The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman, Dowd and Bruni

In “The Great Disconnect” The Pasty Little Putz has decided to tell us that the White House’s second-term priorities are not the public’s.  It’s pretty typical Putz crap, with the added fillip of denying global warming.  “Mary Scott” from NY had the most terse and cogent comment:  “Actually, the “great disconnect” is between the Republican Party and the 21st Century.”  In “Syria Scorecard” The Moustache of Wisdom has a question:  After two years of civil war in Syria, just what are the options for U.S. involvement? He comes up with three.  Of course, all of them involve some degree of meddling and intervention.  “Rik” in Chappaqua had this to say in the comments:  “There you go again…  Pushing for intervention only to excoriate for failed implementation later.  Frankly, most of us have had enough of your platitudes.  Realpolitik: We stay as far away from this tragedy as we can.”  MoDo serves up “A Zombie Scare With a Zombie Chaser,” and says the zombies are stand-ins for all sorts of horrors, in Hollywood and beyond.  Quel surprise!!! Not a word about President Obama in this one.  Mr. Bruni says “Don’t Count on Calorie Counts,” and that knowledge is no match for hunger, and if we fight the war on obesity with calorie counts alone, we may be doomed to defeat.  There is not one single syllable about exercise in the piece, and in 91 comments thus far only 2 commenters have mentioned the word…  Here’s The Putz:

This January, as President Obama began his second term, the Pew Research Center asked Americans to list their policy priorities for 2013. Huge majorities cited jobs and the economy; sizable majorities cited health care costs and entitlement reform; more modest majorities cited fighting poverty and reforming the tax code. Down at the bottom of the list, with less than 40 percent support in each case, were gun control, immigration and climate change.

Yet six months later, the public’s non-priorities look like the entirety of the White House’s second-term agenda. The president’s failed push for background checks has given way to an ongoing push for immigration reform, and the administration is reportedly planning a sweeping regulatory push on carbon emissions this summer. Meanwhile, nobody expects much action on the issues that Americans actually wanted Washington to focus on: tax and entitlement reform have been back-burnered, and the plight of the unemployed seems to have dropped off the D.C. radar screen entirely.

In part, this disconnect between country and capital reflects the limits gridlock puts on governance. The ideological divides in Washington — between right and left, and between different factions within the House Republican caucus — make action on first-rank issues unusually difficult, so it’s natural that politicians would look for compromises on lower-priority debates instead.

That’s the generous way of looking at it, at least. The more cynical take is that D.C. gridlock has given the political class an excuse to ignore the country’s most pressing problem — a lack of decent jobs at decent wages, with a deeper social crisis at work underneath — and pursue its own pet causes instead.

After all, gun control, immigration reform and climate change aren’t just random targets of opportunity. They’re pillars of Acela Corridor ideology, core elements of Bloombergism, places where Obama-era liberalism overlaps with the views of Davos-goers and the Wall Street 1 percent. If you move in those circles, the political circumstances don’t necessarily matter: these ideas always look like uncontroversial common sense.

Step outside those circles, though, and the timing of their elevation looks at best peculiar, at worst perverse. The president decided to make gun control legislation a major second-term priority … with firearm homicides at a 30-year low. Congress is pursuing a sharp increase in low-skilled immigration … when the foreign-born share of the American population is already headed for historical highs. The administration is drawing up major new carbon regulations … when actual existing global warming has been well below projections for 15 years and counting.

What’s more, on the issues that Americans actually prioritize — jobs, wages, the economy — it’s likely that both immigration reform and whatever the White House decides to do on greenhouse gases will make the short-term picture somewhat worse. The Congressional Budget Office’s recent analysis of the immigration bill errs on the side of optimism, but it still projects that the legislation would leave unemployment “slightly elevated” through 2020, and average wages modestly reduced. Given that similar estimates greeted the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in 2009, it’s reasonable to assume that carbon regulations would slightly raise the unemployment rate as well.

These costs might be more acceptable in a world where Washington was also readying, say, payroll tax relief for working-class families, or measures to help the long-term uninsured. But since those ideas currently lack constituencies in the capital, we’re left with the peculiar spectacle of a political class responding to a period of destructive long-term unemployment with an agenda that threatens to help extend that crisis toward 2020 and beyond.

This disconnect is the most serious threat to the current liberal ascendance. President Obama has a good chance to be remembered as “the liberal Reagan,” but the Reagan recovery was far better for most Americans than this one has been, and right now the president’s mediocre job approval numbers contrast sharply with the highs of Reagan’s second term.

In this sense, for all the (justifiable) talk about conservatism’s dysfunction, Republicans have more freedom of movement today than Democrats did after their 1984 defeat. As Yuval Levin wrote in The Weekly Standard in April, there has been no “morning in America”-style vindication for this administration; instead, “both parties give the impression of having outlived their eras,” and “the moment feels more like the late 1970s than the late 1980s.” The country clearly prefers Obama to the available alternatives, but it might prefer another alternative still.

