Friday, September 23, 2011

The administration gets Solyndr0wned. Or not.

I haven't been paying much (any) attention to the Solyndra "scandal," because, well, it's completely stupid.  But Republicans care about silly things, and so it's on the front page of the New York Times.  Still, there are a few passages in the article that really tell you all need to know: 
“[W]e did not just take what this company was telling us,” Mr. LaVera said. “We did the analysis on our own and decided it was a good bet.” 
Turns out, it was a bad bet instead.  Strike one.  
“There was just too much misplaced zeal at the Department of Energy for this company,” Mr. Mehta said. 
Misplaced zeal!  Strike two!

And then there's the smoking gun: 
If there was a single bet made by the Obama administration that would determine the success or failure of its investment in Solyndra, it centered on the global price its competitors pay for one of earth’s most common elements: silicon.  
Wait -- Obama overestimated the rising global cost of silicon?!  Strike three!  Impeach!  Impeach!

Okay, so this isn't exactly Watergate.

Actually, the Solyndra stupidity is just another variant of the exact same tactic Republicans have been using against the stimulus for years -- and against government spending more generally for decades.  The way it works is quite simple.  The government spends a lot of money on a lot of things.  Basic probability dictates that some government money will therefore spent on projects that either (a) don't pan out, (b) are tenuously connected to some sort of indiscretion, or (c) have a silly-sounding name.  When Republicans find item (a), (b), or (c), they then trumpet their discovery to the high heavens, forcing the Times and other respectable outlets to report incessantly on this non-story.  Cue torches and pitchforks.

Better yet, because the government is huge and spends so much money, even a small slice of that spending is going to sound like an awful lot of money to an ordinary person.  So while Solyndra's half-billion loan guarantee is chump change relative to the size of the stimulus more broadly (and while a lot of money given to Solyndra was likely invested in research and personnel and material, serving its purpose regardless of the company's long-term fate), it doesn't matter, because the Solyndra story is aimed for the cheap seats.  And most laymen have absolutely no conception of proportionality or the relative size of numbers or the scope of government activity nationwide, so the idea of a half-billion being somewhat wasted enrages them -- even while we fight trillion-dollar wars and private firms churn tens of billions of dollars into purchasing patents and just an incredible amount of waste goes on all around us. 

The key here would be to have reporters exercise some editorial discretion -- "Hey, maybe this isn't a big deal outside of the fact that the Republican Party wants to make it a big deal, so maybe we shouldn't put it on A1" -- but of course reporters are primarily concerned with not sounding biased, so they refuse to make that call.  Besides, they're probably too innumerate to know the difference anyway.

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