Posted by: bkivey | 22 March 2012

Unexpected Support

Everyone likes validation. It satisfies the human need for social acceptance, and tells us that we’re not some crackpot spouting nonsense in the rhetorical wilderness. Because humans are tribal, we often have to associate with like-minded people in order to find social acceptance. Pre-internet, the major TV networks were the normative standard, and those whose thinking differed from the standard found themselves ostracized to some extent. Now, of course, there’s an online group for every conceivable interest, and about as many TV channels.

While it’s now very easy to avoid those whose thinking makes one uncomfortable, it’s useful and healthy to occasionally find out what others think. This not only broadens your outlook and gives insight into otherwise unfathomable opinions, but promotes creativity. It’s not inconceivable that someone you might not choose to hang out with might have a better idea about something than you do.

Regular readers of this blog know that I consistently read Willamette Week, the largest of the local ‘alternative’ newspapers. The editorial slant is well left of mine, but they do have interesting features, and often do a much better job reporting on local issues that the mainstream paper should be covering, but often doesn’t. I have cited the paper often and their stories have been the inspiration for a number of posts.They also put out very nice annual bar and restaurant guides.

The feature story in last weeks edition was Lies My Newspaper Told Me: Five Things You Are Wrong About. I thought the article might be on the evils of America, Republicans, capitalism, the Tea Party, conservatism, or any of the other  hobby horses the paper likes to beat. Imagine my surprise when the five ‘lies’ they expose are all causes near and dear to the Progressive heart. I’ve linked to the article, so I’ll just briefly go through them.

Residential Solar

My reaction here was Yes! I’m an energy professional, and I have a lot to say about residential solar power, not much of it good. The myth is that residential solar is a good deal for homeowners, because it ‘saves the planet’, and because it’s often heavily subsidized (read: paid for by others). As the article points out, even the subsidized installations are a financial disaster, primarily because the payback times often exceed the lifespan of the equipment. It’s like buying a car that will last 20 years but takes 40 years to pay off. What the article doesn’t mention, and most solar companies won’t tell you, is that the lifespan of the equipment isn’t infinite. Solar cells degrade over time, inverters (not cheap) have to be replaced, and if you want power when the sun isn’t out, you’re going to need batteries, which are expensive and will need replacement.

The article correctly points out that going solar is the last thing a homeowner should consider if they want to save on their power bill. There may be a case to be made for residential solar, but saving money isn’t it.

The Locovore Movement

As much as I like living in the Northwest, some things annoy the crap out of me. The self-congratulatory, self-righteous attitude of a lot of people here, and especially in Portland, are high on the list, and the locovore movement is a prime example. For those not familiar, this movement elevates eating locally grown food to some sort of moral obligation, because it’s good for the planet, supports local farmers, and keeps money in the community. I talked about this a bit in this post. I’m something of a food Philistine, in that I don’t care where my food comes from, as long as it’s reasonably wholesome and reasonably priced. Foe people that natter on about the ‘global village’ they seem awfully keen to make sure none of their money leaves the neighborhood.

The article makes the case against this movement by deflating the carbon reduction argument. It turns out that if someone were to eat vegan, and source all their food locally, the total annual carbon savings would come to less than the carbon emissions generated to fly two people round trip to the East Coast. I suppose if you grew all your own food, you could raise that figure a bit, but try that in a downtown apartment. As a coup de grace, the article points out the folly of his kind of casual environmentalism.

Hybrid Cars

Another Yes! moment. I’ve long thought that the benefits to hybrids were overblown, because 1) they’re resource intensive to manufacture, 2) they cost much more than dinosaur-burners of the same capabilities, 3) their gas mileage isn’t that great; there are some conventional cars that get comparable or better mileage, 5) the amortization schedule doesn’t pencil out, and 5) the increased complexity means more things to go wrong, and fixing/replacing them isn’t a trivial expense. Other than that, I think they’re a great idea.

The article focuses on what’s known as the Jevons paradox, which states that the more efficiently a resource can be used, the more the resource will be used. Relative to hybrids, this means that if someone knows they’re using less fuel to drive, they’ll drive more, obviating some or all of their savings. My major objection to hybrids comes from looking at the life-cycle costs. Primarily because of the manufacturing steps required for the batteries, and the disposal of same at end-of-life,  hybrids don’t fare well in the ‘green’ department. If you really want to drive with the lowest possible carbon impact, get a good used car with decent mileage.

Home Ownership

The prevailing wisdom is that it’s better to own than to rent. The usual argument is that you’re building equity (investing) with ownership, whereas rent money just keeps you from being homeless for another month. The article posits buying a house at the local median price versus investing in an S&P 500 index fund at the historic rate-of-return, and then looking at the results after 30 years. According to the article, you’d come out ahead if you invested in the stock market.

They do leave out some important adjustments. The mortgage interest deduction is completely ignored. Considering that for a 30-year fixed the interest will be the greater part of your monthly payment for the first 15 years, this is no small amount. There’s also the property tax deduction. When you go to cash out your stock investment, you’ll be taxed at the capital gains rate, and the US currently enjoys the highest such rate in the world. On the other hand, when you sell the house, a portion of the proceeds is shielded from taxation, even if you don’t buy another house.

Aside from the financial advantages of ownership, there’s the qualitative difference between the renting and owning experience. Unlike the nebulous benefits of  ‘saving the planet’, the advantages of ownership are apparent every time you walk in the door. Sorry, WW, I can’t agree on this one.

Multitasking With Cellphones

Four years ago, Oregon required the use of hands-free devices for cell phone use in cars. Phone-related deaths have dropped significantly. The problem is that hands-free gives drivers a false sense of security: if they aren’t physically holding the phone, they feel like they’re not as distracted, and thus, safer.

Except it turns out this isn’t so. The article cites a University of Utah study that showed no significant difference in the accident rate between drivers holding a phone and drivers yapping into the air. I can’t speak to this, but I have been a passenger in three vehicles where the driver was on the phone and put us in danger: twice by running a stop sign and once blowing through a red light. I’m not a fan of talking on the phone while driving, and I’ve had disagreements with bosses about this. If my phone rings and I’m behind the wheel, the call is going to voice mail.


There have been a number of alarmist articles of late talking about how warm the Winter was this year, and predicting dire consequences for the future. Weather isn’t climate, but we had a major snowstorm in the Willamette Valley yesterday, in fact, the heaviest snowstorm for the date ever recorded, and in the top ten for any month. I live a little north of the affected area, but I had to scrape two inches of ‘warm winter’ off the car this morning. The weather people blamed the storm on La Nina, which was a change from the usual hysterical references to ‘climate change’.

Whatever happened to just reporting the weather, without looking for an anthropogenic bogeyman in every event?

Let The Sun Shine

I have my own little seasonal marker in my office. Around the Spring equinox the sun gets high enough in the sky to clear the building in front of my window and shine right in my eyes. After a while it drops down behind the building and I can open the blinds again. This event goes on until the Fall, when it drops far enough down the sky to stay hidden all day. So the seasons are marked.


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