An owl's eye view of forests and trees

You Too Can Stick Their Feet to the Fire. Ask Me How.


Actually, it’s really as simply as that. Just one word. “How?”



What was that? Wait a minute, you say.  Just who are “they”, you ask.  Great question.


“They” certainly are politicians. Office holders.  Pundits. Reporters.  But it doesn’t stop there.  “They” are also bosses. Division leaders.  Coaches.  Doctors.  Religious leaders.  Civic community leaders.  “They” are just about anyone who has ever told you in general terms a series of plans, or goals.


“They” don’t have to be bad people. “They” don’t have to have ill intent.  “They” can be saying things with the purest of motives.  “They” can give inspiring speeches. “They” can also be fearmongers.  Con artists.  Demagogues.




Lots of people say lots of words about how things are going to be. About what our goals are. And what we should be afraid of.  Lots of people suggest they have the answer.  Or that as a group, a community a society, we are going to do something. Toward making those things come to pass. Toward achieving those goals.  Toward protecting ourselves from that which we fear.


But rarely is there any true substance underneath all that “speechifying”. Rarely is there anything practical under there. Rarely is there any useful road map, or even the start of one, to get us to where the speaker says we should go.


That’s fine if the speaker admits they don’t know either. But most often there is no admission. They say they have an answer. They talk like something is a done deal. But they leave us hanging. We need to teach ourselves not to let that pass.  We need to learn to ask “how”. And keep asking. And keep sticking the speakers’ feet to the fire until they can give us answers, or admit there are none.


We have a country feeling very divided on a whole host of issues.  Throughout the last two years, I got very frustrated with the 24-hour news cycle. Actually, this has been going on for a long time. But I mention the last two years to highlight the issue.  See most of the 24-hour news cycle’s coverage is not about relaying facts.  It does that briefly then spends the majority of its time having others opine on what all that means.


In response to those talking heads, I end up asking my television over and over the same question.  How? How? How?  “Well what will likely happen is this”.  How?  “This law will do x, y and z.” How?  “This will mean a, b and c for Congress.”  How? “I am an expert on this stuff, so I know”. How?  No really, how are you an expert?  In what way?  What are your credentials?  Seriously.




As I said, we have to teach ourselves to ask “how”. And a whole bunch of other questions that follow.


As we progress into adulthood, we learn society’s rules. Some we follow consciously. Some we follow unconsciously. We learn how to act within the boxes of behavior society presents to us.


What’s in your boxes? What’s outside them?


When people say, “think outside the box” that’s pretty much what they are getting at. Thinking outside the boxes around our behavior and thought processes. Boxes that were erected as we grew and became part of adult society.


It’s why children’s thought processes sometimes stupefy us adults.  They have not learned all the boxes yet. To them, what they just thought was completely normal.  To us, it is contrary to regular lines of thought.




Society’s boxes are not a bad thing, in themselves.  Social rules, customs, and norms help us all get along. They help us function as a greater group.


Humans tend to be group based, or “social” creatures. With good reason. No one can do everything. No one is great at everything. Therefore, we have better chances in a group. My shortcomings are covered by someone else in the group. Their shortcomings are covered by someone else.  We each bring our separate strengths together to help all of us. I benefit from your strengths. You benefit from mine.  Together we tend to do better than we do separately.


So, having customs and rules to glue that society together is ultimately a good thing.  But it is useful to be aware of where those rules and norms are perhaps constricting thought.




I remember several years ago running into ads that reminded me that I should feel free to ask my doctor questions. The ads presented people who were forceful personalities. They asked questions and pushed for answers in everything else in life.  But those same people sat in front of a doctor and said nothing.


Sounds silly, right?  Of course, I ask my doctor questions. Right?  That ad can’t apply to me, I thought.  Then I realized that maybe it did.


I remembered how many times I have left the doctor’s office and realized after the fact that I had questions. Lots of them.  And I never asked them. There were a lot of reasons for this. Sometimes you are just surprised by a doctor’s diagnosis. It’s not always terrible news. But it still surprises. Shock effects people in a variety of ways. One is that we tend to freeze up.


Also, some of us don’t do well when put on the spot.  A large number of times I realized what I should have said only after the fact. Let’s just say, that even if I were expert in a given subject, I probably would still do horribly on it in Jeopardy.


