Friday, June 17, 2011

Bonanza Column 239 - The Lake Knows No Parties

As a veteran of the organizational change business, there are two things I emphasize to my clients – one is that change takes time and the other is that seeing the change reflected in the market’s response to your business takes even more time.
For those of us who watch the workings of TRPA closely, there is no doubt that significant organizational change has occurred since Joanne Marchetta took over as Executive Director, and that that change is continuing in the face of all the stresses impinging on the agency and on Marchetta herself. At the same time, it’s not surprising that much of the public have taken a “we shall see” attitude – I don’t blame them With anti-government feeling at a long-time high, many are not disposed to trust any agency to have their interests at heart, and TRPA has a long history of being one way and a short history of changing.
Now the Legislature has passed the bill that was AB and SB 271, and TRPA will have until 2014 not just to have its house in order, but to meet certain metrics that will, arguably, demonstrate that it has done so. This is not an unreasonable requirement to place on the Agency, and it is one that I am confident it will meet. Ideally I would have preferred that the bill not pass. Ms Marchetta and her staff have, I think, amply demonstrated in action their commitment to change how the Agency does business and responds to the public. Still, the inertia of public perception of change is real and needs to be taken into account, so this seems to me like a good compromise. If I were in Ms Marchetta’s shoes it seems to me that I would see the deadline as a real challenge, but one I and my staff can meet and in doing so prove our bona fides.
And make no mistake – we need TRPA. The agency was not set up on a whim – even in 1969 it was apparent that advances in technologies and increased traffic and development would make regulation a necessity if the unique character of the Lake and Basin were to survive. Tahoe’s unique position of having a state border running down its spine, leaves three options for regulation – each state regulating its side separately, the Federal Government regulating the bi-state area, or a bi-state compact leaving regulation in the hands of the coordinated effort of the two states involved. The Federal option is a nightmare that no one wants to see. The separate states option is a logical impossibility – that line down the middle of the lake is imaginary – what affects any part of the lake affects the lake. The compact is the only option that has any hope of protecting the lake and the Legislature has but some teeth into a demand that TRPA meet its responsibilities under the compact.
The bi-state compact is not perfect by a long shot. Given the varied and often competing interests of Northern California, Southern California, the Central Valley, etc., as well as Northern and Southern Nevada, urban and rural Nevada, etc., I’d rather see the Governing Board composed of people from those geographical areas most affected by the lake, but we have the Compact we have, not the Compact we want and it’s working better than not.
Two things should not enter into the scrutiny of TRPA, though it would be a miracle if they didn’t. One is party politics – this cannot be allowed to be turned into a political football. On January 10, 1945, Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan delivered a celebrated speech in the Senate chamber announcing his conversion from isolationism to internationalism saying “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Vandenberg's Senate career stands as a monument to the benefits of bipartisanship in American foreign policy, and applies no less to the edge of Lake Tahoe than to the edge of the Atlantic.
The second thing is misguided environmental Puritanism – TRPA is not perfect, and local environmental groups have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice the good and improving because they can’t have the perfect.
Anything less than TRPA’s meeting the criteria and the Compact being strengthened would be the beginning of the end for the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Bonanza Column 240 - The First World and the Third

Recently a friend of mine sent me one of those emails that talked about all the things people our age remember that our kids and grandkids have never heard of. You know, like milk delivery to your front door (in glass bottles) (with cream on top). There was a quiz of 25 items to see which ones you remembered first-hand. I got 25 out of 25.
That, along with seeing online reports of the IHS graduation and various college commencements got me thinking about what we may have gained and lost in the past fifty or sixty years.
As I write this I’m concluding a three-week business trip to Botswana in Southern Africa. During my trip here I’ve had the enormous privilege of working with a number of Batswana (the country is Botswana with a long o, the people are Batswana, or in the singular Motswana), mainly in the diamond mining business, and have been impressed with how modern they are in some ways and how old-fashioned they are in others.
Don’t get me wrong – everything is up to date in Gaborone and in the villages around the mine sites. The Internet is alive and well, there are HD TVs everywhere, everyone drives a nice car, etc. At the same time from an American point of view much of the Batswana behavior looks quaintly Victorian. The people here are enormously polite, and you don’t get the feeling it’s put on – it seems quite natural, and they are as polite to each other as they are to outsiders. I quickly learned that even the most trivial conversation, business or personal, must start with an exchange of “how are you?” You can go for days here without hearing a single word you would not say in front of your grandmother – even in the rough-and-ready atmosphere of mining, four letter words are conspicuous (to an American) by their absence.
Botswana has been a democracy since 1965 and has an active political process. While there is only one party on the books, that party is so factionalized that there may as well be several. The current President is the son of the founding President and his popularity is not great at the moment – they’ve just gone through a seven-week public employees’ strike that he refused to settle, and Batswana, particularly parents of children who have had no real school for seven weeks, aren’t happy, but the criticism of the President in the press and by people is political, not personal in nature.
Which brings me back to our 2011 graduates from High School and College. They are graduating into a world of technology that was undreamt of in the days of home milk delivery and Butch Wax, but also into a society the incivility of which is unmatched in our history, where public officials who have done nothing wrong are subject to personal attacks that have nothing to do with reality (see “Birthers”) and others are engaged in activities that would make a Nevada Madam blush and don’t seem to see anything wrong with it unless they are caught (see Spitzer, Weiner, Ensign, et al.) or it comes back to haunt them when they think they deserve higher office (see Gingrich).
We are fond of thinking of ourselves as the “First World” and places like Botswana as the “Third World,” (the Soviet Union and its allies were the “Second World,” but now have presumably vacated that space), with the implication that somehow they need to catch up. After three weeks here I’m no expert, but I do see a lot of the values that existed sixty years ago reflected in these supposedly primitive people – sure there are goats and donkeys wandering around in the country and many people still live very simply in thatched huts, but I wonder if on “family values” and living out a deep religious faith we’re not the ones who need to catch up. I’m just sayin’.