Politics & Policy

Dreams From My Farmer

If Obama is a reformer, why doesn't he vote like one?

When conservatives complain about the Obamalovefest all around, it’s not all a reaction to the messianism. The more down-to-earth complaint is that mainstream-media organs have uncritically bought a key idea promoted by Obama’s well-crafted media campaign: that he is a reformer, a positive agent of change who reaches across partisan divides and bucks parochial interests for the common good.

This idea is a great lie, and there is a long record to prove it in Springfield and in Chicago. Obama has a similar record in Washington, where the bearer of the “new politics” is a consistent supporter of the same old corrupt, bipartisan systemic arrangements that have dominated the federal government for decades.

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama worries about the ugly image that Americans project to the world in the area of trade. We demand, he writes, that “developing countries eliminate trade barriers that protect them from competition, even as we steadfastly protect our own constituencies from exports that could help lift poor countries out of poverty.”

This laudable concern did not prevent him from voting for the farm bill, whose entire purpose was to “protect our own constituencies from exports that could help lift poor countries out of poverty.” By supporting the bill, Obama was voting to increase subsidies for American crops that make other nations’ crops uncompetitive (additionally, the majority of the money goes to commercial farms with an average net worth of nearly $2 million).. His vote increased the price support that causes Americans to pay double the world price for sugar. He also helped keep in place tariffs and import limits against certain crops from developing countries — especially against sugar from developing countries like Brazil and the Caribbean nations.

The bill that Obama voted for even bars the U.S. government from purchasing crops in the poor nations where we are providing food aid. When President Bush vetoed the bill, demanding at least that this last provision be changed, Sen. Obama voted to override the veto.

Liberals and conservatives generally agree that direct farm subsidies, loans, and price supports are damaging, wasteful, and perhaps even morally wrong. These items enjoy bipartisan support only because a large number of legislators put parochial interests ahead of the common good. Barack Obama is one of them.

Nowhere is this truer than on the issue of ethanol subsidies, which act as a price support for American corn. It is a rare policy on which National Review’s editors agree with Paul Krugman, the liberal columnist at the New York Times. Krugman wrote about ethanol on his Times blog in February 2008: “Bad for the economy, bad for consumers, bad for the planet — what’s not to love?”

Whenever ethanol comes to the Senate floor, a coalition of liberal and conservative senators always rises up against it. Liberal Senator Charles Schumer argued correctly in 2005 on the Senate floor that his constituents in New York were being robbed by U.S. ethanol subsidies:

It hurts drivers and it hurts the free market. It is a boondoggle because it takes money out of the pockets of drivers and puts it into the pockets of the big ethanol producers. … It is so unfair to do this. It is wrong to do this…[T]o put a few pennies — and that is all it will be — in the pocket of the family farmer, we charge drivers around the country billions of dollars.

Schumer was here attacking Sen. Obama’s policy. Obama, as a corn-state senator and a presidential aspirant, has had both parochial and presidential interests in mind — Iowa interests, to be specific — when he champions the waste of taxpayers’ money on ethanol subsidies. The same day Schumer made that argument, Obama voted for ethanol (twice) and then closed his land deal with Tony Rezko. Not only does he vote for ethanol subsidies and mandates, without which no one would buy or sell ethanol at all — but his energy plan would outlaw new cars that can’t run on high-ethanol blends (including most cars sold today).

When Obama came to Washington in January 2005, ethanol already enjoyed a special income-tax credit, protective tariffs, occasional ad hoc federal subsidies, and a bevy of statewide subsidies for production, processing, and dispensing. Since then, the subsidies have ballooned, and Obama is pushing for more.

In The Audacity of Hope Obama brags about how he inserted a new and additional ethanol subsidy into a 2006 tax bill. He gushes over ethanol as the next big thing:

The bottom line is that fuel-efficient cars and alternative fuels like E85, a fuel formulated with 85 percent ethanol, represent the future of the auto industry. It is a future American car companies can attain if we start making some tough choices now. …

Weeks after being sworn in, Obama traveled back to Illinois for a stop at the ethanol plant of Aventine Renewable Energy, where he endorsed the federal ethanol mandate that has since gone into effect. Current law requires the use of 15 billion gallons of ethanol by 2015. According to an Associated Press account of the event, “Obama said boosting the nation’s ethanol output is a ‘no-brainer’. … ”

Indeed, it is a “no-brainer,” but not in the sense Obama meant it.

In 2008, ethanol’s ravages started to make headlines — this “green fuel” was contributing to record-high food prices and causing food riots in the developing world. It was exhausting water supplies, driving up gasoline prices, and exacerbating smog. Environmentalists, who almost universally oppose ethanol, even complained that its production process is driving up emissions from coal (Mark Clayton, “Carbon cloud over a green fuel,” Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 2006).

More importantly, ethanol makes no substantive contribution to American energy independence. Given the energy content of ethanol, together with the fact that the process of making ethanol has a net 25 percent energy output, America’s enormous 6.5 billion-gallon ethanol production in 2007 created the net-energy equivalent of just 2.2 days’ worth of American gasoline consumption.

In exchange for that minuscule output, federal and state governments provide between $6.3 billion and $8.7 billion in annual direct and indirect subsidies, according to a 2006 study by Doug Koplow the environmentalist group Earth Track. The ethanol industry receives more in subsidies each year than it spends buying corn. When our government subsidized corn-ethanol production in 2007, it was like spending ten dollars to create a gallon of gasoline, and doing it 853 million times.

Think of it this way: If you could turn gold into lead, would you do it? Obama would — as long as he can use your money to do it.

– David Freddoso is a National Review Online staff reporter and author of The Case Against Barack Obama.

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