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Payola for the Most Profitable Corporations in History

Posted on Apr 7, 2012

By Bill McKibben, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

3. Sometimes you’ll subsidize something for a sensible reason and it won’t work out. The government gave some of our money to a solar power company called Solyndra.  Though it was small potatoes compared to what we hand over to the fossil-fuel industry, it still stung when they lost it. But since we’re in the process of figuring out how to perfect solar power and drive down its cost, it makes sense to subsidize it.  Think of it as the equivalent of giving a high-school senior a scholarship to go to college. Most of the time that works out. But since I live in a college town, I can tell you that 20% of kids spend four years drinking: they’re human Solyndras. It’s not exactly a satisfying thing to see happen, but we don’t shut down the college as a result.

4. Don’t subsidize something you want less of. At this point, the greatest human challenge is to get off of fossil fuels. If we don’t do it soon, the climatologists tell us, our prospects as a civilization are grim indeed.  So lending a significant helping hand to companies intent on driving us towards disaster is perverse. It’s like giving a fellowship to a graduate student who wants to pursue a thesis on “Strategies for Stimulating Donut Consumption Among Diabetics.”

5. Don’t give subsidies to people who have given you cash. Most of the men and women who vote in Congress each year to continue subsidies have taken campaign donations from big energy companies. In essence, they’ve been given small gifts by outfits to whom they then return large presents, using our money, not theirs. It’s a good strategy, if you’re an energy company—or maybe even a congressional representative eager to fund a reelection campaign.  Oil Change International estimates that fossil-fuel companies get $59 back for every dollar they spend on donations and lobbying, a return on investment that makes Bernie Madoff look shabby. It’s no different from sending a college financial aid officer a hundred-dollar bill in the expectation that he’ll give your daughter a scholarship worth tens of thousands of dollars. Bribery is what it is.  And there’s no chance it will yield the best energy policy or the best student body.

These five rules seem simple and straightforward to me, even if they don’t get at the biggest subsidy we give the fossil-fuel business: the right—alone among industries—to pour their waste into the atmosphere for free. And then there’s the small matter of the money we sink into the military might we must employ to guard the various places they suck oil from.


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Simply getting rid of these direct payoffs would, however, be a start, a blow struck for, if nothing else, the idea that we’re not just being played for suckers and saps. This is the richest industry on Earth, a planet they’re helping wreck, and we’re paying them a bonus to do it.

In most schools outside of K Street, that’s an answer that would get a failing grade and we’d start calling subsidies by another name. Handouts, maybe. Freebies. Baksheesh. Payola. Or to use the president’s formulation, “all of the above.”

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.”

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben

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DonSchneider's avatar

By DonSchneider, April 10, 2012 at 7:22 am Link to this comment

Higher gasoline prices ? Maybe it is time to look beyond just well subsidized big
oil and take a peek under the skirts of the corporate hand holders of big oil.
Goldman Sachs has invested more in petroleum futures these past few months
than ever before, and insiders say their investment splurge will continue until
gasoline prices hit the 5$ / gal mark. They will back off the price busting strategy
when their econo/political goal has been reached in Nov. . Till then ,  Happy
Motoring Y’all ..... Mo Tea Sir ?

Report this

By Albert R. Close, April 9, 2012 at 5:59 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

For all of the talk that has been going on for years about high gas prices, doesn’t
it seem strange that NO ONE ever mentions the words “Price Gouging” ?

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By Doubtom, April 9, 2012 at 12:03 pm Link to this comment

Is there any one issue that so clearly reveals that we do not control our
government as this taxpayer’s subsidy of one of the most profitable industries in
the world?  Is there even one citizen who feels that we should be subsidizing the
oil industry?
Since we do not control our government in the slightest degree, we may as well
start plotting our revolution as required by Thomas Jefferson’s wisdom. 
Does this not also reveal that the Congress is bought and paid for?

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By DornDiego, April 9, 2012 at 8:09 am Link to this comment

This was a great start toward a platform statement on energy.  But a campaign
lives on more symbolic stuff; for instance, Oil Welfare.  We can’t carry the oil
industry any longer, not if its CEOs and top managers take up to 200 or 300 times
the salary of an average worker.  We could argue that the oil subsidy was
temporary and will be reinstated when the industry finds a technology that won’t
destroy people’s health.  We could argue that electric cars need the subsidy, not
the oil industry, which, after all, is making more money now than it ever did.  Oil
Welfare sets up a realistic context for all these arguments.
Good luck fighting this battle.  It’s a tough sell because there an awful lot of oil
junkies out there

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By Roman Haluszka, April 9, 2012 at 5:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I can’t understand how anyone would want a government facining deficits an debt to subsiize business corporations which make multi-billions of dollars in profits.

It seems that the GOPTP wants to reduce or delete welfare payments to the needy, and unemployment subsidies to those who have suffered job loss, while passing this money along in the form of tax cuts for the wealthy and for the corporatocracy. 

When GOPTP ghovernors pass “right-to-work” laws this combination appears to be a strategy to create a labour force of virtually “forced labour” as the labour pool becomes filled with these victims of circumstance who will accept meager wages and few benefits so as to survive.

What a horrible set of values!

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BrooklynDame's avatar

By BrooklynDame, April 8, 2012 at 4:45 am Link to this comment

It’s long past time that investigations resulting in punishment for elected officials
who are in bed with “Big Oil” take place. These unpatriotic companies are watching
fellow citizens suffer as the nation tries to pull itself out of an economic recession
but they continue to bilk us for billions—and the system, with support of these
bought and paid for elected officials, is designed to work in their favour. Shameful.

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