If your blood hasn’t boiled in awhile, you must have missed the AJC story earlier this week about Range Fuels — a multimillion-dollar lesson in why taxpayers usually lose when billionaires with hare-brained schemes sidle up to politicians.
It’s been about a year since Range Fuels shut down its facility in Soperton, the South Georgia town where it had promised to turn our state into a world leader in turning wood into ethanol. There was just one problem: Range didn’t actually know how to turn wood into ethanol. The resulting failure cost taxpayers $64 million in federal loan guarantees and another $6 million in state funds.
This past week, the AJC’s Dan Chapman reported the sale of Range for a mere $5.1 million. The lucky bargain shopper? A New Zealand firm bankrolled by Vinod Khosla — the former tech executive who just happens to have been one of the main backers of Range.
Too bad Georgia didn’t invest in one of Khosla’s other ethanol endeavors: In its 2011 ranking of the richest Americans, Forbes described Khosla as “the rare Silicon Valley venture capitalist able to generate profits from a clean tech portfolio.” I’m sure his portfolio’s profitability has nothing to do with the fact that taxpayers shoulder losses by the million on dogs like Range Fuels.
To the degree the public is upset about inequality, the anger seems to stem less from the existence of inequality — which we’ve always had, and always will — and more from the belief that the inequal gains were ill-gotten. The belief that the system is being rigged.
The Occupy movement blames this chiefly on bankers and big business generally, the tea partyers on big government. They are both right when they notice the overlap between their respective targets.
Both parties are guilty of enabling this overlap. Range Fuels was handed money by a GOP governor, Sonny Perdue, and the Republican Bush administration; solar-panel flop Solyndra by the Democratic Obama administration. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama oversaw bailouts of financial firms and auto makers. Need I go on?
And while failures make headlines, the relative successes line private pockets with public largesse, too.
The timing of this lesson couldn’t have come at a better time. As Georgia’s leaders mull ways to spur the economy during the 2012 legislative session, Range Fuels should be an indelible reminder of the folly of using taxpayer dollars and tax-code loopholes to enrich private firms and individuals.
That goes for the CAPCO scheme, which hands money over to private companies to invest without retaining a stake for the state.
That goes for any other effort that calls for the state to invest directly in private firms — an enticing opportunity for corruption now and years into the future.
That even goes for using hotel/motel tax revenues, once they are freed up from paying off the Georgia Dome, to build an outdoor stadium that will accomplish little besides cannibalizing the Dome’s business and making a lot more money for the Falcons.
The hidden danger of economic downturns is that they invite all manner of bad decisions made with scarcer-than-ever public monies, all in the name of “jobs.”
Yes, Georgia needs jobs. And, yes, there are things Georgia’s leaders can do to encourage their creation. But we don’t need more “friends” like Vinod Khosla, or more misadventures like Range Fuels.
– By Kyle Wingfield