Pop Quiz: Which Policy Is Worse?
If you are like most people, you probably spend a lot of time wondering, “What is the absolutely worst environmental policy on the planet?” And if you are like most people, you probably think it is America’s ethanol policy. So Virginia’s recent decision to subsidize what will be the largest ethanol plant on the East Coast might strike you as doubling down on the dubious.
Don’t be too hasty. We have some competition.
True, America’s policy of blending corn-based ethanol into gasoline is unbelievably awful. For decades, Congress lavished billions of dollars on fuel producers to encourage the practice. As a result, almost half the U.S. corn crop gets pumped into gasoline tanks. Owing in no small part to that, corn prices more than doubled from 2006 to 2011. This raised the price of food both for people and for animals that people eat, such as farm-raised pigs. As a result, notes Bloomberg Businessweek, “ethanol mandates have acted as an efficient way to funnel cash from the world’s disadvantaged to its agro industry conglomerates.”
So the mandate is bad for poor people. But at least it raises gasoline prices! For one thing, ethanol costs more to produce than gasoline. And when Washington replaced ethanol subsidies with a renewable-fuel standard, it set increasingly high – and increasingly unrealistic – targets for the amount of ethanol to be blended with gasoline. Since there is not enough ethanol to go around, some gasoline producers have to buy ethanol credits known as renewable identification numbers (RINs). The trading of RINs has driven their price sharply higher, which has raised prices at the pump.
(Bonus point: Federal rules are driving refiners up against a “blend wall” – the point at which the ethanol content in gasoline exceeds 10 percent. Using more than a 10 percent ethanol blend voids many car warranties.)
But ethanol is helping to stave off global warming, right? Wrong. Corn needs farming, and farming needs fertilizers and tractors and hauling and so on. In some cases ethanol production requires more energy than the fuel delivers to your engine. Analyses differ, but by some estimates ethanol actually raises carbon-dioxide emissions from the tailpipe 12 percent over non-ethanol blends. (Even the federal government – which imposes the mandate – concedes “the ethanol program has little effect on the environment.”)
Ethanol is therefore one of the few subjects on which all corners of the ideological map agree. U.S. ethanol mandates are “catastrophically idiotic” (Mother Jones); “costly and unnecessary” (the Heritage Foundation); and “blatant corporate welfare” (the Cato Institute). Aside from that, they’re great.
So naturally, last week Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe boasted that he had played “a significant role” in using state subsidies to revive a defunct ethanol plant in Hopewell, south of Richmond. Osage Bio Energy built the $200 million facility a few years ago in the hope of raking in federal incentives for turning barley into gas. That didn’t pan out, and the plant never even lit the boilers. Last year Vireol, a British firm, bought the plant, intending to disassemble it and ship it overseas.
But thanks to Riley Ingram, Hopewell’s representative in Virginia’s House of Delegates, the company is going to stay. He sponsored legislation ensuring that for the next three years it will get up to $1.5 million in state support to produce about 170 million gallons of ethanol. The company also will get a $250,000 state development grant, matching tax breaks from Hopewell, employee training incentives, and Enterprise Zone incentives. This is supposed to create jobs – if you don’t count the jobs that would otherwise be created if not for the economic inefficiency of all that government meddling.
Upshot? Virginia taxpayers will shell out millions to help make food and gasoline more expensive while making global warming worse. ’Twas a famous victory.
It’s hard to find a policy that makes less sense – but London’s Daily Mail has done so. According to a story it ran in March, vast swaths of North Carolina forest are being clear-cut to make wood pellets for use in Britain, which is supposed to almost triple its renewable-energy use in the next six years. Subjects of the British crown are paying hefty subsidies to underwrite the cost of shipping a million metric tons of wood pellets a year 3,800 miles across the ocean – the ships leave from Virginia ports – so they can be burned at the Drax power station in Yorkshire.
If you think that sounds incredibly inefficient, you’re right. It actually generates 20 percent more carbon dioxide than burning coal would – and twice as much as burning natural gas would. Meanwhile, the trees being mowed down to feed the insatiable Drax maw will take about a century to regrow. But since they do regrow, that technically makes wood pellets a “renewable” resource. (By that logic, so is coal.)
For this, British taxpayers shelled out more than 62 million pounds – about $100 million – in green-energy subsidies last year. Britain’s government also is going to make them pay 105 pounds ($176) per megawatt-hour for this “green” energy, which is seven times what they’ll pay for nuclear energy, which really does help reduce global warming.