But so far, Republicans have mostly used liberalism’s relative weakness as an excuse for not moving much at all, and sticking with an agenda that’s even more disconnected from the anxieties of the average voter than the White House’s second-term priorities.

Their assumption seems to be that eventually the public will simply have to turn to them. But their obligation should be to address both parties’ most conspicuous failure, and actually meet the voters where they are.

Now let’s all plow through The Moustache of Wisdom, who’s in Istanbul:

If you look at it from 30,000 feet, what we’re actually dealing with in the Middle East today are the long-delayed consequences of the end of the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed as a result of its defeat in World War I, the colonial powers Britain and France were right there, for their own interests, to impose their own order on the diverse tribes, sects and religions that make up the Arab East. When the British and French left after World War II, they handed power, in many cases, to monarchs, who, in many cases, gave way to generals, who, in all cases, kept their diverse populations in line with iron fists.

But, now, the Ottomans are gone, the colonial powers are gone and even the iron-fisted generals are gone. In Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Libya, all that’s left is a single question: Can the people in these countries who for so long have been governed vertically — from the top down — now govern themselves horizontally by writing their own social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens with regular rotations in power and without iron fists from above.

When President Obama says he plans to arm the anti-Bashar Assad rebels in Syria, this is the vortex into which he is inserting America. It is still unclear to me where the president is going with Syria, but I see only three possible strategies: the realist, the idealist and the God-I-hope-we-are-lucky approaches.

The realist says: I really don’t see any hope for building a unified, multisectarian, democratic Syria — not after two years of civil war and more than 90,000 dead. The U.S. goal should simply be to arm the rebels enough so they can hurt and enmesh in a quagmire two of America’s main regional foes — Hezbollah and Iran — and deny them an easy victory with President Assad in Syria. In the long run, though, this strategy most likely would lead to the partition of Syria into an Alawite zone along the coast, a Kurdish zone in the northeast and a Sunni zone in the rest. The Sunni zone, though, would almost certainly be embroiled in a power struggle between secular Sunnis, whom we’d support, and various Islamist Sunnis, financed by mosques, charities and governments in the Arab gulf. While partition might actually be the most stable and humanitarian long-term option — breaking Syria into smaller units capable of self-governance — getting there would be ugly, and the Sunni Muslim chunk could easily end up dominated by jihadists, not “our guys.”

The idealist approach argues that if our goal is a unified, multisectarian, democratic Syria, then simply arming the “good rebels” would not be sufficient to get there. We (or NATO) would have to have boots on the ground to help them topple Assad and then stay for years to keep the warring parties from murdering each other, to suppress the violent extremists in each community and to help the moderates write and implement a new social contract for how to live together. Those who want a unified, multisectarian and democratic Syria, a noble goal, need to be honest about what it would take to achieve that from where we are now. It would take another Iraq-scale intervention — something we did not do well, and which very few Americans would vote to repeat.

Some would say that we don’t need boots on the ground, as proved by the Libyan intervention. Really? Libya is an example of the let’s-send-them-some-arms-and-hope-we-get-lucky approach. Let’s remove the Qaddafi regime from the air, arm the rebels on the ground and then hope they come together and produce a decent, pluralistic democracy. So far, we’ve not been very lucky. Our debate about Libya has been focused entirely on the sacking of our facility in Benghazi, but the proper debate should be about why there was — and remains — such a security vacuum in eastern Libya in the first place. The transition government has not been strong enough to bring order to Libya, and the instability there has metastasized. As Reuters reported from Benghazi on Wednesday, “Libya remains anarchic and awash with weapons nearly two years after” Muammar el-Qaddafi was toppled. The good news is that moderate Libyans have pushed back against their lawless tribal and jihadist militias, but without outside help it is an uphill struggle.

In Syria, we would be hoping that, with just small arms, the rebels could at least fight Assad & Friends to a stalemate so the regime would agree to negotiate Assad’s departure. Even if by some miracle that were to happen, so much more blood would be spilled along the way that we would still need an international peacekeeping force to referee any post-Assad power-sharing deal. All volunteers, please raise your hand.

Those are the options as I see it. None feel very good because those in Syria who are truly fighting for a democratic outcome are incredibly brave, but weak and divided. Fighting for democratic values — rather than for family, sect, tribe or Shariah — is still a new thing for these societies. Those who are fighting for a sectarian or Islamist outcome, though, are full of energy and well financed. That’s why staying out guarantees that only more bad things will happen, but going in, big or small, would not guarantee success. And that’s why I’d like to hear which option Obama is pursing and why he thinks it would succeed.

And now it’s time for MoDo to take us to the movies and beyond:

I love my monsters, sacred or straight up.

