Columnists > Voices

Two pumps

Needed: a meter to tell us what the subsidies are

Issue: "Tortilla wars," March 10, 2007

Not quite as regularly as clockwork, but just as consistently, I can predict now-after producing this column almost 1,000 times over the last 21 years-that about once a year I will say something here that unexpectedly opens the floodgates from you readers.

A year ago, it was immigration; I should have known. A month ago, it was ethanol; how could I have known?

I say this with respect: I can't remember when so many of our readers have taken issue with me on any subject in so sophisticated a manner. I grew up in farm country, and I recall how often my parents reminded me how smart a successful farmer has to be. But I still wasn't prepared for all the charts and tables, the complex statistics, and the urbane analyses that so many of you sent my way. My education continues-and from very able and wise teachers.

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And mostly gentle as well. A very few of you were angry in your responses, blasting what you saw as my ignorance and my arrogance. But most seemed genuinely eager to nudge me toward a more tolerant view of ethanol as an alternative fuel for America. None was kinder than Roger Harjes, a 70-year-old fourth-generation farmer from Green Isle, Minn. "I was really more than distressed when I read your column," he told me when I called to discuss his three-page handwritten defense of ethanol. "It was 12 below outside-and I had to get up at 2 the next morning to go out and make sure the pipes in my barn weren't freezing. When I got there, I discovered a newborn calf-and the look on that calf's face just said to me, 'You've got to go in and write Mr. Belz a letter.' So I did."

I'm still not sure of the connection. But neither my able assistant, June McGraw, nor I-in our almost three decades of processing reader mail-remembers a motivation quite like that one. So I owe it to Mr. Harjes to say that he has helped me see the ethanol issue in a new light. And I promised him I would share his perspective with you.

In good pedagogical style, Mr. Harjes asked me on the phone to picture in my mind two gas pumps. "One of them," he said, "is pumping unleaded regular-this week, probably, at about $2.25 a gallon. The other one is pumping an ethanol blend, probably for a few cents more."

"You didn't like the fact, in your column, that the only reason the ethanol pump is even close in price to the other pump is (you said) that the government is subsidizing the ethanol pump by a little more than 50 cents a gallon.

"Did you even stop to ask yourself, Mr. Belz, how much of a government subsidy there is at the regular pump? You had your 'experts,' but there are also 'experts' who say that regular unleaded would be over $5 a gallon if it weren't for government subsidies.

"Did you remember to add in the subsidy provided by the war in Iraq-and did you keep in mind that the oil we get from the Middle East isn't subsidized just by the dollars we spend on our military, but by the blood of Americans who are dying there? That's a pretty high subsidy, Mr. Belz."

In one sense, I would argue that Mr. Harjes' vivid lesson actually validates the main point of my column several weeks ago-that government intervention and government subsidies invariably blur the picture so badly that it becomes impossible even for careful and discerning consumers to know what reality is. And when you take into account the effect of producing ethanol on the price of corn south of the border, as our cover story this week does, the picture becomes even more complicated.

But Mr. Harjes (and many other readers who responded as well) deserve a hearing for their argument that it's not just at one of the pumps, but at both, where such distortion is taking place. Now, if Mr. Harjes-inspired perhaps by another early morning visit to his barn-could just come up with a meter to be attached to every gas pump in the country that would reveal exactly what the real subsidy is, maybe then we could make some intelligent consumer decisions.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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