Bobo is disappointed. In “Character, Not Audacity” he sighs that President Obama’s speech Thursday night was quite solid, but it lacked the audacity to tackle the big policy problems ahead. He actually had the cojones to say “he apparently lacks the creativity to break out of the partisan categories, the trench warfare gridlock.” That’s effing rich… Mr. Cohen has decided to rail about “The Organic Fable.” He howls that a study exposes the hype behind a pseudoscientific ideology. He says the future is nonorganic. I guess he’s never read “Silent Spring,” but he’s certainly old enough to remember alar… In “Cleaning Up the Economy” Prof. Krugman says the next four years are likely to be much better than the last four years. Here’s poor, disappointed Bobo:
As I listened to President Obama on stage in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday night, I thought back to the days more than four years ago, when he spoke at a Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, or on the night he won the caucuses of that state. There was his romantic vision, the possibility of transformational change.
I don’t know if we are worse off now than we were back then, but we were certainly worse off then than we knew. The financial crisis of the past years has exposed debilitating flaws in our way of life. It’s exposed the crushing burden of debt and the unsustainability of our entitlement system. It’s exposed flaws in our style of capitalism — the overreliance on finance, the concentration of power. It exposed a widening education gap; the educated have recovered from the recession while the unskilled fall further behind. It exposed even deeper dysfunctions in our political system.
Obama was rhetorically grand back then, but many of us have spent this year looking for even bigger strategies and policies.
The Republicans understand the severity of our economic problems, but they put too much faith in tax cuts. The Republicans understand that unless Medicare is reformed, it will swallow everything else, though judging from their convention, they are too timid to explain the problem or champion their own plan.
So, as I looked to President Obama’s speech Thursday night, I was looking to see if he was capable of a new burst of change.
There were parts of his speech that raised the old expectations. I liked the emphasis he put not on himself but on the word “you” — the idea that change comes organically from the bottom up. I liked his extraordinary self-awareness, his willingness to admit that often life on the campaign trail requires candidates to do silly things. I liked the sense of citizenship that pervaded his address, the sense of mutual obligation.
But what I was mostly looking for were big proposals, big as health care was four years ago. I had spent the three previous days watching more than 80 convention speeches without hearing a single major policy proposal in any of them. I asked governors, mayors and legislators to name a significant law that they’d like to see President Obama pass in a second term. Not one could. At its base, this is a party with a protective agenda, not a change agenda — dedicated to defending government in all its forms.
The Obama speech offered some important if familiar hints of big policy ideas. There was a vague hint of a major tax reform. There was a vague promise to accept an agreement based on the principle of the Simpson-Bowles committee on deficit reduction. But it’s hard to be enthusiastic about President Obama truly championing initiatives that get no more than a sentence or a clause.
Over all, the speech had a fierce opposition toward the Republicans and a desire for incremental continuity about what the Democrats themselves would offer. Worse, the speech was dominated by unexplained goals that were often worthy, but also familiar, modest and incommensurate with the problems at hand. The government should help more students attend community colleges. It should recruit more math and science teachers. These are good existing programs, but these are not policies to pinion a presidency around.
It would be nice if exports doubled. It would be nice if deficits came down gradually over the next 10 years. But the goals President Obama set in these spheres will probably be met if everybody in Washington carried on the status quo. They do not entail big change.
President Obama offered other small and worthy ideas, familiar to him since his days in the Senate, that would make America better — more long-lasting batteries, more trade agreements. But these are improvements fit for countries that are already firmly on the right track.
The country that exists is not on the right track. It has a completely dysfunctional political system. What was there in this speech that will make us think the next few years will be any different? America will only be governable again if there is a leader who breaks the mold and reframes the debate. Romney is unlikely to do that, and Obama’s speech didn’t offer much either.
