The Congress sure does know how to cut into a fellow's social life.
The other week, the House passed an energy bill. A key goal of the bill is to subsidize government-favored energy alternatives by taxing oil companies another $16 billion. One of the House's favorite alternative fuels is ethanol, an alcohol made mostly from corn that can be mixed with gasoline to fuel automobiles.
The concept seems grand enough. Ethanol is something we can produce in America — conceivably it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil. It burns cleaner than pure gasoline — conceivably, that is good for the environment.
But ethanol has its downsides. For starters, lots of fossil fuels are required to produce it. Gas-burning tractors farm the fields that grow the corn. Lots of fuel is needed to fertilize, harvest and ship the corn. Then the corn has to be converted into alcohol, distilled and blended with gasoline. Because ethanol absorbs water, it can't be pumped through pipes — it has to be delivered by truck and train, which requires more fossil fuel.
Some argue, and this is a matter of great debate, that it takes as much energy to produce ethanol as ethanol creates — at the very least, ethanol is not the most efficient way to fuel our cars (gasoline is, which is why we're addicted to it).
But with the government heavily subsidizing its production — the house bill includes an additional $3.5 billion — a lot of folks are jumping onto the ethanol band wagon. That's causing all kinds of nutty shifts to occur in the marketplace.
Consider: Since ethanol is produced from corn, the demand for corn has increased significantly. The cost of popcorn, according to Reuters, has shot up 40 percent since 2006. Dairy products and beef cost more, too. This is because farm animals eat corn. The higher the cost to feed them, the higher the cost of ice cream and steak and other tasty goodies made from our friends the cows.
But here is where things have gotten really personal: ethanol is driving up the cost of adult beverages. Bourbon, which is made from 51 percent corn mash, is also shooting up in cost. According to Cox News, Jim Beam spent $10.3 million for 3.4 million bushels of corn in 2004. The same amount of corn will cost $14 million this year — an increase that can drive a man to drink.
German beer is more costly. In Europe, farmers are switching from barley to corn to cash in on government subsidies. Less barley equals higher costs. St. Pauli Girl — she left the beer gardens in favor of the church — has been praying for a price break ever since. Even tequila is going through the roof. Mexican farmers are torching their agave fields — they're destroying the succulent agave plants from which tequila is produced — and planting corn instead.
I'm in favor of alternative fuels. I am eager for America to end our addiction to foreign oils — I'm especially eager for us to stop pumping billions of dollars into countries that hope to use that dough to kill us. But can't we think this ethanol thing through before we cut into my personal life?
Few things are as enjoyable as a fine bourbon and smooth cigar at my favorite neighborhood pub — now this harmless experience is going to cost me plenty. And my old pal Jose Cuervo — his fine tequila makes one heck of a Margarita — has improved the spirits of more than one lady in my company, causing her to think me way more charming and witty than I really am. That's going to cost me plenty more, too.
Proponents of the energy bill say it will wean us from foreign oil and reduce energy costs. Opponents say the exact opposite will occur. But I think the bill's real intent is to make us date fewer women and drink less alcohol.
Like I said, the Congress really knows how to cut into a fellow's social life. I'm shocked its approval rating stands at only 29 percent.
I can't believe it's so high.