By Tom Cushing
The Name GameUploaded: Jul 26, 2014
Before reading this blog, you may wish to read-through the recent D/SRX Town Square comments on banning single-use shopping bags. Go ahead ? I'll wait. It is a fascinating exemplar of lobbying tactics intended to deceive the public into concluding that anything other than the status quo, profitable to somebody, is horribly wrong. Disclaimer: I don't know whether all these posters were direct deceivers ? some clearly were, but others may have been duped, themselves, previously. This blog does not examine that question ? nor does it even require these specific to-and-fro arguments about Mr. Maguire's favorite word of advice to The Graduate.
That's because these tactics are generic and universal ? they can be applied to any particular issue about which the status quo is threatened. In the spirit of 'Naming the Game' ? the phenomenon that if you can ID and classify a shenanigan, then it loses much of its influence ? here are a few of the more popular ploys that appear there.
The Alias: this one is pretty obvious, and used by both posters and whole organizations to convey a false impression of source. Thus we have "by the people for the people" commenting in the thread, evoking the Gettysburg Address and amber grains waving from the very grassroots. It generally helps to have American, liberty or freedom in the moniker, and if there's a logo, the stars-and-stripes will be there.
People, attractive* biological people and not the corporate variety (my friend) ought to be prominent. Indeed, this tactic is so common that the term "astro-turf" has been coined to counter the claim that an outfit is natural and grassrootsy (for equal time, there's also 'Guy Yeah' (gaia?) and 'No Planet B' in the thread, but at least they're not arguing against title).
Next, there's the 'Leave it to Beaver' argument: "let's not do anything here because this is better handled elsewhere" -- especially in a larger forum. In this case, that forum is the state ? on other issues (gas mileage or greenhouse gasses, for instance) it's the feds (for national uniformity!) ? anywhere-but-here-and-now is the point.
There are two reasons to kick any issue upstairs: first, the bigger the forum, the more likely there is to be the kind of lobbying clout that can dispose of an issue, quietly, with a few well-placed bri .. err, campaign contributions. Call it good old private sector efficiency.
More insidiously, reform movements do not burst on the national scene in full flower. They start locally, and spread from there. Disposable bag bans are an example ? they originated in various lefty locales. If they can be deflected at the source, then good, un-profitable ideas may never get the kinds of local laboratory try-outs that can demonstrate their efficacy. Worse, if those local projects succeed, then the idea arrives in Sacramento or DC with both a constituency and a track record. Uh-oh. **
Then, the Stick to Your Knitting Critique: every hamlet has truly local issues, often having to do with prosaic matters like roads, schools and parks, or maybe hereabouts it's the invasion of brown people (disguised in other terms like 'low-cost housing' or 'stack-and-pack' development). This ploy seeks to devalue this new issue, relative to those which really ought to occupy the full attention of the burghers. It's a shaming tactic: thus we get the sarcastic "I guess our city representatives just don't have enough to do in the upkeep of our city." (ref: Bag Lady)
The 'Unintended Consequences' argument: as in "non-bag plastic litter went up in SF after the ban." This one is a particular favorite with some conservatives, who appear to believe that liberals, as a species, are hopelessly naive do-gooders. They also know that Government is Never The Answer. Further, this approach suggests to people that they can keep their beliefs in good things like The Environment, while still enjoying the conveniences of the throw-away society ? it's a win/win! Problem is, there's often no logical association, let alone causal linkage, between the two factoids, so we have a 'rooster causes the sunrise problem.' A moment's reflection can create a list of a dozen other reasons why plastic litter might have gone up, if it did.
The 'It Hurts Small Business' ploy -- because everybody loves small business, the backbone of America. It either costs too much, and will put them out-of-business, or it will drive commerce to some other nearby merchants, like those unfettered free marketeers -- in San Ramon. It doesn't, of course, because those costs are trivial, and most businesses actually fail for the precise reason that the proprietor is bad at business. People's shopping habits are also immensely more complex than any single issue, so although the charge is easy to make in the heat of debate, NObody ever follows through.
Jobs Jobs Jobs! In context, this hardy perennial posits that all those good, hard-working American disposable bag manufacturing jobs will be replaced by Southeast Asian sweatshop labor, churning-out reusables at a great rate. Do you know where bags are actually produced? Me neither, and a truly comprehensive comparative study would be pretty complicated ? it's the imagery that counts.
The Better Things for Better Living alternative: technology to the rescue (per spcwt)! Flip a molecule here or there, and presto: biodegradable disposables! Variation on the theme: corn-based biodegradables! Never mind that they don't work in dry climates, they're uneconomic, or that they gum-up the plastic recycling works -- help has arrived, and seemingly requires Nothing from the consumer. Hallelujah ? no wonder we worship on the altar of American ingenuity ? or is it 'disingenuity?'
The Sober-Sounding Study, Stretched: another spcwt favorite. Here, you take a seemingly credible study, link it (nobody ever clicks, but it lends credibility), and miss-use its conclusion. Item: Loma Linda/University of Arizona study that found dangerous pathogens in reusable bags. Step 1, widely disseminate it: Horrors ? bags carrying food that we feed our children?? And Step 2, when it is revealed that the AZ study merely advised flinging the bags into the wash with your other, similarly infested clothing: do another study of the resource cost of washing the bags separately, with bleach, preferably one bag/load to be safe (and then rinse, repeat because you can't be too sure). ***
Finally, there's the cynical "They Came for My Disposable Plastic Bags and I Did Nothing?" distortion: based on a heart-breaking statement of regret related to the Holocaust (no less), this one inflates any issue to the status of an attack on our fundamental-freedoms-that-our-forefathers-fought-and-died-for. It is immensely popular with folks who feel like they're losing control that they once enjoyed. Looking at you, TeaPers. Fortunately, most folks can recognize shameless overreaching when they see it, but obviously that's not everyone (Cf. Dave from San Ramon, Stop the Bag Ban and a few others).
These are but a few arrows in the lobbying persuasion quiver. It seems likely that this blog entry will re-animate the bag-ban issue in the comments section. See if you can spot these and other dilatory tactics with ulterior motivations. The practice may not replace Shirley Ellis in our hearts, but we might become harder to fool, again.
* backbone occupations vary, but farmers, first responders and K-4 teachers are popular; over-bling'd attorneys need not apply.
** this one occasionally backfires. After SF proposed that disposables be separately charged, our heroes in Sacramento did indeed pass a bill outlawing the practice. So SF went back and just banned the one-time baggies, entirely. Oops.
*** there's even a claim that the Arizona study was underwritten by the American Chemistry Council. I can't confirm it.