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

The Pasty Little Putz has a question in “Imagining a Romney Recovery:”  Can Republicans offer more than just a return to the economy of 2006?  No.  SASQ.  In “Dreaming of a Superhero” MoDo hisses that as funnel clouds form over Washington, Obama still seems absorbed in his endless odyssey of self-discovery.  The Moustache of Wisdom, In “G.(reen) O. P.?” says Mitt Romney and the Republican base have turned away from their party’s environmental legacy.  It’s a day full of questions.  Mr. Kristof has one in “Starving Its Own Children:”  World leaders are doing nothing to stop Sudan from starving and bombing its own people. President Obama, will you stand up to the slaughter?  I’m sure a firmly worded statement will make all the difference…  Mr. Bruni, in “Trimming a Fat City,” says given the weight of the obesity problem, Mayor Bloomberg is right to play the heavy on soda.  Here’s The Putz:

Earlier this year, well before the latest round of job numbers made the current recovery look even more sickly, the Obama campaign released a chart putting the bravest possible face on its economic record.

The chart shows private-sector job losses and gains by month from 2008 through the present, with the figures for George W. Bush’s presidency in red and Barack Obama’s in blue. The red numbers descend toward the nadir of January 2009; the blue numbers climb, albeit in fits and starts, reaching positive territory in early 2010 and staying there ever since. The message is clear: Bush brought us to our knees; Obama brought us back.

After 40 months of 8 percent unemployment, the second half of that message rings awfully hollow. But the first half probably has some resonance with voters. Indeed, the memory of the Bush presidency represents one of the few things the president still has going for him as he seeks an economic rationale for his re-election.

As grim as the Obama era has been, Americans still have a distinctly negative reading on what the last period of Republican economic stewardship delivered: rising health care costs, wage stagnation, a real estate bubble and then of course the financial crash itself.

Against this backdrop, it may not be quite enough for Mitt Romney to explain how the incumbent has failed. He needs to explain why, so soon after the Bush era, the country should trust his party to put things right again.

As it happens, two new books by right-of-center thinkers offer interesting — and very different — answers to that question. The first is “Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong,” by Edward Conard, a former managing director at (ahem) Bain Capital, who was profiled in The New York Times Magazine a month ago. The second is “A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity,” by the University of Chicago business professor Luigi Zingales.

As its subtitle suggests, Conard’s book is an attack on much of the received wisdom about the crash of 2008. He argues that America’s pre-crisis economic gains were real rather than illusory. (“The U.S. economy was on fire before the financial crisis,” he writes.) He defends the growth of the financial sector and the bubble-era behavior of the major banks. And he argues that the crisis itself was less a comprehensive meltdown than a simple panic that tells us very little about the underlying soundness of the economic order.

Indeed, against the current antibailout mood, Conard suggests that we actually need stronger government guarantees for too-big-to-fail institutions, to encourage the kind of risk-taking that reaps long-term rewards. In a similar spirit, he defends the extraordinary wealth accrued by America’s richest 1 percent, arguing that such huge rewards are necessary to induce talented people to become entrepreneurs and investors rather than just white-collar time-servers.

Zingales, on the other hand, looks at the same picture and sees less that’s worth defending. Even before the financial crisis hit, he argues, for average Americans the benefits of the economic order were “neither as great nor as widespread as they once were.” This trend was not just a necessary side effect of suitably rewarding risk-taking at the top. It also reflected the pervasiveness of crony capitalism across a wide range of industries (the financial sector very much included), which has tilted the economic system in favor of the already connected.

To Zingales, the Wall Street bailout was the natural outgrowth of trends that threaten to send the United States down the same path as his native Italy — toward corruption, stagnation and worse. Given this context, he concludes, what’s needed from conservatives are fewer uncritical defenses of big business and the rich, and more of a “free-market populism” that would attack corruption and cartels in the private and public sector alike.

What would these competing narratives imply for the Romney campaign — or a Romney presidency? If Conard is right that the Bush-era economy was basically on a sound footing, then simply rolling back Obama-era interventions and forestalling tax increases on the investor class would probably restore our economic health. That points to a relatively conventional Republican policy vision, focused primarily on keeping marginal tax rates as low as possible.

Zingales’s narrative, on the other hand, suggests that more radical reforms are needed to restore American competitiveness. A Republican administration influenced by his book would place a heavier emphasis on issues that the right is often uncomfortable tackling — not only health care and education, but also some form of financial-sector reform.

Given his own background, it’s a safe bet that Mitt Romney identifies more with Conard’s perspective on the world. But that makes it all the more important that he consider Zingales’s equally provocative account as well.

