Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Obstacles to Constructive Debate

If we were to take the way-back machine to 20 years ago and tell the world that in the future we would be connected to one another on an infinite basis with a true "marketplace of ideas" (even a few different ones) to share our thoughts on politics, society, art, and anything else that may cross our brains, those stone-washed jean and flannel wearing spectators may presume we had solved most of the world's problems.

Instead, the people behind these platforms have determined that we really don't want to see things we disagree with, memes are better than political thought, and...well...sports.  Talking about sports is fine.  Always.

It made me think that we either lost, or never were prepared to use, a platform for constructive debate.  There are a few key impediments that I see over and over again whenever two (or more) people are circling around an issue of debate, yet never actually engaging one another towards a collaborative new understanding.  We argue without resolution.  We peel the apple, but never eat it.  Here are some of the reasons why:

1.  Alternative Sets of Facts - maybe I am glorifying our past, but it seems that not so long ago, you could cite Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, or the Washington Post for facts and not be undermined for doing so.  There were points of authority that most people would agree were "true".  The quip "You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts" made sense because there was a foundational set of facts that you could turn to and say "I love you, my friend, but you are wrong."  That's just not true anymore.  The Internet has made us entitled to our own set of facts, even if they aren't true, so long as they "feel true" (i.e., they support our world-view).

2.  Questioning Motivations - This is not necessarily ad hominem, but skirts the line enough that it feels like a personal attack.  "You hold this position because you have something to gain or are ideologically wed to it."  You may as well say "I left my oven on and must close this argument in the least graceful way possible."  In pure debate, motivations are irrelevant.  You are testing the ideas on their intrinsic merits.  I would suggest that many people who know the most about certain important subjects have deeply personal motivations for holding the positions they do, but that does not invalidate their ability to defend that position when prompted to do so.

3.  Calling Hypocrite - The most juvenile response of them all.  It is the adult version of "that's not fair".  Let's all agree on something - in the universe of experience and complex nature of things, we can hold discordant positions.  In fact, I should probably say "seemingly discordant positions" considering that what may be hypocrisy to some is actually an inquiry away from explanation.  Also, we shouldn't be afraid to let people change their minds.  That's why you started the debate in the first place, right?  You wanted to change their mind.  Is the prize at the end of the discussion - "ha!  You're a hypocrite"?  Don't expect to be invited to too many dinner parties.

4.  Outrage Trolling - "How can you be mad about X, when Y is ruining our Z?"  Because I can.  Because America, that's why.  We all have different things that trigger our interest, concern, and response.  That's ok.  But if you engage on X, don't presume the right to tell people they should be talking about Y.  It's likely that people aren't talking about Y because you are an insufferable hysteric whenever the subject comes up and they are trying to save you from embarrassing yourself in public.

5.  Gang Debate - Facebook has an unfortunate tendency to attract the "me too's".  You may be engaging someone in a constructive discussion (with more ?'s than !'s), but that can easily be upset by someone else jumping in on either side committing a litany of the offenses noted above.  Don't be that guy/gal.  On Facebook or in public.

I apologize for the pedantic nature of this post, but if you prefer you can read this as "easy ways to escape a losing debate".

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Global Warming and Historical Regret

Shortly after 9/11, the Bush administration adopted what was later characterized in the eponymous book as the "One Percent Doctrine".  This national security doctrine required action on any activity that presented a 1% chance of an attack on US citizens or property.  Said otherwise, if there is a 1% chance of an attack, it was treated in terms of response as a certainty.

I thought about that book while reading The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, a novella written from the perspective of future historians about the final consequences of inaction in the face of climate change.  I wish I could fully recommend the book, but the authors are not particularly gifted in the art of fiction, which leads to some heavy-handed preaching in place of narrative.  If you read fiction to help your mind grasp topics too hard to manipulate in nonfiction, read it.  Otherwise, you can probably get the gist elsewhere.

One of the most damning indictments in the book falls on the science community for imposing standards that were too stringent to allow a platform for action.  In particular, the authors slam the pervasive use of a 95% confidence interval that requires near certainty before being accepted as true.  Projecting out into the future with unknown variables and insecurity about the underlying foundational data, 95% is an untenable standard for public policy, particularly when such policy relies almost entirely on the projections of scientists. 

This is even more concerning when you consider charts like this from the Global Trends Survey:
US - 54% Agree, 14% Don't Know, 32% Disagree
 I found these results shocking.  In an age when American Hegemony and leadership is a near daily topic of discussion regarding world affairs, we still have not made up our mind on what may be the most important threat of our time.

