Friday, September 29, 2006

Serious Writing Sample #2

This is a piece I wrote for my former CEO, W. Henson Moore, back in 2002 on tax policy. It appeared in the Spring 2002 Issue of "Spectrum: The Journal of State Government" under his byline. The target audience was state legislators and governors. The column was well-received and prompted the publication to include sample legislation based on our ideas in the issue.

Forests are the Anti-Sprawl

America’s cities continue to grow outward, straining infrastructure, tax bases, property values, and most of all, the natural environment. Dubbed “sprawl”, the trend of growing sub- and ex-urbs is not new, but neither is it going away. A majority of Americans list it as one of their top quality of life concerns. Mr. Moore feels one solution could be growing right outside your window.

A Swelling Problem

No matter where you are right now, chances are, there is more development around you than there was 20 years ago. By whatever name you call it: “urban expansion”, “urban growth”, “growth”, or the media’s favorite, “sprawl”, this expansion of our cities and suburbs presents today's leaders with real challenges.

As populations continue to swell, so does pressure to develop land to meet the needs of these people. Every day, farm and forest land is bulldozed to make way for housing, schools, shopping centers, roads, prisons, airports, or any other of the countless non-agrarian uses which are the poster children for sprawl. The pace of change is quickening.

A comprehensive land use study released in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service reported forested acres had actually increased by just under one percent nationwide from 1982 to 1997. Somewhat encouraging. Unfortunately, the same report showed the amount of developed land had increased by 34 percent nationwide during the same time. Put in hard numbers, during those 15 years, we gained 3.6 million acres of new forestland. However, we also gained 25 million acres of new development. A sobering trend indeed.

At issue for state and local governments: how do we slow the loss of undeveloped land without infringing on the personal property rights held so dear by so many of us?

There is no simple solution to a complex problem like sprawl. A quick fix, one-size-fits-all, sweeping policy is what got us into this in the first place. There are many moving parts to this puzzle, so which ones do you deal with? Is the issue best handled through transportation policies? Zoning restrictions? Redevelopment plans? By other means? By all of these means?

Deciding on how you deal with the issue is only the beginning, and depending on your governmental philosophy you can attack the problem from different angles. I subscribe to the notion you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and as such, believe offering citizens incentives to slow or reverse the effects of sprawl will be more successful than wagging a finger at them and trying to force them to do it.

Identifying the Cause

Too often our society attempts to fix something before gaining a full understanding of why it is broken. Before setting off on a complex solution, it may be helpful to boil it down to its most basic level.

There are two kinds of land: developed and undeveloped. Everything currently developed was at one time undeveloped — and for many parts of North America, that probably means it was forested. At some point, the land owners — whether they were private individuals, trusts, corporations, municipalities, or government entities — decided the land better served their purposes by being developed. It seems to be a simple matter of supply and demand. If the market demands developed land, someone will supply it.

Influencing the Marketplace

So now the question of how to slow the rate of sprawl has become one of influencing the land use markets. Most of this country's land — including forestland — is privately owned. I take it as a basic truism that private land will be put to the use which most benefits the landowner. That’s a cornerstone of the American democratic system. Of capitalism too.

We need to make it worthwhile for forestland owners to keep their forests and not sell their land to developers. This holds especially true for the nine million private, non-industrial forestland owners who alone own 58 percent of the nation’s forests. The quickest way to do this is to support a strong, stable timber market, providing an economic incentive for landowners to grow trees and keep growing trees.

In a guest editorial for the New York Times in March, 2001, President Jimmy Carter, himself a Georgia tree farmer, wrote “…[w]ithout a dependable timber market...many landowners cannot afford to invest in reforestation and forest maintenance, and the consequences will be land that is barren or converted to other uses. The cost to society is great...”.

Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees, But Taxes Do

We were not surprised by a recent Pricewaterhouse Coopers study of corporate tax rates on the forest products industry here and around the world, which concluded the United States has the world's second highest tax rate for our industry. Sadly, similar disparities exist at the state and local level for tree farmers. These policies serve as a disincentive to forestland owners and if not rectified could lead to more sprawl and less forests.

