The Pasty Little Putz has decided to ‘splain to us “Why Obama is Winning.” He gibbers that after coming through a crisis, stagnation doesn’t seem so bad. Well, that and the fact that Money Boo Boo’s party has turned into a herd of howler monkeys hooting and throwing shit at the wall. MoDo decided the leave the Beltway and politics behind and come down to my town. In “It Goes With Everything, Even Blue Hair” she croons that from Coco to Gaga, the L.B.D. works that old black magic. (Yeah, I know. I had to read the thing before I knew WTF she was talking about too. LBD is “little black dress,” so this is another quintessential MoDo cruise down memory lane.) The Moustache of Wisdom has decided to tell us all about “The World We’re Actually Living In,” and he says in President Obama and Mitt Romney we have a choice between someone who understands the complex world we live in and someone who doesn’t. Mr. Kristof, in “Women Hurting Women,” says female leaders can be just as horrible for women as men — just look at Bangladesh. In “Three Muffled Syllables” Mr. Bruni says we need a blunter and more expansive discussion about sacrifice. Here’s The Putz:
Last winter, I had lunch with a junior White House official who works on economic issues. The unemployment rate had just dipped to 8.3 percent, and I asked if he was encouraged by the figure, and hopeful that it might be down another point by Election Day.
He shook his head. The positive news notwithstanding, he said, there were good reasons to think that we would still be staring at 8 percent unemployment in the fall of 2012.
“Well,” I told him, with all the authority a professional pundit can muster, “then you should assume that you’re going to lose the election.”
Today, just as he predicted, the unemployment rate is 8.1 percent. The year’s second-quarter growth rate was just downgraded to an anemic 1.3 percent, real household income dipped in the month leading up to the two political conventions, and the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis suggests that 2012 might turn out to be the worst not-technically-in-a-recession year in modern American history.
But Barack Obama would win if the election were held today, and probably by a relatively comfortable margin. My wintertime prediction, Mitt Romney’s campaign strategy, the assumptions of Republicans and Democrats alike — all have been confounded by voters’ refusal to lean the way the unemployment rate suggests they should.
Why is this? In part, it’s the hangover from the Bush years, and the fact that Americans don’t yet trust the Republican Party given how little the party seems to have learned and changed since 2008. In part, it’s Romney himself, a deeply flawed candidate whose “47 percent” remarks look like the rare disastrous sound-bite that actually turns the polls against the candidate who uttered it.
But something deeper is going on as well. Remember that the economy is growing, however slowly, and most working-age Americans do have jobs. (A Bureau of Labor Statistics reassessment just found that there are now — finally — more Americans employed than when Barack Obama took office.) It turns out that dreadfully slow growth isn’t nearly as politically damaging as decline, because voters can adapt to stagnation, and approach it as a kind of grim “new normal” rather than a disaster requiring an immediate response.
Over the last two years, then, what still felt like an economic crisis during the 2010 midterms has become a grim-but-bearable status quo. In this new normal, Ronald Brownstein reports in the National Journal, “a slim majority of Americans now say they define getting ahead as not falling behind — not losing ground or falling into debt — rather than the more traditional definition of enjoying steady increases in pay and income.”
It’s voters like these who are giving Obama his cushion. The president trails among people who report themselves worse off than four years ago. But he leads comfortably among Americans who are merely treading water.
These signs of resignation are good news for the White House, but they’re bad news for the country’s future. Even if a rich nation like ours can learn to live with 8 percent unemployment and slow growth for now, the costs of persistent joblessness and sustained stagnation could be devastating in the long run.
As Don Peck pointed out in his 2011 book “Pinched,” an analysis of the Great Recession’s likely consequences, the socioeconomic scars left by a period of mass unemployment get deeper the longer that period persists. Young people put off life decisions, delaying education, marriage, childbearing. Older people drop out of the work force permanently. Families are strained and split apart; people lose crucial years of saving and asset building; dependency on government assistance becomes a way of life. And a culture of fearfulness takes hold, discouraging risk-taking and entrepreneurship even when better times return.
Meanwhile, every year with subpar growth makes our government’s existing liabilities larger, and the fiscal adjustments the country is facing that much more difficult to make. All of these problems will gradually intertwine, as they already do in Western Europe. Today’s stagnation means that Americans a generation hence will face bigger-than-expected deficits, even as today’s recession-dampened birthrate means there will be fewer younger workers to help pay them down.