But another reason is that we are conditioned to be polite to authority figures. And we are conditioned to not look past the surface of some comments.  To not ask questions. See, asking questions rocks boats. It delays things.  It shakes things up. Sometimes unnecessarily. That doesn’t always help society function.


So, we tend to not ask things of people in positions of expertise or authority. We tend to not even realize that things were left unexplained.  We don’t notice. And maybe they don’t either. That’s what goes on with me and my doctor. I only realize it after the fact. Then I go online, check things up on my own, and when I see my doctor next, I ask my questions. But I often don’t on the first go-round.




Those societal boxes around our thoughts apply to almost any situation. We don’t ask key questions.  Who? What? Where? Why? How?  We don’t often realize those questions are unanswered.


A boss says that “we are going to increase productivity while enhancing employees’ work experience.”  Sounds good. Sounds progressive. Sounds like a positive for the company and its employees. We often take that at face value. Or we take it with a cynical, “Yeah, yeah, that’s what they always say. Nothing ever comes of it.”


But, in neither circumstance, do we stop and ask ourselves, or those telling us these things, “How”?  How is that going to happen? How is productivity going to be increased? How are employees’ experiences going to be enhanced?


With those come other questions. What does enhancing employees’ experiences even mean?  How much productivity increase? Where is the productivity going to be increased?  Across the board? Only certain divisions? How will that increase actually help the company?  What is the cost versus profit ratio of these changes?  Is this a solution to a problem we don’t have?  Are there problems in the company that are going unaddressed while we follow this path?  Will this ultimately harm or help employees?  And so on.


Again, these are questions we need to ask ourselves.  Frequently, we also need to ask them of the folks that made us ask those questions in the first place.  And a lot of times, that’s a boat we miss. In the media. As a society. As individuals.







I learned this myself as I got into my teens when it came to politicians.  Remember what I said about kids thinking “outside the box” because they haven’t learned what the box is yet?  That’s probably why I could learn the lesson.


I was very fortunate, for the most part, in my schooling. I had some great opportunities.  One of them was that my 8th grade class took about a week-long field trip to Washington, DC.  During that trip, we had several meetings, as a class, with various politicians. Most of them had some local connection to our home region.  And my class was not incredibly large.  Thus, these meetings were sort of intimate.  Not large lecture halls. More like conference rooms.  Where the office holder came in, spoke to us, maybe took a few questions, and left.


It was during that trip I truly learned how politicians speak. I am not sure it would have been as clear to me when I got older. Because by then I would have learned more societal expectations. More of society’s boxes.  I may not have noticed certain things. I may have let others pass.  But I was only in 8th grade. So, I noticed.


The biggest thing I noticed was that none of these guys really said anything. They talked platitudes. They said a lot to make us feel good.  To inspire us even.  But there was only air underneath their statements.


There was no “how”. No explanation of how goals could be accomplished.  No explanation of how we could do this or that. No explanation of how Congress would get this or that done.  Nothing.


Being 8th graders, we had not yet been taught to not ask “how”. So, we did. The answers we got back deflected. They distracted. They went on for 5 minutes and never really addressed the question.


If this had happened only once, or twice, I would have probably thought this was just an oddity.  But everyone who spoke to us, every politician, did the exact same thing.


From that one week I learned that this is how they do it. They proposed things without actually having any answers.  World peace. Great economy. Equality for all. But no solutions. No “how”.  And, thus, those proposals meant nothing.


I was fortunate to get this lesson at the age I did. I had to be old enough to understand it. And not too old to ignore it.  I learned it. And did not forget it.


How? A lot of people here need to give us an answer to that question.




In fact, I had it hammered into me with later teen experiences. In high school, I had another opportunity.  The U.S. Representative for my school’s district decided to run a program. He put together an organization of high schoolers.  He called it a Congressional Forum. It was designed to make kids aware of and active in politics.  I was one of four teens in my high school to participate.  And I had that 8th grade lesson reiterated again.


Student Congressional Forum. Like this, but with teens. And not such a formal setting. We were teens after all!


First of all, I got it affirmed because the politicians who spoke to us in that organization spoke the same way as the politicians had back in 8th grade.  The size of the group they were speaking to now fit in a lecture hall, not a conference room. But the same types of empty statements echoed in them.




