The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Bruni

The Mousache of Wisdom is off today.  The Pasty Little Putz has decided to ask a question in “Prisoners of the Euro:”  With Europe’s unemployment, how long can the center continue to hold?  Somebody should take him off into a quiet corner and explain to him that he’s not an economist, and that perhaps he should read Prof. Krugman, or have someone explain his columns in simpler terms so he could understand.  MoDo is all agog.  She’s found a rich woman who does charity work.  In “She’s Getting Her Boots Dirty” she gurgles that one of the 1 percent puts herself in the middle of those on the other end of the ladder.  No, MoDo sweetie, she doesn’t put herself in the middle of them.  That would mean living as they do.  She does charity work, which is to be commended, but it would be even better if the nation decided that citizens shouldn’t be hungry.  Mr. Bruni has a question:  “Who Needs Reporters?”  He then answers for us:  You do. No matter how awful we’ve been. But more politicians are finding self-flattering ways around us.  Frankie, honey, how’s about trying not to be awful?  Just a thought…  Here’s The Putz:

To its custodians and admirers, the European Union is the only force standing between its member states and the age-old perils of chauvinism, nationalism and war. That was the pointed message that the Nobel Committee sent last year, when it awarded the union a Peace Prize for its role in “the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights.” And it is the message hammered home relentlessly by the Continent’s politicians, who believe their citizens face a stark choice, in the words of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, between continued integration and a return to “centuries of hatred and blood spill.”

But right now, the E.U. project isn’t advancing democracy, liberalism and human rights. Instead, it is subjecting its weaker member states to an extraordinary test of their resilience, and conducting an increasingly perverse experiment in seeing how much stress liberal norms can bear.

That stress takes the form of mass unemployment unseen in the history of modern Europe, and mass youth unemployment that is worse still. In the Continent’s sick-man economies, the jobless rate for those under 25 now staggers the imagination: over 40 percent in Italy, over 50 percent in Spain, and over 60 percent in Greece.

For these countries, the euro zone is now essentially an economic prison, with Germany as the jailer and the common currency as the bars. No matter what happens, they face a future of stagnation — as aging societies with expensive welfare states whose young people will sit idle for years, unable to find work, build capital or start families.

The question is whether they will face ideological upheaval as well. So far, the striking thing about the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, both in Europe and the United States, is how successfully the center has held. Power has passed back and forth between left and right, but truly radical movements have found little traction, and political violence has been mercifully rare.

In a sense, Francis Fukuyama’s post-cold-war declaration of the “end of history” — by which he meant the disappearance of credible alternatives to liberal democracy and mixed-economy capitalism — has held up pretty well in the last five years. Amid the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, illiberal societies like Egypt and Syria have faced political crises, but the developed world has not. There has been no mass turn to fascism, no revival of Marxist economics, no coup d’états in Madrid or jackboots in Rome.

But you have to wonder whether the center can hold permanently, if unemployment remains so extraordinarily high. How must liberal democracy and mixed-economy capitalism look to young people in the south of Europe right now? How stable is a political and ideological settlement that requires the rising generation to go without jobs, homes and children because the European project supposedly depends on it? And for that matter, how well is the Continent’s difficult integration of Muslim immigrants likely to proceed in a world where neither natives nor immigrants can find work?

Already, the Greek electorate has been flirting with empowering a crypto-communist “coalition of the radical left,” even as a straightforwardly fascist party gains in the polls as well. Hungary’s conservative government has tiptoed toward authoritarianism. Spain has seen huge street protests whose organizers aspire to imitate the Arab Spring. And lately, Sweden, outside the euro zone but not immune to its youth unemployment problems, has been coping with unsettling, highly un-Scandinavian riots in immigrant neighborhoods.

These perturbations do not threaten democracy in Europe yet, and maybe they never will. Maybe the liberal democratic consensus is so bred into the bone that no amount of elite misgovernment can persuade Europe’s younger generation to turn against it. Maybe nothing can end the end of history.

But for the countries facing a youth unemployment crisis, that still seems like an awfully risky bet to make.