Similar to a Magic Eye picture, once you see Climate Change for what it is, you can't un-see it.  You see US response to the current immigration crisis as a precursor to the waves of displaced immigrants that will come with sea level change.  You see the droughts in the mid-West, and the subsidy-mediated price spikes, as a precursor to food shortages and inflation caused by unfarmable heartland country decades from now.  You see the near endless wars on foreign continents as a small representation of the intercontinental wars that will inevitably develop as resources become more scarce and governments are pushed into panic mode.

Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin wrote an important editorial in the Washington Post this weekend addressing the paralyzing claim that in order to address Climate Change, we will need to forfeit economic growth.  He notes how short-sighted, and flawed, that argument is in the face of all of the consequences of Climate Change noted above:

We do not face a choice between protecting our environment or protecting our economy. We face a choice between protecting our economy by protecting our environment — or allowing environmental havoc to create economic havoc.

But this analysis, and concern, comes back to the same question every time - what are we going to do about it?  The problem is just so big and all of the energy-saving in the world may not be enough to save our existence on this planet (we don't need to worry about saving the planet - she will live on without us).  I am absolutely positive there is something we can do on the individual/personal level that amounts to more than counting kilowatts. Use your political power.  Can you really believe that we just made it through Primary Season without any serious discussion of this issue?  Can you really believe that there will be candidates on your ballot who refuse to acknowledge the anthropogenic roots of Climate Change?  Can you believe that for a problem of this magnitude we are sitting like frogs in a pot?

I'll close with an important piece by Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer, who offers a (mostly pessimistic) report from Greenland.  After observing 20 kilometers of loss to the Illulissat glacier in Greenland, Sala ponders the question we ask ourselves here - what can I do?

At the end of the Greenland journey, we all wanted to commit to doing something. No one person alone can convince governments to price carbon, or industries to move towards cleaner practices and reduce carbon pollution. The question is: can we do something that has a measurable positive impact? In my case, as an oceanographer and explorer, I will try to help protect as much as the sea as possible from fishing and pollution, so that ocean life can be more resilient against the effects of global warming. I leave it up to you to think about what you are willing to do.

The answer cannot be "nothing".

That's all for today.  Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Summer Doldrums

We are now firmly within what is called the "Summer Doldrums" - when very little happens.  And that's a good thing.

Sure, things don't really slow down for me.  If anything, they ramp up.  Door-knocking and community events keep the campaign calendar full.  The only difference is that there will be less of you behind those doors and at those events.

I'm experiencing the doldrums here as well.  I just have so little to write about.  As may be expected, the campaign has put a full-stop on the half-baked ideas that I had previously been much more comfortable sharing with you. I still want to talk about the issues and digest them in the way this platform does best, but I need just the right inspiration and understanding to make it work.

So bear with me.  I will still have plenty to say, but during a time when local affairs tend to get turned down a bit, I may do the same.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Moving Public Opinion

I've had two interesting but conflicting ideas rattling around in my head recently.  The first comes from Michael Waldman, author of the new book The Second Amendment: A Biography, who observed in a recent podcast I listened to that the best way to accomplish lasting social change is by taking your case to the people and shaping public will.  He contrasted this against legislative or judicial initiatives that are long in the making and often vulnerable to revocation or revision if contrary to popular sentiment.

The second is from Martin Luther King, Jr.  I have finally finished Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, which has immediately found a place amongst my top ten favorite books.  MLK would not have cared for Mr. Waldman's methods:

"The time is always right to do what is right." - MLK

Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity.

"This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"

To explain the difference, as I see it, Waldman encourages us to plant seeds and tend the field, while King focused on action-driven performance.  If you were not acting, you were failing.

Even more than the interest in immediate action, what amazed me most in reading about King was the seemingly reciprocal faith he had in the power of government institutions.  He spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get President Kennedy to proclaim the "Second Emancipation Proclamation", which would have been a mostly symbolic gesture to show that the President supported desegregation.  Kennedy died before being able to sign (to the extent he ever would have).  Unlike most activists of our day, his faith was well placed.  Martin Luther King, Jr., created government action in ways we have not seen since and may never see again.

Waldman may reply that government institutions of the 1960's were more responsive to popular opinion than the more insular, corporate-driven chambers of today, making it all the more important to "prime the pump" and create inevitability before seeking change.  And his hypothesis plays out quite clearly when you think of the influence cable news and talk radio have on Congress.  I'm not talking about the influence these outlets have on their listeners - rather, I believe the opinions and positions held by talk-show pundits move the dial on what is important to certain caucuses of lawmakers.  Once these institutions build up a track record of influencing voters, those in pursuit of votes no longer wait to see what the public thinks.  They take their cue and act accordingly.

