A Government Looking to Elect A New People: A Response to Bill Lublin on the Future of NAR

"We are a nation with a government, not the other way around."

 

A few weeks back, Bill Lublin and I engaged in a spirited debate about the future of the Association, stemming from this post of mine from March. Bill’s initial response is here.

Well, my post then became the basis for my presentation at RETSO, which gave me impetus to expand on the topic.

During that debate, I suggested that Bill was simply defending the status quo to the hilt since his first post was nothing but a robust defense of all things NAR. Since he said that he has many ideas for change at NAR, that he wasn’t happy with everything at NAR, I asked him to lay out some reforms he’d like to see.

Bill has now posted the reforms he’d like to institute at NAR in Part 2 of his Ask What You Can Do for NAR post. I, of course, argue with Bill after the jump, partially because I learn things through debate, but really, because this topic is a critical one for the industry. We may as well have it in public.

Summarizing Bill’s Arguments

Bill makes two main arguments in his “Reforms I Would Enact To Show I’m Not a Devoted Defender of NAR”. Unfortunately for his contention, the first argument happens to show that when it comes to NAR, Bill is like the mother who can’t see any flaws with her baby boy no matter what. And the second argument is a total non-sequitur.

Bill’s first argument amounts to, “What’s wrong with NAR is its members.” He writes:

I believe that the primary problem face by NAR and the State and Local associations is not the size of the organization, but the lack of education and involvement on the part of the members.

He then goes on to suggest a reform:

One solution – don’t decrease membership, increase dues – substantially,but then credit the involved member back an amount equal to the increase  based upon ;

  1. Attendance at Association events (educational, social or political)
  2. Donations to RPAC and participation in political events
  3. Memberships in committees and the local, state or national, levels
  4. Their participation in Association sponsored community events

By doing this, members would increase their professional growth, learn what the association does, gain new and better relationships with volunteer leadership, association staff, and their colleagues. Experience has shown me that people who get involved in association committees regularly, and over a period of years,  become association advocates, and when they believe the association needs new directions, become the catalysts for change. The benefit of a plan like this is that the people that don’t serve or attend, will pay a financial penalty for their failure to make the industry a better place, instead of being carried on the backs of others.

What I don’t quite understand here is how “people that don’t serve or attend” is a “member” of an organization at all. It’s quite like claiming that despite the fact that despite the fact that Kate Beckinsale has never called me, has never consented to go out on a date with me, and doesn’t know that I exist, she’s my girlfriend.

In my youth, I “belonged” to a union, because I wanted a dishwashing job in my college cafeteria. Since my university was a closed union shop, part of my paperwork included my signing over part of my paycheck to pay union dues. I never once considered myself a member of that union (can’t even remember the local number or name), never attended a single meeting, never volunteered for anything, and generally never thought of the union except when I looked at my paycheck to see the money deducted. I was not then a “member” of that union in any meaningful way.

Yet, Bill’s contention is that these individuals are indeed valued members of NAR, simply because they pay dues. It doesn’t matter to him, apparently, that most of them pay those dues because they feel forced to pay those dues in order to have access to the MLS and to the lockbox. They do not attend meetings and do not serve, because they are members of NAR in the same way that I was a member of that local whatever of Big Labor Union. Which is to say, they are not members at all if the word means anything.

Take a step back and look at the “proposal for reform”. There isn’t a hint of any suggestion that the Association could possibly have done anything wrong. There is no sense of critique of any policy positions, organizational inefficiencies, or use of funds. The reform that Bill proposes comes down not to fixing what might be problematic in the organization, but fixing what’s problematic in the “membership”.

Everything wrong with the Association, you see, is the people’s fault. It’s their fault for being uneducated, unenlightened, and uninvolved.

The solution, then, is to jack up the dues, and then to issue refunds back to those who are involved. Because belonging to an Association apparently is a duty, which can be fulfilled either by service or by money:

The benefit of a plan like this is that the people that don’t serve or attend, will pay a financial penalty for their failure to make the industry a better place, instead of being carried on the backs of others.