Nigel Burdett, Drax’s environmental manager, explains why this is happening: “Our whole business case is built on [the] subsidy, like the rest of the renewable energy industry,” he told the Daily Mail. “We develop our business plan in light of what the government wants – not what might be nice.”
So back to the question at the start of this column: Which policy is worse? To answer that one, the judges might need to go to the videotape.
Bush Lied. So Did Obama. And Clinton. And…
According to an exhaustive Senate Intelligence Committee report that might be declassified someday — and sources speaking on condition of anonymity confirm that timeline is “pretty doggone solid” — the CIA might have told a tiny fib or two about its conduct in the War on Terror.
Among other things, the CIA reportedly was a lot rougher on alleged enemy combatants than it admitted. Also, it suggested harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding produced valuable intel — which is sort of, well, not true. And it appears to have exaggerated — just a little bit, mind you — the importance of certain detainees. Abu Zubaida, for instance, turns out not to have been a senior al-Qaida leader, as was claimed while he was being repeatedly waterboarded. The U.S. government now concedes he was never even an al-Qaida member. Oopsies.
Of course, the investigation of events that occurred during the administration of Republican president George W. Bush was conducted by Senate Democrats. This could mean either that it was a rigorously honest inquiry unhindered by partisan loyalties — or that it also exaggerates and misrepresents, to paint the opposing team in the worst possible light. Nevertheless, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein found its contents “shocking” — a sentiment shared by good Democrats everywhere.
Democrats have exhibited much less skepticism — let alone consternation — about the current administration’s claims regarding the number of people who have signed up for health insurance. The White House says Obamacare hit its target of 7 million people. So far as Democratic cheerleaders are concerned, that’s a slam-dunk refutation of all the naysaying from conservative Republicans. As The New York Times’ Paul Krugman put it, Democrats should “feel free to ridicule right-wingers” who predicted otherwise.
Yet as Shikha Dalmia pointed out Friday in Reason, the 7 million figure looks awfully sketchy. Roughly 20 percent of those who sign up through the ACA’s exchanges drop out without paying. And “out of the remaining 5.6 million, only about half were likely previously uninsured.”
Likewise, many of those who signed up for Medicaid represent the normal churn in that program, which has seen hefty growth for years even without the ACA. And then there are all the Americans who have lost coverage as a result of Obamacare. In Maryland, for example, 60,000 people gained coverage through the ACA — while 75,000 lost it. Oopsies.
This isn’t a one-off. Obama earned PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” award for repeatedly promising you could keep you insurance if you liked it.
Fact-checkers also slapped his hand for claiming pre-kindergarten brings a 700 percent return on its investment. And again recently for claiming Obamacare opponents have spent “billions” opposing the law (they haven’t).
The administration has inflated the number of unlawful immigrants it deports by counting some “returns” — people turned back at the border — as deportations. And then there was James Clapper’s now-infamous lie to Congress. Asked if the NSA were collecting “any type of data at all” on millions of Americans, Obama’s director of National Intelligence responded, “No, sir.”
Not all lies are quite so baldfaced. Recently Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe “announced” 40 new jobs in Nottoway County, and said the state “is partnering” with the Trout River kiln company to build nine new lumber kilns.
Virginia’s end of the “partnership” consists of a one-time grant of $100,000, but you’re left with the impression that the jobs wouldn’t have been created if not for the governor’s personal intercession.
McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Bob McDonnell, also tried — time after time — to hog the glory from new business ventures he had little or nothing to do with. So did his predecessor, Tim Kaine. It’s S.O.P. But notice how they never “announce” layoffs.
These days McAuliffe asserts that failing to expand Medicaid means other states will get Virginia’s share of federal funding for expansion. They won’t: Total appropriations depend on the number of enrollees, so if Virginia enrolls no one, Virginia’s share of the money will not be allocated elsewhere — it will not be allocated, period.
McAuliffe professes total ignorance of an email setting price points for access to him and the Executive Mansion — just as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie professes total ignorance of the manipulations that led to Bridgegate. Just as Bill Clinton professed not to have had sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.
Back during the Vietnam War, the Pentagon’s PR guy, Arthur Sylvester, told a group of reporters: “Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you’re stupid. Did you hear that? Stupid.” Sylvester was being too harsh. Americans are pretty sharp when it comes to picking up on lies told by the other side. If they believe the lies told by their own side, it’s not because they’re imbeciles. It’s because they want to.
You Can Have My Knife When You Pry It From My Cold, Dead Hands
A certain fellow — we’ll call him Fred — broke the law a while ago. He didn’t mean to. He didn’t even know he was doing it. Nevertheless, had he been caught he could have gone to jail — for a year.
