Planet Gore

Fungible Arguments

I’m confused by Cliff May’s column today, “Food Fight.” Cliff begins:

It’s become the conventional wisdom and William Tucker, writing in The Weekly Standard, expressed it most eloquently: “Right now, we’re trying to run our cars on corn ethanol instead of gasoline. As a result, we suddenly find ourselves taking food out of the mouths of children in developing nations. That may sound harsh, but it also happens to be true.”
Give this a little thought: The suggestion is that American farmers are growing corn primarily to feed children in the third world. And since people in these nations lack not only food but also money, it assumes that American taxpayers must buy this corn for them and pay to ship it across the ocean to them.

The suggestion? Tucker’s piece isn’t about international food aid, it’s about energy. Tucker is saying that the U.S., having mandated a competing use for cereal grains, has made it more expensive to devote those grains toward food. And since grain is a global commodity, when corn etc. are more expensive here, they’re more expensive everywhere.
Robert Zubrin makes the point all the time — about oil. In his typically testy review of Robert Bryce’s Gusher of Lies, Zubrin writes:

His book is rife with such specious reasoning. In several places, he asserts that U.S. oil purchases do not fund Iranian terrorism, since we haven’t imported crude oil from Iran since 1991. However, elsewhere in his book, he admits that oil is fungible – i.e., all the world’s oil goes into, and is sold from, a common pot, with shares of the proceeds going to each supplier: the U.S. puts in 25 percent of the payments and takes out 8 percent of revenues, while OPEC takes 40 percent – so in fact part of every U.S. oil dollar does go to Iran, as well as every other terror-funding petrotyranny.

If it’s legitimate to say that alcohol-fuel critics are thereby “OPEC fans,” and fueling terror worldwide, it seems to me to be equally legitimate to say that ethanol takes food out of the mouths of African children.

Now you can argue about the merits of Tucker’s food-price argument. Flex-fuel advocates point out that ethanol is not solely responsible for the increase in grain prices. But it must be responsible for part of it. I’m not a food economist — or any other kind of economist — so I’m open to considering a counter-argument.
But May’s excursus on “the suggestion” Tucker supposedly makes about international food aid is not that argument. It strikes me as a long exercise in changing the subject.

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