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March 14th, 2012 MARTY SMITH | Cover Story
 

Lies My Newspaper Told Me

Five things you are wrong about.

lede_drknow_3819ILLUSTRATION: Hawk Krall
Illustrations by Hawk Krall

The scummiest election season, like, ever, is in full swing and the level of American civil discourse is at an all-time low (slut-shaming, anyone?). It seems like it’s never been a better time to talk about lies. 

Brazen untruths, glaring factual errors, total failures of basic reasoning—we expect to see these when we look east and behold some of the more mendacious windbags who dominate our national stage. But surely it can’t happen here—not in sensible, forward-looking, well-intentioned Portland? We try harder!

Don’t be so sure: Sometimes it’s good intentions (and a little touch of mutually supportive groupthink) that lead us to believe the dumbest stuff. 

Here, then, for your edification (not that you’ll appreciate it) are five uniquely Portland whoppers. Most of them are the product of good intentions rather than bad faith, but they’re BS all the same.

It may seem like I’m picking more on liberal sacred cows than conservative ones. There are three reasons for this:

First, this story turns on good intentions. There’s not much to say about those who don’t even pretend to have them. 

Second, everyone already knows right-wing numbers don’t add up. What am I gonna do, waste ink proving that, yes, the Holocaust really did happen? 

Finally, even if I did try to make these points, most Republicans wouldn’t understand them unless I wrote really, really, slow.

Without further ado, then: five things you’re probably wrong about. You’re welcome.


HOME SOLAR IS THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE

The claim: The future is now with your new home solar photovoltaic array! Away with the cash-sucking tedium of stratospheric electric bills—generate your own power, live off the grid, and step into a carbon-neutral tomorrow filled with jet packs and spandex bodysuits!

Why it’s bullshit: Portland loves solar. In 2007, we became one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s first “Solar America Cities.” In 2009, when we won a DOE Special Projects Award for solar initiatives, Energy Trust’s Residential Solar Project Manager Lizzie Rubado boasted, “Portland is a local and national leader in innovative clean energy strategies.”

The shining vision of limitless, clean electricity for all is a great dream, and the sooner we get there, the better. But if your electric bill is high, home solar is the last thing you should be trying, not the first. Of all the ways to shave kilowatts off your planet-destroying personal power allotment, putting in a home photovoltaic array is easily the least efficient.

You might assume this is because Portland isn’t exactly the buckle of the sun belt. After all, solar panels are no good in the rain, right? It turns out, though—at least according to Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability figures—that the Rose City, with its long, cloudless summer days, receives about the national average in sunshine over the course of a year. The real devil is in the details.

Let’s do the math. Say you spring for a respectable-sized 3-kilowatt array. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability estimates you’ll be able to generate 3,000 kilowatt hours per year with it, for an annual savings of $327. 

Not bad. Unfortunately, the bureau also estimates the installation will cost you about $8,000 per kilowatt, or $24,000. Ouch! Lucky for you, I like your face, so I found a local solar company that says it can do a 3kW rig for $17,000. (I’m trying to work with you here.)

At that bargain-basement price, your solar array will pay for itself in just under 52 years, a figure which doesn’t exactly scream “cost-effective.”

But wait! The feds, the state and Energy Trust of Oregon all offer big incentives and rebates for your home solar installation. According to one provider, after rebates you can get your share of the cost down to just $2,300, transferring the extreme financial shittiness of this deal to society at large. (Thank God we aren’t blowing this money on stupid things like schools and medical care.)

The theory behind this, as I understand it, is that global warming is such a threat that carbon-neutral energy is worth any price. Which is true as far as it goes: The less carbon dioxide we pump out, the more likely we are to survive the next century.

That said, for the vast majority of Portlanders, there are far better ways than a home PV array to reduce carbon emissions.

To get to the point where a home PV array makes sense, you should have already completed a home-energy audit, axed any energy-hogging appliances and altered wasteful habits. We’re talking about folks who’ve pared down their energy use to less than $20 per person per month. If you’ve done all that, and you’re ready to take that final step toward energy self-sufficiency, go for it.

As for the rest of you, all I ask is this: Before you stick the rest of us with the $14,700 tab for your putatively planet-saving home power plant, try putting on a fucking sweater first.


EATING LOCAL WILL SAVE THE EARTH

The claim: The sprawling carbon footprint of long-haul produce will destroy us all. By eating only locally grown food items—reducing our “food miles”—we can make feeding ourselves almost totally carbon-neutral!

Why it’s bullshit: Locavorism is one of Portland’s most identifiable trends—we’ve been tagged with it in The New York Times and skewered for it on Portlandia.

To some extent, this is fine. If you want to eat a $9 tomato because it supports local farmers and keeps your dollars in the community, knock yourself out—though for consistency’s sake you should probably seek out all locally made products just as assiduously.

