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Posts Tagged ‘Ethanol’

Because I don’t like their plans for a value-added tax, some people seem to think that I am politically opposed to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

That’s not true. Both Senators are generally strong proponents of free markets and limited government, so the fact that they have one bad policy position shouldn’t a disqualifying characteristic.

But since I’m a policy wonk (and because I work at a non-profit think tank), it’s not my role to tell people how to vote anyhow. Instead, my niche in life is to analyze policy proposals. And if that means I say something nice about a politician who is normally bad, or something critical of a politician who is normally good, so be it.

In other words, nothing I write is because I want readers to vote for or vote against particular candidates. I write to educate and inform.

With all those caveats out of the way, let’s look at the federal government’s odious handouts for the ethanol industry, a very important issue where Rand Paul and Ted Cruz unambiguously are on the side of the angels.

My colleague Doug Bandow summarizes the issue nicely in a column for Newsweek.

Senator Ted Cruz has broken ranks to criticize farmers’ welfare. …Senator Rand Paul also rejects the conventional wisdom…the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires blending ethanol with gasoline, operates as a huge industry subsidy. Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute figured the requirement cost drivers more than $10 billion since 2007. …Ethanol has only about two-thirds of the energy content of gasoline. Given the energy necessary to produce ethanol—fuel tractors, make fertilizer and distill alcohol, for instance—ethanol actually may consume more in fossil fuels than the energy it yields. The ethanol lobby claims using this inferior fuel nevertheless promotes “energy independence.” However, …the price of this energy “insurance” is wildly excessive. …”By creating an artificial energy demand for corn—40 percent of the existing supply goes for ethanol—Uncle Sam also is raising food prices. This obviously makes it harder for poor people to feed themselves, and raises costs for those seeking to help them.” Nor does ethanol welfare yield an environmental benefit, as claimed. In fact, ethanol is bad for the planet. …Ethanol is a bad deal by any standard. Whomever Iowans support for president, King Ethanol deserves a bout of regicide.

Here’s some of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial on the topic.

Mr. Cruz does deserve support in Iowa for…his…lonely opposition to the renewable fuel standard that mandates ethanol use and enriches producers in the Hawkeye State. The Senator refused to bow before King Ethanol last year, and he’s mostly held fast even though Iowa is where anti-subsidy Republicans typically go to repent. …the Texan is right that ethanol is one of America’s worst corporate-welfare cases. The mandate flows in higher profits to a handful of ethanol producers and keeps the price of corn artificially high, all other demand being equal. This raises the price of food. Al Gore and the greens once supported ethanol but gave up on it when studies showed it did nothing for the environment because of the energy expended in its production. So for those of you keeping track of this outsider feud on your establishment scorecards, mark ethanol as one for Mr. Cruz. In this case he’s standing on principle.

Not only does it raise the price of food, Washington’s mandate for ethanol use (the “renewable fuels standard”) means higher prices for motorists.

Here are the key findings on the topic from the Congressional Budget Office.

While Senators Cruz and Paul are fighting on the right side, Donald Trump is cravenly bowing to the special interests that want continued ethanol handouts. Jillian Kay Melchior explains for National Review.

One of the most destructive environmental subsidies in the United States has found an enthusiastic supporter in Donald Trump. “The EPA should ensure that biofuel . . . blend levels match the statutory level set by Congress,” he said yesterday in Iowa, adding that he was “there with you 100 percent” on continuing federal support for ethanol. …federal support for ethanol is a bum deal for Americans. Under the 2007 Independence and Security Act, Congress mandated that the United States use 36 billion gallons of biofuels, including corn ethanol and cellulosic biofuel, by 2022. And the federal government not only requires the use of ethanol; it also subsides it. Tax credits between 1978 and 2012 cost the Treasury as much as $40 billion. Moreover, numerous other federal programs, spanning multiple agencies, allot billions of dollars to ethanol in the form of grants, loan guarantees, tax credits, and other subsidies. …Ethanol-intensive fuel blends can wreak havoc on car, lawnmower, and boat engines. In fact, many vehicle manufacturers will no longer offer warranties when ethanol comprises 10 percent or more of fuel; engine erosion simply becomes too common. …perhaps it’s not surprising that Trump likes federal support of ethanol. After all, the real-estate mogul’s business model has historically hinged on using tax abatements and other subsidies to make his building projects profitable. …Trump’s support for ethanol belies his populist Main Street rhetoric. In reality, he’s just another rich, East Coast politician who would prop up special interests at the expense of the taxpayer.