All of this is further complicated by what I refer to as the "bubble" or "echo chamber".  If you spend any more than 10 minutes knocking on random doors in your community, you will realize that your understanding regarding "what people think" is far from reality.  For a good proportion of our voting public, what people think is this:

"sandwich, juice box, shoe, she didn't put on her shoe, where's her shoe, there it is, let's get in the car, child seat buckled, door locked, forgot my phone, need to get my phone, drive to school, then work,  oh work, this will be a tough day, is that report due today or tomorrow..."

How, Mr. Waldman, do you influence that?  Furthermore, our interpretation of public opinion surveys must be through the prism of understanding that the voting electorate may not be representative of that opinion.  "...pick Sally back up, she has both shoes, that's good,  life is good, what will we have for dinner, there's frozen pizza, that's not very good for them, but its fast, pizza it is, what day is it?, voting day, no voting day is in November, is it November already?, I need to get gifts to put under the tree, what did she want again..."

There's a reason why candidates flood your think space with signs, mail, door-knocks, and calls.  We're trying to get through the fog.  For those already paying attention, this is very frustrating.  For those not paying attention, we will introduce ourselves to you for the first time about three times.

There's nothing easy about persuading public opinion, but I agree with Waldman on this point - it could be the only thing we have left.

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!  I look forward to seeing you all at tonight's Victory Celebration on Tonge Row in Ellicott City!  6 pm to 8 pm!  With over 70 RSVP's (and half of them prepaid) we are looking at having one of our biggest events yet!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Lasting Power

I would like to start this post by congratulating those who took the time yesterday to Speak Out at the Columbia Association Board meeting.  This is an under-appreciated form of democratic influence that, from all accounts, was implemented with professionalism, courage, and force.  And, more personally, I would like to begin by saying "thank you".

There was a time when those in support of the Inner Arbor plan could fit around a coffee table.  Tracking the comments on Facebook and Twitter last night, I couldn't help but be amazed at the life that this set of ideas has taken on and the amazing group of supporters it had earned.

One of the hardest lessons Inner Arbor has taught me is that final victories are near impossible in politics and community life.  Read my elation from a year and a half ago.  The Inner Arbor Plan has had at least three near-death experiences since that day and likely will have many more before the first shovel lifts dirt.  In fact, I recall that in the days after that vote, my optimism wore off, and I realized the grind doesn't let up for those looking to protect good ideas.

The only way those good ideas are protected is if the community buys in.  No individual, or small group, can expect any lasting success, no matter how good their idea may be, if they can't build a larger team.  Not a team of followers, mind you - A team of mutual and distinct leaders who each have separate ownership in the outcome.

Inner Arbor has that, which is why I am confident is it never going away and will be the park built in Symphony Woods.  According to Amanda Yeager's report, there were 10 people who took time out last night to support the Inner Arbor plan.  There are dozens of others who, if pressed, would have been there as well.  You can be assured that not a single one was told what to say, how to say it, or otherwise fed lines for why the Inner Arbor plan deserved our support.  It was internalized.  They were standing up for a good idea because it was partly their idea.

Another hard lesson Inner Arbor taught me is that leaders need to know when to get out of the way.  As we've seen in Columbia politics, leaders (or "spokespeople") who demand too much attention or control on a given issue, while offering their strengths to the cause, also exchange their weaknesses.  Personal motivations crowd out the merits of the idea.  Personal animosities blunt progress.  We need leaders, but we need those leaders who understand that holding the front is a cooperative experience with a termination point.  Eventually, you hand off to someone else.

The kindest lesson Inner Arbor has taught me is that we can trust one another with good ideas.  We can trust one another to take care of those things that will make this a better place to live.  Not all the time, and not without a fight, but often enough to keep you thinking big.

Have a great Friday doing what you love!  It's impossible not to.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Columbia in Retrograde

Tomorrow night, certain members of the Columbia Association Board intend to identify a "material change" in the Inner Arbor plan from that originally approved by the Board in order to begin the process of withdrawing the easement that allows the Trust to develop the park.

Opponents of the Inner Arbor Plan have been encouraged to attend tomorrow's CA Board meeting and even provided lines by Board Member Alan Klein:

The important message this week is not about your support for the original Symphony Woods Park plan or even whether or not you like the IA plan. ​Rather, it is simply that you see "material changes" in the ​current Inner Arbor plan and want the CA Board to review and vote on those changes. You can also add that you hope the CA Board disapproves them!

("Here's what you do, see, you come in all innocent like, see, and then you tell them you're all concerned-like, right?  Yeah yeah.  There's 'material changes', see?  Then we'll get 'em!")