Many states do not assess property taxes for tree farmers on current use, but rather market value. Tree farmers, unlike row crop farmers, must wait years and often decades before realizing profits from their crops, yet they are taxed as if they receive income from the property every year. This backwards policy taxes undeveloped land right into the hands of developers.

The exceptionally long crop rotation of trees should also be considered when establishing amortization of business expenses schedules. In most states, many reforestation expenses are not eligible for consideration as business expenses until the trees are harvested. This means landowners must carry those expenses for an unusually and unfairly long time without relief. Row crop farmers write off these expenses annually.

A major part of being a forestland owner — and one of the most expensive — is reforestation. To offset these costs and encourage reforestation, some states have experimented with special incentives. In 1999, Texas became the first state to provide meaningful reforestation tax credits. That is, the property tax bill of tree farmers was reduced by 50 percent if harvested land was reforested within one year. This innovative tax policy not only provides incentive for landowners to replant trees on their land, ensuring forested acres stay forested, it also provides an incentive for the landowner to do it quickly, thus further minimizing the environmental and aesthetic impacts of a harvesting operation.

Conservation easements are another tax incentive that has had success around the country. These are long term agreements landowners willingly enter into with local, state, regional, or federal conservation authorities, under which the landowner will not develop specified land in exchange for preferential tax status throughout the agreement. We’ve seen this innovative approach to the sprawl issue work wonders in the Lake states, where many rivers and streams had been threatened by over-development.

Helping Private Forestland Owners

I’ve just outlined four ways to promote long-term forest sustainability through positive tax policy — taken together they could have real impact on growth. But our goal should not be just more forests. We should promote healthy, sustainable, and productive forests.

There are many private forest stewardship programs that serve this purpose, educating and assisting landowners, training loggers, and leveraging environmentally-friendly products in the marketplace. Two you have probably heard of are the American Tree Farm System® and our own Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI) program. Both programs complement federal and state laws and regulations to ensure healthy and sustainably managed forests will never be in short supply. At their cores they stress education and outreach for both landowners and loggers. Both programs also encompass and often surpass existing forestry best management practices (BMPs).


This country boasts some of the most productive, ecologically diverse, and economically valuable forestland in the world. We need to take steps to make certain our grandchildren and their grandchildren can continue to make this claim.

To ensure the long-term sustainability of our forests, there must be cooperation between all entities responsible for management or ownership of forestland. I urge you to contact your state legislatures and encourage them to strengthen relationships with existing forest management programs such as Tree Farm or SFI, both of which have long-term sustainability as their overarching goals. Many states should consider joining the 16 state legislatures that have adopted formal resolutions endorsing the SFI program. Also, encourage your state government to commit additional resources to its forestry agencies to further their landowner assistance programs.

States should provide landowners with economic incentives to grow forests. At very least, they should remove disincentives to growing trees. The tax policies I've discussed can go a long way to providing those incentives. In fact, the recently completed US Forest Service’s Southern Forest Resource Assessment concluded incentive programs, reforestation cost sharing programs, and favorable tax treatment for forestland owners have a long and successful history, with the strong likelihood they directly increase forest area and change forest conditions for the better.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Turning Weather Signals A Unique Annual Tradition

It’s that time of year, folks. The leaves are starting to turn; the morning air is crisper; and evening is coming sooner. That’s right, it’s time for me to buy the season’s first tube of Blistex®.

Ah, Blistex lip ointment. The perfect blend of dimethicone, camphor, menthol, and phenol. Mmmm. It makes my lips feel good just thinking about it. I just noticed on the ingredients it says it includes “flavors.” I’m not really sure just what flavor that is, but I’m pretty sure Cookies –n– Blistex would not be a top seller at Baskin Robbins.

Those readers paying attention will note I said it was time to buy the season’s first tube. That is because in any given season, which I feel stretches from the first twinge of a chapped lip—usually cracking sometime in late September or early October—to the first sign of over-moisturization—squishing onto the scene in early May, I go through no fewer than four tubes of Blistex.

