Tuesday, December 31, 2013

If We Care So Much For Future Generations…

My favorite portion to read and re-read in the King James Bible has always been the four thousand years of the Old Testament including the frequent mention of some remarkable forests.

In fact, while I haven’t attended church for four decades now, I may be better read than most who do.  I just find it much easier to replenish my “awe” in the quiet of a forest, if even just an urban forest.

But those Old Testament trees I have always found intriguing had already been deforested for much of the span that text covers for uses such as King Solomon’s Temple and to build ships, first for the native-Phoenicians and then the Egyptians.

At one time, these magnificent ancient cedar forests had carpeted the whole of what we call Lebanon today which was the northern reaches of Canaan back then, climbing from the Mediterranean Sea up over 6,000 foot mountain ranges.

Only 1/5th of the world’s ancient forests remain, and the nearly 5,000 acres of cedars that remain in Lebanon - 30% in one national reserve alone - may not qualify.

During that country’s 15-year civil war from 1975 to 1990, a Druze militia leader surrounded this forest remnant with mines to protect these sacred trees as the Roman Emperor Hadrian had tried to do with stone markers in the second century A.D.

Nearly 140-years-ago, British Queen Victoria erected a high stone wall to protect a 250-acre remnant but soon all but 5% of Lebanon had been cleared of the slow-growing forests as slow-burning fuel for to fuel steam engines.

Still, the tree serves as that country’s symbol and an inspiration for reforestation, including initiatives guided by the United States Forest Service.

Humans have deforested fully 4/5ths of the earth’s ancient forests since agriculture emerged 10,000 years ago and deforestation today equals the greenhouse emissions for all cars, trucks, planes and ships on the planet.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that researchers have documented in studies of the Pacific Ocean, that temperatures have warmed 15 times faster in the last 60 years than they apparently did during natural warming cycles over those 10,000 years.

The good news is that while the 22% of Americans that are in denial about climate change have gridlocked the President and Congress from implementing a market-based cap and trade solution (once inspired but now blocked by Republicans) that has been cost effective to reduce “acid rain,” the nation’s largest corporations are building it into long-range plans.

In fact, in a USA Today/Stanford University poll earlier this month, only 30% of Americans felt that arbitrarily taking action to reduce global warming would hurt the economy.  Fifty-five percent believed government should play a role, 58% felt average people should take part and 63% believed business should participate.

One thing was clear from the survey, even among many deniers, it is recognized that the pain from not addressing climate change will fall on future generations.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Now So Much More Than Amusement

Maybe it isn’t travel per se, as initially publicized from a recent study, but where and why they travel that makes people more healthy.  Looking deeper into this scientifically-generalizable probe of Americans 25 or older sheds light on the importance of scenic preservation.

Of course, any positive health outcome or “joie de vivre” is specifically related to leisure travel.

Even business travelers who commingle pleasure time on trips are twice as likely to say they didn’t enjoy the trip, including a negative ratio of 4-to-1 who feel strongly that way.

Business travelers, including the 1-in-10 travelers attending meetings and conventions, are a minority among overall travelers (less than 25%) but this negative ratio must still be very alarming to everyone involved along the visitor experience continuum.

This certainly includes not only the modes and nodes of transportation, especially highways, but also the destination communities and states trying to reap the  economic, cultural and now public health value-added from tourism.

The business traveler turn-off becomes a huge drag on leisure travel potential contributing to the study’s finding that nearly 30% of Americans do not view travel as part of their enjoyment of life during any age.

But for anyone willing to look deeper, the significance of this study transcends mere demographics or customer satisfaction metrics.

Cities and states eager to draw visitors for economic and cultural reasons are well advised to note from the study that Americans who take the most trips during a year (averaging nearly six) are drawn to nature.

This aspect proves even more compelling when you add together other nature-related trips listed separately such such as those to be near water (3+,) to explore countryside including smaller towns (nearly 2.5) or visiting national parks and other outdoor sites (nearly 2.)

This by comparison, even when including day trips, is 2.4 times the number of annual trips taken to explore places such as cities or to shop or attend an event which is also about the average number of trips taken to stay with family and friends. 

But even on these trips, nature as a backdrop provides a key health benefit, leading more than 7-in-10 Americans to agree that regardless of what stage they are in, leisure travel is important to their ability to enjoy life.

Of course, this has dire implications for communities and states that fail to grasp and then safeguard the importance of green infrastructure such as urban forests, open spaces and nature places as part of their place based assets including trees and view-sheds along roadways.

These revelations about the central role of nature as an underlying element of leisure travel underscores that more than just mere amusement, is the “awe” it provides.

As another study published by scientists at Claremont McKenna and USC confirmed a few weeks ago, nature is an incredible source of “awe,” even when just glimpsed from the couch on a television channel.

According to a study published earlier this year at Stanford, we should place much greater value on “awe” such as that created by nature and by inference, all green infrastructure, because it enhances well-being, increases altruism such as volunteerism, compassion and other civic virtues.

“Awe” also slows down our perception of time.  Contrary to the old saw, time does not actually speed up with age.  Studies show that from youth and into our 50s, time feels like pressure.

Then, at age 50, as our horizon gradually shifts from days and weeks to decades, time pressure apparently peaks.

Researchers, according to an excellent overview in Scientific American, also attribute “awe” with a sense of increased “time-availability.”

Some studies seem to confirm that nature refuels our sense of “awe” because it gives us another way to view time including the changing of seasons as a metaphor, in my opinion, for the continuum of pre-life, life and after-life.

Travel is just one means to living a life “awe”-filled.  But the sector of industries known as tourism (whose adherents still insist on minimizing by utilizing the long-passé singular term “industry,”) is wise to dig down beyond mere commerce as does the sector’s association website “Travel Effect.”

This new study linking health to travel points out that Americans now enjoy almost equally weekend get-aways (78%) and traditional weeklong vacations (80%.)  But what should be even more enlightening to those promoting travel is the near-equal popularity now of day-trips (76%.)

Long after research methodology made it possible to exclude those commuting for school or work from the measurement of day trip visitation, this is an area still relatively unrecognized by the travel establishment, save for a few forward-thinking destinations such as Durham, NC, where I live, which began to closely monitor day-trips in the 1990s.

Those in my former profession of community destination marketing as a means to achieve visitor centric economic and cultural vitality are well advised to delve into this study with an eye not only to better protecting their brands but to even greater relevance.

It is clear from this study how important green infrastructure is to the vast majority of Americans who travel.  States, cities, towns and counties who ignore scenic preservation by enabling visual pollutants such as signs, roadside billboards and other litter need to connect the dots.

Billboarders demand the “right to be viewed” and lobby elected officials to surrender publicly owned trees, vegetation and view-sheds along roadways for their commercial use. But studies such as this beg the question, “But at what price?”

Scientifically, it is increasingly clear, thanks to new studies, that the “right to a view” in pursuit of “awe” is far more priceless to economic well-being, cultural vitality and now public health outcomes.

Highways, including scenic preservation along roadsides, are obviously the single most important area that states, cities, towns and counties must address in order to be appealing.

Failure to care for this aspect suppresses any other improvement such as livability or tax rate or efforts at revitalization.

This is not only because, as long shown by other studies, these corridors are the primarily mode of travel for 8-in-10 visitors nationwide.  It is also because disguised as leisure visitors are 80% of newcomers and 75% of relocating executives.