Fred lives in Virginia. Last fall he went on a camping trip. Not knowing what the terrain might be like, he stowed a short machete in his backpack — in case he needed to clear away some stinging nettles, or behead a stray boomslang. (Boomslangs are extremely poisonous snakes whose venom makes you bleed to death from every bodily orifice. They are usually found only in sub-Saharan Africa — but why take chances?)
In any event, Fred unwittingly committed a Class 1 misdemeanor. Virginia’s concealed-weapons law makes it illegal to carry “hidden from common observation” not just firearms but also dirks, bowie knives, switchblades, razors and a variety of more exotic items usually seen only in poorly dubbed martial-arts movies. The list also includes machetes.
Fortunately for Fred, he has an ally in his corner — a group called Knife Rights, which is like the National Rifle Association but for knives. Last month Knife Rights won a big (for them) victory when Tennessee repealed a law prohibiting switchblades. Tennessee followed the lead of Alaska, which legalized them in 2013. Knife Rights was behind both efforts.
You wouldn’t think the country has much need for a group like Knife Rights. After all, there is no countervailing force trying to ban knives in America: No Knife Control Inc. or Center for the Study of Knife Policy and Research. There have been no Million Mom Marches for knife control, no congressional efforts to ban big blades.
On the other hand, a few years ago nobody would have expected New York to ban the Big Gulp, either. Now look.
As it turns out, the laws governing knives can be surprisingly restrictive — and in some ways even more restrictive than firearms laws. Example: In Virginia and many other states, you can get a concealed-weapons permit to carry a gun — but if you want to carry a hunting knife under your coat, too bad: You can’t get a permit for that. Switchblades may be technically legal in Virginia, but possessing one is considered prima facie evidence of intent to sell, which is illegal.
In Pennsylvania it’s illegal to bring any knife of any size onto school property, concealed or not. And in New York, Knife Rights has filed a lawsuit on behalf of two men who were charged with carrying illegal weapons after police officers noticed the clips holding their folding pocket knives. The knives had thumb studs enabling them to be opened with one hand, and locking mechanisms to keep them from folding onto the holder’s fingers by accident.
Knives like that are as common as Diet Coke — but New York D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr. thinks they should be verboten. Four years ago he settled a case against several diabolical criminal enterprises, including Home Depot and Paragon Sports, for selling them. The stores surrendered almost $2 million for, as Vance said, “brazenly” hawking what he mistakenly called illegal gravity knives. (As the name implies, a gravity knife will open through gravity alone, or through centrifugal force if flicked. Common folding knives won’t.)
The trouble with such restrictions is that knives are dual-purpose objects. They can be used as weapons, just as hammers and baseball bats can, but like hammers and baseball bats they usually aren’t. Most kitchens have several big ones. A few years ago, the fact that people sometimes use kitchen knives in fits of rage led the editors of the British Medical Journal to call for restrictions on them. “We need to ban the sale of long, pointed kitchen knives,” they wrote. That meant any knife longer than two inches.
This was too much even for the usually ban-happy New York Times. But it might not be too much for others. Activist Al Sharpton has suggested we might need more knife control. Gothamist, a major New York website, thought it was a real knee-slapper that “Knife-lovin’ patriots” would object to the city’s tough knife laws: “Who doesn’t enjoy a nice recreational afternoon in the park with a razor sharp gravity [sic] knife?”
Curiously, many dangerous-weapons laws have what seem like gaping holes in them. The Code of Virginia, for instance, doesn’t say a thing about hatchets. The only restriction on axes is a prohibition against hunters bearing them on private property without the owner’s permission. Nor does the Code mention swords, cutlasses or scimitars. But if your untucked shirt conceals a hefty hunting knife on your belt, you’re breaking the law. Once is a misdemeanor, but get caught with a concealed bowie twice and you’re up on felony charges.
Doug Ritter, the chairman of Knife Rights, says some of the blade restrictions have historical roots that are no longer valid, if they ever were. Laws against switchblades proliferated in the 1950s, when visions of street gangs like those in “West Side Story” danced through lawmakers’ heads. Bowie knives — large, fixed-blade sheath knives with drop points — were banned in the 19th century because of their frequent use in duels.
There’s no doubt knives are dangerous — witness the recent spate of knife slayings in China. What’s more, according to the FBI, more than 1,500 Americans were killed by knives or other cutting instruments in 2012. But that’s still just a fraction of the more than 33,000 Americans who were killed by motor vehicles in 2012, and nobody has suggested banning them — yet.