Climate Bill

There are lots of things not to like about the climate legislation passed by the House, but it may be the best we can do at this time and it might be possible to improve it later. 

For me, it was interesting to see how lobbying worked, IMO sometimes in good ways.   For example, the bill as it stands now guarantees that forest offset market opportunities will be created for family forest owners in America.   A few days ago, it looked like this would not happen and/or the breaks would only be available to foreign offsets. 

The USDA will have the lead role in implementing the offset markets for forests.  Why is this important?   The USDA is staffed by people who are close to the earth and have a practical knowledge of what works.  I trust these guys more than average regulators.

The bill ensures that “early actors,” family forest owners, who have already taken steps to manage their properties responsibly, will be rewarded for their carbon-positive activities.  This is important to me personally.   I have been working hard last couple of years to make my forests more sustainable (and have written about it).  It would be unfair for our less responsible compatriots to be able to profit from their profligacy.    

The bill will allow all biomass from family forests to be used to meet the Renewable Electricity and Renewable Fuels Standards.  The original definition in the Waxman-Markey bill and the 2007 Energy bill didn’t do that. 

Finally, the bill allows a range of green building standards, including those that allow the use of wood from American Tree Farm System® certified forests.  We had some trouble with LEEDS certification.   Our tree farm would was not included in some of the initial standards. 
That is why we need lobbyists.   If government is going to make far reaching rules, you need someone around to educate the legislators.   Frankly, I would not have known that the things above were even threatened. Some make a big difference.

The LEED thing is a good case in point. LEED are so-called “green buildings.”  Unfortunately, they didn’t take in the full life cycle of a product.   Concrete, for example, is a good building material in its final form, but it creates a lot of pollution and emits great amounts of CO2 during its production.   Green buildings sound like a good idea, and our political representatives might vote for it, but the details are important.

Most people would just like to mind their own business.  Unfortunately, government doesn’t always give us this option and regulations can be used as offensive weapons.  We need lobbyists to protect ourselves from the active-aggression of those who will use government to further their own interests at the expense of ours.

I would just like to grow my trees, but all sorts of regulations impact my choices. Some of the regulations are made by ignorant people. For example, lots of people oppose controlled burning and would like to outlaw it.   They don’t understand the ecological necessity. 

The picture up top, BTW, shows a good thing. It is a controlled burn that will make the forest ecosystem healthier. It is good for the trees and good for wildlife. It will make the trees grow faster and sequester MORE carbon.   That is not immediately apparent, is it?  You can see how the practice might be outlawed.   That is why I am glad we have lobbyists to look out for us.

Please refer to my original source at this link

Merrifield Town Center

The redevelopment around the Dunn Loring Metro and the Merrifield Town Center is moving slowly but inexorably along.   The plan has been in place since before we bought our house in 1997.  Basically, the plan is for something like a metro transit-oriented development like in Arlington from Ballston to Roslyn.   We are a little farther out and this area will be more car friendly.  For example, they are widening Gallows Road,  so they had to tear down various fast food places (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut etc).  There is still nothing in those places, but farther down they have started to build condominiums and planning the town center too.

The economic downturn slowed some of the plans, but is not stopping them.  Above is the old multiplex cinema.  It is shut down now.  They owned a really big area of parking lots.  Originally, it was a drive in.  Anyway, much of the parking area will eventually be developed into condos and retail space.  Parking will be in multistory parking garages.   Below is the old surface parking lot.  There is a series on History Channel called “Life Without People”.  It shows how fast nature returns when people leave.  You can something of that here and it has only been a year.

Below used to be a Pizza Hut.  It is always amazing to me how small the footprint of a building looks when the structure is gone.  

Below are shops in the new Merrifield Town Center.  It is a good example of mixed use.  There is residential on top, parking below and retail on street level, all within walking distance of the metro.  I am glad they are building, if slowly.  The shops are a little yuppified.  I got a ice cream cone that cost $5.23.  It was a fancy cone, but that is a little too much to pay, IMO.  It reminds me of the old story about the horse who walks into a bar.   The bartender says, “We don’t get many horses in here.”  The horse replies, “With these prices, I am not surprised.” 