The bottom line is that ethanol handouts are one of the most notoriously corrupt subsidies that are dispensed by Washington.

They also violate my Bleeding-Heart Rule by imposing costs on lower- and middle-income people to reward politically connected fat cats with deep pockets.

Policy makers who oppose ethanol deserve praise, especially when they are willing to say and do the right thing in a state (like Iowa) that has a lot of recipients of this execrable form of corporate welfare.

P.S. I will get really excited if a candidate goes to Iowa and explains that we should get rid of the entire Department of Agriculture.

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I may have to change my mind. When asked a few years ago to pick which department in Washington most deserved to be eliminated, I chose the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And HUD unquestionably is a cesspool of waste, so it certainly should be shuttered.

But the more I read about the bizarre handouts and subsidies showered on big agribusiness producers by the Department of Agriculture, the more I think there’s a very compelling argument that it should be at top of my list.

Indeed, these giveaways are so disgusting and corrupt that not only should the department be abolished, but the headquarters should be razed and then the ground should be covered by a foot of salt to make sure nothing ever springs back to life.

That’s a bit of hyperbole, I realize, but you’ll hopefully feel the same way after today. That’s because we’re going to look at a few examples of the bad results caused by government intervention.

To get an idea of the Soviet-style nonsense of American agricultural programs, a Reuters report on the peanut programs reveals how subsidies and intervention are bad news for taxpayers and consumers. Here’s the big picture.

A mountain of peanuts is piling up in the U.S. south, threatening to hand American taxpayers a near $2-billion bailout bill over the next three years, and leaving the government with a big chunk of the crop on its books. …experts say it is the unintended consequence of recent changes in farm policies that create incentives for farmers to keep adding to excess supply.

And here’s a description of the perverse and contradictory interventions that have been created in Washington.

First, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is paying farmers most of the difference between the “reference price” of $535 per ton (26.75 cents per lb) and market prices, now below $400 per ton. A Nov. 18 report to Congress estimates such payments this year for peanuts exceed those for corn and soybeans by more than $100 per acre. Secondly, government loan guarantees mean once prices fall below levels used to value their crops as collateral, farmers have an incentive to default on the loans and hand over the peanuts to the USDA rather than sell them to make the payments.

Gee, what a nice scam. Uncle Sam tells these farmers welfare recipients that they can take out loans and then not pay back the money if peanut prices aren’t at some arbitrary level decided by the commissars politicians and bureaucrats in Washington.

In other words, assuming the peanut lobbyists have cleverly worked the system (and unfortunately they have), it’s a license to steal money from the general population by over-producing peanuts. And we’re talking a lot of peanuts.

Through forfeitures, the USDA amassed 145,000 tons of peanuts from last year’s crop, its largest stockpile in at least nine years, according to data compiled by Reuters. …That stockpile is enough to satisfy the average annual consumption of over 20 million Americans – more than the population of Florida – and puts the administration in a bind. …As peanut carryover inventories are forecast to hit a record of 1.4 million tons by end-July 2016 and as loans begin to come due next summer, farmers are expected to fork over more peanuts to the USDA.

Moreover, because the perverse interaction of the various handouts, there’s no solution (other than…gasp!…allowing a free market to operate).

Storing the peanuts in shellers’ and growers’ warehouses comes at a cost. Selling them could depress the market further and in turn would add to the price subsidy bill.

Now let’s shift gears and look at another sleazy and corrupt example of agricultural welfare.

The Des Moines Register is reporting that corn growers and other beneficiaries of the ethanol program are working to cement their place at the public trough.

