The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

The Pasty Little Putz has taken it upon himself to instruct us all about “The Facebook Illusion,” and he declares that the Internet economy isn’t as revolutionary as we had hoped.  As usual, he’s wrong again.  About half the comments to his POS suggest that he read Mr. Nocera’s column from a few days ago so he can begin to understand what happened with Facebook’s IPO.  That’s gotta sting!  In “The Party Animals at the Secret Circus” MoDo has a question:  Is Mark Sullivan too naïve to watch over the boys-being-boys in the Secret Service?  The Moustache of Wisdom says “Obama Should Seize the High Ground,” and that President Obama has quite a record of accomplishment to run on for re-election if he would only run on it.   Mr. Kristof, in “From Tragedy to Triumph,” tells about a girl who survived a warlord’s atrocities and is now a one-armed high school basketball star in America — and testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.  Mr. Bruni looks at “The Emotional Tug of Obama,” and says that the president’s saga has a symbolism and sweep that his opponent hasn’t been able to match.  Here’s The Putz:

There were two grand illusions about the American economy in the first decade of the 21st century. One was the idea that housing prices were no longer tethered to normal economic trends, and instead would just keep going up and up. The second was the idea that in the age of Web 2.0, we were well on our way to figuring out how to make lots and lots of money on the Internet.

The first idea collapsed along with housing prices and the stock market in 2007 and 2008. But the Web 2.0 illusion survived long enough to cost credulous investors a small fortune last week, in Facebook’s disaster of an initial public offering.

I will confess to taking a certain amount of dyspeptic pleasure from Facebook’s hard landing, which had Bloomberg Businessweek declaring the I.P.O. “the biggest flop of the decade” after five days of trading. Of all the major hubs of Internet-era excitement, Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking site has always struck me as one of the most noxious, dependent for its success on the darker aspects of online life: the zeal for constant self-fashioning and self-promotion, the pursuit of virtual forms of “community” and “friendship” that bear only a passing resemblance to the genuine article, and the relentless diminution of the private sphere in the quest for advertising dollars.

But even readers who love Facebook, or at least cannot imagine life without it, should see its stock market failure as a sign of the commercial limits of the Internet. As The New Yorker’s John Cassidy pointed out in one of the more perceptive prelaunch pieces, the problem is not that Facebook doesn’t make money. It’s that it doesn’t make that much money, and doesn’t have an obvious way to make that much more of it, because (like so many online concerns) it hasn’t figured out how to effectively monetize its million upon millions of users. The result is a company that’s successful, certainly, but whose balance sheet is much less impressive than its ubiquitous online presence would suggest.

This “huge reach, limited profitability” problem is characteristic of the digital economy as a whole. As the George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen wrote in his 2011 e-book, “The Great Stagnation,” the Internet is a wonder when it comes to generating “cheap fun.” But because “so many of its products are free,” and because so much of a typical Web company’s work is “performed more or less automatically by the software and the servers,” the online world is rather less impressive when it comes to generating job growth.

It’s telling, in this regard, that the companies most often cited as digital-era successes, Apple and Amazon, both have business models that are firmly rooted in the production and delivery of nonvirtual goods. Apple’s core competency is building better and more beautiful appliances; Amazon’s is delivering everything from appliances to DVDs to diapers more swiftly and cheaply to your door.

By contrast, the more purely digital a company’s product, the fewer jobs it tends to create and the fewer dollars it can earn per user — a reality that journalists have become all too familiar with these last 10 years, and that Facebook’s investors collided with last week. There are exceptions to this rule, but not all that many: even pornography, long one of the Internet’s biggest moneymakers, has become steadily less profitable as amateur sites and videos have proliferated and the “professionals” have lost their monopoly on smut.

The German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a book in 1952 entitled “Leisure: The Basis of Culture.” Pieper would no doubt be underwhelmed by the kind of culture that flourishes online, but leisure is clearly the basis of the Internet. From the lowbrow to the highbrow, LOLcats to Wikipedia, vast amounts of Internet content are created by people with no expectation of remuneration. The “new economy,” in this sense, isn’t always even a commercial economy at all. Instead, as Slate’s Matthew Yglesias has suggested, it’s a kind of hobbyist’s paradise, one that’s subsidized by surpluses from the old economy it was supposed to gradually replace.

A glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent unemployment numbers bears this reality out. Despite nearly two decades of dot-com enthusiasm, the information sector is still quite small relative to other sectors of the economy; it currently has one of the nation’s higher unemployment rates; and it’s one of the few sectors where unemployment has actually risen over the last year.

None of this makes the Internet any less revolutionary. But it’s created a cultural revolution more than an economic one. Twitter is not the Ford Motor Company; Google is not General Electric. And except when he sells our eyeballs to advertisers for a pittance, we won’t all be working for Mark Zuckerberg someday.

He’s such a schmuck.  Here’s MoDo:

The Secret Circus, as the traveling Secret Service extravaganza is known, had come to town. And the pack of macho Secret Service agents were hitting the clubs, drinking and hanging out with comely young women in alluring outfits.

That was half a century ago in Fort Worth at the Press Club and a joint called the Cellar, where the waitresses wore only underwear. The carousing started after midnight on Nov. 22, 1963, the day the agents were charged with keeping President Kennedy and Jackie safe in Dallas.

Boys will be boys. And no one doubts that being an agent is a tough job. John Malkovich, playing an aspiring presidential assassin in “In the Line of Fire,” muses to Clint Eastwood’s Secret Service agent: “Watching the president, I couldn’t help wondering why a man like you would risk his life to save a man like that. You have such a strange job. I can’t decide if it’s heroic or absurd.”

The heroism is captured in Robert Caro’s latest book on Lyndon Johnson, “The Passage of Power,” which vividly retells the story of the day J.F.K. was assassinated.

Rufus Youngblood, the Secret Service agent in the vice president’s car, grabbed “Johnson’s right shoulder, yanked him roughly down toward the floor in the center of the car, as he almost leaped over the front seat, and threw his body over the vice president, shouting again, ‘Get down! Get down,’ ” Caro writes, adding that L.B.J. said he would never forget Youngblood’s “knees in my back and his elbows in my back.”

The absurd was captured on Wednesday in a Senate hearing into Secret Service shenanigans, focused on the drinking and prostitution scandal in Cartagena last month, but also touching on an incident in 2008 when an on-duty uniformed agent was arrested for soliciting a D.C. police officer posing as a hooker, and an episode in 2002 when three to five agents were ordered home from the Salt Lake City Olympics for misconduct involving alcohol and under-age girls in their hotel rooms.

As The Washington Post reported, noting that some Secret Service employees call the road show “the Secret Circus,” one 29-year-old agent who was forced to resign after the Cartagena meshugas is protesting that he did not know the two women he brought to his room were prostitutes. Like Dudley Moore in “Arthur,” he just thought he was doing great with them.

Mark Sullivan, the Secret Service director, came across like a credulous Boy Scout under rigorous questioning from Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the homeland security panel.

He said he was sure, given that the Secret Service had 200 people in Colombia and only 12 bad apples, that someone on his team would have reported the misconduct — even if Arthur Huntington, the cheapskate cheating agent, hadn’t started a ruckus by handing his hooker $28 for a night worth $800.

Collins reminded Sullivan that he had told the panel about a survey of personnel in the Secret Service — a muscular fraternity that indulges a wheels-up, rings-off swagger — showing that only about 58 percent would report ethical misconduct.

“I came away with a sense of disbelief that Mr. Sullivan is still maintaining that this was an isolated event,” she told me. “I think he’s an extraordinarily honorable person who is so blindly devoted to the Secret Service that he just cannot conceive of agents’ acting in a way that he would personally never act.

“It’s going to make it difficult for him to truly solve the problem if he can’t admit that there was a problem.”

Collins professed a special fondness for law enforcement officers. “But most of the ones I know who have had 29 years of service have a less sanguine view of human nature,” she said. “That’s what Mark Sullivan totally lacks.”

Dryly, she noted: “Thank goodness it was just prostitutes. They could have been spies planting equipment. They could have blackmailed or drugged agents. This is Colombia, for heaven’s sake.”

Collins talked about the actions that led her to believe that the culture of the agency was warped.

“The 12 agents didn’t go out on the town together in one group, where arguably some could have gotten swept away with what was going on,” she said. “They went in small groups but with the same end results.

“And they made no effort whatsoever to conceal what they were doing. They were registered under their own names. The women registered under their own names. They didn’t go to an alternative place or to the women’s homes. They went back to the hotel where the other agents were staying, with no fear of ramifications if they were caught.”

Pronouncing herself “astonished,” Collins said she would keep after Sullivan to treat the matter more seriously.

