Saturday, December 15, 2007

Where Has All the Sechel Gone?: The Ethanol Fiasco

Fifty-one years ago, Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer, appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was subsequently found guilty of contempt by the House of Representatives. He was ultimately cleared of the charges, and during that period he wrote the song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” popularized by the Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

You might remember the words to that song: “Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing. Where have all the flowers gone? Long time ago.” What I would like to know is, where has all the sechel gone? Like the flowers, it too has been a long time in passing and has not been seen since, a long time ago — especially in the same halls of Congress where Pete Seeger (and others) was mistakenly condemned those many years ago. For those unfamiliar with the term, “sechel” is an expression from Yiddish, a language that, according to the UNESCO Red Book, is one of the hundreds of seriously endangered languages throughout the world.

However, many Yiddish words and expressions will be saved despite the language’s probable demise because they have been assimilated into Americans’ everyday speech pattern. In fact, almost 100 words of Yiddish origin are already listed in one or more English dictionary. (See end of article). Although I recently heard the word on television, “sechel” (pronounced seykhel) is not one of them, but it should be. As is true of many Yiddish words and expressions, the English equivalent loses much in the translation. Sechel is defined as “sense, common sense, good sense, reason, intelligence, smarts.” The one that probably best fits here is “smarts.”

The dictionary definition of smarts is “intelligence.” But that is followed by this example: “It takes a lot of smarts to become a doctor.” It would seem that while intelligence alone is certainly a desirable quality for a doctor, having smarts implies even more; an outstanding ability to analyze, evaluate, diagnose, and prescribe the proper solution. Even giving them the benefit of doubt by describing our members of Congress as intelligent, crediting them with smarts or sechel, (at least in the case of Ethanol as it relates to the nation’s energy needs) would be quite a stretch.

If you are in the mood for a blunt, if not scathing denunciation of the energy bill slowly, oh so slowly, wending its way through the seemingly impenetrable labyrinths of Congress, here we go: “A House/Senate energy conference committee is preparing to disgorge a 1700 page legislative abomination that should cause both the Left and Right to choke. Although the bill has yet to be released, enough is known to conclude that it will be three parts corporate welfare to one part cynical politics.”

Oh! How I wish I had written that—but no — it continues, “It is so wholly without merit that even we — policy analysts from the [ultra-conservative] Cato institute and the Sierra Club respectively, who rarely agree about anything — can agree that the bill is a shocking abdication of our leaders’ responsibility.” It then goes on to deride “the $20 billion package of tax breaks and production subsidies designed to further rig the market to favor well-connected [undoubtedly due to lobbyists and campaign contributions] energy producers (almost all of which already enjoy plenty of federal handouts) at the expense of others.”

Amongst the prime beneficiaries of the above largess are ethanol producers, a group that “will make out like thieves.” The claim is that, “Make no mistake — the ethanol program is about nothing other than fattening ADM [the giant agricultural company] and other ethanol producers at the expense of others.” The facts are that, “Ethanol does nothing to improve air quality and only uses slightly less oil to manufacture than it displaces upon use.”

But surprisingly, the Cato Institute is not the only ultra-conservative group critical of the ethanol boom. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page weighs in describing ethanol as “absurdly inefficient,” and calls attention to the energy bill’s plan to mandate ethanol production of 36 billion gallons by 2022. It points out that requirement will place great pressure on farm-belt aquifers. A Cornell ecology professor estimates that “when you count the water needed to grow the corn, one gallon of ethanol requires a staggering 1,700 gallons of H 2 O.

In September, the Chairman of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a report titled, “Biofuels: Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?” The conclusion was that the cure is indeed worse, a fact that our lawmakers should seriously consider — if only they had the sechel to do it. Wishful thinking, I’m sure.

Here is a partial list of Yiddish words in various English dictionaries: chutzpah; dreck; gonif; gelt; kibitz; klutz; kosher; kvetch; maven’ megillah; mensch; nebbish; nosh; schlep; schlock; schmatte; schmuck; schnoz; shamus; shiksa; shtick; spiel; tchothke; tsuris; yenta; zaftig.

There’s No Such Thing As a Free Lunch

Although Milton Friedman, the legendary professor and Nobel Laureate at the University of Chicago, considered as perhaps the most influential economist of the last half of the 20 th century, generally gets credit for coining the above axiom, it was actually Leonard P. Ayres, who was the originator. Mr. Ayres had a remarkable career as an educator, an economist, and a brigadier general in World War II. The quote was first published in an article in the New York Times shortly before Ayres died in 1946.

The phrase received additional recognition in a 1966 novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by the celebrated science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein. He created an acronym, TANSTAAFL, still used today in fields such as Thermodynamics and Mathematical Finance. It translates to the less grammatical, “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” Commemorating the fact that Milton Friedman popularized the concept, there is a TANSTAAFL snack bar in the University of Chicago where Friedman is known as the Father of the “Chicago School” of economics.