This grim prospect doesn’t necessarily make the case for electing Romney in Obama’s place. Indeed, Romney’s dismissal of the government-dependent 47 percent suggests a fatal misunderstanding of what should be his mission — namely, to persuade precisely those Americans clinging, understandably, to government programs in tough times to choose the risks of further change over the temporary security of stasis.
But the costs of stagnation definitely make the case against the kind of resignation we’re now seeing in the electorate. Whatever happens in November, American voters should be asking for more — both for themselves, and for future generations — than an economy in which stagnation is the best that we can hope for, and the American dream just means barely getting by.
Well, and maybe we could start to hope for a more responsible Republican party, instead of the pack of howling lunatics we have now. Here’s MoDo, crooning about clothes:
Growing up, I did not think of black as an alluring color.
When you misbehaved, nuns in black habits, brandishing rulers, bore down on you. When a relative died, my mom wore rustling black rayon.
When my Irish great-aunts went to work for rich American families, they wore black maids’ uniforms. Our family dog, Scottie, bit anyone wearing black, even my brothers in their prom tuxedos.
Black was the color of despair, decadence, death, nightmares and vampire capes. It was the color, priests warned, that your soul would turn if you sinned.
But part of becoming a woman is realizing the mythic power of the little black dress. It makes you thinner and more chic, no matter how stunted your fashion sense, and gives you dash.
I first saw it in old movies: Rita Hayworth vamping in strapless black satin in “Gilda”; Marilyn Monroe sparkling in a barely-there Orry-Kelly beaded dress in “Some Like it Hot”; Natalie Wood winning Steve McQueen’s heart with a low-cut black dress in “Love With the Proper Stranger.”
And of course, the gorgeous black Givenchy cocktail dress Audrey Hepburn wore munching a pastry in front of Tiffany’s one morning — a look so embedded in the DNA of American culture that Tina Fey feyly evokes it on the cover of the new Entertainment Weekly, complete with upswept hair, long gloves, cigarette holder and Cat curled around her neck.
Others consider that image the shimmering height of the L.B.D., or little black dress. But not André Leon Talley, the imperious impresario of a new exhibition on the colorful subject at his eponymous gallery in the art museum of the Savannah College of Art and Design.
“It’s not the most iconic or important little black dress ever made,” dismissively notes the fashion czar, who himself favors comfortable yurt-like garments and size-15 Uggs. (He owns nine pairs of black and bark Uggs.) He points in the direction of an L.B.D. he finds far more compelling. I’m startled to see a male mannequin gussied up in a see-through black lace dress worn over spanking white boxers, black socks and shoes that would have dazzled Louis XIV, the Carrie Bradshaw of his day.
“This is what Marc Jacobs wore to the Met Costume Gala, a man-dress from Comme des Garçon,” Talley says. “It was a seminal moment in style for a man to go there, perfectly accessorized with diamanté buckled black matte leather court shoes that he designed himself.”
Talley, a contributing editor at Vogue and a correspondent at “Entertainment Tonight,” said he was inspired to mount the show after seeing Anna Wintour in a classic black Chanel dress, now framed in a shadow box on the cherry-red wall.
It was Coco Chanel and Vogue, after all, who popularized “the little nothings,” as they were known then, on Oct. 1, 1926, when the magazine published an illustration of a blouson black crepe de Chine sheath, predicting that every woman would aspire to have it in her closet, just as every man wanted a Model T in the garage.
“Chanel craved the power and independence of men,” says Gioia Diliberto, who has written a novel and a play about the couturière and who contributed an essay to the show’s catalog. “So in her designs, she borrowed the ease, comfort and muted palette of men’s clothes to create a style of pared-down elegance for women that liberated them from furbelows and froufrou confections.”
Talley says he collected a cavalcade of designer dresses from his friends in materials from “neoprene scuba diving fabric to latex to chicken feathers.” (Really ostrich feathers.)
In the rows of black glamour can be found Whoopi Goldberg’s Chado Ralph Rucci caftan — with a snake necklace strangling the mannequin’s neck; Sarah Jessica Parker’s buttery leather pleated Prabal Gurung; L’Wren Scott’s own design, a sexy wool and lace number that she wore to the Golden Globes with her boyfriend, Mick Jagger; a Tom Ford Chantilly lace and beaded concoction based on Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba.
“Lady Gaga wore that with blue hair,” Talley confides.
Renée Zellweger contributed a navy ribbon-candy-style dress. “Sometimes you wear midnight blue as black,” Talley opined.
