Few individuals are better at spotting a good investment than venture capitalists. Is it any surprise, then, that VC executives are becoming political creatures? Politicians are better investments than they’ve ever been, and the ROI on a political contribution can be massive.
“Venture corporatists,” as I dubbed those VC executives who “invest” in government in a Thursday column at Breitbart News, are receiving a fair amount of attention in the political realm since the Romney campaign began hitting President Obama’s “political payoffs.” The campaign is suggesting old school pay-to-play schemes between the administration and high-profile Silicon Valley supporters – most notably John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Steve Westly of the Westly Group – whose portfolios include numerous recipients of federal green energy money.
Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact-checker, balked at the Romney camp’s allusions to back-room deals between these venture corporatists and the administration lining their pockets. And Kessler has a point: even if those deals did take place, it would be virtually impossible to prove.
The nature of green energy cronyism under Obama is actually a bit more subtle than Romney has suggested, and was in fact set in motion before Obama ever took office. Take this 2007 Conde Nast Portfolio profile of Doerr:
None of the alternative energy sources being developed today – solar, wind, geothermal, or biomass–is close to financial sustainability, which means that the supersize returns V.C. funds depend on will require massive government subsidies, regulations, and mandates… So Doerr has launched an audacious campaign to invest millions in handpicked political candidates and influential political action committees, to push for subsidies and pro-greentech policies and require the government to purchase the kinds of fuels and technologies his startups will be marketing. Since 2000, Doerr and his wife, Ann, have contributed more than $31 million to political candidates and causes.
In essence, Doerr is helping to create the biggest new market the world has seen since the dawn of the oil industry–and asking for taxpayer dollars to do it.
(Contrary to some reports, a significant chunk of the Doerrs’ political contributions has gone to Obama. Over the two presidential election cycles, he’s received $9,600 from John Doerr and another $9,600 from his wife, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)
Since the federal government has taken it upon itself to boost the green energy industry with taxpayer dollars (and attempts at mandates for green energy use), an investment in Washington is just as important for Doerr and other venture corporatists as an investment in the physical capital required for energy production. With billions of taxpayer dollars waiting to be doled out, electing the right politicians can be tremendously lucrative.
Westly, who has bundled between $700,000 and $1 million for Obama, understood that fact as well. “Government is not always bad and especially for something that is going to affect your business, you should be involved with it,” he told Marc Tarpenning, founder of Westly Group investment Tesla Motors. “He encouraged us to think about Washington.”
When Washington has the power to pick economic winners and losers, electing the right politicians is absolutely crucial for a nascent industry vying for a slice of that taxpayer pie. About 80 cents of each green energy dollar doled out by the administration has gone to a company tied to an Obama supporter. That doesn’t necessarily mean they worked out a shady backroom deal to reward campaign donors. It does mean that, for those involved in the green energy industry, electing the right people is extremely lucrative. For venture corporatists, politics is business.