Below are dawn redwoods.  Chrissy had them planted at our complex when she was home-owner association president.  They will be one of her lasting contributions.  Dawn redwoods are related to our redwoods and sequoias as well as baldcypress.  Like baldcypress, they are deciduous and they look like baldcypress, except dawn redwoods are more pyramidal.  In their native forests in Sichuan and Hubei Provinces in China, they grow rapidly to around 90 feet.  They were thought to be extinct until  groves were discovered in the Chinese mountains in 1948. Since they are recent introductions to Virginia, nobody is sure how big they will get here, but they are growing very fast and strong.   Sometimes trees grow better away from their native ranges.   California redwoods, for example,  were introduced to New Zealand.  There are some growing there that are around 150 years old and doing even better than they do in California.  Experts expect that within a few years the tallest redwoods, so the tallest trees in the world, will be in New Zealand. Redwoods may live 2000 years, but they do most of their growing early in their lives.

One more joke – A horse walks into a bar.  The bartender asks, “Why the long face?”

Below – neglect can be a good thing.  This is one of those drainage holes that they usually keep mowed.  Evidently, they lost control of this one and it is more distinct.  I like the cattails. 

Espen’s Orientation at George Mason

We took Espen to his orientation at George Mason.   It is a fast growing up-and-coming place and the orientation reflected that.   Mariza’s orientation at the University of Virginia was all about tradition.  In case anybody didn’t know, they reminded us that Thomas Jefferson founded the place and we heard a lot about the famous things and people associated with the University of Virginia.  Not so George Mason.  It is a young institution with more future than past.

George Mason University was founded in 1957 as a branch of the University of Virginia, designed to soak up some of the students in growing Northern Virginia and was mostly a commuter and part timer school for a long time.   It became an independent institution in 1972 and was named after George Mason because he lived in the neighborhood a couple hundred years ago; there is no other connection besides the statue below and the name.   

It has improved a lot and benefits from its primo location in the Washington metro area. Today it is is strong in applied science, economics and law with more than 30,000 students.

Espen is majoring in computer engineering.  The dean made a very good presentation, but he had an easy hand to play.    Evidently the graduates of the engineering school don’t have very much trouble in the job market and there are lots of opportunities with local firms.   The current economic downturn will probably be over by the time Espen graduates.  

One of his colleagues in the department is called Phuc Dang. Tough name to have, but I suppose it is memorable and maybe useful for a guy who works with computers. You don’t have to tell people which technician to call.  When your computer crashes, just say “Phuc!” followed if you want by “Dang” and help is on the way. 

Above is one of the original boundary stones of the District of Columbia.    It is now well into Virginia.  I don’t know the exact sequence of events, but evidently the Feds weren’t using the land so Virginia got it back.  The City of Arlington more or less encompasses the old Federal district in Virginia.

Too Far Down This Road

My last (for a while) post thinking about global warming.  I just finished a two-day seminar on the subject, which is what made me review.  There is some overlap in the posts (sorry) but they also can stand by themselves.  

The world cannot & will not reduce CO2 emissions any time soon. CO2 we have already emitted will be around a long time and the world will emit more in 2050 than it does now. Experts disagree about how much the earth will warm or the seas will rise, but they will. It is coming and we can do nothing to stop it. So what do we do?

Solve the right problem

We missed prevention and now are in the mitigation and adaption phase. There never really was a prevention opportunity. Prevention was no longer an option by the time we recognized the problem. As late as the 1980s, scientists still warned about global cooling. The current interglacial period was ending, they said. Aggressive government action to reverse that would have been harmful. Decision makers were naturally skeptical when the new -opposite – threat came along. Besides, they were busy dealing with current life on earth threat, ozone depleting chemicals. Anyway greenhouse gas emitting technologies were (and remain) baked into human systems. Real alternatives never had a real chance. (Kyoto was too late and too lame.) So let’s just move on.

After recognizing the true nature of the problem, we should work to avoid the worst-case scenario and reduce emissions to the extent possible. For example, we need to use more nuclear power and generally encourage higher prices for oil and other fossil fuels to promote alternatives. We also need to concentrate on the places where the greatest amount of NEW emission will originate. Europe and the U.S. can work to limit emissions, but the big growth will come from places like China & India.

Stop moralizing

Then stop the moralizing and the panic. Adapting to climate change is an engineering problem. Global warming is not really a mystery.   Although we don’t understand all the variables, it is a naturally explained process. It is not the retribution for crimes against Gaia or the wrath of angry nature.  Even in its worst-case projections, it is not the biggest change the earth has ever experienced, nor it is the worst human (or hominids) have endured. Our big brains developed in response to earlier episodes of dramatic climate change. We didn’t get to the top of the food chain by being stupid and can adapt to this too.

It was warmer before

For most of the history of terrestrial life on earth there were no glaciers at all. Temperate forests grew near the poles and tropical rain forests extended well into the latitudes of Canada or Siberia. By all indications, life was perfuse on the warm globe and successful. The problem of climate change is one of location. Plants, animals and humans are adapted to today’s climate. They are not easily moved, but change does not mean immediate destruction. Some forest types in the southern Appalachians or on high ground in the Sonora region, for example, are characteristic very different climates and are relics of conditions long gone. Natural systems can persist for a long time after conditions have changed, but if struck by catastrophes, they may not come back under natural conditions. Human intervention can sometimes create or recreate such ecosystems (if that is desirable).

A tree cannot move, but forests can

Beyond that, most species of plants and most animals are hardy over large ranges. Most species of trees can grow from Florida to Wisconsin and beyond. The mix is different, but you can find many of the same species in both places. As the climate changes, the mix will change too, but people unfamiliar with forest ecology may not be able to tell the difference.

To mitigate this problem we can facilitate movement. For example, avoid using plants near the southern edge of their range. (My pine trees near the northern end of their natural range will probably grow better in greenhouse conditions.) It is also important to leave corridors. North America has more tree species than Europe. Why? It has to do with the direction of the mountain chains. In N America, the Appalachians and Rockies extend north/south. Eurasia has a fairly consistent mountain mass east/west from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas. During the last ice age, as forest types retreated south, their seeds ran up against high altitudes in Eurasia and many didn’t survive. In North America, this was not a factor. We need to ensure that natural communities can advance north with the climate.

Nature is resilient. What about us?

Our infrastructure and methods of working are built around current conditions. Some of this is not a real problem. No farmer is growing the same crops using the same methods as his father. These are routine changes. Physical infrastructure is a bigger problem, but it is more political or legal than material. It is costly to change infrastructure, but infrastructure does not last forever and is constantly renewed. The problem is the routing. Roads and railroads run through existing right of ways. Moving them may be very difficult.

Location of cities is an obvious challenge, but in most cases we are not talking wholesale relocation. We could mitigate future problems simply by being smarter today. For example, with satellite mapping, we can tell the elevation of a place within a meter and project how much water it would take to flood it. We would be smart to avoid building permanent structures soggy sites. It doesn’t make sense to build on flood-prone places, whether or not we have climate change.

We also need to look at all the options and we Americans don’t have to invent everything.  Let’s look to good practices worldwide. Brazil has been working on alcohol fuel for four decades. Arid Australia is a leader in allocating scarce water resources. Although not currently the world leader, it might be India that soon lead the world in biotechnology.

But in the end we might have some great options from the science of biotechnology. Biotechnology can produce plants that require less water, fertilizer and energy to produce. But the connection is even more direct. Biotechnology is already contributing to the production of biofuels and may soon make the production of ethanol from cellulous faster and easier. Cellulose alcohol is the holy grail of liquid fuels. That would mean we could make fuel out waste products such as wood chips or stalks, or from easily grown and ecologically benign crops such as switchgrass.

Paradigms change and we can make them change. If we think only about how things are today, we can never solve our problems. In fact, it is likely that today’s problems CANNOT be solved with today’s methods. We can do it. It requires a leap of faith, but it is a leap of faith in human intelligence and our ability to learn & adapt.

We are standing at a crossroads where our provision of energy, water and food are radically changed. These three factors will be more completely integrated than ever before. All change is difficult, but if done right this one will make all (or at least most) of us much better off and make our lifestyles more sustainable.

A cooler earth?

But perhaps the greatest mitigating thing we ought to do is one we currently do not understand. Can global warming lead to cooling? As the world was warming up from its last ice age (w/o the help of humans BTW) about 11000 years ago, it suddenly got another cold blast. This is called the Younger Dryas stadial. The cause is thought to have been a sudden influx of fresh water into the Atlantic, which interfered with the heat transfer from the tropics to the poles. Some scientist think this could happen again. Although the Younger Dryas event involved the aburpt breaking of an ice dam and a lot more fresh water in a short time, conditions could be similar if glaciers rapidly melt. It would be nothing like the movie “The Day After Tomorrow”, since RAPID change in the real world means it took place over the course of about 50 years and it was not global, but cold temperatures in Europe and N. America would be a problem. An urgent priority would be to understand this mechanism and – if possible – prevent it from doing damage. But currently anything in this subject area is just speculation. My own take on it is that activists want to cover all the bases so that they can blame any weather scenario on human activity.

Always look at the bright side of life

I would make no investments in beachfront property and inhabitants of low islands may consider seeking higher-level opportunities, but we humans have faced worse. As a matter of fact, the Younger Dryas unpleasantness probably forced our ancestors into inventing cereal agriculture. Anyway, we are too far gone down this road to go back and start over.  Our options only include things we can do now, not what we should have done before.  Whether big events are blessings or curses depends on how you adapt and what happens next.  

Government, Markets & the Environment

Markets are a little out of style these day, but my faith is intact. I don’t seek or expect to find perfection.  Imperfect as they may be, markets will be back because nothing else works better; we need them.  Over reasonable time periods, markets produce in great abundance whatever goods or services society wants. They can do this because they are based on the greatest of renewable resources – human ingenuity. The market is a mechanism that focuses the genius of the people on what they consider most important.  When the innovation of the market is focused on improving the environment, we can expect good results.

The Difference Between a Medicine & a Poison is Dosage and Usage

Let me first stipulate some government regulation is indeed required for a clean environment.  There is no such thing as a pure system and market incentives alone are insufficient to address externalities, the things that people don’t own or own collectively.  But the choices and intelligent inherent in the market mechanism is still the way to go most of the time.  We just need to employ the appropriate tools at the appropriate time and against the appropriate problems. Command and control regulation was appropriate and successful in going after large point source pollution in the 1970s. Although many of these problems have been largely eliminated, we still need regulations to prevent their recurrence. However, as the problems we face become finer and more diverse, we will need more and more to rely on incentives for innovation and market mechanisms to finish the job. Command and control is the big chain saw that creates the gross shape. We needed the chain saw, but now it is time to put it aside. We are at the fine carving stage and it is time to use different tools.

Not in Spite of Governments Best Efforts; Because of Them

We need to learn from experience. The big government chain saw is useful but also dangerous. It has solved many environmental problems but many of today’s environmental problems result from earlier government interventions. To err is human, but if you want to screw up on a really monumental scale you need to enlist the help of big government.

Private industry could never by itself have produced the resources needed to destroy the wetlands of Louisiana in order to build sometimes underwater cities, such as parts of New Orleans. Government water projects & subsidies encourage the growing of water hungry crops in the middle of our southwestern deserts. Government mandated the use of asbestos in of our buildings and local building codes often prevent sustainable buildings. Government agricultural policies and trade restrictions turn over many square miles of our land to inappropriate crops while at the same time starving farmers in developing countries by subsidizing competition against them. Government programs to protect jobs allow dirty inefficient industries to stay in business long after the market would shuttered them as unprofitable.

My personal favorite result of government master plans is kudzu. Anybody who has been around the countryside in the Southeast knows this persistent invader that shrouds everything in its way. It can grow a foot a day and choke a forest in a matter of weeks. It costs farmers and foresters a fortune every year to keep it down. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted kudzu all over the south. Farmers were paid as much as eight dollars an acre (bigger money in those days)  to plant fields of the vines in the 1940s. I guess we can consider that a successful government program.  They are well established now.

Most of these things were done with good intentions & they were often based on what was considered the best the science of the time. The science was right about Kudzu. It was and remains an excellent way to prevent erosion. It just is a little too enthusiastic about covering-up everything else. We need to be very careful with any big plan. Each generation says “back then they THOUGHT, now we KNOW” but they always learn a generation too late. If you think I am wrong, consider the current ethanol subsidies and the rush to biofuels. Biofuels are a great idea, but only when appropriate feedstocks are used. The Europeans have had to rethink their biofuels programs after they learned that whole forest in Indonesia and Malaysia were being cut and burned to establish palm oil plantations. Sure enough, palm oil burns clean, but all those trees that used to be the forest don’t. In the U.S. we will come to regret replacing big oil with big corn if that becomes our main ethanol fuel stock.

A Proper Choice Architecture

A proper environmental policy involves government in the role of setting up incentives and then leaving the decision making to those who are closest to the problem and have the most to gain or lose. It does not pick winners or losers. It will by its nature be iterative, gradual and diverse. You cannot expect immediate effects, but you will get a better long term result and a sustainable solution when you bring a wider spectrum of human intelligence into the game.  The genius of a lot of people solving their own problems with their resources always outweighs that of a small group of experts trying using other people’s money to come up with a global solution that applies to others.

There is an old joke. This guy comes into the doctor’s office. “Doc,” he says raising his arm, “It hurts when I do this.” The doctor replies, “Then stop doing that.”

A good first step for a better environment is for the government to stop doing some of the things it is doing now. For example, the government should not subsidize flood insurance. If you are building your home or business in a place with a reasonable risk, you can get insurance from a private vendor. If firms whose business it is to insure you think it is too risky at an affordable price, why should the government step in and be a bigger fool? This simple move would almost immediately create de-facto conservation zones on most barrier islands and fragile estuaries and cost the taxpayers nothing. In fact we would save money by getting out of the fool support, insurance & protection business. 

Another thing the government could do is to phase itself out of the water business. Where water is scarce, it is usually governed by century old rules that were created to encourage people to farm deserts by giving them government subsidized water. Maybe it was a good idea back then, but not any more.  As a result of these antiquated practices, water today is distributed like bread in the old Soviet Union. The first guy in line gets a lot at a low price. Those with political influence do not have to stand in line at all. Other people get nothing much or nothing at all. The simple market solution is to charge a market rate for the water. People will stop wasting water when it is no longer almost free. Farmers will decide that maybe it is not worth growing that cotton in the middle of deserts and land will revert to uses more in line with its natural state. I said PHASE out. We cannot just make people quit all at once, since many people have their life savings tied up in the current system, but let’s start today.  

The most far reaching thing we can do, however, is a kind of an earth tax. This tax would largely REPLACE income taxes. We could determine the externality cost of most forms of energy and tax accordingly. That is why I favor a carbon tax. It is not only a way to raise revenue, but also a means to encourage wiser use of resources. For example, you would not have to ban SUVs if the price of gas was high enough. People would make choices rationally. A person might load seven passengers into that SUV and have a much smaller impact on the environment than those seven individual Prius drivers and each would be paying accordingly.  That is the beauty of allowing choice.

Bigger government alone is never the solution for environmental problems. The most intrusive governments (communists) were by far the biggest polluters. Their system created so much pollution that it wore down stone and still managed to produce poor economic results. It was amazing how much better it got when the communists lost power.

A smart government that creates incentives toward a goal, but does not mandate precise means will be able to use the market mechanism to produce both a cleaner environment AND a better economy.

The environment is not a left-right issue.  Some have just framed the issue in their terms. “Want a clean world,” they say, “then you must let government boss you around.”  Experience does not bear this out.  We can understand and recognize the problem w/o accepting their big government control as the solutions. Command & control was a stage we needed to pass through to get to where we are today.  It worked back then. It was fitting, proper and necessary back in 1970, but it is not 1970 anymore.  We now need to fine tune and we cannot command that.  The market mechanism is the future.   With good choice architecture, it will harness human imagination, intelligence and innovation as it always does.

A New World for Global Warming

The global warming debate has taken a responsible turn.  Talk was cheaper than oil for a long time.  Countries around the world talked a lot and did next to nothing confident that they could blame the U.S. for not taking decisive action.   Domestic opponents had similar opportunities.   They could blame the “naysayers”.   To be a global warming opponent in good standing, all you really needed to do was go to the Al Gore movie and complain about the plight of the polar bears. 

For all the sound and fury about Kyoto, from 2000-2008 greenhouse gas emissions rose in both the EU and the U.S.   Guess emissions went up LESS?  Hint: not Europe. In other words, doing “nothing” worked about as well as doing something.  But our Euro friends got to stand on the moral high ground.  Last year, BTW, U.S. CO2 emission DROPPED by 2.8%, the biggest drop since we started to keep CO2 emission data.

But I should not be too snarky. Kyoto was and remains a seriously flawed agreement.   There was never any chance that the Senate would ratify it.   In fact, back in the 1990 ALL the Democrats and ALL the Republicans preemptively voted that they would not accept the agreement since it set up all sorts of silly expectations on the part of developing countries giving them a free ride and putting obligations only on the U.S. and other developed countries.  There is no way that we can achieve any serious climate change goals if we leave out the big polluters of the future.  China is the world’s biggest CO2 producer.  India, Indonesia, Brazil and others are growing fast.  You just cannot exempt the future trouble spots. Kyoto was too much about international wealth redistribution and not enough about environmental progress.

Nevertheless, U.S. must be part of a solution. I have been observing European efforts to create a carbon market. It is easy to find fault.  So far, it really doesn’t work, but we can learn from their experience.  If the U.S. pushes in the same direction, together we can make it work.

BTW – The French get  78% of their electricity from nuclear, which produces no greenhouse gas. Americans should be able to do as well, but we manage only around 20% and have not authorized & built a new plant since 1973.  We have to put nuclear power back into the mix.  It is safe and clean. Despite all the fears, In its sixty year history, NOBODY has ever died in a U.S. nuclear power accident.  It cannot be business as usual. Addressing climate change will require lifestyle changes. It will cost money and change comfortable relationships. Nobody wants to take these steps. I know this will come as a surprise, but not everyone is honest in carrying out their promises. Countries will obfuscate and cheat. Many world leaders were happy that the U.S. was not pushing the climate change solution bandwagon. They could make sanctimonious statements of concern and hide behind the U.S. while avoiding the really hard choices. Now we are stripping away this cover.

Just because we cannot do everything does not mean we have an excuse to do nothing. I am not in panic mode. I do not believe that we will cause irreparable damage if we do not address the problem immediately, but we certainly need to do something effective very soon.

Price will be the primary mechanism for sorting out this environmental problem and I have long advocated higher energy prices. Anyone who demands lower energy prices is not serious about solving environmental problems.

There is good news. Our experience with solving environmental problems has been good. We managed to address serious problems such as sewage, particulates, acid rain and CFCs more rapidly and at lower cost than anyone predicted. The proof is that we no longer worry much about these problems and they are no longer subjects of national debate. Climate change is a bigger challenge because it is international and carbon is ubiquitous, but if the U.S. and the EU are on board, it will work. That is the plus side of economy hegemony. We can set the standards that others must follow if they want to participate in world markets. We need to move while we still have such power.

There is lots of money to be made in greenhouse gas markets. We can do well by doing good. My concern is that erstwhile climate activists will stand in the way. You would not guess this from the rhetoric, but if you listen carefully you find the fault lines. Addressing climate change will mean higher energy prices (which “hurt the poor”) and job disruption and displacement (which hit union workers hardest).   Some businesses will be nimble enough to take advantage of the changing situation and make money; others not so much. I hear the complaints already. The quick and clever will do well.  Our environment will be better as we develop sustainable solutions, but opponents will only see those “left behind.”

BTW – The picture at top is a garden near Smithsonian now and the picture at the bottom is the same place in early February.   Right after the Obama inauguration, some people claimed that the Mall was damaged and may never recover.  It is hard to see on the sign, but it complains that only time will tell if it will come back.   A few months later, it did.  Nature is resilient.

History Doesn’t Repeat, but it May Rhyme

I love my American heritage of freedom and I believe, maybe naively, that liberty is the natural state of humankind, even if most humans still do not enjoy it and we face real world constraints on our actions worldwide. 

In the 1980s, the communist empires were cracking.  President Reagan needed to negotiate with the regimes withholding freedom from the people of Eastern Europe, but he also never forgot whose side we were on.    We negotiated with the rulers, but stood with the people.  Many people in the U.S. questioned this stand.   They said it was empty rhetoric at best, or maybe even dangerous.  

What we say matters.  The people of Eastern Europe did not consider it empty rhetoric and it turned out that we achieved greater arms reductions and security than anybody imagined before, so it was neither empty nor dangerous.   President Reagan quoted a Russian proverb, “trust but verify.”   There could be a corollary, negotiate but don’t forget your values and remember that the ruling regime is not the people. 

Today the Iranian people are boldly standing up to the regime that has oppressed them for thirty years.   Some are dying at its hands, and yet they persist.   The rulers of Iraq are more ruthless than the Polish communists were in the 1980s, but the principle is the same.   Our place is with the people of Iran.  They are not asking that we intervene or meddle.  They just want us to state unequivocally where our own values and ideals stand.   If we didn’t do the right thing in 1953, maybe we can do the right thing now.

It was twenty years ago THIS MONTH that Poles elected a non-communist government.   Most pundits thought it was a silly dream that would just be crushed, as communist authorities had crushed these sorts of things before.   But it endured.   The crack in the communist wall that started in Poland spread throughout the whole benighted region.    Five months later the Berlin Wall, that horrible symbol of hate and oppression that had stood for almost thirty years, was torn down by the people.   Two years after that, the Soviet Union just dissolved and communism, which had ruled so ruthlessly for generations died with a whimper so small that we weren’t even sure it was dead.  

I know a lot less about Iran that I do about Poland and I don’t want to overdo the historical parallels.    But I do believe that if history does not repeat, it often rhymes.    The Iranians are heirs to the ancient Persian traditions of learning and tolerance.   In many ways the Mullahs are an alien anomaly that doesn’t fit the illustrious Iranian culture any more than communism fit Poland.   Stalin said that imposing communism on Poland as like trying to put a saddle on a cow.  He didn’t mean it as a compliment and he did indeed impose it anyway, but culture does matter and old habits have a way of reasserting themselves, especially habits of the heart.  Persian states, ancient, medieval and modern were often models of tolerance, learning and good government of their times.  It was Cyrus the Persian who ended the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.   Let’s hope the Persian habits of tolerance and openness are indeed habits of the heart.   And let’s make sure we know – and they know and the world knows – that we stand for their freedom and ours.  

BTW – since this is so many a Internet-reported affair, you can support the people of Iran by asking Google to make their daily logo reflect the Iranian struggle. 

Also please check out these pictures.

Twitter as a Broadcast Medium

Twitter all the rage today because of its ostensible (Twitter, BTW, is not available on mobile platforms in Iran) role in the Iranian political mess.  It is certainly helping keep the outside world informed and involved in events there and making it harder for the regime to engage in the bloody repression of earlier days.   A colleague told me that he was seeing hundreds of tweets a minute about Iran, many complaining bitterly that MSM such as CNN was not paying enough attention to the story.   Because of and through the new media, with Twitter in the lead, the whole world is watching as events unfold.  It is not doubt exciting, but let’s think about Twitter and how it works. According to an article I read recently, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is ONE.  What this means is that most people sign up for the service and then either don’t use it at all or use it passively.      Of course the median is not the average, which is much higher because it is driven up by big users.   (Remember that in a group of 99 individuals making $10,000 a year plus Bill Gates, the median income is still only $10,000, but the average man in the group has a net worth of around $400,000,000.)  This divergence suggests that Twitter is not really an interactive social media platform.   It is more correctly a species of broadcaster.   That is how it is being used in Iran, for example.   People inside are using Twitter to broadcast information out.   

So far Twitter’s main success has been as a marketing tool for firms and celebrities.   Ashton Kutcher is the record holder with more than two million followers on Twitter.  You can see why this is so attractive to celebrities.  Their goal is awareness.    Broadcast is unsurpassed at creating massive awareness.  This might make it a very useful tool for public affairs.  We need some kind of inexpensive broadcast tool and perhaps the constrained nature of the messages (140 characters) is not a significant problem for some sorts of messages.  It is a lot like a headline service. 

Public diplomacy, however, is not really in the headline business and our goal usually goes beyond awareness.   I argued, way back in 2001, that we are not really even in the information business anymore.    We are in the knowledge business (information is not knowledge) and we are in the relationship business (relationships are reciprocal).   Twitter can help us take care of business as long as we recognize what we are getting when we tweet on Twitter and recognize the natural power and limitations of what is today and likely will remain a short message broadcasting service.

Espen Graduates

Espen graduated today.   Our last kid is now graduated.   He will study computer engineering at George Mason University this fall.   Espen has done well in school and I believe he will do well in life. He has an internship at Lockheed-Martin over the summer.  It will give him great experience. 

A graduation like this is bittersweet.   I am proud of my boy and glad that he is well on his way as an adult, but I miss the child and the baby I held.   Time flies.

I was happy with the public schools the kids attended.   George C Marshall is a good HS and the kids got a good education there. They held the graduation at the same place as Alex’s, at DAR Constitution Hall.  This is the link from Alex’s graduation.  Alex & Espen have been working out as you will see when you compare the pictures.

Dealing with Domestic Extremists

I have noticed that sometimes when people who don’t like each other sit down together to talk about their differences, they like each other even less.   This is also a conclusion by Cass Sunstein, although he is a little more equivocal in his statement of the situation.   I recently finished his bestselling book called Nudge, so I respect his opinion, especially when it tracks with mine. 

Sunstein’s research finds that when extremists are in groups with each other, their opinions become even more extreme and moderates are drawn to more extreme positions.   He finds that when extremists are in groups with people from the other side, their opinions also become more extreme.    People come with their ideas ready and simply mine information to support them.  

Seems a pretty bleak situation, but it makes sense.   Dialogue doesn’t always or even usually lead to reconciliation.   Look at the various groups that have been engaged in dialogue for many years w/o result.    It is like Woody Allen going to the psychotherapist.   There is a lot of talk but no change.  And yet, change does happen.   People come together.   Why?  How?

I think we underestimate the value of avoidance and denial.    In negotiations, you never want to get down to only ONE sticking point because once you get there it is just a wrestling match to see who can win.   You are better off with a broad range of interests that can be traded and modified.    The goal is to avoid the really hard decision until so much else has been accomplished that it doesn’t matter as much.  Maybe it is possible to avoid it entirely.   

This logic goes against the naive intuition expressed more or less in the statement, “If we cannot agree on the important points, what is the point of doing anything else.”   Experience, however, indicates that this is often the only way to make progress.   People become more reasonably when they have more at stake and when they are engaged over a broader, if shallower, front.

Getting to a happy result is actually hampered by too much care and respect and it can be hard to get to the broader definition w/o seeming to trivialize the “big issue.”   (Sure we disagree about religion, but can’t we agree that we both like Coca-Cola?)  Of course, one reason it is hard not to seem to be trivializing the big issue is because we are indeed trying to trivialize the big issue or at least shunt it to the margins where it won’t cause so much trouble.   You really don’t have to bring it out.

A couple decades ago, human relations were damaged by the idea of catharsis – that you had to expose and express your feelings of fear, anger or hate.   Recent studies have indicated that those who express these sorts of negative emotions just feel them stronger.   In other words, the more you express your anger the angrier you get as a person.    You are better off derailing it to the extent possible.   The same goes for a lot of problems.

I saw a documentary about the late Bart the bear.  Bart was the grizzly bear you saw in movies.  He was usually roaring.   They said that in real life he just opened his mouth.   They dubbed in the sound later, because if he really roared in anger he REALLY got angry and that is not a good thing when you are talking about a grizzly bear.   We are not so far removed from this kind of feeling ourselves.

When someone engages in actual violence and breaks the law, we have to come down on them hard and not ask about the “root cause.”   Some people just have to be removed.  But everything short of that maybe we should just lighten up.   Confront extremism with tolerance and humor, but with as little respect as possible.    Try to shunt it aside, obfuscate and dilute.   Toleration and avoidance is NOT acceptance.  The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.   The best way to neutralize extremism is not to defeat it head on but to make it irrelevant.