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Persuasion Will Save the Planet, Pounding Won't

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

By Will Offensicht  |  October 29, 2010

Although our government has been in the habit of passing laws that grossly restrict our freedoms for many years, the tendency really got into hyperdrive with the Obama administration's laws on stimulus, financial regulation, health care, and the house-passed "cap and tax" bill.

The latter bill would have forbidden you to sell your house without getting a federal license which said, among other things, how energy-efficient your house was.  The way the bill was written, the feds could prevent you from selling it at all, even to a willing buyer, unless its energy efficiency was "high enough."

How high was that?  What is "energy efficiency" anyway?  The law didn't say; it was left up to the bureaucracy to define the terms and set the limits any way they wanted and change them at any time, utterly destroying any concept of private property or freedom of transaction.

The Constituent Services Scam

Vague laws are repugnant to citizens.  We want laws to be clear so we know what's legal and what's not.  In fact, both our Founders and the earlier Enlightenment thinkers whose writings informed them, strongly held that the only legitimate laws are those which the people who'll be expected to obey them can readily understand.  Otherwise, there's no reasonable way to expect obedience.  The Supreme Court recently declared unconstitutional a law supposedly regulating fraud by corporate executives, because it was so ambiguous as to cover almost anything.

Our political masters prefer vague laws.  They know that the bureaucracy will abuse the public because that's the nature of bureaucrats.  The more wiggle room the laws give the bureaucracy, the more they'll abuse people.

When people complain to their elected representatives, the Senator or Congressperson can sometimes make a few phone calls and get the matter fixed.  This form of "constituent services" is popular with elected officials because they think they'll get votes in return for favors.  Many officials offer web sites dedicated to constituent services which Google will happily find for you.

Officials spend our money to provide us with constituent services which mostly means helping us deal with the unresponsive bureaucracies they helped create in the first place.  What a scam!  Shame on us for letting them get away with it!

The Power to Tax is the Power to Destroy

We saw a refined form of this scam in the peccadilloes of one of our better-known corruptocrats, Rep. Rangel.  One of the many accusations against him was that he used House stationary to write letters asking businessmen to give money to an institute he was setting up.

The House Ethics Committee noted that one of the businessmen who gave money was the beneficiary of a few critical lines which Rep. Rangel inserted into the tax law.  These few lines saved the businessman 3 to 5 million dollars in taxes, which was far more than he gave the Congressman.  Rep. Rangel had the power to do that sort of thing because he was chairman of the committee that writes tax law.

Nobody has pointed out how this looked from the point of view of the businessman.  Everybody knows that Rangel had the power to save him millions on his taxes by inserting a few lines into the tax code.  Few realize that this cuts both ways - Rangel could just as easily have inserted a few lines which would have cost him 3 to 5 million dollars in additional taxes.

Let's say you're the businessman.  You can kick in a few hundred grand and you'll save 3 to 5 million; not a bad return on your investment.  If you don't pay off the congressman, he'll make a different tweak to the law which will cost you 3 to 5 million in extra taxes.  What would you do?

Strictly speaking, getting money by threatening someone else with dire consequences is called "extortion," but nobody wants to say such a harsh word about a wonderful public servant like Rep. Rangel.

Compulsion and Climate Change

The desire to promote the need for constituent services scam is why our House members were willing to pass such a draconian "cap and tax" law.  They realized that, just as people have to beg them to wrestle with the Social Security bureaucracy, people would now have to beg them for help selling their homes and in getting fuel.  Yet more opportunity to extort campaign contributions!  If you think we're joking, wait and see how people beg for medical care in return for campaign contributions unless someone derails Obamacare.

In any case, environmentalist activists were deeply disappointed when the climate change bill couldn't pass the Senate, thanks to the wisdom of the Massachusetts voters who sent a Republican to the Senate and scuppered the Democrats' veto-proof majority.  These activists are convinced that the world will end unless they're able to force everyone to stop using fuel.  They use legal coercion, sit-ins, sabotage, and criminal trespass to argue their point - a clear sign that they have no actual rational argument and have no choice but to use force.

A Kinder, Gentler Approach

The New York Times pointed out that it doesn't have to be that way.  "In Kansas, Climate Skeptics Embrace Cleaner Energy" describes a nonprofit foundation which took a different approach.  They sidestepped the question of whether human activity causes global warming.  They even ignored the question of whether the earth is or is not getting warmer.

Why?  Because they realized that there was no need to fight that battle, and probably no way to win it:

"Don't mention global warming," warned Nancy Jackson, chairwoman of the Climate and Energy Project, a small nonprofit group that aims to get people to rein in the fossil fuel emissions that contribute to climate change. "And don't mention Al Gore. People out here just hate him."

Saving energy, though, is another matter.

The people of Kansas have mystified liberals for years.  In 2004, Thomas Frank wrote What's the Matter with Kansas? which argued that Kansas residents weren't smart enough to figure out that Democrats would give them much more money than Republicans would.  It never occurs to liberals that some people might prefer to keep the freedom to take care of themselves instead of relying on government handouts.

Ms. Jackson realized that Kansas voters were far more skeptical about global warming than people in most other states.  She hoped, however, that the independent-minded Kansas folk didn't like having their energy come from the Middle East because that left America vulnerable to malign foreign pressure.

She got a grant from the Land Institute and founded the Climate and Energy Project.  Her first step was to find out where people stood.  Most people believed that if the earth was warming, it was part of a natural cycle.  A few were convinced that climate change is a scam by researchers who want grant money and were in no mood to pay more for energy to support fraud.

She found, however, that people were receptive to the idea of saving money and to the patriotic cause of making the US less dependent on foreign energy.  Her organization ran an experiment to see of focusing on these ideas might result in a meaningful reduction in energy use.

Ms. Jackson settled on a three-pronged strategy. Invoking the notion of thrift, she set out to persuade towns to compete with one another to become more energy-efficient. She worked with civic leaders to embrace green jobs as a way of shoring up or rescuing their communities. And she spoke with local ministers about "creation care," the obligation of Christians to act as stewards of the world that God gave them, even creating a sermon bank with talking points they could download. [emphasis added]

Stirring up good-natured competition for constructive purposes like taking care of creation seems to have played a key part in her success.  Facebook customers spend hours and hours competing to create the best farms on Farmville.  Wouldn't it be interesting if someone could develop a similar game around energy conservation?

The project's strategy seems to have worked. In the course of the program, which ended last spring, energy use in the towns declined as much as 5 percent relative to other areas - a giant step in the world of energy conservation, where a program that yields a 1.5 percent decline is considered successful.

There are two problems with this non-coercive approach:

  1. It doesn't cost much money.  Ms. Jackson didn't have enough staff to do much beyond encouraging people to implement energy savings themselves.  No stimulus money, no jobs created for politicians to crow about, no tax increases, no political favors, what fun is that?
  2. It worked.  Our political elites realize that their coercive strategies don't solve problems; they create problems for voters so that voters have to ask for constituent services.  The more constituent services, they think, the more they get re-elected, and if they actually solved the problem, they couldn't vote any more budget increases.

A small grant which was spent on practical education based on saving money and actually doing something about energy independence resulted in energy savings of 5% which is outstanding.  If a mere fraction of all the hot air that's been dedicated to arguing about climate change had been spent educating people how to save money instead of browbeating them, who knows what we might have accomplished?