Now I do liberally apply the ointment, and I am always willing to share my tube with others, (by “others” I mean “attractive women whom I can then pretend I have kissed via the childhood property of ‘electricity’”), but neither is the problem here. The problem is that I am utterly incapable of holding onto a tube of Blistex for more than 10 days.

Without fail, by Day Ten of Tube One, it is gone. Missing. Nowhere to be found. And I mean nowhere. I don’t mean, “I left it in the car and it’s too cold to run out and get it right now.” I mean, “I have searched every jacket and pants pocket and the little bastard is gone.” So I give it a day or two. I steal Chap-Stick® from my kids (sometimes returning it, sometimes losing it) and then break down and buy Replacement Blistex Tube Number One. Usually by Day Five of Replacement Tube One, Original Tube One reappears. But that’s okay, Replacement Tube One only has another four or five days on the scene before it too goes missing. And then the cycle repeats itself.

One time, by mid-December I had three tubes in circulation, and then I pulled out an old winter coat I hadn’t worn the prior season. I found two more tubes in the coat (interior breast zippered pocket and standard side pocket). That was a good year—with five tubes in circulation you would assume I made it all the way to Spring without rebuying. Yeah, you would be wrong. That season seven tubes were put in play, including the two from Seasons Past.

My wife, understanding and compassionate partner that she is, has told me she is done with me and my Blistex problems. She boycotts the product, will not buy it for herself or me, and further, only grudgingly shares her lip ointment of choice with me during one of the in between periods where my Active Tube is MIA and my Replacement Tube is TBA (To Be Acquired).

But this year, this Blistex Season of 2006-2007, I have decided to show her. I am going to buy a Blistex tube and use it and keep it safe until it is empty. Then I will make her go with me to purchase a new tube and ceremoniously throw out the expended, twisted, folded, crushed up Original Tube. It will be both interesting and gratifying and I will document the campaign here on these pages. So stay tuned for my Blistex Chronicles, and if you happen to see my tube of Blistex somewhere, let me know.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In an interesting turn of the screw I wrote this entry on September 22, then went out and purchased Blistex Tube Number One the following day. As is the case with all of my blog entries, I let them sit for a day or so before posting them so I can reread them and edit them. And now, as I get ready to post this self challenge four days later, I must report that Blistex Tube Number One, after literally one use, is gone. Missing. Nowhere to be found. And, as noted above, I mean nowhere. I’ll give the bastard two more days, then I’m calling in Replacement Tube Number One. Don’t tell my wife.

718 words

Monday, September 18, 2006

People Under Glass: Focus Groups Good and Bad

One of my favorite things I used to do in my old job was research. Not sitting in a library reading, a different kind of research—public opinion research—specifically, focus groups. That is where you put a dozen people in a room and talk to them about…things. You can show them advertisements, TV shows, logos, or just lead a discussion with them on a specific topic. There is a moderator in the room who has a script and carefully leads the discussion, making sure everyone participates and nobody intimidates people into not expressing their true thoughts. There is always a mirror in the room, and behind that mirror sit analysts, cameras, and clients watching everything. And eating. There is a lot of eating that goes on behind the glass. But that is another story.

The thing I find most enjoyable about the focus groups (besides the food, did I mention the food?) is that I am utterly fascinated by how people think. I am enthralled by learning what people think and why they think it. (Upon reflection this represents an interesting dichotomy
in my personality: I love learning about people, but I hate talking to them. I love learning why people think what they think, but I usually hate them for thinking it. Gosh I’m complex. If only I could study myself from behind glass.)

