President Obama spoke in the unfinished hull of a new factory built by solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra in Fremont, Calif., Wednesday to highlight his administration’s focus on creating jobs. The new facility, Obama explained to a crowd of hard hats and suits, created 3,000 temporary construction jobs and was expected to provide 1,000 production jobs.
Problem: Solyndra has never turned a profit since it was founded in 2005. The company has an accumulated debt of $557 million. It paid for the new plant with a $535 million federal loan made possible by last year’s $787 billion economic stimulus package. If Obama wants to make Americans feel good about the economy, couldn’t he have found a business that doesn’t rely on taxpayer money?
In March, a critical PricewaterhouseCoopers audit questioned Solyndra’s "ability to continue as a going concern."
No worries, countered White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein on a conference call Tuesday. Such letters are written all the time for new companies. "The good news is when the federal government plays its role," Bernstein explained, enterprises like Solyndra can go out and raise funds in the capital markets.
This is probably a good place to mention that Solyndra, which uses thin solar technology to create cheaper-to-install tube-shaped panels, has attracted $800 million in smart venture capital. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Green Fund has invested in Solyndra. In March, Solyndra made Technology Review’s list of 50 most innovative companies.
When I asked Wade Randlett, a Silicon Valley and Obamaland insider who knows a lot more about venture capital than I ever will, why Obama didn’t pick a venue that actually had made money, he answered, "The point is to talk about the future." Twelve years ago, Google hadn’t made a profit. Concerns like Solyndra could be the Googles of tomorrow — which would be great.
It was good to hear the president talk up manufacturing jobs, but some of us chickens won’t feel good about the economy until the Obama administration walks away from its borrow-and-spend mentality. The president was making his case for Obamanomics in Silicon Valley, a virtual graveyard of local startups that shuttered before they hit the black — but at least most succeeded or failed with private money.
I believe I was supposed to be heartened when Obama said, "The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra." But it didn’t work for me. I could only think: Does that mean the true engine of economic growth in America is a company that can’t grow without tax dollars?
Obama’s other argument: America’s dependence on foreign oil is bad for national security, bad for the economy, and the damage from the Gulf Coast oil spill is "just heartbreaking."
As Randlett put it, on the critics’ side, all partisans can put forward is "Drill, baby, drill."
For my part, I arrived at Solyndra by car, so yes, I still support drilling. Besides, all I hear from the big-government side is "Bill, baby, bill."