Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Betraying the Planet? Betraying Ourselves.

If anyone wonders why the global climate change debate hasn't already been won, all they need to do is look at Paul Krugman's column on June 29th, titled "Betraying the Planet" to understand why. For all the analysis of global warming issues and attempts to debunk the other side's arguments, they continually forget one thing: winning a public political debate isn't about facts, it is about audience adaptation.

This is where the right has clearly won the debates over the years. As I have private conversations with political consultants on both sides of the aisle, those on the left talk as if all you have to do is present the facts to the people and they will fall in line. The consultants I have talked to on the right are far more direct privately but all say they will deny it publicly when they say that most Americans just don't have a clue about policy analysis or issues, so they take an issue, find some value for people to link it to, and then run on that value on the issue. They don't even attempt to create a serious policy discussion.

With the exception of Barack Obama, who has been able to simplify complex issues for people to understand without losing the attention of the people or the basic nuances of the issues, almost no one else has had success with that approach. While I wish it was easy for people to do it so that we could all talk in terms of policy, the reality is there is a reason he reads his speeches off a teleprompter as much as he does: taking the complex and communicating it to the average American in a meaningful way is just not easy. As a matter of fact, it is just plain hard.

While my conservative friends often will say the average American isn't smart enough to deal with it, that is why we elect representatives; I am not that pessimistic. It isn't that people aren't smart enough. It is that given everything in our average day from a full work day, making breakfast and dinner, finding time to exercise, pay bills, spend time with the kids or our significant other, cleaning and yardwork, and everything else we have to do (including spending time in front of the television), it just doesn't leave a lot of time to understand the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations and conflicts, much less the very nuanced science of global climate change. Americans can understand it for the most part, we just don't have time.

So when Krugman refers to the denial of global climate change because "they don't like the political and policy implications of climate change", he actually needs to address that core issue instead of simply glossing it over and dismissing the politicians and pundits of the right. They clearly have a following, and they clearly have some support considering the applause Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia got according to Krugman, and the ratings that Rush, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity get.

At its core, their dismissal of global climate change as a hoax is part scientific (yes, I did say it) and part psychological. From the scientific side, when a paradigm in a field is put forth and starts to take over, it is the responsibility of researchers to test the paradigm. They start with the basics and they move to areas that are even simply plausible but not necessarily true in their testing in their attempts to debunk the paradigm. In other words, it is the job of scientists to debunk global climate change by testing it even with the improbable.

Thus, when you hear of researchers theorizing about things like solar flares, planetary alignments, polar shifts, and many other of the "it is a hoax" crowd ideas that are being shouted, part of it is actually science testing the paradigm. However, they spout it as if it is a factual rebuking of global climate change when that is not what the scientists are saying at all. Anyone who has ever read a journal article and then read the popular media reporting of the study knows what I am referring to.

The second part is psychological. If global climate change is true, the scientists and politicians are really saying that it is our own fault that we may be about to die as a species. Think about that for a minute. Parents live for years and years in denial of the roles they may play in the death of their children or a loved one if they had some part in it. Imagine the mother who let her 16 year old drink and he ends up dying in a drunk driving accident partying with friends. The burden is heavy and there is a very real psychological desire to deny it. Now, imagine that burden multiplied by the population of the planet if the worst case extinction scenarios actually played out. That is a lot of guilt. That is a tough pill for anyone to swallow.

But then the climate change crowd goes even further when they speak of the "death of the planet". They try to create enough guilt to get people to give up and act, but why should they? The climate change people just gave them an easy out. The planet has had much hotter centuries and much colder ones. Species have gone extinct and continue to do so, but the planet remains. This one extra step to try to guilt people gave them an easy out. We may die, but the planet won't.

If scientists are right, we have had many cycles like this where the large species have gone extinct but smaller ones have survived and evolved into what we have today. That gives them their easy out: "See it is a cycle and the planet will survive it" they say. And that gives them their "ah ha! You are using hyperbole, not facts" so you undermine your own credibility.

If Krugman and the climate change crowd kept it simple, they would get much further. Basic points:

* MIT researchers had put forth conservative estimates of a 4 degree rise by the end of the century. It is appearing they dramatically underestimated the number and have revised it to a 9 degree rise for our future generations.

* Yes, there have been cycles in the past. Unfortunately, these heat cycles have often killed many of the species on the planet. Predominantly the ones that were at the top of the food chain, not the bottom.

* Humans have impacted climate change by making it happen faster. Yes, it may have happened without us, but it is happening faster with us. Why does that matter? We need time to adapt. They anticipate that climates will change dramatically such that what is East Texas today may be Illinois in the future.

