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.


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