Along with an even greater proportion of those scouting to relocate or expand a business, these groups try out locations as stealth leisure visitors before making official contact.

“Old-schoolers” still view visitors only as a source of economic development but their equal value as a source of cultural preservation has been recognized for several decades now.

Today, studies such as this foretell that it will not be long before practitioners of visitor-centric demand-side economic and cultural development also add “public health” as a key objective.

As the study shows, regardless of how intense you travel, these journeys have been shown to improve your ability to get things done, contribute to physical health and well-being and advance your overall mood and outlook compared to non-travelers.

This certainly includes, but is not exclusive, to those of us in the stage of life mischaracterized as “retirement” where perception of time comes into very positive focus.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Does Wealth Make You Mean?

“Habits Of The Heart”

In some ways I can understand why 3-in-5 Republicans responded “no” when asked in a nation-wide poll last week if “the federal government should pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans (select party ID in drop down.)”

While decidedly out of step with the majority of other Americans, including Independents like me, I suspect most of those who responded that way are not wealthy.

While they may tell themselves another story today, like me, most were beneficiaries of policies such as this that greatly expanded the middle class between the end of WWII and the 1970s.

However, many Americans all along the political spectrum believe the safety net is in need of an overhaul to deal with “cheats.”  But the numbers who fit that category are few and it will take more money - not less - to ferret them out.

Just trying to starve them out is inhumane to the vast majority in true need.  It hasn’t worked anyway.  Failing to distinguish “cheats” from others in the safety net who may just have a bad attitude or an irritating sense of entitlement robs us of our humanity.

If shunning those with these attributes were a condition of receiving a hand up, we’d need to first purge the far greater numbers who display them while in positions of leadership at every level of our society where they are far more costly in both treasure and productivity.

Over the years, friends of mine in Durham, NC have participated in a joint-venture called Share Your Christmas, that for more than three decades has connected needy families (including 2200 children) in our community with families who want to provide presents.

Individuals or families who sponsor a needy family are given a list of items each member would wish to receive for Christmas.  The stories are heart warming.

Even though they may qualify more as “compassion by anecdote,” to use a phrase coined by conservative commentator Joe Queenan who was raised in poverty, if for only a moment they also clear away the ambiguity of virtue to borrow the title of a forthcoming book.

One year I was taken aback to see that one of the adults on one of the lists had asked for a flat screen television. This stood out because on the same list it only asked for socks and underwear for the children of that household.

It is probably narratives like this that underlie the negative responses to that question in the poll.

The forthcoming book I cited earlier is one of several recently, including Countrymen, that tell the story of what happened in Denmark during WWII.  Denmark was one of several countries where ordinary citizens stood united and refused to surrender Jewish countrymen to the Gestapo.

Bulgaria was another while neutral Switzerland, by contrast, turned away tens of thousands of Jewish refugees at its border to face certain execution.  The story of “what the rescue of the Danish Jews teaches us” is told in an incredible article in this month’s issue of “The New Republic,” entitled “How Decency Happens.”

One lesson is the huge difference between cooperation and collaboration.

The author, Dr. Michael Ignatlieff (shown in this blog,) a former member of the Canadian Parliament who now teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, notes that:

“It is a story that reinforces an old truth: solidarity and decency depend on a dense tissue of connection among people, on long-formed habits of the heart, on resilient cultures of common citizenship, and on leaders who marshal these virtues by their example.”

Maybe instead, prior to enacting policies that once again re-hydrate the middle class by closing the gap in wealth inequality, we need to revive policies that thicken the dense tissue of connection, form habits of the heart and engender resilience among those of us with bounty.

We need to ensure that the safety net is meant only for an occasional bounce, but to do that we must heed Qweenan’s first hand advice that poverty “is a pathologically enduring, immutable condition. Not a lifestyle choice.”

Poverty must also be incredibly depressive and when addressing it, we are also well advised to remember a statement by Dr. Andrew Solomon, an author and lecturer at Cornell Medical College as well as TEDMet this past October:

“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.”

I hope you and your families are blessed this holiday season with heart-warming exchanges.  I’ll be taking a short break from blogging next week.  Thank you for reading.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

An Unlikely End-Run

So much of what is wrong with society today can be traced back to about the time I was just graduating from college in 1972.

Back then there were just 175 registered lobbying firms according to an incredible article published this month by Stanford professor Dr. Francis Fukuyama, one of the neo-conservative founders of the magazine, The American Interest.

Roadside billboard barons back then were busy gutting the Highway Beautician Act but they stood out as exceptions and now I know why.  Today, having pacified virtually any enforcement of that act, a group such as this has become the rule at every level of government.

It is no coincidence that Americans now rank Congress next to last among professions regarding honesty and ethical standards.  Even lower is the ranking for lobbyists.

Reading that the number of lobbying firms increased 14-fold alone during just the first decade of my now concluded four-decade career in sense-of-place economic development before reaching a whopping 13,700 by the time I retired years ago, brought to mind an eloquent rant I listened to on the return leg of a cross-country road trip last fall.

One of the advantages of being a long-time political independent is being free to glean insight from all along the ideological spectrum.  The End Game for Democracy by progressive-leaning journalist and commentator Bill Moyer goes hand in hand with Dr. Fukuyama’s article on the other end of the spectrum.

The conservative columnist, David Brooks recommends that strengthening the executive branch is the solution.  A moderate Republican friend of mine and former local official would probably agree.  He speculates that regulations have become cumbersome and rigid primarily because so many executives fail to enforce them.CDP

Fukuyama’s article appeared a few days after New York Times coverage of a new report by investor-inspired CDP showing that nearly 30 of America’s largest corporations including five major oil companies are not waiting for Congress to break free of special interests blocking it from taking action to control global warming.

Realizing that a market based cap and trade system such as that working so well to reduce Acid Rain will ultimately be the most cost effective way to reduce emissions, these corporations have already begun to incorporate a price on carbon in long range plans.

This hopeful news followed a report a week earlier in The Atlantic magazine about a community of more than 830 businesses across 28 countries and 60 industries worldwide enrolled in B Corps, a way to use market-based, scalable solutions “to compete not just to be the best in the world but the best for the world.”

The authors of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, who categorize themselves as libertarian paternalists, would likely agree.  These efforts are nudges to do the right thing.

Many states (20 have passed laws including Delaware and 18 more are working on it) are even establishing a new category of business incorporation called Benefit Corporations.  Unfortunately, North Carolina, where I live, lagging behind its neighbors to the north and south, is still one of 15 states failing to make progress, if not moving backwards.

The designation recognizes in a corporation’s legal DNA a signal to investors and consumers that this types of business considers what’s good for the earth and its inhabitants as good for good for business, a new style capitalism.

Together with certification programs such as Durham, NC-based Green Plus and a ground swell toward social entrepreneurism, I have hope that democratic institutions will one day be reclaimed from the stranglehold of “winner-take-all” special interests.

If reading all of this makes you feel as optimistic as it does me, click here for a report disclosing corporate and investor exposure to deforestation in terms of “operational, reputational and regulatory risks and opportunities and the value creation and erosion.”

Deforestation today contributes as much to greenhouse gas emissions as all of the cars, trucks, motorcycles, ships, airplanes and trains put together.  Look soon for “deforestation-free” designations in the marketplace.

And one day soon, this report will also help corporations understand their contribution to deforestation and value erosion from marketing departments that still condone roadside billboards.