Now, it is easy to say "hey, East Texas isn't so bad", it isn't easy to move the farms of Kansas and Iowa to Minnesota and Wisconsin when malls, major cities, businesses, and homes all occupy what would become needed farmland to feed America, much less to export. Moving a farm north by 2 to 3 states isn't as easy as say relocating a family hardware store.

The result will be a dramatic decline in the amount of food that is produced globally. In the 1800s, that wouldn't have been too bad for two reasons: 1) most of the world farmed or provided their own food (no, Kroger and Super Target wasn't there to feed the founding fathers), and 2) the population was far, far less than it is today. With a massive decline in food comes a lot of death and chaos from societal breakdown as people try to survive without food because we no longer live on farms and have a lot more people to feed.

Whether that climate change is man made or natural, Americans will need to be able to provide their own energy source. That is why an energy bill that promotes things like micro power generation through solar and wind energy on homes is a good idea. They may not be able to rely on a grid. It will also slow climate change emissions.

Americans will need to be able to have more local and adaptable crops with more flexible farming methods. That is why local sustainable agriculture projects that use less toxins in farming and build local co-ops that are more adaptable to localized farming conditions as they change are a good idea. Large corporations farming only in optimal areas will be less able to adapt to major climate change globally than localized farmers.

And slowing climate change emissions may help slow the rate of change and it may not. But we owe it to our people, not our planet, to do what we can to buy every day of adaptation time that we can. Krugman may not realize it, but our planet will survive climate change this time and probably many more times in the future. The question is will humans survive, and if they do, how many billions will die and what will be lost in society in the chaos of change if we don't do everything we can to adapt.

Climate change is real. Man made or nature, it exists and it is coming. Take the blame, don't take the blame, it really doesn't matter. It will come regardless of whether we do. The question is how bad to we really want to preserve our way of life. If we want to preserve it, we better start finding ways to buy time and adapt now, because tomorrow may be too late.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Taking On the "Evil" that is Wal-mart

Everyday, I look down my list of friends on Facebook to see what their comments are. Tonight, as I scanned the list, I saw this comment, "one does not simply walk into wal-mart,... there is evil there that does not sleep." Sometimes, I wonder what is this great "evil", but I think Southpark addressed the key to Wal-mart's "evil" long ago. Instead, I think there is a better approach to dealing with Wal-mart. Shopping there.

I know, I know, it sounds like it is buying into Wal-mart's plan, but is it really? To be honest, I do shop for some things at Wal-mart, but things like produce and especially meat, not so much. I would rather shop somewhere that I don't think the managers will take shortcuts for a quick buck (see the numerous youtube videos on Wal-mart from their own workers if you don't get this). I also try not to buy too much of their frozen foods for the same reason, and their canned foods... have you ever noticed how dented they are? Most grocery stores won't sell those because of risks of illness.

So what's my plan if I don't shop for food there? Simple. It is the same plan I use for other stores: targeted shopping. I shop at certain stores for certain purposes. I go to the local asian stores for fish, rice, things like that for our family. I go to places like Kroger and Albertsons for meat, but I always load up on good sale prices and not on daily pricing. I go to farmer's markets for good produce at good prices that support local farmers if I can.

What does that have to do with Wal-mart? Simple. To undermine Wal-mart, you should not boycott them, but rather utilize their policies. For example, they have a clear return policy on most things: 90 days with a receipt will get you a refund. There are exceptions, and you should know them, but for most things, they will take it back.

Now, if you have a crisis of conscience that you are wasting things, then don't use them at all. Simply create your Sinking Wal-mart while Stimulating the Economy plan whereby you purchase items one week, don't use them at all, and return them the next week as you purchase more goods.

But why would you do that? The more you return, the more people they have to pay at customer service to take your returns. The more you return, the more people they need to restock what you bring back. The more you buy, the more cashiers they need. The more you buy, the more people they need to stock the product, the more cart pushers to bring in carts, the more maintenance people to keep the store clean, and so on.

But doesn't that support their business? I guess it does in a way, but if you think about it, if you return every single thing you purchase, they don't make a dime. Their costs increase, but their sales don't. That increases their need to pay people, but also increases their prices making it easier for other smaller businesses to more easily compete.

Look, Wal-mart doesn't compete, it uses its size to bully sweetheart deals and pawns off the costs on manufacturers who pass it on to all companies. Who can afford not to have their product in Wal-mart? So bringing back used products doesn't change much, but bringing back tons of unused products dramatically changes the dynamics of costs versus sales.