Back to the point, there are two ways to conduct focus groups: the intellectually honest or curious way, and The Other Way. I have absolutely no use for the latter, and frankly, if you hear about any research results and aren’t working in the marketing division of a company, you are probably hearing about results derived from The Other Way. That is why I immediately tune out when the media or politicians start talking about “75% of Americans believe this”, or “one in three no longer support that,” or my personal favorite, “fully two-thirds of registered somethings support the other”. (Seriously, what is a “full two-thirds”? As opposed to a partial two-thirds. Wouldn’t a partial two-thirds be something like maybe…a half.) Anytime you hear the results of a poll, you need to keep your salt nearby. I am confident I could design a series of questions that would show a plurality of Americans believe up is down. (While a full two-thirds of them don’t know what “plurality” means.)

But then there is the intellectually honest polling. It’s a study designed to learn what people actually think and why; it is not designed to show that what people think fits the expectations of what the client thinks or wants people to think.

I’ve read dozens of research reports that were just that: telling the client what the client wanted to hear. Whether the client was a powerful politician, a Fortune 100 CEO, or a grassroots organization that really should not have been wasting members’ money by dabbling in the brutal world of public opinion research; the reports were all essentially the same. They were all totally useless.

I should say I do appreciate the kind of polling that helps you achieve a political end. Let’s say you are trying to move a certain piece of legislation through Congress and you think Democrats will not support it because they believe their constituents are not supportive of the legislation. It is helpful to have an ad that informs the politicians from that side of the aisle that “84% of registered Democrats support blah blah blah.” Of course, you need the research to support the ad, and I always found it helpful for the research to actually show that 84% of registered Democrats do support whatever it is you are claiming they support AND that you just asked the questions straight up. I made certain of that last point. I would insist we share the questions and the raw data with anyone who asked, sometimes even including it in the ad itself. If you can’t share the research, you are probably manipulating the data and you shouldn’t make the claim. You will get caught. (Talk about a fundamental truth of politics. Of life. You will get caught. You will. Accept it, because it is going to happen.)

I know one notorious pollster whose methods were always suspect; he rarely, if ever, shared his questions and raw data with us, just results. A prime indication that the data was worthless. We used to joke that he would show people an ad and then ask them, “would you say this was THE MOST effective ad you have ever seen on this topic, or just ONE OF THE MOST effective ads you have ever seen on this topic?” His clients were always so happy with their ads. Until they got them out in the real world and found they couldn’t replicate the research results.

But honest research? Delicious. I love it. And I learned so much about people. One of the main things I learned was that people don’t really need to know much about something to have an opinion of it. A strong opinion. And that is scary. It sounds somewhat innocuous—and it is when you are talking about new toppings for pizza or new scents for room freshener. But it is frightening when you are talking about public policy decisions that will affect millions of people. It makes you realize the founding fathers were on to something with the Electoral College. And that things like low voter turnout is probably not that bad after all.

Unfortunately my focus group days seem to be behind me for the foreseeable future—at least being behind the glass. I’m always willing to participate in a focus group as a subject, although I would find it hard to resist the temptation to mess with the people behind the glass in ways that only someone who has spent many hours behind the glass in the dark…eating…and watching…and eating, could know how to do.

Now I have to feed my lust for insight into people in other ways. Like sitting in a coffee shop with headphones on, pretending to listen to music, while actually listening to everything the women behind me are saying. (In case you didn’t guess, I’m doing that right now, and I’ll have something to report on the seemingly fragile mental health of new mothers soon.)

This entry started as an intro into my upcoming series I referenced in an earlier post and then took on a life of its own. The future pieces are from a collection entitled, “The We’re Trying to Have a Society Here Essays.” In them I’ll look at the little things people do that make me think we as a society are in serious trouble. Thinking about how to intro the essays got me thinking about focus groups, and that got me here. So, thanks for reading, stay tuned, and just let me know on a scale from 1 to 7 how good you think this entry was, where “1” means you think it was really good, and “7” means you think it was one of the best things you’ve ever read.

1186 words.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Where Have I Been? A Message Board Run-in Leads to Self-Censorship

So, Klein, why so long between blog entries? Good question. Here is another one, “why don’t you mind your own business?” No, no, I joke. I joke because I kid. But seriously, why the lag? Well it’s an interesting story—and by “an interesting story” I mean, “not really that interesting, and barely a story.” But you asked, so I’ll tell you.

