Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Where Hedge Fund Managers Retire To Grow Heirloom Veggies

You know that, as a now retired community/destination marketing executive, I thoroughly loved reading the part of the description below given for my adopted hometown Durham North Carolina in its recent ranking, which had it sandwiched between New York City and the Big Island, Hawaii, as one of the five great US destinations to visit during 2012.

“The beneficiary of tobacco barons, Durham is where Wall Street hedge-funders retire early to grow heirloom vegetables on riverside farms.”

Durham is no stranger to accolades from external stakeholders such as this, nor is the community a stranger to accolades as a visitor destination, which is a testament both to the prowess of its official community marketing agency, but also to the fact that Durham residents and businesses and organizations deliver on the brand.roadsides and appearance

That's why it would be hard to believe, if not for hearing it from so many different sources, that senior management at the City of Durham “doesn’t consider it a priority” to address the community’s aesthetic, even when residents have signaled in scientific polls that it is an area not only of high priority, but one where they overwhelmingly see their community falling short.

Durham is not only highly rated as a place to visit but also as a place to live and do business.  It is also highly rated for attracting and retaining talent so one might be tempted to conjecture this concern about aesthetics is just from picky newcomers. 

But as you can see by clicking this link or by clicking to enlarge the chart shown as an image in this blog post, the results from the poll conducted by Nanophrades on behalf of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau, as a community performance metric, shows that newcomers, as you would expect, are a bit more uncertain about whether Durham's roadsides and public are being kept attractive and litter free although more than 4 out of every 10 believe they aren't.

The percentage citing neglect steadily increases until it approaches 6 out of every 10 residents who have lived in Durham between 11 and  20 years and a negative-to-positive ratio of more than 4 to 1.  The sad part is not just that some of these residents report that officials are apparently unresponsive or that this is the only aspect of the community with a ratio in the negative for perception including perceptions of safety or public schools.

The pathetic part of this neglect is that even public administration professionals, of which Durham has some of the best but, who may have become understandably jaded by second-guessing, interference and micromanagement or may have retreated into the muted confines of bean counting or engineering cannot fail to grasp the symbolic and overarching significance of this type of neglect to residents.

But regardless of the reasons why it hasn't been addressed to date, the community is on notice from the vast majority of its most important stakeholders that its standing is at risk.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Our Future Depends On People Like Clyde Harris

People like Clyde Harris and his family up in Franklin County, northeast of Durham, North Carolina, where I live, privately own nearly 60% of forest land remaining in the South.  This does not include urban forests that people like me own around their homes on city lots.

The vast majority of people say they hold this property “to enjoy beauty or scenery,” “as part of the home or vacation home,” “for privacy,” “to pass land onto children or other heirs,” “to protect nature and biological diversity".”  But approximately 75% of this private, non-corporate forest land is owned by people who are 55 or older so there is going to be a large generational transfer of southern forest land in the next decade or two.  private ownership of southern forest

If we are fortunate and these owners are as farsighted and wise as the Harrises, who reassembled the 3,200-acre  family farm and related forest land and, then to relieve the pressure to divide this land into pieces for development, worked instead with a Durham-based company called Unique Places to establish tools such as conservation and farm easements to ensure for posterity that the vast majority will be preserved as working farm and forest land.

Franklin, where I learned to fly an airplane a couple of years ago, and Durham, where I live, are two of just 39 out of North Carolina's 100 counties with state-recognized  farm  protection plans.

While still representing nearly a third of the nation's remaining forest land and having recovered from some of the unbridled devastation of the sixty years between 1850 and 1910, southern forest cover is only 40% of the 350  million acres it was 400 years ago when settlement began.

Alarmingly, the 27% of forest land that is corporately owned is less and less under the stewardship of enlightened management as working forests and is becoming increasingly dominated by real estate investment trusts and timber investment management organizations.  This means their risk of being swallowed up as part of the urban development footprint presently on course to clear an area size of the entire state of North Carolina by 2040, is much greater than the rate of population growth.

Development is not the problem per se nor is it all due to the “supersize it” consumption.  Development outpaces population growth, in part, because the free market fails to incorporate the cost of development “churn” which then means that adaptive reuse of existing development is greatly undervalued.

To progressives, conservatives and independents alike, the free market is a marvelous wonder and when given enough time, it can place the proper price on almost everything, including forest land; but it just doesn't work quickly enough for something so perishable or where it takes lifetimes to overcome the devastation created in the interim.

I suspect that every generation worries about the values of the next as lamented by journalist and author Richard Louv in his bestseller, a few years ago, entitled Last Child in the Woods, but the generations poised to inherit the 60% of southern forest land that is privately owned by individuals and families may be out our only hope.

If Louv’s follow-up book The Nature Principle, published last year, is on target, then the nature-deficit disorder he documents will spawn a new sense of conservation in this century that is even stronger than the environmentalism of the one just concluded.  As he describes, more than just protecting or setting aside natural areas, new generations will come to celebrate and incorporate nature in our “homes, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, and farms.”

Hopefully he’s right, because If they don't preserve these forests as well or better than their ancestors have, it might not be the end of the world but it will sure look, feel and taste like it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Going Halfsies – A New And Improved Model

With a 56-pound English Bulldog as my companion, I can't really say that I live alone or in solitude.  As my youngest sister said recently, Mugsy is the perfect dog for a man because he makes all of the typical noises.

I assume she was referring to my brother-in-law, not me but she's right, this breed of Bulldog isn't stealth.  If they aren’t snoring, they are typically snorting, licking, slurping, purring, etc.

But I do eat out a lot, both because I don't really cook and because I enjoy good food and because it's simply my favorite way to socialize.  I learned recently from an article by Nona Willis Aronowitz, an Associate Editor for GOOD that “almost half the food produced in the United States today is thrown away-including $44 billion worth in the retail industry.”

This means that even though 50 million people in this country experience food insecurity or malnutrition, half of all the food produced in this country either becomes part of the 250,000,000 tons of garbage generated in this country each year or the 2%-3% composted annually in backyards.

GOOD has made me aware of a remarkable solution that I hope will be embraced by the many restaurants where I eat in Durham, North Carolina – rightfully ranked one of America's foodiest cities.

Go Halfsies with the slogan “eat less – give more” is a movement that encourages restaurants to give their restaurant-goers, such as me or you, a year around way to simultaneously eat a healthier meal portion, reduce food waste and support the fight against hunger.

Participating restaurants give patrons the option of ordering a meal and while paying the full price receive a half portion.  The restaurant then donates the other half of the price of that meal on behalf of the patron to the Halfsies organization where it is used to fight hunger.

Even better, 60% of the donated funds are redistributed to local nonprofits in the community where the participating restaurant customers and employees work and live, while 30% of the donated funds are used to address issues of poverty and hunger globally and the remaining 10% is used to cover the administrative and operating costs.

To me this seems like a major evolution of and improvement on the “restaurant week” model that often occurs at this time of year in many parts of the country, typically promoted by a private concern and where participating restaurants offer a prefix meal. 

