“Protecting The Profits Of Big Carbon Barons”: Why Conservatives Are Trying To Strangle Solar Energy
As my colleague John Aziz wrote a few days ago, an alliance of right-wing operatives and Big Carbon barons are mounting a huge effort to try and throttle the solar industry in the crib. As the Los Angeles Times explains:
The Koch brothers, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and some of the nation’s largest power companies have backed efforts in recent months to roll back state policies that favor green energy. The conservative luminaries have pushed campaigns in Kansas, North Carolina, and Arizona, with the battle rapidly spreading to other states. [Los Angeles Times]
The Kochs and their allies argue that they’re just trying to get rid of unfair subsidies, but this is nonsense. Almost universally, utilities aren’t anywhere close to a free market. The most common model is the investor-owned regulated monopoly, where a particular firm is guaranteed a captive electricity market, and in return has to justify their prices to a government board so (in theory at least) they don’t gouge the public. (If you want all the details, David Roberts wrote a highly useful series of posts about utilities last year.)
According to American free-market dogma, such a frankly socialist production scheme should immediately collapse. But despite our generally low quality of governance, this set-up has actually worked (relatively) well for decades. The reason is that when we set these utility systems up, electricity was a picture-perfect example of a natural monopoly. Steam turbines exhibit large efficiencies of scale, so it makes sense to highly concentrate generation capacity, and alternating current allows electricity to be transmitted vast distances.
Solar throws a wrench into this long-standing model because it’s well-suited to individual generation. It would be very expensive and inefficient to build a coal-fired steam turbine in your backyard, but that works just fine for a solar panel. Therefore, something like 40 states have a policy called “net metering,” under which if you have a solar installation, any electricity you generate is canceled from your electric bill, and any excess you generate is sold back to the utility at retail rates. The problem with that, from a utility provider’s perspective, is that those retail rates don’t just cover the cost of generation — they also cover the construction and maintenance of the grid: power lines, transformers, and so forth. (As well as the investors’ profits.)
In essence, we’re trying to incorporate artisanal, small-batch electricity into a massive socialist production scheme based around colossal mega-generators. Unsurprisingly, it’s straining the system.
So enter the Brothers Koch (on Team Mega-Socialism, remember). And to be fair, they really do have a point: The grid is important to maintain, and it’s not exactly equitable for a quickly shrinking group of electricity customers without solar to bear most of the costs of maintaining it. (Though it’s important to also note that utilities tend to exaggerate the case. After all, any electricity generated at the point of use, for example, diminishes the load on the grid, thereby reducing costs.)
The problem, of course, is that the Kochs are not disinterested observers looking out for the little electricity consumer. They’re obscenely wealthy businessmen with enormous income streams at stake. Solar is a direct threat to their business model of selling climate-wrecking carbon to utilities, and as such, they’re obviously trying to use the political system to crush potential competition and protect their monopoly profits. That’s why this has become a heated fight only recently, as the overall price of solar electricity has fallen to be competitive with carbon sources in many places. Solar was a punch line until it was an economically viable alternative. And then it became a threat that must be destroyed.
So I don’t think Paul Krugman and Kevin Drum are quite right to say that conservatives’ fight against solar is simply an issue of tribalism. Clearly, this is also about the profits of very rich people.
In any case, what ought to be done? If solar were just one more generation model among many, we might say it’s not worth the effort. But with the catastrophic threat of climate change, it’s critically important to decarbonize electricity generation as quickly as possible, and solar must be part of that effort. We’ve got to find some way of maintaining the fixed infrastructure of electricity distribution without impeding solar’s deployment.
It’s a tricky problem. But the outlines of a solution ought to be fairly obvious: We should take a hard look at just how much centralized generation capacity is needed, and retire the carbon-intensive stuff as quickly as possible. (A carbon tax would help enormously here.) This means overhauling the regulated monopoly utility model, and will possibly require a new pot of money to maintain the grid until solar’s costs, which continue to plummet, can bear a few more extra fees.