Just sayin!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Envy And Facility Addiction

It is in common use there now, but the first time I heard the phrase that “Raleigh has Charlotte-envy” it was used in an op-ed by a Raleigh publishing entrepreneur.

And he wasn’t referring to the popular massage franchise.  It was obviously a pejorative relating to North Carolina's two largest cities.

Similarly, Charlotte is said to have Atlanta-envy and Atlanta, well, let’s just say the reference is used to describe communities with a penchant for building facilities that make them resemble other communities at the expense of being less distinctive.

Overall, Durham, NC where I live has resisted that route but over the last two decades that resolve has been gradually undermined by forces  who are facility-driven, some external, some internal.

At stake is a distinct cultural identity and unique sense of place.  Being facility-driven is a slippery slope and Durham is well advised to learn from communities that are.

Many people trace Charlotte’s infatuation with facilities to 1959 and construction of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, which is actually in Concord, North Carolina.  Being overreaching seems be a side effect of having facility addiction.

But the earliest seeds of this addiction there may have been planted when that community’s first convention center, a 1911 private venture, failed and the city agreed to bail it out the owners.

Ironically, this first taste of Charlotte facility addition occurred just as the Olmstead Brothers (NYC Central Park) were laying out part of the Dilworth neighborhood, one of my favorites to visit and a remnant of which stands as a monument to when Charlotte valued more sense of place.

Contrary to a popular perception, I don’t think Charlotte was responsible for the misleading nomenclature for the speedway nor was it due to any infatuation by the founders.

Dating back to 1924, Charlotte had been the geographic home to a number of speedways including one that was called the Charlotte Speedway and another named the Charlotte Motor Speedway.  Ironically, the earliest races had been Indy cars.

When today’s Charlotte Motor Speedway was erected in 1959 in Concord, one of the partners was a racer and the other a car salesman who promoted races back then at two short-tracks including the old Southern States Fairgrounds Speedway at the Charlotte Fairgrounds.

Another was the Concord Speedway in South Concord which still exists approximately midway between the cotton farm where he had been raised and his new speedway.

Therefore, the name Concord Speedway wasn’t available.  But a few years earlier, the name Charlotte Motor Speedway had become available when the old track in Charlotte had been converted to a junk yard.

Simply put, the name was available and no truth in addressing was required, a registration loophole that still fosters ambiguity in far too many locations even today.

This period of name/location convolution and being viewed as a bedroom community for a namesake track may also be the genius of Charlotte identity issues that persist today.

But that city’s fascination with “coliseums” had begun with the opening of the “original” Charlotte Coliseum in 1955, now known as Bojangles Coliseum.

The “original” was supplanted by the “old” version in 1988, a facility that would be replaced and demolished before it was paid for by yet a newer facility which opened in 2005.  Each has been inhabited by a revolving door of pro basketball teams.

The “original” venue was populated by the Carolina Cougars of the American Basketball Association which was purchased in 1969 and moved to Greensboro, NC from New Orleans by a former North Carolina Congressman and unsuccessful Gubernatorial candidate.

Interestingly enough, according to the founder, he had won the then-fledgling Greenville, NC-born Hardees, now the nation’s fifth largest fast food chain, in a poker game less than a decade earlier.

The ABA experimented with “regional” venues that rotated home games to several cities.  In addition to Greensboro, the team played in Charlotte and Raleigh with even a few games in Winston-Salem.  Charlotte pressed for more games but Greensboro had the more active fan base.

The Cougars and the rotation idea weren’t that successful and new owners moved the team to St. Louis in 1974 where the team was not included in a merger with the NBA in 1976.

But Charlotte had caught facility fever and opened a new convention center just as the Cougars departed.  Maybe it isn’t coincidence that this was also when the Dilworth neighborhood began to fight for its life, just as the now highly coveted neighborhood does today as a five-story hotel is planned in its midst.

Within a decade of losing the Cougars and opening the convention center, Charlotte had built a new coliseum and community leaders secured an NBA franchise.  They also compulsively began agitating for a new convention center to keep pace with other cities.

Within another decade, their basketball team relocated to New Orleans (just desserts I suppose,) over a dispute for newer yet arena.  Soon after in through the revolving door came a new convention center and an NFL expansion team, the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers privately financed their new stadium but leveraging $55 million in public sector contributions to secure the land and provide infrastructure improvements.  Otherwise it may have been built out across the county line from the Concord-base Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The team had been awarded to Charlotte but the owners pitched the team as a “Carolinas” team.  Regional names or slogans are now used as a means to try and fend off future teams in nearby cities or states or shun them as the Durham Bulls have by claiming to be “The Triangle’s Team.”

Charotteans were incensed the first year of play in Charlotte when the coach of the Dallas Cowboys couldn’t say for sure where the Panthers played (was it North or South Carolina where the team played its first season?) but there was nothing in the name of the stadium or the team to give him a hint.

It is unfortunate for host cities when denied the ability to fully leverage the advantages of identity with sports teams and facilities.  But it is a much larger price when communities become facility-driven.

The condition is irreversible as is the toll it takes when public resources are shackled away from being able to truly foster a community’s distinctiveness and sense of place which in the long run reaps far greater returns.

Facilities and sense of place work best when the former is kept in check and carefully calibrated to enhance the distinctiveness of a community.  Reverse the priority and communities lose their soul as well as any sense of perspective and proportion.

In the decade after Charlotte opened its mega-convention center, attendance at meetings nationwide dropped by another third, a long term trend.  Yet a decade after it opened, a newspaper headline there quipped, “convention center half empty, officials propose expansion.”

Charlotte’s other cultural facilities have also not been immune to the churn of facility addiction, often becoming pawns between development schemes.  Like any addiction, one for facilities becomes a furious, insatiable spiral with each fix demanding another and another.

Communities addicted to facilities also become event driven, using public dollars to “buy” events to create the illusion of activity masked by the use of metrics that gross up but fail to net out impact making it nearly impossible for the general public or news media to see that these subsides rarely return enough to cover the subsidy.

This is not due to a cover up.  Models don’t factor in the dislocation of existing activity or even many leakages.  Even when carefully calibrated to day-trip vs. overnight activity they don’t dig deep enough to account for in-kind public sector expenses such as security and sold waste.

Officials would rather explain an event subsidy that an operational deficit and local government accounting by its nature is not full-cost accounting, making it impossible to connect the dots.

The importance of distinctiveness and unique sense of place have only become more fully understand in the last decade.  For communities where it isn’t too late, they should be given full consideration in lieu of becoming facility addicted.

Often it comes down to whether a community is comfortable in its own skin.  Durham, which is, cannot afford to be too smug.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Manifestation of a Community Value

Many felt it was prescient that Durham, North Carolina, where I live, happened to honor social entrepreneurs at its Annual Tribute Luncheon in the spring of 2009.

Conceived in 2008, the honorees for that event seemed to foretell an explosion of entrepreneurial interest here including campus-like hubs such as Bull City Forward and two American Undergrounds.

However, that may be more coincidence.  The roots of Bull City Forward can also be traced to meetings in 2008, one of which was attended by an ATL organizer.  So it appears the revelation itself was entrepreneurial.

But Durham’s almost temporal entrepreneurial nature had been unearthed two years earlier during a two year process from 2004-2006 involving hundreds and hundreds of residents as well as external audiences culminating in the distillation of Durham’s “overarching” personality including community values.