Halfsies is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Austin, Texas.  To learn more how this works and to encourage the participation of restaurants you might frequent to participate click on this link to open and print a short flyer.

This model for eating smaller portions while making it easier to give more to help those in need is as innovative as it is worthy and deserves our immediate time and attention to broaden awareness and generate participation.

Who Me? I Don’t Have Any Dialect

According to a study, conducted in 2009, newborns cry with an accent learned from the language patterns heard while in utero even though the full articulation of a language will not occur until seven or eight years after birth.

These are tidbits from the book published late last year entitled Now You See It by Professor Cathy N. Davidson, a local author and academician where I live, that I’ve recalled during the period that I've been forced to use voice-activated software to compose this blog while my wrist and arm continue to heal from an accident three months ago.

The software works okay but it has resulted in some hilarious typos. I was relieved this week when, without realizing it, I found I had actually been using the keyboard for several paragraphs until my hand gave out and I had to revert to dictating.Harvard Dialect Survey

Apparently the voice activation software has been struggling with my dialect, which is defined as “a particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group.”

It obviously doesn't understand “North Carolinian” which my family out west humorously noted I had begun to pick up within a few months after I moved here more than two decades ago.  Actually, there are many different dialects in this state and it's definitely not the first time in my life that I've been exposed to a regional dialect.

Where I grew up, in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, teachers worked very hard during the first years of elementary school to convert any sign of the dialect of that region into Standard American English just as they did when my parents went to school there.

My paternal grandparents, with whom I had almost daily or weekly contact during my early years, spoke with a dialect they picked up from their grandparents who, in the mid-1800s had migrated up into those Rocky Mountains from the New England, Mid-Atlantic and South regions, where dialects had evolved from those of European ancestors.

For example, my grandparents used the words “crick” for “creek,” “card” for “cord,” and “harse” for “horse” etc.  It was probably more pronounced because they had ranched and homesteaded in that extremely rural area after migrating north from where my grandmother was born near Franklin, Idaho, the first town in that state and just a few miles south of where the Bear River Massacre had occurred just over two decades before my grandfather was born a few miles south in Richmond, Utah.

As humorously noted in this month’s issue of my university alumni magazine, that even today that dialect softens but varies only slightly as you move south from Eastern Idaho through Utah.  And I've noticed that in, Durham North Carolina where I live now, when history books portray quotes in the dialect of people living here back in the mid to late 1800s, it is very similar to those of my grandparents out in Idaho.

A good way to see what I mean or to check on the dialects in other states is to click on this link and then click on “maps and results” and then on the state of your choice or you can just click on a word or pronunciation and then see maps of the United States showing locations where that pronunciation is found.  For example, you can check facts such as the percentage of people who pronounce the word a certain way, e,g, those who say “pee-can” (17%) for “pecan” as we do in North Carolina or “pa-cahn” (21%) as we did in Idaho.

Durham isn’t listed but it would be interesting to see what percent pronounce it “Dur-Ham,” as some telemarketers do, or “Derm” as some North Carolinians do or “Dooorrum” as others do or the much more prevalent “Duram” as I do. It is easy to identify “transplants” to this area simply based on how they pronounce Durham.

The link above is to The Harvard Dialect Survey.  But you probably won't be able to actually see how far your own diction has strayed until you test drive voice-activated software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking which I continue to use and am grateful for its invention.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Learning From A Devastating 60 Year Period

Nine years before the first of my ancestors arrived in America in 1639 there were more than a billion acres of forest covering half of what is now the United States of America.  Every county in my adopted home state of North Carolina was 75% or more forested.

Within a hundred years of first arriving on these shores, Americans had already begun to embrace the practice of replanting to replace and sustain forests, a sense of stewardship obviously lost on outdoor billboard companies and their allies in the North Carolina General Assembly who insisted on being exempt from this responsibility while winning approval for a constitutionally-questionable public gratuity to clear-cut 700,000 publicly owned roadside trees.

These companies are put to shame by George Washington, the father of our country, who, upon his return from leading the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War, voluntarily replanted forests including stands of tulip poplars and other trees still being tended by arborists today as a lesson from our nation’s first president in both stewardship and good business practices.

The fact that a full two-thirds of the deforestation that has taken place in this country over the past nearly 400 years occurred during the 60 years between 1850 and 1910 was not lost on President Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president, as he rode the train in 1901 carrying the body of the just-assassinated President McKinley back to Washington, DC.  While they were descending down toward Renovo, Pennsylvania from the upper Allegheny Mountains through the uplands of the Susquehanna River Roosevelt could see nothing but seas forested by nothing but stump and more stumps.

This area today, reforested and populated with elk herds and protected and made sustainable in the public interest with numerous state parks and forests, is highly ranked for hiking and river trails as well as working forests.  Much of this turnaround was driven by Roosevelt, a Republican who understood that the then-newly coined term "conservation” was crucial as a balance when the free market is unable to restrain itself from spilling “underpriced” costs on the public.

Better known today as one of America's most spectacular historic mansions, Biltmore Estate at the time George Vanderbilt first assembled it’s 100,000 acres, just 10 years before Roosevelt's inauguration, had already been deforested and blighted by over farming and unsustainable timber cutting.  Reforested by Vanderbilt, Biltmore is now known as part of the birthplace of forest conservation in America having groomed Gifford Pinchot, who rose to national prominence under Roosevelt to manage national forests, and for spinning off what became the beginning of Pisgah National Forest, one of the nation's first.

More than 40% of the South, by far this nation’s most forested region, had been deforested by 1910 with nearly all of that occurring in just the previous 60 years.  By comparison, the 150 million acres of forest in the Rocky Mountain region, much of which is managed in the public interest, has remained stable for nearly 400 years.

Today, not counting urban forests, about 76% of North Carolina's mountain region is forested, nearly all of it reforested except for one of the nation’s few remaining old growth groves, the tiny 3,800 acre Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, named for the author of the famous poem Trees.

By comparison only 59% of the coastal plain region and just 51% of the Piedmont or “foothills” region of North Carolina, where I live, remain as forest land, nearly all reforested.  By 1873 Piedmont counties such as Durham had been deforested from 75% or more acres in 1630 down to between 19% and 37%.  As agriculture declined, forest land in counties such as Durham recovered to as much as 50% where it stands today.

The challenge to forest lands today comes from urbanization and related fragmentation.  More than 12,000,000 acres will have fallen to development between 1992 and 2020 with another 19 million projected to fall between 2020 and 2040, a combined area nationwide as large as the state of North Carolina.

The nation’s development footprint grew from 10.1% in 1982 to 13.3% in 2000, the last year for which information appears to be available.  This expansion significantly exceeded population growth so the issue isn't growth versus no growth, but much smarter growth that includes compensation with the replanting of large specimen trees, putting a comprehensive market value on urban forests, valuing the benefits of large specimen trees in parking lots and downtowns and along all streets and other roadsides and medians.

The issue is also to place the full market value on sprawl that includes the spillover costs of infrastructure including highways for which such development pays far below its share of cost or, as in the case of light rail transit proposed in our area, is exempted entirely.

It is crucial that new development shoulder its true costs so that an appropriately higher market value is put on historic preservation and adaptive reuse of existing structures.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

“I” State Confusion

It happened again.  Last week during a luncheon, after learning I was born in Idaho, a very nice lady seated near me responded “so what did you think of those caucuses.”

For some reason, like that famous 1976 cover of The New Yorker magazine, many people, especially in the Southeast including my adopted home state of North Carolina, seem to think only as far west as Iowa when they hear the place name of Idaho.

Granted, along with Indiana and Illinois, they are both “I” states and all four are known for growing vegetables that are starches.  But Idaho is about much more than famous potatoes.Terrain map 

As a boy, whenever we traveled across the state to visit adjacent Washington, one of six states that border Idaho along with a foreign country, I was always mystified that Washington State’s nickname, self-proclaimed by a realtor is “The Evergreen State.”  After traveling across Idaho through several mountain ranges and carpets of forest it always appeared to me that the majority of Washington state was actually barren Columbia Plateau which does in fact cover nearly 40%.

Sixty-percent of Idaho is covered by national forests alone.  But just as the City Council in nearby Raleigh did when it emerged from a recent meeting to humorously self-proclaim it the city of innovation in hopes it might become one and catch up with Durham, an enthusiast in Idaho leapfrogged its dominance for timber, cattle, horses and gemstones in the early part of the last century to proclaim it famous for potatoes in hopes the then fledgling crop would catch on 1,700 miles east in the Chicago restaurants of another I-state.

Today, savvy marketers understand that genuine and overarching place brands must reflect traits that a community or state truly owns in the minds of both external and internal audiences rather than just the momentary aspirations of boosters.  It is critical that places be able to deliver on the personalities they convey.

That same basaltic Columbia Plateau spills out of Washington and carves to the south of Idaho's 80 recognized mountain ranges, straddling the mighty Snake River through the small portion now famous for potatoes as it curls up through Eastern Idaho stopping short of my birthplace along the North Fork of the river in the northeast tip of that nook bordering Montana and Wyoming where the Targhee National Forest scales the 10,000 foot Centennial and the 14,000 foot Teton ranges bordering Yellowstone National Park.

With its extended northern panhandle, Idaho is deceptively large, eclipsing all of the New England states combined.  If all of the lower 48 states were ironed out flat, Idaho is so mountainous that it would be the largest. It also has waterfalls higher than Niagara, canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, 2000 natural lakes, 16,000 miles of rivers and streams (nine of which are designated wild and scenic) and 50 mountain peaks over 10,000 feet.

While not ethnically diverse by any standard, Idaho has the largest community of Basques outside of Spain and France and it is the aboriginal home of nine tribes of native American Indians, four of which still have a major federally-recognized presence today.

Idaho is also much more sparsely populated than most states with just 19 persons per square mile compared to 87 nationwide and 196 in North Carolina.

But even had she been thinking 1100 miles further west than Iowa, my seat mate at the luncheon would still have been partly correct.  This year the Idaho Republican Party will switch from a primary to caucuses to elect delegates.

So while Iowa and Idaho are quite different geographically, they are not all that different politically.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Blasting Away 250 Million Tons Of Garbage

There is an excellent article by David Wolman in the February issue of Wired Magazine about the progress being made in the effort to use plasma technology to transform garbage into reusable gases such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide or electricity, in other words, energy.

Wolman humorously makes a great point when he writes that “we throw two-thirds of it in landfills while somehow managing to feel virtuous that we put last night’s empty wine bottle in the recycling bin.”  He also cites figures showing that the US generates about 250,000,000 tons of trash a year, with only about 85,000,000 tons of it being diverted into composting and recycling.

The article details the incredible progress made by a venture named S4 Energy Solutions, which, financed in part by millions of dollars in backing from the 12.5 billion dollar Waste Management, is refining a process to convert  municipal, commercial, industrial and medical waste streams into renewable energy and industrial products using plasma arc technology.

Given the the daily capacity of their test facility there may one day be up to 34,000 such plants making the nation’s 3000 active landfills obsolete and hopefully, even processing waste from more than 10,000 old ones to rescue at-risk groundwater.

The article reminded me of another article I read almost two decades ago by John McPhee in the New Yorker magazine, entitled Duty Of Care and again later in a compilation entitled Irons In The Fire detailing the now successful efforts by entrepreneurs to recycle what was then 250 million tires discarded each year in the US.  Today the annual number is more than 300 million tires or one per year for every person in the country.

I enjoy Wired Magazine and to me it is well worth the subscription to be able to read the full version of articles like these well before they  eventually appear the web, and ever since I began reading John McPhee's articles and books in the late 1970s (which by the way, was about the time work on plasma gasification began) I never miss an opportunity to  find a new one.

At the time of McPhee’s article there were over 1 billion discarded tires in massive stockpiles around the country but today 90% of all tires generated annually are now being recycled to an end-use market and the number of remaining stockpiles is down around 100 million, so I don't find it strange at all to believe that one day in the near future 100% of all garbage could be recycled into energy.

Even 36 years after it was first published, McPhee’s book entitled Coming Into The Country captures the essence of The Great Land, where I lived and worked most of the 1980s, better than any other.

But then again I am the kind of guy who’s fascinated by the How It’s Made TV series on the Science Channel.

Friday, January 20, 2012

700,000 Public Trees Surrendered Without Recompense

Yesterday, in a narrowly split vote, the North Carolina Rules Review Commission approved “temporary” rules, which were micromanaged through the Department of Transportation by a powerful legislator and special interests that will permit the outdoor billboard industry to begin the process of clearcutting 700,000 publicly owned trees, hoping to make moot inevitable reviews and modifications by the legislature or courts.

Over the objections of 8 out of 10 North Carolinians, the General Assembly, relentlessly badgered by two state senators over the objections of the few legislators on both sides of the aisle who actually read the legislation, voted to grant special interests virtually unfettered permission to cut down trees on public property, including many paid for with tax dollars, without compensation to the public or any requirement for replanting, along an equivalent of 575 miles of publicly owned roadsides.

before new billboard cutting (To view illustrations of the impact of this new cutting click on  each of the the two images below,  the first showing trees above the freeway , the second showing the trees that would be eliminated.)

A judge in Georgia has already after new billboard cuttinggranted an injunction this type of cutting in that state until similar legislation is reviewed for constitutional issues also relevant in North Carolina.

The largely absentee owners of 8,000 outdoor billboards wallpapering  North Carolina’s highways, whose only property rights have been declared by  courts as “purely parasitic” because their only value is wholly reliant on traffic made possible by the the publicly owned roadways, will not be required to pay for the trees nor replant them elsewhere even though the public paid to plant them.

This travesty is that the outdoor billboard industry was already able under prior legislation to clear enough trees to be viewed.  This new legislation and administrative rules temporarily approved  will now permit  clear cutting of the equivalent of nearly 2 out of every 10 of the 5.3 million trees the North Carolina Department of Transportation has planted over the past several decades to mitigate the impact of roadways on storm water runoff and greenhouse gas emissions.

Rather than mitigating these “spillover costs”  to  unsuspecting taxpayers, known as externalities by economists, the new legislation  and administrative rules essentially  grant a public gratuity to private concerns that is prohibited under the state constitution.

Beyond the obvious aesthetic desecration and blight created by outdoor billboards, including what amounts to a free monopoly of view easements, just one of the many harmful effects or “spillover costs” of this tree cutting on the public by the outdoor billboard industry will be the equivalent of adding 4,000 for vehicles and 48 million miles of driving to the state’s roadways which will pollute the air annually with 3,212 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

It's fair to say that one of the drawbacks of a representative versus true democracy is that far too many bills such as this are passed over the the objection of the vast majority of citizens, not on the basis of thorough scrutiny, but through the push and shove of internal power politics fueled by special interests who in turn provide the campaign contributions necessary for election.

This tendency by many elected representatives to make decisions based on “ who‘s asking” among colleagues rather than the merits of what's being asked is at the center of why many experts, including the acclaimed clinical economist Jeffrey Sachs in his just published book The Price of Civilization,  believe that so much of public policy fails to follow the core American values of fairness,  sustainability  and efficiency.

To learn more about the overreaching issues involved with this new legislation to benefit the outdoor billboard industry, click on this link to see some of the excellent visuals supporting arguments presented to the Rules Commission by Ryke Longest, a senior lecturing fellow and the director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University Law school.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The “M” Word- Putting Moderates in the Bull's-Eye

Seemingly not content with attacking the views of progressives, or liberals this they call them, it appears that some candidates campaigning to gain the Republican Party’s presidential nomination are now going after moderates as well.

Having purged the vast majority of moderates from their party, conservatives now feel safe in using that term as a pejorative, just as they've done for decades with the tradition of liberalism which ironically was the ideology of many of the founders of our country.

I assume, if that is successful, ultra conservatives in the party will then take aim at just run-of-the-mill conservatives. Aiding those with these non-inclusive views is the fact that the majority of Americans alive today do not remember or choose not to remember that this line of thinking in the 1980s put an end to the great era of middle-class growth in this country.

Maybe it's because I've always read a lot and been intrigued by viewpoints different than my own that I've always been suspicious of movements based on so-called ideological purity, whether it be those  that claim to be "the only true church or religion" or "the superior race” or “the only valid way to think or believe or feel” especially when the validity of those views is proven only by demeaning others.

If ultraconservatives or any other political ideology truly want to restore American values, they must accept that Americans have always had very diverse views and viewpoints. They must realize that this fact is inherent in “being American.”

I've already highly recommended the recently published book entitled The Price of Civilization by the acclaimed clinical economist Jeffrey Sachs. He notes that the divisions that have always existed in America “were muted by the circumstances” facing this country “during the 1930s and 1940s” when we were “in it together” facing the Great Depression and World War II.

Sachs notes that “these epochal events were great crucible of consensus building” and that “the Cold War created a sense of shared risks and responsibilities as well , meaning that Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all could feel at least until 1965 or so that they were presiding over society that shared certain touchstones."

Maybe the current divide has been intensified, as some think, by some overreaching on social issues during 1960s and 1970s and the similar overreaching on economic issues since the 1980s. But I agree with Sachs that “there is much more consensus than meets the eye” especially judging by scientific public opinion polls, which today are the closest thing we have to true democracy.

Sachs uses the results from these polls to suggest that the great majority of Americans, contrary to what you would think from the political system, still have consensus around several core values such as “a set of national economic policies to promote overall efficiency, fairness, and sustainability [the environment].” Americans have consensus “that there should be equality of opportunity” for all citizens, and that “individuals should make the maximum effort to help themselves.”

We also have consensus around a core value “that government should help those in real need as long as they are also trying to help themselves.” Most Americans also “agree that the rich should pay more in taxes.”

I agree with Sachs that “our politics feel divisive, not because of the raging battle in middle America but because there is a vast gap between (1) what Americans believe; (2) with what the [corporate dominated] mass media tell us Americans believe; and (3) what politicians actually decided, no matter what Americans believe.”

We will restore American values when we  standup for “public policies [that] begin to follow American values.” Listening carefully to even the extreme viewpoints that seem to monopolize the news media we need to then elect politicians who give us views unfettered by powerful special interests including those who fuel biases with campaign financing or demand ideological purity.

The answer, as Sachs prescribes, is for the public “to exercise a new and higher level of political responsibility.” Special interests, including corporate interests are free to hijack the system only when we the people are “disengaged.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Short Trees Won’t Power High-Performance Green Infrastructure

Communities such as my adopted hometown of Durham are making a costly mistake when they replace towering street trees as they age out or are destroyed by sidewalk construction or power lines with varieties too short when mature to be anything more than aesthetics, especially in downtown areas or other areas of “extreme pavement” and hardscape.

The issue isn't just about aesthetics, although the aesthetic value of trees and especially tree canopy is held dearly by residents, especially newcomers who have not yet begun to take them for granted as a remarkable part of Durham’s unique sense of place.

Researchers have found that “large canopy trees (greater than 50 feet in height and canopy spread) outperform small trees (less than 25 feet) by a factor of 15, and they do not start adding significant environmental performance until they reach 30 feet.”

These researchers go on to add that “in the quest to make the urban forest into a high-performance green infrastructure, lots of big trees are required, especially in the most environmentally compromised zones: streets, plazas, parking lots, and commercial strips.”

Fussing developers who grudgingly and sparsely populate parking lots with only small trees along with utility and cable companies who refuse to bury power lines and even public works and planning officials who neglect or refuse to include or require technologies such as DeepRoot are in reality saddling the unsuspecting public with hidden spillover costs or externalities.

If these entities truly grasped and incorporated the long-term value of large trees for not only aesthetics, but also for reduction in heating and cooling costs, net atmospheric reduction of CO2, air pollution reduction, water purification, crime reduction, storm water reduction and increased property and rental values -- all of which have now been quantified by scientists -- they would gladly make accommodation.

Many developers have done as the company that originally developed The Streets at Southpoint and Main Street did when they planted large specimen trees that cost as much as $10,000 each or as the Research Triangle Foundation did when they carved the world famous research Park out of southeast Durham pinelands and restricted development to only a portion of the area allotted each tenant or owner,  thereby leaving the remainder of the site in its natural wooded state.

Until the free market begins to universally incorporate the true cost benefit of large trees, as these two developers did, it is vital that local governments protect the public from hidden spillover costs through much more effective tree ordinances for development and internal public works projects by requiring the use of technologies such as DeepRoot which research conducted over a 50 year period has quantified at a more than $28,000 cost benefit per tree.

It is time to take trees seriously!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson reminds me of the foresters who frequented the mid-1950s hallways of Ashton Elementary School during my early years in the far northeast corner of that Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho.  Alex doesn't wear the Smokey The Bear hat and Ranger uniform, but he has the same well-spoken, quiet, cerebral passion for what the forest means aesthetically, economically, sociologically and to our environment.

Those foresters of my youth were stationed just steps away from my school out of the Ashton Ranger District Office of the Targhee National Forest (renamed Caribou-Targhee in 2000) created a little more than 40 years before my birth by President Theodore Roosevelt just four miles north of town across the Henry's Fork of the Snake River in an arc up both the 10,000-foot east-west Centennial and the 14,000-foot north-south Teton mountain ranges.

They frequented our classrooms as rare-for-that-area college graduate role models while teaching us about science, conservation, stewardship and the environment in that small town of 900 people surrounded by farms and ranches such as the ones homesteaded at the turn-of-the-century by my paternal grandparents and great grandparents.

Alex Johnson is the Urban Forester for my adopted home of Durham, North Carolina and the beloved tree canopy that still covers 40% of this acclaimed community, just less than the average 42.9% that covers North Carolina's cities as a whole, or about 4.6% of the state.

On average urban forests cover 27% of the cities across the nation and that’s about 74 billion trees in all, a fourth of the tree canopy of the nation. Urban Foresters manage public trees along streets and parks and encourage forest maintenance and restoration on private property such as mine where, according to a study a few years ago, if more than 80 mature hardwood as well as yellow and white pine trees had only just been planted at the time I bought the house would equal a value more than one third more than its current value in 40 years.

Alex is also currently chairman of the North Carolina Urban Forest Council spearheading an initiative to recycle trees as more than just mulch when they age out or are hacked to death for utility and cable power lines or are smothered by new sidewalks poured without the technology that would let them live or clear-cut for developments including parking lots.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that even a decade ago, “urban wood residues in the nation’s municipal solid waste stream annually totaled 14.8 million metric tons… an amount greater than the total estimated weight of timber harvested from U.S. National Forests during that same time.”

“About 8.5 million metric tons were recovered mainly for compost and mulch.  Of the remaining 6.3 metric tons, 1.5 million were sent to combustion facilities, 1.6 million were deemed unusable, and 3.2 million metric tons were available for further processing (in other words “good wood” seeking a market.)”

Alex hopes to enlist social entrepreneurs such as the prolific TROSA headed by my neighbor and friend Kevin McDonald or the many being fostered here by Bull City Forward headed by another friend Chris Gergen who might want to rescue disposed trees from the solid waste streams across the state similar to what is done by the businesses listed below which are located in other parts of the country.  In doing so give this “green” resource another life and just maybe, as Forever Redwood does to reforest Redwood Forests, invest part of the proceeds back into planting more trees in Durham.

Horigan Urban Forest Products

Meyer Wells



Pacific Coast Lumber

Monday, January 16, 2012

North Carolina Power Plants Emit 87% of Greenhouse Gases

If all I want is the score and a few highlights, I tune into SportsCenter, but that seems to be what most news reports are becoming including the ones headlined this week stating that power plants release 72% of greenhouse gases.

So I decided to drill down a bit, specifically, to see if I could find more information specific to where I live.  Fortunately EPA posts the original news release, along with a series of informative PowerPoint slides and fact sheets.NC Emissions In 2010

Actually, power plants, especially those that are coal-fired release 72% of the emissions that EPA began to track in 2010, in cooperation with 6,700 of the largest industrial stationary sources nationwide and this is about 80% of total US emissions. Prior to this EPA could only go by estimates.

As much as I agree with some utility executives quoted in a previous blog who point out that for years many coal-fired plants have been gaming the system, it is important that we keep these new and far more accurate numbers in perspective.

The new information shows that the percentage emitted by power plants is even higher in my adopted home state of North Carolina, where nearly 87% come from that source, equating to 71 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent alone, or about 3% of the total from that source nationwide and placing even more value on the 60% of the state that remains forested as a means of sequestration.

By clicking on this link a breakdown of sources and locations is revealed  including the amount reported by sources where I live such as the City of Durham's sanitary landfill, Duke University and GlaxoSmithKline.

For fun I checked into emissions from Charlotte Motor Speedway which is actually in Concord, NC but I guess gases Charlotte nonetheless. EPA is collecting information from 12 additional industrial categories for 2011.

Protecting the environment is one of the critical roles government plays in partnership with a free market economy and the 2008 legislation that required more accurate reporting is a major step forward for achieving the ability to prioritize and zero in even better on the goals we need to set to reduce this impact.

There are some promising new technologies, such as capturing carbon dioxide from the air using a polyamine –based re-generable solid absorbent.

A new book based on a three-year research project at MIT entitled Unlocking Energy Innovation lays out a 40-year framework for Decarbonizing the US energy system. The book advises against what it calls a “moonshot mentality” in favor of long term widespread public and private collaboration at every level.

Among other things, the book which was published last October argues for a full deregulation of the electricity market to introduce greater competition and help spur more innovation in an area that has been risk-averse, including critical financing.

Another great resource is www.thirdway.org which is a refreshingly moderate think-tank with a number of pragmatic white papers on how to achieve energy independence.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Role of Regulations in the Free Marketplace!

I smiled to myself when I heard a so-called political Independent and small business owner comment on a national television newscast that he just wanted government out of ours lives.  I think he was nervous and just parroted an empty political slogan.  More disappointing still was that the interviewer didn't probe.  Most newscasters doesn’t these days.

In regular surveys to determine why businesses lay off workers, only 13% cite regulations as a major factor. The percentage has not increased in the past few years, according to a column last month by conservative David Brooks.  He notes that only 0.18 percent of the mass layoffs last year were attributable to regulations.

Even free-market zealots admit that many businesses, thanks in part to strong lobbies, do not charge the true price for their products.  For example, long-haul trucking does not pay the true cost of the public highways they chew up.  Utility and cable companies claim it is too expensive to bury power lines, but they don't factor into their expenses the cost to the public of things like hacking street trees to death.  Outdoor billboard companies, whose only value is parasitic on public roadsides, chop down publicly owned trees (or illegally poison them) without paying the true value or replanting and never shoulder the cost of the scenic easements they destroy.

Regulations, if done properly and evenly enforced, are merely a means of adding what economists call corrective pricing or market value to compensate for spillover effects like these which are called externalities.  Coal-fired power plants don't pay the true cost they levy on the public because conservatives have blocked putting a price on carbon.  Automobile companies became conscious about safety and fuel efficiency because regulations made them realize that by failing to do so they were levying a huge spillover cost on the public.

The gentleman I noted at the beginning of this blog wanted government out of his life but I assume that didn't mean he wanted the air he and his customers and his grandchildren breathe or the water they drink or the food they eat to be unsafe.  I assume he didn't want to go without roads or streets or public safety or consumer protection from loan sharks.

Ultraconservatives argue that the votes individual consumers make in the free marketplace are a better way to make decisions about these things than might be made by representative democracies prone to winner-take-all decisions largely controlled now by special interests.

But the reason we have a mixed economy is that few of us want to wait for good roads, national defense, public safety, consumer and environmental protection and good public health until businesses react to the votes consumers make with their purchases.  And few of us are naïve enough to believe that we still wouldn't be subject bottom feeders.

As Brooks wrote in his column, as a reminder to other conservatives, especially those prone to hyperbole:

“There are two large lessons here. First, Republican candidates can say they will deregulate and, in some areas, that would be a good thing. But it will not produce a short-term economic rebound because regulations are not a big factor in our short-term problems.

Second, it is easy to be cynical about politics and to say that Washington is a polarized cesspool. It’s true that the interest groups and the fund-raisers make every disagreement seem like a life-or-death struggle. But, in reality, most people in government are trying to find a balance between difficult trade-offs. Whether it’s antiterrorism policy or regulatory policy, most substantive disagreements are within the 40 yard lines.”

And as far as fearing the person Newt Gingrich loves to mischaracterize as a socialist and the most dangerous President ever?

Conservative Brooks points out in his column that “Nineteen-eighty-eight, under Ronald Reagan, 1992, under George H.W. Bush and 2008, under George W. Bush, were monster years for new regulations. In his first years, Obama has not increased regulatory costs more than Reagan and the Bushes did in their final years.”

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rethinking How We Pave Paradise

The other day while searching for something online I noticed that a paper I wrote 40 years ago this spring was listed in the archives of several universities, including the one from which I graduated.  It hadn't been digitalized so out of curiosity I requested a copy for my own family history archives.

Scientists have learned that our memories are rewoven over time so I found priceless a simple one-page autobiographical sketch at the end of the paper.  It is an unfiltered snapshot of how I perceived my upbringing, the evolution to-that-date of my political ideology and my plans and interests as a then-23-year-old nearing graduation.

I had already been accepted to law school and the sketch reminded me that my interests were antitrust and consumerism.  The paper also brought back a memory of the lyrics of a song that had been written,recorded and made popular a little more than a year earlier by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and probably more familiar to many who are younger as a cover by Counting Crows a decade ago.

The lyrics of the song, Big Yellow Taxi, have much more relevance to my eventual and now-concluded career in community marketing and visitor-centric economic and cultural development.  At the essence my job was to identify, protect and promote the unique sense of place on behalf of the three communities for which I worked the last two decades of which were in Durham, North Carolina where I still make my home today.

Coincidentally, these lyrics are still very relevant to many of my interests in retirement:

“Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
Put 'em in a tree museum *
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em”

If you missed it, there was a fascinating article in the Arts and Leisure section of last Sunday’s New York Times by Michael Kimmelman entitled Paved, But Still Alive.   I'm not sure how many we have in Durham but the author cites an M.I.T. study due out this spring by Professor Eran Ben-Joseph that notes there are conservatively about “500 million parking spaces in this country occupying some 3,590 square miles, or an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.  Other estimates put the number of parking spaces in the USA at as many as 2 billion, a third of them in parking lots.

Kimmelman, an architecture critic for the New York Times, notes that “either way, it's  a lot of pavement” (he cites one study that we’ve built eight parking spots for every car) and suggests that “for starters we have to take these lots more seriously, architecturally”  and that includes treating them as public spaces, not just making them greener but treating them “the way people actually experience them: as the real entrance to a building.”

He goes on to note:

“The biggest advancements in lot designs have involved porous surfaces, more trees for shade and storm-water collection facilities. In Turin, Italy, Renzo Piano transformed part of the area around Fiat’s Lingotto factory by extending a grid of trees from the parking lot into the building’s formerly barren courtyards, creating a canopy of soft shade and a ready metaphor: nature reclaiming the postindustrial landscape. At Dia:Beacon, the Minimalist museum up the Hudson River, the parking lot designed by the artist Robert Irwin in collaboration with the firm OpenOffice is one with the art inside, trees in rigorous ranks rising subtly toward the front door.”

A friend of mine in Durham recently gave me a link to a 2010 study about turning parking lots that are no longer needed into gardens and urban farms and in his article Kimmelman gives examples of communities that are now restricting parking.

But I can see examples in Durham of what Kimmelman means about parking lots that are being used as public spaces.  Before it had a pavilion of its own, the Durham Farmers’ Market and crafts market were held in parking lots, as many other farmers’ markets here still are. In recent years Durham’s annual street arts fair, Centerfest, was held in a parking lot, sometimes multiple lots.

Other events have been held in parking lots and, in fact, one lot in southwest Durham was temporarily converted for RVs during the Duke-Alabama football game a few years ago.  Another often morphs into space for ad hoc carwashes and Christmas tree lots.

There are plenty of people working very hard to “put our trees in a tree museum” and “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” so I agree that we need to rethink the architecture of parking lots more as public spaces, recalibrate how many spots are really needed and strengthen and enforce codes designed to make them as attractive and unobtrusive and inviting as possible.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Resurrecting an Advocate for Scenic Preservation

A group of us from across the state, including a handful from Durham, are resurrecting Scenic North Carolina as a statewide voice for scenic preservation.  I've been elected to take a turn as president and soon I will explain how others can get involved.

Scenic North Carolina is already listed as an affiliate of Scenic America and working with others across the country to oppose blight and promote alternatives. Unfortunately, Scenic North Carolina fell dormant a decade ago, and in its absence a ghastly overreaching piece of billboard legislation was rammed through the legislature in the last session pushed by special interests that are wallpapering views of one of the nation's most scenic states behind 8000 outdoor billboards along roadsides and throughout communities.

The mission of Scenic North Carolina will not only be to stand up against blight such as outdoor billboards, but to promote alternatives to this long obsolete form of advertising with exit logo signs and a coherent system of statewide wayfinding signs.

But Scenic North Carolina is about much more than eliminating billboard blight. Scenic preservation is about protecting, restoring, and preserving scenic attributes of our state including the unique sense of place of our communities, which has always been at the heart of our state's successful pursuit of economic vitality including tourism.

Scenic North Carolina will be equally concerned about trees and landscaping along city streetscapes as well as state roadways and medians and with transforming parking lots into beautiful public spaces.

Scenic preservation is also about placing a true market value on native and establish trees that goes beyond their value only as pulp to include their well documented and quantified role in carbon sequestration, pollution control, private property values, crime reduction, cooling and scenic easement.

Scenic preservation also includes parks, trails and other public spaces. It includes appropriately sized on-premise signage, lighting standards, burial of utility lines, protection of landscaping during construction, litter and graffiti removal, historic preservation, beach, lake, river and stream cleanup and restoration and more.

Scenic North Carolina will give voice to the nearly 8 out of every 10 North Carolinians who, in scientific, generalizable surveys, view blight such as billboards as a desecration on our state.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Moderate’s Short Walk Down Libertarianism

The routine walk I take with Mugsy, my English Bulldog, winds its way downhill and south from our home and back through Rockwood Park, a wonderful but very small Durham City Park stretching northeast from Nana’s Restaurant and behind the Thai Café along both sides of Third Fork Creek.

For at least three or more decades, ultra-conservative libertarians have argued against public parkland such as this not because they believe we shouldn't have parkland but because they think it shouldn’t be owned and maintained by the public.Rockwood Park

There are many things for which to commend Rockwood Park, including the stands of wonderful towering hardwood trees, the sidewalk that loops around the entire Park including three very cool bridges, great playground equipment for young children, restrooms, a water fountain, two outdoor grills, a picnic shelter, a basketball court and convenient dispensers in case you forgot or ran out of bags with which to pick up after your dog.

However, libertarians would point to some obvious government neglect, including the fact that the recent repaving of the street leading into the park stopped 30 feet short of paving the small unkept and potholed parking lot where the street dead ends into the park or why the picnic shelter has a giant hole in the roof and the grills are rusted out as are most of the trash receptacles and why the turf, which would be excellent for games of all kinds, has been allowed to degrade into nothing but weeds.

Almost everyone values public space of this kind, but libertarians argue that it would be better provided and better maintained by the free market. I can see how the spontaneous, self-organizing, learn-by- results nature of the free marketplace might eventually come to value open space and that pricing could ultimately make sure that it was better maintained.

But as a moderate, I wonder just how long that would take and how much devastation would be created before the individual decisions in the marketplace would come close to resulting in a park like this let alone a consistent system of parks and the added value they create for neighborhoods and the community as a whole?

Is pricing in the marketplace really that practical as a solution for creating and maintaining open space? At the same time, I wonder why the park isn't better maintained by the public sector using tax revenue, which in essence is a form of what clinical economists term corrective pricing, as a means to provide quality-of-life amenities that are unrealistic for individual homeowners, neighborhoods and small groups of citizens to provide.

Libertarianism is an interesting theory, but not as an overarching  solution. But those who genuinely think that way and believe in their principles may have a point. Starving government is obviously not the solution but few can deny that our government obviously needs to be held more accountable.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Durham’s Achilles' Heel

Durham NC, my adopted hometown, has an Achilles' heel.  It's not what you might think from some news reports.  By 4 to 1 residents feel or safe or very safe in their community including 5 to 1 among women and 5 to 1 among those who feel very strongly one way or the other.

The Achilles' heel isn't public education either.  By 8.5 to 1 residents have a high or very high image of Durham public schools, including  6 to 1 among newcomers who've been here three years or less despite being subjected to water cooler myths perpetuated by realtors in nearby communities and people who work but do not live in Durham.Durham image watch

Durham's vulnerability certainly isn't community passion, where residents are 15 times higher than the benchmark, nor is it community loyalty where residents are three times higher than the benchmark.

Durham's Achilles' heel is aesthetics, not related to its unique sense of place and architecture but to simple curb appeal in publicly maintained areas, which residents rate four times lower than the benchmark.  Emblematic, by 3 to 1 Durham residents disagree that Durham roadsides and medians are well kept.

The concern is not just about litter although the presence of litter is a predictor of not only more litter but underlying neglect. Resident concern about aesthetics includes the lack of mowing, overall landscaping and the general appearance of roadsides and medians including unrepaired ruts and damage too systemic to be overcome by some cosmetic flower plantings here and there.

The concerns are also about the aesthetics of the community as a whole, including both the City and County not just particular neighborhoods such as downtown.  Any remedy will also involve subsequently motivating the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which is responsible for many roads in Durham, to follow suit.

Resident perceptions of the community as a whole are informed in contrast by how extraordinarily well kept various Durham assets are such as Duke University, The Streets at Southpoint, Northgate Mall, Research Triangle Park, several Downtown districts and the co-owned airport.

Aesthetics is an Achilles' heel and critical for any community to address because research has shown it to be one of the top three drivers of community attachment, pivotal to attracting and retaining talent and economic vitality.

The good news is that just as curb appeal is critical to holding or increasing the value of an individual residence or commercial property, greatly improved aesthetic upkeep by the City and County can be viewed as self-funded by the increased property tax valuation it will generate for local government as a return on investment.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Adrenaline Fixes Trump Popular Will

At least at the local level, one of the great ironies of a representative democracy is that, once elected, officials seem to pay much more attention to anecdotal opinions and how angrily they are expressed than they do popular opinion.

I'd definitely be among the vaunted 1% if I had a dollar for every time I've heard a public official apathetically dismiss an issue because they claim no one had been calling them late at night to complain about it.  Partly to blame is a vicious feedback loop. Fewer and fewer people vote so local officials interpret that as a mandate to only listen to a small, vocal share of the population which leads the population, in general, to continue to ignore elections.

Sometimes a member of the governing boards of community organizations, watching the example set by elected officials, might dismiss scientific generalizable survey results by saying “that's fine but I know one or two people who are still dissatisfied,”  implying that somehow the opinions of one or two people should trump the vast majority.

It is an overstatement to say that the federal electoral college system was established because a few of the framers thought that voters would not know enough about issues to make informed decisions at the ballot box. In reality, that now antiquated and unpopular system is yet another remnant of the compromises demanded by slaveholding states fearful that they would lose influence if elections were based truly on the popular vote.

But officials today, who listen to only small groups of vehement people as a means to determine the importance of an issue, are in essence distrusting that the popular will can be truly informed.  It is probably also for the same reason that officials are often distrustful or dismissive of scientific, generalizable public opinion surveys.

As a result, issues devolve into cheap adrenaline fixes, not only taking much longer than needed to deal with, but making those who are charged with dealing them even more vulnerable to powerful special interests.  Officials are tied down with little-picture tactical decisions that suck valuable oxygen away from the strategic decisions that are the essence of governance, while also distracting public administrators from day-to-day operations.

But what do I know, I'm just a voter.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Being Independent Doesn't Mean Ambivalent

I wasn't always an Independent, politically, or a moderate. I was raised in what was then an ultraconservative part of the state of Idaho by very conservative parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. Exposed to many different and equally valid perspectives in college and law school, I became progressive in many ways before evolving into the moderate Independent that I've remained for the last several decades.

Independents are not ambivalent, as some people claim, but they simply cannot be pigeon-holed into one or the other major political party or ideology.  I'm conservative on some issues, even libertarian, and progressive on others and I find myself a pragmatic moderate when it comes to problem solving.Moderates

According to surveys the vast majority of members of the Democratic Party are moderate so, when my pragmatic moderate side shows itself, many people assume I'm a Democrat.

But when my now-concluded career in visitor-centric economic development would frequently take me into business circles, many people there assumed I must be Republican even though ideologically business owners and managers are equally distributed among Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

I've always found organizations built around orthodoxy, whether religious, political or social, to be more than a bit disconcerting. It just seems that for the vast majority of people who seek strict affiliations it becomes a reason for not thinking and, even  worse as a means to prevent others from thinking and sometimes to try and control what they think.

When I became a Rotarian in the early 1980s I was drawn not only to the purpose of the organization but but also to the fact that a key value of Rotary is being nonsectarian. When I became president of the 200-member Durham Rotary Club, which will soon turn 100-years-old, I learned the hard way that many members confused nonsectarian with being secular.

There is a a huge difference and that can be clearly seen by clicking on the links in the previous paragraph above.

Several members of that club objected to the fact that one of the club’s charitable outreach programs was being sole-sourced at the time to one organization that required that recipients benefiting from their aid had to be proselytized to be Christians.  I took the issue to the Board of Directors and a roundtable of past club presidents and then checked with Rotary international and we determined that, indeed, this violated the organizations nonsectarian values.

I wasn't surprised that a few members objected when we announced the decision to broaden that particular project to include other organizations. Unfortunately, one member even resigned but I wasn't bothered by the controversy.  It seems like that is always been part of my job description.

However, I was surprised at the vitriol and personal attacks expressed by a few members in repeated e-mails including, surprisingly, many by a local government official and fellow Rotarian whom I expected to be be particularly sensitive to the importance of maintaining our nonsectarian position and values.

Frankly, it jaded me a bit on the club and after my term concluded, I drifted away for a few years. Many people get personal and vindictive when it comes to religion and politics. I've never been afraid to stand up to these individuals, but I usually find their stances distasteful as well as the impact their views reflect on the organizations they control.

That experience is just one small personal example that shows why a growing part of our population is becoming independent of religions and social organizations as well as political parties.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

“Reawakening American Virtue And Prosperity”

Three days after first viewing the compelling chart shown below as it was published, I fell and shattered my wrist and broke my arm.  The contents of the chart crossed my mind frequently during three months of mending, a  process that continues for the foreseeable future with rebuilding strength and flexibility while the bone continues to grow around the screws.

Coincidentally, this accident also gave me time time to read and reread an incredibly insightful new book entitled The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity  by the noted clinical economist Dr. Jeffrey Sachs.

Sachs unwraps the mistakes that were made by both the political right and left that created the disparity shown in the chart below, especially the economic misdiagnosis of the early 1980s.  He also lays out a precise and very achievable plan to get back on track.

The misdiagnosis in the 1980s led to the demonization of government at the worst possible time and some cuts that were just plain stupid at a time when we needed to be ramping up to cope with globalization.  We can only imagine how much further along toward energy independence we'd be today had funding for critical research not been slashed during that time as part of that demonization.

This book is a must-read for anyone, regardless of ideology or political affiliation, who is sincerely interested in putting this country back on track.  We the people only get to vote once every 2 to 4 years. Special-interests vote every hour of every day through not only their lobbyists but by funding the two major political parties.

Even when we do vote the effect is diluted by the long-outmoded electoral college system, a remnant from the concessions framers made to slaveholding states and by caucuses that serve no one but political junkies and the news media.

But there is hope, as Sachs so clearly illustrates in his book.  Election year polemics and scorecard news coverage aside the onus is on each of us as we strive to reawaken virtue and prosperity in this country by pursuing his ideas about which I will blog more in the future.

I hope you see what I mean once you study the chart below and then read the book at this link.

Which Group Got How Much - New York Times October 30 2001

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Openness–The Road Less Traveled By

Probably because the word “tolerance” has a condescending ring to it, various research studies conducted over the last three or more decades which are designed to identify what makes a community attractive to talented people and thus economically vibrant shifted instead to using the term “openness.”

Durham, North Carolina, where I live, has been scientifically documented to be 2.3 times more open than the benchmark for communities in this state or across the nation.  The value of openness also surfaced as a key element in the community's personality as distilled a few years ago from a series of balanced focus groups and scientific surveys of the opinions of both residents and non-residents.

Maybe it was because I was new and people sought to influence my initial perceptions, but in the few weeks after I moved here in 1989 to jumpstart Durham's official community marketing agency or destination marketing organization, a position from which I have now been retired for two years, I had several encounters that shed some light on the struggles of the previous decades that most likely shaped the value Durham places on openness.

In one experience, a high-level state tourism official in Raleigh told me that Durham had always been a “black town.”  In another encounter I quickly terminated a recently-hired employee when I overheard him tell a Raleigh-based state association meeting planner that downtown Durham was just for Blacks.  Neither person meant their reference in a good way.

On another occasion, a prominent physician took me on a tour during lunch and pointed to a now-defunct shopping mall as “Durham's real downtown,” explaining that it “had to be built” because downtown Durham had been surrendered to Blacks.

I also heard firsthand about the family experiences of two friends who are nearly a decade younger than I am and who entered high school at the time of desegregation of the Durham public schools.  Both were raised in homes less than a quarter mile apart located not far from where I live today.

One friend’s family elected to send their high school aged children to the nearby recently desegregated high school where the student population is predominantly African-American. They went on to graduate with honors and have lived and worked in Durham to this day.

The other friend’s family, also Caucasian, elected instead to buy a second home in South Durham in which they lived one week each month so their high school-age children could attend a school where the students were predominantly white.  They went on to graduate with honors and also live and work in Durham to this day.

The descendants of both families celebrate the openness of Durham today.  Their stories along with two books I highly recommend gave me insight into how Durham's openness evolved.

One book entitled The Best of Enemies is the true story of how a man and a woman living in Durham, he the head of the Ku Klux Klan and she an African-American activist, worked together to desegregate schools here. The other is entitled The Provincials by Eli Evans which includes the true story of his father Mutt Evans a Jewish six-term Mayor of Durham during the 1950s and early 1960s who was also head of United Dollar Stores and who took the seats out of the store’s lunch counter so that standing Whites and Blacks alike could be served together while, at the same time, defeating a law and a judicial order intended to segregate them.

Jazz saxophonist performing and recording star Branford Marsalis eloquently articulated Durham's openness when, during an interview on The State of Things, a program on WUNC public radio, he described why he moved here:

"Durham is everything I ever wanted in a City. It's fair…You can find everything… people who are wealthy, people who are not wealthy, blue collar workers, white collar workers, farmers. They are all hanging out together. You go in the grocery store and you see people talking. It's not like the farmers on one corner and the lawyers are in one corner. In Durham, you don't have those stringent class lines."


While it is clear that Durham chose “openness” when “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” it is also evident that many communities and a high percentage of all Americans are still conflicted if not, contrary.  It is often quoted that in 1940, only 18% of Americans received some sort of government benefit compared to 49% of households today who benefit in some way from nearly two-thirds of all federal spending, as one essayist did on Christmas Eve.

Those who quote these statistics seem to fail to grasp, though, that from the 1930s to the 1950s government programs were purposely designed to primarily benefit only White people.  It is interesting that such a large portion of the population only became concerned about how many people were benefiting when, as a result of the Civil Rights movement, legislation was passed to grant those same benefits to all Americans, regardless of race or class.

Understanding when that shift in opinion began to occur reveals a lot about the rationale behind today's polarized public discourse. Just sayin…