tell you that 20% of kids spend four years drinking: they’re human Solyndras. It’s not exactly a satisfying thing to see happen, but we don’t shut down the college as a result.
4. Don’t subsidize something you want less of. At this point, the greatest human challenge is to get off of fossil fuels. If we don’t do it soon, the climatologists tell us, our prospects as a civilization are grim indeed. So lending a significant helping hand to companies intent on driving us towards disaster is perverse. It’s like giving a fellowship to a graduate student who wants to pursue a thesis on “Strategies for Stimulating Donut Consumption Among Diabetics.”
5. Don’t give subsidies to people who have given you cash. Most of the men and women who vote in Congress each year to continue subsidies have taken campaign donations from big energy companies. In essence, they’ve been given small gifts by outfits to whom they then return large presents, using our money, not theirs. It’s a good strategy, if you’re an energy company — or maybe even a congressional representative eager to fund a reelection campaign. Oil Change International estimates that fossil-fuel companies get $59 back for every dollar they spend on donations and lobbying, a return on investment that makes Bernie Madoff look shabby. It’s no different from sending a college financial aid officer a hundred-dollar bill in the expectation that he’ll give your daughter a scholarship worth tens of thousands of dollars. Bribery is what it is. And there’s no chance it will yield the best energy policy or the best student body.
- Bill McKibben