At a fundraiser in New York on Monday, President Trump weighed in with some thoughts on energy sources.
Coal, he said, is tough. It’s “indestructible.” But the same is not true of windmills. (He insists on calling them “windmills” instead of “wind turbines,” despite that fact that none of them mill grain anymore.) Windmills are sissies. You can take them out easily. He mimed aiming a gun: “Bing, that’s the end of that windmill.”
And the birds! “They kill so many birds,” he said. “You look underneath some of those windmills, it’s like a killing field of birds.” (Speaking of birds: One of Trump’s latest regulatory rollbacks is refusing to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which has protected some of America’s most vulnerable bird populations for a century.)
But he also added something else, according to Breitbart (which, like good state media, adopts the Dear Leader’s “windmill” terminology). He complained about subsidies received by wind power.
“Who wants to have energy when you need a subsidy?” Trump asked.
This is a ... special take on subsidies from a guy whose administration is even now contemplating using a novel interpretation of federal power to demand that US ratepayers pay to keep a select list of coal plants open.
It’s not as if anyone should expect Trump to have consistent, stable views on a subject as abstract as energy subsidies. He doesn’t have consistent, stable views on anything.
But here, as is so often the case, Trump’s discursive excretions are revealing. This is a talking point he has imbibed from Fox News and other conservative media.
When you don’t like the recipient of federal aid, you call it a “subsidy” and invoke big government, which is of course Bad.
When you favor the recipient, it’s not a subsidy; it’s just commonsense support for hardworking Americans, who are of course Good.
Right now, for instance, the Renewable Fuels Association is demanding that Trump “support Iowa farmers” by mandating more corn ethanol. Subsidies and welfare are bad ... but who could oppose supporting Iowa farmers?
“The government’s been picking winners and losers since government was created”
Some tattling on this long con has recently come from an unexpected source: Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Back in 2011, Perry decried regulations and subsidies in energy. “Get rid of the tax loopholes, get rid of all of the subsidies,” he said. “Let the energy industry get out there and find — the market will find the right energy for us to be using in this country.”
This is the essential pretense: We will let the market decide.
But no political coalition in history has ever truly been, or ever truly could be, agnostic about the energy mix of the country they propose leading. Every coalition has its preferred sources/industries and advances policy meant to enhance their standing. There might be a few (call it a dozen) principled libertarians in Washington think tanks, but in the real world, there is no political force with any power opposing subsidies as such. If there were such a coalition, fossil fuels would be its first and most obvious target.
Since he began working for Trump, Perry has become more and more frank about the administration’s decisions to intervene in markets. Speaking to Bloomberg New Energy Finance in April 2017, he speculated, “The boot is on the other foot. Are there issues that are so important to the national security of this country that the federal government can intervene on the regulatory side? I’ll suggest to you that there are.”
Hmm ... social goods not properly valued by the market, requiring government intervention ... interesting notion!
Then at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in October ...
... Perry called the notion that there’s a free market in electrical generation a “fallacy.”
“We subsidize a lot of different energy sources. We subsidize wind energy, we subsidize ethanol, we subsidize solar, we subsidize oil and gas,” Perry said at the hearing. “Government’s picking winners and losers every day,” he said later.
Indeed it is! Interesting to hear a conservative acknowledge that everyone plays this game.
And again, at a media briefing at NREL this week:
"The government's been picking winners and losers since government was created. We do it by tax policy, we do it by regulation, we do it by permits. Pick good! Be smart!"— Catherine Traywick (@ctraywick) August 14, 2018
The right focus of debate is the energy mix that’s best for society. Pick good!
An argument over who most deserves subsidies will not go well for conservatives
There’s a reason conservatives aren’t often willing to frame the debate in these terms.
As political scholar and Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin has argued at length, conservatism is, at root, an instinct, an impulse, to preserve the prevailing order. It has lined up with different governing ideologies and policy programs over the years, but the core motivation is the preservation of privilege by those who benefit from incumbency.
In the US, conservatism has found small-government ideology a congenial pretense. It sounds sophisticated and high-minded, and in practice, it lines up pretty well with defending the status quo. (After all, as Vox’s Ezra Klein has written, “policymaking has a liberal bias,” i.e., most active government policy in capitalist democracies is meant to restrain market winners on behalf of the general public. Opposing government as such will, all things being equal, serve reactionary ends.)
In energy, for instance, “I oppose picking winners and losers” sounds much better to the gullible centrists on the nation’s editorial pages than “I oppose any form of energy that challenges fossil fuels” — especially in a country where virtually everyone loves wind and solar power.
If the conversation turns away from subsidies in the abstract and instead turns to “picking good” — i.e, identifying which energy sources provide social goods, which ones need and deserve public support — it becomes difficult to make a case for preserving the status quo.
After all, it’s fairly easy to make the case for subsidizing renewables. They reduce air pollution and carbon emissions, and the market doesn’t compensate them for that. Simple.
But what’s the case for continuing to subsidize fossil fuels after all these years? “They are longtime supporters of our political party and help fund our campaigns” is not a good public-facing case. “It’s just the way things are” is not very convincing. “Coal mining jobs are uniquely valuable” might not sit well with the 99.9999 percent of Americans who don’t mine coal.
What, then? Plausible arguments are difficult to come by. Thus, you get Trump and Perry trying to claim that coal plants provide unique resilience and national security benefits — an argument that energy experts almost unanimously find ludicrous, including experts within the Department of Energy.
No, conservatives are much safer on traditional ground, decrying subsidies for energy sources they oppose while funneling government resources, mandates, and regulatory rollbacks to energy sources they favor.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Perry gets a phone call from Trump’s people soon, telling him to dial it back. The last thing conservatives need in energy policy right now is an argument on the merits.