“I hate to use the word naïve, but …”

Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:

During a recent discussion in Seattle with a group of educators, one of them surprised me when she pointed out that even though their state did not win President Obama’s education “Race to the Top,” that program was critical in spurring education reform in Washington State. As I listened to her analysis, the thought occurred to me: I wonder how Barack Obama would do if he ran for president as himself. … How he would do if he ran for re-election on all the things he’s accomplished but rarely speaks about.

Barack Obama is a great orator, but he is the worst president I’ve ever seen when it comes to explaining his achievements, putting them in context, connecting with people on a gut level through repetition and thereby defining how the public views an issue.

Think about this: Is there anyone in America today who doesn’t either have a pre-existing medical condition or know someone who does and can’t get health insurance as a result? Yet two years after Obama’s health care bill became law, how many Americans understand that once it is fully implemented no American with a pre-existing condition will ever again be denied coverage?

“Obamacare is socialized medicine,” says the Republican Party. No, no — excuse me — socialized medicine is what we have now! People without insurance can go to an emergency ward or throw themselves on the mercy of a doctor, and the cost of all this uncompensated care is shared by all those who have insurance, raising your rates and mine. That is socialized medicine and that is what Obamacare ends. Yet Obama — the champion of private insurance for all — has allowed himself to be painted as a health care socialist.

Think about this: Obama didn’t just save the auto industry from bankruptcy. Two years later, he also got all the top U.S. automakers to agree to increase mileage for their vehicle fleets to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, from 27.5 m.p.g. today. As Popular Mechanics put it, this “is the largest mandatory fuel economy increase in history.” It will drive innovation, save money and make America less dependent on petro-dictators. Did you know Obama did this?

Finally, how did Obama ever allow this duality to take hold: “The Bush tax cuts” versus the “Obama bailout”? It should have been “the Bush deficit explosion” and the “Obama rescue.” Sure, the deficit has increased under Obama. It was largely to save the country from going into a Depression after a Bush-era binge that included two wars — which, for the first time in our history, we not only did not pay for with tax increases but instead accompanied with tax cuts — plus a 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill that we could not afford, then or now. Congressional Democrats also had a hand in this, but the idea that Bush gets to skate off into history as a “tax-cutter” and not as a “deficit buster” is a travesty. You can’t just blame Fox News. Obama has the bully pulpit.

But Obama is running even with Mitt Romney not simply because of what he didn’t say, but also because of what he didn’t do. As the former Obama budget director Peter Orszag notes, to get the economy moving again, what we’ve needed for the past two years is a plan of “combined boldness” — another stimulus focused on infrastructure that would grow jobs and enhance productivity combined with a credible, bipartisan plan for trimming future growth in Medicare and Social Security and reforming taxes to get our long-term fiscal house in order, as the economy improves.

In short, we needed more stimulus paired with some version of the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan. It is highly unlikely that you could “get one passed without the other, and you shouldn’t want to anyway,” said Orszag. Together they would launch the U.S. economy.

Obama, in fairness, tried a version of this with his “grand bargain” talks with the House speaker, John Boehner, but when those talks failed, Obama made a huge mistake. He should have gone straight to the country and repeated over and over: “I have a plan that will create millions of jobs and send the stock market soaring — near-term stimulus plus Simpson-Bowles — and the Republicans are blocking it.”

Obama could have adapted Simpson-Bowles, but symbolically it was vital to embrace it in some form as his headline deficit plan, because it already enjoyed some G.O.P. support and strong backing from independents, who liked the way it forced both parties to compromise. Had Obama gone to the country with more near-term stimulus married to Simpson-Bowles, he would have owned the left, independents and center-right. It would have split the Republicans and provided a real alternative to the radical Paul Ryan-Romney plan.

Instead, Obama retreated to his left base, offered a stimulus without Simpson-Bowles and started talking about “fairness.” The result has been a muddled message that has alienated independent/center-right voters who put him over the top in 2008. Don’t get me wrong: I want fairness, but fairness that comes from a growing economy and comprehensive tax reform not from redividing a shrinking pie.

In sum, Obama’s campaign right now feels as though it were made in a test tube by political consultants. It’s not the Obama we admire. Rather than pounding the country with “I have a plan” — a rebuilding stimulus plus Simpson-Bowles — which would be an Obama-like message of hope, leadership and unity that would put him on higher ground that Romney can’t reach because of the radical G.O.P. base, Obama is selling poll-tested wedge issues. I don’t think it’s a winner for him or America.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Before I tell you about a one-armed teenager who is a star athlete at her high school in Washington, D.C., let me take you back a dozen years to Sierra Leone, in West Africa.