I start to feel paranoid when my friend André offers a disquisition on how to identify a “good black” hue versus a “bad black” one, and which blacks don’t match. I’d assumed black was black.
“You don’t want a harsh black or a dead black that looks like an old bunker that’s been oxidized through years of neglect in a barren warehouse,” he says. “A good black is an electrifying black. It should be about dreams of beauty.”
Gazing at my green T-shirt, Talley murmurs scornfully, “Sea foam, I suppose,” before turning back to the inanimate but far more enticing mannequins. “When in doubt, you go to your best little black dress, not to your wimpy, seaweedy, outre-mer sea foam or your wretched yellow lemon drop.”
He sums up the staying power of noir style with a line straight out of film noir: “It’s just something that you know is right, even if it’s wrong.”
Well, all things being equal, I’d rather have MoDo crooning about clothes than trying to cover politics. Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
For the first time in a long, long time, a Democrat is running for president and has the clear advantage on national security policy. That is not “how things are supposed to be,” and Republicans sound apoplectic about it. But there is a reason President Obama is leading on national security, and it was apparent in his U.N. speech last week, which showed a president who understands that we really do live in a more complex world today — and that saying so is not a cop-out. It’s a road map. Mitt Romney, given his international business background, should understand this, but he acts instead as if he learned his foreign policy at the International House of Pancakes, where the menu and architecture rarely changes.
Rather than really thinking afresh about the world, Romney has chosen instead to go with the same old G.O.P. bacon and eggs — that the Democrats are toothless wimps who won’t stand up to our foes or for our values, that the Republicans are tough and that it is 1989 all over again. That is, America stands astride the globe with unrivaled power to bend the world our way, and the only thing missing is a president with “will.” The only thing missing is a president who is ready to simultaneously confront Russia, bash China, tell Iraqis we’re not leaving their country, snub the Muslim world by outsourcing our Arab-Israel policy to the prime minister of Israel, green light Israel to bomb Iran — and raise the defense budget while cutting taxes and eliminating the deficit.
It’s all “attitude” — without a hint at how we could possibly do all these contradictory things at once, or the simplest acknowledgment that two wars and a giant tax cut under George W. Bush has limited our ability to do even half of them.
Let’s look at the world we’re actually living in. It is a world that has become much more interdependent so that our friends failing (like Greece) can now harm us as much as our enemies threatening, and our rivals (like China) collapsing can hurt us as much as their rising. It’s a world where a cheap YouTube video made by a superempowered individual can cause us more trouble than the million-dollar propaganda campaign of a superpower competitor. It is a globalized economy in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, America’s largest business lobby, has opposed Romney’s pledge to designate China as a currency manipulator and is pressing Congress to lift cold war trade restrictions on Russia, a country Romney has labeled America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” It is a world where, at times, pulling back — and focusing on rebuilding our strength at home — is the most meaningful foreign policy initiative we can undertake because when America is at its best — its institutions, schools and values — it can inspire emulation, whereas Russia and China still have to rely on transactions or bullying to get others to follow. It is still a world where the use of force, or the threat of force, against implacable foes (Iran) is required, but a world where a nudge at the right time and place can also be effective.
Add it all up and it’s a world in which America will have greater responsibility (because our European and Japanese allies are now economically enfeebled) and fewer resources (because we have to cut the defense budget) to manage a more complex set of actors (because so many of the states we have to deal with now are new democracies with power emanating from their people not just one man — like Egypt — or failing states like Pakistan) where our leverage on other major powers is limited (because Russia’s massive oil and gas income gives it great independence and any war we’d want to fight in Asia we’d have to borrow the money from China).
This complexity doesn’t argue for isolationism. It argues for using our power judiciously and in a nuanced fashion. For instance, if you had listened to Romney criticizing Obama for weakness after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, you’d have thought that, had Romney been president, he would have immediately ordered some counterstrike. But, had we done so, it would have aborted what was a much more meaningful response: Libyans themselves taking to the streets under the banner “Our Revolution Will Not Be Stolen” and storming the headquarters of the Islamist militias who killed the U.S. ambassador. It shows you how much this complexity can surprise you.
