Government “investments” have had a poor showing of late. President Barack Obama, convinced as ever that our economy can run on good intentions rather than hydrocarbons, got sold a bill of goods by such corporate rent-seekers as Solyndra and Tesla. And the federal government cannot even get the hydrocarbon-related businesses right, either: Our alleged “investment” in General Motors cost taxpayers many billions of dollars and made them partners in an incompetent and negligent operation that contributed to the deaths of at least 13 people who perished in accidents related to faulty switches in GM vehicles. As investment gurus go, Barack Obama isn’t exactly E. F. Hutton.
But our current feckless chief executive is not the worst offender on this front, and probably not even in the top ten, a point of more than merely historical interest argued at some length in Burton and Anita Folsom’s Uncle Sam Can’t Count: A History of Failed Government Investments, from Beaver Pelts to Green Energy, a terrific and very readable book published earlier this week. The Folsoms, who both teach at Hillsdale College, start setting ’em up and knocking ’em down with George Washington, a great president but a pretty lousy practitioner of beaver-pelt protectionism. The rogues’ gallery includes everything from federally supported steamship operations and railroads to Herbert Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the corrupt favor factory that gave birth to the Small Business Administration and Fannie Mae, and sundry 21st-century variations on the 18th-century mercantilist theme.