Tales Of Our Times: Issues Fester In Fear Of Partial Credit

Tales of Our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Issues Fester In Fear Of Partial Credit 

Every public issue is two struggles in one. The first is the struggle to win the issue. The second is the struggle to get credit for winning. Interests face a cruel decision. Is it worse to have a bad outcome or to split the credit for some good?

The best of plans can be rejected for fear a foe may get part of the credit. Examples pile up as we go.  

Say a company reduces its pollution. On one hand, the change makes the environment cleaner. On the other hand, it rightfully earns a polluting company some credit. Should a loyal green applaud or condemn the reduction?

Plausible arguments go both ways. The environment gets cleaner, a turn for the better. On the other hand, giving the company some deserved credit may weaken chances of getting more reductions. Or giving credit may spur more improvements sooner. We can’t be sure.

Credit is not an idle matter. It has tangible value. Like any commodity, it is an item of trade. Credit for doing good helps businesses prosper. Political candidates and their parties need credit to get elected. Citizen groups need credit to gain broad support.

The trading in credit is more confused than other markets. Opposing interests wrestle in the public arena to take everything as credit for their side. How each interest will get its credit, and how each will spend theirs, is a tangled and chancy story. As a result, the look of a winning hand is blurred. Are one’s best interests served by no progress and no credit? Or is it better to win progress, for which credit gets split between you and a foe?

Laid out this way, a coin toss seems the best choice. In practice, the normal choice is no gain with no credit. The struggle for credit for a given success lasts for years. When a success occurs, many are due some credit. Quickly the struggle then turns to who forced whose hand. Who was right all along? Who is more worthy and sincere?

Old barriers to progress are pulled down and replaced by the new one—the fight for credit. More ingenuity goes into ways to take or prevent credit than goes into solving problems. If I stretch the point, it is not by much.

Our citizens group devised a clear and swifter way to deal with credit. Three times our group sued companies in pursuit of cleaner air and water. Each time, our case was strong enough to bring environmental gains.

Each time, one of the legal remedies we required was an official press release both sides agreed on. Said differently, the looming fight for credit was settled as part of the lawsuit by agreeing to written facts and explanations. The idea is novel, simple and effective.

The scrubber case was the first of these. A legal action we pursued in 1978 concluded with the installation of SO2 scrubbers on the Four Corners Power Plant at a cost of $300 million. The jointly agreed press release from the suit tells the story. The statement tells why the scrubbers were installed and our “nine years of effort,” arguing “strongly, fairly, and honestly” for the controls. Credit is given where due.

 
The statement says the owners’ investment in cleaner pollution controls at the plant totaled $540 million. Credit is given where due. The press release further says the costs add about one dollar a month to a typical household electric bill (of $70 dollars). The news says building the scrubbers creates 600 jobs in construction and 100 new permanent jobs at the plant. Costs are put in context.

Giving fair credit in fair context is easy, if earnestly sought. And it leaves more time for further progress.

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