But the details of implementation aren’t as important as the political and business implications. The Kochs, and all the other Big Carbon barons like them, would eventually be driven out of business by solar. In today’s GOP, billionaires who make a lot of money (even from socialist monopolies) are Galtian heroes. That’s why so many big money conservatives hate solar.
By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, April 22, 2014
The Tennessee State Senate brokered a deal this week to move forward with a hotly contested bus rapid transit (BRT) project. The bill will provide the city of Nashville and neighboring Moore County with 7.1 miles of rapid bus transit lanes. But because of the compromise in the Senate, the BRT plan will now face greater oversight: The proposed buses will be allowed to use lanes separate from regular traffic, but will need approval from the state Assembly and by the commissioner of transportation before constructing those lanes.
Prior to Thursday, the Tennessee State Senate had been blocking the bill, in part because of an effort by a group affiliated with noted Republican donors Charles and David Koch.
The Koch brothers, and the Tennessee arm of their political organization Americans For Prosperity, had no explicit economic interest in blocking the bus project from moving forward. Rather, as the Tennessee director of Americans For Prosperity told The Tennessean in March, it was something of a trial run for implementing Koch-backed legislation around the country. “With supermajorities in both houses,” AFP state director Andrew Ogles told the paper, “Tennessee is a great state to pass model legislation that can be leveraged in other states.”
The citizens of Nashville and Moore County, however, are not the first Americans to feel the effects of the Kochs’ “model” legislation.
In a similar example of Koch influence on the local level, in 2012 Americans for Prosperity joined the effort to halt a streetcar project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The streetcar plan would connect the lower east side of the city with an Amtrak station two miles away.
The drive was led by Republican alderman Bob Donovan. After construction was approved by the Milwaukee Common Council, Donovan held numerous press conferences in the attempt to publicize a petition and force a referendum on the streetcar plan.
The effort got a leg up when Americans for Prosperity set up a website, “A Streetcar Named Disaster,” to gather signatures for Donovan’s petition.
Donovan’s union with Americans for Prosperity led other elected officials to question his loyalties. Jeff Fleming, then-spokesman for the Department of City Development, said in a statement: ”We never hear Ald. Donovan complain about his Republican friends cutting Milwaukee’s local road aids, our recycling aids or our state shared revenue, which funds police and firefighters. The alderman is so tight with groups and individuals who love gutting and kicking Milwaukee, you have to wonder where his loyalties are.”
Coincidentally, the streetcar project is a hallmark of Mayor Tom Barrett’s administration. Barrett unsuccessfully ran for governor of Wisconsin in 2010 and again in a recall election in 2012, losing to Republican Scott Walker both times. Walker has a close relationship with Americans for Prosperity, who argue that his anti-union legislation is an example that other Republican governors should follow.
Like the proposed rapid transit plan in Nashville, the Milwaukee streetcar plan has moved ahead over AFP’s objections.
The Kochs’ distaste for government-subsidized transportation did result in one big victory on the state level. In Florida, a large mass-transit plan to bring high-speed rail to the state was rejected after Republican Rick Scott was elected. The plan would have used state and federal funds to connect the cities of Tampa and Orlando, with plans to extend it to other tourist hotspots in southern Florida.
The Koch brothers’ fingerprints were all over Scott’s rejection of the plan. For starters, Governor Scott and the Kochs have a long and storied relationship. Scott, for example, famously attended a secret, invitation only meeting held by the Koch brothers in Colorado soon after being elected Florida governor.
The Koch brothers’ influence over Florida’s high-speed rail plan, however, extends beyond their relationship with Governor Scott.
As Curt Levine, former legislator in the Florida House of Representatives, noted at the time, Scott’s decision to nominate Robert Poole as transportation advisor deftly revealed the Koch brothers’ influence in his administration.
Levine wrote in a 2011 op-ed: “Poole is director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a right-wing lobby group of road-based transportation industrial interests, including petroleum, asphalt and rubber-tire manufacturers. And, not coincidentally, Reason receives substantial funding by the ultraconservative billionaire Koch brothers. David Koch serves as a Reason trustee.”