This appears to be your Columbia Association of 2014"Proudly Moving Backwards."

On their best day, the only likely outcome is another decade of an empty park.  If the CA Board identifies a "material change" that meets the conditions of the easement and if a majority of the Board moves to revoke the easement, the fate of Symphony Woods is going to court.  Sometime before or shortly after anything is filed, lawyers will meet to reach a compromised resolution, presuming that a compromised resolution is preferred.  But what's so concerning here is that is not the case.  One part of one side (CA Board) seeks the entire obliteration and extermination of the other (Inner Arbor Trust).  I can assure you that will never be an approved condition of settlement.

So we move to trial.  And unfortunately for Mr. Klein, amateur hour ends at the courthouse.  There are no e-mails telling witnesses what to say.  However, what we will have are reams of discovery.  E-mails amongst Board members.  E-mails between Board members and Mr. Paumier (as someone who submitted a competing bid and now seeks reversal).  E-mails between Board members and residents.  I can assure you it will be a very disappointing, but interesting, time to live in Columbia.

And what if, through all these hoops, the easement is revoked?  Oh happy day, says 0.1% of Columbia!  Not really.  I don't know the terms of the easement, but am quite certain that any debts incurred by the Trust or grants made for the purposes of developing the Inner Arbor Plan will run with the land.  In deciding not to fulfill those plans, those financial obligations will be the only memorial of anyone trying to improve those empty woods.  And I think it is likely this will be another dispute that ends up in court.

There's your final outcome - an empty park loaded with debt.  And in this review, I've excluded all exigencies like the County intervening or CA's financial obligations making it unable to maintain a decade in Court (bringing legal action against a 501(c)(4) created by the suing entity is not something covered by insurance).

I've had my doubts about this Board, but I can't see six members being willing to take on this legacy.  I can't see six members being willing to do this to the city they love, no matter how much they may have wanted an alternative plan.  Whether you agreed with it or not, the Columbia Association made the decision to go forward with the Inner Arbor Plan in February 2013 and confirmed that decision when it approved the easement later that year.  Let's go forward and allow this park to happen.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love.  

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Zipper

The more doors I knock and the more voters I meet, the more I feel we all have a bias towards division.  In the same way you are much more likely to get television coverage for a senseless shooting than a community clean-up day, our attention is drawn to our differences.

I often wonder if that is primal.  When we were little more than apes in caves, was it an evolutionary trait to identify divisions in order to tap them out or expel an offending party?  Is our instinct now to do the same?  Possibly.  Our constitutional protections for minority positions seem to have made this presumption implicit - To hold a view distinct from the main is a dangerous position in need of protection.

But in the great depth, originality, and creativity that makes up the human mind, it seems silly that we end up stumbling over our disagreements when it comes to community affairs.  Are things this binary?  Have we forfeited that much of our decision-making power that we are satisfied with making it a game of red or blue buttons?

I often describe politics like an unzipped zipper.  The further up you go, the further apart we are.  Want to talk about President Obama, Speaker Boehner, or Senator Cruz?  Buckle your chin-strap.  As we come down to the state level, divisions are still plain, but agreement is closer at hand.  We may want sensible taxes, but we also agree that education is a high priority, our roads should be well-maintained, and social services should be well-equipped to protect vulnerable youth.  How we reach those ends is a matter of dispute, but at least the ends are clear.

And then you get to the hyper-local.  Admittedly, awareness of the hyper-local escapes all but 10-20% of us (and I think even that may be a stretch).  But to the extent we are aware, there is a lot to agree.  We agree on where the stop signs should go, where the sidewalks should stretch, and how our local priorities should be funded.  Division is much harder to find.

At every door, and in every conversation, I try to find my way to that plateau of agreement.  Not out of appeasement, but out of a need to find a place to start.  Disagreement is free fall.  You can't build anything on disagreement.  I see so many friends and family pound their chests about disagreements on social media (rarely in person) only to leave me wondering "To what end?" It's easy to disagree. The only likely outcome is that you have confirmed a difference with someone else and likely many others who will avoid engaging you because to do so would be to invite free fall.  The more disagreements you name, the narrower your plateau, until finally no one cares what you think anymore.  You have forfeited a meaningful voice.

We don't need to all agree with one another, but I think that to earn the right to disagree, we need to find out where we left off.  Where did the zipper split?  I believe that finding that position fosters a much more constructive conversation about how we can make things better.  And if you are not working towards that end, it is unclear why you need to say anything at all.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!  Please mark your calendar for July 17!  We will be holding a Victory Celebration in Ellicott City!