Iowa’s billion-dollar ethanol industry is turning up the heat… America’s Renewable Future, a bipartisan political group backed by top Iowa elected officials and people in agriculture and the ethanol industry, is in the midst of a million-dollar ad campaign to exert pressure on candidates ahead of the Iowa caucuses, supporting candidates who back the Renewable Fuel Standard and criticizing those who denounce it.

Ethanol is a particularly evil handout, encompassing regulatory mandates, special tax preferences, trade barriers, and other forms of subsidies.

All this is necessary because it makes no economic sense to turn corn into fuel. But with the right amount of goodies from Washington, dumb things suddenly become “profitable.”

And to maintain the flow of undeserved loot, the moochers are applying pressure.

Patty Judge, co-chair of America’s Renewable Future and a former Iowa agriculture secretary, said the group has signed up 45,000 people who have pledged to look closely at how the candidates stand on the Renewable Fuel Standard when they vote in the Iowa caucuses. …Iowa is the nation’s largest ethanol producer, churning out 3.9 billion gallons in 2014.

While the stories about peanuts and ethanol make for grim reading, now it’s time to get really depressed.

That’s because we’re going to take a look at a New York Times story on how Washington is dealing with ag subsidies.

In April, Republicans newly in control of Congress celebrated their agreement on a plan to save $5 trillion — that’s trillion, with a “T” — and balance the budget in a decade. …Yet as the year closes, Congress instead is planning to repeal one of the few spending cuts it has passed into law since approving that budget resolution: $3 billion over a decade from subsidies for crop insurers. …Republican leaders agreed to hold a vote next month to delete the savings after lawmakers from agricultural states complained…the agriculture committees, like most others, had no intention of turning budget-balancing numbers into policy reality by voting for cuts that would anger constituents, contributors and influential interest groups — not the $20 billion that the budget resolution recommended, nor even the $3 billion reduction from crop insurers, a cut that administration officials and Republican leaders tucked into the bipartisan budget deal Congress passed in October.

By the way, to get further depressed, this means that the terrible agreement to bust the spending caps just became even worse.

So now you’ll understand why the Department of Agriculture deserves to be eliminated.

P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the disgraced and convicted former House Speaker, Denny Hastert, had his filthy hands in the ethanol business.

P.P.S. And don’t forget that the wasteful food stamp program is part of the Department of Agriculture, largely to create an unholy alliance of rural moochers and urban moochers.

P.P.P.S. Last but not least, the clowns in Washington not only muck up how food is produced, they also can’t resist interfering in how food is consumed.

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I’ve pointed out that Washington is a cesspool of legal corruption. But if you don’t believe me (and you have a strong stomach), feel free to peruse these posts, all of which highlight odious examples of government sleaze.

But occasionally elected officials cross the blurry line and get in trouble for illegal corruption.

For those of you who follow politics, you may have seen news reports suggesting that Robert Menendez, a Democratic Senator from New Jersey, will soon be indicted for the alleged quid pro quo of trying to line the pockets of a major donor.

Attorney General Eric Holder has signed off on prosecutors’ plans to charge Menendez, CNN reported on Friday. …A federal grand jury has been investigating whether Menendez improperly used his official office to advocate on Melgen’s behalf about the disputed Medicare regulations when he met with the agency’s acting administrator and with the secretary of Health and Human Services, according to a ruling by a federal appeals court that became public last week. The ruling also said the government was looking at efforts by Menendez’s office to assist a company Melgen partly owned that had a port security contract in the Dominican Republic.

I certainly have no interest in defending Senator Menendez, but I can’t help but wonder what’s the difference between his alleged misbehavior and the actions of almost every other politician in Washington.

Here’s what I assume to be the relevant part of the criminal code, which I downloaded from the Office of Government Ethics (yes, that’s a bit of an oxymoron).

Stripped of all the legalese, it basically says that if a politician does something that provides value to another person, and that person as a result also gives something of value to the politician, that quid-pro-quo swap is a criminal offense.

Now keep this language from the criminal code in mind as we look at some very disappointing behavior by Republican presidential candidates at a recent Iowa gathering.