Levin further explained that Scott’s decision to reject the high-speed rail plan was based, in part, on a report by the Reason Foundation that urged Scott to reject the plan ”as Wisconsin and Ohio have recently done.”
The fact that Koch-funded groups are influencing even the most local policy decisions should perhaps come as no surprise. As The Nation reported in 2011, the Koch brothers have been funding the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for years. The council touts itself as an organization that brings together conservative state legislators and members of the private sector to further free-market principles. And ALEC has been living up to that tagline — in precisely the way the Koch brothers want it to.
By: Ben Feuerherd, The National Memo, April 18, 2014
Even as the US Supreme Court attempts to expand the scope and reach of the already dangerous dominance of our politics by billionaires and their willing servants, Americans are voting in overwhelming numbers against the new politics of dollarocracy.
The headline of the week with regard to the campaign-finance debate comes from Washington, where a 5-4 court majority has—with its McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision—freed elite donors such as the politically-ambitious Koch Brothers to steer dramatically more money into the accounts of favored candidates, parties and political action committees. The decision makes it clear that the high court’s activist majority will stop at nothing in their drive to renew the old Tory principle that those with wealth ought to decide the direction of federal, state and local government.
But the five errand boys for the oligarchs who make up that majority are more thoroughly at odds with the sentiments of the American people than at any time in the modern history of this country’s judiciary.
We know this because the people are having their say with regard to the question of whether money is speech, whether corporations have the same rights as human beings and whether billionaires should be able to buy elections.
In every part of the country, in every sort of political jurisdiction, citizens are casting ballots for referendum proposals supporting a Constitutional amendment to overturn US Supreme Court rulings that have tipped the balance toward big money.
In so doing, these citizens are taking the essential first step in restoring democracy.
On Tuesday, thirteen Wisconsin communities, urban and rural, liberal and conservative, Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning answered the call of constitutional reform. Even as groups associated with billionaire donors Charles and David Koch were meddling in local elections in the state, voters were demanding, by overwhelming margins, that the right to organize fair and open elections be restored.
It even happened in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s hometown of Delavan, where voters faced the question:
Shall the City of Delavan adopt the following resolution:
RESOLVED, the City of Delavan, Wisconsin, calls for reclaiming democracy from the corrupting effects of undue corporate influence by amending the United States Constitution to establish that:
1. Only human beings, not corporations, unions, nonprofit organizations nor similar associations are entitled to constitutional rights, and
2. Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we hereby instruct our state and federal representatives to enact resolutions and legislation to advance this effort.
76 percent of the Delavan residents who went to the polls voted “Yes!”
They were not alone. A dozen other Wisconsin communities faced referendums on the same day. Every town, village and city that was offered a choice voted to call on state and federal officials to move to amend the US Constitution so that citizens will again be able to organize elections in which votes matter more than dollars.
The Wisconsin votes provided the latest indication of a remarkable upsurge in support for bold action to renew the promise of American democracy. Since the Supreme Court began dismantling the last barriers to elite dominance of American politics, with its 2010 Citizens United decision, sixteen states and more than 500 communities have formally requested that federal officials begin the process of amending the constitution so that the court’s wrongheaded rulings can be reversed.
Last fall, John Bonifaz, the co-founder and executive director of the reform group Free Speech For People, calculated that “In just three years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, we have come one third of the way to amending the US Constitution to reclaim our democracy and to ensure that people, not corporations, shall govern in America.”
Since the start of 2014, however, the movement has seen a dramatic acceleration in the grassroots pressure for action. During the first weeks of March, forty-seven town meetings called for a constitutional amendment—in a move that put renewed pressure on the New Hampshire legislature to act on the issue.
It is the experience of big-money politics that has inspired renewed activism for reform.
Wisconsin has had more experience than most states with the warping of democracy by out-of-state billionaires, “independent” expenditures and SuperPAC interventions. Governor Walker’s campaigns have reaped funds from top conservative donors, including the Koch Brothers. And a Koch Brothers-funded group, Americans for Prosperity waded into contests this spring for the local board of supervisors in northern Iron County, where mining and environmental issues are at stake; and in the city of Kenosha, where school board elections revolved around questions of whether to bargain fairly with unions representing teachers. In other parts of the state, business interests poured money into school board contests and local races Tuesday, providing a glimpse of the role corporate cash is likely to play in local, state and national elections in the months and years to come.
