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« Follow-Up on Pigs, Trail Mix, and Carbon | Energy Demand Management and the Home »
Sunday
May272007

Pigs, Trail Mix, and Carbon

North Carolina is Pig Country – are at least a lot of it is. Pig farms produce a lot of waste, and the best pig farmers are doing some creative and innovative things about it. But I’m not writing about creative and innovative things today. I’m writing about what happens when government mandates methods rather than results.

In Garland, NC, pigs are eating trail mix. Pigs are moving to trail mix. Pigs are also eating cookies, cheese curls, French fries, and peanut-butter cups. Pigs are changing diets because the price of feed corn went through the roof this spring, driven by Congress’s obsession with picking winners and losers, rather than with setting the rules.

Farmers are practical people, who have relentlessly driven down the cost of food and the percentage of the populace involved in food production over the last century. When the rules change, they adapt. Trimmings, out of date processed food, and even simple mistakes that make a batch taste funny have all previously gone to waste; now, driven by a doubling of corn prices, they are live stock feed. Farmers understand markets.

Congress periodically gets an itch to solve a problem. Or more accurately to be seen to “Do Something” about a problem. But solutions are hard. The world is complicated. Solutions can have unintended effects. But complex approaches do not play well in our sound-bite media.

What plays well in the media is decisiveness. But congresspersons rarely possess the deep domain knowledge necessary to make decisions in complicated areas. Neither, by the way, do many utilities commissions. So they look for someone to explain it to them. And whoever explains it to them usually has a dog in the fight.

Three decades ago, it was necessary to do something about smog. But any changes in actual smog would take a long time to come—than the next election. So congress had to pick a solution. Aided by the massed lobbyists of the platinum industry, whose persuasiveness must have been strong in the days before three martini lunches were disallowed as business expenses, Congress selected the catalytic converter.

There has been a reduction in smog, it’s true. But we have also locked in on using the best technology from the 70’s. Any car company that picks another technology faces possible liability, possible regulatory delays, or they can choose the expensive 30 year old solution, a solution from a time when high end engineering calculators were more expensive than today’s lap-tops and offered less computing and programmability than today’s cell phone. Meanwhile, credible research suggests that the epidemic increase in asthma and allergy over that period is tied to road-side platinum compounds.

Today, aided by the best advice they could get from the lobbyists of the world’s largest agribusiness, congress has incentivized corn to ethanol production. It does so while continuing to defend our shores from foreign sugar, a commodity that might be made into ethanol more cheaply, but that might compete with corn sugar. Even while credible studies suggest that corn ethanol production uses more petroleum than it replaces, the subsidies continue.

Congress should set the goals, and step back. In energy and in carbon, set the bar high, and enable creativity, and market-driven innovation to solve the problems and provide the solutions.

Doing anything else is stupid. You might say pig stupid.

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