I’ll wager that my cat knows more about economics than the Putz.  Here’s MoDo:

On Friday night, the nation’s capital was under a tornado watch. And that was the best thing that happened to the White House all week.

As the president was being slapped by Mitt Romney for being too weak on national security, he was being rapped by a Times editorial for being too aggressive on national security.

A Times article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane revealed that the liberal law professor who campaigned against torture and the Iraq war now personally makes the final decisions on the “kill list,” targets for drone strikes. “A unilateral campaign of death is untenable,” the editorial asserted.

On Thursday, Bill Clinton once more telegraphed that he considers Obama a lightweight who should not have bested his wife. Bluntly contradicting the Obama campaign theme that Romney is a heartless corporate raider, Clinton told CNN that the Republican’s record at Bain was “sterling.”

Covering a humorous W. at the unveiling of his portrait, the White House press actually seemed nostalgic for the president who bollixed up Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina and the economy — a sure sign that the Obama magic is flagging.

On Friday, an ugly job market report led to the stock market’s worst day of the year. As the recovery flat-lined, the president conceded to a crowd at a Honeywell factory in Golden Valley, Minn., that “our economy is still facing some serious headwinds” and getting sucked further into Europe’s sinkhole. In depressing imagery for the start of the summer campaign, cable channels carried the red Dow arrow pointing down while Obama spoke; the Dow wiped out all of its 2012 gains.

The president who started off with such dazzle now seems incapable of stimulating either the economy or the voters. His campaign is offering Obama 2012 car magnets for a donation of $10; cat collars reading “I Meow for Michelle” for $12; an Obama grill spatula for $40, and discounted hoodies and T-shirts. How the mighty have fallen.

Once glowing, his press is now burning. “To a very real degree, 2008’s candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012’s candidate of fear,” John Heilemann wrote in New York magazine, noting that because Obama feels he can’t run on his record, his campaign will resort to nuking Romney.

In his new book, “A Nation of Wusses,” the Democrat Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, wonders how “the best communicator in campaign history” lost his touch.

The legendary speaker who drew campaign crowds in the tens of thousands and inspired a dispirited nation ended up nonchalantly delegating to a pork-happy Congress, disdaining the bully pulpit, neglecting to do any L.B.J.-style grunt work with Congress and the American public, and ceding control of his narrative.

As president, Obama has never felt the need to explain or sell his signature pieces of legislation — the stimulus and health care bills — or stanch the flow of false information from the other side.

“The administration lost the communications war with disastrous consequences that played out on Election Day 2010,” Rendell writes, and Obama never got credit for the two pieces of legislation where he reached for greatness.

The president had lofty dreams of playing the great convener and conciliator. But at a fund-raiser in Minneapolis, he admitted he’s just another combatant in a capital full of Hatfields and McCoys. No compromises, just nihilism.

If he wins the election, “the fever may break,” he said. “My hope, my expectation, is that after the election, now that it turns out that the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again.”

In his new biography, “Barack Obama: The Story,” David Maraniss writes that a roommate of the young Obama compared him to Walker Percy’s protagonist in “The Moviegoer”: an observer of his life, one step removed.

Obama’s boss at his community organizing job in Chicago, Jerry Kellman, observed: “He was not unwilling to take risks, but was just this strange combination of someone who would have to weigh everything to death, and then take a dramatic risk at the end. He was reluctant to do confrontation, to push the other side because it might blow up — and it might. But one thing Alinsky did understand was that within reason, once something blows up, to a certain degree it doesn’t hurt, it helps.”

Maraniss’s book depicts Obama on an intense odyssey of self-discovery, moving toward defining himself less as a half-white man with white girlfriends than as a black man who wanted to be part of a black community.

His New York girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, told Maraniss that Obama confessed to her that “he felt like an impostor. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.” When she predicted that his future might be with a black woman — “That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere!” she wrote in her journal — he told her “he doubted there were any black women he would feel truly comfortable with. I would tell him, ‘No, she is out there.’ ”

He wanted to get out of the corporate world he found so distasteful — he described himself as “a spy behind enemy lines” — and reimagine himself as a politician.

On CNBC on Friday, Romney complained that Obama has “been more focused on his perspective of his historic legislative achievements than he has been focused on getting people back to work.”

A president focused on historic achievements? Imagine that. But in his lame way, Romney got at Obama’s problem: The Moviegoer prefers to float above, at a reserve, in grandiose mists.

As Maraniss recounts, Obama said he liked reading Hemingway because of Papa’s “integrity of grasping for those times, those visions, that are ones of true magnificence and profundity.”

Cook told Maraniss that she thought Obama’s desire to “play out a superhero life” was “a very strong archetype in his personality.”

