I ran across an interesting anecdote while reading “Star Spangled Scandal” by Chris DeRose last week.
The book is about the 1859 murder of U.S. Attorney Phillip Barton Key II — son of Francis Scott Key — by a sitting Congressman.
Rep. Daniel Sickles, a Democrat from New York, shot Key in broad daylight across the street from the White House after learning the man had been sleeping with his wife.
Sickles got away with it — he was the first American to invoke the temporary insanity defense — proving, I suppose, that there’s always been a different set of rules for the political elite.
The anecdote I’m talking, though, about had to do with Samuel Morse, the inventor of the single-wire telegraph system. He’s mentioned in the book because his innovation, and its utility to the journalists of the day, helped turn the murder of Key into one of America’s first national scandals.
When Morse demonstrated his invention to Congress, a thing which would go on to create profound change for nearly every aspect of American society, he was only barely able to win approval for funding.
The vote in the House of Representatives was 89-83 in favor, with 70 abstentions.
One wag introduced an amendment to fund telekinesis instead proving, I suppose, that Congress has always had more than its fair share of short-sighted idiots.
My headline mentions ethanol, though, and by now you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get around to talking about that.
It just so happened, after reading about Morse and his experience with Congress, that I happened upon a story about Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, and Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, teaming up to chastise the Trump administration for easing the federal government’s ethanol mandate.
Ethanol has long enjoyed favored political status, particularly here in farm country, and that has manifested itself in subsidies for ethanol production along with mandates for its use.
It’s this latter issue that has Walz and Noem upset. Trump’s people have been exempting some refineries from ethanol blend requirements under the Renewable Fuel Standard, and the governors say that’s hurting farmers.
The RFS creates an artificial market for ethanol producers by forcing refiners to use it.
Noem and Walz want the Trump administration to get tougher about forcing refineries to blend in a crop-based fuel wanted by few.
Politicians, because they’re always motivated by a desire to win the next election and are often stupid to boot, are terrible when it comes to picking winners and losers in the marketplace.
It’s always been this way.
In 1842 they couldn’t see Morse’s telegraph system for the technological revolution it was.
In 2019 they’re still flogging ethanol, despite its limited value to most fuel users.
Morse would have succeeded without the support of Congress because the telegraph was a good idea that served a real need.
Ethanol would die without the politicians because not many people would be using it if the government wasn’t making them.