I got the lesson in other ways too, though.  One of the exercises we did was to teach us a bit about how bills were marked up. In other words, some of the nuts and bolts of how Congress makes laws.


They took an actual state bill, told us to review it and propose changes.  Then we sat in a lecture hall and our various groups argued the proposed changes.  If you are a civics nerd, that sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?  If you’re not, it probably sounds pretty boring.  But still pretty unique.


My school’s group of four poured over that thing. We learned some key things about legislation. One of the biggest is that it is confusing stuff to read.  The whole thing seemed very poorly constructed to us.


So, we put together a ton of changes to fix it. To make it streamlined.  To have it make sense. And to have it actually capable of accomplishing something.  Remember, we still had not learned all of society’s boxes.  We did not know any better.


It turns out, we did the exercise wrong. The proposed bill we had been given had certain parts that were underlined. That was the only part we were allowed to change.  See the bill only modified an already existing law.  The underlined parts were the bill. The proposed changes to the existing law.


We had instead gone ahead and pretty much re-written the entire law.  It turned out that the underlined parts had almost no substance. They were largely cosmetic. Added some blush and a different lipstick.  Again, we encountered the lack of practical solutions. Appearance over substance.  Feel good statements over “how”.




Another exercise we were given related to international politics of the day.  See, this was back before the Soviet Union dissolved.  This was a time when everyone was very concerned about the tensions between the USA and the USSR.


European nations on the border between the Soviet Union and the rest of Europe were very concerned. They could see that should hostilities break out, their homes were going to be the front line, or the fallout zone. They had no say in it. They were scared and frustrated.


There were a lot of international protests against both nations and nuclear proliferation.  Within the US there were lots of concerns and protests too.


The Congressional Forum members were asked to come up with ways to address these issues.  My school’s band of four included some military and history nerds. One of them had found an article discussing some solutions in a military history magazine, if I recall correctly. We looked it over.  We adopted some of it. Modified it. And prepared to present it to the organization as a whole.


We were proud of ourselves. We were presented with a question.  We sought a practical solution.  We knew that nuclear proliferation was not going to stop. We knew that folks were not going to disarm themselves. We knew that people feeling stuck in the middle were going to continue to be scared. We knew that certain of these tensions were not going to go away as long as there was a USA and a USSR.


So, we did not propose a sweeping solution.  We sought a foot-in-the door solution that could actually be achieved. Nothing pie-in-the sky.  It would ease some problems. It would not completely fix any of them. We knew that was not possible. No magic wands were available.


We went with a proposal that expanded a de-militarized zone in Europe – a no nuke zone as well. There was more to it than that, but I can’t recall it.  It was designed to appease some European allies’ concerns and create a realistic cool down zone as a foot-in-the door to de-escalate tensions. Was it perfect? Heck no.  Was it practical? Yes. Did it therefore have a realistic answer to “how”? Yes.


An anti-nuclear protest in Germany back in the day. Photo from Wikipedia.  Original photo by Hans Weingartz.




Away we went to that session of the organization. We patiently waited our turn to present our idea.


Group after group got up and spoke to the assembly. They presented exactly what they had been taught by the politicians they had been hearing all along.  Platitudes. A lot of “we will do this” and “we will do that” with no practical answer to “how”. Most of what they proposed was not even remotely possible in the national or international climate of the time. They did not even try to suggest how it could be possible. They just said a bunch of stuff that sounded good.


And all the other groups cheered and clapped and were happy with what was said. Those teens had already been conditioned not to ask “how”.


But our little group figured that was all okay. We, at least, had a practical solution.  Not to fix the whole thing, but something that could actually be accomplished.  We presented something realistic. It was in keeping with the other teens’ ideals.  So what if it was just a small step? It was still a step. They were bound to like it, right?


How wrong we were. We presented a practical solution. We were angrily shouted down.  We did not provide platitudes. We did not propose sweeping and impossible changes. Thus, we were not doing enough. Our proposal was terrible according to our peers.  We were not pie-in-the sky enough.  How dare we?


Thus, I had reiterated that politicians don’t answer “how”. I learned that people are conditioned not to notice the lack of “how”.  I also learned that people would rather hear sweeping statements with empty promises over realistic solutions. Especially when those solutions did not offer to magically fix everything, or were hard to accomplish.  I’ll get back to those lessons in a bit.


