Tom Friedman: Stimulate these - biotech, nanotech, info tech, clean tech
Reading the news that General Motors and Chrysler are lining up for another $20 billion or so in government aid — on top of the billions they've already received or requested — leaves me with the sick feeling that we are subsidizing the losers and for only one reason: because they claim that their funerals would cost more than keeping them on life support. Sorry, friends, but this is not the American way. Bailing out the losers is not how we got rich as a country, and it is not how we'll get out of this crisis.
You want to spend $20 billion of taxpayer money creating jobs? Fine. Call up the top 20 venture capital firms in America, which are short of cash today because their partners — university endowments and pension funds — are tapped out, and make them this offer: The U.S. Treasury will give you each up to $1 billion to fund the best venture capital ideas that have come your way. If they go bust, we all lose. If any of them turns out to be the next Microsoft or Intel, taxpayers will give you 20 percent of the investors' upside and keep 80 percent for themselves.
The renewable-energy business — wind, solar and solar thermal — was almost dead in this country. Most new projects stopped last fall because they depended for their financing on selling their renewable energy tax credits to Wall Street firms. As those Wall Street firms went bust or suffered steep losses, they had no need for tax credits, because they had no profits to offset. The stimulus package created a mechanism for renewable energy innovators to bypass Wall Street and monetize their tax credits directly through the U.S. Treasury, for any project that starts between now and the end of 2010.
The wind and solar industries in America "were dead in the fourth quarter," said John Woolard, chief executive of BrightSource Energy, which builds and operates cutting-edge solar-thermal plants in the Mojave Desert. Almost five gigawatts of new solar-thermal projects — the equivalent of five big nuclear plants — at various stages of permitting were being held up because of a lack of financing.
"All of these projects will now go ahead," Woolard said. "You are talking about thousands of jobs. ... We really got something right in this legislation.
That is how taxpayer money should be used to stimulate: limited financing, for a limited time, targeted on an industry bristling with new technology startups that, with a little push from Uncle Sam, won't just survive this crisis but will help us thrive when it is over. We need, and the world needs, an America that is thriving, not just surviving.