Wednesday, October 20, 2010

You're in Ethanol Country

As I drive through the Great Northern Plains, I notice that all of the newest, biggest, and shiniest commercial/industrial structures are given over to the ethanol industry. Ads for corn seed blare out from the car radio (during broadcasts by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck)... the planting and harvesting machinery looks like gigantic creatures from a sci-fi epic... and the processing plants reach to the sky, dwarfing all other structures for many days' drive in all directions. Clearly, the ethanol industry has given this region a new lease on life -- even though, with all those cattle dotting a thousand hills, no one was starving before the ethanol train chugged into town.

Now, many quite reasonable people have taken a cold, hard look at the ethanol craze and decided that it's little more than a hoax, a scam, and a con game. Even given the possibility that it is "decreasing our dependence on foreign oil", it is certainly not decreasing it to a degree sufficient to justify the massive expenditures involved -- of, you will note, taxpayer dollars first and foremost. The processing of the raw materials into fuel requires massive amounts of fuels other than oil -- coal, nuclear fuel, whatever goes to generate electricity. Maybe even, in some cases, oil! That would be the final irony. And the business is making a few people extremely rich... even as it allegedly keeps the wolf from the door of the ordinary farmer.

But don't expect anyone in the heartland to reflect for long on the "stone soup" aspects of ethanol. From the perspective of the vast and boundless plains, it adds up to "growth", prosperity, and -- that most sacred of all reasons for doing anything at all -- "jobs". In other words, it is, in the final analysis, a jobs program -- just like any other. And as such, it serves to short-circuit the free market. In other words, it takes money from the productive (as defined by the demand for their goods and services on the free market) and turns it over to... not the non-productive, exactly, but to those whose goods and services would _not_ long survive perusal by the all-seeing eye of the free market.

And yet this situation does not strike anyone on the receiving end as the least bit strange. As someone pointed out, agriculture is the most socialized sector of the American economy -- and has been for many generations. The oldest farmer still turning his hand to the plow cannot remember a time when the government -- mainly the federal government -- was not intimately involved in the agriculture business... before they told farmers what to plant and how much, what livestock to raise and how much... before they dictated prices or offered price supports (which amounts to the same thing)... and before they took all "surplus" off the hands of its producers, and stored it up for a rainy day. Or gave it to welfare recipients... or to deserving third-world denizens. And this is something that no one across the fruited plain objected to, because, after all, food is too important to be left to the mercies of the free market, and, besides, the "family farm" is an American fetish of the highest order.

But of course, a funny thing happened on the way to agrarian utopia -- at a certain point, the true family farm fell on hard times, and "agribusiness" started to dominate... to the point where the few now depend on the labor of the many, and gain most of the profits therefrom. The names on these gigantic silos, elevators, and storage sheds are not those of people, but of things ending in "CO". And likewise, the trains, trucks, and pipelines are also owned by things ending in "CO". So there are farmers still in business who might not be otherwise, but most of the fruits of their labor are ending up in bank accounts in Chicago, St. Louis, Omaha, and the like. And yet, even in the face of this reductio ad absurdum of the New Deal agriculture program, no one is willing to rock the boat. So the agribusiness guys sit in their castles high on the hill, munching on boar's heads, while the peasantry in the valley do as they have always done, namely eke out a living largely for the sake of their masters -- and all under the smiling, beneficent eye of the federal government.

And, also as usual, not only are the farmers who are hooked on ethanol functioning as glorified slaves, but so is the bulk of the citizenry, who are expected to underwrite it all. But again, no one yet alive can recall a time when it was any different. It has been assumed, for decades now, that the government must, in the natural order of things, provide for the daily bread of the citizens -- literally from the ground up. Any other proposal is considered heretical and dangerous. To set agriculture back to pre-New Deal days? To put agricultural goods on the free market? This would be the ultimate recklessness, say the experts, and the very idea conjures up images of famine, starvation, and chaos -- all things that we were way too familiar with in pre-New Deal times. Right? Well, of course not -- the free market worked just fine back then, even in the case of something as important as food. But the vagaries of weather, prices, plagues, and pestilence led the progressives to believe that something new and better was in order -- so we wound up with the absurdities of the New Deal and the less-blatant absurdities of agricultural policy ever since... culminating in the will-o-the-wisp that is ethanol.

The irony, of course -- getting back to Limbaugh and Beck -- is that people who become highly indignant at the idea of "socialized medicine" don't see a blessed thing wrong with socialized agriculture. They listen to Limbaugh and Beck until the cows come home (literally), and occasionally even drive great distances to participate in a tea party demonstration... and all the while they are sitting on top of the biggest heap of socialism this country has ever produced. They rise every morning full of confidence that they will be able to keep their profits, but their losses will be socialized -- i.e. paid off and they made whole once again. The government will tell every last customer they have what the minimum price on their produce will be... and cursed be he who attempts to sell it for less. So the agricultural sector is, in this sense, the ultimate sheltered workshop -- as is the hallowed "family farm", whether it runs in the black or persists in running in the red for year after year. In any other line of work, this would be called a "hobby" by the IRS -- but in agriculture, it's a legitimate occupation that must be preserved for the sake of... well, who knows? Who cares? It's way too much part of our self image to be questioned. It's as untouchable as the flag... the National Anthem... war... you know, all those non-negotiable facets of American life. It's certainly far less touchable than the Constitution, where one will search in vain for anything even remotely resembling agricultural "policy".

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