As Wall Street Journal opined, GOPers at the Ag Summit basically competed to promise unearned benefits to the corporate-welfare crowd in exchange for political support (i.e., something of great value to politicians).

Iowa is…a bad place to start is because it’s the heartland of Republican corporate welfare. Witness this weekend’s pander fest known as the Ag Summit, in which the potential 2016 candidates competed to proclaim their devotion to the Renewable Fuel Standard and the 2.3-cent per kilowatt hour wind-production tax credit. The event was hosted by ethanol kingpin Bruce Rastetter… Two of the biggest enthusiasts were Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee… The fuel standard “creates jobs in small town and rural America, which is where people are hurting,” said Mr. Santorum, who must have missed the boom in farm incomes of recent years.

But it’s not just social conservatives who were promising to swap subsidies for political support.

Self-styled conservative reformers may be willing to take on government unions, which is laudable, but they get timid when dealing with moochers in Iowa.

Scott Walker, who in 2006 said he opposed the renewable fuel standard, did a switcheroo and now sounds like St. Augustine. He’s for ethanol chastity, but not yet. The Wisconsin Governor said his long-term goal is to reach a point when “eventually you didn’t need to have a standard,” but for now mandating ethanol is necessary to ensure “market access.”

And establishment candidates also tiptoed around the issue, suggesting at the very least a continuation of the quid pro quo of subsidies in exchange for political support.

Jeb Bush at least called for phasing out the wind credit, which was supposed to be temporary when it became law in 1992. But he danced around the renewable standard, which became law when his brother signed the energy bill passed by the Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid Congress.

Geesh, maybe this is why Bush won’t promise to oppose tax hikes.

And there are more weak-kneed GOPers willing to trade our money to boost their careers.

Chris Christie wouldn’t repudiate the wind tax credit, perhaps because in 2010 the New Jersey Governor signed into law $100 million in state tax credits for offshore wind production. He also endorsed the RFS as the law of the land…, but what voters want to know is what Mr. Christie thinks the law should be. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry sounded somewhat contrite for supporting the wind tax credit, which has been a boon for Texas energy companies.

The only Republican who rejected corporate welfare (among those who participated) was Senator Ted Cruz.

The only Ag Summiteer who flat-out opposed the RFS was Texas Senator Ted Cruz , who has also sponsored a bill in Congress to repeal it. In response to Mr. Rastetter’s claim that oil companies were shutting ethanol out of the market, he noted “there are remedies in the antitrust laws to deal with that if you’re having market access blocked.”

Though even Cruz deviated from free-market principles by suggesting that anti-trust bureaucrats should use the coercive power of government to force oil companies to help peddle competing products.

Sigh.

By the way, I don’t mean to single out Republicans. Trading votes for campaign cash is a bipartisan problem in Washington.

But it is rather disappointing that the politicians who claim to support free markets and small government are so quick to reverse field when trolling for votes and money.

At least politicians like Obama don’t pretend to be a friend before stealing my money.

P.S. Normally I try to add an amusing postscript after writing about a depressing topic.

I’m not sure whether this story from the U.K.-based Times is funny, but it definitely has an ironic component.

Judge Juan Augustín Maragall, sitting in Barcelona, ruled that prostitutes should be given a contract by their employers, who should also pay their social security contributions. …In giving his verdict in the civil case, brought over a breach of labour regulations, the judge went further than expected, ruling that the women’s rights had been flouted by the management and forcing the company to pay the social security payments of three prostitutes backdated to 2012. Because of the ruling all brothels will be forced with immediate effect to issue contracts to staff and pay their social security contributions.

Now here’s the ironic part.

The ruling will generate tax revenue even though it’s actually illegal to employ prostitutes!

…it is against the law to make money from pimping, which carries a four-year jail term.

I guess the Judge could have ruled that the customers were the employers, but somehow I suspect it would have been difficult to extract employment taxes from those men.

Just like it would be difficult to extract employment taxes from the women.

Though the hookers won’t mind getting unemployment benefits so long as someone else is paying the taxes.

Conxha Borrell, of the Association of Sex Professionals, welcomed the ruling.