But superheroes and mythic figures must boldly lead. Obama’s caution — ingrained from a life of being deserted by his father and sometimes his mother, and of being, as he wrote to another girlfriend, “caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me” — has restrained him at times.

In some ways, he’s still finding himself, too absorbed to see what’s not working. But the White House is a very hard place to go on a vision quest, especially with a storm brewing.

Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Mitt Romney certainly has his weaknesses as a candidate, but his biggest challenge in attracting independent swing voters will be overcoming a well-earned reputation for saying whatever the Republican base wants to hear. Having watched him in the primaries, you have to wonder whether there is any issue in which he would turn to the far-right in his party and say: “I’m sorry. You have this wrong. Here’s the hard truth. …”

One place he could start to change that perception is with the issues of energy, conservation and the environment. In recent years, the G.O.P. base has fallen into a knee-jerk drill, baby, drill attitude that clean energy is for sissies and protecting the environment only hurts jobs, therefore, conservatism and conservation can’t mix. Last week, Romney traveled to a remote coal-mining town, Craig, Colo., where he trashed President Obama’s green jobs record, while addressing workers wearing caps that said “Coal = Jobs.” Yes, it does, for lung doctors.

This obsession with coal and oil strikes me as wrongheaded for three reasons. First, there is a more intelligent conservative energy strategy: a campaign to develop an energy mix that is “American, diverse and clean.” Put the G.O.P. behind whatever fuel sources or technologies the marketplace produces — be they natural gas, wind, wave, solar, nuclear, efficiency, biofuels or sequestered coal — provided they’re produced in America, give us diversity of supply and steadily move us to cleaner air.

Second, this slavish devotion to coal and oil, and sneering at environmentalism, contradicts the G.O.P.’s long tradition of environmental stewardship that some Republicans are still proud of: Teddy Roosevelt bequeathed us national parks, Richard Nixon the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, Ronald Reagan the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer and George H. W. Bush cap-and-trade that reduced acid rain. Does the G.O.P. really think it will attract the idealism of next-generation voters with mottos like “Coal = Jobs”?

And, finally, the G.O.P.’s Tea Party base has grown more hostile than ever to conservation just when some big conservation groups have redefined their missions — from protecting nature for its own sake, a noble goal, to also protecting our “natural infrastructure” that provides jobs, food and security.

This shift is best summed up by Glenn Prickett, the chief external affairs officer for The Nature Conservancy: “We spent the 20th century protecting nature from people, and we will spend the 21st century protecting nature for people.”

The conservancy has broadened its emphasis from buying up natural land and locking it away so it can never be despoiled to building lasting economic partnerships between those who control “natural infrastructure” and those who benefit from it — so both will have the interest and means to preserve it.  For instance, the conservancy is working with cities in South America to organize large groups of water users — bottling plants, hydroelectric dams and water utilities — to finance the protection and restoration of watersheds upstream from their facilities. Planting trees that hold water like a sponge or protecting forests and natural vegetation that keep pollutants out of the water and prevent runoff is a much cheaper and more effective way to conserve water than building more reservoirs or treatment plants. And paying those upstream to protect this natural infrastructure gives them a sustainable means to do so.

Meanwhile, Conservation International (my wife is on the board) was founded 25 years ago to preserve biodiversity in the world’s greatest ecosystems. But some three years ago, explained its co-founder Peter Seligmann, “we realized that despite our intensive efforts to protect biodiversity, extinction rates were accelerating, fisheries were collapsing and the climate was changing. Just putting wilderness lands away in the conservation pantry was not going to work because, as people were more threatened, they would just grab it.”

So, said Seligmann, “we officially changed our mission — from protecting biodiversity alone to supporting human well-being by restoring and maintaining ecosystems that provide services to humanity.” Once you show what healthy ecosystems provide for people, “conservation” takes on a whole new meaning: healthy farms depend on pollinators, healthy rivers on the forests that filter the water and prevent soil erosion, healthy fishing grounds on preserving the coral reefs where fish spawn, healthy coastal areas on the reefs and mangroves that blunt storm surges, healthy hydroelectric power on water from cloud forests. Good stewardship of natural infrastructure = jobs, security, food and water.

That’s why conservationists and conservatives actually have more in common than ever today, depending on how Republicans define “conservative.” They can run away from a proud legacy of environmental stewardship by defining “conservative” as aligning the G.O.P. with the cheapest dirty fuels and dying industries — and do whatever their lobbyists dictate. Or they can define “conservative” as protecting our natural infrastructure to promote clean growth — in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt — and press for the cleanest fuel mix U.S. technology can produce. Over to you, Governor Romney.