It’s mainly the idea of locavorism and food miles that’s overblown. While there’s an environmental price to be paid for transporting any cargo over a long distance, this one’s a drop in the bucket.

Check it: If you’re a typical Oregonian, you’re personally responsible for 11 tons of carbon emissions every year. (That beats the national average of 17 tons, though that’s more due to Oregon’s mild climate than any great virtue on your part.)

Estimates vary as to just how much of that 11 tons is related to the food and drink you consume. For the sake of argument, we’ll take the highest estimate available, 20 percent. (This figure is from the book Low Carbon Diet, not exactly a Heartland Institute propaganda pamphlet.) According to a Carnegie Mellon University study, food miles compose 11 percent of that. So food transport is, at most, about 2 percent of your carbon impact. 

If, by assiduous locavorism, you manage to cut that figure in half, you’ll save the planet 220 pounds of greenhouse misery. Congratulations!  

Unfortunately, this is chump change in the carbon wars. If you could manage to go vegan, you’d save a lot more: 3,200 pounds every year. If you and your spouse could forgo that flight back East for Christmas, you could save 4,000 pounds of atmospheric carbon.

Finally, if the two of you could manage to have just one less child, you could hit the carbon jackpot: a full 1.7 million pounds of carbon emissions saved over the non-life of the non-kid you didn’t have—and that’s not even counting all the non-grandkids.

In short, you could make a real dent in your environmental impact by making real lifestyle changes. But that stuff is hard!

And that’s precisely the point. The locavore myth anesthetizes your environmental conscience, suggesting that reducing your environmental impact is as simple as switching your brand loyalty from one product to another, the way you might switch from Coke to Pepsi.

Like a lot of around-the-edges environmentalism, greenhouse locavorism holds out the false promise that you can save the Earth simply by buying a slightly more expensive kind of food that—completely coincidentally—also happens to be more delicious.

It’s much more difficult than that. If you really cared about the Earth, you’d spend your evenings alone and childless, sobbing quietly in a darkened room, like me.


PORTLAND’S HYBRID-CAR HABIT WILL SOLVE OUR CARBON WOES

The claim: Portland’s status as the No. 1 city for hybrid vehicles puts us in the vanguard of a movement that, soon, will dial back carbon emissions to pre-industrial levels. We can save the world from greenhouse doom while darting around in GPS-enabled comfort!

Why it’s bullshit: In 2010, the most recent year for which I could find figures, nine out of every 1,000 Rose City households had bought a hybrid in the past year—the highest per-capita rate in the nation. And what could possibly be wrong with that? Why not go easy on ol’ Mother Gaia with a hyper-efficient car? 

Unfortunately (and I hate to be such a consistent downer, I really do), it’s far from clear that your hyper-efficient car makes life much easier for Mother Gaia after all, due to a well-accepted economic concept called the Jevons paradox.

In 1865, this geezer named William Jevons noticed that every time a new innovation came along to get more energy out of the same amount of coal, coal use actually went up. Jevons realized that increasing efficiency reduces cost, reduced cost leads to increased demand, and increased demand leads to increased consumption.

This is also called the “rebound effect,” and here’s a real-world example. (I hate to admit this one, since I’ve been going around like the avenging angel of insincere environmentalism, but here goes.)

In my house, probably like yours, some lighting fixtures have CFLs, and some have old-school incandescent bulbs. So, before I leave, I go from room to room, making sure all the incandescents are shut off. The CFLs, though, I let burn—just in case, you know, the cat wants to read or something. Anyway, they’re only like 13 watts, so what the hell, live a little!

The CFLs’ lower operating costs, coupled with the Jevons paradox and the fact that I’m an asshole, means I end up using more electricity than you’d expect and it eats up some, if not all, of the energy savings I should be realizing. 

If the Jevons paradox applied to hybrid cars, we’d expect to see folks driving more, or faster, or less efficiently or all three. Sure enough, a 2009 study by an insurance-industry group found that hybrid owners were driving as much as 25 percent more miles than their all-gas counterparts, and getting more traffic tickets.

And that’s just the direct rebound—don’t forget the indirect effects! For example, now that your commute is so much cheaper, maybe you’ll move to a huge, ugly, carbon-belching house in the suburbs.

Some argue that the rebound effect extends to other wasteful things—taking a trip, eating a steak, building a robot army—you might do with the money you save on gas. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s certainly true you can’t be trusted.


HOME OWNERSHIP: YOUR BEST INVESTMENT!

The claim: Don’t be a chump! With Portland rents rising—we’re the second-tightest rental market in the country—you should be making a monthly mortgage payment instead. For the same effort, you can build equity and wealth, while stupid renters might as well be burning their stupid money in an ashtray.

