A Blank Canvas Can Be a Beautiful Thing

Paul Greenberg

2/11/2012 12:51:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

Congress finally did something right. Or rather it did nothing at all, which was just the right thing to do in these wasteful circumstances. It let the ethanol tax credit expire after 30 years.

That's 30 years during which this wasteful, destructive, wrong-headed and (for some parts of the world) near-calamitous handout cost the American taxpayer more than $20 billion in subsidies.

Misguided from the first, the consequences of this brilliant idea -- use food for fuel! -- became worse every year. Even if it came wrapped in green slogans about saving the planet by avoiding fossil fuels. And as an Extra Added Bonus, make making the country energy-independent, too!

But a bad idea doesn't get any better because it's marketed as The Latest Thing. (See the Solyndra scandal.)

Wherever there is a federal subsidy involved, questions should be raised, suspicions aroused. The ethanol subsidy turned out to be a great boondoggle but an awful idea: a massive, long-term handout that was worse than useless. It was actively destructive, raising food prices around the world by driving up the price of corn, distorting the free market, and diverting a perfectly good foodstuff into an increasingly unneeded source of fuel.

Coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear energy, wind ... almost anything makes more sense than using food for fuel.

It's hard to think of another government giveaway that has had so deleterious, not to say indecent, effect on the world's poor, the global economy, and the planet's economy and environment, not to mention a simple rational order of priorities.

Why subsidize the production of a dirty fuel that's not needed? Such subsidies encourage deforestation that the planet cannot afford, and stick the cost to taxpayers and consumers. The ethanol subsidy belongs in any gallery of Congress' greatest follies. And now it's mercifully gone. Let's just hope it stays gone.

Who killed the ethanol subsidy at last? An unlikely coalition of environmentalists and budget balancers sick of crony capitalism. They joined forces to kill this monster.

At last, conservatives and conservationists found common ground -- as they should more often.

This boondoggle was ended not by doing anything about it but by doing nothing, nothing at all, which is a beautiful thing after three decades of doing all too much.

The news that nothing had happened, that this huge tax break had simply been allowed to lapse, came like a glimpse of a pure, undefiled canvas in the place of some huge snarl of paint that a Jackson Pollock wannabe might sell to an all-too-gullible world.

Ethanol was going to be the answer to all our problems when, like so many panaceas, it proved the source of a multitude of them.

By raising corn prices, the ethanol lobby hurt meat and poultry producers, food companies, the food stamp program and shoppers in general.

Seldom have so few profited at the expense of so many. Not to mention the cost to the natural environment, which had to bear the brunt of still more pesticides, soil erosion, pollution and all the other ills the planet is subject to in an industrial age. Agribusiness applauded; the rest of us were stiffed.

But the ethanol lobby isn't through with us yet. Now it wants the government to further subsidize the manufacture and distribution of the pumps, tanks and other gizmos needed to make gasoline with higher and higher concentrations of the grain-based fuel. These people need to be stopped before they do even more damage.

Here's the good news: The long-entrenched ethanol subsidy has been replaced by just one great big, beautiful blank. And all because Congress did ... nothing.

Nothing whatsoever, praise the Lord.

Contrary to our president, there are times when the country could use a do-nothing Congress.