I’m not as fond of zombies as I am of vampires. Vampires are urbane shape-shifters, sophisticated, seductive and nattily dressed.

Unlike vampires, their undead brethren, zombies don’t age well. Their muscle tone is shot. The rotting ghouls just groan and lumber about, except for the most highly evolved, who precede a meal with a succinct request: “Brains!”

But this weekend, zombies were kicking off the summer movie season. So naturally, I was at the first showing of “World War Z,” where Brad Pitt fights an army of crepuscular demons to save the world — and without even having Angie’s help.

One minute Pitt’s character, a former United Nations investigator, is making pancakes for his family, and the next, twitching zombies are dropping out of the sky onto his car. After decades of zombies who lurched like Frankenstein’s monster, Hollywood has finally realized the monsters are scarier if they are fast enough to actually catch someone. The ones in “World War Z” dart about like velociraptors, and they love sinking their teeth into humans, as one soldier puts it, “like fat kids love Twix.”

Vampires have always been rich fodder for metaphors, standing in for everything from bloodthirsty capitalism to AIDS to teenage desire.

Max Brooks, the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, who wrote the book the movie is based on, told The Times that his zombies were proxies for everything scary that has happened since 2001: 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, anthrax letters, global warming, global financial meltdown, bird flu, swine flu and SARS.

The anxiety that we may have doomed ourselves and our planet through our own heedlessness pervades the culture.

But the metaphor about the broken global system is less vivid than the metaphor about the broken Hollywood system.

Before Pitt could save the planet, he had to save his movie, a feat on which a fortune was spent. People always want monsters to have a larger meaning, but in this case, the larger meaning is about the monstrous waste of money and the dearth of creativity in Hollywood.

The last 40 minutes of the movie had to be rewritten and reshot, and the ending still isn’t fixed. The $190 million 3-D, C.G.I.-enhanced spectacle is kind of fun, but it isn’t a classic of the genre, like George Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead,” Val Lewton’s 1943 “I Walked With a Zombie,” and the 1932 “White Zombie,” the first full-length zombie feature, with Bela Lugosi playing the evil voodoo master of Haiti, Murder Legendre.

Pitt just seems happy that the blockbuster is not as dreadful as it was when he saw the first cut. “It was pretty rank,” he told USA Today.

In the movie, Washington gets wiped out quickly, of course, because the politicians can’t even come to an agreement on survival. The zombies seem to enjoy chowing down on the creaky joints of the Joint Chiefs.

It seemed that no one had read the real-life Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blog called “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.”

“You may laugh now,” wrote Dr. Ali S. Khan, the director of the C.D.C. Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, “but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.”

The C.D.C. recommended a kit including water (one does get dehydrated from running away from these speedy zombies), nonperishable food, medications, knives, duct tape, a battery-powered radio and first-aid supplies. “Although you’re a goner if a zombie bites you,” Khan noted, “you can use these supplies to treat basic cuts and lacerations that you might get during a tornado or hurricane.”

In the movie, the two smartest countries turn out to be Israel and, less predictably, North Korea. The Israelis erect a Great Wall that protects them until the zombies learn teamwork and make a nonhuman pyramid to scale the wall.

In a crisis, tyranny has its benefits. The North Korean dictator orders that all 24 million citizens have their teeth pulled within 24 hours so that humans who turn into zombies can’t infect anyone by biting.

A French military pilot, no doubt trying to abide by his country’s 35-hour workweek, flies off, leaving Pitt stranded with Israeli zombies.

If the movie scares you, you can always calm down with a zombie, the paralyzing rum concoction invented at Don the Beachcomber’s bar in Hollywood. With the recipe a deep, dark secret, the drink was so popular that the tiki bar got nicknamed “the Zombie Palace.”

Ava Gardner, who had many nightcaps at the bar when she was a teenager dating Mickey Rooney, revealed the ingredients to the British journalist Peter Evans: “Bacardi, dark rum, light rum, pineapple juice, lime juice, apricot brandy, orange juice, a sprig of mint and a cherry.”

But, she advised, the secret of a good zombie is this: “Hold the mint and the cherry.”

In my palmier days I downed a zombie or two.  Not too bad, if you like sweet drinks.  And now we come to Mr. Bruni:

The chicken salad hero at Lenny’s, a chain in New York, has 213 more calories than the tuna salad on the same kind of bread. I did no research to bring you this information. On the big menu board at the Lenny’s around the corner from me, where I sometimes grab a perfunctory lunch, the calorie counts of every item are clearly posted. The city made this mandatory for such restaurants about five years ago, hoping that informed gluttons might be reformed gluttons: that if we had more knowledge about where our efforts to slim down were going wrong, we’d have more power to change them.

