Monday, October 3, 2011

Solyndra and a Billionaire's Guilt Trip 10/4/11

Was this solar energy company absolution for George Kaiser's oil money?

On Wall Street this week protesters dressed as "corporate zombies" are lashing out against corporate greed. If the unfolding Solyndra scandal is any clue, however, maybe someone should ask about the high price we pay when corporate leaders indulge their feelings of guilt.

No one has spoken more frankly about guilt than billionaire George Kaiser, whose family nonprofit was Solyndra's largest stakeholder. Mr. Kaiser first went public with his guilt in a Rotary Club speech two years ago. There he explained his charitable giving this way:

"It starts with a sense of guilt we should all feel," he said. "We got to where we are by dumb luck."

By dumb luck, Mr. Kaiser means that he was born to a caring father who founded an oil business, now known as Kaiser-Francis Oil. Mr. Kaiser took the company over in 1969 and also bought a bank that is now the BOK Financial Corporation. Together oil and banking have made him one of the world's wealthiest men.

Now, you might suppose that a billionaire whose wealth comes from the progressive world's two most villainous industries might find himself on the outs with an administration that routinely attacks billionaires, oil companies and bankers. You would, however, be wrong. In fact the record shows that Mr. Kaiser—a top Obama bundler during the last presidential campaign—was welcomed to the White House 16 times over the past two years.

That's where the now-bankrupt Solyndra comes in. The George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa, Okla., was the company's largest shareholder. The family foundation has attracted attention because it is set up as a "supporting organization" for the Tulsa Community Foundation. Supporting organizations provide donors with generous tax deductions while they are not required to give away the 5% of assets that, say, a private foundation must. Republicans in Congress are likely to ask questions about this arrangement, as well as if Mr. Kaiser used his White House access to lobby for the loan that the Department of Energy ultimately gave Solyndra.

Even if he didn't (as a foundation statement has claimed), solar appears to have been Mr. Kaiser's way of expiating his carbon sins. At first Mr. Kaiser's animus against fossil fuels found a healthy outlet in his opposition to special tax breaks for the oil industry. During 2009 hearings before the Oklahoma state legislature, Mr. Kaiser joked that his testimony might cost him his "day job."

Mr. Kaiser made a compelling argument that the tax breaks probably hadn't produced a single well that wouldn't otherwise have been drilled in Oklahoma. The nature of these breaks, he noted, was to take dollars that belonged to the many and redistribute them to the privileged few. He further suggested that politicians who wanted to help the Oklahoma economy would do far better to give the money back in the form of "tax cuts or services for the middle class and working poor."

That was the market-wise Mr. Kaiser speaking. Alas, it was a different story when Solyndra was lining up at the government trough.

Thus we heard no complaint from Mr. Kaiser when Solyndra was given $535 million in a government loan guarantee. No railing about tax breaks for the privileged few when the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority granted Solyndra a $25 million sales tax exemption. Instead, we heard only radio silence from the man who had testified so eloquently against government subsidies for business.

No doubt Mr. Kaiser's charitable giving has done some wonderful things for Tulsa. Unfortunately, when it came to a politically fashionable cause, Mr. Kaiser's concern for the taxpayer simply vanished. In its place was a much less appealing ethos, which he alluded to in the same Rotary speech where he spoke about "guilt."

This is the part where he explained his approach to the Obama stimulus. "There's never before been more money shoved out the government's door in world history. . . . And our selfish parochial goal is to get as much for Tulsa and Oklahoma as we possibly can."

These are striking concepts of guilt and charity. As Mr. Kaiser appreciates, an oil man who denounces fossil fuels will be lionized even as he continues to make millions off them, in the same way that a billionaire such as Warren Buffet earns praise for calling for higher taxes. But if you are a businessman such as David and Charles Koch, and you use your wealth to try to preserve the economic freedom you believe will help others move up the ladder, you will soon find yourself branded as an enemy of the people.

"We're all familiar with the greedy businessman who pushes taxpayer subsidies to enrich himself," says Scott Walter, a former domestic policy adviser in the Bush administration who now writes for "Solyndra tells us we might want to start paying more attention to the businessman who's already rich—but seeks to salve a guilty conscience by putting taxpayers on the hook for his pet causes."

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