A little girl there became an unlikely global symbol of human depravity. Sometimes dubbed “peace girl,” she had the sweetest smile and an amputated arm — making her the much-photographed poster child of atrocities committed by a militia that chopped off the arms and feet of civilians. Madeleine Albright, who was then the secretary of state, was photographed cradling the girl, and Sierra Leone’s president took her to peace talks.

Those wrenching images of this girl, whose arm was amputated after she was shot, and other children whose limbs were hacked off by the militia built the global political will to intervene and end Sierra Leone’s civil war (Britain did the heavy lifting). I had been fascinated by the girl as an example of the power of individual stories to help end mass atrocities — and then I heard, from Albright, that she is now an American.

I dropped by her home in Washington and found 15-year-old Memuna Mansaray McShane, a wonderfully adjusted high school freshman who plays on her school’s varsity soccer and basketball teams.

“In basketball, you only use one arm,” she explained. She paused for a moment, and then acknowledged: “Except to shoot or catch the ball.” Another pause and a sheepish smile: “I guess that’s a lot.”

She added defiantly: “I can do anything people with two arms can do. Except monkey bars.”

Memuna has no clear memory of her early childhood in Sierra Leone, but she has a photo of her family on the eve of war. She is with her parents and three brothers, all beaming contentedly in what seems a well-off house in the capital.

Then the militia attacked. Her father fled to a different part of Sierra Leone and later died in unclear circumstances. After he left, Memuna’s mother and grandmother apparently took the 2-year-old girl and hid in a mosque. By some accounts, it was Memuna’s crying that caused the fighters to look for people hiding there.

When the fighters entered, the grandmother picked up Memuna and ran. The gunmen shot the grandmother dead, and some of the bullets shattered Memuna’s arm and grazed her side.

Memuna’s mother apparently ran toward her injured daughter. That’s when the gunmen shot her; she died of her wounds about a month later.

Memuna’s older brother, Alhaji Mansaray, then just 11 years old, scooped up Memuna and carried her to a hospital across town, saving her life. But the hospital was in chaos, and it took three days for a doctor to see her. By then it was necessary to amputate her arm just below the shoulder.

At age 4, Memuna was brought to the United States by the Rotary Foundation for medical treatment. Two years later, she was adopted by Kelly and Kevin McShane; Kelly had worked in Sierra Leone in the Peace Corps.

Memuna was spoiled at first: she had figured out that adults cave at demands from an adorable one-armed girl who cries. But the McShanes would have none of that. They have a son, Michael, the same age as Memuna and a daughter, Molly, two years older, and Memuna ended up having to wash the dishes along with the other kids.

“We just wanted her to be a normal little girl,” Kelly explained.

Indeed, Memuna seems to have had a fairly typical life. “We had trouble teaching her to ride a bike,” Kelly said. “But we went rock climbing, swimming, pretty much everything.”

Memuna was impressed the first time she searched the Web for her own name and saw the photos. “I thought it was pretty cool that I got to meet all these famous people, like Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton,” she said.

The McShanes have made two family trips to Sierra Leone, and Memuna was taken aback at her fame there. “A lot of people were crying and saying, ‘You’re alive!’ ” she remembered. The McShanes hope to bring her three brothers, including the one who saved her life, to Washington for a visit this year if they can get American visas.

Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who helped engineer the Sierra Leone savagery, recently became the first former head of state to be convicted of war crimes by an international court since the Nuremberg trials. Justice triumphed, and Sierra Leone has moved on. So has Memuna.

Once a symbol of suffering caused by the human capacity for evil, she’s now just a teenage girl with dazzling moves on the basketball court. She’s a poster child of nothing at all — just a happy kid who is a powerful emblem of the human capacity for resilience.

Last but not least, here’s Mr. Bruni:

Forget your political affiliation. Never mind your assessment of his time in office so far. If you have any kind of heart, you’re struck by it: the photograph of Barack Obama bent down so that a young black boy can touch his head and see if the president’s hair is indeed like his own. It moves you. It also speaks to a way in which Obama and Mitt Romney, whose campaigns are picking up the pace just as polls show them neck and neck, are profoundly mismatched.