The members exist to serve the Association, not the other way around. Which is fine, if those people joined the Association voluntarily in order to serve it. But given that the vast majority of “members” did not join voluntarily, the “reform” boils down to taxing the unwilling to benefit the core membership who would have joined anyway.

I also advocate raising dues, but the timing is different, because the animating philosophy in our visions are different.

I advocate letting those involuntary members-in-name-only go, and then raising dues on the remaining real members, who have joined not to get MLS access, but to make change and to advocate for American homeownership. The animating philosophy is that the Association should be an organization of political activists coming together voluntarily on the basis of their agreement on the mission.

Bill advocates raising the dues, not letting the members-in-name-only go, and then badgering and hectoring them to get more educated and more involved. The animating philosophy is that the Association should change nothing, since supporting the Association is a moral duty for anyone with a real estate license; you can fulfill that moral duty either through service, or through money.

As it happens there are some organizations that function much like the membership-is-a-duty Association of Bill’s vision. The Teamsters, AFSCME, the teacher’s unions….

I just happen to think that particular vision of the Association is not a good one. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

(Bill’s second point, about taking control over listing data, is such a non-sequitur that I don’t even know where to place that in the context of this discussion. That whole topic is relevant to the MLS, but I thought we were talking about the Association and its value apart from providing access to the MLS? So we’ll just skip over that for this discussion.)

The Smaller vs. Larger Argument

To be fair, Bill’s “reform” is premised on the more interesting and important argument we’re having. That issue is whether it is better for the Association to emphasize quality or quantity in its “members”. As Bill writes:

I think that Rob’s idea of a smaller organization would not in any manner benefit the industry or the political efforts of the organization, because, as I have pointed out in the past, the larger the group, the more attention it gets from politicians, and that attention is important to the lobbying efforts of organization.I appreciate Rob’s analysis of response to calls to action and the number of major RPAC donors, but in addition to those efforts, politicians respond to the threat of concerted action by voter blocs, which, due to the tradition of closed ballots, cannot be measured, but like Damocles sword, hangs over anyone who needs to be elected to their job.

This, frankly, is the heart of the matter, rather than the membership-by-fatwa proposal Bill floated.

Bill believes that my original post was intricate rhetoric, but rhetoric nonetheless, whereas the reality of political advocacy is the larger is better.

The issue here is that Bill is framing only half of the argument: bigger is better than smaller. Of course bigger is better than smaller. All other things being equal, more people = more attention = more power. That is a truism in a democracy no one would disagree with.

The issue is that you have to bring in the other half of the equation: commitment. Is bigger and disengaged really more effective for lobbying efforts than smaller and engaged? That’s the real question, and one that people interested in the topic need to think about.

Take, for instance, the Rally to Protect the American Dream that NAR has called for on May 17th. This is supposed to be precisely the kind of show of power that Bill fantasizes about. When Congressmen see thousand upon thousands of REALTORS waving signs and so on, they’ll cave quickly on the various issues that NAR advocates. From the NAR press release:

Every May, NAR holds its Midyear Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in Washington, D.C. Although thousands of REALTORS® attend the Midyear meetings, this year that’s not enough. With the challenges facing real estate and home ownership, this year we are having the REALTOR® Rally to Protect the American Dream at the Washington Monument on the National Mall.  NAR leadership has asked us to FILL THE PARK with REALTORS® on the morning of May 17th.

Okay, the capacity of the National Mall is supposed to be about 1 million. Around the Washington Monument itself, I’ve seen nothing concrete, but I do know that a Glenn Beck rally drew about 76,000 people to that section of the park.

To “FILL THE PARK with REALTORS” would mean 100% participation of all roughly million “members” of NAR. I think we all can agree this will never happen. To “FILL THE PARK”, at least around the Washington Monument, would require let’s say a minimum of 50,000 REALTORS to show up.