Why it’s bullshit: Well, let’s do the math. Let’s say you buy a home for $225,000, the current median price in Portland. You put your life’s savings of $25,000 down on a 30-year, 4.5 percent note (we’ll generously assume your sketchy ass can somehow get an interest rate this good). Your monthly payment, including property tax and mortgage insurance, is now $1,250—a little more than rent, but hey: You’re building equity! 

Assuming (a) that you don’t have a coronary from the stress of coming up with this sum every freaking month, and (b) that your place appreciates at the historic average annual rate of 6 percent, after 30 years, you’ll own a pile worth $1.35 million. Not a bad nest egg—and best of all, you didn’t make some other bastard rich by pouring money down the rent rathole!

I’ll bet you’re pretty pleased with your wrinkly old self right about now. After all, if you’d just been paying rent this whole time, you’d have nothing to show for it, right? Zero, zip, nada! It looks like your shrewd choice of home ownership netted you a cool $1.3 million profit.

Not so fast, Scrooge McDuck. The reason you have a nest egg isn’t because houses are magic, it’s because you’ve been paying the going rate for housing plus a premium (the difference between your mortgage payment and market-rate rent) to build investment value. You have money because you’ve been investing the whole time.

Let’s examine the opposite case: You rent for the current Portland average of $870 a month. Instead of putting that $25K down on a house, you drop it into an index fund. (An index fund, for those who don’t know, is a low-fee, highly diversified investment vehicle that’s like buying shares of, say, the entire S&P 500 at once. It’s basically the most generic, vanilla stock-market investment you can make.)

Now, you take the extra $380 a month you’re not spending on the mortgage premium and pay it faithfully into the same fund for the next 30 years. Don’t forget to kick in another $100 a month for all the money you’re not spending on maintenance and repairs (I think most homeowners would agree that this is a conservative sum).

The S&P 500 has returned an average of 10.27 percent annually for the last 78 years, so let’s assume you can get a 10 percent rate of return. (Some years will be better and some worse, but over a few decades these variations will smooth out.)

Fast forward to 2042: You now have a nest egg of $1,425,000—the same amount the homeowner netted, plus an extra $75,000 to blow on space-coke and replicant hookers. In the meantime, you were free to get fired, move without regard to real-estate market conditions, and make your investment payments a day late without becoming homeless. 

Sure, this example contains a lot of ballparking, and it’s certainly possible that the stock market might not perform as well as you hope. Then again, I’m pretty sure I could find some folks who’d say the same about the real-estate market. The point is, neither strategy is significantly better than the other.

Portlanders aren’t stupid (OK, a lot of us are, but whatever). Maybe our rental market is tight because we’ve figured out that buying a house isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


HANDS-FREE CELLPHONES MAKE MULTITASKING EFFORTLESS!

The claim: Hang up and drive? No need when you’ve got a legal-in-Oregon hands-free cellphone! In 2008, state law changed requiring that drivers could not talk on cellphones unless they used hands-free devices. As a consequence, the law saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives! Four years in, we can now conclusively say: bravo, Oregon!

Why it’s bullshit: First, the good news: By all accounts, the drop in cellphone-related traffic fatalities that results after a state institutes a hands-free law is real. A study recently released by UC Berkeley touts an impressive 47 percent drop in cellphone-related deaths subsequent to that state’s ban.

So, non-hands-free cellphone use gets banned, cellphone-related traffic fatalities drop—yay! The system works! The trouble is, the bans achieve their goal more or less by dumb luck, and they’re almost certainly a lot less effective than they could be. 

Here’s the problem: Time and again, lab studies of drivers have shown that talking on the phone while driving is just as distracting whether you’re holding the handset to your ear or using a hands-free kit. A University of Utah study found “no significant differences in the impairments caused by these two modes of cellular communication.” (For what it’s worth, MythBusters found the same.)

If talking hands-free is no safer than talking with a phone in your hand, why on earth would a hands-free law make a difference? By preventing some, but not all, cellphone use in the car, the law prevents some, but not all, cellphone-related accidents. The law works exactly as well as would a law banning all cellphone use on odd-numbered days, or in months with an “r” in them.

It’s great that the hands-free law manages to save lives. If that’s our goal, though, it sure seems like an outright ban would save a lot more.


A popular complaint about the media is that we never take a stand. We report on a given issue—say, whether or not the Earth is flat—by giving all sides of the argument equal weight, then throw up our hands as though the actual truth is unknowable with some mealy-mouthed headline like, “Views on Earth’s Shape Differ.”

Say what you will about this story, it calls a globe a globe. So put down that pitchfork, douse that torch and relax—if you simply must live in a world where you only read things you agree with, the Internet’s that way. In the meantime, I stand behind my story. The fact I’m standing behind it from an undisclosed location somewhere in Mexico shouldn’t alter your admiration for my principles. 

 
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