Snort.  I’ll bet you cash money it’ll be all “drill, baby, drill” all over again.  Here’s Mr. Kristof, who is in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan:

Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people here have no food and are reduced to eating leaves and insects, as Sudan’s government starves and bombs its own people in the Nuba Mountains. Children are beginning to die.

“Yes, my children may die,” Katum Tutu, a 28-year-old mother, told me. She recently lost her 2-year-old daughter, Maris, to starvation and has nothing to feed her four remaining children. “I think about it every day, but there’s nothing I can do,” she said.

This week will mark a year since Sudan began its brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the Nuba Mountains, intended to crush a rebel force that is popular here and controls much of the region. Sudan has expelled aid workers, blocked food shipments and humanitarian aid, and dropped bombs haphazardly — and almost daily — on its own citizens.

Sudan bars outsiders, but I sneaked in from South Sudan on a dirt track controlled by rebels. Since my last visit, in February, the situation in these areas has deteriorated sharply: a large share of families have run completely out of food, with no prospect of more until the next harvest in November.

Ryan Boyette, an American aid worker who stayed behind when foreigners were ordered to evacuate, estimates that 800,000 Nuba have run out of food in South Kordofan, the state encompassing the Nuba Mountains. Boyette has created a local reporting network called Eyes and Ears Nuba, and the Sudanese government showed what it thinks of him when it tried to drop six bombs on his house last month. The notoriously inaccurate bombs missed, and he escaped unhurt in his foxhole.

Katum, the woman who lost her daughter, was typical of the dozens of Nuba I spoke to. Like many here, the family has been living in caves for most of the last year to escape bombs, and it ran out of the local food staple, sorghum, a few months ago.

She was blunt about the reason her daughter died: “We had no food to give her.”

Her husband and surviving children showed me how they use bows and arrows to try to shoot birds, and how they try to catch mice. “We eat them whole,” Katum told me. “Even the head and the tail.”

Families are also eating beetles and wild roots, but their diet today is mostly the newest leaves of three kinds of wild tree. New leaves are stripped bare from trees near villages, and you see children climbing high on thin branches to try to find new leaves that remain.

I also came across small children, sometimes just 2 or 3 years old, digging in the ground for edible roots or seeds that they popped in their mouths.

Some 50,000 people have fled their homes and are trekking to Yida, a refugee camp just across the border in South Sudan. But many I spoke to, Katum included, say they just don’t have the strength to walk for days to get there.

“There’s no way we can get there,” Katum told me. “So it is much better to stay and die here.”

At that point, our interview was interrupted by a humming overhead: an Antonov bomber, flying unusually low.

Katum scrambled off, seeking a cave in case a bomb fell. Antonov and MIG warplanes regularly fly over these rebel areas, dropping bombs without any apparent purpose other than sowing terror. Fear of them has kept people from farming and is a main reason for the food shortages.

Some farmers are now planting their fields as the rainy season begins. They can harvest in November and will have to get by on leaves until then.

Many other families, including Katum’s, ate their seed stockpile in hopes of keeping their children alive. So for them, the only hope is humanitarian aid.

Considering how many people are subsisting on leaves, perhaps the surprise is that the death toll isn’t higher. In Katum’s village, Famma, elders told me that about 40 people had starved to death in the last month, out of a population of thousands. Among children arriving at the Yida refugee camp, about 10 percent are acutely malnourished, according to Samaritan’s Purse, an aid group assisting the refugees.

World leaders are mostly turning a blind eye. There isn’t even serious talk about damaging the military airstrips that Sudan’s warplanes take off from before dropping bombs on civilians, or about forcing a humanitarian corridor, or about arranging airdrops of food. As a result, the only certainty is that many Nuba will starve to death in the coming months.

President Obama, you harshly criticized President Bush for failing to stand up to Sudan’s slaughter in Darfur. So now what are you going to do as Sudan kills again — on your watch?

Last but not least, here’s Mr. Bruni:

While Michelle Obama focused on carrots, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg brandished a stick. It’s what we deserve. Cry all you want about a nanny state, but as a city and a nation we’ve gorged and guzzled past the point where a gentle nudge toward roughage suffices. We need a weight watcher willing to mete out some stricter discipline.

The way last week played out, it was as if the first lady and the mayor had actually scripted a good-cop, bad-cop routine. She toured the friendliest of talk shows to cultivate an audience for her new vegetable-garden book (and maybe harvest a few re-election votes in the process). He dared to make enemies, announcing a coming ban on sugary soft drinks in certain measures and settings. It was a more provocative approach, but a fitting one, given how unfit so many Americans have become. With an obesity problem like ours, we can’t just say grow. We must say no, at least to some things some of the time.