I guess we should add this to our great-moments-in-human-rights series.

Though maybe I should start a great-moments-in-economic-ignorance series since the prostitutes will be the ones who bear the burden of the tax even if the pimps are the ones writing the checks to the government (just as workers bear the burden of the “employer share” of the Social Security payroll tax).

P.P.S. Maybe Spanish hookers should reclassify themselves as porn artists who allow audience participation? That way, they can take advantage of Spain’s preferential tax rate for smut.

P.P.P.S. The Germans at least have figured out an efficient way to tax prostitutes.

P.P.P.P.S. Though maybe prostitutes should become politicians. The business model is quite similar, and I suspect you can “earn” more income selling access to other people’s money rather than selling sex to men who have to use their own money.

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I can’t say I’m surprised, but I’m nonetheless still nauseated to read that Mitt Romney has decided to endorse ethanol subsidies. Here’s a blurb from Fox in DC.

“I support the subsidy of ethanol,” Romney told an Iowa voter. “I believe ethanol is an important part of our energy solution for this country.” …Romney’s renewed support came just days after former Minnesota Gov. Pawlenty officially announced his candidacy and said the nation could no longer afford to subsidize ethanol, a position that he said backed up his claim to be the truth teller in the race.

I’ve written about ethanol subsidies before, noting that they rank as one of the most corrupt and inefficient special-interest programs in Washington. By endorsing ethanol, Romney demonstrates that he is a profoundly flawed candidate.

Indeed, he seems eerily similar to Richard Nixon. Not in the sense of being corrupt, but in his totally amoral approach to public policy.

From a policy perspective, Nixon was a terrible president. He raised taxes, created new government agencies and programs, imposed wage and price controls, and implemented many other policies to expand the burden of government. But he did those things for reasons of political expediency, not because of any set of beliefs.

Romney seems to have the same shallow approach. It appears that he will say anything and do anything to advance his own political ambition. Doing what’s right for America doesn’t seem to be a factor when he makes decisions.

By imposing Romneycare on Massachusetts, Romney paved the way for Obama to impose a similar policy on the entire nation. Now Romney has embraced one of the sleaziest scams in Washington, one that lines the pockets of a rich special interest and screws over taxpayers and consumers.

That does not bade well. If he makes it to the White House, I will predict right now that he would destroy America’s fiscal future with a value-added tax.

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Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has a great piece looking at the utterly indefensible panoply of ethanol subsidies and handouts that screw consumers and taxpayers in order to line the pockets of the politically powerful. Unfortunately, several senior GOP lawmakers have unseemly ties to the lobbyists for the industry. So this is a test, but don’t expect a passing grade.

Ethanol fuel (especially ethanol distilled from corn) is subsidized in dozens of ways by governments at all levels. Two of the longest-running subsidies — a 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol, and 45-cent tax credit for every gallon blended with gasoline — expire on Dec. 31, making them a top priority for industry lobbyists during the lame-duck session. …In recent years, Americans have learned about the downsides of ethanol subsidies. The 2005 and 2007 energy bills mandated the use of ethanol, igniting a corn boom, which crowded out other crops, contributing to spikes in food prices. Ethanol was even blamed for tortilla riots in Mexico. Growing and distilling ethanol uses immense amounts water (contributing to river and aquifer depletion) and energy (some scientists argue that more energy goes into making a gallon of ethanol than is contained in that gallon). The added corn demand means more fertilizer production and use, adding to harmful runoff, which is blamed for “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico that choke out aquatic life. There are plenty of policy reasons to kill ethanol subsidies, but historically, a powerful lobby has kept them alive. And while the GOP talks about free markets, Republican lawmakers are cozier with the ethanol lobby than Democrats are. Republicans raised more than Democrats from Poet, the nation’s largest ethanol maker. Former Republican Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa is now the president of Growth Energy, a leading pro-ethanol lobby. Presumptive incoming House Ways & Means Chairman Dave Camp has long supported ethanol subsidies, as has Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley. Republican coziness with corn growers and ethanol distillers could outweigh sound policy considerations.

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