David Brooks Is No Green Truth Vigilante


Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks argued today that the Obama administration's clean energy investments have been "a wasteful disappointment," citing a figure that his own paper called "outrageous" to downplay the number of jobs created in the clean energy sector.

Brooks wrote:

Obama's stimulus package set aside $90 billion for renewable energy loans and grants, but the number of actual jobs created has been small. Articles began to appear in the press of green technology grants that were costing $2 million per job created. The program began to look like a wasteful disappointment.

But the $90 billion figure -- which Mitt Romney cited in the first presidential debate -- has been repeatedly debunked, including by Brooks' own New York Times. As the Times' Matthew Wald explained after the first debate, not all the money went to renewable energy, not all of it has been spent, and much of it was authorized under the Bush administration:

The $90 billion is a real number drawn from the 2009 stimulus package, but it wasn't all spent, as Mr. Romney said, and a lot of the green energy spending that went out the door on Mr. Obama's watch was authorized during the Bush administration.

The biggest component of the $90 billion was $29 billion for energy efficiency, of which $5 billion involved improvements in the homes and apartments of low-income households. There was also $18 billion for fast trains and $21 billion for wind farms, solar panels and other renewable energy. Supporters point out that much of the energy spending drew in private capital.

Another New York Times fact-check called the number "outrageous" and "a piece of masterful spin."

The paper was ridiculed earlier this year when then-public editor Arthur Brisbane questioned whether reporters should be "truth vigilantes." The resounding answer was "of course," yet the Times and other leading newspapers continue to leave misleading claims unquestioned, even when their own fact-checkers have debunked them.

Which is why we can't trust Brooks' unnamed media reports that stimulus grants for clean energy cost "$2 million per job created."

These calculations are problematic because they often count loans as if they are grants, and assume that all the money has been spent, development is complete and no new workers will be hired. A more accurate accounting of the jobs impact of clean energy investments might note that a Brookings Institution study found clean energy jobs grew at an average annual rate of 11.1 percent between 2003 and 2010, "more than twice as fast as the rest of the economy."

Brooks went on to argue that unlike private investments gone bad, high-profile failures like Solyndra "tarnish" the government's record on clean energy:

The federal agencies invested in many winners, but they also invested in some spectacular losers, from Solyndra to the battery maker A123 Systems, which just filed for bankruptcy protection. Private investors can shake off bad investments. But when a political entity like the federal government makes a bad investment, the nasty publicity tarnishes the whole program.

But as Clean Technica pointed out after Solyndra declared bankruptcy, "the Obama administration is batting a much better average in "picking winners and losers" than the private Venture Capital (VC) market itself." Clean energy consultant Richard Stuebi expects just 3 out of 10 private investments to succeed -- a 70 percent failure rate. By contrast, only three of the 26 companies that received Department of Energy 1705 loan guarantees have filed for bankruptcy, amounting to about 6 percent of the loan guarantee funds.

And as economist Dean Baker noted, Brooks suggested that solar energy is faring poorly because "Panel prices have fallen by three-fourths since 2008." But that drop has actually made solar energy more cost-competitive and helped fuel a boom in installations, even if some high-profile manufacturers like Solyndra have not been able to survive making higher priced panels. 

Brooks' column also perpetuated the conservative "crony capitalism" narrative by highlighting a Washington Post article on Al Gore's clean energy investments. But that article failed to note that Gore testified before Congress that he has donated "every penny" he has made on green investments to his nonprofit organization, the Alliance for Climate Protection.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Energy
The New York Times
David Brooks
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