Living on the Real World: The Art of the Deal.

As the 2016-2017 transitional period in U.S. politics enters its final few weeks, the nation and the world search for hints and early insights into any coming changes in policy and national priorities. These run across the entirety of the national agenda, but close to home for LOTRW readers are questions about what lies ahead for natural resources (with oil and coal extraction heading the list), hazards policy (relatively speaking, a blank slate?), and environmental protection (air- and water quality, but above all the regulation of fossil fuel emissions and U.S. participation in related global agreements).

One notion overhanging much of the discussion – again, both domestic and global – is that the new administration may be less in the business of making policy for its own sake and more likely to mix policy formulation with deal-making than its predecessor. It’s entirely possible that this view exaggerates differences between the two administrations. In the realpolitik of today’s diplomacy, for example, policy goals are translated into discrete diplomatic steps that in turn are often accompanied by arms deals, by debt forgiveness, or by removal or imposition of economic and financial sanctions. But, putting that aside, it might be useful for all parties to consider what political deal-making (in-country and internationally) could look like when it comes to natural resources, hazards, and the environment.

Where to find such insights? Here’s a possible starting point. Three decades back, in a 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump (and co-author Tony Schwartz) provided an 11-step formula for business success (aka good deal-making)[1]:

Mr. Trumps’ thinking may well have moved on. And in finance, we’re often warned that “past performance doesn’t necessarily indicate future results.” But considering the source, the formula might be worth study and thought, by all parties: members of the incoming administration, members of Congress and staff, career civil servants, government contractors, NGO’s, and even the general public. The Trump/Schwartz list is long, and subject to diverse interpretations. What follows is an attempt to illustrate, through an example or two, how that framing might be used as a starting point for all participants in the policy process – whether anticipating what to expect in the years ahead, or influencing where things go, or for eventually evaluating the administration’s stewardship of its four-to-eight years. The hope is that you and many others will be find the list useful to hone your thinking, and goals, and decisions over the period.

Here are three questions for purposes of this post:

  1. What would it look like to apply this frame to natural-resource-, hazards- and environmental policies?
  2. In such light, how might past U.S. performance in this arena be judged?
  3. What differences – especially opportunities for improvement – might lie ahead if this framing or something like it were to be adopted?

Here goes:

  1. Think big. The book uses an example of forswearing a mere hotel in favor of a combined hotel-gambling casino, with its much larger revenue and profit stream. It’s similarly possible to think big about environmental issues. Following its own advice, the new administration might consider tackling the threefold problem of resources, hazards, and environment as a unified whole instead of piecemeal. Alternatively, it might set as a goal “making Earth great again.” It might seek to return the whole to an Edenic-quality as opposed to simply seeking to minimize environmental degradation, hazard losses, etc., or allocating small areas of land and sea protected status as recent presidents have done. Think big? Nothing would do more to put the Trump presidency on the map than a successful initiative along such lines.
  1. Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself. In the book, Mr. Trump asserts that his reputation back then notwithstanding, he’s no gambler. In that case, the new administration would do well to recognize the successes of the Obama administration and its predecessors, both Republican and Democrat. For thirty years the U.S. has been focused like a laser on working with other nations to minimize fossil-fuel emissions, stem the loss of habitat and biodiversity, and slow environmental degradation. These efforts have established a foundation – of science, of international collaborations and commitments, and more – to build on and to realize that desired upside potential. To fail to capture the progress already made in favor of trying some wholly new approach is to take a big and unnecessary gamble.
  1. Maximize your options. Mr. Trump stresses that most ideas for deals fall through. He argues it’s therefore important to have a large number of projects at different stages of development and fruition underway at any moment. And once a given deal gets the green light, it’s then equally important to develop numerous options for following through. If any single one encounters a roadblock, it’s still possible to make progress. In the present application, this would mean, possibly, exploring the full spectrum of future energy sources, not just fossil fuels. It would mean looking at green infrastructure to build community-level resilience to floods, drought, and other natural hazards. It would suggest fostering support nationwide and worldwide for multiple place-based, grassroots environmental initiatives, rather than focusing on a handful of top-down, command-and-control approaches.
  1. Know your market. The 2016 election results could be interpreted as affirming Upton Sinclair’s insight: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Case in point: environmental planks in party platforms resonated primarily with the well-to-do; political opponents had succeeded in framing environmental protection as competing with jobs. Yet the evidence tells a different story. In the United States and worldwide, the poor and disadvantaged suffer more immediately and more severely from environmental degradation than their richer counterparts. Political leaders not just in the United States but worldwide could use help in expanding the market for environmental protection from an elite few to the broader populace. The coming administration might be uniquely positioned to do just that.
  1. Use your leverage. In part, that’s because the contrarian theory operates in politics. For example, Richard Nixon was able to recognize the People’s Republic of China when George McGovern, had he been elected in 1972, would have found it almost impossible to do so. In part, though it’s because Mr. Trump appears to recognize just what leverage is available to the leader of the free world. The big challenge for him, as for his predecessors, will be to avoid squandering it – through either misplaced caution or in pursuit of small, self-serving (versus think–big) ends.
  1. Enhance your location. Remember the real estate adage: location, location, location? In his 1987 book, Mr. Trump tells us that one of his biggest successes flew in the face of this advice. He saw a plot of under-used, under-valued land in Manhattan and through development and marketing transformed it into a prime location. Imagine (again, thinking-big) enhancing not just a single location, but the entire Earth itself. Imagine, not just exporting pollution to out-of-sight-out-of-mind locations (mining lithium in the Andes, growing palm oil in Indonesia, etc.), but reducing pollution worldwide, improving everyone’s neighborhood.
  1. Get the word out.
  1. Fight back. 
  1. Deliver the goods. Interestingly, at this point in his 1987 narrative, Donald Trump used what he saw as the negative example of two presidents. He dismissed President Carter as failing to deliver on what he’d promised: “The American people caught on pretty quickly that Carter couldn’t do the job, and he lost in a landslide when he ran for re-election.” He suggested that the jury was still out on President Reagan: “Ronald Reagan is another example. He is so smooth and effective a performer that he completely won over the American people. Only now, nearly seven years later, are people beginning to question whether there’s anything beneath that smile.” In light of those comments, and with an eye to the judgment of history, the president-elect has incentive to deliver. Environmental intelligence and environmental risk management offer an opportunity unique with respect to (1) ease of accomplishment, (2) positive legacy, and (3) low cost (conforming to element #10 below)
  1. Contain the costs
  2. Have fun

This expounding on the list of elements that make for a successful deal as they apply to natural-resource, hazard, environmental issues is quite incomplete, but you get the idea. Hopefully, you also get the second idea, which is far more important. The real purpose of this post is not to get your buy-in to any or all of the specifics. Instead, it’s to encourage you to reflect afresh on that 30-year-old list. Please identify your own takeaway, develop your own list of opportunities, maybe modify the list of eleven by subtracting one or two or adding a couple of principles or elements of your own. Contribute your thoughts to the national dialog.

Who knows? Maybe (in line with element #11) there’ll be some fun along the way.


[1] Only the headings are provided here; the book offers explanatory text and supporting examples of each bit of the formula.

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