People will never boycott Wal-mart as long as they perceive it to be the cheapest around. So instead of boycotting it, use it to our advantage. Create jobs with our actions, but don't increase its profits. Create a more competitive environment for other stores like Target or our local small businesses and specialty retailers, but don't increase its market share.

When I was a young football player, my coaches taught me that sometimes you take the blocker head on, but sometimes you use their energy against them to save your energy for tackling the running back. Wal-mart is too big to take head on. The only way to beat it is to use its own energy against it. If people hate it that much, that is the easiest way to fight it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Democrats must learn a Ground Game is Needed Locally

Weekly, I hear my father talk about the ills of global climate change and its threat to humanity. He often bemoans the political right and their not ideological opposition to climate change, but more commonly he gets frustrated about the inaction by the left to really push this issue. He runs into a common problem of people of his type: he assumes the facts simply speak for themselves.

My father is an intellectual with a PhD in Political Science who spent a career analyzing threats and scenarios for the federal government. He lived in a world where you simply gave a presentation and the facts spoke for themselves. Life and death was determined by the actions of the people he presented to, so things like satellite photos and intelligence spoke for itself when put together. Unfortunately, in the world of politics, things are very different in what it takes to get things done. Not everyone shares his background, but many share his frustration.

There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t tell him that politics is about building a ground game, building relationships, and building action networks. I tell him that if he wants to have an impact, it isn’t enough to make a single presentation or write a policy paper. Al Gore’s movie showed us that even for someone as high profile as Gore, it requires not simply giving a single speech but a daily commitment to create the change.

For all of the policy disagreements I have with the conservative right today, their ground game shows the power of a ground game. They are way behind in the political debate nationally on most issues and their party is in serious trouble for the foreseeable future, but they were able to get their message across to Congress (even if they lose the vote). They showed how strong their opposition is to Congress on the energy bill by crashing the phone banks of Congress.

For whatever reason, only Barack Obama, during his campaign, has been able to create the kind of mass action on the left that is needed for political change in this country for the left. But most don’t realize it wasn’t built by one major action or some overly complex strategy. It was built by going back to basics. Sure, they used the internet effectively, but if you look at the strategy it was still basic. And it is one the right has used to mobilize people for years.

The key to politics and the most fundamental part of politics is built on relationships. Relationships are built on people being able to identify with each other, to find commonality and share experiences, and decide to act upon those experiences. It is why the first Obama meetings for their ground people started with telling “their story” about how they came to be Obama supporters.

It is the same method used by churches and the Christian Right for decades. How many have sat in a Bible Study or church group and talked about “how you came to Christ?” It is the same concept, using stories of how they came to a campaign to build quick identification that people can draw on.

It is that identification that makes people start to feel comfortable in being part of a group, in feeling supported and not alone, in taking action. The key is action. The Obama campaign and the Christian Right has taught us over time that it isn’t a single action by a single player that works, but rather getting several committed people willing to act.

If we think about the Congressional Phone Bank, one has to think that each member of Congress can probably carry five to ten phone lines, max. Each call may have a message service or a person to answer it. If each has them automated to take your message and deliver a short message before that, it may take two to five minutes per call, which means 300 calls would lock up a Congressperson’s phones in an hour. In a ten hour day, 3,000 calls could keep their phones locked up all day.

To show the power of a county, my county has between 55,000 Democrats and 95,000 Obama voters that could potentially take action on the climate bill being voted on. That means one single county could flood and shut down my local Congressman’s phones. It would only take one in thirty or so who voted for the President to actually call. So why did the political ticker point to the conservative side on the vote day?

They did because the right has maintained its long term ground game for over a decade. My local Congressman emailed and twittered “Today is the day to make your voice known on the Climate Bill” to all of his conservative followers. That doesn’t count the talking pundits like Rush who told conservatives to call in on that day. Between them all, they were able to get enough phone calls to shut down the phone banks. But the left doesn’t have the same kind of organization.

IF Democrats want to radically alter and erase the problems of the last eight years, they MUST build the ground game to do it. They can’t simply rely on a candidate to do it for them. To their credit, the national party is trying to organize through Organizing America and DFA. However, local parties need to organize.

If policy wonks like my father want to have a real impact, they need to find ways to organize their local counties. They need to create actions that send a clear message to their representatives at all levels that things are changing and they must change or get voted out. And the actions will create more energy from people in the center and the moderate right. Pragmatic solutions that show signs of really having an impact and being passed usually gain support from the middle.

It requires more than pontificating and wondering why no one else is acting. It requires daily action to create an organization that gets actions out of others too. That is the next step if the Democrats are going to solidify gains and expand their party into new areas.