The thing was, when my school’s gang of four made our proposal, we noticed something else. Yes, after we made our proposal the other teens shouted us down. But, when we originally pitched our proposal, we got a different reaction from some of the adults.


The Congressman’s staff knew how the bread was made.   They knew that practical answers to “how” were rarely presented. Those people were nodding along emphatically in agreement with our proposal. They were excited by what we proposed. They agreed with it. They saw it for the value it actually had.


That told us that we had actually done what we set out to do. We provided a practical solution.  It had also told us that the “public” did not care. Because they had not realized the need to ask “how” in the first place. And we had.




Back to those lessons.  Want a modern-day example?  A lot of people would rather hear that the ACA should be repealed, and that will fix everything, than to ask how it will fix everything.


The system before was so broken that there was bi-partisan clamoring for healthcare reform.  Going back to that same system, therefore, clearly won’t work.  That’s completely obvious. But a lot of people weren’t seeing that.  They were not asking themselves “how”.  Considering this is an issue that personally impacts most of us, that’s a pretty big oversight.


During the 2016 presidential campaign, there were a lot of statements about fixing the ACA, repealing it, or repealing and replacing it. Not a lot of substance was behind most of those statements.  Not a lot of “how” was answered.


For example, most of the Republicans have demanded the ACA be repealed – not repealed and replaced – literally since the ACA was passed.  That call went out again during the 2016 campaign.


Only after Republicans won the House, the Senate and the Presidency.  Only after the Republican party realized that they had a chance to make good on their rhetoric and thus faced what it truly meant. Only after the President-elect, later President, began pressure to do more than just repeal. Only then did Republicans in the House and Senate seriously consider “repeal and replace” instead of just “repeal”. They never had asked themselves “how” before then. And neither had many of those that elected them.


As I said, to President Trump’s credit, he did, at certain points, emphasize that there could be no repeal without a replacement plan. It was one of his campaign promises, after all. Not just a repeal, but a replacement.  Now he has gone back and forth on that position since, but he did originally recognize that repealing something to go back to something that did not work was not a good solution.




However, Trump’s campaign also presents a great example of not answering “how” either.  During his campaign, he made claims that he already had a great replacement plan. One that magically fixed all problems and make things better than ever.  Everyone covered. Everyone to pay lower premiums. Less costly for the government.


Trump said it in interviews with the media.  The media never pressed him on “how”.  That is a media failing. It is also a failing of the public who should have been asking the same question.


Trump had a website up on how it was going to be changed. For the most part, the site simply said things were going to change, and it was going to be great. No substance. No “how”.  Again, that’s when a politician should be pressed for answers.



The above screencap is from the current Trump Campaign webpage on healthcare reform. During the campaign, there was a vague statement, light on details, here. Even that’s been taken down, despite continuing White House encouragement of repeal, replace, and undermine efforts.




And as an aside, don’t take as an excuse, “Well if I say it, then everyone will copy me and take credit.”  You have a right to know what you are voting for.


Say a politician comes along and says they will be tough on crime. You have a right to know what that means. Plus, it is in your own vested interests.


If by that, the politician means that he or she wants to give tanks and jet fighters to the police, you should know that. If the politician wants to institute forced labor for every person convicted of a crime, regardless of offense, you probably want to know that too.  I mean, I don’t know about you, but if I got caught crossing a double yellow line, I wouldn’t want to do time in the mines for that.


Do they want to privatize jails?  Do they want to increase the application of the death penalty? What does the politician mean? How?


You have a right to know.




As for Trump’s healthcare reform plan, the truth is that he had no “how”.  He had no solution. He just said he did.  Anyone who elected him largely on that premise elected him over a lie.


How do we know?  By his own actions. This is not about what the media says about him. This is not a matter of “fake news”.  This is a matter of what he actually did.


See, the time came to trot out this plan.  Did he say, “Here is my plan”?  Did he offer up his beautiful plan that would do all those wonderful things? Did the White House propose anything at all? No.


It punted. It handed the ball off to the House Republicans and said, “Okay, come up with something”.


You remember the House Republicans. The same folks who did not think a replacement was necessary in the first place. All the plans proposed by the Republican Congress since have resulted in CBO score after CBO score that comes up with worse results for the American people than that ACA.


