People acting through their government face trade-offs. The production possibilities frontier is a simple model showing food and ethanol production that illustrates some trade-offs. In the United States, ethanol is made from corn. To get more ethanol, resources have to move from the production of food and into the production of ethanol.
Markets are usually the best way to organize economic activities. The graph shows the market production combination point. Economic agents, acting through markets, buy a great deal of food and little ethanol. People acting through markets do not consume much ethanol.
Governments can sometimes improve market outcomes. In the light of rising oil prices, a warming climate, and the war in Iraq, some suggested that oil production is associated with three significant negative externalities that contributed to each problem. Economists usually recommend that negative externalities be taxed.
This is not the course the government took. At the urging of almost all corn growers and a few environmentalists, the Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation that subsidized the production of ethanol in three ways: consumers must buy blended gasoline containing 10% ethanol, blenders received a 45 cent per gallon subsidy for mixing the gasoline and ethanol, and importers must pay a 54 cent per gallon tariff (taxes on imports) on foreign ethanol. In response to these incentives, farmers took resources from food production and put it into ethanol production. Forty percent of corn production in the United States is now used to make ethanol. This is shown in the graph at the point “Production Combination with Ethanol Subsidies.”
Environmentalist no longer support ethanol production. The EPA believes that corn production has a minimal to negative impact on the environment. David Pimentel, a Cornell University scientist, estimates that the United States would achieve only a 4% reduction in oil consumption if the entire corn crop were devoted to ethanol production. Let me suggest that, at the margin, such a small reduction in oil consumption would not significantly reduce the odds of entering a war to protect oil production.
At a time of slow growth, lingering high unemployment from the Great Recession, and budget deficits that threaten the financial stability of the government, ethanol subsidies should be ended. Instead, protection has been extended and expanded. When consumers did not buy the mandated level of ethanol, the Obama administration lifted the cap on how much ethanol could be blended into gasoline from 10% to 15% and increased the number of car models that are approved to use the 15% blend. The Congress also extended subsidies to ethanol production.
I am Brooks Wilson an Instructor of Economics at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, and I hold a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from the University of California at Davis.
I created this blog to allow my students, past and present, to learn economics above and beyond what they learn in class, and to meet others interested in economics.
I am grateful for every reader who could ignore my blog and read those maintained by great economists like Gary Becker, Richard Posner, James Hamilton, Menzie Chinn, Russ Roberts, Brad DeLong, and others.