Americans for Prosperity (Whatever That Means)
“When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean."
To make sense of today’s political lexicon, here’s a good rule of thumb: the more resonant a word, the more suspect the intentions of those who toss it around. Patriot and patriotism are perennials, of course (Samuel Johnson famously called patriotism “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” while patriot is enough these days to attract the attention of the IRS). The word freedom ran amok during the George W. Bush years. Today, one of the buzzwords of the hour is prosperity. And who could be against that, with its promise of personal liberty and the good life?
The word has been heard a lot in North Carolina of late, thanks in large part to a group called Americans for Prosperity, which has become one of the loudest voices on the anti-tax, anti-regulation, right wing of American politics. The thing that especially gets their goat is environmental regulation. And their particular bête noire is the Renewable Portfolio Standard (pdf), a state-level measure -- mandatory in some cases and voluntary in others -- that requires a specified percentage of electricity to be generated from renewable sources. The core argument against the RPS is simple: it is an egregious case of government overreach, and it is directly harmful to the economy. It undermines prosperity.
Twenty-nine states, plus Washington, D.C., now have mandatory RPSs. Another eight have voluntary targets. And there’s nothing inherently partisan about these initiatives: deep red states like Texas, Missouri, and Kansas have mandatory ones. Their scope varies quite widely, as does the definition of “renewable.” California's mandatory program, for example, aims to generate one-third of the state’s energy from renewables by 2020 -- excluding hydropower, which some states count as a renewable -- while Indiana's voluntary program calls for just 10 percent by 2025. North Carolina's RPS, introduced in 2007, is one of the more modest; its goal is to reach 12.5 percent from renewables by 2021. Yet it’s North Carolina’s mandate that has faced the strongest concerted attack from Americans for Prosperity and allies such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is funded by Charles and David Koch and includes ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy, the country’s largest coal producer, among its members.
So far this year, bills to weaken renewable mandates have been introduced in 16 state legislatures. But the North Carolina bill, HB 298, was the only attempt at an outright repeal. It failed -- at least for now -- because it was opposed by several Republican legislators. But that isn’t the end of the story; groups like Americans for Prosperity don’t just fold their tents and slink away. Dallas Woodhouse, head of the organization’s North Carolina chapter, has already signaled that the next chapter will follow a script that is increasingly familiar in state-level politics. The six Republicans who cast this “horrible vote,” Woodhouse says, “need to be held accountable.”
But what’s most interesting to me about the HB 298 saga is the use of that word prosperity -- because this was exactly the value that Republican dissenters invoked in opposing the bill. Clean energy contributed at least $3.7 billion to the state economy last year and created more than 10,800 jobs, second only to California. “I would have a difficult time talking to a CEO who just brought 300 jobs to Cleveland County,” said Tim Moore, the Republican representative for North Carolina’s 11th District, and tell him “that I’m going to vote to eliminate this program that justified their investment.”
I wondered if maybe North Carolina was an anomaly; perhaps the defeat of the bill was simply a backlash against its extreme demand for a total repeal; or perhaps the jobs Moore was talking about were just an isolated success story. So I thought it would be interesting to crunch some numbers to see if there was a correlation between renewables and prosperity around the country. Here’s what I found:
Of the 10 most prosperous U.S. states -- which are, in order, Maryland, Alaska, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Virginia, Hawaii, Delaware, and California -- eight have mandatory renewable portfolio standards. Virginia has a voluntary one. Only Alaska has no renewable targets of any kind. But that state’s high ranking on the prosperity list is the real anomaly here. Alaska is a cuckoo-in-the-nest kind of place, receiving far and away the highest level of per capita federal aid of any state in the country, despite its oil wealth.
As for the ten poorest states -- starting at the bottom, those are Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Oklahoma -- the pattern is precisely the reverse. Only New Mexico has a mandatory RPS; West Virginia and Oklahoma have voluntary goals.
Of course, there’s a long-running debate about whether dollar income is the only true measure of wealth. There’s also the question of quality of life. Each year, a Gallup-Healthways poll measures what it calls the “well-being index,” which takes into account things like physical and mental health, job satisfaction, access to essential services, and optimism about the future. The top ten states for well-being are in fact quite different from the ten most prosperous (only Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Massachussetts make it onto both lists). But the correlation turns out to be virtually the same: seven of the ten have mandatory RPS; two have voluntary goals; Nebraska is the only outlier. As for the ten bottom-ranking states, only one, Ohio, has a mandatory policy.
Let’s not even talk about the rest of the world; after all, the likes of Americans for Prosperity tend to think that we don’t have much to learn from other countries. But I’ll simply note in passing that worldwide there is an even more striking correlation between renewable energy, material wealth, and quality of life. Last year, in the annual quality-of-life index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the United States came sixteenth. Virtually every country that was ranked higher generates a much greater amount of its energy from renewables.
Of course, the skeptic will say, quite correctly, that correlation and causality are not the same thing. Perhaps renewables only take off in places that are already prosperous. But there are two answers to that. The first is that correlations as strong and consistent as these -- international as well as domestic, based on quality of life as well as dollar income -- are hard to brush aside. The second and perhaps more telling answer takes us back to those 300 jobs in Cleveland County, North Carolina. The employer will be a German company, Schletter, that manufactures mounting systems for solar panels. Barely 10 miles away, Duke Energy and Strata Solar last year opened one of the biggest solar photovoltaic plants in the Southeast. And we’re not talking here about something that’s happening in a wealthy area like the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle. Cleveland is one of North Carolina’s poorer counties, with a median household income almost 20 percent below the statewide average. In fact, North Carolina’s surging solar energy industry is based heavily in these poorer rural counties, which, as it happens, are also those with the greatest potential for wind energy development.
So next time Americans for Prosperity come knocking at the statehouse door in Raleigh or Austin or Topeka, ask them to define exactly what they mean by that word prosperity. If it means “just what they choose it to mean,” remember what happened to Humpty Dumpty in the end.