The Magazine

The Corn Conspiracy

Ethanol is forever.

Dec 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 15 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The machine was virtually new. I’d run a mere two tanks of gas through it and now the wretched thing wouldn’t start. I’d pulled the starter cord 30 times, or more, and the best response so far was a forlorn cough that sounded terminal. Could I have neglected to premix the gas last time I filled the tank?

The Corn Conspiracy

Nah. It would have run hot and seized up.

Maybe something had fouled the filter?

So I took the thing apart and looked at the filter. Cleaner than the collar of my best white shirt.

Plug?

I took it out and it easily passed the eyeball test.

I tried dumping the gas and putting in some from a different can. Same 50‑1 mix, just bought more recently. Maybe my machine liked fresh gas.

Ten more pulls on the starter cord and nothing.

I swore for a minute or two and when that didn’t work, I was out of options. I called the man who’d sold me the machine. For 15 years, he’d been faithfully caring for my chain saws and other tools. He has the magician’s touch with a two-stroke engine.

“This leaf blower you sold me isn’t worth its weight in scrap,” I said politely.

“Won’t start?” he said. Calmly.

No, it won’t start. And how did you know?”

“Second or third tank of gas, I’d guess.”

“Yes and I say again .  .  . how did you know?”

“Happens to most of them. It’s the ethanol. I should have warned you. Bring it in.”

I did. And he made some carburetor adjustments that were beyond my meager abilities and nowhere described in the owner’s manual. In a few minutes, the machine was humming.

“That’s it?”

“You’re good to go.”

“What do I owe you?”

“Nothing. But I’ll tell you something. If I’d been charging for every call like this one, last 20 years .  .  . well, ethanol would have made me rich. That stuff ought to be illegal.”

Ah, I explained, but it is. If you make it yourself and sell it to someone who wants to drink it, then there is an arm of the government (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) that will come and arrest you. Ethanol for drinking is called “moonshine” and Washington disapproves of it. It is what you get when you distill a mash that is made of fermented corn. There is an art to it and lots of lore. Bob Dylan recorded a haunting ballad about it, one verse of which goes:

My daddy he made whiskey, my granddaddy he did too

We ain’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792

You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright

Watch them jugs a-filling in the pale moonlight.

Junior Johnson, the stock car driver and subject of Tom Wolfe’s celebrated article The Last American Hero, did a stretch for moonshining, though the revenuers never caught him on the road, actually hauling. A section of North Carolina highway is now named after him.

Fair to say a lot of people have affectionate feelings about moonshine, even if they’ve never tasted any.

The other kind of ethanol, though, doesn’t have many fans. Nobody will be singing ballads about the EPA inspectors whose job it is to make sure Americans are burning enough ethanol in their cars, outboards, and lawnmowers to keep the Iowa corn farmers in the chips. Many of us—like my mechanic and me—purely hate the stuff. To which the government says, “Shut up and put some in your gas tank. It’s good for .  .  . ”

Well, for what?

For a while, people argued that ethanol was good for the environment. Nobody, but nobody, makes that argument any more. Even Al Gore has turned his back on the stuff. But if there are no good environmental outcomes as a result of the government’s mandates on mixing the stuff with gasoline, there have been other measurable outcomes. The ethanol program has resulted in higher food prices, lower mileage in automobiles, and damage to older and smaller internal combustion engines. 

So, of course, as part of the tax bill that will probably become law by the end of this year, taxpayers from this generation and at least two to follow will be subsidizing the production of this kind of ethanol just as they have been for a generation already. The subsidies were scheduled to expire at the end of this year but that cannot be allowed because .  .  .

Well, because the people who have become accustomed to the money would miss it. So they will continue to grow corn, fencerow to fencerow, across the Midwest. The making of ethanol will continue to require the use of vast amounts of water and fertilizer, and the EPA will continue to compel its use in engines that will run less efficiently when they burn it.

There are those in Washington who do not understand why so many citizens hate Washington. Well, in microcosm, ethanol is the answer. 

It is because, well, Washington started hating them first.

Geoffrey Norman, a widely published author, edits the website Vermonttiger.com.

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