Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Unintended Consequences, Part 9,031,745,832

As has been seen in many ecological and economic examples, the world is a vastly-complicated and interlinked collection of actors, and when you turn the knob that you think is supposed to do "A," it always seems to do "C" and "X" and a bunch of other functions, too. A Rainbow Brite administration official seems to have noticed this, but it apparently isn't bothering her:
President Barack Obama's assistant on energy and climate change said on Tuesday she did not know how a tough White House plan to raise the fuel economy of the U.S. car fleet would affect the ethanol industry.

"I don't know the answer to that," Carol Browner told reporters in a teleconference about the plan.

She said modelers had looked at the issue, but she did not know the answer offhand.

Obama obliged the struggling auto industry to make more fuel efficient cars on Tuesday by imposing standards on tailpipe emissions and increasing gasoline mileage. Under the plan passenger vehicles and light trucks must average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.

Analysts said the plan could restrain development of the ethanol industry in coming years because the alternative fuel has a lower energy content than gasoline. Specially built "flex fuel" cars typically get 20 to 30 percent fewer miles per gallon when they burn a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, according to the government website www.fueleconomy.gov.

The struggling ethanol industry has suffered a string of bankruptcies over the last year amid volatile prices for corn, which is the main input cost for distillers, the credit crunch, and as the recession hits motor fuel demand.
It seems to me that when the leading edge of the debt meltdown manifested itself last year, progressive voices lost little time in assuring us that what we really needed was much more government regulation (as opposed to many fewer bailouts). Similarly, the general school of political philosophy that brought so many outstandingly-successful Five-Year Plans to the agricultural and industrial sectors of the former Soviet Union is launching an ambitious set of such plans here. Remember when we found out that the use of ethanol for motor fuel, which seemed like such an obviously good idea, in fact produced major dislocations of world agricultural and trade patterns and did significant mischief to world food supplies and prices? I wonder what new unintended consequences we'll be seeing in the months and years to come.

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