Today, the Post-Dispatch editors chastised the leading Republican gubernatorial candidates for turning the Missouri ethanol mandate into a major campaign issue. The editors may well be correct that “the mandate makes very little difference in the bank accounts of drivers, grocery shoppers, or even farmers.” However, contention over the mandate might provide a worthy outlet for opinions about larger issues, such as the government’s involvement in ethanol production and the appropriateness of direct intervention into other markets.
As a practical matter, the future of the current ethanol mandate will not have a large effect on the commodity prices Missourians face. Our study, which was a narrowly focused rebuttal of another study, estimates a considerable, but not overwhelming, price tag of $29 per Missouri driver per year. The P-D suggests that “for drivers, there’s probably only a tiny savings.” Regardless of whether the mandate is a net positive or net negative, we both agree that the effect is relatively small. After all, the legislation only touches statewide consumption of globally traded commodities in the event that their associated market prices are lower than those of conventional gas.
Even so, the current discussion is anything but frivolous. The ethanol savings figures given by the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council are patently false. Further, the use of coercive intervention into a fully functional market raises legitimate doubts. The Republican candidates obliviously feel that they can effectively offer different shades of conservatism through a real — although perhaps not earth shattering — debate. Whether their attempts to differentiate themselves will pay off remains to be seen, but we can’t blame them for trying.