Pawlenty Courageously Positions Himself as the 20th Century Candidate in this Election

By The Intersection | May 25, 2011 11:23 am

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

Tim Pawlenty made a third “announcement” of his candidacy for President, yesterday, in Iowa.  In doing so, he missed an opportunity to define himself as a 21st Century candidate.  He could have distinguished himself from all other Republican candidates by embracing science and technology as keys to America’s future.  He also could have attracted a second-look from independent voters who are seeking a modern thinker from the Republican party.  Instead, he comes off looking like a stale, old, status quo, 20th Century candidate.

Why do I say this?

In his speech to the citizens of Iowa, the former Republican Governor of Minnesota took what has been described as a “courageous” position on an issue that is critical to many Iowans.  He announced his intention to end federal subsidies for corn-based ethanol, if elected.  Many have proposed that he is simply distancing himself from the current top Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who has made no such proposal.  I believe he is making a narrow-minded play for the conservative wing of the Republican Party.  After all, Governor Pawlenty justifies his proposed cuts by framing the discussion in terms of fiscal responsibility *and gives no indication of what he plans to do with those federal dollars.*

“Given the financial crisis that we’re facing, we have to phase out not only those subsidies but subsidies across all industries,” he stated.

This is where I think he missed his chance to establish himself as a truly forward thinking Presidential candidate. *Update:  I totally support ending federal subsidies for corn-based ethanol.  However, we must re-appropriate those funds to develop alternative energy sources.*  Governor Pawlenty could have solidified support in Iowa by offering a new, cutting edge path toward prosperity for farmers who rely on the corn industry.  By making a pledge to apportion some of the *former* subsidies to do research on the development of cellulosic ethanol *or other alternative fuels*, Pawlenty’s message to Iowa and the rest of America could have signaled that he is aware of the energy problems we face and he is prepared to use modern science and technology to solve them.  He also could have offered a glimmer of hope for Iowa farmers looking to maintain their current standard of living.  The corn stalks and leaves left over after the corn grain has been been harvested for food might have been presented as another source of revenue as food stock for ethanol production.  Instead, he left farmers wondering how they are going to continue to support their employees and their families.  Some would say that’s a “job-killing” policy.  Does he not see the opportunity provided by scientific research in this area?  Or, is there another agenda at work here?

Governor Pawlenty’s declaration also sent another ominous message to Americans.  Corn-based ethanol is one of few alternative fuels that is helping us end our fossil fuel addiction.  While use of corn-based ethanol has undesired effects on the cost of food and the environment, research in this area has taught us that oil need not be the energy of the future for our country.  Without an alternative, we are left to assume that he wants us to be MORE, not less, reliant on the oil and gas industry.  Some have argued that his position on ethanol subsidies actually confirms his political alliance with the oil and gas industry.  I cannot leap to such an assumption, but he could take some sting out of the criticism if he would similarly agree to withdraw subsidies for the oil and gas industry (apportioning some for alternative energy research).  Until he makes a bold statement about his desire to find new ways to power up the country, there is no denying that the oil and gas industry will be smiling (and profiting) over his decision to end corn-based ethanol subsidies.

* indicate modifications to original post.

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Comments (6)

  1. Gil

    I was under the impression that corn was a pretty terrible source of ethanol; doesn’t it make sense to cut corn subsidies and then apportion that money to rape seed oil or one of the promising grasses?

    • The Intersection

      Absolutely. Any investment in alternative energy would be better than simply cutting subsidies without re-appropriation of some of those funds.
      I have updated my post to clarify some misconceptions.

  2. I work for POET, the largest ethanol producer today. We produce about 1.7B gallons of ethanol from corn per year and plan to break ground on our commercial cellulosic plant this year using corn cobs, leaves, husks, some stalk as feedstock.

    There are efforts to redirect the current tax credit toward expanding the means for people to use more ethanol. Right now, there’s no room in the market for cellulosic ethanol (although E15 will eventually create some wiggle room). Until we have more flex fuel vehicles and blender pumps at fuel stations to allow people to choose as much or as little ethanol as they want, commercializing cellulosic ethanol and expanding it will be slow.

  3. This is a really intriguing problem, Jamie. Corn-to-ethanol, as you know, is highly inefficient and won’t ever be CO2 neutral. But, corn-based-ethanol is a product that farmers and other job-hungry midwesterners can hang their hats on. You raise an interesting point. How do we start transitioning from this to other more meaningful technologies in a constructive manner. It certainly seems as though Pawlenty has missed on such opportunity (as many others do as well).

  4. Brian Too

    Isn’t it fairly apparent that the Repubs wish to position themselves as the party of less spending? And implicitly or explicity, portray the Dems as the party of more spending?

    I’d say Pawlenty gets at least partial credit for not falling into the all-too-common trap of saying (by way of policy, not words) “this is what we’d really like to do (end subsidies), but votes depend upon us continuing subsidies”.

    Also, the political right often hews to the theory that all government is bad, and that includes government subsidies. These “distort the market” don’t you know. He could be taking the politically consistent stand that if the private sector does not create fossil fuel alternatives all on their own, then those fossil fuel alternatives simply aren’t necessary.

    I don’t know much about Pawlenty but that would appear to be supported by his comment that “we have to phase out not only those subsidies but subsidies across all industries”.

    Does he consider R&D to be a subsidy?

  5. Nullius in Verba

    “Does he consider R&D to be a subsidy?”

    R&D can be a subsidy, but not always. See Bastiat’s Sophisms for a layman’s introduction to the background theory.

    But in this case, the entire point is that you want to distort the market, because the market has already worked out that the way you want to do things is not economically sensible, and therefore won’t do it unless pushed. You know better, so you have to impose your superior knowledge on the market by means of subsidies and tariffs, paying the difference in costs between what you propose and what the market’s optimum solution would be.

    The same way as you did for corn-based ethanol.

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