Yet there’s a Catch-22 facing Greeks and Spaniards and Italians looking for an alternative to just staying the course. As wrenching as it would be, the option that would do the most to defang extremists of the left and the right would probably be to abandon the euro immediately, with each country regaining control of its own fiscal and monetary policy and seeing what options open up. But at the moment, the only people arguing for that course are … the extremists of the left and the right!

For that to change, more of the Continent’s political elites would need to recognize that their beloved integration project may actually be threatening Europe’s long democratic peace. For now, there simply aren’t enough responsible people ready to unwind what should never have been knitted together in the first place. But with every increase in the unemployment rate, the odds get better that irresponsible and illiberal figures will end up unwinding it instead.

Really, Putzy, go read Krugman…  Now here’s MoDo:

So when a woman is rolling in millions and has no need to work ever again, what does she do?

Festoon herself with Birkin bags? Deck herself in Tiffany’s Gatsby baubles? Revamp a villa in Tuscany?

Not Patty Stonesifer.

Stonesifer could be found in a gritty alley in a downtown neighborhood here on Thursday morning, greeting a line of poor people who had been waiting in the heat for an hour — mostly older black women, some in wheelchairs, others leaning on canes.

“These folks are just waiting for a bag of food,” Stonesifer marvels as she looks over the mound of bags filled with vegetables and fruit, cereal and soup. “They come early because they believe there won’t be enough. It looks like the Depression, this long line. And they’re not sitting on their butts, waiting for a handout. They’re scrambling to meet their basic needs.”

After serving as the highest-ranking woman at Microsoft, Stonesifer helped Bill and Melinda Gates start their philanthropy in an office above a Seattle-area pizza parlor in 1997. With Bill Gates Sr. at her side, she was its first chief executive, for 11 years, as it tried to eradicate polio; treat and prevent malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis; and reduce the United States high school dropout rate. They built the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation into the world’s largest philanthropy, with more than 500 employees and a $39 billion endowment — a sum “higher than the gross domestic products of 70 percent of the world’s nations,” according to The Los Angeles Times.

Now, as Bill and Melinda Gates offer a $100,000 reward to anyone who can design a better condom that will promote “regular use,” Stonesifer is taking on a fresh challenge of her own as head of Martha’s Table, a Washington community organization (named after the kitchen-bound biblical Martha) that supplies food, clothes, day care and educational programs for those in need.

“Having Stonesifer come run a small local charity is like General Electric business titan Jack Welch showing up to manage the corner appliance store,” The Washington Post noted.

I talked to the 57-year-old with the Pynchonian name sitting in her tiny office at Martha’s Table, decorated with a caricature of her husband, the writer Michael Kinsley, and a group shot with Nelson Mandela.

“He flirts,” she says delightedly of Mandela. “He’s holding my hand, not his wife’s. Someone asked him why he was not more angry. And his answer was, ‘If I thought it would be useful, I would be.’ ”

Stonesifer wants to be useful. As she did at the Gates Foundation, she’s working for free.

“I would love to call my mother and tell her, ‘Mom, I’m president of such-and-such,’ a university or a great N.G.O. or a corporation,” she says. (There was talk about her becoming President Obama’s domestic policy adviser.) “But when I sat and really thought about what I wanted to do, I realized that the only job I was interested in would be one that would put me very close to the front lines, to go beyond white papers and PowerPoint presentations and get my boots dirty. I wanted to learn what it takes to change one child’s experience from a child born in poverty to a child that’s president of something.”

There is a picture in the lobby of President Obama, who has talked about his mother’s stint on food stamps, from when he and Michelle came to serve dinner at Martha’s Table.

Before she started her job eight weeks ago, as Republicans waged their war on food stamps, Stonesifer tried living for a week on a food-stamp budget of $4 a day.

“If you’re relying on food stamps to eat, you’re in real trouble,” she says. “Carbs are vastly cheaper than nutrients, so it was easy for me to see why hunger and obesity can coexist in the same household.”

What did she learn from Bill Gates?

“The biggest thing is to study hard but think big, right?” she says. “Risk failure in order to try to make the biggest change possible. I had a lot of products that bombed at Microsoft, like Microsoft Bob, those little dogs that told you how to use your software. But other products, like Expedia, really addressed a big need because we thought outside the box.

