The ethanol humbug

Best-selling investment author Bill Bonner is the founder and president of Agora Publishing, one of the world's most successful consumer newsletter companies. Owner of both Fleet Street Publications and MoneyWeek magazine in the UK, he is also author of the free daily e-mail The Daily Reckoning.

Bill Bonner
Published : Thu 17 Aug, 2006

So many humbugs; so little time!

We don't know where to begin. So we take up a small fraud – ethanol - as we work our way up to a bigger one.

Ethanol is a well-known boondoggle. But a great boondoggle it is, agreeable to several constituencies of parasites at once. The farmers like it because it boosts grain prices. The politicians like it because it gives them a chance to hand out other peoples' money while pretending to 'do something' about a major national problem. And all the fuzzy environmentalists, unripe greens and addled world improvers like it too; mostly because they are too lazy and thick to think about it very much.

Ethanol makes a wonderful public spectacle. It rests on a lie – that energy from grain is somehow better than energy that comes out of the ground. It progresses easily and quickly to farce – just read the news, dear reader. And it will end in disaster. But how? We have so far only imagined the billions of dollars lost...along with the billions of watts of energy squandered.

But along comes Lester Brown in US Fortune magazine, with a further plot twist. We always took Lester Brown for an idiot. But we haven't heard from him in so long, we can't remember why. Ah yes, now we recall that he is the author of endless tracts about the environment and the founder and president of something called the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. Yes dear readers. Not content with confining himself to merely one nation, he wants to write policy for the entire planet. A stupendous, a world-historical meddler. But on ethanol, Brown turns out to have a relatively sane view.

He writes that ethanol is not only a waste of money; if taken up widely, it would actually mean starvation for many of the world's poor people.

"The grain required to fill a 25-gallon tank (with ethanol) would feed one person for a year," he writes.

Once again, the cure is worse than the disease. If only the meddlers would take note.

The problem with the American way of life, adds our friend Byron King, is that few people can afford it. It requires a lot of energy. Now, you can get energy from grain by converting the energy of the sun - that makes plants grow - into liquid fuel and thence into energy to power a car or heat a house. But since the sun only has so much energy in it, you would have to use a lot of grain - and a lot of space to grow it - to produce the kind of energy that the average American consumes.

Of course, the American lifestyle was not built on energy from grain at all but on energy from the earth. Oil, according to most geologists, represents the condensed energy of many, many years' worth of sunshine, raising up many, many thousands of acres of grains and leaves which were subsequently packed down into the ground and stored for millions more years. But in the space of only a couple of lifetimes, we have used up these millions of years worth of natural inventory of saved-up solar energy. And what's left is getting more and more expensive - because there are more and people who want it - with more and more money to buy it.

And, the new buyers are mostly not American. So, while an American once grew up expecting to live with cheap energy his entire life, he now finds that he must compete with an Indian or Indonesian for it. Where he had gotten used to thinking about petrol as a kind of public utility, like electricity or postal service, now, with the price rising, he sees his way of life threatened.

The poor guy is doomed in a way. He will never be able to afford as much energy in the future as he is accustomed to using. And that will certainly mean a fall in his standard of living, but what he does not get is that it might not necessarily mean a fall in his quality of living. Europeans, for example, live on far less energy than Americans – and do so quite nicely. But the typical American has no eyes for that; for now, he only sees the price of fuel rising and demands that his elected officials 'do something about it,'...thus the humbug of ethanol.

But it is the lesser humbug.

The greater humbug is the currency in which the price of gasoline and ethanol is quoted. But, it is one that you, dear reader, are probably sick of hearing about, so we will pass on it today and go directly to our latest US bubble news:

"US House Sales Decline in 28 States," was the big story on Tuesday. Yesterday brought two follow-up reports from CNN Money. "Builders hit brakes" and "Home prices in the deep freeze."

And here we pause. And broaden our inquiry. We search for the roots of humbuggery and we have found one. Loose, sloppy, metaphors.

Builders do not hit brakes, they hit nails. Truckers hit brakes. A better headline would have been 'builders stop hitting nails on the head.' Or, 'builders hang up their tool belts.'

As for putting US home prices in the deep freeze, we find the idea absurd and unimaginable. The meat-packing industry might go into the deep freeze. Or maybe the ice-cream makers. But not home prices. Home prices might go 'down stairs,' or 'into the basement,' or 'down hill,' or perhaps "Winter Chill Comes Early...Home prices find they are not properly insulated" might be a better way to put it. But prices going into the freezer merely sounds ridiculous.

In the same vein, the metaphors used for describing the working of the economy works are tendentious: Economic growth speeds up...Fed opens the throttle...Industry powers up...manufacturing picks up steam. Interest rate cuts needed to fuel growth. Or, Fed puts on the brakes (those brakes again!)

The images reveal a monumental illusion; people think the economy is some vast machine that you can control as if it were a freight train. You want to go faster? Just open up the throttle! You want to slow down? Put on the brakes! It's so simple.

Once the metaphor takes hold of the popular mind, it leads to natural extensions…and unnatural conclusions. After all, if the economy were a machine, it could be easily controlled. Just pull the right levers and turn the right knobs. And if that were so, then if the economy slows down, it must be the fault of the man at the controls. Got a problem with the way your business is doing? It's the fault of the government. Losing your job? Inflation bother you? Well, talk to Ben Bernanke; he's the chief engineer on this track. That's why his photo is on the cover of magazines and newspapers. He's the guy who's supposed to be running this train.

Of course, it is all humbug; the economy is no more a machine that your editor is a hamster. Ben Bernanke does not control it as an engineer would control a train. Instead, like all world improvers, he clumsily meddles with it. He botches and bungles an organic, infinitely complex system, only improving things when he is undoing the damage left behind by previous meddlers.


Bill Bonner
The Daily Reckoning

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