Thomas Friedman’s take on energy policy grows more urgent by the day. In his latest column (Times $elect), he aims at American agricultural subsidies for sugar farmers. If I could eliminate one government subsidy or tariff – here the effect is equivalent – this would be it. Not only are we paying farmers to make us fat – the last thing our food needs is more sugar or corn syrup – but we are preventing the importation of cheap ethanol and hampering the development of impoverished tropical countries, whose sugar farmers can’t compete with artificially cheap American sugar. It’s not often that a single policy has three negative consequences. And it’s all the fault of the Iowa caucus, a meaningless political event that, because no one wants to piss of Iowa corn farmers, all but guarantees the continued existence of this terrible tariff.
Thanks to pressure from Midwest farmers and agribusinesses, who want to protect the U.S. corn ethanol industry from competition from Brazilian sugar ethanol, we have imposed a stiff tariff to keep it out. We do this even though Brazilian sugar ethanol provides eight times the energy of the fossil fuel used to make it, while American corn ethanol provides only 1.3 times the energy of the fossil fuel used to make it. We do this even though sugar ethanol reduces greenhouses gases more than corn ethanol. And we do this even though sugar cane ethanol can easily be grown in poor tropical countries in Africa or the Caribbean, and could actually help alleviate their poverty.
Yes, you read all this right. We tax imported sugar ethanol, which could finance our poor friends, but we don’t tax imported crude oil, which definitely finances our rich enemies. We’d rather power anti-Americans with our energy purchases than promote antipoverty.
P.S. I just wrote to my congressman about sugar subsidies. So should you.