Ben Bova: Politicians don’t think like you and I

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Why can’t Washington solve the problems that beset us? Why can’t the White House and Congress make real inroads on energy, education and the environment — or, for that matter, on the wars we’re supposed to be fighting against terrorism and drugs?

The reason, I believe, is that politicians don’t see the world the same way you and I do. Their goals are different from ours.

To begin with, most elected officials are insulated from the troubles that face us daily. For example, they get wonderful pension plans and health-care services, plans that are a lot better than anything we can afford. And we pay for them, with our taxes.

Many politicians can conveniently “forget” to pay their taxes. If you or I forgot to pay our taxes, we’d be quickly and forcibly reminded by the Internal Revenue Service, state and local tax agencies.

But I think the real reason that politicians seem unable (or maybe unwilling) to solve our problems is something much more fundamental. Politicians make their decisions for political reasons. When faced with a crucial decision, the thing that’s most important to a politician is not how to solve the problem, but how to use the problem to gain the most votes for himself. Or herself.

To a politician, getting elected is what’s really important, not solving the nation’s problems. And second most important to a politician is getting re-elected.

Take the great ethanol farce, for example.

Ethanol was touted to the American public as the answer to our energy problems. It would replace gasoline. After all, the nation of Brazil converted from gasoline to ethanol, didn’t it? Why can’t we?

Ethanol was supposed to be clean and green. It was made from corn, which is not only a renewable resource, but it’s also a plentiful crop in the United States. Let Iowa replace Saudi Arabia in our automobiles’ fuel tanks!

(In Brazil, by the way, most of their ethanol comes from sugar cane.)

So here comes ethanol. From corn. The federal government decreed that the gasoline you buy at the fuel pump must contain a percentage of ethanol. Washington also voted large subsidies to ethanol producers, as an inducement for them to build ethanol-manufacturing plants.

But what do we see? We still import some $700 billion per year of petroleum, largely from the Middle East. The price of gasoline (with ethanol added to it) hasn’t gone down significantly; if anything, gas prices have been climbing.

Ethanol-production plants, built at least partly with federal subsidies, are actually closing down, despite the subsidies and mandated addition of ethanol to gasoline nationwide.

As far as the environment is concerned, ethanol is a cruel joke. Ethanol production generates more greenhouse gases than burning the gasoline that the ethanol replaces. And it takes a thousand gallons of water to make one gallon of ethanol. With the nation’s demand for water growing toward the crisis level, ethanol production is actually endangering this precious resource.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported in 2007 that increased ethanol production boosted the amount of fertilizer seeping into the Mississippi River. This, in turn, pollutes the Gulf of Mexico and enlarges the dead zone of “black water” that now stretches from Louisiana to the shores of Florida.

By taking huge amounts of corn out of the food market, ethanol production has raised the prices of milk, eggs and other foodstuffs worldwide. As the price for corn has risen, so have the prices of products from farm animals that feed on corn, such as cows and chickens.

In all, ethanol hasn’t helped to solve our energy problems; instead it has aggravated problems in pollution, global warming and food prices from your local supermarket to the marketplaces of villages all around the world.

How has this happened? Scientists understood that making ethanol from corn is wasteful and highly polluting. They also pointed out that there’s no way we could produce enough ethanol to make a significant dent in our energy needs. Even if all the cropland in the united States was planted in corn for ethanol production, it would only supply about 15 percent of our demand for petroleum.

The politicians ignored those warnings. Why?

Because ethanol rode through Washington on a bandwagon of high hopes and praise. Ethanol would solve our energy problem! It was clean and green! It could be produced from American corn!

It would win votes.

The oil industry did not object to ethanol, because their analysts knew that ethanol would not — could not — cut significantly into their profits. The farm lobby was enraptured with the idea of finding a new market for corn. So what if world food prices go up? More profits!

So the politicians had strong lobbies in support of ethanol and a good public-relations campaign convincing the voters that ethanol was the right choice. Against such formidable support, there was only the small voice of knowledgeable scientists warning that the idea was more fantasy and wishful thinking than anything else.

So the politicians supported ethanol.

I’m not saying that politicians are completely amoral, self-seeking, vainglorious oafs. They simply see the world through different lenses than the ones you and I have to use.

Many politicians sincerely want to solve the energy problem. But they want to stay in office even more sincerely.

They are not scientists. Very few even have a scientist on their staffs. The scientific advice they get is faint, and usually ignored — especially if following that advice runs the risk of losing votes.

If a program is proposed as the solution to a problem that the voters are hollering about, most politicians will go for that program because: a. it’s supposed to solve the problem, and therefore, b. it will gain votes in the next election.

So we get dubious “solutions” such as ethanol which, in the long run, are worse than the original problem. But to a politician, remember, the long run means only as far as next election day.

Naples voter Ben Bova is the author of 120 books, including “The Immortality Factor,” a novel about stem-cell research. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com.

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