In short, change is still the issue, and the focus of his solid but not extraordinary speech was incremental improvement. The next president has to do three big things, which are in tension with one another: increase growth, reduce debt and increase social equity. President Obama has the intelligence, the dexterity and the sense of balance to navigate these crosscutting challenges. But he apparently lacks the creativity to break out of the partisan categories, the trench warfare gridlock.
Thursday night’s speech showed the character and his potential. It didn’t show audacity and the fulfillment of that potential.
Here’s another big plate of salted weasel dicks, Bobo. You chew on those until you can ‘splain Rmoney’s and ZEGS’ plans to break out of partisan gridlock. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
At some point — perhaps it was gazing at a Le Pain Quotidien menu offering an “organic baker’s basket served with organic butter, organic jam and organic spread” as well as seasonally organic orange juice — I found I just could not stomach the “O” word or what it stood for any longer.
Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.
An effective form of premium branding rather than a science, a slogan rather than better nutrition, “organic” has oozed over the menus, markets and malls of the world’s upscale neighborhood at a remarkable pace. In 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association, organic food and drink sales totaled $26.7 billion in the United States, or about 4 percent of the overall market, having grown steadily since 2000. The British organic market is also large; menus like to mention that bacon comes from pampered pigs at the Happy Hog farm down the road.
In the midst of the fad few questions have been asked. But the fact is that buying organic baby food, a growing sector, is like paying to send your child to private school: It is a class-driven decision that demonstrates how much you love your offspring but whose overall impact on society is debatable.
So I cheered this week when Stanford University concluded, after examining four decades of research, that fruits and vegetables labeled organic are, on average, no more nutritious than their cheaper conventional counterparts. The study also found that organic meats offered no obvious health advantages. And it found that organic food was not less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E.coli.
The takeaway from the study could be summed up in two words: Organic, schmorganic. That’s been my feeling for a while.
Now let me say three nice things about the organic phenomenon. The first is that it reflects a growing awareness about diet that has spurred quality, small-scale local farming that had been at risk of disappearance.
The second is that even if it’s not better for you, organic farming is probably better for the environment because less soil, flora and fauna are contaminated by chemicals (although of course, without fertilizers, you have to use more land to grow the same amount of produce or feed the same amount of livestock.) So this is food that is better ecologically even if it is not better nutritionally.
The third is that the word organic — unlike other feel-good descriptions of food like “natural” — actually means something. Certification procedures in both the United States and Britain are strict. In the United States, organic food must meet standards ensuring that genetic engineering, synthetic fertilizers, sewage and irradiation were not used in the food’s production. It must also be produced using methods that, according to the Department of Agriculture, “foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.”
Still, the organic ideology is an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype. There is a niche for it, if you can afford to shop at Whole Foods, but the future is nonorganic.
To feed a planet of 9 billion people, we are going to need high yields not low yields; we are going to need genetically modified crops; we are going to need pesticides and fertilizers and other elements of the industrialized food processes that have led mankind to be better fed and live longer than at any time in history.
Logically, the organic movement should favor genetically modified produce. If you cannot use pesticides or fertilizers, you might at least want to modify your crops so they are more resilient and plentiful. But that would go against the ideology and romance of a movement that says: We are for nature, everyone else is against nature.
I’d rather be against nature and have more people better fed. I’d rather be serious about the world’s needs. And I trust the monitoring agencies that ensure pesticides are used at safe levels — a trust the Stanford study found to be justified.
Martin Orbach, the co-founder and program director of the Abergavenny Food Festival in Britain, owns a company called Shepherds that produces a superb sheep’s milk ice-cream sold at a store in Hay-on-Wye. It has a cult following at the Hay literary festival and beyond. Journalists, Orbach told me, regularly report that they have eaten an “organic sheep’s milk ice cream.”
The only catch is this is not true. “We have never said it’s organic because it would be illegal for us to do so,” Orbach said. “But it fits with the story of a small sheep’s milk ice-cream maker.”
