McCain, Ethanol, and the politics of technology

Again, there have been plenty of calls for a Manhattan project for energy. However, there is a singularly fatal flaw underlying the idea that the federal government could and should pick and back winners from the constellation of emerging technologies: politics.

When it comes to large-scale technological choices, there is too much at stake for incumbent corporations to set aside their own self-interests and pursue technologies that threaten to disrupt their comfortably ways. But corporations are not alone in pursuing their self-interests. There are always plenty of other constituents doing the same. This reality showed up again in the debate over ethanol, and Fortune caught it nicely (McCain on Ethanol).

In 2003, McCain said:

“Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn’t create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it, yet thanks to agricultural subsidies and ethanol producer subsidies, it is now a very big business – tens of billions of dollars that have enriched a handful of corporate interests – primarily one big corporation, ADM. Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality.”

Yet on an August trip to Iowa (land of corn producers and early presidential primaries), McCain said:

“I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects”

Politics and Technology make dangerous bedfellows.