“So here, instead of simply figuring out how to move from providing 60,000 meals a month to 66,000, I want to think about how to end child hunger in D.C.”

I first met Stonesifer in 2001, when the divorced mother of two began dating my friend Kinsley. She is warm and laughs easily, still the down-to-earth Midwesterner from a big Catholic family, the daughter of an Indianapolis car salesman and a physical therapist.

“The No. 1 lesson you learn, being sixth out of nine children, is: It’s not about you,” she says. “Our family didn’t talk about volunteerism. It was just baked in. We went down and put the new missals in the church pews, and we volunteered at the Sunday soup kitchen, and we went with my dad to pick up the deaf children for church. We had foster children a significant part of the time that I was growing up.”

Her dad got a used school bus, took out half the seats and put in flowered wallpaper, and in the summer, they all piled in for camping trips to state parks.

Our culture, from Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” to Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” is focused on what Time calls “the glittery trappings of wealth.” But bling isn’t Stonesifer’s thing.

Her 89-year-old mother started a Bread for the World chapter in her retirement community in Indianapolis and, until just recently, continued to do volunteer work for St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic charity. With her family, Stonesifer created a program in her hometown to make sure every child went home from the hospital with a crib, an effort to curb infant deaths.

I ask if her two passions, improving technology and lessening poverty, are at odds, given that some researchers believe that technology short-circuits empathy.

“We have students out every night feeding the homeless,” she demurs, “young professionals out driving the vans, fourth graders coming in to read to toddlers. We have 50 percent more requests for volunteering than we can absorb. People give cocktail parties and send us money raised; people have weddings and tell their guests to give to us instead of them.”

Stonesifer is concerned with dignity. She worries about the women in line in the alley who are her age but look older from stress. She has arranged to share space with the nearby Latin-American Youth Center. That way, the alley line can end, and those needing food will have a more self-respecting, and self-serve, grocery experience.

I ask if her husband, a writer and editor at The New Republic, ever comes down to help out. “Mike’s biggest contribution,” she grins, “is that he feeds me when I come home exhausted at night — a lot of scrambled eggs.”

I’ve lifted part of a reply by Karen Garcia to this op-ed:

Oh, and about that hubby, Mr. Kinsley. I kind of doubt he’ll ever show up to keep his wife company at work, given the pro-austerity rebuttal to Paul Krugman he just wrote for his magazine. “I don’t think suffering is good” Kinsley said,”but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be.”

Was he thinking about poor people as he finished with “But the austerians deserve credit: They at least are talking about the spinach, while the Krugmanites are only talking about dessert.”

Ouch. Sounds like Patty needs to go home and teach him a little bit about charity. Maybe she can get him to write an article about how Congress is about to cut millions of people off food stamps for no other reason than that rich people think they haven’t suffered enough.

Ouch indeed.  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

For her big announcement last week, Michele Bachmann neither convened a news conference nor waited for some other moment when she was in public, reporters and television cameras nearby. She didn’t even pick a favorably inclined journalist for the kind of one-on-one interview in which politicians have often parceled out their revelations and answered a few tame questions.

She went for something less extemporaneous than any of that, packaging the declaration that she wouldn’t seek a fifth Congressional term in a lacquered online video. It could easily have been mistaken for a campaign ad, with lighting that flattered her, music to her liking and a script that she could read in as many takes as she desired. There was no risk of stammer or flop sweat, no possibility of interruption from reporters itching to challenge her self-aggrandizing version of events. Weird, no?

Well, no.

Anthony Weiner had taken the same controlled and controlling approach a week earlier with the announcement of his mayoral bid. Instead of venturing onto the stage, he hid behind the curtains, like the wizard of Oz, and let a Web video of his own do his talking for him. It showed him beside his wife. It showed him with their baby. It was a hologram of domesticity and devotion, and it prevented the immediate intrusion of shouted queries: Anthony, are voters ready for a mayor whose assets have been as visible as yours?

