Al Gore is about 50 times richer than he was when he left the vice presidency in 2001. According to an Oct. 11 report by The Post’s Carol D. Leonnig, Gore accumulated a Romneyesque $100 million partly through investing in alternative energy firms subsidized by the Obama administration.
Two days after that story ran, Mitt Romney proclaimed at a rally in Ohio’s Appalachian coal country: "We have a lot of coal; we are going to use it. We are going to keep those jobs." Thousands cheered.
The juxtaposition speaks volumes about the Democratic Party, and about modern liberalism generally. As the Democrats become more committed to, and defined by, a green agenda, and as they become dependent on money from high-tech venture capitalists and their lobbyists, it becomes harder to describe them as a party for the little guy — or liberalism as a philosophy of distributive justice.
Gore’s sanctimony doesn’t help. The erstwhile Tennessee populist bristles at any suggestion that his climate crusade is about money. And, no doubt, he cared about the planet before he got rich. Still, his investments, including in such flops as Fisker, the maker of $100,000 plug-in hybrid cars, create a patent conflict of interest. This hurts his credibility — if not about climate change per se, then certainly about the particular solutions he advocates.
But that’s not the worst contradiction in the Democrats’ doing-well-by-being-green ethos. Green energy is not cost-competitive with traditional energy and won’t be for years. So it can’t work without either taxpayer subsidies, much of which accrue to "entrepreneurs" such as Gore, or higher prices for fossil energy — the brunt of which is borne by people of modest means.
Consider California’s "net metering" subsidy for solar-panel users. As The New York Times reported in June, the program hugely benefits well-off consumers who can afford to install photovoltaic panels. They get sun power for their homes — plus an excess supply that utilities must buy. Thus utilities must also pay to keep them on the grid. Those costs get passed along to everyone else — including low-income customers.
For a sense of where this may lead, look at Germany, whose crash program to replace nuclear power with wind and solar is boosting electricity rates. Der Spiegel reports that 200,000 long-term unemployed lost power in 2011 because they couldn’t pay their electric bills.
Democrats try to square this circle by talking up "green jobs," but expensive electricity is bad for industry, as Germany is discovering. Fact is, subsidies for green energy do not so much create jobs as shift them around.
The "smart grid" was a $3.4 billion item in the 2009 stimulus bill, touted as the key to vast new efficiencies in power distribution. Maybe that’s a good idea, but one way smart grids work is by making human meter-readers obsolete — just as solar panels put coal miners out of work.
Small wonder that the United Mine Workers of America — a core Democratic constituency if there ever were one — has refused to endorse Obama in 2012 as it did in 2008. The union hasn’t backed Romney, but he is campaigning hard for rank-and-file votes. That a private-equity baron is getting a hearing in the coal fields should give liberals pause.
Obviously, creative destruction is part of what makes capitalism go. There’s no inherent reason to protect coal mines any more than buggy-whip makers. The biggest threat to coal country comes from vast new supplies of natural gas, not from wind and solar.
The point remains: Government, with its inevitable susceptibility to lobbying and favoritism, should not be picking winners and losers, whether through green subsidies or tax breaks for oil and gas.
It’s one thing to lose your job because a competing firm built a superior mouse trap; it’s quite another, justice-wise, to lose it because a competitor talked the government into taking its side.
There must be a better way to pursue the legitimate goals of environmentalism.
Meanwhile, Gore and his partners carry on rent-seeking. The greatest Tennessee populist of all would surely have disapproved.
"It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes," President Andrew Jackson wrote in 1832. "(W)hen the laws undertake to add... artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society — the farmers, mechanics, and laborers — who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government."
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.