Posts tagged ‘ethanol’

Michael Munger: The "State" As A Unicorn

Michael Munger has one of the most useful articles I have read in a very long time.  As illustrated by the Venn diagram I posted a while back showing the heavy overlap between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, we have much more concurrence in the diagnosis of problems than in the prescriptions for solutions.   Munger gets at the heart of why many people go wrong in these prescriptions

When I am discussing the state with my colleagues at Duke, it's not long before I realize that, for them, almost without exception, the State is a unicorn. I come from the Public Choice tradition, which tends to emphasize consequentialist arguments more than natural rights, and so the distinction is particularly important for me. My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA. 

But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of "the State." That seems literally insane to me—a non sequitur of such monstrous proportions that I had trouble taking it seriously.

Then I realized that they want a kind of unicorn, a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge, and abilities that they can imagine for it. When I finally realized that we were talking past each other, I felt kind of dumb. Because essentially this very realization—that people who favor expansion of government imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world—has been a core part of the argument made by classical liberals for at least three hundred years....

He follows with this useful test

But they may not immediately see why "the State" that they can imagine is a unicorn. So, to help them, I propose what I (immodestly) call "the Munger test."  

  1. Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.
  2. Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said "the State" delete that phrase and replace it with "politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist."
  3. If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.

This leads to loads of fun, believe me. When someone says, "The State should be in charge of hundreds of thousands of heavily armed troops, with the authority to use that coercive power," ask them to take out the unicorn ("The State") and replace it with George W. Bush. How do you like it now?

If someone says, "The State should be able to choose subsidies and taxes to change the incentives people face in deciding what energy sources to use," ask them to remove "The State" and replace it with "senators from states that rely on coal, oil, or corn ethanol for income." Still sound like a good idea?

How about, "The State should make rules for regulating sales of high performance electric cars." Now, the switch: "Representatives from Michigan and other states that produce parts for internal combustion engines should be in charge of regulating Tesla Motors."  Gosh, maybe not …

Hat tip:  Don Boudreaux

I spent most of the Bush years asking Conservatives a similar question -- you may be fine when "your guy" has this power, but would you be happy if Al Gore or Nancy Pelosi had it.  And of course I have spent most of the Obama years asking Liberals whether they would be comfortable if George Bush or Rick Perry had similar powers to what Obama has claimed for himself.  Because they will.

I said something similar here, though less elegantly.  I concluded in part:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

Of Course The Health Insurers are Behind Obamacare. Its The Greatest Bit of Cronyism Ever.

Kevin Drum thinks it is an insight to his readers that the insurance companies are a source of support for President Obama in keeping Obamacare alive.  And perhaps it is a surprise.  After all, most of the anti-insurance company rhetoric was for the progressives, who are always fired up for any endeavor they think will punish a private corporation.

The rest of us understand that of course the health insurance industry is all for Obamacare. For them, this is the greatest bit of crony legislation in history. For all the Administration rhetoric, essentially the US government has required that every citizen buy their product, and subsidizes many of these purchases with taxpayer money. Corporatism is rampant nowadays, a bipartisan affliction, but ethanol is that only other industry I can think of that has been granted this ultimate crony grail of subsidies combined with a requirement to purchase  (though maybe ethanol wins because, at least for cellulosic ethanol, there is actually a mandate to purchase a product that does not even exist).

Meet the Person Who Wants to Run Your Life -- And Obama Wants to Help Her

I am a bit late on this, but like most libertarians I was horrified by this article in the Mail Online about Obama Administration efforts to nudge us all into "good" behavior.  This is the person, Maya Shankar, who wants to substitute her decision-making priorities for your own

article-2381478-1B11DB61000005DC-332_308x425

 

If the notion -- that a 20-something person who has apparently never held a job in the productive economy is  telling you she knows better what is good for you -- is not absurd on its face, here are a few other reasons to distrust this plan.

  • Proponents first, second, and third argument for doing this kind of thing is that it is all based on "science".  But a lot of the so-called science is total crap.  Medical literature is filled with false panics that are eventually retracted.  And most social science findings are frankly garbage.  If you have some behavior you want to nudge, and you give a university a nice grant, I can guarantee you that you can get a study supporting whatever behavior you want to foster or curtail.  Just look at the number of public universities in corn-growing states that manage to find justifications for ethanol subsidies.  Recycling is a great example, mentioned several times in the article.  Research supports the sensibility of recycling aluminum and steel, but says that recycling glass and plastic and paper are either worthless or cost more in resources than they save.  But nudgers never-the-less push for recycling of all this stuff.  Nudging quickly starts looking more like religion than science.
  • The 300 million people in this country have 300 million different sets of priorities and personal circumstances.  It is the worst hubris to think that one can make one decision that is correct for everyone.  Name any supposedly short-sighted behavior -- say, not getting health insurance when one is young -- and I can name numerous circumstances where this is a perfectly valid choice and risk to take.
  • The justification for this effort is social science research about how people manage decisions that involve short-term and long-term consequences

Some behavioral scientists believe they can improve people's self-control by understanding the relationship between short term memory, intelligence and delay discounting.

This has mostly been used to counter compulsive gambling and substance abuse, but Shankar's entry into government science circles may indicate that health insurance objectors and lapsed recyclers could soon fall into a similar category

I am sure there is a grain of truth in this -- all of us likely have examples of where we made a decision to avoid short term pain that we regretted.  But it is hilarious to think that government officials will somehow do better.  As I have written before, the discount rate on pain applied by most legislators is infinite.  They will do any crazy ridiculous thing that has horrible implications five or ten years from now if they can just get through today.  Why else do government bodies run massive sustained deficits and give away unsustainable pension and retirement packages except that they take no consideration of future consequences.  And it is these people Maya wants to put in charge of teaching me about delay discounting?

  • It probably goes without saying, but nudging quickly becomes politicized.  Is nudging 20-something health men to buy health insurance really in their best interests, or does it help keep an important Obama program from failing?

Postscript:  Here is a great example of just how poorly the government manages delay discounting.  In these cases, municipalities are saddling taxpayers with almost certainly bankrupting future debt to avoid paying any short-term costs.

Texas school districts have made use of another controversial financing technique: capital appreciation bonds. Used to finance construction, these bonds defer interest payments, often for decades. The extension saves the borrower from spending on repayment right now, but it burdens a future generation with significantly higher costs. Some capital appreciation bonds wind up costing a municipality ten times what it originally borrowed. From 2007 through 2011 alone, research by the Texas legislature shows, the state’s municipalities and school districts issued 700 of these bonds, raising $2.3 billion—but with a price tag of $23 billion in future interest payments. To build new schools, one fast-growing school district, Leander, has accumulated $773 million in outstanding debt through capital appreciation bonds.

Capital appreciation bonds have also ignited controversy in California, where school districts facing stagnant tax revenues and higher costs have used them to borrow money without any immediate budget impact. One school district in San Diego County, Poway Unified, won voter approval to borrow $100 million by promising that the move wouldn’t raise local taxes. To live up to that promise, Poway used bonds that postponed interest payments for 20 years. But future Poway residents will be paying off the debt—nearly $1 billion, all told—until 2051. After revelations that a handful of other districts were also using capital appreciation bonds, the California legislature outlawed them earlier this year. Other states, including Texas, are considering similar bans.

Or here is another example, of New York (the state that is home to the mayor who tries to nudge his residents on everything from soft drinks to salt)  using trickery to consume 25 years of revenue in one year.

Other New York deals engineered without voter say-so include a $2.7 billion bond offering in 2003, backed by 25 years’ worth of revenues from the state’s gigantic settlement with tobacco companies. To circumvent borrowing limits, the state created an independent corporation to issue the bonds and then used the money from the bond sale to close a budget deficit—instantly consuming most of the tobacco settlement, which now had to be used to pay off the debt.

By the way, I recommend the whole linked article.  It is a pretty broad survey of how state and local governments are building up so much debt, both on and off the books, and how politicians bend every law just to be able to spend a few more dollars today.

Classic Partisan Thinking

Kevin Drum writes

On the right, both climate change and questions about global limits on oil production have exited the realm of empirical debate and become full-blown fronts in the culture wars. You're required to mock them regardless of whether it makes any sense. And it's weird as hell. I mean, why would you disparage development of renewable energy? If humans are the ultimate creators, why not create innovative new sources of renewable energy instead of digging up every last fluid ounce of oil on the planet?

I am sure it is perfectly true that there are Conservatives who knee-jerk oppose every government renewable energy and recycling and green jobs idea that comes along without reference to the science.  But you know what, there are plenty of Liberals who knee-jerk support all these same things, again without any understanding of the underlying science.  Mr. Drum, for example, only recently came around to opposing corn ethanol, despite the fact that the weight of the science was against ethanol being any kind of environmental positive years and years ago.  In fact, not until it was no longer cool and caring to support ethanol (a moment I would set at when Rolling Stone wrote a fabulous ethanol expose) did Drum finally turn against it.  Is this science, or social signalling?   How many folks still run around touting electric cars without understanding what the marginal fuels are in the electricity grid, or without understanding the true well-to-wheels efficiency?  How many folks still run around touting wind power without understanding the huge percentage of this power that must be backed up with hot backup power fueled by fossil fuels?

Why is his almost blind support of renewable energy without any reference to science or the specifics of the technologies involved any saner than blind opposition?  If anything, blind opposition at least has the numbers on their side, given past performance of investments in all sorts of wonder-solutions to future energy production.

The reason there is a disconnect is because statists like Drum equate supporting government subsidies and interventions with supporting renewables.  Few people, even Conservatives, oppose renewables per se.  This is a straw man.  What they oppose are subsidies and government mandates for renewables.  Drum says he has almost limitless confidence in  man's ability to innovate.  I agree -- but I, unlike he apparently, have limitless confidence in man's ability to innovate absent government coercion.  It was not a government program that replaced whale oil as an illuminant right when we were approaching peak whale, it was the genius of John D. Rockefeller.  As fossil fuels get short, prices rise, and people naturally innovate on substitutes.  If Drum believes that private individuals are missing an opportunity, rather than root for government coercion, he should go take up the challenge.  He can be the Rockefeller of renewable energy.

Postscript:  By the way, it is absurd and disingenuous to equate opposition to what have been a series of boneheaded government investments in questionable ventures and technologies with some sort of a-scientific hatred of fossil fuel alternatives.  I have written for a decade that I long for the day, and expect it to be here within 20 years, that sheets of solar cells are cranked from factories like carpet out of Dalton, Georgia.

Incredible Level of Cronyism

I am simply amazed at this level of cronyism enjoyed by the sugar industry -- import restrictions on cheaper world sugar, price supports, and government loans that can be paid back with excess product rather than cash.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is likely to buy sugar in the domestic market this year in order to drive prices up and prevent defaults on loans made to sugar processors, according to a USDA economist.

The USDA estimates it would need to buy 400,000 tons of sugar to boost prices to an “acceptable level,” said Barbara Fecso, an economist at the department. A purchase of 400,000 tons would amount to about 4.4% of projected U.S. sugar production in the marketing year that ends Sept. 30.

Domestic sugar prices have been trading at about 20 cents a pound, their lowest level in nearly four years, putting companies that make sugar from cane or beets at risk of defaulting on loans they received from the USDA when prices were higher.

People talk about these supposed government subsidies for oil companies, but every time I see a list of them they are dominated by things like depletion allowances, FIFO accounting, and investment tax credits, which are either standard accounting rules that apply to all industries or tax credits that apply to all manufacturers.  But Big Sugar gets real heavy-duty subsidies no one, except maybe ethanol companies and other farmers, get.

The Perfect Keynesian Stimulus

Hardcore Keynesian theory says that even paying someone to dig a hole one day and fill it in the next is stimulative.  This has always seemed insane to me -- how could it possibly be a net gain in growth and wealth to shift resources from productive activities to unproductive ones?  But in line with this theory, the Keynesians in the Obama Administration have hit on the perfect stimulus:

A cargo train filled with biofuels crossed the border between the US and Canada 24 times between the 15th of June and the 28th of June 2010; not once did it unload its cargo, yet it still earned millions of dollars... The companies “made several million dollars importing and exporting the fuel to exploit a loophole in a U.S. green energy program.” Each time the loaded train crossed the border the cargo earned its owner a certain amount of Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which were awarded by the US EPA to “promote and track production and importation of renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.”

Whole thing here

The Real Culprit Behind High Food Prices

Here is an amazing bit of data on where the US corn crop goes:

 

The Department of Agriculture says the corn crop in the US will be down 13% due to the drought.  But corn available for food uses is down 40% due to the ethanol mandate.  You do the math.  Wait, I don't trust your math.  I will do it for you:

PS-  It's kind of amazing the supposed worst drought ever has dropped corn yields by just 13%.  Hurray for modern agriculture.   This year we will still produce about the same amount of corn we did in 2006.

Why Do I Think This Penalty Would Have Been Waived on GE or Dreamworks?

Politicians certainly live in their own world:

The Environmental Protection Agency has slapped a $6.8 million penalty on oil refiners for not blending cellulosic ethanol into gasoline, jet fuel and other products. These dastardly petroleum mongers are being so intransigent because cellulosic ethanol does not exist. It remains a fantasy fuel. The EPA might as well mandate that Exxon hire Leprechauns.

As a screen shot of EPA’s renewable fuels website confirms, so far this year - just as in 2011 - the supply of cellulosic biofuel in gallons totals zero.

“EPA’s decision is arbitrary and capricious. We fail to understand how EPA can maintain a requirement to purchase a type of fuel that simply doesn’t exist,” stated Charles Drevna, president of American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), the Washington-based trade association that represents the oil refining and petrochemicals industries.

I will remind Republicans thought that ethanol is a bipartisan turd, this particular requirement having been signed into law by President Bush.

Government Mal-Investment

A reader sends me this editorial from Jerry Jordan at IBD.  It discusses a topic that is one of my favorites - government mal-investment.  By a thousand different mechanisms, from direct investment (Solyndra) to artificial interest rates to monkeying with price signals to economic rule-making (e.g. community banking, ethanol mandates) the government is shifting capital and resources from the allocations a well-funcitoning market would make to optimize returns and productivity to allocations based on political calculation.  We rightly worry about deficits and taxes, but in the long run this redistribution of investment from the productive to the sexy or politically expedient may have the largest long-term negative implications -- just look at what the management of the Japanese economy by MITI (touted at the time as fabulous by statists everywhere) did to that country, with the lost decade becoming the the lost two decades.

It is hard to excerpt but here is how it begins

It usually surfaces with an entrepreneurial adolescent deciding it would be a good idea to sell lemonade at the curbside to passersby

Parents, wanting to encourage the idea that working and making money is a good idea, drive around to buy the lemon, sugar, designer bottled water, cups, spoons, napkins, a sign or two, and probably a paper table cloth.

Aside from time and gas, the outing adds up to something north of $10. At the opening of business the next day, the kids find business is slow to nonexistent at $1 per cup. So, they start to learn about market demand and find that business becomes so brisk at only 10 cents per cup that they are sold out by noon, having served 70 cups of lemonade and hauled in $7.

The excited lunch-time conversation is about expanding the business. A stand across the street to catch traffic going the opposite direction; maybe one around the corner for the cross-street traffic. The kids see growing revenue; the "investors" see mounting losses.

There is a strand of economics, we'll call it the K-brand, that sees all this as worthwhile. They add together the $10 spent by the parents to back the venture and the $7 spent by the customers and conclude that an additional $17 of spending is clearly a good thing. Surely, the neighborhood economy has been stimulated.

To the family it is a loss, chalked up as a form of consumption. If this were a business enterprise it would be a write-off. In classical economics it is a "mal-investment."

 

Subsidy Magnets

From AutoGreenBlog

Output of cellulosic ethanol will surge starting in 2013, according to the U.S.' largest corn-based biofuel production firm, Poet LLC.

Poet says 2013 marks the start of commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production in the U.S. and predicts its lone facility will "open the floodgates" for the advanced biofuel....

As Poet exec Greg Hartgraves points out, production of cellulosic ethanol is expensive and that means those floodgates need to be helped open with federal monies. Without an energy policy mandating its production, U.S. firms are likely to shy away from the cellulosic biofuel, he said.

Duh.  It's a substitute that is both less effective (lower btu per gallon) and more expensive that what it is supposedly substituting.   I am just floored at the number of investors who are putting money up on the come with an expectation that somewhere down the road they can convince the government to subsidize them.  Poet knows this plant is uneconomic but has built it anyway, probably hoping to extract promises of support from candidates in the Iowa caucuses.  Kleiner Perkins did the same think with Fisker Automotive, making early stage investments that could only be bailed out by future political largess.  As Ayn Rand would say,the aristocrats of pull.

Green Cronyism

I am willing to believe that the initial push into alternative energy subsidies was undertaken with good, honest (though misguided) intentions to change the US energy mix.  But once such a program is begun, it inevitably gets turned into cronyism.

The best example is probably corn ethanol.  A combination of subsidies and mandates have pushed an enormous proportion of our food supply into gas tanks, for little or even negative environmental effect.   Environmentalists and the Left turned against it, but for a few large corporations like ADM, the subsidies have become life and death, and they do anything they have to to get Congress to maintain them.

The best evidence that corn ethanol shifted from a green program to pure cronyism was the imposition of large import tariffs.  The only possible purpose of these tariffs was to enrich farmers and a few manufacturers.  After all, if one really cared any more about getting more ethanol in the fuel supply, one would welcome low cost imports.

Well, the Solyndra debacle has started to make clear that cronyism has taken over solar subsidies as well.  Every day we find yet another high-ranking Obama supporter with his thumb on the scales tilting the DOE funding decision toward Solyndra.

Now we will see the ultimate test:

A group of U.S. solar-panel makers Wednesday called on the federal government to punish Chinese rivals with extra duties for allegedly dumping their products on the U.S. market…

The U.S. makers are asking the Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission to impose a duty on panels imported from China, a market that totaled $1.6 billion in the first eight months of 2011. SolarWorld accused Chinese manufacturers of selling solar panels at less than half of what the production costs would be in a comparable free-market economy, and is asking for tariffs to make up the difference.

One could argue that this is in direct response to the Solyndra failure.  Solyndra's failure has been blamed on low cost panel manufacturing in China.   Again, if we care just about energy, we should be thrilled about low-cost Chinese solar panels.  If the Chinese government wants to somehow subsidize our consumption of solar panels, great!

Watch this proposal.  Any politician that jumps on this solar tariff bandwagon will be saying "My statements about wanting to see more solar usage is just a bluff, I only really care about subsidizing a few selected businesses."

Mind of the Statist

David Roberts (via Kevin Drum) gives us a simply outstanding view of the mind of a statist:

In these grim economic times, one U.S. industry has defied gravity. Not only is it growing, it's thefastest growing industry in the country. It now employs 100,000 Americans at 5,000 mostly small businesses spread across all 50 states. Unlike in so many others, in this industry the U.S. has a positive trade balance with China; it is a net exporter of high-tech manufactured products....

The startling counter-cyclical growth of this industry had been unleashed by a modest bit of economic stimulus: a cash grant program that helps project developers compensate for the crippling credit crunch. In contrast to the familiar tax credits -- which tend to go to large, mature companies that have enough profit to benefit from them -- cash grants help small, innovative, growing businesses that are plowing revenue into growth. In fact, a recent study found that they work twice as well as tax credits. In 2009, this cash grant program pulled in $4.50 of private capital for every public dollar it invested.

The cash grant program expires at the end of the year. Extending it for a single year could support 37,000 additional jobs over and above the industry's baseline. And here's the capper: Since the cash grant program is simply repurposing money that's already devoted to a tax credit program, it requires no new federal revenue.

So you'd think this would be a home run, right? At a time when jobs are at the top of every politician's mind, surely a bit of low-cost economic stimulus that doesn't increase the deficit and leverages tons of private capital and creates tens of thousands of jobs can serve as the rare locus of bipartisan cooperation. Right?

Except the industry in question is the solar industry. And because this industry involves clean energy rather than, I dunno, tractor parts, it has been sucked into conservatives' endless culture war. Rather than lining up to support the recession's rare economic success story, Republicans are trying to use the failure of a single company -- Solyndra -- as a wedge to crush support for the whole industry. Odds are they're going to succeed and the cash grant program (Sec. 1603) won't be renewed next year.

Do you see the basic assumption -- if we don't take money from taxpayers and give it to businesses in a certain industry, that means we don't like that business.  Really?  That means that there is not a single industry in this country that I like, since I don't support subsidies for any of them.   Unless you believe the state is mother and father to us all, the fact that I don't support state subsidies does not mean that I don't like the industry somehow.  Kevin Drum even goes so far as to say that opposition to solar power subsidies is an aspect of the culture wars.  Huh?   Oh and by the way, the politicization of this loan process is just amazing to me.  More and more people at Solyndra seem to be fund raisers for Obama, and here is a story of how a cleaning products company turned donations to Democratic candidates into taxpayers subsidies for themselves.

It is interesting that he would mention tractor parts.  Guess what, folks who don't like the solar subsidies probably don't support subsidies for tractor parts either.  I was going to say something like, "guess what, we don't subsidize tractor parts" but in our screwed up corporate state, we probably do at some level, like with some special export program snagged by a John Deere lobbyist.  But I can pretty much guarantee that we don't subsidize anywhere near the total value of the tractor parts industry like we do the solar industry.

In one silly passage, he says

"In addition to being successful, this industry is wildly popular with the American public, across regions, demographics, and political parties. It has been embraced by mainstream institutions from Walmart to the U.S. military"

I could say the same thing for iPods too, but no one is rushing to provide grant programs for their manufacture.  If it is so wildly popular, why does its use require so many government incentives and subsidies.  Because the author pulls the trick of looking at one narrow solar program, and attributing the entire solar industry growth to that one program.  And then he says, see, look how much benefit we get from this tiny sensible expenditure.

But solar's growth (I don't have the data, but I am willing to be real money that his "fastest growing industry" claim is BS) is due not to just this tiny programs but to a plethora of federal, state, and local subsidies and mandates.  The government gives money to capitalize companies, and then then provides tax credits for up to 30-50% of their customer's purchase, and then through public utility commissions enforce above-market feed-in tariff rates for solar power.  One reason we export so much (the export market for US solar is nearly entirely to Europe) is that European governments have feed-in tariffs for solar power more than 5 times higher than the market rate for electricity.   They are paying something like 70 cents a kilowatt for solar electricity.

So of course solar is growing.  If the government were to buy small cars for $150,000 each, there would be big growth in car manufacturing. This does not mean the product makes sense -- in fact, the necessity for so many government supports at every step of the process means almost by definition that it does not make sense economically.  Look at corn ethanol.  Corn ethanol is the stupidest product ever, but it has grown like crazy due to the same combination of government subsidies, price floors, and mandates.

By the way, I am a huge fan of solar, in theory.  I honestly think that solar will some day be the power system of choice in this country, as companies figure out how to roll solar sheets out of the factory as cheaply and quickly as carpet comes out of Dalton, Georgia.  We are not there yet, and I am not at all convinced that the current approaches are anything but dead end technologies.  Beyond wasting a lot of money, there is a real risk the government actually slow ultimate implementation of sensible and economic solar, just as I would argue they did by forcing manned space flight and the transcontinental railroad ahead of their time.

These Are The Folks Who Are Wrapping Themselves in the Mantle of "Science"

Oops.  Accounting error seriously overestimates benefits of biofuels.  

The European Union is overestimating the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achieved through reliance on biofuels as a result of a “serious accounting error,” according to a draft opinion by an influential committee of 19 scientists and academics.

The European Environment Agency Scientific Committee writes that the role of energy from crops like biofuels in curbing warming gases should be measured by how much additional carbon dioxide such crops absorb beyond what would have been absorbed anyway by existing fields, forests and grasslands.

Instead, the European Union has been “double counting” some of the savings, according to the draft opinion, which was prepared by the committee in May and viewed this week by The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.

The committee said that the error had crept into European Union regulations because of a “misapplication of the original guidance” under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“The potential consequences of this bioenergy accounting error are immense since it assumes that all burning of biomass does not add carbon to the air,” the committee wrote.

Duh.  This has been a known fact to about everyone else, as most independent studies not done by a corn-state university have found ethanol to have, at best, zero utility in reducing atmospheric CO2.

It is worth noting that the EU would likely have never made this admission had it solely been under the pressure of skeptics, for whom this is just one of a long list of fairly obvious errors in climate-related science.  But several years ago, environmental groups jumped on the skeptic bandwagon opposing ethanol, both for its lack of efficacy in reducing emissions as well as the impact of increasing ethanol product on land use and food prices.

One-Program Proof Technocratic Government Does Not Work

Ethanol continues to be one of the dumbest, most costly programs ever engaged in by the Federal government

"Today, about 40 percent of all U.S. corn -- that's 15 percent of global corn production or 5 percent of all global grain -- is diverted into the corn ethanol scam in order to produce the energy equivalent of about 0.6 percent of global oil needs.
Corn prices, now close to $7 per bushel, have more than doubled over the past two years (see chart above). And recent harsh weather, including floods in the Midwest and drought in the South, will likely mean a subpar U.S. corn harvest. That, in turn, will mean yet higher prices for corn, which will translate into higher prices for meat, milk, eggs, cheese and other commodities.
Environmental damage:  check
Fails to meets its goals (of reducing fossil fuel use): check
Raises food prices:  check
Raises gas prices: check
Highly regressive costs that hurt the poor most:  check
Benefits accrue to very a small group of the politically connected:  check

James Taggart is Alive and Well

In my Forbes column this week, I publish an essay I wrote for an Americans for Prosperity event commemorating Milton Friedman's birthday.  A brief excerpt:

Having once been successful through excellence, leading businesses typically get lazy and senescent, and become vulnerable to more innovative, lower-cost or more nimble new competitors.  Sears lost its electronics sales to Circuit City, which in turn succumbed to Best Buy, which is now struggling to compete with Wal-Mart, who is being challenged by Amazon.com.

Unfortunately, businesses that were once successful can feel a sense of entitlement, believing that this new competition is somehow unfair, or that consumers are somehow misguided in taking their business elsewhere.  When they have money or political connections, these businesses may run to Congress and beg for special protections against competition, or even new subsidies, mandates, stimulus projects, and bailouts.

Where is the threat to capitalism and individual liberty coming from today?  Is it from some aggrieved proletariat, or is the threat from bailed out Wall Street firms, and AIG, and GM, and Chrysler, and ethanol manufacturers, and electric car makers, and windmill builders?

 

Ethanol Fail

I should have known early reports of the death of ethanol supports in Congress were too good to be true.  Ethanol appears to be the un-killable zombie menace.  It used to be  a Baptists and bootleggers issue but even the Baptists (the environmentalists, in this case) have turned against it.  But still it lives on, probably as long as Iowa is a critical step in the Presidential nomination process.

Thune and Klobuchar's bill takes the tax revenue gained from ending the VEETC (which, again, doesn't help ethanol producers), and dedicates most of the money to other ethanol subsidies, such as tax credits for small ethanol producers and for ethanol blender pumps to be installed at gas stations. The bill, of course, leaves in place the mandate, which is by far the biggest ethanol subsidy.

Lobbyists for the American Coalition for Ethanol and the Renewable Fuels Association applaud the bill -- which tells you just about all you need to know.

 

Ethanol: Single Best Argument Against Technocratic Paternalism

The progressive argument for a larger state has, for over a hundred years, rested in part on the premise that smart people at the top in government can better optimize the allocation of resources and make better investment choices.

This premise always has been ludicrous.  Government officials have neither the information nor incentives to perform this function, and lacking such, decisions always get made based on political rather than economic or other objective functions.

Ethanol is such a great example, it will almost be a shame when its mandates and subsidies are repealed.  As a reminder, corn-based ethanol production get the trifecta of state sponsorship -- mandates for its use, subsidies for its protections, and stiff tariffs to prevent lower-cost imports.

The result is a classic government fail.  The economic subsidies benefit only a small number of the politically connected, while hurting the great mass of humanity, even outside the US, through higher food and fuel prices.  Because ethanol takes as much fuel to produce as it provides, it does nothing to change the amount of fossil fuels we use.  And as a result, it does nothing to affect CO2 production and in fact has a number of environmentally negative effects, particularly in land and water use.

I am reminded of all this by these staggering figures, via Carpe Diem

"U.S. ethanol refiners are consuming more domestic corn than livestock and poultry farmers for the first time, underscoring how a government-supported biofuels industry has contributed to surging grain demand.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in the year to August 31 ethanol producers will have consumed 5.05 billion bushels of corn, or more than 40% of last year’s harvest. Animal feed and residual demand accounted for 5 billion bushels."

As Mark Perry shows in his blog, US ethanol policy has also pushed corn prices up from $2 a bushel in 2007 to over $8 today.

Power Imbalance: The Difference Between Liberal and Libertarian Philosophy

My new column is up at Forbes, and it is one of my favorites I have written for a while  (at least it seems so with my current scorpion-induced double vision).  It begins with Krugman's recent statement that the Left understands the Right and libertarian positions better than the Right and libertarians understand the Left.

I first demolish this as a pretentious crock, but then wander to more important topics

But I do understand the leftish position well enough to identify its key mistake.  As I mentioned earlier, we libertarians are similarly concerned with aggregations of power.   We have, at best, a love-hate relationship with large corporations, for example, enjoying the bounties they can bring us but fearing their size and power.

But what the Left ignores is that there is absolutely no power imbalance as large as that between the government and its citizens.    After all, you may get ticked off when Exxon charges you $4.00 a gallon for gas for reasons that aren't transparent to you, but you can always tell Exxon to kiss off and buy from someone else, or ride a bike, or stay home.    Because Exxon does not have armies and police and guns and prisons.

Every single time we give the government the power to right a perceived imbalance, we give the government more power than the private entity we are trying to contain.  In effect, we make things worse.   Because we want the government to counter-act the power of oil companies, Congress now has the power to dump large portions of our food supply into motor fuel, to the benefit of just a few politically connected ethanol companies.

One of the reasons the Left often cannot adequately articulate the libertarian position is that the notion of bottom-up emergent order tends to be difficult for many to understand or accept (this is mildly ironic, since the Left tends to defend the emergent order of Darwinian evolution against the top-down Christian creation vision).

The key to much of libertarian economics is not that libertarians trust private actors, but that libertarians trust natural correction mechanisms in free markets far more than it trusts authoritarian power of the government.   When, for example, large corporations become sloppy and abusive and senescent, markets will eventually bring them down.

In fact, when government is given power, nominally to correct such imbalances, they tend to use it to protect those in power as often as they do to protect the disenfranchised. Government restrictive licensing of hair dressers, interior designers, and morticians; bailouts of GM, Chrysler, and AIG; corporate welfare to GE and ADM; and use of imminent domain to hand private property to favored real estate  developpers -- all are examples of finding government cures for perceived private power imbalances that are worse than the disease.

Isacc Asimov, in a book called Foundation that Paul Krugman recently rated as one of the most influential on his life, related this fable:  Once there was a man and a horse, who were both imperiled by a wolf.  The man approached the horse, and said that if the horse would put its superior speed at his disposal, he could kill the wolf.  And so the horse agreed to take the man's saddle and bridle, and helped the man kill the wolf.  The horse said, "great job, now remove your saddle and we can both be free," and the man said "never!"

I hope the moral of the story is clear.  In trying to deal with the threat of the wolf, the horse gave the man so much power he became an even bigger threat.  So too when we look to government to solve our problems.

Read the whole thing, as they say

Show Us Your Lightsaber Or You Will Be Fined

This year, US oil refiners will pay more than $6 million in fines to the EPA for not using a product that doesn't exist.   Refiners are required to blend at least 6.6 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol this year, or pay a fine to the EPA of $1 per gallon of this target not met.

But here is the funny part - no cellulosic ethanol exists for refiners to buy, even by the EPA's own analysis.  The product simply does not exist in any more than pilot plant / experimental volumes.  But that is not stopping the EPA from imposing the fines, which will get passed on into gasoline prices.

Here is the saddest part, from a defender of the cellulosic mandates:

Next-generation ethanol advocates say that small-scale commercial production of the fuel is just around the corner. When the EPA proposal was released yesterday, one advocate blamed the oil and gas industry for slow progress.

“America’s advanced and cellulosic ethanol industry is rapidly progressing with many technologies proven and biorefinery projects shovel-ready. Yet, advanced biofuel producers continue to sail into a head wind created by tax policy favoring oil and gas,” said Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Ethanol Council, in a statement.

What in the hell are they talking about?  Their plants get their construction subsidized with public financing, the oil industry is required to buy their product, trade barriers exist to limit foreign competition.  These guys are not fighting a headwind, they are trying to hit a golf ball downwind in a hurricane and they still can't clear the lady's tee.

Damning Wind Power Study

Wind is not the worst form of alternative energy -- that probably has to go to corn ethanol.  But it is close.  The consistent experience of European countries that have more wind power than the US is that, because wind is so unreliable, hot backup fossil fuel generation capacity nearly equal to wind capacity needs to be maintained.  This means that even when the wind is blowing, it is not reducing fossil fuel consumption in any meaningful way.  In other words, billions are spent on wind but without any substitution of existing power sources.  Its just pure wasted money.

Anyway, here is a recent study by an environmental group, no less, that found that Britain's wind generation plants are running well under the promised efficiency.  That is, of course, when they are even operable and not just broken down.  In the latter case, companies go for the quick bucks of up front subsidies, then find that the units are not worth the repair costs when they break.

Wherein I Actually Praise Republicans

I have been told that the first person in a negotiation that mentions a number will lose.  Something similar is at work with the US federal budget.  When they controlled Congress, Democrats never even proposed a budget for this fiscal year (which began last October, months before they lost control of the House).  Obama's budget is simply a bad joke, a non-effort,  that simply extrapolates current trends without any real change or exercise of control.

Its amazing to me that all the news reports today are about the "risk" Republicans are taking by actually proposing a plan into this vacuum.   It is amazing to me that actually trying to exercise adult supervision when everyone else is voting "present" could be "political suicide," but I have to accept that the political experts know their stuff.