It may also be coincidence that the notion of “social entrepreneurs,” was simultaneously gleaned during that two year drill-down to reveal Durham’s brand, when one of the executives involved with managing that process happened to read a 2004 Fast Company Magazine article.

The magazine recognized 20 companies as “best of the best” social capitalists including one based in Durham, The Center for Community Self-Help which was founded in 1980.  This clue led to uncovering a deep vein of community interest and activism that had been long taken for granted.

The idea that Durham is inherently entrepreneurial didn’t surface from a wish to be so or from envy or because it is now in vogue, but because it was unearthed by hundreds and hundreds of citizens digging down to discover Durham’s enduring distinctiveness.

A community’s personality, or brand in marketing parlance, is not an aspiration or a slogan or a tactic or even a strategy.  It can’t be imported, exported, transplanted or developed.

Its elements cannot be not born of or made sustainable from envy or trends.  While not always unique to a community, their distinct manifestation is.

Today’s press is all about the incredible American Underground with two 20,000+ sq. ft. downtown Durham campuses within a few blocks of each other.  It was recently recognized as part of the exclusive Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub Network.

But this and any subsequent efforts will always stand on the shoulders of generations of entrepreneurs here dating to the late antebellum 1850s of Durham’s founding.

That is what I mean by near-temporal.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Every Community’s Economic Development Imperative

In the early 1990s, downtown Durham was well into its second decade of a nearly four decade run-up to revitalization.  Through fresh “demand side” eyes, you could already see then what is very apparent today.

Yes, contrary to myth, downtown was not on life support when I arrived in 1989 to jump-start the “demand-side” visitor-centric economic and cultural development for Durham as a whole, the specialty from which I retired some years ago after almost four decades.

Nor was a “DNR” order in place for downtown when Durham’s fledgling “supply side” downtown advocacy group made an inspired choice for an executive five years later.  Both of us are now retired and have been replaced by possibly even more inspired choices, each facing a more sophisticated if not transcendent challenge.

“Demand-siders” by necessity see the glass as “half full” while those in the more developer-driven “supply-side” of economic development have a propensity to view the glass as “half empty.”

The former must be change-driven but reassuring by nature, the latter must often manufacture a sense of urgency to motivate action.  At a minimum, passion should be a job requirement for either.

Both types of economic development organizations are subject to pejoratives.   “Demand-siders” are stereotyped as just “tourism,” although that is only the means to far more pervasive ends.  To economists, the “demand-side” is one of the only sure-fire means to true economic value-added.

“Supply-siders,” including governments contracting with chambers of commerce and downtown organizations are often dismissed, to adapt from insiders such as Dr. Ron Coan, as smokestack chasers, chip-chasers, data storage and cluster-innovation chasers and now talent and facility chasers to name a few.

A “demand-sider’s” job is to make the best of what’s there and spearhead the consumer demand and awareness that will enable the market to do its magic.

“Supply-siders” tend to be more “build it and they will come,” which a New York Times headline some years ago completed as “but not for long.”  By this, inference was made that a matrix of facilities without community marketing is like “blinking in the dark.”

Even together, a delicate balance is required to avoid dislocation or diversion.  “Brick and mortar” is a tactic not a strategy and best serves as a response to the market versus a stimulus.

The bane of a “demand sider’s” existence is that both elected officials and the majority of business leaders tend to more readily grasp “bricks and mortar,” the forte of “supply-siders.”

It is understandable.  “Bricks and mortar” are more concrete and literal both as ribbon-cutting and as photo ops, but also as a constant visual reminder to voters.

By comparison, the “demand sider’s” tasks of changing behavior to fuel the demand that makes projects sustainable as well as to protect and promote a community’s sense of place are, while more measurable in a value-added sense, are also more subtle and conceptual.

The best of both worlds, is when both sides listen carefully to and leverage the expertise of one another and community leaders are respectful of both.

Both types of economic development originated more than a hundred years ago at the dawn of the Progressive Era but didn’t really begin to thrive on behalf of communities until they were un-joined at the hip, a movement that took hold in the 1960s and 1970s.

Communities and markets need both types of economic development but by their inherent natures, they each require and work best from opposite sides of the brain.

A sign of maturity, is the capacity to redirect requests from misguided, one-size-fits-all stakeholders back and forth among agencies on both sides of economic devolvement.

Both require “evangelists” but are best practiced with humility.

Left uninformed by the “demand-side” with its focus on distinguishing sense of place, fostering of place-based assets and creating “divergence” - “supply-siders” may be too quick to tear down, too comfortable with “churn,” addicted to “convergence” and driven to make communities the “same” vs. “distinct.”

A community needs both, and a little friction from time to time is good.   But let “demand-siders” or “supply-siders” get too much of the upper hand or forget their respective roles and the result is the same.

Community homogenization and irrelevance.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Infographic - Your Body On Tobacco

Tobacco Body

Friday, December 13, 2013

Durham’s Food Scrap Entrepreneurs

A few months ago, a start-up in Durham, North Carolina where I live began Tilthy Rich Compost, a business that picks up food scraps from subscribers on a weekly basis, then turns it into compost a few miles from downtown.

Currently, the service area is approximately a five mile radius of downtown and expanding.  Pick up is mostly by bicycle for neighborhoods and a truck service for commercial clients.

The company will even return the finished compost to you if you wish, for use in your garden or landscape.  They also offer the service to restaurants, commercial kitchens and cafeterias.Tilthy Rich Compost

At our house, we only eat at home a few days a week, but they have a smaller bucket for people like us and a larger bucket for families that eat at home regularly.

The new company is emblematic of Durham’s distinctive entrepreneurial personality, in particular social entrepreneurship.

Forty percent of the nation’s food supply goes to waste and I am sure Durham is no exception.  Residential food scraps alone make up 12.4% of municipal waste across America, a greater percentage than plastic.

In restaurants, according to the report Wasted, analysts at the Natural Resources Defense Council calculate that 4% to 10% of food becomes waste during preparation before it gets to the consumer.  Another significant portion is served but not eaten.

Approximately 10% of fast food is discarded because it has been prepared but not purchased within safe time limits.  At home, Americans throw out approximately 25% of the food and beverages they buy.

Often, if you are like us, food products are discarded either because  plans change and they spoil or because I in particular am one of those people perpetually confused by “use by” and “best by” date labels.

Even before consumers buy groceries, a food industry consultant estimates that up to one in seven truckloads of perishables delivered to supermarkets has to be thrown away.

Analysis in the United Kingdom estimate that if food scraps were removed from landfills there, greenhouse gas abatement would be the equivalent of removing a fifth of all cars in that country from the roads.

By the time I retired four years ago, 90 cities and towns in the U.S. had begun offering food waste collection, double from two years before.  North Carolina composts below the average for the Southeast.

I suspect though, that a personalized and scalable service such as Tilthy Rich Compost will always be in demand.  In our part of the country, as a developer-friend of mine jokes, soil so easily becomes compacted that it almost qualifies as impervious.

We need all of the compost we can get.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Life Skill We All Must Recognize

As a guest, I was standing at the back of a gathering recently to celebrate the anniversary of a popular landmark when a state legislator whispered in my ear that it was odd there was no acknowledgement given for those who paid the biggest price to clear the way for the project.

I smiled and whispered back to my friend that as he well knows from his work as a lawmaker, there is typically no reward forthcoming when the feelings or opinions leading up to a decision are mixed or pluralistic.

The “are you fur us or agin us” part of our human nature usually masks how difficult some decisions are, even when they end up being “fur.”  People unwilling to examine self-biases rarely award points to those disposed to critical thinking.

Just ask Mayor Bill Bell, whose nearly 40-year career in public service to this community was punctuated midway through by two years of exile because after much soul-searching, he courageously came down on the side of an imperfect and highly controversial formula for a school merger.

At the event I attended, I tested a theory about how revealing feet are to body language.  It turned out to be a very accurate way to ascertain how genuine, open and accepting people are.  Even on the cusp of the South, where I have lived for nearly 25 years, it is almost impossible to tell otherwise.

I picked up that tip much too late to be of use in my long ago concluded forty-year career in visitor-centric community economic and cultural development.

It comes courtesy of Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman, a former behavioral change therapist who is now an author, teacher and speaker.  She coaches executives on a variety of topics including how to read non-verbal communication.

About half way through my career, a specialist reviewing my results on an in-depth Myers-Briggs test, warned me that being an “x” on two of the four spectrums, “introvert-extrovert” and “judging-perceiving (tactical-strategic)” would lead some people to distrust me.

Many, maybe even most, human beings tend to think in “either/or” terms as they do with “fur or agin.”  An “x” meant that on any given day or several times a day I might swing between “strategic” to “tactical” or “quiet/introspective” and “outgoing” and back.

This expert’s warning was that either/or people might view that as duplicitous or deceptive.  He was right.  In fact, during my career one of the people attending the recent event had warmed me,  referring to a couple of people trying to get me fired at the time, that “they just don’t trust you.”

Last summer while spending a week at a Rocky Mountain lake in the Pacific Northwest, I read Dr. Goman’s newest book entitled The Truth About Lies in the Workplace but found it applied just as well to the broader workplace in my former field of community marketing which included stakeholders such as elected officials and strategic partners.

In community marketing, an exec is charged with fueling the local business climate and expanding the local tax base, all the while safeguarding and promoting the community’s sense of place.

All of this must be done while not really being in control of anything and expressing not only your own opinions (hopefully informed by data) but also faithfully advancing the collective policies and opinions of a governing board.

Sound like fun?  It was incredibly challenging and fulfilling!

I highly recommend reading the book, especially for anyone who thinks they don’t lie at some level because it documents using scientific studies that we all do, and not just to children at this time of year.

Unfortunately, most in that category may be equally good at self-deception or don’t give a damn.

As the book details, “extroverts lie at a higher rate than introverts, intelligent people are better able to handle the cognitive load imposed by lying and manipulative people or those overly concerned with impression tell more lies.”

If those shoes don’t fit, the book also notes that some professions are more prone to lying including evangelists (including I presume those sermonizing on behalf of community’s development and revitalization,) sales people and marketers, politicians, company or organization spokespersons and of course, actors and poker players.

My experience tells me that representatives of special interests especially adept at the “push and shove” of lobbying would make the list.

The book deals with lies both at a strategic level called deception and lies at a day-to-day tactical level.  Both are life skills learned in childhood as a means of gaining advantage.  This includes omission, spin, hyperbole, withholding, glossing, misinformation and many other techniques that are used to simply gain advantage.

Manifesting infallibility is itself a form of lying as is backstabbing.  In studies, nearly half of those surveyed admit to lying but it may pay to be especially beware of the half who refused to admit it.

They are likely to be particularly creative and adept at rationalizing “means” by the “ends” they are meant to accomplish.  By noting the universality of lying and deception in everyone at some level, the book doesn’t seek to lower the bar on ethical behavior but sensitize us to be able to spot egregious deception.

It is best read in the spirit of self-reflection and introspection.  Unfortunately, for many unable to admit to being human or with a tendency to self-righteousness, reading it may only serve as an enlightening enabler.

However, I would add it to any must-read list of management books.  It is especially appropriate for anyone in economic development including both supply-side and my former specialty on the demand-side.

I definitely recommend reading the book not just in terms of your workplace but the broader community context in which one may work.

It may even aid in formation of New Year’s resolutions.  No lie!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

An Inspiration For Our Collective Sense

The local newspaper in my hometown of Durham, North Carolina has seemed obsessed for several months with trying to act as the school board by trying to fire the superintendent, whose apparent slip ups have made that an easy news story to sustain.

In a just world where all news would be in full perspective, this obsessive coverage would have instead, been about one of Durham’s newest magnet and year-round lottery schools, The School for Creative Studies, serving students grades 6-12.

I mean, the school deserved to be front page day after day, with editorials and blaring headlines rather than just the couple of stories that ran before the school opened.  That would be far more emblematic of our community.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just in tabloids where the news seems to cater to our obsession as human beings with the sensational, and not just yesterday’s mainstream national media coverage of a man locked overnight in an airliner or a jogger hit by a flying deer.

Fortunately, this is rare under the paper’s current management.  The “cheap shot-comeuppance” and sensationalized coverage seemed de rigor in our local paper when I first moved here in mid-1989. The paper down in Raleigh preferred back then to pile on rather than cover disturbing issues there.

That is the dilemma of news coverage.  Negative news always gets more attention no matter how hard editors try to give balance.

As futurist Steven Johnson notes in Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, “---the subtle bias of being more interested in bad news, [i.e.] ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ might be a good strategy for selling papers, but it necessarily skews our collective sense of how well we are doing as a society.”

He makes the case in general that “the media are heavily biased toward extreme events, and are slightly biased toward negative stories and trend stories.”  I agree with Johnson that the former may be the more damaging.

I often ride past The School for Creative Studies which opened a few months ago along one of my favorite Harley routes through northern Durham.

The ride always includes a stop at Red Mill Nursery, another phenomenal local institution less than a half mile from the new school.

The school is unique because students there learn all of the basics but through the lens of coursework that includes:

- Creative Entrepreneurship & Marketing,

- Digital Media & Design,

- Video Technology & Communications,

- Design for Living: Architectural Design,

- Music & Audio Production,

- Visual Arts, and

- Healthful Living/Outdoor Education, as well as Spanish.

I am particularly impressed with the coursework about nature.  The studies are virtually legion over the past few years about the link between nature and the health and learning of children.  Hopefully, a core element is finding its way into all schools here.

It hasn’t taken long for students at The School for Creative Studies to connect the dots.  Soon you’ll read that Keep Durham Beautiful has been selected by 7th grade students for the “Halls of Giving” campaign.

I can also imagine a relationship between the school and the nursery, both for walking “field trips” and as a real-life nature lab.  It is a 50-year-old family-owned business where many people have made lifelong careers.

The Red Mill Nursery also lies roughly midway between the school and a disturbing site the students should see at the point where Ellerbee Creek begins to flow into Falls Lake.

Witnessing or reading news about troubling sights such as these is useful, as long as they are in perspective.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Radio's Paradigm Sea Change

Nielsen, a company that measures what consumers watch and listen to, released a report this month noting that “more than ninety percent of Americans listen to radio each week.

Actually, on average Americans listen to two hours of AM/FM radio per day.  Listenership zooms up between 3 am and 4 am, plateaus from 7 am to 5 pm and then tails off dramatically.Content

Shown in this blog is Nielsen’s calculation of how Americans, on average, spend 60 hours of content viewing and listening each week including 14 hours of AM/FM radio.

Also shown is a Scarborough breakdown of last year’s “heavy” radio listeners by generation.  If you are wondering if I listen as I write this blog, I don’t.

I primarily listen to the radio only while I am shaving and showering, or in the kitchen feeding the dogs, or when I am in the Jeep running errands, so I probably don’t count in the 10% of people 65+ who are “heavy” radio listeners.

I am even more likely to read radio news online via an app than listen to it.  This may be why NPR has around 27 million listeners, down slightly, but its web traffic zoomed up a third to 17.7 million in 2011 over the previous year.

But my habits may give a sense of radio’s dilemma.  It is relegated to background and increasingly replaced for actual listening by streaming services such as Pandora or satellite radio.  Studies show that nearly 80% of AM/FM radio listeners change the station when ads come on.

This may also explain why studies show “heavy” radio users are significantly more likely to also be Internet users.

One reason why global ad spending forecast between 2003 and 2016 has radio and outdoor advertising including billboards falling to between 6.3% and 6.9% each is that the latter is obsolete and destructive and on the former is rated seven times less effective than on Internet music streaming services such as Pandora for advertisers.

Ad spending on the Internet will blow by television this year and nearly double it over the next two.  This will be almost ten times the amount spent on all of outdoor advertising including the shrinking portion that is on billboards.

Forty percent of Millennials use the Internet to listen to the radio but not necessarily AM/FM stations.  A 2012 Pew Research report showed that Americans were listening more nine hours a day to online radio. The percent listening to audio on digital devices is expected to double to 80% by 2015.

Of those age 12 and over who “love” radio are 22% cite local AM/FM, 32% cite Pandora and 39% cite Satellite.

A Harris survey last month noted that 52% of Americans subscribe to cable television and 25% to satellite television services, while 25% use Netflix, 13% subscribe to Amazon Prime and 4% subscribe to Hulu.

According to a survey a few months ago, 28% of Americans who own Smart TVs and an incredible 18% of non-smart TV owners already consider Pandora’s music streaming a must-have for their television.  For Netflix, the percentages were 47% and 34%.

Sometimes viewer/listener surveys on behalf of traditional television and radio take on the tone of “quick, look over there,” by pointing to newspapers and magazines but the underlying desperation is clear.

This change must be disconcerting, whatever the pace, particularly for those with stranded capital costs.  But radio stations, rather than rest assured, should learn from newspapers and magazines and start much earlier to experiment with transitions to a new model.

This streaming thing, if not here to stay in its current way, is only the beginning of many paradigm sea changes to come.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Illusion And Unhealthy Paradox of Choice

Fifty years ago, when I first went to work in grocery store as a teenager in the Pacific Northwest, on average they stocked around 4,000 items.  Today’s supermarkets stock an average of 50,000 items.

Yet the top selling 1,000 items generate half of the sales revenue.  Further, the average household buys only 150-200 items regularly and about 400 distinct items a year.  Dropping 25,000 items would decrease sales only 5%.

Conventional consumer theory is that breadth of choice trumps, but research shows that too much choice suppresses sales.  Many suppliers such as Procter & Gamble have increased sales 10% by cutting choice in half.

I must admit, that the primary reason I find myself shopping online for some items is that when I go out shopping, either I can’t remember where I purchased the item I need to restock, or it seems that even big-box stores increasingly won’t have many items in stock.

What’s more important is that much of the “choice” to which we seem drawn as consumers, especially when it comes to groceries, is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a very few suppliers.  The cost of all of this choice is climate change.

On average, conventional food products travel 1,500 miles before we see them on the shelves.  It takes 9 calories of fossil fuels to produce each calories of the food in supermarkets or about 232,000 per week for the average American.

Adding to the toll of hidden costs, 26 cents of every food dollar is spent on packaging.  Some reports estimate the industrial food system is responsible for a third of greenhouse gases.

For example, just one quarter-pound hamburger patty requires 6.7 pounds of grain and forage, 53 gallons of water, 74.5 square feet of land and 1,036 BTUs of fossil fuel energy to bring to market.  According to an NPR report, that doesn’t count greenhouse emissions from animal waste.

But a new report entitled Grocery Goliaths shows that while Americans now spend $603 billion on grocery products each year, half (53.6%) is spent in just four chains: Wal-Mart, Kroger, Target and Safeway.  Most types of grocery products are also dominated by three or four suppliers.

Rapid supermarket consolidation began when Wal-Mart, which now controls nearly 30% of overall supermarket spending, entered the grocery business in the 1990s, which is more than the entire top four retailers controlled in 1997 (20.8%.)

But independent grocery stores and local and regional chains have been fighting off consolidation since the 1920s when thousands banded together in cooperatives such as IGA, including the store in the small Idaho town near where I was born and spent my early years.

At nearly the same time, another coop of grocers called URM formed.  It still has 160 stores across northern Idaho, eastern Washington and western Montana, an area called the Inland Northwest.

There are still 1,750 IGA stores across the nation including one in Durham.  A few are over 10,000 sq. ft., about a third the size of the average supermarket.  Most IGAs are are 7,000-12,000 and many are convenience store size.

Coops such as these coops permit independents to share the costs of distribution and marketing.

There is still a vibrant, neighborhood Red & White food store in Durham, where I live, a remnant of another co-op of independent stores with distribution based out of Chicago.  They were established in the 1920s and thrived after WWII, but independent grocery stores like these seem all but extinct.

Independent grocery stores were squeezed from both ends beginning in the 1930s.  At one end, convenience stores began to chip away at their business until the concept really took off in the 1970s when they were fused with gas stations.

At the other end, supermarkets also grew out of the 1930s and tracked with the growth rate of the automobile.  The supermarket chains really took off after WWII as an unintended consequence of the Interstate Highway System, which made long-haul distribution more efficient.

The profit margin for grocery stores was a penny on the dollar when I worked in the grocery business during high school in the mid-1960s.  Today, it is still only 1.3%.  Wal-Mart smelled blood in the water when many grocery chains became employee-owned in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Some like Harris Teeter tried to go the route of acquisition and expansion beginning when the 1930s Charlotte, North Carolina chain emerged from its local roots in the mid-1980s after watching North Carolina-born Food Town expand and then be acquired by a Belgium company a few years earlier and renamed Food Lion.

In 1988, the year before I arrived in Durham, Harris Teeter entered the Durham market by acquiring the Big Star chain.  By the time they were assimilated by Kroger twenty-five years later, the company had grown to more than 230 stores in eight states.

Kroger astutely maintains the local and regional appeal of its acquisitions by retaining their names.  In the meantime, Food Lion has grown to be a part of the 9th largest supermarket chain including Sweetbay, Harveys, Hannaford and Bottom Dollar Food.

In 231 metro areas such as the one centered around Durham,  just four big grocery retailers make up more than 80% of sales.  Wal-Mart alone now makes up half of all grocery sales in 35 metros, according to the report.

Today, we have bigger and bigger stores owned by fewer and fewer companies carrying product categories produced by a handful of suppliers creating the illusion of choice.  Soon they will be supplanted by online stores such as Amazon Fresh.

In the meantime, the hidden costs to consumers and the planet are immense, and in the United States, we still have 1.4 million households in poverty including 2.8 million children surviving on $2 or less per day in a given month.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Infographic - A Backyard To Live Off

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Price Of Emotional Literacy

My first exposure to suicide was when I was six.  It claimed the life of a rancher with a place north of the ancestral spread where I was born and spent my early years.

As we drove up to close down his ranch and take care of his livestock, my dad explained that his friend from school had never been the same after returning from WWII nine years earlier.

Dad called it combat fatigue a euphemism for “neuro-psychiatric” disorders that hospitalized a million soldiers during WWII.

An Army general and psychiatrist noted that these disorders claimed nearly all members of rifle battalions who were not killed or otherwise disabled during that war and suicide rates among WWII vets are double now what they are among soldiers returning from recent wars.

Today, more than 38,000 people commit suicide each year among more than 959,000 attempts annually in the United States.  That’s nearly one every 30 seconds.

Suicide attempts, including two more that were successful, have come even closer to me on six other occasions over the intervening sixty years since that rancher took his life including:

The wife of a grade school friend just days after childbirth -my best friend in high school a few years after graduation – an LGBT friend in college - and three other people over the years who are even closer to me in relation or to people with whom I am close.

I haven’t been keeping a tally, and I doubt I am considered among the average of six people each, or 1 in every 6 Americans in a given year who re counted as survivors of suicides.

But it feels like it when those who have touched my life cross my mind, as they do from time to time, such as when I came across some very interesting information over Thanksgiving.

First was an article published near that holiday a year ago.  It was about a study reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health where researchers almost inadvertently learned that 40% of kids who attempt suicide first try in elementary or middle school.

Something I recollected while listening and viewing a November TED presentation, which was put online over the holiday, is that since the early to mid 1990s, researchers have been aware that a third of teenagers at-risk for suicide are LGBT.

The speaker is a successful tech-executive-turned-PhD candidate in Psychology who helped researchers at Utah State University and Brigham Young University conduct a study released last year of LGBT Mormons (considered America’s most conservative faith.)

It found that the average age when these folks felt different was 9.6 years old or fourth grade.  The study also found that the average age when that “difference” was identified as same-sex attraction was 14, which is before the vast majority experienced romantic relationships.

The American Association of Suicidology reports that suicide attempts by high school students are 3.4 times more likely among those who are unsure of their sexual orientation and 8 times more likely among those who experience severe family rejection.

One of the researchers on the Mormon LGBT study, Dr. Bill Bradshaw, began teaching at BYU when I was a student there, two decades before another Idaho native John Dehlin the TED presenter attended BYU (he was raised in Texas.)

Dehlin eloquently describes that being an ally for those facing social injustice such as that which is experienced by people who are LGBT, makes the most difference when you have something at risk socially.

It made me think about whether I paid any price for standing up as a student more than forty years ago on this and other issues of discrimination and injustice.  I don’t think I paid a price other than being subject to a few rumors.

My price was self-exile forty years ago.  I walked away to preserve my personal spirituality while still respecting and honoring my Mormon cultural heritage.  Many others have stayed active and are pursuing change within, some of whom have paid a price.

Dr. Bradshaw is an expert in microbiology and molecular biology.  He has written and lectured on the evidence for a biological origin for homosexuality for a decade.  I am sure some have tried to make him pay a price.

However, Mormons have always been more resilient and adaptive and far more diverse of opinion than is perceived.  There have always been internal ideological and theological struggles.

Voices among those who are still active and outspoken within the faith are getting traction, as LGBT acceptance is across the nation.  Numerous websites and blogs promoting dialogue have emerged, including one by the church itself.

It has always been a very caring and evolving Christian institution and I agree with others that its stance regarding sexual orientation is evolving and may be far ahead of perception as evidenced by the church’s response to the changes with Boy Scouts which it clarified:

“Sexual orientation has not previously been – and it is not now – a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint scout troops.”

If what surveys show to be America’s most conservative faith can evolve, lets hope North Carolina where I live will soon follow.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

My Trace of Jewishness

I just learned that this fourth generation, native-born northern Rocky Mountain, Mormon-cultured boy is 1% Jewish by ethnicity.

For some time now I’ve used DNA tests to unearth or confirm genealogical connections, but this new insight comes from a new test by Ancestry.com.

It also estimates that I am 47% British, a third Irish and 8% western European.  My Quaker lineage obviously trumped my Alpienne Amish roots.

It turns out that while “exactly half of our genome derives from each parent…the fraction from grandparents is by chance,” according to Razib Khan who is studying for a PhD in evolutionary genetics at the University of California – Davis.

Until this month Khan blogged for Discover magazine on the topic when he moved over to The Unz Review, an intriguing new webzine.  He blogged this week on the use of genetics to excavate the historic flow of civilizations.

There are other “trace” ethnicities in my DNA including 2% Scandinavian and Iberian and 3% Greco-Roman, each of which I have traced genealogically as well.

This also gives me clues, as a hobbyist, to the origins of my British roots since that island was invaded by and then acculturated by Romans, Vikings and Normans, the latter two of which may explain the Iberian influence.

This DNA test also predicts the probability of my relationships to others conducting family research, giving me more certainty to dig down into their roots for connections or the ability to confirm ancestors I have discovered.

My trace of Jewish heritage may have been gleaned when Judea was a province of Rome, or from the large communities of Jews who settled in France and Germany after the fall of Rome, some of whom then migrated to Britain.

Or it could have become part of my lineage during the Crusades.  But I plan to dig further into possible connections where Jews gathered in two small Swiss villages along the German border in the Aargau area,  about 60 kilometers northwest from my roots on the shore of Lake Zurich.

These historic Jewish villages are only a couple of hours by highway today southwest of Tailfingen where a German branch of my roots lived for a few hundred years before both my Swiss and German branches migrated to America during the first half of 1700s. 

Coincidentally, and maybe now not so ironically, both areas came to have a later connection to my dad during the months before and after the German Reich fell to Allied troops in World War II.

Freed to sweep into southern Germany after being halted when fuel supplies had been shifted instead to British armies in the north, American units reached Tailfingen too late to free prisoners who had been brought west from Auschwitz to work on an airfield for German Night Fighters.

Instead they found only a mass grave and the remains of nearly 100 prisoners who had been cremated.  The remaining prisoners had been moved to other camps from which they were ultimately forced on a death march south to Dachau where those who survived would be liberated when the Americans reached that infamous camp.

My dad’s unit was dismounted from armor and remounted on horses and in Jeeps and in reconnaissance aircraft to patrol for NAZIs trying to flee to the south.

But in addition to processing prisoners for the return home, they were processing some of the nearly 60,000 civilian refugees and a similar number of soldiers and airmen who had been detained during the war in neutral Switzerland, many in conditions similar to concentration camps.

When my dad and some friends took an Army Jeep up into the Alps for a few days of snow skiing, they would have driven past those Jewish settlements along the border in Switzerland.   My dad may have learned by then that 20,000 to 25,000 Jewish refugees had been turned away at the Swiss border during the war to face certain death.

On a per capita basis, America was even more reluctant to accept Jewish refugees, ostensibly for fear of infiltrators.  More of a factor may be that the 1930s had been a period of virulent anti-Semitism here too.

These views were held by as much as half of all Americans even as the war came to an end, so I would not be surprised to learn that my dad held some of those views until he was sobered by Dachau.

I doubt he was any more aware of his own trace of Jewish heritage than I was until this week.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Open Source Rule-Making

“The problem with ‘self-regulation’ is that it’s usually ‘no regulation’.”

 Seth Godwin

My involvement in scenic preservation since retiring four years ago from a forty year-career in visitor-centric economic development has given me a front row seat on how regulations evolve, at least in North Carolina, and it isn’t what I thought.

Equally distressing has been learning of the lack of vigor with which they are enforced at the federal level when states and their constituent counties violate or end-run agreements such as those related to the Highway Beautification Act.

A variety of studies by experts explain why this is the case, but also why it is counterintuitive to what those in high office seem to think. But while drilling down, I’ve also come across some future solutions.

Many politicians attack regulations in the name of being pro-business, others defend them as being necessary to compensate for marketplace failures, especially where costs are not fully incorporated by the market but are instead pushed off on the general public.

Economists call these negative externalities.

The latter view is called the “public interest” approach, which is how I have always naively viewed regulations.  But there is a far more insidious rationale called “public choice,” which turns out to be much more prevalent now.

This “public choice” approach refers to the fact that, once enacted, regulations and the very agencies in charge of imposing and enforcing them are “captured by the businesses and industries they are supposed to regulate.”

Often, as has been the case with outdoor billboard companies, regulatory “capture” is gained with the complicity by billboard interests in elected office which in North Carolina were deemed by their peers not to have a conflict of interest because the benefits will accrue to all billboard companies, not just to the billboard owners behind the legislation or regulations.

This convoluted reasoning is why transparency isn’t what it is so often cracked up to be and as shown in studies, often serves as an enabler for others to cross the line, a shady quid pro quo.

An excellent study published in 2006 revealed that business interests have far greater influence in regulatory rule-making than either public interest groups or the general public, more than twice as much, and not because their input was more substantive.

Ironically, or maybe cynically, Republican candidates seem prone to pose the issue of regulatory reform as being pro-business.

Democratic party candidates often defend regulations as being pro-consumer but seem to fail to understand that this is the very reason regulatory reform as a means to cleanse them of “capture” should be so important as a bipartisan issue.

The news media, as with most things counterintuitive, usually settles for just parroting “bumper sticker” slogans. Unraveling misperceptions such as this must seem too daunting.  So regulatory reform is often reported with little or no penetrating analysis and never with persistence.

This all clouds the issue of regulatory reform which has real day-to-day consequences.

While it doesn’t explicitly account for “externalities,” an excellent analysis co-authored by Dr. John Dawson, a peer with my friend Dr. Dana Clark who heads the hospitality degree program at Appalachian State University’s Walker School of Business, calculates that federal regulations have reduced economic growth by 2% a year between 1949, the year after I was born and 2005.

Regulations in the public interest are meant to act as a sort of hidden tax on activities where the free market fails to account for negative costs that are pushed off onto the general public instead.  But because the regulations aren’t revisited for simplification or to simplify or remedy unintended consequences, they often fail in that purpose.

Regulatory reform is far from simple even when genuinely and/or astutely undertaken.

Findings from studies about regulatory reform among states are mixed as to whether legislatures or governors are more effective, but most give the nod to governors.  Courts are shown to play an ineffective role, especially where judges are elected such as in North Carolina.

Here, the legislature set up a commission to oversee rule-making, but failed to insulate it from partisanship, abuse of power by individual legislators or “capture-driven” by business interests.  Unfortunately, this commission often pretends to be a court, although unauthorized.

Recent regulatory legislation starts off with a few pages of just that. Then it succumbs to six times that number of pages filled with “regulatory capture” by extremely narrow “whiner” business interests.

This legislation sets back true regulatory reform by decades.  You can often see these same “whiner” interests at work in a local chamber of commerce.

Years ago, committees in these member-driven local business advocacy organizations were carefully balanced to represent all interests including the general public’s and that of the communities whose business climates they were meant to represent. 

Many have now devolved to be havens for self-appointed committees of “whiners” working to end run more legitimate forums that are free of conflicts of interest, or worse, to push on behalf of special interests including the “capture” of regulatory rule-making.

Executives who once safeguarded the integrity of these organizations from whiners now often enable them instead or lead ambushes in hopes of gaining a member or two.

Rather than pro-business, many groups like this are complicit in regulatory “capture” and anathema to business climates.

They would have been well served to have attended a one-day symposium last spring at NYU’s Stern School of Business entitled “Darwin’s Business: New Evolutionary Thinking About Cooperation, Groups, Firms and Societies.”

In writing recently about the event in Forbes, Stern business professor Dr. Jonathan Haidt and Binghamton University biology professor Dr. David Sloan Wilson noted that:

“…people have been applying Darwin to business since Darwin’s day, but they applied a cramped and crippled version, assuming that Darwinism’s primary postulate was that the strong do (and should) crush the weak.”

Instead, evolution is actually far more about cooperation.  Haidt provides Chapter 9 of his best seller The Righteous Mind as background to this notion, which is highly recommended to anyone interested in legitimate regulatory reform.

The Stern School of Business is the first to think about and seriously relate modern evolutionary science to the world of business.  Visit Evolution: This View of Life or click here for snippets as well as full-length versions of the talks at the spring symposium held at Stern. 

Integral to regulatory reform should be the notion of “coopetition,” a term we used during my now-concluded career in community destination marketing.

It refers to the integration of cooperation with competition.  What is good for public interest is good business, what is good for business must be in the public interest.

Regulatory reform is critical.  As a society we can no longer afford regulatory “capture,” a form of hostage taking.

We must break the strangle-hold that narrow-interest whiners have among business interests and on regulatory rule-making.  This means rebalancing business groups, agencies and elected officials to pursue only the most practical, proven and cost-effective regulations possible.

This means regulations that are both in the broader public and business interests.

But since regulatory rule-making is now dominated by business interests, often to the detriment of business in general, a good start for any effort at regulatory reform would do well to begin with Dr. Haidt’s overview entitled “Working With Human Nature To Improve Business Ethics.

Another intriguing idea is open-source regulatory reform and rule-making.  A good overview of how this might work is gained by listening to a TED talk by Beth Simone Noveck who led President Obama’s Open Government Initiative who also founded the “Do Tank.”

Three years ago, the President issued a an executive order to improve regulations and rule-making.  It called required government agencies among other things to (underlining is mine):

(1) propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination that its benefits justify its costs (recognizing that some benefits and costs are difficult to quantify);

(2) tailor its regulations to impose the least burden on society, consistent with obtaining regulatory objectives, taking into account, among other things, and to the extent practicable, the costs of cumulative regulations;

(3) select, in choosing among alternative regulatory approaches, those approaches that maximize net benefits (including potential economic, environmental, public health and safety, and other advantages; distributive impacts; and equity);

(4) to the extent feasible, specify performance objectives, rather than specifying the behavior or manner of compliance that regulated entities must adopt; and (5) identify and assess available alternatives to direct regulation, including providing economic incentives to encourage the desired behavior, such as user fees or marketable permits, or providing information upon which choices can be made by the public.

More importantly, the President called for more public involvement in regulations and rule-making, a 21st Century approach.  In a related move he issued an order opening up government data for public and private use.

As noted by Noveck in her speech, what we have done to involve the public until now is primarily with voting and juries. This is much too slow and cumbersome in today’s world.

In her speech, she gives a number of examples where open source government is at work, including the U.S. Patent Office and states such as Texas which use “policy wikis” to craft better regulations and policies and to simplify the ones that exist.

It is not about privatization or transparency, both of which have serious drawbacks.  She gives a number of examples.  There may not yet be legal precedent for open-source government but there should be.

I think she is on to something.