The Koch Brothers had mixed success Tuesday. Three Iron County Board candidates who were attacked by Americans for Prosperity mailings and on-the-ground “field” efforts in the county won their elections—beating incumbents who were promoted by the outside group. But in Kenosha, two school board contenders who were seen as anti-union zealots won.
There were, however, no mixed results when voters were given a clear choice between dollarocracy and democracy.
The signal from Wisconsin is that grassroots politics can and does still win.
In fact, it wins big.
Encouraged by groups such as United Wisconsin and Move to Amend, activists went door to door in the depths of winter to place amendment questions on local ballots in towns, villages and cities across the state. Many of the communities were in heavily Republican regions of Wisconsin. Yet, the pattern of support was strikingly consistent; in no community did an amendment proposal win less than 60 percent of the vote, and in several the support was over 85 percent.
“Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending in our elections. Now, Wisconsin voters are standing up to the corrupting influence the flood of special interest money has had on our elections and in our state and national capitols where laws are made,” says Lisa Subeck, the director of United Wisconsin. “Tuesday’s victories send a clear message to our elected officials in Madison and in Washington that we demand action to overturn Citizens United and restore our democracy.”
Whether all those elected representatives will get the message remains to be seen. Several of the communities that voted Tuesday are in the district of Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, who has already introduced an amendment proposal and has been an ardent backer of reform. But many other communities are represented by recipients of the big-money largesse of Wall Street traders, hedge-fund managers, casino moguls and billionaires looking to cover their bets.
Communities in the home district of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, voted by margins as high as three to one to support an amendment strategy. The results were similar in conservative Waukesha County, which has historically been a Republican stronghold; in the city of Waukesha, for instance, 69 percent of the electorate called for action to amend the constitution. In Wauwatosa, the Milwaukee suburb where Governor Walker now maintains his voting residence, the vote for an amendment was 64 percent.
Wisconsin has several legislative proposals to put the state on record in support of a constitutional amendment. But they face uphill climbs in the current Republican-controlled legislature. And Walker shows no enthusiasm for reforming the system that has so richly rewarded his campaigns. Yet, grassroots activists like Ellen Holly, who helped organize the amendment vote in Walworth County—the heart of Paul Ryan’s district and Walker’s old home turf—is not blinking. She says it’s essential for the Move to Amend campaign to take the fight into even the most conservative areas and to deliver messages to politicians like Ryan.
The widespread support for overturning Citizens United, especially from rural and Republican-leaning areas offers a reminder that the reform impulse is bipartisan and widespread. The same goes from the broad coalitions that have developed. Among the loudest voices on behalf of the referendum campaign in rural Wisconsin was the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which hailed Tuesday’s voting as “a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy.”
“Citizens United has allowed big money to drown out the voices of ordinary people and created an environment where, too often, our elected officials are sold to the highest bidder,” says Subeck, a Madison city council member who this year is running for the legislature on a promise to focus on campaign-finance issues. “To fully restore public trust in our democracy, we must return control of our elections to the people through common sense campaign finance reform, starting with the reversal of Citizens United.”
By: John Nichols, The Nation, April 3, 2014
Does being super-wealthy make you extra susceptible to self-pity today? That’s the only conclusion we can draw from an epidemic of self-pitying American billionaires decrying their persecution by “despots,” and the “Kristallnacht” of rising concern about income inequality, over just the last few months.
Charles Koch is the latest to fall victim to what funnier folks than me have labeled the WATB syndrome, with a whiny op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “Collectivists” in government, Koch writes – “those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives,” i.e. Democrats — “strive to discredit and intimidate opponents.” It gets worse: “They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.)”
I’m worried about Charles Koch. For one thing, with all his billions, he couldn’t find a better ghost writer? His silly op-ed, with its alarmist Marxist clichés and fusty Schopenhauer references, would have been dismissed as an April Fool’s joke if published just one day sooner. It came the same day as the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, which only increased its ridiculousness.
