Dec 31st 2011, 12:51 by M.S.
NEW YEAR'S EVE seems like a good time to reflect on deep questions that are utterly critical to human understanding but aren't likely to actually lead anywhere. So it is in a mood of profound gratitude, wonder and awe that I read Brad Plumer'sreminder that corn-ethanol subsidies are going to expire this year, and that no one is defending them. This confounds my comprehension and leads me to realise that I understand nothing at all about the single most important question in human politics: how and why large numbers of people sometimes change their minds about things.
Three years ago, corn-ethanol subsidies appeared to be one of those common things in politics, an indefensible policy that was completely sacrosanct. It had, as many such policies do, a fiercely committed natural consistency, corn farmers, who enjoy a somewhat privileged political position due to their all-Americanness and the importance of the Iowa presidential caucuses. Corn ethanol is environmentally damaging; it putsmore carbon emissions into the atmosphere over the course of its production and consumption cycle than it takes out, and it uses up cropland that would otherwise be producing food for human or animal consumption. But this point was generally too complicated for environmentalists to make to the general public. And while conservatives are usually theoretically opposed to subsidies, in practice they've either actively backed them for carbon fuel industries, or never done anything to stop them. It just seemed as though corn-ethanol subsidies were the kind of policy that wonks all agree is terrible but that continues forever because of political realities.
Sometime in the past three years this all changed. The rise of the tea-party movement forced conservative politicians to take principled opposition to subsidies far more seriously. The budget-cutting frenzy in Washington made the subsidies a target. And the strange high-beta situation of Midwestern farmers, who are enjoying high corn prices and rising land prices while the rest of the country is seeing stagnant income and declining real-estate values, has muted their fervour for subsidies too. The speed with which this has happened puts me in mind of the country's startling attitude shift on gay marriage. I have absolutely no idea how things like this come to pass, and I don't think anyone could hope to predict them. But I think it serves as a somewhat hopeful close to a mostly horrible year to observe that in politics, solutions to problems often seem to be completely impossible, until all of a sudden they're not.
(Photo credit: AFP)