The aphorism lives again, larger than life, as testament to those of us who are prone to swarm like lemmings to the all too numerous invitations to attend financially oriented lunches, dinners, even cocktail parties, so (seemingly) generously, and of course freely proffered — and this is the point — by unknown, and sometimes unscrupulous hucksters . What? That really nice young man who spoke so eloquently and apparently knowingly at that last seminar you attended might not have been what he (or she) seemed?

I’m shocked! — shocked I say, that anyone would harbor such suspicious and skeptical judgments without evidence to substantiate this scurrilous attack. Okay! How about this opening paragraph from an Associated Press report published on September 10 th?

“An investigation by federal and state regulators of ‘free lunch’ investment seminars aimed at seniors has found high-pressure sales pitches masquerading as educational sessions, pervasive misleading claims for unsuitable financial products and even fraud.”

This examination was conducted by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), state regulators, and the securities industry’s self-policing organization, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Covering seven states with large senior populations, including Florida, it focused on 110 investment firms and branch offices that sponsor sales seminars to seniors with free meals. The investigation found that, Senior citizens are big targets for investment fraud, and the free lunch seminars are very successful in attracting this sought after demographic.” Among the findings of the regulators who conducted the investigation are the following:
  • The popular “free lunch” or dinner seminars, often at upscale hotels, restaurants and golf courses, are advertised as educational sessions or workshops at which no product will be sold. They are actually sales presentations pushing those attending to open new accounts and make investments on the spot or in follow-up meetings with the salespeople . Nearly 60 percent of the 110 investment firms and branch offices examined showed evidence of weak supervision of the employees running the seminars, including failure to review the seminar materials.

  • About half of the 110 seminars inspected included false or misleading claims such as ‘Immediately add $100,000 to your net worth,’ and 13 percent included what appeared to be outright fraud such as liquidating accounts without a customer’s knowledge or consent, or even selling bogus investments.

  • In 23 percent of the seminars, investments were suggested that were unsuitable.

Some of the popular investment products pitched at these “free lunch” sessions are variable annuities, the newer equity indexed annuities, real estate, reverse mortgages, and oil and gas schemes. So let’s see: If you had attended one of these 110 seminars that were monitored, the odds were, at best, 50 percent that the meeting you attended was legitimate. Would you be willing to travel to Las Vegas and bet your retirement portfolio or your savings at a craps or blackjack table? Compared to one of the above seminars, your chance of success would be much better in the gambling casino.

The next time you’re tempted to take advantage of one of these sessions go and enjoy the meal, but keep in mind that the term “free lunch” is an oxymoron since by definition “there ain’t no such thing.” Just memorize and keep repeating the acronym to yourself: TANSTAAFL, TANSTAAFL, TANSTAAFL.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere, But Just 1% to Drink: The Global Water Crisis—Part IV

“The world is coming to an end.” Now, as unlikely as you may think that as a possibility, and as depressing as that thought might be (can anything be more disheartening than a life-ending prediction?), that is not necessarily my current belief. Although I am now just relaying a message that has existed for a few millennia, I can picture the day when I might join the guys in long white robes carrying a sign that echoes that conviction. So, as the saying goes, at least for the moment, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

However, if you are a true believer in whatever religion it is that you profess, you won’t scoff at the possibility that perhaps we are approaching the “end times,” the Last Judgment, the Day of Reckoning, Quiyamah (in Islam) — however you phrase it — the end of the world as we know it. Now, mind you, every religion, almost without exception, has expressed a view of the world’s demise, usually accompanied by the eventual emergence of a savior.

Followers of the New Testament are especially fortunate in that they have been provided with a mind picture of what to look out for in anticipation of that fateful day. That inevitability was registered officially some 2,000 years ago when the last book of the bible, commonly known as Revelations, attributed to John the Apostle (also known as John of Patmos), was added. This book has most famously been associated with John’s image of what has become known as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and you might think that their hoof beats would be construed as an alarm, but perhaps they approach on silent legs, too late to discern.

Revelations is considered to be one of the most controversial, questionable, and most difficult books in the New Testament to understand because of the many diverse interpretations of its meanings. Wikipedia states that, “there are some notable critics who have dismissed the Book of Revelation as fraudulent, or otherwise fabricated… Among these is Thomas Jefferson who wrote, ‘… I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherencies of our own nightly dreams.’”

Be that as it may, executed over 500 years ago, the most famous, and certainly the best-known rendition of the physical aspects or the Four Horsemen is a woodprint by one of the great German engravers and painters of the 17th century, Albrecht Durer (see below).

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

A review of a book published in March 2000, inspired by, and titled, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, describes the age characterized by apocalyptic expectations and speculations, specifically the period 1490 to 1648. The book defines Durer’s engraving as being comprised of a figure on a White Horse, identified as the Second coming of Christ. The Red Horse was predicated on the experience of War, most prevalent at the time in an age of religious conflict. It is the book’s next description that bears a frightening and perhaps prescient view of our era’s future. It reads: “Under the rubric of the Black and Pale Horses of Famine and Death, the authors investigate the impact of such factors as food, famine, climate, population shifts, agriculture, health, and disease on daily life, and in molding the period’s pervasive attitudes.”