But Koch’s self-pity and persecution complex is downright unhealthy. He clearly suffers from the same malady as Tom Perkins, who delusionally compared rising political concern about income inequality to “Kristallnacht” for the rich. Newspaper-destroying real estate mogul Sam Zell, who cosigned Perkins, is also a victim, complaining the super-rich “are getting pummeled because it’s politically convenient to do so,” when in fact “the 1 percent work harder.”
Self-pity sufferer Ken Langone of Home Depot even warned Pope Francis that Catholic billionaires might stop contributing to the church because of the pope saying the “exclusionary” culture of the rich made some of them “incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.” Langone had earlier joined self-pitying mogul Leon Cooperman to admonish President Obama for “new lows in polarizing rhetoric…aimed at successful people in the business sector.”
Maybe we need a public health campaign to warn billionaires about the dangers of self-pity: stress, anxiety, depression, isolation and illness. The authors of “47 Steps to Stress Management” say that “the effect of self-pity on the body is similar to chronic anxiety.” A widely quoted 2003 study of self-pity in the Journal of Personality found:
…Strong associations of self-pity with neuroticism, particularly with the depression facet. With respect to control beliefs, individuals high in self-pity showed generalized externality beliefs, seeing themselves as controlled by both chance and powerful others…Furthermore, individuals high in self-pity reported emotional loneliness and ambivalent-worrisome attachments.
Deepak Chopra says self-pity is linked to “dependency,” so clearly Paul Ryan ought to consider a crusade to change the “culture” of his billionaire patrons in addition to that of “inner city” men:
The issue is dependency. Self-pity is the opposite of self-esteem. It arises because you feel no one will lift you out of your difficulties. With no one stronger, older, wiser and kinder to help you, there’s a tremendous sense of lack. You cannot find the same strength that these rescuers have—or you imagine them to have—and the ache of not being enough is felt as self-pity or “poor me.”
Of course, this isn’t the Koch brothers first pity-party, or their first descent into making things up about President Obama. Three years ago Charles and David sat down with the Weekly Standard and complained about their “demonization” by Democrats and President Obama, who they then went on to demonize. (A clinical note: Projection is also associated with self-pity.)
Charles accused Obama of believing “Marxist models.” David went further, blaming Obama’s views on his father, “a hard core economic socialist in Kenya,” he said. “He had sort of antibusiness, anti-free enterprise influences affecting him almost all his life. It just shows you what a person with a silver tongue can achieve.”
David also called anti-Koch protesters “very, very extreme, and I think very dangerous….That was pretty shocking, to see what we’re up against, or what the country’s up against: to have an element like this.”
So clearly self-pity is a persistent problem for Charles and his brother. Maybe we need a public health campaign: If your bout of self-pity lasts more than four hours, call your doctor. The authors of “47 Steps to Stress Management” have other advice:
“If you have trouble breaking the self-pity habit, you might want to try an excellent way of getting your mind off of yourself: help others.”
Oh well, that’s probably not the answer.
I don’t know what to advise Charles Koch about his unhealthy habits. He certainly has the money to get the best professional help available. But I would urge the Wall Street Journal, the official newspaper of record for the top 1 percent, to stop encouraging the damaging dependency and self-destructive behavior of its readers and patrons, before it’s too late.
By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, April 3, 2014
“How To Vote Against The Koch Brothers”: Urgent Action Is Needed To Restore Our Democracy To The Hands Of The People
The Koch Brothers don’t actually run for office—at least not since David Koch’s amusingly ambitious 1980 bid for the vice presidency on a Libertarian Party ticket that proposed the gutting of corporate taxes, the minimum wage, occupational health and safety oversight, environmental protections and Social Security.
That project, while exceptionally well-funded for a third-party campaign, secured just 1.06 percent of the vote. The Kochs determined it would be easier to fund conservative campaigns than to pitch the program openly. Initially, the project was hampered by what passed for campaign-finance rules and regulations, to the frustration of David Koch, who once told The New Yorker, “We’d like to abolish the Federal Elections Commission and all the limits on campaign spending anyway.”