In a story that quickly went viral, The Times’s Jackie Calmes wrote last week about the photograph, which was taken three years ago when the boy, then 5, visited the White House. It has hung there ever since, left on the wall even as other pictures were swapped out, as is the custom, for newer, fresher ones.

David Axelrod, one of the chief architects of Obama’s political career, told Calmes: “It doesn’t take a big leap to think that child could be thinking, ‘Maybe I could be here someday.’ This can be such a cynical business, and then there are moments like that that just remind you that it’s worth it.”

Axelrod’s words, meanwhile, are a reminder that more than three and a half years after Obama made history as the first black man elected to the presidency, he still presents more than a résumé and an agenda. He still personifies the hope, to borrow a noun that he has used, that we really might evolve into the colorblind, fair-minded country that many of us want. His own saga taps into the larger story of this country’s fitful, unfinished progress toward its stated ideal of equal opportunity.

And that gives many voters an emotional connection to him that they simply don’t have to most other politicians, including Romney, a privileged and intensely private man whose strengths don’t include the easy ability to humanize himself. There’s a Mitt-versus-myth element to the 2012 campaign, and it influences the manner in which Romney’s supporters and Romney himself engage the president and make their pitch. They must and do emphasize job-creation numbers over personal narrative, the technocratic over the touchy-feely.

Obama and his advisers don’t exactly tack in the opposite direction. Understandably concerned about longstanding prejudices, they don’t invoke his racial identity all that frequently.

But when they do, it’s powerful. The photograph released last week instantly reminded me of one taken in mid-April, when Obama visited a museum in Dearborn, Mich. It showed him seated in the bus that Rosa Parks made famous. And it, too, pinged fast and far around the Web.

Although race represents a less central dynamic for Obama now than it did in 2008, it’s a factor in his political fortunes nonetheless. It poisons some of his opponents, pumping them full of a toxic zeal beyond the partisan norm. How else to explain their obsession with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or the lunatic persistence of the “birthers,” including the Arizona secretary of state, who didn’t drop his threat to keep Obama off the state ballot until Wednesday? Even as he quieted down, Donald Trump piped up, raising questions yet again about where Obama was born, though Trump’s motivations are surely less racist than narcissistic, even entrepreneurial. For him attention is attention and ratings are ratings, no matter how repulsively drummed up.

BUT race is also a central theme — the central theme — in Obama’s own telling of his journey. It’s how he explains where he has come from and how far he has traveled. His best-selling memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” is subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance.” In the first sentences of his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he noted that his “presence on this stage is pretty unlikely” and that his father was “born and raised in a small village in Kenya.”

Race is the obstacle he has overcome, the trail he has blazed. And that, I think, is what Geraldine Ferraro, a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s, was clumsily trying to get at during the Democratic primaries in 2008, when she drew attention to the color of Obama’s skin and said that he “happens to be very lucky to be who he is.”

Although Romney would be the first Mormon president, that milestone doesn’t fit into the country’s history in the same way. Although his religion, like Obama’s race, has made him an outsider in certain circumstances and at certain times, that’s not something he or his supporters really promote.

And to a degree that’s striking in the age of Oprah, he hasn’t succeeded in rummaging through his biography for the sorts of broadly inspirational chapters that can help a candidate bond with voters. Even George W. Bush, another child of privilege and political scion, had his tale of midlife remorse and redemption: an end to drinking, a beginning of Bible study. Romney has … the Salt Lake City Olympics?

On top of which, he seems to be congenitally closed-off and palpably awkward about transforming the personal into the political. He has five sons, all shepherded safely into adulthood. But he hasn’t mined fatherhood for memorable material. And Ann Romney has spoken more poignantly about his support for her in her illness than he has managed to.

In the end, that may not make a whit of difference. If swing voters were driven chiefly by candidates’ biographies, political analysts trying to predict election outcomes wouldn’t dwell so much on external measures like unemployment figures and right-track, wrong-track numbers. And if eloquence alone won the day, then these two candidates’ advocates wouldn’t believe, as more than a few of them do, that after all the speechifying and fund-raising and advertising, the results will boil down to positive or negative economic developments outside either man’s — or either campaign’s — control.

But if there are no clear developments one way or the other? If there’s an ongoing recovery, but a meager, tentative one at that? Then the spoils will most likely go to the candidate who makes the better case for himself. And that’s a battle over more than Bain Capital, the Keystone XL pipeline and the individual mandate. That’s a war for hearts as well.



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