That right there tells you. There never was any plan. There never was any fix.  No substance. No “how”. Nothing.


As an aside, while I have highlighted the President and Republicans in Congress, Congressional Democrats have not covered themselves in glory on this issue either.  Most can agree that, at the very least, the ACA is flawed. There is a lot of talk about proposing fixes. But again, very little “how”.  Even the proposed Medicare for All leaves some big questions unanswered. The lack of a plan is by no means limited to one party.





Learning to ask “how” is a huge deal. This is not a matter of brains. It is not a question of stupidity. Or even ignorance.  Many very smart people never learn how to ask “how”. Many smart people never learn to keep pressing for an answer to that question. And all the questions that follow it.


I think most people are basically smart. It is what humans are.


I don’t think the teens back in that high school congressional organization were stupid. On the contrary, I think most of them were not only smart, they were incredibly smart.


I don’t think people who voted for Republicans on the basis of repeal of the ACA are stupid either.  I think they are basically smart, just like everyone else.




I think in all instances the bigger issue is training ourselves to ask a question we have been conditioned not to ask. To stop a moment, look behind the statements said to us, and see if there is any substance behind them.


If not, ask for the substance. Ask, “How?” If there is none, ask “Why?”


Ask it to those making the statements. Stick their feet to the fire to get answers. And ask yourselves the same questions too.


You don’t get to actual solutions based on air. You get to them based on realistic assessments and practical answers to “how”.


You want tax reform. How?


You want better healthcare. How?


You want better economic growth? How.


You want security for U.S. citizens. How?


And don’t accept vague answers. If the dots aren’t connected, ask for sufficient answers to connect them.  Ask if they can be connected at all.




And remember all the follow up questions.


You want single payer healthcare. How is that going to work? What are the consequences? How is that paid for? What lessons could be/should be learned from other countries?  Is it even possible in this country given state vs. federal law issues and Supreme Court rulings?  What would the impact be on secondary things, such as medical research?


You want better economic growth. Is the cost of corporate and industry de-regulation worth the cost to safety of American citizens?  Has there been an assessment as to which regulations really are cumbersome and unnecessary instead of taking a blanket approach?  Will this result in any benefit to American workers? American consumers?  How will more jobs be created? Will those jobs pay a living wage?  Are those jobs sustainable?  How will U.S. foreign policy impact our foreign export markets?  And so on.


Don’t stop at words that make you feel better.


It does not matter if it comes from your doctor, your boss, you minister, or your elected officials.


Keep asking questions. Keep trying to get to real solutions to the problems you face.


Please look for true fixes to your concerns.


Don’t be passive.  Don’t merely accept.


Challenge.  Push forward.


And keep asking, “How?”



  1. Ed

    Allow me to begin by saying I agree with your argument overall, asking “how” is a critical part of the process. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Clue” that covers the power of that word, I’d link to it but I cannot find it.

    My only immediate though is regarding politicians speeches – I believe politicians inhabit two different spaces, “mission statement” and then “action plan.” Most of the public speeches, to me, seem solidly in the first area, getting support and agreement behind a vision of broad goals. Politicians are focused on getting backers and undecided individuals to a shared vision for the nation, combined with using that to rally up personal support. The “action plan” part seems something that most people trust will be achieved without focusing on the details. In fact I think for most people they resist getting to the details because they want to debate the higher level goals.

    I will grant you though I do agree we are conditioned to not ask how – and I’d argue it stems, as you outlined above, on the idea that we are conditioned to trust authority/expertise rather than digging into the fine points.

    • Ann Anderson

      Thank you for your kind response. I don’t necessarily disagree with your assessments. In fact, I think they dovetail into what I was saying. That there are surface statements by politicians. There may or may not be substance, or an action plan, behind them, and we don’t tend to go digging to find out. But we should, because we are basing decisions off of what is being said.

      I did not mean what I said to be taken as a dismissal of talking about lofty ideals, or broad goals. I think those are valuable discussions to have. To use an example from the article, a broad discussion about nuclear disarmament or world peace is absolutely fine and has its own merit, even though it has little real world likelihood. But when trying to come up with real world solutions, or voting for politicians based on real world solutions they propose, it is worth our while to get to the meat of what is being proposed, make sure we have understood and assessed it, and then, after that, decide if the proposal is something we want to get behind.

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