I had a recent run in with censorship. Now who could be censoring my own blog? Well, me, of course. I find myself carefully weighing what I post, even what I write, because of an unpleasant experience I had recently in an online community. To name the community would be indiscreet, but it was Triggerstreet.

Triggerstreet is an online community started by actor Kevin Spacey’s company. The online community is for aspiring filmmakers and writers to post material, receive feedback, and hone their craft, and hopefully get discovered in the process. So, hey, I’m aspiring. I joined.

I had a fair number of extremely frustrating technical difficulties in joining that took on a Kafkaesque quality. And now in hindsight, I guess that should have served as a warning flag, but I missed it at the time. Essentially, you sign up and build a profile. Then they email you an activation code. I never got my activation code. The website tells you that before you contact customer care you MUST look for a solution to your problem and post questions about it in the message board. They say failure to do this will result in your email to customer care going ignored. Okay, I can look for a solution to my problem on the message boards—“To access the message boards, you must sign in.” I can’t sign in, I don’t have my activation code. “Check the message boards for information about your activation code.” So I need my code to get on the boards to find out where my code is? “The answer to that question can be found on the message boards.” Around and around we went for several emails, eventually some customer service person grew tired of hearing from me and just sidestepped the whole thing and activated me.

So now I’m in.

Like other communities of this ilk, you have to earn your keep. Triggerstreet has a complex system of credits. You earn credits by reviewing other people’s work, then you can spend your credits by having your work randomly assigned to other members for review. I found it a little complicated, but I understood the principle—no freeloaders. You want feedback? You need to give feedback.

So, hey, I want feedback. I’ll give feedback. So I start downloading and reading scripts. And there were some clunkers. Of the first ten I was assigned, I could only complete two. One was so badly constructed it was nearly impossible to follow. But to the writer’s credit, he or she said right up front in the logline, “this is really hard to follow.” But then didn’t really give any advice for how to follow it. Nothing like, “but if you stay with it, by page 22 all will become clear.” Deleted.

But finally I was able to get through two. They were only halfbad. One had a really interesting concept, but fell apart, the other had pretty good dialogue but an utterly pointless and boring story. I posted my reviews—I don’t think they were harsh—I always started with a positive and then expressed criticism as very personal: “this didn’t feel right to me” or “maybe it was just me but…” And I didn’t just criticize, I offered a potential solution to every issue I raised.

I was on my way to earning enough credits to be able to post my own script and start receiving valuable feedback. And then it started to go horribly wrong.

I could not find another script to read. They say agents and professional readers give you ten, maybe twelve pages to hook them, then you go in the trash pile. Well, I’m not reading for an agency or studio, and as a writer trying to break in, I’ve always hated that seemingly arbitrary make-or-break page number. But now I get it. I’d pay my fellow aspiring writers more respect. I’ll read 30 pages! Okay, 25. Alright, 20. Okay, look, if this moron can’t get the story going by page 18, I am out of here! Another five scripts started and dumped. Then another five. And another. I was tearing my hair out. Oh, and I should mention that as a new user, I was only able to decline reviewing a script once every 48 hours. But I need to get through scripts to earn credits for myself. I’m getting very frustrated. So I tell myself, okay, no matter what, I am getting through the next script.

And I did. Another boring story with one-dimensional characters who really don’t do anything. Ever. But I could get through that and review it, find something nice to say, “you gave your characters really interesting names,” or “the page numbers were all in order.” Except for one thing. The typos.

Oh, the typos. I’m not talking about typing “hte” when you mean to type “the”. I can deal with that—even though in the age of computers I shouldn’t have to. (In fact, it took me several tries to type that wrong just now, Microsoft kept fixing it for me.) Maybe calling these “typos” is wrong. Maybe that is where I went wrong. These weren’t really typos, they were more an indication that the person was…well, for lack of a better term…a moron. And not just a few. I noted more than 50. In a 90-something page script. That’s a lot. And every one was distracting. Every single one jarred me, took me out of the story, and made me shake my head and make a note of it. When I got to mistake number 50 I stopped writing them down and decided to just make a general comment about them and then send the author the list I had compiled if he or she asked for it.