I could not help but associate those seven factors underlined above with the exact same conditions that threaten the world today, and the current dire predictions accompanying these same concerns. The Four Horsemen of today that threaten civilization as we know it could be the White Horse depicting, instead of the Christ child resurrected as a man, billions of children that will contribute to massive population shifts and unsupportable population growth; the Red (hot) horse that could represent global warming; the Black Horse symbolizing oil and its imminent peak; and the Pale Horse signifying fast diminishing clean water supplies leading to a global water crisis. Exacerbating these issues is the fact that if you think about it, each one impacts, is interconnected to, and acts as an accelerant to the other. It’s as if the Four Horsemen of today have colluded to form a coordinated attack on our civilization, but the question is whether or not the public hears the hoof beats approaching.

The answer is, perhaps. There at last seems to be some escalation in the public’s perceptions that these issues are real. This recognition is occurring because of the media’s sudden interest in the fundamental environmental problems that the world faces, and as more and more evidence emerges, news reports related to one or more of these topics are now being delivered almost on a daily basis. For example, on November 4 th, a major exhibit opened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York is titled “Water: H 2 O = Life.” This opening compelled The New York Times to run a feature article about the exhibit headlined, “The Blue Planet’s Lifeblood: A Finite Flow.” Both the exhibit and the Times article emphasizes the message that this series of articles has attempted to convey: our planet faces a perilous future, with water crises intensifying at the same time that there appears to be a failure by governments, politicians, industry, and the public to fully recognize and confront the issue in an aggressive and constructive manner.

This was not the first time that The New York Times devoted space for an article on the impending water crisis. (On second thought, impending is defined as “looming; approaching; future” yet the crisis is actually already here.) The cover article of the Sunday Times Magazine section on October 21 st was headlined, “The Future is Drying Up.” The article’s opening paragraphs provide a sobering and frightening prospect. “Scientists sometimes refer to the effect a hotter world will have on this country’s fresh water as the other water problem, because global warming more commonly evokes the specter of rising oceans submerging our great coastal cities. By comparison, the steady decrease in mountain snow pack — the loss of the deep accumulation of high altitude winter snow that melts each spring to provide the American West with most of its water — seems to be a more modest worry. But not all researchers agree with this ranking of dangers.”

It goes on to point out that Stephen Chu, a Nobel laureate and the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, remarked that diminished supplies of fresh water might prove a far more serious problem than slowly rising seas. Chu suggests that 30 to 70 percent of the snowpack will disappear by the second half of this century and “There’s a two thirds chance there will be a [fresh water] disaster, and that’s in the best scenario.”

Ominous effects in the Southwest are becoming ever more evident. An ongoing drought has brought the flow of the Colorado River to its lowest level since measurements began 85 years ago. A report by the National Academies on the Colorado River basin “points to a future in which the potential for conflict” amongst the seven states using it remains ever present. Just as we are facing the prospect of “peak oil,” one report suggests that “the Colorado River basin is ‘past peak water,’ a milestone that means the river’s water supply will now forever trend downward.” The article also states that, “Lake Mead, the enormous reservoir in Arizona and Nevada that supplies nearly all the water for Las Vegas, is half empty, and statistical models indicate that it will never be full again.”

The threats of critical water shortages in the Southeast, including Florida, Georgia, and Alabama were outlined in last month’s article and continue to be heralded in press releases on almost a daily basis. The latest has the governor of Georgia, obviously either at his wits end, or out of his wits, pleading with the citizens of that state to pray for water. (Sure! That’ll do it.) Last month’s article mentioned the Ogallala aquifer situated beneath the High Plains states. Its depletion rate is eight times faster than its replenishment rate, threatening the huge amount of agricultural products produced in that area.

Another report states, “Even legendary water-rich areas such as the Great Lakes are struggling to cope with foreboding stresses on their water ecosystems. Analysts say more than $26 billion are needed to clean up and protect the Great Lakes water supply.” The beginning of November, MSNBC’s Internet site quoted Duke University political scientist David Rohde who predicted, “Population is surging in the arid West, where water shortages are chronic, and in the Southeast, where the drought has prompted spats between neighboring states.” The article continued, “The government projects that at least 36 states will face water shortages within five years because of rising temperatures and evaporation rates, lack of rain, urban sprawl, waste and overuse. Water levels of the three biggest Great Lakes - Superior, Huron, and Michigan - have been in steep decline since the late 1990s. The region's eight state legislatures are considering a compact that would prohibit sending water outside the drainage basin except to localities that straddle the boundary.”

A quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain states, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.” A number of states are already vying for position, anticipating they will unquestionably become involved in water wars in the future. Yet despite the obvious, neither the current administration nor the Congress has considered a comprehensive plan to deal with a fresh water crisis that is building toward a potential catastrophe.

On November 19 th, the front page of The New York Times headlined an article (part of a special series) reading “At China’s Dams, Problems Rise With Water.” Next month’s article (the last in the Water Series), will cover not only the calamitous state China’s water crisis, but also that of the entire international spectrum.