Tom Vilsack, secretary of agriculture, came out Thursday with an announcement sure to warm the cockles of progressive hearts all across the fruited plains: The Obama administration backs the indefinite extension of massive tax cuts for multinational oil corporations and protectionist trade measures to enrich U.S. corporate giants such as Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, and ConAgra.
Ethanol: Is there anything it can’t do? It won’t save the environment, slow global warming, or achieve the phantom of U.S. “energy independence,” but it has made the Obama administration come out in favor of tax cuts for the rich and politically connected oil companies. It’s sort of magical that way.
Critics of the massive corporate-welfare program known as U.S. ethanol policy have jokingly referred to Archer Daniels Midland as the “Exxon of ethanol.” But you know who the real Exxon of ethanol is? Exxon. Just as BP gets subsidized to the tune of some $600 million a year through the ethanol tax credit, Exxon and the other oil giants collect millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies: 45 cents for every gallon of ethanol they blend into their gasoline. “It’s not just a reduction in somebody’s tax rate — it’s an actual check that’s made out to these oil companies,” says Marlo Lewis, who keeps an eye on ethanol shenanigans for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “They get a check from the general fund of the Treasury — from us, the taxpayers.”
It’s a big stack of money, to be sure, but even Exxon does not think the program is a great idea. Exxon would just as soon forgo the subsidy, provided that its competitors didn’t collect it, either.
So, if even the suits at Big Oil are a little bit ashamed of a program that dumps hundreds of millions of dollars a year into their lap, who is in favor? “It’s the makers and the corn growers who are screaming that we have to keep doing this,” Mr. Lewis says. Only the blenders actually receive the refund checks, but corn growers and ethanol processors benefit because the demand for their products increases.
Vilsack said Thursday that the administration is in favor of a temporary and “fiscally responsible” continuation of the ethanol tax credit and the associated tariffs that keep cheaper, sugarcane-based ethanol off the market in the United States. When pressed by a reporter to define “temporary,” Vilsack demurred. When pressed by the same reporter to define “fiscally responsible,” he again declined to answer. Meaning: status quo ad infinitum. Vilsack, as Mr. Lewis points out, has been talking that same temporary-and-fiscally-responsible jive since he was a governor. (Either that, or he literally does not know what “fiscally responsible” means, which is possible.)
Two bills were floated in the last Congress to extend the tax credit and the tariff: one introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley and one introduced by Rep. Earl Pomeroy. Neither made much progress. The danger is that while those bills have foundered, their essential provisions — extending the tariff and the tax credit — could be sneaked into a tax or energy bill during the lame-duck session. Look for some green-jobs camouflage to be attached to it, but keep in mind: If it quacks like corporate welfare, it’s corporate welfare.
But this is federal spending we’re talking about, so it could always be worse. “The good news,” Mr. Lewis says, “is that Vilsack did not call for a Marshall Plan for biofuels or a Manhattan Project for biofuels. And that’s what the ethanol lobby has been pushing for.” There’s a split in the ethanol lobby at the moment, with one camp focused on protecting the current basket of goodies and another arguing for a massive new federally subsidized infrastructure project, with 200,000 new ethanol pumps serving up E85, a sprawling new pipeline system to keep those pumps pumping, and a mandate that automakers deliver 120 million flex-fuel vehicles a year to the U.S. market. That’s not on the agenda — for now.
Keep ethanol in mind when Obama, Al Gore, and the Wall Street guys who are positioned to benefit from “green energy” programs talk about “temporary” measures to protect a fledgling start-up industry. The day never comes when these industries can stand on their own — because they never were economically viable in the first place. They’re selling a product nobody wants at a price nobody wants to pay. “We’re still waiting for Godot here,” Mr. Lewis says. “Ethanol will always be an ‘infant industry,’ no matter how big it gets. The U.S. industry is the biggest in the world by far — twice as big as Brazil’s. If it had to compete, it might actually become innovative. But it’s easier to have entitlements.”
The Obama administration is dead-set on raising the taxes of thousands of small-business owners, the so-called rich who benefited from the Bush tax cuts. And, at the same time, his administration is arguing for a massive tax cut for some of the most profitable multinational corporations in the world, some of which don’t even want it. Which is what you get when a president brought to you by Goldman Sachs promises to take on the fat cats.
– Kevin D. Williamson is deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, to be published in January.