Organic is a fable of the pampered parts of the planet — romantic and comforting. Now, thanks to Stanford researchers, we know just how replete with myth the “O” fable is.
For you, Mr. Cohen, I have some apples sprayed with DDT and alar, neither of which were mentioned in your screed. Eat up — they’re non-organic. Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was a remarkable combination of pretty serious wonkishness — has there ever been a convention speech with that much policy detail? — and memorable zingers. Perhaps the best of those zingers was his sarcastic summary of the Republican case for denying President Obama re-election: “We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in.”
Great line. But is the mess really getting cleaned up?
The answer, I would argue, is yes. The next four years are likely to be much better than the last four years — unless misguided policies create another mess.
In saying this, I’m not making excuses for the past. Job growth has been much slower and unemployment much higher than it should have been, even given the mess Mr. Obama inherited. More on that later. But, first, let’s look at what has been accomplished.
On Inauguration Day 2009, the U.S. economy faced three main problems. First, and most pressing, there was a crisis in the financial system, with many of the crucial channels of credit frozen; we were, in effect, suffering the 21st-century version of the bank runs that brought on the Great Depression. Second, the economy was taking a major hit from the collapse of a gigantic housing bubble. Third, consumer spending was being held down by high levels of household debt, much of which had been run up during the Bush-era bubble.
The first of these problems was resolved quite quickly, thanks both to lots of emergency lending by the Federal Reserve and, yes, the much maligned bank bailouts. By late 2009, measures of financial stress were more or less back to normal.
This return to financial normalcy did not, however, produce a robust recovery. Fast recoveries are almost always led by a housing boom — and given the excess home construction that took place during the bubble, that just wasn’t going to happen. Meanwhile, households were trying (or being forced by creditors) to pay down debt, which meant depressed demand. So the economy’s free fall ended, but recovery remained sluggish.
Now, you may have noticed that in telling this story about a disappointing recovery I didn’t mention any of the things that Republicans talked about last week in Tampa, Fla. — the effects of high taxes and regulation, the lack of confidence supposedly created by Mr. Obama’s failure to lavish enough praise on “job creators” (what I call the “Ma, he’s looking at me funny!” theory of our economic problems). Why the omission? Because there’s not a shred of evidence for the G.O.P. theory of what ails our economy, while there’s a lot of hard evidence for the view that a lack of demand, largely because of excessive household debt, is the real problem.
And here’s the good news: The forces that have been holding the economy back seem likely to fade away in the years ahead. Housing starts have been at extremely low levels for years, so the overhang of excess construction from the bubble years is long past — and it looks as if a housing recovery has already begun. Household debt is still high by historical standards, but the ratio of debt to G.D.P. is way down from its peak, setting the stage for stronger consumer demand looking forward.
And what about business investment? It has actually been recovering rapidly since late 2009, and there’s every reason to expect it to keep rising as businesses see rising demand for their products.
So, as I said, the odds are that barring major mistakes, the next four years will be much better than the past four years.
Does this mean that U.S. economic policy has done a good job? Not at all.
Bill Clinton said of the problems Mr. Obama confronted on taking office, “No one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.” If, by that, he meant the overhang of debt, that’s very much the case. But we should have had strong policies to mitigate the pain while households worked down their debt, as well as policies to help reduce the debt — above all, relief for underwater homeowners.
The policies we actually got were far from adequate. Debt relief, in particular, has been a bust — and you can argue that this was, in large part, because the Obama administration never took it seriously.
But, that said, Mr. Obama did push through policies — the auto bailout and the Recovery Act — that made the slump a lot less awful than it might have been. And despite Mitt Romney’s attempt to rewrite history on the bailout, the fact is that Republicans bitterly opposed both measures, as well as everything else the president has proposed.
So Bill Clinton basically had it right: For all the pain America has suffered on his watch, Mr. Obama can fairly claim to have helped the country get through a very bad patch, from which it is starting to emerge.