I think it’s fairly obvious that no such filling of the park will be happening on May 17.

Keep in mind that this rally is something that NAR President Moe Veissi has said is historically critical:

Our industry is facing a crucial moment. Never before in the history of our great nation have housing and real estate been forced to defend the benefits they provide our country. The very foundation of civilization is no stronger, nor more enduring than the integrity of the homes on which they rest.

Since roughly 10-12,000 people attend NAR Mid-Year at all (according to Association sources I spoke with), it seems doubtful that the Rally to Protect the American Dream would draw more than say 7,000 people. 7,000 people are going to look awfully small next to the Washington Monument.

So the question is, do we believe that Congresscritters and their staff — all of whom are professional political operators — are stupid or blind or both? Would they continue to believe that NAR represents some huge “voter bloc” when it can’t mobilize even 1% of its so-called membership to attend a rally that its President has called crucial, critical, historical, etc. etc.? Consider for a moment that the leaderless, disorganized Tea Party movement brought 60,000-70,000 people to the Washington Monument in 2009. If you were a professional politician, which “voting bloc” scares you more?

The question is, in today’s high technology environment, when campaigns and political staffs include data analysts with access to highly segmented voter databases going back several election cycles… do you really think that some Senator with millions in funding can’t figure out that NAR might be a paper tiger? The answer, at least to me, is obvious.

The Old and Busted vs. the New Hotness

The essential problem with Bill’s formulation of political effectiveness is that it is based on an old outdated model of political organization, where political bosses purported to speak for huge numbers of people, and politicians believed them.

Old and Busted

The Internet, which changed politics long before it ever impacted the general public, has undermined that old model. Those people who have been paying attention have noticed that the old unions, for example, are suffering defeat after defeat. Politicians both Democrat and Republican have defied the will of these “voting blocs” in recent years and have not only survived, but thrived.

Even the established political parties are not the power they once were — witness, for example, the Occupy Movement on the Left, and the Tea Party on the Right. Notice how Ron Paul is defying political conventional wisdom.

The new model is the one being used by the various popular movements, where activists empowered by technology are influencing John Q. Public on a personal basis. The success of the Tea Party movements, for example, has nothing to do with professional lobbyists and big organizations, but everything to do with things like the Precinct Project.

Bill’s philosophy and suggested “reforms” are very much in the vein of the older, top-down, political bosses model. And they can only perpetuate the same old and busted model of disaffected “members” being lectured to by the enlightened elite. That way lies perdition.

My suggestions for a leaner, meaner Association, made up of only those committed REALTORS who truly believe in a vision and a mission for organized real estate leads naturally to adopting those newer technology-enabled social organizing models that have been successful from Egypt to Utah. It is the new hotness of political activism, and it is one that NAR, State and Local Associations desperately need to adopt.

One quick data point in support of the New Hotness. The average Facebook user has 229 Friends. I believe that the average REALTOR has many times that number in Facebook Friends, because of her business and her personality. I think it’s fair to assume that the average REALTOR on Facebook has 500 Friends.

The New Hotness

Convert NAR into a focused, committed political organization filled only with activists, and lose 80% of the membership. The remaining 20% has a Sphere of Influence that is 200,000 x 500 Friends = 100,000,000 Americans. And that’s just on Facebook. As we know, many REALTORS are leaders in their local communities and have real influence in their towns and neighborhoods. Even if they’re not engaged in politics, they know hundreds of people locally.

Find a way to unleash that network, that energy. That is political power in the Social Age.

Oh, by the way… an organization built around a core, with solid principles, can only grow. So even if the Association starts with pruning, it will grow back more powerful, more focused, and more numerous than can be imagined.

This got long, but the discussion is an important one. I am grateful to Bill Lublin for continuing to have this debate with me, as it informs all of us — myself included.

-rsh