The FEC still exists. But the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v FEC and the general diminution of campaign finance rules and regulations has cleared the way for David Koch and his brother Charles to play politics as they choose. And they are playing hard—especially in Wisconsin, a state where they have made supporting and sustaining the governorship of Scott Walker a personal priority.
Two years ago, David Koch said of Walker: “We’re helping him, as we should. We’ve gotten pretty good at this over the years. We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.” The Palm Beach Post interview in which that quote appeared explained, “By ‘we’ he says he means Americans for Prosperity,” the group the Kochs have used as one of their prime vehicles for political engagement in the states.
AFP and its affiliates are expanding their reach this year, entering into fights at the local level where their big money can go far—and where the Koch Brothers can influence the process from the ground up.
As Walker prepares to seek a second term, AFP is clearing the way in supposedly nonpartisan county board and school board races that will occur Tuesday.
Consider the case of Iron County. Elections in the northern Wisconsin county have always been down-home affairs: an ad in the Iron County Miner newspaper, some leaflets dropped at the door, maybe a hand-painted yard sign.
This year, however, that’s changed. Determined to promote a controversial mining project—and, presumably, to advance Walker’s agenda—AFP has waded into Tuesday’s competition for control of the Iron County Board.
With dubious “facts” and over-the-top charges, the Wisconsin chapter of the Koch Brothers-backed group is pouring money into the county—where voter turnout in spring elections rarely tops 1,500—for one of the nastiest campaigns the region has ever seen. Small-business owners, farmers and retirees who have asked sensible questions about the impact of major developments on pristine lakes, rivers, waterfalls and tourism are being attacked as “anti-mining radicals” who “just want to shut the mines down, no matter what.”
Iron County is debating whether to allow new mining, not whether to shut mines down. And many of the candidates that AFP is ripping into have simply said they want to hear from all sides.
But those details don’t matter in the new world of Big Money politics ushered in by US Supreme Court rulings that have cleared the way for billionaires and corporations to buy elections.
Most of the attention to money in politics focuses on national and state races. But the best bargains for billionaires are found at the local level—where expenditures in the thousands can overwhelm the pocket-change campaigns of citizens who run for county boards, city councils and school boards out of a genuine desire to serve and protect their community.
That’s why it is important to pay attention to Tuesday’s voting in Iron County—and in communities such as Kenosha, where the group has waded into local school board races. The Kenosha contest goes to the core issues of recent struggles over collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin, pitting candidates who are willing to work with teachers and their union in a historically pro-labor town versus contenders who are being aided by the Koch Brothers contingent in Wisconsin.
But it is equally important to pay attention to the efforts by citizens, working at the local level, to upend the big money and to restore politics of, by and for the people.
The month of March started with a grassroots rebellion in New Hampshire, where dozens of towns called on their elected representatives to work to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the high court’s Citizens United decision.
On Tuesday, the same day the Kochs are meddling in local elections in the state, communities across the state will vote to get money out of politics.
Clean-politics advisory referendums are on ballots across Wisconsin. Belleville, DeForest, Delavan, Edgerton, Elkhorn, Lake Mills, Shorewood, Waterloo, Waukesha, Waunakee, Wauwatosa, Whitefish Bay and Windsor will have an opportunity to urge their elected representatives to support an amendment to restore the authority of local, state and national officials to establish campaign finance rules ensuring that votes matter more than dollars. The initiative is backed by groups like Move to Amend and United Wisconsin. “The unlimited election spending by special-interest groups, allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, has drowned out the voices of ordinary people,” says United Wisconsin Executive Director Lisa Subeck. “Urgent action is needed to restore our democracy to the hands of the people.”
That urgency is especially real in rural communities—places like Iron County. That’s why the Wisconsin Farmers Union is calling for a “yes” vote. “Citizens of all political stripes—Republicans, Democrats and independents—agree that we need to curb the corrupting influence of money in politics,” says WFU Executive Director Tom Quinn. “Voting yes…will send a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy.”
By: John Nichols, The Nation, March 31, 2014