man in suit playing chessConservatives play a mean game.The discussion over energy subsidies has gained some visibility recently thanks to the political class’s absurd deficit hysteria. This has given some folks on the left the idea that, hey, maybe here’s an area where we can collaborate with Republicans to get something good done! The recent Green Scissors report was a good example, but far from the only one.

I’ve written quite a bit on this — see here for the politics and here for the substance — but I want to reiterate and update one point.

Let’s start by remembering the policy goals of the conservative movement. It should be easy, since those goals haven’t changed in … ever. They are: to remove regulatory restraints on corporations and to redistribute wealth upward. It’s useful to remember that no matter what the purported subject — the deficit, taxes, health care, climate change, whatever — the conservative policy recommendation is going to be some version of deregulating corporations and distributing wealth upward. Keeping this in mind helps to avoid confusions like, “wait, why the hell do they want tight monetary policy and federal spending cuts in the middle of a demand-driven recession?” It makes no sense on its own terms, given present circumstances, but it makes perfect sense as a step toward the movement’s policy goals.

The same is true for energy subsidies. When conservatives talk energy subsidies, they’re not talking about energy subsidies. They’re not talking about balancing budgets. They’re talking about deregulating corporations and distributing wealth upward. The only question is how they’re going to try to do it. Here’s my attempt to reproduce the reptilian thought process:

1. They notice that Dems are pushing for the removal of oil subsidies and that it’s getting traction with Obama and the G8. They need to defuse or co-opt that energy.

2. So they subtly turn the conversation to “energy subsidies” more broadly, sending someone out with a token gesture at removing subsidies across the board. (In this case, Lamar Alexander.)

3. Then they launch a coordinated attack on “green jobs,” arguing that renewable energy is nothing but a government-supported boondoggle. (It helps to have New York Times reporters you can browbeat.) If you wondered why conservatives were so fiercely trumpeting the news about Solyndra last week, that’s why. They want to convince lawmakers that clean energy is nothing but welfare for the undeserving. (Here’s a recent example.)

4. Simultaneously, conservatives’ favored industries, oil and gas, kick off a concerted lobbying campaign arguing that their industries are American as apple pie. They are job creators, so cutting their subsidies would destroy jobs. Thus you get things like this absurd study from the American Petroleum Industry trying to argue that more subsidies for fossil fuels, and fewer regulatory constraints, is the road to higher employment.

No politician actually wants to get rid of subsidies for their favored industries, least of all “free-market conservatives.” Established, wealthy industries have lots of friends in Congress. Nascent, disruptive industries don’t.

Conservatives recognize this and are playing on it. They talk about energy subsidies, then they talk about how oil companies are great and renewable energy companies are fake. What’s the outcome? A new surge of interest in … cutting subsidies for renewable energy!

And sure enough, here’s Harry Reid, “uncertain” whether he can extend the production tax credit, the one bit of government assistance that helps wind power compete against much more heavily subsidized, politically entrenched competitors.

This is just by way of a warning to my fellow progressives: I know y’all love argument and persuasion and facts and policy. I know you dearly, dearly wish that politics was like a grad school seminar and the person with the best argument triumphed. But it doesn’t work that way. You may think that an across-the-board cut in energy subsidies is “fair,” that it’s a sensible compromise between two opposing camps. But if you think you’re working with conservatives in good faith, you’re getting played. Their goal is to protect their friends, and you are not their friends.