There’s always been a tension in U.S. culture between two competing narratives. On one hand, Americans like to think of themselves as pioneers, innovators, forward thinkers — the country that invests blood, sweat, and treasure today to create a better future for the next generation. We tell ourselves stories about building the cross-country rail and highway systems, gearing up to defeat Hitler, going to the moon, inventing the internet.
On the other hand, the national psyche has always contained a deep and enduring streak of ornery individualism. Americans have always been suspicious of elites and government. We tell ourselves stories about crippling taxes and regulations, meddling bureaucrats, wasted taxpayer money, and liberty lost.
This tension, reflected in both public opinion polls and policy battles, makes the country’s political life somewhat schizophrenic. Depending on which of the frames above is invoked, Americans either support bold public investment or want to cut taxes and slash government spending. Often they want to do both!
Around 2007, it seemed that, in the case of clean energy, the national-purpose frame was finally winning. America was going to innovate, create new jobs and industries, leave behind the dirty fuels of the past, and prevent catastrophic climate change.
Since then, the anti-government frame has come roaring back, for two reasons. First, obviously, is the Great Recession. When the economy’s in the dumps and unemployment is high — ironically, the very time bold public investments are most needed — public opinion tends to shift against “government spending.”
And second, the purveyors of the anti-government frame are much more adept at manipulating conventional wisdom and the mainstream media, Al Gore’s brief ascendancy notwithstanding. Their tropes — waste, fraud, “picking winners” — are old, well-established, and easy to understand, whereas the details of the energy industry and what’s needed for innovation are context-specific and complicated. Also, the anti-government frame serves the interests of the wealthy, and the wealthy dominate D.C., in terms of both formal lobbying and social influence.
Which brings us to a couple of recent MSM pieces. (Bryan Walsh, damn his eyes, wrote the exact piece you’re reading right now already; feel free to read his version instead.)
First, this past weekend, the usually excellent Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson wrote a truly disappointing and distorted piece, cherry-picking failures (and “failures”) from the history of government energy investment to imply that government should stop making such investments entirely. I say “imply” because Mufson never actually makes the argument, but the piece is obviously designed to lead the reader to the conclusion that the government is a hopeless bumbler.
In response, Michael Levi notes that Americans spend such a gargantuan amount on energy services, even the slightest nudge to prices or consumption (on the order of 0.5 percent) could justify a comparatively paltry $172 billion investment since 1961. It’s highly unlikely that R&D hasn’t moved the needle even that much.
Joe Romm further demolishes the notion that public investments in energy innovation were not “worth it,” noting a National Academy of Sciences analysis that found that $400 million worth of investments in energy efficiency R&D alone produced $30 billion in economic returns.
At the Breakthrough Institute, they have a post reviewing a few of the many energy technologies that have flourished in the wake of public investment, including hydropower, wind power, and ultra-efficient natural gas turbines.
(If Mufson can bring Levi, Romm, and Breakthrough onto the same page, he must really have screwed the pooch.)
Meanwhile, over in The New York Times — on the very same day Mufson’s article came out — Eric Lipton and Clifford Krauss ran a hit job on NRG’s California Valley Solar Ranch, implying that it and many other energy projects do not need or deserve the subsidies they’re getting and that Obama’s Energy Dept. has gone “overboard” supporting cleantech.
Joe Romm (who must not sleep) savages that one too, noting that it:
• Ignores the vast, documented benefits of clean energy
• Never discusses the large cost of dirty energy to human health
• Never compares clean energy subsidies to dirty energy ones
• Never compares U.S. clean energy subsidies to those of China, Germany and other countries
• Ignores climate change (yet again)
• Utterly misunderstands the difference between a loan guarantee and a direct subsidy, among myriad other basic blunders
Not only is the piece completely devoid of broader context but it appears to make several egregious errors of fact and interpretation, enough to prompt NRG to issue a three-page memo (PDF) detailing them. It’s clear the piece was intended to put the project and the DOE in the worst possible light.
There’s been an uptick in pieces like this lately and I don’t think it’s an accident. Solyndra was only a jumping-off point for conservatives, a way to ramp up their campaign to discredit government support for clean energy entirely. That campaign is not new — it’s been going on since Reagan — but one-two punch of deficit hysteria and Solyndra has offered an unusually target-rich environment.
Liberals often react with bewilderment when waves of stories like this show up, puzzled that they’ve “lost the argument.” But it’s not an argument that they’re losing. It’s a contest of power and influence. When you see drums pounding for Solyndra, and then for other DOE loan recipients, and then for all energy subsidies, and then for the entire history of energy subsidies, it’s because somebody is pounding the drums. There are people compiling damning research and pushing it out to reporters.
For bloggers and wonks, the right response to this may be wringing of hands and lamentations about the degraded state of democracy and/or media. But for the professionals involved in the promotion of clean energy and climate solutions — the think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade associations — the right response is to pound louder.
There’s no doubt that voters respond to the need for public energy investment when it’s framed in terms of ambition and national purpose. And there’s no doubt that they turn on it when it’s framed in terms of wasteful government spending. So which frame surrounds the information that reaches voters? That is the question that determines public opinion. Figuring out the right frame isn’t that hard. Getting purveyors of information — media, pols, influencers — to adopt the right frame is.
David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at twitter.com/drgrist.