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Over-the-top attacks on Obama’s green-energy programs

at 06:02 AM ET, 04/30/2012

“Washington promised to create American jobs if we passed their stimulus, but that’s not what happened. . . . American taxpayers are paying to send their own jobs to foreign countries.”

— New TV advertisement by Americans for Prosperity

“How exactly does President Obama spend your tax dollars?”

— New TV advertisement by the American Future Fund

Two well-funded Republican groups began running hard-hitting ads against President Obama last week, aiming to spend an estimated $8 million in key battleground states. The spots hit similar themes, attacking Obama on green-energy investments, and even cite similar sources.

Watching these ads is a depressing duty for The Fact Checker, because many of their claims — regarding “billions” of stimulus dollars going overseas — had been debunked two years ago by our colleagues at PolitiFact and Factcheck.org. Yet here the erroneous assertions emerge yet again, without any shame, labeled as “the truth” or “fact.”

The ads also use the old trick of blowing out of proportion small details and then leaping to grand conclusions.

Thus, in the Americans for Prosperity ad, questions about relatively small amounts of more than $800 billion in stimulus money turn into “American taxpayers are paying to send their own jobs to foreign countries.”

And the American Future Fund, pegging its ad to the date when taxes are due to ask how Obama spends taxpayer money, focuses on the same green-energy investments and also the $800,000 spent on a lavish Las Vegas conference by the General Services Administration. That’s a scandal — with no known links to Obama — but it’s also a pittance compared with the money spent on national defense, health care and other government services.

Let’s take a look at some of the specific claims.

The Facts

First of all, we live in a globalized world. American companies make products overseas; foreign companies make products in the United States. Sometimes parts are made in a variety of places overseas and then assembled in the United States. That’s a fact of life, and these ads frequently confuse the difference, so that any hint of foreign involvement is depicted as a bad thing.

Both ads cite the same source — a Washington Times article from Sept. 9, 2010 — for the claim that “jobs were sent overseas” (American Future Fund, which displays a Chinese flag when those words are said) or that “$2.3 billion of taxpayer credits went overseas while millions of Americans can’t find a job” (Americans for Prosperity).

The article actually said that the tax credits “went to foreign firms that employed workers primarily in countries including China, South Korea and Spain, rather than in the United States.”

That’s different from saying the money went overseas; it is talking about companies based overseas. Indeed, the original source for that information was American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop, and its reporting was much more nuanced. Its reports noted, for instance, that foreign-owned firms already dominate the market for wind turbines. In some cases, the firms have U.S. facilities or U.S. subsidiaries, which then assemble the turbines with foreign-made parts. So most of the jobs are in the United States, not overseas.

When a flurry of political ads started citing the AU work two years ago, the author Russ Choma wrote in a blog post that it was impossible to say whether any stimulus money went to create jobs in China. “Some of those foreign-owned turbine manufacturers have factories in the United States and some American-owned turbine manufacturers have factories overseas. We simply don’t know where all of the parts were made,” he wrote. “We found several specific examples of major wind farms where we know none of the parts were made in the United States.”

Indeed, U.S. manufacturers simply don’t yet have the capacity to make all of the turbines. A report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (which is part of the Energy Department) estimated that about 51,000 U.S. jobs were created in the wind-turbine industry by the stimulus funding. The report estimated the number of jobs theoretically could have been more than 80,000 if the money had been restricted to U.S. manufacturers, but there is no way the U.S. industry could have handled the demand. Thus, “ a 100% domestic content requirement could yield significant near-term domestic job losses relative to the current program design,” the report said.

Similar faulty reasoning extends to other claims in the ads. Americans for Prosperity says that “$1.2 billion [went] to a solar company building a plant in Mexico.” So what? The stimulus money went to a solar plant in California; the Mexican plant is simply another investment.

Another claim — “half a billion to a car company that created hundreds of jobs in Finland” — cites ABC News. That report focused on the fact that engineering and tooling work for a new electric vehicle — funded through the Energy Department — was being done in the United States, but that the vehicles are being assembled at a plant in Finland because the United States did not have right facilities. But ABC noted that Fisker will “ultimately produce 2,500 more jobs when Fisker builds a lower-priced version of the car in Delaware.”

Americans for Prosperity also asserts that the stimulus bill sent “tens of millions of dollars to build traffic lights in China.” The source is the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, but again, the article was much more nuanced. The traffic lights are for the United States market, but the article noted that there is a shortage of American-made light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, so parts are sourced overseas while the lights were assembled in the United States.

The American Future Fund ad detours into the GSA scandal, where the facts do not need much embellishment. But then it unaccountably cites a news organization (ABC News) for an April 10 report that turned out to be wrong — that GSA Administrator Martha Johnson skipped the Las Vegas meeting because she had meetings planned at Solyndra, which received stimulus funding but later went bankrupt.

The ad declares: “In an ironic twist, the head of the agency couldn’t make it to Vegas because she had meetings planned at Solyndra, a different sort of gamble.”

It’s much less ironic than it seems. ABC was wrong and quickly corrected the report. Here’s what ABC says now at the top of the original article: “***UPDATE:Wednesday morning, sources provided ABC News with records and documentation showing Martha Johnson did not travel to California to meet with Solyndra, and was in Virginia and Oregon for other meetings and activities.” Pretty hard to miss that disclaimer.

The Pinocchio Test

One can certainly raise questions about how stimulus funding was used and whether it was effective. But there is no excuse for these kinds of ads, which take facts out of context or simply invent them. These groups should be especially ashamed, given that these claims have been previously debunked, or, in the case of the erroneous ABC report, withdrawn.

Four Pinocchios




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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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