Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Taxes, Housing, Global Warming, and a Handbag

Indulge me for a moment: about six months ago I saw the PERFECT handbag in a store (ironically it's not on the website anymore). It was also €140. Definitely not an impulse buy--not that I make many of those. For six months, I dithered--spend the money and get a perfect bag, or just put up with schlepping my L.L. Bean backpack everywhere? Don't get me wrong, I love my L.L. Bean backpack. But there are only so many times you can terrify yourself into thinking that you've forgotten your wallet only to find it sitting smugly in the next pocket, or swear that the pen you just put in has to be there, before you start thinking that there has got to be a better way to manage your stuff.

I finally did get the bag. And like all good purchases, I wish I'd bought it sooner.

I'm not in any position to make any of these types of home changes, but they are all things I'd consider doing. Alas, none of these are as simple as making a draft-catcher or lowering your thermostat before you go to bed every night. Most of these choices for lowering your energy bill require a hefty investment, but if done right, they can dramatically lower utility bills--and for now, they come with tax incentives.

So it might seem like a no-brainer to install a turbine, or get that damn leak in the roof fixed. But let's be honest--it's a lot of money. If you've so far managed to escape the recession, you've probably hunkered down and aren't inclined to spend a ton of money on anything, much less installing a new water heating system. Fair enough, in my mind--it took me six months to decide whether or not to get my bag, so I can understand debating whether to sink the cost of a new car into a heating system.

You'll notice, throughout the slide show, that the cost of the technology is coupled alongside the amount you'll save, usually expressed as a percentage of which bills get slashed. Obviously, this means that in order to break even on a $2000 tax break on a geothermal heating system that costs $8000 to install, you'll have to stay in your home for as long as it takes to run up $6000 in heating bills (if you use heating for six months of the year, and each heating bill is $200--a tad high--that means at least five years).

Obama is currently proposing a similar investment in green tech--his budget proposal includes $59 billions alotted to the development of renewable energy. It's a huge amount of money, but the potential for savings--dramatically cutting back on imported oil (even if most of it does come from Canada), no longer having to buy the lives of coal miners, possibly revitalizing the economy--are equally huge.

Which is great, but at distinct odds with the ultimate goals of the housing plan: to enable (some) homebuyers to stay in their homes. This wouldn't really be an issue if most of the homes that are victim to foreclosures were in well-planned developments, but most of these homes are in that dreaded no-man's land called suburbia. Or worse, ex-urbia (who the hell comes up with these names?). You know what I mean: the types of neighborhoods populated by McMansions, where it's a 10-minute drive to anything, where playgrounds are deserted because kids are sitting on their rapidly-expanding fat asses playing Super Mario on their Wii and thinking they're getting a workout. These are the types of homes which are worthless, and not just because of economic factors that burst the housing bubble. They're worthless for the very same reasons that New York City real estate continues to remain high-priced: functionality. Or, in their case, lack thereof.

What I call "functionality" is best described as a well-planned neighborhood, where everything is conveniently located and where you don't have to drive to get everything. Big Box stores (i.e., Walmart or Costco) require huge parking lots, and thus tend to be far removed from any residential locale, as they're ugly. If they're far removed, then you have to drive to get there. If you're driving, then there's no such thing as a "quick trip" to pick up some milk that results in just milk (something I actually do on a regular basis--milk is heavy when you're on a bike). It becomes a trip that begins in milk and ends with "Well, as long as I'm here, I might as well pick up..." So you end up buying a ton more crap that you probably didn't really need, in order to fill up the trunk of a car that's too big because you don't feel safe traveling down the freeway in anything smaller than an Explorer (oh, remember the days when SUVs were cool?).

In other words, we have a case of schizophrenic goals: one is to save the environment, the second, to save a lifestyle that is one of the most environmentally unfriendly that I can think of. Cars are one of the biggest polluters around (as anybody unlucky enough to be caught sucking tailpipe can attest to) and while they may be handy for getting you to and from that big box store, they are one of the major reasons why the US hasn't gotten around to slashing CO2 emissions to where they need to be.

And where do they need to be? That depends on who you ask. I don't think we'll ever get around to pre-Industrial age levels, nor do I particularly cherish the idea of living in the eighteenth century. But it's safe to say that we'll need extraordinary measures to keep CO2 levels below critical. As the world's population grows, as developing countries move from the present participle to the past tense, their power needs will grow, too. So while we might very well be able to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by cutting back, that's not going to do a whole lot compared to a 40% increase by those who've just discovered the joys of the Tata Nano. ("Fuel efficiency" is one of those insidious phrases that make you feel good while continuing to contribute to a problem that wouldn't exist if you didn't buy the damn car to begin with, and if you're buying a car that small you might as well ride a bike)

We can't get somewhere without figuring out where we want to go, first. Obama made his presidency on the promise of being able to make those hard choices--let's see if he can.

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