Liquid Courage: Pawlenty vs. Huntsman on Ethanol

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Longtime corn ethanol supporter Tim Pawlenty  has gotten a lot of good press for his allegedly courageous proposal to phase out ethanol subsidies, because they’re popular in Iowa. I suppose on this issue he’s more courageous than Mitt Romney, which is sort of like being more eloquent than The Situation. But in my official role as ethanol’s Public Enemy Number One —yes, it was an honor just to be nominated—can I ask why it’s brave to endorse a compromise that even Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and the ethanol industry itself supports? If the subsidies are stupid—which they are! —why not get rid of them right away? Don’t Republicans want to cut wasteful spending?

Well, Jon Huntsman does. And unless he was misquoted this weekend in New Hampshire, he really is taking a courageous stand—not only on ethanol subsidies in particular, but on agricultural subsidies in general. “I don’t believe in subsidies that prop up corn, soybeans and ethanol,” he reportedly said.

Amen, brother. Ethanol subsidies are egregious, but they’re just a symptom of the agricultural-industrial complex’s stranglehold on U.S. farm policy, redistributing taxpayer dollars to the wealthiest producers of corn and soybeans, as well as rice, cotton and wheat. I haven’t seen my name on any general farm-policy enemies lists—an outrage I assume will be swiftly corrected—but I’ve written about its ridiculousness:

It redistributes our taxes to millionaire farmers as well as to millionaire “farmers” like David Letterman, David Rockefeller and the owners of the Utah Jazz. It contributes to our obesity and illegal-immigration epidemics and to our water and energy shortages. It helps degrade rivers, deplete aquifers, eliminate grasslands, concentrate food-processing conglomerates and inundate our fast-food nation with high-fructose corn syrup. Our farm policy is supposed to save small farmers and small towns. Instead it fuels the expansion of industrial megafarms and the depopulation of rural America. It hurts Third World farmers, violates international trade deals and paralyzes our efforts to open foreign markets to the nonagricultural goods and services that make up the remaining 99% of our economy.

Unfortunately, the farm lobby and the rich agro-industrialists who dominate it are powerful forces in the GOP, which is why the anti-government party always seems to make a big-government exception for those salt-of-the-earth yeoman farmers in the heartland. (The Democratic Party generally supports the subsidies, too, even though most of them go to mega-farmers in red states. President Obama is an ethanol booster although his administration has tried to promote less destructive biofuels as well.) It would be fascinating if Huntsman could get a real corporate welfare debate going inside the Republican Party, pitting principled conservatives against well-connected interest groups.

As for ethanol, it’s too bad that Huntsman is skipping Iowa, although he might be right that his apostasy would ruin his chances there. (Although his support for civil unions and his service in the Obama administration weren’t helping him much with the state’s heavily evangelical caucusgoers, either. In one recent Iowa poll his total was 1–not 1 as in 1%, 1 as in one voter.) If he’s serious that he doesn’t want to prop up commodity farmers, he might be ruining his chances throughout the Midwest and the South.

Meanwhile, Pawlenty is trying to pretend that he’s an apostate, too, a clever way of simultaneously posing as a fearless truth-teller and preparing an excuse in case he loses Iowa. Oh, he says he’s committed to eliminating the industry’s subsidies eventually—even the JOBZ program he started in Minnesota? And his subsidies for E-85 gas stations?—but “it wouldn’t be fair to pull the rug out from under it immediately.”

Yes, if we abruptly cut off its generous supply of taxpayer dollars, the industry would find it much harder to drive up global food prices and ravage the global environment. So unfair.