But the experience really steamed me. I was personally offended that the writer thought so little of me and my time that he or she would post something so far from being ready for somebody else’s eyes. Call me a perfectionist, or tell me I have OCD tendencies, whatever. I am personally mortified if I give somebody something to read with my name on it and even a single typo in it. Writers write. Writers make mistakes, but then we fix them. If I’m paying someone to edit my work, okay. But if I’m passing something off as indicative of what I can do with all the words and stuff—well then I want it to represent me…well.

Before I posted my review I went in to the message boards (ah, that promised land finally open to me through my long lost activation code) and posted a question. I asked the community at large if people were having bad luck with scripts assignments, because most of what I was assigned was unreadable, and that typos played a huge part in that. I admit I was harsh in this posting, however, I didn’t name anybody or any script, just posted this general steam release query.

Well, the floodgates opened up. I was called all kinds of names and told I was a jerk and an egomaniac and a snob, etc, etc. A few people remained rational, and actually even tried to mount a defense of the boobs. He/she pointed out that these scripts are often early drafts and why should the writer comb through them for typos when substantial rewriting is likely on the horizon? I bought that for a second, but then rejected it—the scripts people post there are essentially resumes. Would you send out a resume full of typos because you are going to revise it after you get your next job anyway? I don’t think that’s a great way to go about it.

To me it was not about a script that didn’t resonate with me. It was about respect. I kept saying, “look, a poorly told story, or badly drawn characters, or an ill-conceived plot, those are actual script problems that the writer works through with help from the outside. This is somebody either not respecting my time enough to re-read and check his or her work, or somebody who is just an imbecile.” And the war was on.

Finally, one kindly fellow reviewer gave me two very practical pieces of advice, both of which I took.. He/she said, “read the first five or six pages without making a single note. If you feel like you can’t get through it, chuck it and move on. If you can get through it, do it.” The other piece of advice he gave me was to cancel my account and rejoin with another name because the masses were now out for my blood. In fact, some in the Message Board Mafia even came here to this blog and reported back to the message boards about me from here. (It was somebody whose script I had reviewed—positively actually.)

But I felt like the damage was done. I was a marked man. I dumped the account and my hard earned credits to that point and rejoined. (I will say I received my activation code immediately, no problems.) I now follow the Six Page Rule—which is even harsher than the policy of studio readers I decried recently—but I feel like I have to do it to keep my sanity.

But the experience scarred me. I’m not as excited about logging on to Triggerstreet anymore. If I get my credits and can post my stuff, I will, but I’m not rushing to do it. The experience in the message boards had a “chilling effect” on me. Not unlike the chilling effect the media talks about after the FCC levies new fines on them. I’ll never post something on those message boards again and I will be a less active participant in that entire community (some of my old “friends” would be happy to hear that). It also made me stop and think about what I post here. I’m working on a series of essays that I call the “We’re Trying to Have a Society Here Essays” about all the little anti-social things people do that I think signal a society on the ropes. But will posting them make people mad? I guess it’s silly, nobody is actually reading this blog anyway, but what if people start to read it? Am I going to have to apologize for the way I think? Or take the blog down and start a new one? I already had business cards made. Decisions, decisions.

This is a very long-winded way of explained why I hadn’t posted anything in awhile. I didn’t want it to seem like I don’t care about this space or I’m not taking it seriously. I take it very seriously. Too seriously perhaps. But there it is, I have been censored myself because I offended a few people in the Triggerstreet community. (I should say there are thousands of participants on Triggerstreet and my run-in was only with a handful, but then again, nobody came to my defense, so perhaps the opinions expressed were those of the majority of members.)

Food for thought. For me. For message board posters, and for the defenders of imbeciles everywhere.

1928 words.