And yet four out of every five lunches at Lenny’s, I get the chicken salad, all 879 calories of it, because there’s something more persuasive than nutritional data. It’s called mayonnaise. I can taste it in the chicken salad but not in the leaner tuna, partly explaining the extra damage — and the exaggerated siren’s call — of the former. The stomach wants what it wants, even if the love handles pay a pendulous price for it.

McMuffin by McMuffin, Frosty by Frosty, we Americans are waddling toward the moment when calorie counts like the ones at Lenny’s are posted in every chain restaurant across the nation. Starbucks, which already advertises such information in cities that require it, announced last week that it would do so throughout the country before the end of this month, a recognition that the clock was ticking anyway. As part of the Affordable Care Act, any restaurant in America with at least 20 locations must follow Starbucks’s lead, perhaps next year. (The precise date hasn’t been fixed.)

Soon enough, those of us taking in more calories than we should be and wearing pants roomier than we’d like to won’t be able to say we weren’t told. But is ignorance really our enemy, or are appetite, compulsion and ingrained habit the chief culprits?

These aren’t just idle questions but matters of immediate relevance in the war against obesity, the stakes of which were just raised. On the same day last week that Starbucks made its announcement, the American Medical Association voted to classify obesity as a disease. This means that in the eyes of the largest physicians’ group in the United States, the roughly 90 million Americans who are formally considered obese — that’s about 30 percent of the population — aren’t just in imperfect health. They’re downright ill, and we need to heal them.

Calorie postings are one of public health officials’ attempts to do that. The results so far aren’t especially encouraging.

Brian Elbel, a population-health expert at New York University’s school of medicine, examined fast-food receipts from four chains in New York both before the city law went into effect and after, to see if customers were altering their orders to reduce the calories they consumed per visit to the restaurants. He found no meaningful difference, and his subsequent research in Philadelphia, which in 2010 implemented a mandate like New York’s, echoes and bolsters that conclusion.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that nothing big is happening for a large group of people,” Elbel told me.

Other evidence isn’t quite so grim. New York City commissioned a broader survey than Elbel’s, looking at thousands of receipts from 11 chains. At three of them — Au Bon Pain, KFC and McDonald’s — there was proof of calorie reductions after the law. But at seven there wasn’t, and at Subway, which was promoting footlong sandwiches for $5 during the post-law survey period, calorie consumption per visit actually increased.

“The effect of calorie counts is beneficial,” Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, said during a phone interview on Friday. “But it’s small and somewhat spotty and can be overwhelmed by the marketing of the restaurant.”

Yet another study, confined to Starbucks stores in New York, noted a 6 percent decrease in customers’ intake of calories after the posting began. But it also suggested some vexing limitations to the impact of advertised calorie counts.

“Calorie reductions were highest in high-income, high-education neighborhoods (where we believe obesity rates to be lower),” Phillip Leslie, one of the study’s authors, said to me in an e-mail. On top of which, the Starbucks customers as an overall group were more affluent than the fast-food customers whose unchanged behavior Elbel evaluated. “It raises a very important concern,” said Leslie, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The people who tend to be most responsive to information may be those we least aim to target.”

Bryan Bollinger, who also worked on that study, drew my attention to something else in it. For the most part, Starbucks customers ordering sugary, creamy coffee beverages kept on doing so, seemingly because they had already figured that the drinks were fattening and had made a flabby peace with that. But customers indeed adjusted their food orders upon realizing that a pastry could easily exceed 400 calories. They hadn’t bargained on, or planned for, that.

“What really matters is what your prior beliefs are,” said Bollinger, who teaches marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

What also matters is how much of a nudge you’re given.

Cheryl Healton, the dean of global public health at New York University, told me that education and information could be effective in influencing a discrete, relatively easy behavior, like persuading someone to get vaccinated.

“But when it’s habitual and even addictive behavior, you’re in a whole new ballgame,” she said.

Healton, an authority on tobacco use in particular, noted that the principal reasons for the remarkable decrease in smoking in New York City and elsewhere over the last few decades weren’t ominous commercials and warning labels. They were taxes and the bans on indoor smoking. People kicked the habit when it became onerous, in cost and convenience, not to.

Farley, the health commissioner, agreed. “The structural things were more effective for smoking than the information was,” he said. And that — not any itch to play nanny — is why he and Mayor Michael Bloomberg support such measures as new taxes on sodas, which may never happen, and a ban on sugary drinks over 16 ounces, which is in legal limbo.

We should certainly continue to give posted calorie counts a whirl. Even a tiny impact is better than none. But we also need a more forceful kick in our amply cushioned rears. We’re not as plump as we are because we’ve never had our eyes opened to the wages of a Whopper. We’re this way because it’s all too easy, in a pang of hunger and collapse of resolve, to turn a blind eye to the toll. I know whereof I speak. My neighborhood Lenny’s does, too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: