City of Seattle – Home heating fuel costs

City of Seattle – Fuel Costs

Notice the oil and electrical resistance heating systems. Even with a newer 80% efficient oil furnace, the cost of fuel is still more than double the cost of an older natural gas furnace. If I had a house with oil or resistance heat, buying a new gas furnace would be a no brainer. When paying $1,000 extra per year, it doesn’t take long to pay for a more efficient heating system.

But look at that high efficiency heat pump! It costs only $350/yr to heat the house. Because it’s a heat pump, it’s also an air conditioner. By switching to a heat pump,  A/C is included.

Using a heat pump is also the best choice for our environment. Here in Seattle, the vast majority (91% – of our electricity is generated from hydro. An electrical powered solution burns almost no fossil fuels and contributes almost zero pollutants to the environment.

If that still isn’t enough reason to choose a heat pump, consider the rapidly declining costs of solar power generation. The installed costs declined from 2009 to 2010 by 17%.  Costs have further declined by 11% in the first half of 2011. Solar now costs less than $6/W installed. Germany and Japan are further ahead, and installed costs there are under $4/W. In a few more years, residential solar will be the cheapest way to purchase energy. Having all electric appliances is preparation for that future.

Michigan is no stranger to tough times

From the book, The Forests of Michigan, describing the timber industry in Michigan from about 1880 to 1920:

The final lumber tally from the Michigan timber boom is staggering: approximately 161 billion board feet of pine (50 percent more than that produced in Wisconsin and Minnesota combined) plus 50 billion board feet of cedar, hemlock, and hardwoods. … The value of lumber output from Michigan’s pineries exceeded by a billion dollars the gold extracted in the 60 years that followed the rush to California in 1849 (Wells 1978).

After the boom, virtually nothing remained of that vast Michigan pinery whose end was believed by many to be unreachable.

When the forests were depleted, the lumber barons packed up and left with their fortunes.

The “Great Woods”

No one who has not gazed upon a beautiful, mirror-like lake, surrounded by an unbroken forest of tall pines and picturesque cedars and hemlocks, can form anything like a correct idea of the picture afforded the early settlers in the village of Clam Lake [later renamed to Cadillac]. It seems almost sacrilege that such beauty of scenery should have had to yield before the insatiable maw of the woodman’s ax and saw-mill’s glittering teeth, but the marts of commerce have no sentiment or romance, and natures loveliness must be yielded up to the demands of business, and the glory of her forests and the grandeur of its solitudes must be laid waste that man may reap fortunes out of what it has taken her centuries to produce. If the denuded lands had been turned into waving wheat fields there would have seemed to be come recompense for the ruthless slaughter of the forests, but to see the vast areas of lands covered with nothing but stumps and a stubby growth of bushes, makes one wish that the task of cutting away the great forests of pine had been much less rapidly done, so that the present and future generations could have had a glimpse of their royal beauty and sublimity. But how useless it is to moralize.

— John H Wheeler, History of Wexford County, Michigan, 1903, pp 287-288

Is a sin tax the best tax?

I think Christine Gregoire’s sin tax is a mediocre approach to an excellent idea. In addition to taxing poor consumption, the tax plan should also create incentives for healthy foods. With that in mind, I present the Washington State Health Improvement Tax.

Rather than a flat tax on products that are ‘sin’ items, tax products based on the level of Bad Things[*] in them. For example, candy and gum would be taxed on the grams of sugar included per serving. Cigarettes would be taxed on the levels of tar and nicotine. The tax would discourage ‘more sinful’ items because of increased cost, and it creates a market incentive for manufacturers to create healthier products.

It’s illogical to tax sugar-free gums that prevent tooth decay (a health benefit) the same as sugar rich ones that contribute to decay and diabetes. Low sugar gums should be taxed less, giving them an market advantage. Cigarettes with lower levels of tar and nicotine would be taxed less, encouraging smokers towards cigarettes that are less addictive and toxic. Fat, juicy premium steaks would be taxed more than lean cuts. Milk with growth hormones would cost more, making organic milk more cost competitive.

* Bad Things is defined as FDA regulated (food) items consumed by humans that cause poor health. The list should include, but not be limited to: Nicotine, saturated fats, trans fats, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, BGH, high levels of sodium, e coli, etc.

