Butterfly Wings, Congressional Stupidity, and Mideast Revolution

Global instability caused by our government's incompetence.

When Sir Isaac Newton published his laws of planetary motion, jubilant writers proclaimed that the movement of the heavenly bodies could now be predicted with precision.  Given an understanding of initial conditions, the idea went, future positions of everything in the heavens could be predicted like clockwork.  People even spoke of the "Watchmaker God," who'd wound the universe up like a clock spring and left it to run by itself.

Alas, the solar system didn't turn out to be that predictable.  It later turned out that the positions of a mere three celestial bodies such as the sun, the moon, and the earth could be calculated only approximately.  This calculation is so difficult that it became known as the "three body problem," and hasn't been solved exactly to this day.

The discipline of chaos theory arose in response.  Chaos theory deals with systems whose future is highly dependent on initial conditions.  Many systems such as the earth's weather show wildly different futures depending on small differences input values.

Since millions and millions of weather parameters can't be measured with enough accuracy anyway, the theory goes, such systems can't be predicted even if they ought to behave as rationally as planets in their orbits.

Butterfly Wings and Ethanol

When a ball is put on top of an inverted bowl, it can roll off in wildly different directions depending on precisely how it's placed, down to the microscopic level of tiny irregularities on the surfaces and undetectable gusts of breeze.  This extreme sensitivity of many systems to starting conditions has been called the "butterfly effect."  The most popular metaphor is the observation that the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil could cause a hurricane in Florida.

While that sort of outcome is not likely, in our interconnected world we see extreme responses to what look like unconnected events.

Consider the legal requirement that American oil refiners mix corn-produced ethanol into our gasoline.  Making ethanol from corn is so expensive that having a guaranteed market isn't enough; ethanol producers demand, and get, subsidies on their product and high taxes on lower cost ethanol from other countries.

Both Al Gore and Bill Clinton have sheepishly conceded that there is no environmental merit in converting food to fuel.  Both of them admitted that they supported corn-based ethanol to gain votes in corn producing states.  Their admission that ethanol use in cars is a total boondoggle came a bit late, however, as the industry had enough money to lobby to keep its subsidies going even in the new, more Republican Senate.

It should surprise no one that food prices went up once about 20% of American's corn crop was converted into a rather inefficient automobile fuel.  What seemed to surprise most people, however, was that higher prices led to starvation in other countries:

What's amazing is that this stupid wrongheadedness and greed is now directly leading poor people starving.  That's right: our government's wrongheaded policies are causing an artificial and avoidable famine worldwide.

Higher food prices inconvenience Americans, but lead to starvation, rioting, and other disorders in other countries:

Alas, the world's poor are in a far more parlous state with food riots now sparking in Afghanistan,Haiti, Mexico, and elsewhere around the globe.  Where once immigrants to the United States would send money home to their third-world-dwelling relations, they now send care packages of foodstuffs simply unavailable there.  In fact, no less than the Secretary-General of the United Nations has officially declared a global crisis.

What triggered the riots which drove the rulers of Tunisia into exile?  A food vendor set himself on fire partly to protest being hassled by the police but also to protest high food prices.  Other people who'd been having trouble feeding themselves joined the protests, brought down the government, and the rest is history that hasn't been written yet.

Although the riots which brought down the government of Egypt were triggered by the successful riots in Tunisia, they gained a great deal of impetus and fervor from the fact that food prices in Egypt have been rising ever since America started burning corn instead of exporting it.  People who're worried that they won't get enough to eat have little to lose by rioting.

It Goes Beyond Ethanol

In addition to converting corn to ethanol and raising food prices, our government has engaged in "quantitative easing" which deliberately reduces the value of the dollar.  Since food is priced in dollars, dollars buy less food, so food prices go up.  Although our officials will never admit it, their measures to manipulate our currency have also contributed to the rioting in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

As Peter Pan put it, "This has all happened before and it will all happen again."  Back during the Carter administration, the US Treasury drove down the value of the dollar in a futile effort to help cure the economic malaise of the Carter years.  As with today, this caused food prices to rise all over the world, which led to riots in a number of countries.

The most severe riots which were amplified by unhappiness with the government led to regime change in a country in the Middle East.  That country was Iran.  We've lived with the consequences of Carter's ill-advised meddling with our currency ever since.

When will they ever learn, oh, when will they ever learn.

- Chorus of Where Have All The Flowers Gone, Pete Seeger, 1961

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

" We've lived with the consequences of Carter's ill-advised meddling with our currency ever since..."
..and just so have the Egyptians lived with Reagan's support of Mubarak, which you fail to mention.
With this new projected budget of 3700 billion and a deficit of 1700, why is it Republicans can only come up with 60 billion to cut?
Easy:-- it's called cowardice.
Like your mention of the corn subsidies, the politicians have nothing to lose... it's not their money anyway.
It is only when we taxpayers are either less passive about our life's efforts being stolen, or we vote out ALL the statists in power.

February 28, 2011 3:48 PM

"why is it Republicans can only come up with 60 billion to cut?
Easy:-- it's called cowardice."

ding ding ding! Spot on.

February 28, 2011 4:13 PM

Were people starving last year when corn was $3.50?

Look on the bright side. The government won't be paying corn farmers any LDP (direct subsidy) payments anytime soon! Isn't that what everyone wanted?

February 28, 2011 4:19 PM

No way~! Thanks Mr P.
Does anyone know how much liters of diesel it takes to produce a liter of ethanol?
the energy difference is about 1.4 : 1, meaning if the ethanol produced is less than 1,4 times the diesel used, it's a loss: and I ain't talkin' to the taxpayer, but to a producer who is seeking a profit.
PS Liters, gallons, whatever...

February 28, 2011 7:37 PM

Some studies have found that ethanol requires six times as much energy input as you get out of the resulting ethanol. I have a feeling it's not quite THAT bad, but clearly it's no solution to our energy needs.


February 28, 2011 10:17 PM

@ Irvinx
"the energy difference is about 1.4 to one"
I've been telling people about that since they started puting it in our gas but they told me I was crazy. "pay no attention to the man behind the curtin" "shut up and go back to sleep like a good little sheep"!

March 1, 2011 8:28 AM

Governments lie by reflex.


March 1, 2011 7:07 PM

@Julia .. it was once pointed out to me that there is no government, only individuals posing as such.
In that light then we might conclude that there are those who are doing the lying... and their motivation can then be subject to scrutiny

March 1, 2011 9:36 PM
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