Granted, he was commencing a campaign in extraordinary circumstances. But his and Bachmann’s general strategy — find a route around the news media, so you can say your piece at your own tempo, on your own terms — was employed just a few months earlier, in less extraordinary circumstances, by Hillary Clinton. She needed to make a politically crucial pivot toward a long-awaited endorsement of gay marriage, and she, too, did so in a meticulously composed video on the Web. In that safe, unspontaneous space, she could avoid questions about why she trailed many other Democrats on the issue and whether it troubled her that her husband had signed the Defense of Marriage Act back when the two of them were in the White House.

Lately we journalists have been agitated, justifiably, by the Obama administration’s prosecution of leakers and spying on the reporters and news organizations who set up or sop up those leaks. It’s an overzealous overreach and a serious threat to our ability to police government, which has shown time and again that it needs policing.

But our role and relevance are arguably even more imperiled by politicians’ ability, in this newly wired world of ours, to go around us and present themselves in packages that we can’t simultaneously unwrap. To get a message out, they don’t have to beseech a network’s indulgence. They don’t have to rely on a newspaper’s attention. The Bachmann, Weiner and Clinton videos are especially vivid examples of that, reflections and harbingers of an era in which YouTube is the public square, and the fourth estate is a borderline obsolescent one.

Some of you are nodding and saying: “Great! You journalists have brought this on yourselves.” To a large extent, we have. With our cynicism, superficiality, susceptibility to carnival barkers and tendency to see all politics in terms of the contest rather than the content, we’ve earned a level of public esteem not much higher than the one that members of Congress bask in. The repugnant hounding the reviled: that’s the Beltway media situation in a rancid nutshell.

AND there are some potentially positive consequences of a departure from the media norm. Will candidates using the unfiltered, far-reaching thoroughfare of cyberspace be able to liberate themselves from the physically grueling slog of stumping, which has almost nothing to do with their fitness for office and potential for governance? That could open up politics to talented people turned off by the endless bus tours. It could permit candidates to spend less time on the road, more time plotting what to do in the jobs they’re angling to get.

But it’s also a troubling new tool with which to construct a Potemkin identity, a facade at odds with anything behind it. Not wholly new: for a while now, candidates have used Web video for ads, biographical sketches and the like, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign announcement for the 2008 presidential election was a statement, with accompanying video, on her Web site. But that video was essentially an arrow among many in a robust quiver. It wasn’t an act of evasion.

If there’s a trend line at work, it’s of politicians’ being ever more orchestrated and anxious about the establishment of their own narratives (and they were plenty orchestrated from the get-go). President Obama rose to national prominence literally on the power of his own storytelling, with an electrifying convention speech and a best-selling memoir, and has since been emphatic about the polish of his public appearances and the distance at which reporters are kept. He prefers teleprompters and the soft focus of “The View,” Letterman and “Entertainment Tonight” to potentially messy interactions with political reporters.

And that kind of extreme control feeds a vicious cycle. A suspicious, scandal-primed press corps yields wary politicians, whose reticence and guardedness foster greater suspicion still. “Bad behavior from both sides feeds more bad behavior,” observed Bradley Tusk, who managed Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 mayoral campaign.

The Clinton, Weiner and Bachmann videos, all different but related, simply ratchet up the effort to marginalize naysaying reporters and neutralize skeptical reporting. And as Chris Lehane, a Democratic political strategist, pointed out to me, they take a page from corporate America, whose chieftains have used that same format, as opposed to news conferences or interviews, to distribute sensitive communiqués. Lehane mentioned, for example, the 2007 video in which David Neeleman, then the C.E.O. of JetBlue, explained the airline’s brand-quaking operations meltdown.

But corporations answer only to shareholders and customers. Politicians answer to all of us, and have a scarier kind of power, easily abused. So we must see them in environments that aren’t necessarily tailored to their advantage. We must be able to poke and meddle. It may not be a pretty sight, and we journalists may not be doing it in a pretty way, but eliminate that and you wind up with something even less pretty: Bachmann, robotically composed, telling you that she’s quitting for purely high-minded reasons, with the vigor of the republic foremost in her heart.

That’s a whole lot further from the truth than anything we wretched scribes put out.


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