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Back up your arguments—effective advertising

Jim says: Back in August, Greenpeace came out with an interesting pronouncement. Greenpeace, it appears, is worried about a terrorist attack on any one of about 18 “high risk” (their quotes, not mine) chemical facilities in 16 different U.S. states, which they claim would put more than 27 million people at risk of sudden death or injury in the event of such an attack.

Their solution? Convert to safer chemicals—they point to chlorine in particular as a nasty substance. Of course, what they are tacitly admitting in this whole hypothetical scenario they have created is that Occupation Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. military have failed and can’t be trusted to protect these people with existing laws and safeguards.

In this column, I am not particularly interested in the argument at hand or even that Greenpeace itself has often used terrorist tactics in order to achieve its ends. What I am interested in is their sales pitch extrapolated to many other issues. What we see Greenpeace using here, indeed what we see nearly all environmental advocacy groups, community action organizations, lobbyists, and politicians use to sell their arguments is what professional sales people call FUD — Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.

You, Travis, subscribed to this a few months ago in this column when you brought up the “Precautionary Principle.” Simply put, when one has an argument to make where the merits may not be convincing, use FUD. We see it in advertisements all the time. If all else fails, scare the prospective buyer to death. Speaking of which, advertisers are held to higher standards of truthfulness than the aforementioned groups and politicians. You would not be allowed to sell aluminum siding, used cars, refrigerators, hamburgers or soap in the United States with the outlandish arguments used by activists (left and right) and politicians here or elsewhere.

I have a solution in two parts. First, for the organizations and lobbyists who put forth and push ideas like this one from Greenpeace above, require them to post a bond backing up their claims. In other words, if they say this change can be made for only, say USD 10 billion dollars spent over 5 years — back it with a bond. Then, if the law is passed and the companies affected have to spend more than USD 10 billion dollars, they get to cash in the bond. I am sure Lloyd’s of London would be happy to take this bet for a relatively small premium, probably somewhere between USD 0.5-1.0 billion dollars. All Greenpeace has to do is buy the bond with the potentially injured parties (the chemical companies) named as irrevocable beneficiaries and even I will back their proposed change. And by the way, the bond needs to be bought by the promoting organization with funds they raise — not tax dollars.

For politicians, I have a slightly different idea. Their personal assets should be on the line to back up their statements. For instance, if Nancy Pelosi says healthcare reform will save "X" billions of dollars over 10 years, fine, we audit this through the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. If it doesn’t, Uncle Sam seizes her multimillion dollar winery in the Napa Valley; in the meantime, Uncle Sam puts a superior lien on this property (and all of her other assets) so they can’t be sold to others.

All I ask is that we require all these “salespeople” to live up to at least the standards we require of aluminum siding and used car salespeople by adding some accountability to their claims. Right now, they are responsible to no one when their ideas prove to be inaccurate and we, as businesses, consumers, and taxpayers, are left to bear the costs. It seems like a reasonable request.

Travis says: I’m for holding public officials and pressure groups accountable for their claims. Thankfully, in a free society, we have some mechanisms that already allow this to take place. If you live in Nancy Pelosi’s district and you don’t like her policy agenda, or you think she has a history of untruthfulness, you can vote against her. If you don’t live in her district and you loathe her enough, you can travel there and ask her constituents to vote her out of office, or you can simply write her opponent a check.

Likewise, interest groups that regularly make outlandish claims can be co-opted by groups with similar goals but more thoughtful language and moderate tone. The Union of Concerned Scientists, the Nature Conservancy, and the Natural Resources Defense Council probably have more clout on Capitol Hill than Greenpeace.

Your modest proposal is flawed in several ways. First, if Greenpeace had a spare billion dollars lying around, they would spend it on buying Amazon rainforest, harassing Japanese whalers, making campaign contributions to sympathetic lawmakers, and lobbying governments to pass green policies. They would not take out a bond to pay for a public program.

Second, there are all kinds of perverse incentives that would derive from holding elected officials personally liable for policy decisions. Those with fewer assets could introduce ridiculous legislation and vote however they want with few repercussions, while those with more assets would vote with their pocketbooks, not their constituents, in mind.

Most importantly, your proposal confuses the real problem. It’s not a sin to be wrong; it’s a sin to be arrogant, to purposely mislead people, to cherry-pick only the evidence that supports your position, and to ignore new information that questions your assumptions. To this point, I support rigorous fact-checking and entities as diverse as the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, factcheck.org, and Consumer’s Union that attempt to provide less-biased information on public policy, consumer goods, or other issues of public interest.

Only when voters and consumers start to care less about their narrow self-interests and more about the integrity of public officials, interest groups, and corporations will we see consequences for the ridiculous rhetoric (on the left as well as the right) that paralyzes honest and fruitful debate.

That said, as I listened to President Obama’s speech to Congress on healthcare reform, I wondered if you were on the speech-writing team. Regarding the cost of his plan, the President said: “I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits -- either now or in the future. I will not sign it if it adds one dime to the deficit, now or in the future, period. And to prove that I'm serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don't materialize.”

I know that you are skeptical of President Obama, but this is exactly the type of policy argument that should resonate with those who want policymakers to take accountability for their claims.

Finally, let me restate my case for the Precautionary Principle – particularly regarding climate change. Uncertainty is real. It should not scare us, but uncertainty about something as important as the Earth’s climate demands our attention and a vigorous examination of all of the available evidence. I would encourage you to get a copy of the 04 September 2009 issue of Science magazine and read the report “Recent Warming Reverses Long-Term Arctic Cooling.” This is the kind of dispassionate, evidence-based approach that you are looking for. The authors make no policy suggestions or moral claims, they simply present new evidence that four of the five hottest decades in the last 2000 years in the Arctic have occurred since 1950. This warming is notable because it likely has an anthropogenic component and has occurred despite a long-term Arctic cooling trend that should be ongoing.

Some outcomes are so unacceptable that you cannot wait until all the evidence is in before you begin to react. If it turns out in 50 years that all the hullaballoo about global warming was much ado about nothing, I will simply offer up a prayer of thanksgiving, happily admit that I was wrong, and drink a health to you and yours; but if climate change causes massive suffering, we will all wish that we had made the hard choice to act while we had the chance.

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