The Air-Conditioning 'Crisis'
August 9, 2000
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A story in the national section of today's Times runs under the headline "Fuel Bills Empty Poor Pockets, Left Unfilled by Boom." The story purports to describe a "crisis" of "millions of low-income Americans, the rural and urban poor alike, who are untouched by the flourishing economy and, as a result, unprotected from the effects of rising fuel and utility prices."
This story line starts falling apart almost immediately. First, by way of comparison, the article claims that "The middle class and the affluent -- despite significant increases in the cost of gasoline, heating fuels and electricity after years of relatively low prices -- in the main have not changed their driving habits or let their homes become uncomfortably warm." This sentence stops the reader for a minute, until it dawns that the energy "crisis" for the poor at issue here involves not heating homes in the winter but air-conditioning them in the summer.
So, for instance, we hear about the "vulnerable" poor folks in San Diego, where electric bills have more than doubled this summer. The truth is, San Diego is on the beach and has a relatively moderate climate as a result of the ocean breezes. Even the Northeast is having one of the mildest summers on record. Why should taxes from hardworking people go to people who don't work but want to live in air-conditioned comfort? Smartertimes.com grew up in a house without air conditioning, and when it got hot, we opened the windows and we sweated. Or we had a cold drink. We didn't go running to the government for assistance in solving our "crisis."
Now, sure, there are some climates, like South Florida, where the summer heat is oppressive and there are lots of elderly persons who are too frail to work or to withstand the heat. It might make sense for the government, or energy companies, to help them out a bit with their electric bills.
The story concedes that there is already a $1.1 billion a year federal program to help poor people with their heating bills, but it's not clear whether the program covers air conditioning, which seems to be the crisis of the moment. Also unclear is whether there is anyone who is eligible for the program but who is not being served; there is no mention of a waiting list for the program. The story says the budget for the program has shrunk, but that may just be because fewer people need the help in the midst of an economic boom.
The article is accompanied by a picture of an Iowa couple that claims it will starve to pay for gas and heating oil. "We can't get all the food we want," the man is quoted as saying. "We will probably cut back more on food." This is undeniably sad, but there is a food stamp program in America that prevents people from starving. The man is receiving a $1,300-a-month disability check from the government, and he got $300 last year from the federal fuel assistance program. He owns land and is building a house on it, spending $300 a month on "building materials," the article tells us at the very end. Why should the taxes of hardworking Americans go to subsidize this guy's air conditioning bill so that he can instead spend the money on building himself a new house? The Times story doesn't even come close to providing an answer; it doesn't even quote anyone who might raise that question. Instead, it relies on sob stories from poor people who want more government help, and it adds some quotes from the government officials who are making the case for expanding the budgets of their welfare programs.
Gore, Undershirtless: This, from today's lead news story: "Despite sweltering 97-degree heat that left Mr. Gore's drenched shirt stuck to his back (Mr. Lieberman wore an undershirt), the Democratic team got exactly the images of family and rectitude that it wanted out of today's event." This is a sort of roundabout way of suggesting that Al Gore was not wearing an undershirt. Maybe for the next hot-weather event he could borrow one from Mr. Lieberman to promote that image of rectitude.
Gore, Cynical: When the Republicans had black and Hispanic speakers at their convention, the Times derided it as a parade of props. Much less of a fuss is being made over Mr. Gore's use of identity politics. This fascinating anecdote, for instance, is buried midway through the inside section of a story in today's Times: "Last week, as interest was peaking over Mr. Gore's progress, his campaign let it be known that one of his finalists was a woman, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, even though she had already said she would turn down the job, and even though one person involved in Mr. Gore's screening process said that she had not been under serious consideration for some time."
Mr. Gore is playing the same double-edged game with Mr. Lieberman on the Jewish issue. On one hand, the Times reports, Mr. Gore ordered that "no steps were to be taken to gauge public reaction to Mr. Lieberman's religion. "That's not part of my thinking. I exclude that," Mr. Gore is reported to have said. Yet at the same time, the Gore-Lieberman team is clearly exploiting the vice presidential candidate's religion in an attempt to create a John F. Kennedy- or Jackie Robinson-like historic excitement. "Senator's faith becomes part of strategy," the Times subheadline aptly puts it today.
Safir the Jew: In the Lieberman Jew-phoria yesterday, the Times got carried away and, in a story on the resignation of police commissioner Howard Safir, noted on the front page that Safir was New York's first Jewish police commissioner. Today's story on Safir's resignation appropriately omits any reference to his religious background. Perhaps the Times is belatedly remembering its 1986 editor's note stating that "the race, religion or ethnic background of a person in the news, under the Times' policies, may be specified only if it is pertinent to the news, and in such a case, the relevance must be demonstrated in the article."
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