Everyone hates their taxes being spent on subsidies – – unless it’s to
subsidize their own industry. It’s time for an honest debate about the role of
subsidies in a 21st Century economy and, at least, a restructuring
to a more level playing field.
Examples? When I served in California state government, the
Schwarzenegger administration tried for three years to push through a solar
incentive package. Ultra-conservative State Senator Tom McClintock rose during
the debate in red-faced indignation and bitterly opposed any subsidy of an
industry that couldn’t stand on its own two feet. I’ve heard that argument
repeatedly, often by the same politicians who support massive subsidies to the
oil and coal incumbents, despite the fact such “incentives” are hardly needed
to get fossil fuels out of the ground.
The latest salvo comes from President Bush, who yesterday said it was
time to end subsidies to “multimillionaire farmers.” He was addressing a point
about sharp increases in food prices, making wealthy agribusinesses even
wealthier, partially the result of rising fuel costs and ill-conceived
government mandates/incentives to produce ethanol. Ironically, the President
told Congress he would veto any bill than shifts even a small portion of the $100
billion/year subsidies given to oil companies towards alternative energy
Given that oil companies are recording profits that are the highest in
the history of commerce – – not just in the oil business, in the history of ALL
commerce – – it is hard to fathom. Moreover, some say the incentives are still
needed to keep oil companies investing in new oil exploration and to build more
refinery capacity. But few new discoveries are being made or exploited and
refinery expansion lags demand by an increasing and exponential pace. So much
for performance-based subsidies.
The role of subsidies should not be annuities for wealthy campaign
contributors, but should be used as a way to level the playing field when
incumbents have been given a similar (or far greater) head start. They should
be strategically used to jumpstart businesses that will provide multiple
benefits to the people – – in the case of incentives for renewable fuels or
clean energy technology, the benefits are domestic jobs, reduced dependence on
a shrinking fuel source, exports, improved public health by reducing pollution,
and a planet that is less at risk of biting us in the backside with ever more
drastic climate change impacts.
Those multiple benefits are something the incumbents can’t provide – –
and it’s time to tilt the playing field in the direction of positive outcomes
and end the fossil-fueled, taxpayer-funded boondoggles to the rich.