The prohibition Bloomberg wants to implement, if it survives the fury he has whipped up and gets approval (which is expected) from a city health panel, is on the sale of sugary soft drinks above 16 ounces in restaurants, movie theaters and other places where a person is buying an individual serving, not an amount to be shared.

It’s in many senses an absurd and random gesture. A merchant could still peddle a 20-ounce milkshake with more calories than a Coke. A customer could still buy two 16-ounce Pepsis, using tandem vessels and two straws to do the work of one supersize abomination. There are many vendors unaffected by the proposed ban, and there’s a wide world of caloric villains untouched. Man cannot balloon on Mountain Dew alone.

The proposed ban is also an act of government control and regulation that makes no small number of people squeamish. Should we not have the liberty to ingest what we elect to ingest, and to decide whether the pleasure is worth any ill effects? Are we not capable stewards of our own welfare? In general, yes, but the government has taxed cigarettes to high heaven, as a means (successful) of steering us away from them, and made it illegal to partake of many recreational drugs. Like those substances, heavily sugared soft drinks are wholly unnecessary and are implicated in health problems that wind up affecting all of us, not just the individual suffering from them. Food ceased to be a frontier too far when the fraction of American adults who qualify as obese climbed above one in three.

We’re fat, folks. Seriously, dangerously fat. And you don’t need statistics to tell you that; you just need to look around. All three people ahead of me in line in a food shop in Des Moines last month qualified as morbidly obese; they had 900 pounds — easy — among them. One of every two people in line with me at a Coney Island concession stand last weekend were carrying at least 25 extra pounds. When this many people are this overweight, you have not only an epidemic. You have a new normal, a context in which each obese person is less likely to recognize and appreciate the magnitude of his or her health problem because it’s entirely unexceptional.

“Our eyes have adjusted over time,” said Thomas A. Farley, the city health commissioner, during a phone conversation on Thursday, when he and Mayor Bloomberg were out explaining and defending the proposed ban amid threats of lawsuits from restaurant-association lawyers and a hue and cry from the body politic unlike any I’ve heard in a while. The NY1 local news station was one nonstop vox populi of citizens baying that Bloomberg was a tyrant whose real motivation was to wield control over as much of our lives as possible.

Come on. He has targeted trans fats (how much are you really missing those?) and smoking in public places and, now, only those vessels for sugary soft drinks that aren’t so much cups as kegs. Have you seen the ones that fast-food chains sometimes market as “values”? During a TV appearance, Farley displayed an example from KFC. It was gigantic enough for a small marine mammal to do laps in, and its only value is in speeding you toward a double bypass.

In a fascinating article by Claudia Dreifus in The Times recently, a mathematician with the National Institutes of Health said that after crunching various numbers, he had concluded that the single best explanation for the obesity epidemic was the hyper-efficient overproduction of food, which has made it cheaper and encouraged its sale and consumption in portions much heftier than those of yesteryear. The Double Whopper is the new normal, and so is the 32-ounce Sprite.

Bloomberg and Farley aren’t taking anything away from us, not really. They’re just pushing back against the new normal. They’re trying to reroute our expectations and tweak our habits. “The portions that people are served have a big influence on what they consume,” Farley told me. “It doesn’t seem logical, but that’s the observation.” If given a larger measure or enticed to purchase it, many people will upsize their intake without quite recognizing it.

The proposed ban is a step too incremental and contained to be considered a serious challenge to personal freedoms. In fact its greatest potential flaw is its possible futility. And any whiff it gives off of overzealous government intervention must be seen in the context of the billions upon billions of advertising and marketing dollars spent annually by the fast-food industry on exhorting us to pig out.

The proposed ban must also be seen in the context of all the widely debated initiatives that have been rejected, at least so far: steep taxes on sugary soft drinks; prohibitions on the use of food stamps for such beverages and for other nutritionally pointless junk. And the ban isn’t being presented as a harsh, mean substitute for the sort of public education the first lady is engaged in. That education should and will continue. But it has been going on for a while now, and the obesity rate nationally hasn’t dropped.

Is Bloomberg putting us on a slippery slope? Maybe. But we have a long way to slide before there’s a cause for alarm commensurate with the urgency of the problem he’s trying to whittle away at. And the government routinely meddles in the markets and our lives when private behavior has severe public consequences. We reached that larded intersection scores of Big Gulps and dozens of pounds ago.



One Response to “The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni”

  1. Jay Brandenburg Says:

    Nobody’s going to bet on the Putz over your cat unless you offer some really good odds.

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