The biggest star in the Obama firmament of green-jobs companies has just imploded. Solyndra, a California-based firm that produced solar panels, declared bankruptcy this week, putting more than a thousand additional workers on the unemployment line.
The Solyndra story tells you all you need to know about President Obama's ability to "create" jobs — green or otherwise.
Solyndra was no ordinary startup. When the company broke ground on its plant, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and California's then-governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, used a golden shovel to dig the first hole. And it wasn't just the shovel that was gold-plated. The company received over half a billion dollars in federal loan guarantees for the project. But U.S. taxpayers will likely never see a dime repaid now that the company has gone into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The loan guarantees were controversial from the outset. The chief investor in Solyndra was George Kaiser, a major Obama fundraiser. The guarantees were part of a $90 billion federal program, but Solyndra was first in line to receive the largesse. House Republicans have subpoenaed White House documents and are now investigating whether Solyndra received favorable treatment because of its political ties. There seems to be more than a whiff of old-fashioned corruption here, but only a thorough investigation will tell.
One thing is certain: The president and secretary of energy made repeated trips to Solyndra's Silicon Valley plant over the last couple of years, using the facility as a backdrop to deliver clean-energy agitprop. The president's most recent trip there occurred in May 2010, not long after a government audit questioned whether the company could even survive.
But that didn't stop Obama from crowing, "The promise of clean energy isn't just an article of faith. It's not just some abstract possibility for science fiction movies or a distant future or 10 years down the road or 20 years. It's happening right now. The future is here."
Indeed — but the future may be very different from the one Obama sees. Solyndra is one of three major solar companies to declare bankruptcy this summer alone. No matter how many speeches the president gives, he can't turn an economically unsustainable enterprise into a profitable one, even if he siphons from the U.S. treasury to do so.
Obama has been obsessed with the idea of creating new clean-energy jobs since the 2008 campaign, when he promised 5 million such jobs over the next decade. The administration claims that it has created or "saved" a quarter million green jobs since the president took office, but there is no way to verify that assertion, since the Bureau of Labor Statistics has yet to even collect data on those jobs.
Despite the dubious track record, a Washington Post report noted that as of June, half of the president's trips to visit private businesses outside of Washington were related to promoting green technology. In all, Obama visited 22 clean-technology projects in 19 separate visits in a two-year period. That's nearly one a month.
What motivates the president's fanaticism? Is it simply blind faith in green technology, or is he chasing another shade of green — namely, cash for his campaign coffer? In 2008, Obama raised twice as much as his Republican opponent from those in the green-tech businesses. Republicans are routinely accused of being the pawns of big oil, but where is the concern that Obama is beholden to the green machine?
Whatever his motivation, the real issue is that government cannot "create" jobs — other than those on its own payroll. There are plenty of private businesses that fail. But the difference between Solyndra's failure and that of, say, the restaurant down the block or even a national chain like Kmart, is that Solyndra was artificially propped up from the get-go by federally guaranteed loans.
If Solyndra's technology, which rested on a new design for solar panels, was as promising as the Obama administration seemed to think, investors willing to risk their own money should have been plentiful. Where were Warren Buffet and the president's other billionaire supporters?
Capitalism has worked to create more jobs than any system since the dawn of civilization. But it works because individuals take risks with their own money or with borrowed money that they're personally liable to repay.
What doesn't work is commandeering other people's money in a crapshoot where there are more losers than winners. But Obama has yet to learn that lesson. And we can expect more government-funded fiascos like Solyndra on the horizon as long as he is president.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.