The one area where Romney could have really challenged Obama on foreign policy was on the president’s bad decision to double-down on Afghanistan. But Romney can’t, because the Republican Party wanted to triple down. So we’re having no debate about how to extricate ourselves from our biggest foreign policy mess and a cartoon debate — “I’m tough; he’s not” — about everything else. In that sense, foreign policy is a lot like domestic policy. The morning after the election, we will face a huge “cliff”: how to deal with Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, without guidance from the candidates or a mandate from voters. Voters will have to go with their gut about which guy has the best gut feel for navigating this world. Obama has demonstrated that he has something there. Romney has not.
Next up is Mr. Kristof:
Are female leaders better for the world’s women?
It would be nice to think that women who achieve power would want to help women at the bottom. But one continuing global drama underscores that women in power can be every bit as contemptible as men.
Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, is mounting a scorched-earth offensive against Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank and champion of the economic empowerment of women around the world. Yunus, 72, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in microfinance, focused on helping women lift their families out of poverty.
Yet Sheikh Hasina’s government has already driven Yunus from his job as managing director of Grameen Bank. Worse, since last month, her government has tried to seize control of the bank from its 5.5 million small-time shareholders, almost all of them women, who collectively own more than 95 percent of the bank.
What a topsy-turvy picture: We see a woman who has benefited from evolving gender norms using her government powers to destroy the life’s work of a man who has done as much for the world’s most vulnerable women as anybody on earth.
The government has also started various investigations of Yunus and his finances and taxes, and his supporters fear that he might be arrested on some pretext or another.
“It’s an insane situation,” Yunus told me a few days ago at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, sounding subdued instead of his normally exuberant self. “I just don’t know how to deal with it.”
If the government succeeds in turning Grameen Bank into a government bank, Yunus said, “it is finished.”
Sheikh Hasina, in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, initially agreed to be interviewed by me in a suite at the Grand Hyatt. At the last minute she canceled and refused to reschedule.
Perhaps none of this should be surprising. Metrics like girls’ education and maternal mortality don’t improve more when a nation is led by a woman. There is evidence that women matter as local leaders and on corporate boards, but that doesn’t seem to have been true at the national level, at least not for the first cohort of female leaders around the world.
Bangladesh is actually a prime example of the returns from investing in women. When it separated from Pakistan in 1971, it was a wreck. But it invested in girls’ education, and today more than half of its high school students are female — an astonishing achievement for an impoverished Muslim country.
All those educated women formed the basis for Bangladesh’s garment industry. They also had fewer births: the average Bangladeshi woman now has 2.2 children, down from 6 in 1980. Bringing women into the mainstream also seems to have soothed extremism, which is much less of a concern than in Pakistan (where female literacy in the tribal areas is only 3 percent).
To her credit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken up for Yunus: “I highly respect Muhammad Yunus, and I highly respect the work that he has done, and I am hoping to see it continue without being in any way undermined or affected by any government action,” she said earlier this year. Two former secretaries of state, George Shultz and Madeleine Albright, have also called on Sheikh Hasina to back off.
She shows no sign of doing so. One theory is that she is paranoid and sees Yunus as a threat, especially since he made an abortive effort to enter politics in 2007. Another theory is that she is envious of his Nobel Peace Prize and resentful of his global renown.
Sheikh Hasina is disappointing in other ways. She has turned a blind eye to murders widely attributed to the security services. My Times colleague Jim Yardley wrote just this month about a labor leader, Aminul Islam, who had been threatened by security officers and whose tortured body was found in a pauper’s grave.
Yunus fans are signing a Change.org petition on his behalf, but I’d like to see more American officials and politicians speak up for him. President Obama, how about another photo op with Yunus?
I still strongly believe that we need more women in leadership posts at home and around the world, from presidential palaces to corporate boards. The evidence suggests that diverse leadership leads to better decision making, and I think future generations of female leaders may be more attentive to women’s issues than the first.
In any case, this painful episode in Bangladesh is a reminder that the struggle to achieve gender equality isn’t simply a battle between the sexes.
It is far more subtle. Misogyny and indifference remain obstacles for women globally, but those are values that can be absorbed and transmitted by women as well as by men.
Last but not least, here’s Mr. Bruni:
In a few days, as you may have heard, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will go head-to-head in their first presidential debate. What I most want from it isn’t fireworks, though I’m as big a fan of political theater as the next hack. It’s a word, one that has gone sadly out of vogue over recent decades and been mostly absent from this campaign.
And I’m not holding my breath.
Romney, in his convention speech, never uttered it, and Obama, in his, said those three syllables just once, in a telling context. He thanked servicemen and -women who were fighting or had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan for what they’d risked and endured, a sacrifice limited to them and their families and not shared by the rest of us, who enjoyed tax cuts even as the wars’ costs drove the federal debt ever higher.
It’s odd. We revere the Americans who lived through World War II and call them the “greatest generation” precisely because of the sacrifices they made. But we seem more than content to let that brand of greatness pass us by.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the end of his presidency, warned Americans about “plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.”
“We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow,” he said, as the writer Evan Thomas recalls in a new biography, “Ike’s Bluff.”
But the last president to make a truly robust call for sacrifice was ridiculed for it. That president, Jimmy Carter, suggested only that we turn down our thermostats a tad and guzzle a bit less gas, and in July 1979 observed, “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.”
Then came Ronald Reagan, whose many great contributions to America were coupled with less great ones, including the idea, which has dominated our political discourse ever since, that we should speak only of morning in America and that optimism, like virtue, is its own reward.
It isn’t, not if it crowds out realism, which we need more of these days.
The size of the federal debt and the pace of its growth can’t be ignored. Economists disagree on how soon and aggressively to tackle them, but not about the eventual need to.
Yet we have tax rates that, by some measures, are near the lowest in the postwar era. We also have polls that show that a clear majority of Americans don’t think our country is positioned to afford its children as good a life as its adults have enjoyed.
Conditions, all in all, are ripe for a serious conversation about sacrifice. But this presidential campaign has been noteworthy for its nonsensical insinuations or assurances that although we’re in a jam, we can emerge from it with discrete, minimal inconvenience.
This claim is most laughably manifest in Romney’s ill-defined tax “policy,” which promises lower marginal rates without any reduction in the amount of revenue the United States Treasury collects.
Romney says that he intends to make this magic happen by closing tax loopholes, but he won’t identify which, because God forbid any voter be told that he or she might have to surrender something advantageous. We live in a sacrifice-free bubble of volitional delusion.
Obama has lately taken to speaking of “economic patriotism,” which is in some sense his euphemism for sacrifice. But the patriotic pinch he suggests is a tax increase only for households that make more than $250,000. They represent a small minority of American taxpayers, and a tax hike extending well beyond them would be necessary to raise enough revenue to solve our debt problems.
Campaign rhetoric, of course, is campaign rhetoric. Even so, the amount of it devoted to lessening our anxieties about any financial pain in the present is alarming.
Those of us with health insurance are encouraged not to fear any negative consequence from the attempt to universalize coverage, rather than being told that such a goal is worth some giveback — which it is.
All of us are assured that the cost of Medicare can be contained without the program’s beneficiaries’ feeling a significant impact. Really?
What once made Paul Ryan exciting even to some moderates was his readiness to sing a more somber song and say: folks, we can’t have it all. But if you track his own changes to his budget proposals — and then add the alterations that Romney layered on — you hear a muffling of the summons to any current or imminent sacrifice.
Besides which, Ryan’s notion of sacrifice is lopsided: diminished entitlements even for people who truly depend on them but not a cent more in taxes for affluent Americans like him. These days sacrifice is what you recommend for others, not what you volunteer for yourself.
How did that happen? One theory is the end of military conscription after Vietnam.
“As we baby boomers became adults, less than 1 percent of the population served in the military,” wrote Matthew Paull, a former chief financial officer for McDonald’s, and Steve Krause, the director of finance at the University of Chicago’s business school, in an article in The New Republic last year. It was titled, “Why Are the Children of the ‘Greatest Generation’ So Selfish?”
“In World War II, that figure was over 10 percent,” the authors continued, later adding: “With relatively few of us sharing the bonds, lessons and sacrifices of military service, perhaps there is little widespread experiential counterbalance to each of us pursuing only our self-interest.”
I think the rise of interest groups, identity politics and cause-specific lobbyists has diminished our attention to, and sense of, a communal good.
And cynicism about the intentions of politicians and the effectiveness of government has become an easy out: why sacrifice in ways that plump federal coffers or reduce federal obligations when Washington can’t be trusted to make anything better or get anything right?
I have my own trust issues. But they’d be lessened considerably if one of the candidates got up at the first debate and said that climate change can’t be mourned from the back seat of an Escalade; that the future benefits of expanded health care and more affordable college have a price tag in the here and now; that pain is a precursor to healing; and that it’s time to take our medicine.
Somehow I doubt that there will be much “sacrifice” made by the MOTU, but I’d probably better start developing a taste for Friskies.