State of the Union

Why the Ethanol Mandate Is Terrible Policy

You know the campaign season has started when people start talking about ethanol. Various GOP hopefuls have affirmed or reaffirmed their support for existing ethanol mandates, and while there doesn’t seem to be much of a race on the Democratic side at the moment, any candidates who do decide to run against Hillary will probably support it as well. So it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on just how truly awful a program the ethanol mandate is.

First, a note of clarification. It used to be that the federal government subsidized the production of ethanol the old fashioned way: with cash. For every gallon of ethanol blended into gasoline, blenders received a “tax credit” ranging around half a dollar. Foreign imports of ethanol were also subject to a 54-cent tariff. Both of these programs were allowed to lapse at the end of 2011.

Still on the books, however, is the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS. Like the ethanol tax credit, the RFS came as a result of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (the Energy Policy Act also extended daylight saving time, so it has a lot to answer for). The RFS mandates a minimum number of gallons of different types of ethanol that must be blended into U.S. gasoline each year. The minimum amount is set to rise over time, and blenders are subject to fines if they do not comply. From the point of view of ethanol producers, tax credits are nice but it’s the mandate that brings home the bacon.

The peculiar nature of the RFS has led to some absurd unintended consequences. For example, cellulosic ethanol (which is made chiefly from grass) isn’t commercially available in the necessary quantities to meet its RFS. Blenders have therefore wound up getting fined for not using a product that doesn’t exist.

Similarly, because the formula used to set the RFS greatly overestimated the number of miles Americans would drive, blenders were required to use more ethanol than could be safely blended into all the gasoline used in American cars. EPA was eventually forced to walk back its own regulations on cellulosic ethanol to better conform with reality, but successfully resisted challenges to lower the overall mandate.

The problems with the ethanol mandate, however, go beyond poor legislative drafting. It is the very idea of the RFS, not just its implementation, that is fatally flawed. The ethanol mandate was billed as an environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline, and a way to wean ourselves off dependence on foreign oil. It is neither. The ethanol mandate has led to the conversion of millions of acres of grassland and wetlands into cornfields. The environmental costs from these conversions swamp any reduced emissions from using ethanol-diluted gasoline. And while oil imports have indeed fallen in recent years, this has been the result of the boom in unconventional oil and gas production, rather than the substitution of biofuels.

Ethanol is also, of course, costly to consumers. A gallon of ethanol costs more than a gallon of gasoline, and it takes 1.5 gallons of ethanol to get the same mileage as a gallon of regular gas. Ethanol costs motorists approximately $10 billion a year in increased fuel costs.

And the cost of ethanol isn’t just felt at the pump. With 40 percent of America’s corn crop being devoted to producing the fuel, the mandate increases prices for food. And since the mandate encourages farmers to grow corn instead of other crops, the effect isn’t just limited to corn.

That’s harmful not only to Americans’ pocketbooks, but also to our national security. Research suggests that higher food prices increase the risk of instability around the world, as developing countries face riots or even revolutions over higher food prices. The Arab Spring was preceded by a spike in food prices, as were a similar series of riots in 2008.

The worst thing about the ethanol mandate, though, is what it says about our democracy. Ethanol is a rare political issue that is not polarized along ideological lines. From left to right, everyone seems to acknowledge that it is horrible policy. And yet not only does the policy continue, but people seem resigned to its continued existence.

If the United States can’t get rid of a policy that is so manifestly unjustified, how can we expect to solve more contentious issues?

Josiah Neeley is Texas Director for the R Street Institute.

Giant Robots Fight Giant Lizards in Globalization Allegory

Most have greeted the new sci-fi action movie “Pacific Rim” as mindless entertainment, and it certainly is that. But the movie is about much more than just computer generated action sequences and campy dialogue. In fact, it’s an allegory about the effects of globalization on manufacturing employment.

First, some important spoilers. “Pacific Rim” is a film about giant robots fighting giant sea monsters. For reasons that are not clear to begin with, these lizard-like creatures begin to emerge from an inter-dimensional breach deep in the Pacific Ocean, whereupon they attack various port cities. Emerging from the heart of the region most closely associated with globalization anxiety, these monsters represent the forces of creative destruction unleashed: they are unthinking, mysterious, and utterly disruptive.

Today there is growing anxiety about globalization and what it means for many individuals. The ratio of global imports to world GDP has risen from 14 percent in 1970 to just under 30 percent in 2008. At the same time, American manufacturing employment as a percentage of total employment has steadily fallen from 26.5 percent to 9.25 percent over roughly the same time period. Even in absolute terms, manufacturing employment has fallen by more than two million since 2000.

While some of this decline is no doubt due to increases in the productivity of American manufacturing, the recent events in Detroit illustrate the fraught consequences of increased global competition. It’s only natural that these anxieties—like the anxieties of previous times and places—should find expression in seemingly unrelated works of popular culture.

When traditional military forces prove less than adequate against the rising tide of monsters, nations naturally respond by building 250-foot tall robots, controlled by a pair of pilots using a kind of next generation Wii system. As the film explicitly notes, these robots were initially developed using DARPA funding, and represent a kind of industrial policy, each nation deploying its own robot champions. There is a Russian robot team, a Chinese team, an Australian team, and of course an American one, each protecting its home country.

But while the robots are initially successful, the monsters keep growing and invading at an ever-faster pace, overwhelming the efforts of the local industries. In response, the world’s leaders decide to abandon their industrial robot program in favor of literally building giant walls around all of their ports. It is explicitly mentioned that this has cut off trade and forced rationing and other hardships on the population—though it does seem to create a fair number of short-term blue collar jobs actually building the wall. The one city that doesn’t succumb to protectionism is Hong Kong (which happens to be an oft-cited example of free trade success in real life), where the remaining robots all relocate.

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