Sunday, May 04, 2008

Bizarro World

Clearly, I'm getting old. Not just older, but old. Because today, I find myself at least somewhat sympathetic to Peter Bronson's Sunday column, and completely at odds with Jim Borgman. The lions have laid down with the lambs at last.

Go read Bronson's column for yourself. I'll not put myself at the center of a flamewar by again expressing my ambivalence about streetcars. But I'm bothered by the argument that Borgman is repeating today: that increased American ethanol production and consumption is somehow responsible for global famine.

The basic argument goes like this: around the world, there are places where people don't have enough to eat. Corn is a global staple. Americans have more food than they can eat (despite our growing waistlines). But instead of shipping our corn to Third World and developing nations, we instead convert it to ethanol. It's really just a slightly more sophisticated form of reasoning than your mom used to employ when you were a kid and you didn't eat all your vegetables; she'd tell you that you should, since there were children in [fill-in-the-blank] starving.

As far as I can tell, the argument is flawed on many levels. First, so far as I know, we're not importing corn for the purpose of making ethanol. If we're only using American-grown corn, it's not clear that we're causing shortages in the world-wide market.

Next, if the corn weren't being used for ethanol, why are ethanol opponents sure it would be produced at all? Our agricultural policy (as opposed to our manufacturing policies) has always been protectionist in the extreme. Remember, in the 1980's, we were paying farmers not to grow certain crops at all so as to keep prices artificially high. It's one thing to have to import most of our consumer goods; it'd be another thing entirely if we were dependent on foreign countries for our food supply, and our government won't ever allow that.

Finally, we saw in the late 80's and early 90's that famine was not always so much a problem of supply as it was distribution. A combination of civil wars, under-developed infrastructures, and government corruption always seemed to contribute significantly to famine in Third World and developing nations. I suspect the same is true today.

I think well-meaning people (like Borgman) are falling prey to arguments being crafted by those with an agenda of their own (at least one website I found perpetuating the "ethanol famine" vitriol seems to be funded by a group advocating hydrogen-based engines). So let's be careful when we blame ethanol for world-wide hunger.

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