The Wall Street Journal's Kim Strassel makes an important point in her column today. The Obama Administration's green energy boondoggle — with millions poured into politically-correct companies like the now bankrupt Solyndra — but they were hardly the first to throw taxpayer support to favored energy-sector entities. The program that gave us Solyndra was a Bush-era invention, and as Governors, both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry pursued similar government venture-capital models for the energy industry.
Politicians are, not surprisingly, trying to draw distinctions between their behavior and what happened with the Solyndra scandal. Yes, the pure scale of the Obama Administration's efforts dwarf other initiatives; and yes, it's probably worse when such programs are launched at a federal level, rather than at a state level.
But that doesn't change the basic truth that government simply has no business using taxpayer money to favor certain industries and companies. As much as possible, Congress needs to focus on getting rid of this kind of meddling.
Strassel highlights this exchange from the Republican primary debate:
Mr. Romney told Herman Cain that "simple answers are . . . often inadequate." But when it comes to green subsidies, Mr. Cain's simplicity is to die for. Government simply "should not be in the business of picking winners and losers, because most of the time they pick the losers," said Mr. Cain. Now there's a presidential energy philosophy for the ages.
Mr. Cain's conclusion is certainly right, but I disagree that the real reason that government shouldn't pick winners and losers is because they're bad at it. They shouldn't do it because it's simply unfair, wrong, and outside of their legitimate function.
Peggy Noonan also writes today about the appeal of Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan. Voters like it because it's a dramatic change. They know that tinkering with the status quo isn't enough. Even a big tax rate cut isn't going to do the trick. We need to scrap the whole corrupt, mind-bogglingly inefficient tax code to start fresh, with something transparent and fair.
This concept shouldn't just apply to taxes. Yes, the tax code is the easiest place to start. Complicated as it is, the tax code is about raising revenue, and we could, in theory at least, junk it and start over, and people and businesses could adjust relatively quickly. Not so with the regulatory system, which has many more pieces, is entwined with state and local rules, and would be very difficult to untangle.
But it sure is fun to think about. And I think Americans would welcome leaders who stood back and said "the regulatory system of government in this industry is a mess. It needs to be scraped and rebuilt from the ground up, and include only those elements that are actually critically necessary to ensuring basic safety and legal standards." It would be tough, but imagine what good it would do if we had a government regulatory regime that actually made sense. Instead of facing 6 pages of fine print for every mundane transaction with the government, you had documents that were written as if they were meant to convey actual meaning.
That may be a pipe dream, but it shouldn't be. As Noonan suggests, we need something big. The status quo isn't working and is bound to get worse, rather than better, if something significant isn't done soon. I think the American people get this. The question is, do our politicians?