This situation is in fact exactly what Democrats have been hoping for -- they have purposefully hoped to avoid suggesting any solutions in order to force the Republicans to be the first and only ones to the table with suggestions.  Democrats have zero desire to actually close the multi-trillion dollar deficit;  rather, they see it as a huge opportunity that traps Republicans into trying to actually, you know, solve the problem.  These proposed solutions can then be demagogued against to electoral victory.  Or so goes the theory.

So, I want to thank the Republicans for actually producing a budget plan that actually attempts to bring some fiscal sense to the government.  I would have like to see other changes (less defense spending, elimination of Dept. of Education in favor of block grants, zeroing out of all farm and ethanol subsidies, etc) and Ryan's numbers seem screwy, but let us be happy there is at least one adult in Washington.

One of the World's Great Bad Ideas

Corn ethanol

The United States spends about $6 billion a year on federal support for ethanol production through tax credits, tariffs, and other programs. Thanks to this financial assistance, one-sixth of the world's corn supply is burned in American cars. That is enough corn to feed 350 million people for an entire year.

Government support of rapid growth in biofuel production has contributed to disarray in food production. Indeed, as a result of official policy in the United States and Europe, including aggressive production targets, biofuel consumed more than 6.5 percent of global grain output and 8 percent of the world's vegetable oil in 2010, up from 2 percent of grain supplies and virtually no vegetable oil in 2004.

State Bankruptcy Prediction

There seems to be discussion in Washington about creating a legal framework for state bankruptcies.  My guess is that any law that might be passed will simply be a Trojan Horse.

A lot of people (including myself) would like the idea of the tough provisions applied to individuals who are bankrupt being applied to states.  Unfortunately, it is wildly unlikely that this is actually what we will get.  Any such law would likely just be a bailout program renamed "bankruptcy" to make it more palatable to the public, a transfer of obligations from state to federal taxpayers without any real imposition of discipline or cleanup of long-term obligations like pensions.  Heck, this is exactly what happened at GM, and that was just a private company.

Some might assume that a Republican House would be loathe to support bailout provisions for California, but two thoughts come to mind.

First, California, despite being a blue state, has plenty of red Congresspersons who will scream support for a bailout (for a parallel, think ethanol or farm subsidies, where grain state Republicans are among the first to break ranks with their brethren to support government interventionism).

Second, it is not clear that the Administration even needs the Congress any more to dish out money.  It has found so many extra-Constitutional ways to appropriate money without actually having to go to Congress (e.g. use of TARP funds for about anything, use of the Federal Reserve, etc.) that it should be no problem to do this without the House.  Take just one idea -- Imagine California issues a $100 billion in 0.0000005% 100-year bonds that the Fed then buys at face value with printed money (as they have been buying US securities).  Instant bailout, no Congress.

Rent-Seeking Gold Rush

The Thin Green Line reports that Renault recently fired a number of employees for espionage related to electric vehicles.  The site concludes:

The stakes are high: The French automaker, now partnered with Nissan, is betting its future on the popularity of the electric vehicle. It plans to introduce no fewer than three electric cars in Europe this year: a sedan, a light commercial vehicle, and a city car.

Unless the espionage thwarts its plans, Renault's gamble is probably a good one. Also last week, the judges of the Detroit auto show gave all their top awards to EVs and hybrids — proof, according the Guardian, that "analysts [are] bet[ting] on rising oil prices and wider acceptance of electric cars." Nissan's Leaf took second place to the Chevy Volt.

As I wrote in the comments, electric cars are a huge opportunity - there are tens of billions of dollars of corporate welfare from countries around the world to be captured. When it is the Left that is actively supporting huge transfers of funds from taxpayers to large corporations, that is an unprecedented rent-seeking opportunity that European companies, already well-schooled in how to be successful within a corporate state, are sure to avidly pursue. Not since corn ethanol has there been a similar gold-rush for taxpayer funds.

Now He Tells Us -- Gore Figures Out Ethanol is Stupid

A little late Al -- some of us realized this way back when it could have done some good, like before we spent billions of tax dollars and subsidized a stupid industry into being:

ATHENS, Nov 22 (Reuters) - Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore said support for corn-based ethanol in the United States was "not a good policy", weeks before tax credits are up for renewal.
...
"It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for (U.S.) first generation ethanol," said Gore, speaking at a green energy business conference in Athens sponsored by Marfin Popular Bank.

"First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small.
"It's hard once such a programme is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going."
He explained his own support for the original programme on his presidential ambitions.

"One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president."
...
Gore said a range of factors had contributed to that food price crisis, including drought in Australia, but said there was no doubt biofuels have an effect.

"The size, the percentage of corn particularly, which is now being (used for) first generation ethanol definitely has an impact on food prices.

"The competition with food prices is real."

A couple of thoughts here.  First, many detractors like myself have made the link between Iowa's role in the Presidential nomination process and support for corn ethanol, but it is nice to see a supporter confirm the link.  Second, I wonder how many other scientific opinions Gore holds where political expediency blinds him to the reality of the data?  I can think of at least one big one....