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.
These five rules seem simple and straightforward to me, even if they don't get at the biggest subsidy we give the fossil-fuel business: the right -- alone among industries -- to pour their waste into the atmosphere for free. And then there's the small matter of the money we sink into the military might we must employ to guard the various places they suck oil from.
Simply getting rid of these direct payoffs would, however, be a start, a blow struck for, if nothing else, the idea that we're not just being played for suckers and saps. This is the richest industry on Earth, a planet they're helping wreck, and we're paying them a bonus to do it.
In most schools outside of K Street, that's an answer that would get a failing grade and we'd start calling subsidies by another name. Handouts, maybe. Freebies. Baksheesh. Payola. Or to use the president's formulation, "all of the above."
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
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Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben