Built to Last – Lessons Still Endure For All

As a business person, my favorite business book is “Built to Last – Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” written in 1994 by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. This book is a data driven book that looks at the habits of 18 highly successful companies and contrasts their results to the second best competitor in their industries. The data support their arguments, but the book is an easy read and a not an arcane business book. To me, its lessons can be translated to any organization or governmental entity, be it national, state, province or local. If you would like to explore it more, check out the WikiLeaks summary of the book which is quite good.

While I read this book several years ago, today’s business, political and governmental climate of more short-term thinking troubles me. As our country does not have the patience to see if an idea works, we are destined to try small band-aid solutions that will never get at the underlying problems. I would say, though, band-aids can help if they move things incrementally forward, but many of our problems will take longer term planning and execution that will go beyond the terms of office of those making the decisions. This occurs in business as well as governments. The businesses who are publicly traded must meet analysts expectations on a quarterly basis. Think of how many times you have seen a business do better, but miss expectations and are crucified. So, it is not uncommon for businesses to forego longer term solutions that are not “accretive” or additive to short-term earnings.

Clearly, the same holds true in governments whether they are in the US or abroad. In these partisan days, we have too many people kicking the can down the road. They won’t take necessary action during times of prosperity and have predictable problems grow and must be resolved during times of economic strife. They did not learn their bible lessons from Joseph who had a dream that his Egyptian captors should save grain from the seven years of fortune, as seven years of famine would follow. I equate this example to the Bush tax cuts in the early part of the century that were not needed and started us back down a path of deficit problems.

In “Built to Last,” the 18 companies studied dwarfed the performance over time of that of their best competitors.  They did not just dwarf the industry average performance; they significantly outperformed some very good companies. There were several lessons learned from these companies that formed the “successful habits” presented in the book. A brief review of these habits and some analogies follow:

Build a clock, don’t just tell time

These organizations were built from the outset to do more than just one thing. In fact, some of the companies failed at their first idea. Yet, they built a framework to develop new ideas and concepts. This is needed in government as well as business and non-profit organizations. What is the framework to plan and execute our strategies? In the US, this framework for future strategy has to be done in a thoughtful, non-partisan manner. Otherwise, we all will fail.

Be more than profits

These companies are all good community citizens. They recognize that for their business to flourish, their communities must be vibrant and take care of those less fortunate. This helps their customers and employees. It shows this is a great place to work. It also helps their shareholders, as the performance numbers are powerful. In the book it highlights how Dow Chemical survived one the worst chemical spill disasters in India, in part because they were a good community citizen. People knew the company was mortified by this tragedy and worked with them to rebound. Contrast this to the company whose coal-miners were killed in West Virginia two years ago. This company had a long history of trying to usurp the law and had a trail of audit issues for safety violations.

I equate this to some of our very conservative thinkers who want only to promote individual achievement. While we do need to reward and promote success, we have to be more than profits. Paraphrasing Gandhi, a community’s greatness is measured in how it takes  care of its less fortunate. We have to help those in need climb the ladder. Otherwise we will end up with the haves and have-nots. Having seen the “Hunger Games” last night, it is not unlike some dictatorial cultures where those that have do well and those that do not live in poverty. We have places like that on Earth today and our economic disparity in our own country is rather disgraceful for a free country.

Preserve the core but stimulate progress

These companies had enviable track records of success and had a core set of businesses. Yet, they all looked to grow. They realized to survive they had to progress, to make things more efficiently, more effectively and seek new avenues for growth. Our country has an enviable construct of government. It bothers me greatly when people want to mess with that construct. That is our core. Yet, we do need to work to define what is truly needed and develop a longer term plan for progress. We have added tools (laws, regulations, bureaucracies) over time to help us progress, so we need to review these and make sure they are still effective. Where our tools are outdated, redundant or less effective, we should refine them to promote progress. But, we need to preserve the core.

Set Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGS)

Many people have heard or used this term, but don’t know where it came from. These companies have been successful because they set bold goals or BHAGs. One of the boldest goals noted in the book is that of John F. Kennedy when he declared at his inauguration that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  At the time, America had seen several launch failures, not unlike the recent North Korean missile failure. So, it was indeed a BHAG. And, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in July, 1969. We need more of this in business and government. While the President has declared and set mpg standards for cars, something like we will make America’s energy production entirely green by 2050 would be a BHAG I think we should strive for. To do this would require a lot of planning, industry support and buy-in and execution. Industry knows global warming is happening, they just don’t want to come out in public and admit it clearly as it impacts their business. They are more focused on short-term profits rather than addressing longer term trends.

Cult-like Cultures

One of the more interesting habits was this one on cult-like cultures. They cited the customer service focus of Nordstrom and how the customer came before the shareholder. Their mantra is if we take care of the customer, the shareholders will make more money. They actually inverted the pyramid structure, putting the customer at the top.  New employees would need to adopt this or leave. Other companies had similar culture issues. Equating this to our country, Americans believe fervently in freedoms. They also believe in fairness. So, when things begin to look unfair, Americans will act. That is our cult-like culture. Yet, we need our community conscious leaders to let us know when things are becoming unfair.

Try a lot of stuff and keep what works

The successful companies are constantly trying new ideas. Sometimes they fail. It notes the example of Texas Instruments who used to be a darling of Wall Street. Back in the 1970’s, they had a leadership group that would actually publicly humiliate you for perceived dumb ideas. Guess what happened? Idea creation went to zero and TI fell by the wayside. In an another example, I read where a CEO made a $10 million mistake on a new venture. The Chairman of the Board called him in and instead of telling him he was fired, congratulated him on trying something new. That is why he had hired him. This is an interesting converse to the TI story.

In today’s world, I hate to see when people are unfairly punished for failures, real or perceived. We are human and we mess up. We make decisions based on the best information available.  I would want to understand why things failed. Why did Solyndra fail, e.g.? It was likely due to the Chinese government providing grants to solar energy companies to drive all competitors out of business. Yet, we see this as a poster child as to why not to invest in solar energy. That is very short-sighted as this industry is key to our future and is showing very promising developments.

Good enough never is

I switched the order of the chapters as I see a lot in this chapter with the above.  These companies never rested on their laurels. They always said this is good, but we could be or do it better. They never are satisfied with good enough. They strived to be more. This is one of the geniuses of Steve Jobs. He never was satisfied with good enough. He was quite adamant and even an asshole about it. Yet, those who worked with him saw his vision come true time and time again. There were many times when he could have let an inferior effort get to the market place, but he was enamored with the art and elegance of the product. He wanted the Mac to look good on the inside as well as the outside. He wanted the walls of the factory to be painted white as it shows the dirt and had to be cleaned more. He wanted the impression that if we care so much about cleanliness, we really care about our products.

Home grown management

This habit was equally amazing to read about. I will cite these numbers incorrectly, but out of the 500 or so leaders these 18 companies had over time,  495 of them came from within. Meaning these companies promoted recognizable leaders from their own ranks. This went against a preconceived notion. In actuality, promoted leaders were recognized for their success as natural transitions, their promotion opened other promotions which led to better career-pathing and the companies benefited from the intrinsic knowledge of how to get things done in the company, whose counsel to seek out and whose to avoid.

My old company made the mistake of hiring outside leadership several times in the last eight years. Each time, the leaders were eventually fired. It became a revolving door. Each time the leaders would try ideas that had been tried before and failed in this company. Several times decisions were made and announced and the employees knew the day of the announcement that the decision was poor. They would inevitably not know who to trust, so they would bring in new leaders from outside. As these folks were not known commodities, the mistakes would be magnified. And, the good internal candidates would leave creating a greater void.

New blood is good when effectively used. A company needs new ideas. Yet, it cannot throw out what makes them successful with the bath water. Our country needs leaders of all types. We cannot have only new leaders who have never governed before. And, we cannot just rely on leaders who have only governed.  We need people who know how to get things done who know others in other areas of government. Yet, we do need new ideas as well.

If you have not read this book, I would encourage you to do so. There are good lessons for many types of governance. The businesses and governments who think long term and embrace these successful habits will flourish. And, so will we as citizens, customers, shareholders and employees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Class Matters – Socioeconomic class that is

When you read this title, there are several interpretations that come to mind. While I am a firm believer in acting in a classy way, treating others like you want to be treated, the “class” I am referring to here is socio-economic class. There is a body of work spawned by research conducted by the New York Times, which led to the publishing of a book under this same title – “Class Matters.” It also led to a revolution of thought and I would encourage you to visit “www.classmatters.org for more information.

In essence, the term class matters refers to the tenet that your socio-economic class is a key factor in your ability to ask questions of those who are trying to serve you. The higher strata of socio-economic class is highly correlated with better education and more confidence. This translates into the greater ability and lesser reluctance to question things. On the converse, those in lower socio-economic classes tend to have lesser education and more self-esteem issues. They have a greater inability and lack of confidence to question those in power or who are trying to serve them.  As a result, those in the lower classes often make poorly informed decisions as they are:

  • too scared to ask questions,
  • feel threatened if they do so,
  • feel they will show their ignorance if they do,
  • do not know the right questions to ask, and/or
  • fall into a trusting mode, whether legitimate or not, that the person serving them knows what they are doing as they are wearing a doctor’s coat or suit and tie.

To illustrate this concept using a real life occurrence, the current housing crisis we are facing has many areas of cause from the lenders to rating agencies to investment managers to developers to buyers. At the heart of the problem, we had too many developers and realtors selling houses to people who could not afford that price of house and mortgage lenders providing mortgages to people who should not have that level of mortgage or who did not fully understand the terms of the loan. The buyers did not understand what a variable mortgage is or, using one of the lender’s terms, what a “pick-a-payment” or flexible payment mortgage entailed. The concept of negative amortization is term that was not well-explained or fully understood. In “House of Cards” a line that resonates with me is lenders were providing money to people who could “fog a mirror.” Then, they packaged up all of these poor risks in collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and sold them to investors who thought they were buying a less risky product. The rating agencies did not help by stamping these CDOs with a AAA rating.

There are some who firmly believe in the concept of “let the buyer beware.” In their minds, the people who bought these houses and took out these loans should have been more aware “like I would have been.”  As a consequence, they believe the buyers should be held entirely responsible for the housing crisis. This school of thought has some merit, but misses two greater issues. First, if you have ever bought a house, you are asked to sign more papers than in any other transaction. I would wager that an exceedingly high percentage of buyers do not read every word of what they are signing. The legalese is too complex. More often than  not, they will ask the attorneys to explain simply what they are signing. I would also wager that in these transactions people actually sign papers they do not fully understand.

Second, with that context, people in a lower socio-economic class will be even more trusting of those in suits and ties. They would ask even fewer questions and understand even less of what they are signing. When the American Dream is to own a home and people in suits and ties paint a picture that you can afford this home, the buyers believed them more times than they should have. In some cases, the seller put “perfume on a pig” to dress up the sale as best as possible. Individuals were shown monthly payment numbers and did not realize those numbers could dramatically change every two years. In some cases, their income and wealth numbers were inflated to show they could afford a house and mortgage they otherwise would not. The buyers trusted people showing these numbers and signed on the many dotted lines.

Two true stories will embellish these points. The poster child for one extreme end of what happened was a builder based in Atlanta. The CEO and CFO were convicted of criminal and unethical actions they helped perpetuate with home buyers. In essence, the company-realtors representing  new developments did not represent they would make an extra bonus if you bought in this new neighborhood. They did not represent the inspector was being paid off to inflate the price of the house and show no problems existed. They did not represent that the mortgage lender they recommended was affiliated with the developer. So, along comes the buyer who does not know this, does not know to ask these questions and who sees a financial representation that they can afford this house. Even people above the lower socio-economic classes were taken in by this criminal behavior, yet the lower class people did not stand a chance.

The other anecdote took down a bank of which I was shareholder. This bank bought  a mortgage bank who had developed the concept of the “pick-a-payment” mortgage. This flexible payment mortgage concept was geared for a very astute buyer, not the masses of people who bought it. Mortgage people at this bank wondered why the CEO of the acquirer was pushing these mortgages even up to six months before the bank was destined to fail.  A mortgage person for that bank said we are having “pick-a-payment parties” to promote the sale of these mortgages. We are selling these mortgages to people who do not know what they are buying. They do not understand when they do not pay enough, their mortgage principal increases. Like with the above example, the lower socio-economic class buyers did not stand a chance. The people in higher classes suffered as well.

Yet, the class matters concept goes beyond these examples. It happens in everyday life, whether it is visiting the doctor, buying a car or something on credit or being served by the bank on other issues. We have people who will go into debt as they do not know the exposure they are adding with each purchase. In today’s world, there is a dearth of customer service. You have to be the navigator of your own customer service experience. Many people do not realize this as the case and tend to delegate the responsibility to the customer service person. We don’t ask enough questions of doctors seeking alternative treatments or payment plans. We accept the terms of a store credit card without knowing that if we fail to make one of the 30-60-90 day payments, we will pay back interest to the point of sale. We do not understand that we need to pay more than the minimum credit card payment as it will take 30 years to pay off a washer and dryer purchase. We do not ask the question, do I really need yet another credit card? We do not realize we have the power to say “no.”

I tell my children “people want your money, so you need to understand that.” Sometimes, they want it by legitimate means. Sometimes they have enticing commercials which are too good to be true. And, sometimes they will try to steal it from you online or by lying to you in person. You have to guard against this. With this backdrop, someone in a  lower socio-economic class will not ask enough questions to be served. They will take that extra credit card that arrives in the mail. They will sign up for the 30-60-90 day store plan to get a 10% discount not knowing the full ramifications of the transaction. I have also witnessed in helping homeless families, budgeting skills could be improved and asking questions about “must have” purchases are not done often enough. Sometimes these “needs” are actually “wants” and could be postponed. They do not know how to zealously navigate the use of coupons or the best times to buy products. They do not ask for the manager or supervisor when being ill-served.

This week I read a series on the inability of hospitals to uniformly offer reduction or the abatement in cost to those without health insurance and in an impoverished state. Someone wrote in that they successfully navigated payment options from one of the studied hospitals asking why couldn’t others have done that. When I read the letter critical of the people short-changed, the concept of class matters entered into my head. The people in need did not navigate the system as they did not know or have the confidence to ask the right questions. They did not relentlessly pursue options. This is exacerbated by the lack of transparency of the payment system, so it takes a concerted effort to understand what is happening even for people in higher classes. There are other examples in our society where you have to make a concerted effort to understand the details.

In closing, my hope is for more people to understand that class matters in getting proper help and service. We have to make it easier for people to ask questions, search for answers and be better served or, at least avoid being ill-served. It is OK to ask questions. As the teachers often say “the only dumb question is the one not asked.”  Please help others remember that. Offer to go with someone to the doctor to help ask the right questions. Or, encourage people to write their questions down beforehand. Encourage people to not get into credit exposure beyond their means.  Share your wisdom of purchasing or not purchasing items. Sources like Consumer Reports, BBB , Angie’s List,  http://www.cars.com are vital tools, e.g. Yet, I guess the big take away is to not assume people are like you. You may have avoided stepping  in the hole, but you would have asked more questions. Not everyone will. Offer them your help and understanding.

I Could Tolerate Moderate Mitt but not his Rowdy Friends

Being and independent voter is a liberating exercise, as it affords the opportunity to look at the candidates from a less-influenced position. From my earlier posts, I believe you can easily glean that I am in favor of keeping President Obama at the helm. Although far from perfect he has done a very credible job in steering our ship, even though his opposition would lead you to believe otherwise. Part of the issue is their need to say “night” every time he says “day,” but the other part is our impatience as a society. Both Democrats, Republicans and Independents can claim this fault. We are looking for panaceas that will cure all of our woes in a flash. Unfortunately, that is not how it works and many of our solutions to our problems will take time. As noted before in earlier posts, that is a key reason we need bi-partisan collaboration and planning, as the solutions will go beyond the term of any incumbent’s office.

I provide this context as one of the President’s strengths, but some would say is a fault from the liberal left, is he has been a moderate from the outset. I have noted before that he and Senator John McCain were not too far apart on many issues. They both were moderates – moderate left and moderate right. That is precisely what we need to resolve our problems – a moderate view that takes in all arguments. It will alienate the extremists on both sides, which has left the liberal left wanting more and the Tea Party in attack mode. I go back to what Warren Buffett said about our President. He said he is the “most judicious editor of information” that he has ever witnessed. He listens to all sides and makes informed choices. This can be a weakness at times, as we need someone to be bolder on occasion, but he is listening to others views.

Unfortunately, he does not get the credit he deserves for this. My main problem with his term has been his lack of willingness to take up the reins of the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Reduction Plan, but other areas – energy/ environment, health care reform passage, connection with the community colleges, getting the first stimulus through which was effective but short of what was needed, foreign policy actions (Iraq, Bib Laden, overall reputation in the world), Dodd-Frank,  gays in the military actions and saving the US auto industry are all check marks in his favor. I recognize fully no law is perfect, but he has moved issues forward that are important. And, the economy has slowly gotten better one month at a time, 25 months in a row, but any president gets far too much credit and blame for his ability to affect the economy.

Which brings me to the presumed GOP candidate, Mitt Romney. If the real moderate Mitt carries the day in November, this is a presidency I could tolerate, even though I will not vote for him. Our country dodged a huge bullet when Rick Santorum bowed out and when Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul fell by the wayside. Our country does not need their kind of leadership as it would take us down various paths that we need to avoid. But, as Forrest Gump would say, “that is all I am going to say about that.” Moderate Mitt would bring a perspective not too dissimilar than that of John McCain. In some respects, he is more conservative than McCain while in others he is less conservative. One of his greatest triumphs is the Massachusetts Health Care Law, but he has had to hide from this success. With America’s broken, expensive health care system, Health Care Reform  is an imperfect step in the right direction, but it does and has so far, moved us forward. And, it is very similar to what was done in Massachusetts, so don’t let Mr. Romney tell you otherwise.

So, Moderate Mitt would be OK, unfortunately his election would be like that of Andrew Jackson’s when all of his relatives and friends physically trashed the White House. I use this analogy figuratively, but the concern I would have is Mitt Romney’s victory would move us from center left to center right and make his extreme, rowdy friends on the right have more of a voice. And, that would truly be unfortunate for our country. It is hard enough for President Obama to govern when the extreme right hog ties the Speaker of the House and Senate Minority Leader with their shall we say “strident” views and uncollaborative bent. In some respects, I feel sorry for John Boehner, as he gets ostracized when he tries to meet the President halfway. I feel less sorry for Mitch McConnell as he has never shown a bent for collaboration and his primary mission over the last few years to “make Obama a one term President” is Exhibit A to his make up. As I have said before, Senator McConnell, your primary mission is to govern the country.

Just to give you a few of my concerns about the “rowdy friends,” please note the following:

  • I am extremely concerned about the GOP’s position on global warming, the environment and desire to do away with the EPA. We fell behind eight years with President George W. Bush in the White House and the premise to do away with the EPA is about the dumbest idea I have ever heard and would be huge disservice to our country and planet.
  • I am concerned by the influence of Grover Norquist on the no tax increase pledge. Folks, we cannot cut our way out of our deficit problem – the math will not work. We have 15% of GDP revenue and 24% of GDP expenses. That 9% deficit cannot be achieved only with spending cuts. And, defense spending which is being included in the current budget cuts has to be cut even more.
  • The GOP is very out of touch with the middle class on down. We have serious economic equity issues and more than half of those voting for the GOP do not know they are voting against their economic interests. And, before the next person shouts “socialism,” please note Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are socialistic programs. America has tended to take care of its less fortunate dating back to beating back the robber barons’ winner take all efforts. Upton Sinclair highlighted the issues in “The Jungle” and some of his ideas were adopted later by FDR. So, we should reward success, but help those in need climb a ladder out of poverty. If you read “Nickel and Dimed in America” you will note that it is not a truism that you can work hard and escape poverty at all turns in our country. For every Herman Cain, there are thousands of Joe and Jane Smiths who cannot work their way up the ladder.
  • Education is our biggest challenge in America. We have a national tragedy that does not get enough attention. Dropping to 23rd and 27th in Science and Math in the world will not cut it. Even the new manufacturing jobs require some education to run the technology and diagnostic equipment. When Mercedes built a plant in Alabama, they had to resort to more pictures in the manuals because of the reading capabilities of the workers. And, per Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum in “That Used to be Us,” innovation is portable. If the innovators cannot get people to execute their ideas here, they will take the production and innovation management elsewhere. This is also a reason to make sure we keep college bound children of illegal aliens here in our country. They have grown up here so there is a fairness issue, but from an economic standpoint, you do not want to run off smart people.
  • From a cultural standpoint, we do not need the Evangelical crowd to have more influence than they do. I am a spiritual person, but we have a separation of church and state for a reason. We have to respect and celebrate our diversity. We have to relish in the freedoms we have in our country. And, we have to frown on people who say “leave us alone, except make sure the other person does this and doesn’t do that.” To me that is the height of hypocrisy. And, as noted in earlier posts, the greatest words in my bible, which are echoed in other religious texts, are “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” I looked and Jesus does not caveat these wonderful words with, “unless they are gay, lesbian or Muslim.”

So, if for some reason Mr. Romney carries the day in the fall, I pray that it is Moderate Mitt who governs. I pray he can keep the rowdies at bay as much as possible. With that said, unless a very good third candidate comes out of America Elects (which is possible), I am advocating keeping our President. Mr. Buffett has pegged him correctly.

The Perils of Fracking

On this Earth Day, 2012, I am obligated to write about a subject that is not getting sufficient discussion. Last week, a North Carolina Senate Panel recommended fracking be done in NC beginning in 2014 once the regulations and safeguards have been developed. Fracking, which is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, is an extreme measure to harvest natural gas which lies beneath several states in the US. Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and  few other states are permitting it to occur. Unfortunately for their citizens, they get to be the guinea pigs and get to witness the economic boom for some and the perils to many.

Fracking is one of four extreme measures to extract fossil fuels which need to be ceased or severely limited due to their environmental dangers. The other three are

  • offshore drilling – we are witnessing fish deformities in the Gulf of Mexico as reported last week due to the derrick collapse and oil spill of two years ago;
  • oil shands retrieval – the cost to retrieve is significant and toxins escaping in the environmental are of concern;
  • mountain-top removal to get at coal – on top of the damage done to the aesthetics of a region, this vents numerous toxins and supports an energy source that needs to be eliminated.

Fracking gets pushed by the Oil and Gas Industry as it makes a ton on money for them. Plus, the people who sell rights to their land can retire early. In general, when there is so much money to be had, people should question things more, but we often gloss over the details and fine print. When I have seen T. Boone Pickens on “60 Minutes,” he will say well there are some drawbacks we need to investigate, yet it does not stop the industry from plowing ahead. The Environmental Protection Agency is always trying to catch up to this industry and others as the standard defense is the data is not conclusive. As a sidebar, we need the EPA to be larger and more strident, so any politician who advocates doing away with the EPA is doing a disservice to our country and planet.

In essence, fracking takes chemically loaded water that is used to blast away at rock buried beneath the ground. It now can be deployed horizontally, which means it can be performed to a far greater extent after digging the vertical hole. The chemicals are used to lubricate the rock and assist in the hydraulic blasting to release the gas. Dr. Sandra Steingraber refers to it as “slickwater hydrofracking” in her book “Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis.” There are many problems that result from this process that need to be highlighted.

First, the chemically loaded water has to go somewhere after being used. And, anyone who has had a water problem in their house knows, water finds the path of least resistance. The poisoned water leaks into the water table of the surrounding areas, so people who live near the drilling will have a water supply that is not drinkable. “60 Minutes” did a report on how people in Pennsylvania could ignite the water. Bathing or cleaning clothes in this water exposed them as well to the chemical toxins.

Second, the blasting itself releases the various toxins built up inside of the bedrock. Methane, arsenic, mercury to name a few escape into the environment. This air is not only breathed in, but also the particles settle on the trees and ground. I mention this settling, as often times an area may be cleaned up, but following the next big windstorm, will be repolluted when the toxins are blown back into the air. There are numerous physical and mental maladies that can be traced to these toxins and evidence of higher degrees of exposure are beginning to surface due to fracking. These maladies are traceable to other sources of exposure as well.

In Dr. Steingraber’s book, she notes children run the greatest risk of exposure which is the major point of her book – let’s protect our children. Children are closer to the ground, breath in far more than their body weight relative to an adult, tend to mouth breath more than adults taking in even more air and tend to put their hands in their mouth ten times per hour on average. So, toxins can be ingested as well as breathed in. With their brains not fully developed, any toxin that can hinder the process is more problematic for a child than adult. I would also add increased premature births and miscarriages are correlated to areas exposed more to certain toxins.

Third, the infrastructure and process to frack is tremendously debilitating to the surrounding area. Trees are taken down, roads are encumbered by very heavy machinery with their toxic exhaust and the staging areas overwhelm places. The farmer who sells gets his nice income, but he is infringing on his neighbors and his other rights and freedoms to live and make a living. This infrastructure causes a significant amount of environmental and aesthetics problems.

Fourth, if that were not enough, in Oklahoma, there has been a significant increase in the number of earthquakes that have occurred in the past. It was reported Oklahoma was experiencing 300 more earthquakes than normal trends. Although not confirmed as causal, there is a high correlation between the earthquakes and fracking in the area. The Oil and Gas Industry would say this is does not prove anything, yet this is the kind of data that needs to cause a pause in the action as it is investigated further. The industry position is to dig away until proven. It should be noted that many developers in all kinds of industries have a history of focusing first and foremost on their short term profit and less about what is left behind for others. That is someone else’s problem, so to speak.

Yet, let’s set aside all of that for now. If that does not convince you we need not pursue fracking, consider this. Fracking takes a huge amount of water out of the water system. Usually, when water is used for some purpose it can go back into the drinking supply. However, with slickwater fracking, using Dr. Steingraber’s term, the water cannot go back into the water system as it is loaded with poisonous chemicals. This is of vital importance, as water is or will be the new gold on our planet. In the south three years ago, we had a huge drought which heightened our water problems. Atlanta’s water sustainability was exposed. Here in NC, we say rationing and lakes became extremely low. In fact, as of this writing, water shortage is of concern once again. Texas has a significant water shortage where wells have dried up and water is being imported from other locations.  In other parts of the world, the problem is far worse and even inhumane.

So, before we charge ahead and say fracking is the new panacea, please make sure these issues are highlighted. The rhetoric around new jobs, new income streams and a new fuel source will usually dominate the discussion, if it is discussed at all. On the day after the NC Senate Panel ruled to move forward, it was reported deep in my paper and none of the TV stations reported on it all, even in their websites. Fracking may be one of the most significant problems coming there way and it was overshadowed by all of the other news of the day.

On this Earth Day, we owe it to our children and ourselves to question things such as fracking and look at unbiased data. Especially when people see the dollar signs they do and can be influenced by lobbyists with  promises of panaceas, we need to say let’s look at this further. At a bare minimum, when someone says we need to do away with the EPA, please tell them you are not in favor of that and let them know why. We only have one Earth and we are not treating it very well.

The Wrong Side of History – NC is next in line to see where it will stand

As noted before, I call North Carolina home and am proud of my state in many ways. I learned earlier this week that NC is a leader in solar energy development in the country, in part due to Duke Energy’s leadership, but primarily due to the requirement imposed by the state in 2007 for utilities to have 12.5% of the energy supplied by renewable energy sources by 2025. That is cool. Unfortunately, we took a step backward later in the week with a NC Senate Panel voting to allow fracking, but that issue is for a future post.

My reason for titling this post as I did and for voicing these concerns today is the amendment to the state constitution which will be voted on in the May 8 NC elections. Early voting has started as of today. The evangelical, conservative wing of the Republican Party which took power in 2010 over the state congress has decided that the existing law preventing same-sex marriage was not stringent enough. So, we have the opportunity to vote for an Amendment One to the state constitution. This amendment says we really mean it when we say no to same-sex marriages in the constitution. Unfortunately, it goes even further and states in its opening paragraph:

“Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”

So, legal interpretations of the above could deny rights to civil unions between different sexes, as well as the obvious unions between same gender couples. This could cause concerns over benefits afforded by employers, in addition to the general slap in the face for couples who have civil unions.

I have noted in earlier blogs about the best and worst of religion and the need to give the same rights to LGBT citizens as we provide to other citizens. The worst of religion is when it is exclusive. When religion denigrates others it becomes something that many do not want to be a part of. As we speak, the Catholic Church is coming down hard on a group of nuns who are supporting women’s issues in America. What the Pope and other religious leaders fail to realize is when you become exclusive, you drive people away. And, you may have a self-fulfilling prophesy. There is a church in Davidson, NC that is down to three members. The church has aged out and not been very inclusive. I use this example as a metaphor as lot of churches are in trouble and need to do better to reach their audiences and be more inclusive.

I read this morning that one of the GOP US Congressional candidates was arguing against another who said Amendment One would be harmful to business and was unfair. The advocate for Amendment One said he was ashamed when people vote against values. From where I sit, the real “values” reside in the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It does not say, do unto others, unless they are gay or lesbian. To me this supersedes any other language written by men as they attempted to interpret God’s word. I emphasize the word attempt as the Christian Bible, like other religious texts, were written by men who are imperfect. They may have been divinely inspired, but they are still human authors. And, I would add the Bible has been translated on numerous occasions and many Christians read the King James’ version. So, it has been subject to translation bias and error by men as well.

Why do I say this? People quote from the Bible often, but fail to realize that it was written by men. If you follow the Bible to the letter, you would also require wives to obey their husbands, which would take us back a notch. This is off the subject, but on BBC America last night they reported how Pakistani husbands are getting away with throwing acid on their wives faces disfiguring them greatly. Laws are trying to prevent this, but the religious culture is too ingrained and the husbands escape punishment.

I digress as I want to emphasize the greatness of our US constitution when our forefathers required a separation of church and state. They did this for a reason. We need to support the rights of all of our citizens regardless of their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability status, age or sexual orientation. We need to continue down the path of assuring equal rights for all not having amendments like this one which denies rights. To me this is where “values” reside. I value the greatness of our country to allow different religions to believe as they choose, but I value more the right giving us citizens the freedom to choose our religion. I also do not wish someone’s religious beliefs to infringe upon another’s freedoms. That is my values proposition.

As with the Women’s movements in the 1910’s and in the 1970’s, the Civil Rights movements of African-Americans which culminated in laws passed in the 1960’s, the right side of history showed that these laws and mores were a long time coming. We can look back now and see how discriminatory the denial of these rights and freedoms were. When we look back fifty years from now, we will see how discriminatory laws like Amendment One were. I was quoting an old song yesterday from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young “Teach your Children Well.” The song ends with the converse, where it implores children to teach your parents well. Our children see this as discriminatory and will eventually rectify these failures. Surveys indicate children and young adults see the rights and freedoms of LGBT’s the same way they see the rights of others.  I am hoping we can save them trouble in NC by voting down this foolish amendment. And, in so doing will lead other states and the country down the path of rectifying these previous wrongs.

If those evangelicals asked What Would Jesus Do? –  He would say follow the Golden Rule. Remember, the bible said Jesus hung out more with the disenfranchised and actually had a disdain  for church leaders who were hypocritical. Let’s make Jesus proud and vote down this discriminatory amendment and treat others like we want to be treated. We would then be on the right side of history.

Conservation is Key to our Future – Earth Day Should be Everyday

With global warming upon us and our increased exposure to toxic chemicals which will be made even worse by our toastier planet, Earth Day has become even more relevant. We are now at the point where Earth Day needs to be an everyday celebration to battle our environmental crises. Otherwise, we are in for a rough road the rest of the half-century.

About six years ago, the City of Chicago initiated a strong push as to what its citizens can do as a city to make a difference in  the fight to conserve more energy and water resources. The website http://www.chicagoconservationcorps.org will update you on their progress and how they package together issues and actions to make a difference. Other communities have created similar action plans and have made strident steps to advocate for change. I am reminded of the African saying, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I believe that these on the ground community efforts will be where a lot of action transpires.

If we can get the state and federal government to step even further into the debate, we will be better positioned to combat our environmental crises. I was pleased to learn in my own state of NC with to its requirement in 2007 on energy utilities to have a larger percentage of alternative energy, the solar energy industry has a better foothold than in other states and is growing. This is helping the cost of solar energy production to decline from $9 a watt to $3 a watt. This is a good lesson for other states and the converse is true of good measures done elsewhere – NC should look to those good examples as well.

Yet, getting back to the Chicago example, there are many things we can do as citizens to conserve energy. The CEO of Duke Energy, Jim Rogers, who has been outspoken in the need for alternative energy notes this as a key component of a renewable energy strategy – conserve energy usage. This should be expanded to include water usage as well. Building on several sources of input ranging from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Duke Energy’s 2030 Strategic Plan and three keys from Dr. Sandra Steingraber as presented in her book “Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis” here are a few ideas below to conserve energy, water and other resources and be smarter how we dispose of waste products.

Water Conservation

Water is a dear commodity around the globe, much more so than in the US. Yet, even here water shortages are more prevalent – Texas is facing a severe crisis and many lake beds and water tables are dry. And, three years ago there was a sever water shortage in the southeast in places like Atlanta and Charlotte. This is by no means a complete list, but shows some ideas that could be easily done or may spawn other ideas.

  • Restaurants should not serve water with meals unless the patron asks for water. Encourage places you frequent to do this.
  •  When shaving or brushing your teeth, turn the water off when not in use. This sounds simple, but can make a big a difference and was one of the ideas gleaned from Chicago.
  • Take shorter showers. My dad was in the Navy. On ship, they had 25 seconds of water – five to wet, fifteen to soap and wash and five to rinse. You can go longer than that, but you get the idea.
  • Purchase a low water usage toilet or create one on your own. You can do so by placing a jar filled with sand, pebbles or water in the housing which will limit refills. I have also seen toilets that can be plumbed to reuse shower water for flushing.
  • Plant more indigenous grass and ground cover that require less watering. And, water less. Many people over water to begin with.
  • A California County has gone to an extreme to reuse run off and sewage water for drinking after a significant cleansing process. This stops you in your tracks, but it is actually working pretty well.

Waste Conservation and Discarding Measures

We create a lot of trash and garbage in the US. It boggles the mind. We can make a huge difference by doing some of the following:

  • Create a compost heap. This is one of three key ideas advocated by Dr. Steingraber. Coffee grounds, food waste, pet waste, etc. can become soil nutrients for gardens, shrubs, and flowers. We pay for bagged products that can do the same things we can can do ourselves and we can end up withe better outcomes.
  • Locate where in your communities non-biodegradable trash can be dumped or taken. In our community, Goodwill Industries has an electronics recycling business where they partner with computer makers to find usable machines and parts. Most counties have places for hazardous waste drop offs and sometimes run prescription drug drop offs for expired pills that should not be dumped down the toilet. Locate and use them. Many in my own community are unaware of places to drop off paints, construction materials, etc.
  • Stop buying bottled water and use filters. If you use plastic bottles, please recycle. There is an island of floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean which is a metaphor to what we are doing to our planet.
  • Mulch your grass and leaf clippings rather than bagging them. In Readers Digest this month, it is noted one of the 13 things your lawn person won’t tell you is if you spread your clippings your yard will not need additional nutrients and will do just fine.

Energy Conservation

There are many things that could done here, so I will only list a few. Go to the http://www.duke-energy.com or http://www.ucsusa.org/climateandozonepollution websites for more ideas.

  • Invest in a more fuel-efficient car whether it by a hybrid, electric or increased gas MPG car.
  • Drive less and walk more on short trips. I have several stores within a mile of my house, so I can kill two birds with one stone and get some exercise. Plan errands to maximize utility on trips. Drive smarter by driving the speed limits, coasting into stops and accelerating easily and turning off the car when idling awhile.
  • Use mass transit and advocate the building of more alternatives. It would be harder today to build a Metro with our divisive political climate, but mass transit is critical to the success of a region and the environmental dividends are huge.
  • Retrofit homes with more green appliances and insulation. I mentioned the shower water redeployment, but there are more solar-powered appliances and better insulation techniques that will help in reducing energy usage that will pay for themselves over time.
  • Change the thermostat and water heater by a few degrees. This will pay dividends to your energy bill and help us conserve less energy.
  • Power down electronics overnight and shut off lights when not in use. These will not only save money, but also reduce a fire hazard. And, your computer will be protected from cyber thieves when it is not on.
  • Mow your grass with a non-gas powered motor. Dr. Steingraber advocates the use of a rotary mower, which she uses for exercise as well. A gas mower causes as much environmental damage as a car does over a 100 miles.
  • If your neighborhood permits, dry your clothes on a clothesline. Dryers are huge energy drains. This is the third suggestion by Dr. Steingraber who actually sorts and hangs the clothes on their hangers as they dry.
  • Advocate the use of less fossil fuels and more alternative energy such as solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and hydro. Per Dr. Steingraber, it takes 15 years to make a difference in the environment, so we must start today.
  • Advocate against extreme measures of fossil fuel retrieval such as fracking, mountain top coal excavation, deep-sea oil drilling and oil sands harvesting. The impact on the environment is huge. I would add fracking not only has a chemical impact, it takes a huge amount of water that cannot go back into the water supply – so this issue alone affects water conservation issues.

These are just a few ideas for your consideration. I am sure you have many more and I would be interested in seeing them. If I have spawned at least one action by each reader or reinforced someone doing something already, then this post is worth the effort. Many thanks for taking a few minutes to read this. Happy Earth Day.

 

What’s so funny about Peace, Love and Understanding?

Based on the title, if you guessed I am an Elvis Costello fan you would be correct. Although he did not pen this song, this is one of my favorites that he does. While I love the beat, I like it more for the words and its goal. What is so funny about peace, love and understanding?

With so many problems in the world and in our country, it never ceases to amaze me how we can fight over issues that are not that important leaving the more complex issues alone because the solutions are not easy and require sacrifice, planning and commitment. In our country, there are many who have grown weary over the divisiveness and “we/they” scenarios that punctuate every conversation. The so-called combatants and their funders are a key reason, but the media is also at fault. When I hear the media is “biased” against a specific group, I personally don’t see that as much as the so-called “insulted’ group does. Yet, where the media is biased is toward conflict because conflict sells papers, magazines and the supporting advertisements.

Using the title of Mr. Costello’s recording, we should strive toward a goal of being more understanding finding peace and love where we can. We should celebrate our collaborative successes and appreciate our differences rather than use them as a lever to divide. One of my recent posts noted that religion is at its best is when it is inclusive. The antithesis is true as well with religion being at it its worst when it is exclusive. And, it goes beyond religion to any grouping of people whether they are elected or not.

In the book “That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How we can Come Back” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, the authors cite one of the most powerful tools to combat negative impression of the US in the Middle East occurred when we had multiple race, gender and ethnic groups as crew members of a ship captained by a female officer. When our loosely termed allies saw this, after getting past their disbelief of a female commander, they realized the greatness of America. They saw full force our melting pot of people and cultures that constitute our country. We are not just Christians – we are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Agnostics. We are not just men in power, we are women working side by side and leading others. We are Hispanic Americans, African-Americans, Native Americans, Caucasian Americans, Asian Americans and so on.

Our diversity is our strength. When we celebrate it, understand our differences and similarities, and channel this diverse power of thought and perspectives, we are unmatched as a country. When we are inclusive, we are a force to be reckoned with. When we are exclusive, we dilute our strength and lessen our effectiveness. Unfortunately, we have let ourselves become divided. We need to alter this course or we will continue our slide downhill.

The President is criticized when he cites that we are not as exceptional as we used to be. He is dead on accurate and I would encourage every person, leader and politician to read the aforementioned book “That Used to be Us…”  I recently heard Sir Ken Robinson, a noted education advocate, speak. he made the comment if you walked on the floor of Parliament in the late 1800’s and told the British rulers that Great Britain would decline in its status as the leading world power by the end of the next generation, you would have been laughed at. In fact, it took less time than that. He says the US is in the same boat today confirming the premise of the book by Messrs. Friedman and Mandelbaum. His thesis confirms the major problem seen by Friedman and Mandelbaum – we have to reinvigorate our education decline in the US. We have fallen in rank in math and science to 23rd and 27th (note the Exxon Mobil commercial cites we are 25th in Math). The only way for us to address this issue is to understand the issues and plan on how best to solve them.

This issue is just one of many that will require a concerted effort that will take time to become effective. Most of our problems, such as the environment, alternative energy, infrastructure, etc. will require collaborative planning and execution simply because the solution will take several Presidential or Congressional terms to show dividends. To do this, we have to have a collaborative effort to seek common ground and understanding. We need multiple voices at the table voicing their opinions, listening to others and developing reasonable plans of attack. We need to get away from these “zero-sum game” fights where someone has to lose. We need the “truth-seekers” to identify the issues and determine where truth is present, but equally important, not present in the data.

We need people to be inclusive and find areas of agreement. I read once that “creativity resides in the intersections of groups, not within the groups themselves.” This was actually used to reference how we can better educate our college students, but it applies to many areas. If the problems are complex meaning the answers need to be well-thought out, it behooves us to make possible these intersections of creativity. We will find more elegant answers to our problems. Yet, to do so means we need to seek to understand.

The understanding will lead us into the other two elements of Elvis’ song – peace and love. It goes without saying if we understand each other better and realize we are not all that different, then aggression will subside. We will find more peaceful resolutions and ways to coexist. People want to live in a peaceful environment. They want to raise their families and live meaningful lives. The opposite is not sustainable. So, why in our country of so many opportunities, do we find ways to divide. Understanding will promote peaceful coexistence. If you have ever visited Costa Rica, you would find a country with a literacy rate of 97%, almost all of whom are bilingual. They also do not have a military. Many US companies have Latin American centers there for this very reason. Think about that – 97% literacy rate and no military. I would add literacy will also aid understanding of others, so if we can become more literate and educated here, great things can happen. You need only look at the decline in literacy of certain countries in the Middle East – if the people are kept less literate, they are more easily controlled and swayed.

I am not ready to sing “Kum Bi Ya” yet and say we all must love each other, but if we understand each other, coexist peacefully, then stranger things could happen than people liking and loving each other more. Just think about these examples. The more we have seen in media and in public bi-racial couples the more such occurrences have become accepted in our society. The more children from bi-racial marriages that have occurred and thrived, the less of an issue this has become. In fact, some of the younger readers may not believe me when I say this was an issue. Bi-racial couples were harder to find back in the 1960’s when I was in my formative years and they actually steered clear of certain regions. Now, such couples are not uncommon at all.

Also, think about the lesbian and gay community. Even though we have a way to go, this country has made major strides in respecting the rights of our LGBT citizens. The “Modern  Family” sit-com on ABC is not an anomaly anymore with many families having members with different sexual preferences. This is why the efforts by very conservative groups to be more restrictive is so unfortunate, as we are being less inclusive. The part that these folks don’t realize is by becoming more exclusive, you are actually pushing people away. I believe this is a key reason organized religion is on the demise. For those who are inclusive, the opposite holds true. You will become more understanding and find the good in all. WWJD – He was, is and would be more inclusive.

Peace, love and understanding. If we start with the latter, the other two will follow. Then, we can get Elvis to sing “Kum Bi Ya” for us as an encore to his titled song.