The tax scale should be progressive, so that the most unhealthy products are taxed the most. Dieticians and nutritionists should determine the level of ill health each ingredient causes and the tax implemented based on that.

For example, every gram of sugar above 10 per serving is taxed at the rate of $0.01 per gram. Every gram of saturated fat above 1 is taxed at the rate of $0.10 per gram. Each mg of sodium above 250 per serving would cost $0.01. Under this scale, a 2 oz. Snickers bar with 28g of sugar ($0.18) and 4g of saturated fat ($0.30) would cost an extra $0.48. A slice of Costco chocolate cake would cost an extra $0.20. A bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos would cost $0.80 more.

To make compliance easier, charge the tax at the wholesale level for prepackaged foods. Prepared foods would have to be taxed at retail.

An optional nicety would be providing incentives to encourage merchants to include nutrition summaries on checkout receipts, as well as how much they contributed to the WS-HIT by making unhealthy choices.

Piggyback the WS-HIT tax with an excess packaging tax that taxes products with high levels of waste packaging. Rather than a $0.01 per ounce tax on bottled water, make the tax progressive so that it encourages consumers to purchase products with less packaging. Christine’s tax does not encourage someone to purchase a gallon jug of water versus 8-8oz bottles. The 8-pack has significantly more packing waste and should be taxed more. The large bottles that the Culligan man delivers are reused and should not be taxed at all.

That’s a tax proposal I’d vote for. Would you?

On matters of life and death

While living in Texas, one of the few things I admired about the state was their use of the death penalty. One of the most powerful arguments for the death penalty is that ‘the system’ has fail safes in place and ‘no innocent person has ever been executed.’ Texas has shed innocent blood. The man’s fatal crime was being too poor to afford competent legal counsel. Can someone remind me why we still have the death penalty?

End of life counseling

Last year my step-father-in-law Bill died of Leukemia. Months later, Mitzi, his wife and my mother-in-law, died of colon cancer. What I think many people don’t know is that when medical personal arrive at a home, they have a legal  obligation to administer medical care. In these cases, that likely means attempting to resuscitate them. They both had terminal illnesses. Any further care would simply prolong their suffering.

After his remission period ended, Bill was ready to go. Being a doctor, he knew how his last days would play out. We discussed the matter and if he could have done so without legal consequences to his survivors, he would have opted to expedite the process. And while Mitzi wanted badly to live another 10 years, she did not want to spend her last 3 months literally starving to death. Protracting the process any longer than nature took would be nothing short of cruelty.

The last thing either would have wanted after their death was a squad of paramedics trying to resuscitate them (unwanted and unnecessary care), hauling them off to the hospital in an ambulance (more unnecessary care), and then storing them in the hospital morgue (more unnecessary care) awaiting their last wishes. To avoid that, Continue reading “End of life counseling”

health care envy

There’s an email that floats around a couple times a year. It details how wonderful the government health care plan is that our elected representatives get. The premise of the email is always the same: they should get the same crappy health care plans we do, so they’d have some incentive to fix them!

Now they’re proposing to make that same government health care plan available to everyone. Considering how rapidly prices are rising for my employer sponsored plan, how insanely expensive COBRA options are, and the complete absence of reasonable options for the self-employed head-of-household, having another option available sounds like a great idea.

If that option pressures private health care providers to become more competitive to survive, so much the better.

medicine: less is more

Annals of Medicine: The Cost Conundrum

…patients in higher-spending regions received sixty per cent more care than elsewhere. They got more frequent tests and procedures, more visits with specialists, and more frequent admission to hospitals. Yet they did no better than other patients, whether this was measured in terms of survival, their ability to function, or satisfaction with the care they received. If anything, they seemed to do worse.

It appears that even in medicine, the old adage, “less is more” rings true.

Most Americans would be delighted to have the quality of care found in places like Rochester, Minnesota, or Seattle, Washington, or Durham, North Carolina—all of which have world-class hospitals and costs that fall below the national average. If we brought the cost curve in the expensive places down to their level, Medicare’s problems (indeed, almost all the federal government’s budget problems for the next fifty years) would be solved. — (same article)


If this is true, it certainly explains the  current administrations incentive to tackle our nations health care system.