Iowa took umbrage, last week, over something an operative for Scott Walker said. Or, to be precise, something she once tweeted. For her indiscretion, Liz Mair was forced to resign from Walker’s political action committee. Walker is not yet an officially declared candidate for president but that is just political coyness. He’s running and a win in the Iowa caucuses would be a good way to start. So he could not tolerate a staffer tweeting, as Mair did, that
The sooner we remove Iowa's frontrunning status, the better off American politics and policy will be.
It seems likely that many people in the political-industrial complex would agree with that sentiment. Who wants to be in Iowa in January? How much nicer it would be if Florida were the first state to make its presidential preferences known.
But the people of Iowa desperately need to be first in the nation and Walker was evidently unwilling to risk defying their sense of entitlement which didn’t exactly polish up his profile in courage. So Mair was out.
The caucuses are good, no doubt, for the self-esteem of Iowans who get to see themselves on television a lot in the weeks leading up to the January caucuses and also get some face time with the candidates. And, as Hunter Schwarz of the Washington Post wrote in his account of the Mair episode:
Iowans also like the thousands of people who descend on the state to cover and participate in the caucus process, spending oodles of cash in the process.
Which is, no doubt true. But that is petty cash. Chicken feed, to use an agrarian metaphor appropriate to Iowa. The big political interest of the state is in corn. More specifically, in a corn product that Americans are compelled to buy if they want to drive a car, run a boat, use a chain saw or leaf blower … to do virtually anything that requires the use of a gasoline burning, internal combustion engine. Iowa is about ethanol.
The ethanol mandate goes back to the days when President George W. Bush was talking about an American “addiction to oil.” A clever figure of speech that some White House speech writer thought up all by himself and, no doubt, dined out on for days after. Actually, oil has been liberating for humanity. If you want to see real dependency, go someplace where they still use muscle power – human and animal – to get the farm work done. That place, by the way, certainly won’t be Iowa where John Deere is king.
Still, there was a slim, but persuasive, case to be made for ethanol back in 2007. Oil was expensive and most of it came from overseas, making the supply uncertain for the usual geo-political reasons. Stretching the oil by adding some ethanol could be sold as a win-win. We would need less oil and since we had lots of farmland and could raise plenty of corn, there would be home grown economic benefits.
So, we got an ethanol mandate and the equivalent of a Manhattan Project for corn. Production of ethanol in the U.S went from just under 4 billion gallons in 2005 to almost 14 billion gallons in 2011. Iowa accounts for about a quarter of that.
Throw in the distilleries and the storage and transportation infrastructure and you are talking a big piece of Iowa’s economy. And it all must seem like found money. Leading to a fear that, if it could happen that quickly, almost like magic, then it could disappear just as suddenly.
If Washington repealed the mandate …
Consumers never “voted” to put ethanol in their cars. In fact, there were warnings that it would damage the engines of older models. Ethanol is roundly hated by users of smaller engines. Mechanics who work on two-stroke engines are kept busy cleaning up the fouled carburetors of snow blowers, lawnmowers, string trimmers and the like. Furthermore, gasoline with ethanol blended in delivers less energy than pure gasoline.
But that, we were told, is just the price you pay if you want “energy independence” and assorted environmental benefits that were said to be the result of ethanol use. And there was the national security pitch for ethanol, as made by former CIA director James Woolsey who once said that American corn famers were “at the tip of the spear on the war against terrorism.”
In war, some people profit. Even excessively. So Iowa and other corn states prospered at the expense and inconvenience of the rest of the country. But that’s the way it goes in the political spoils game.