Tag Archives: politics
Every American knows about the epic third-railness of racism in public life. Nappy-headed hos, you people, articulate and bright, macaca, let’s stop there. All public figures in America are one N-word away from utter and total ruin. No other word or opinion has anything like the toxicity of a racial slur. A white politician or actor (or, apparently, TV chef) can be on record saying just about anything (‘sugar tits‘, ‘takers not makers‘) and keep their job, their chance at a second chance. But say something racist and, well, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.
This is correct. Racism in America is a uniquely ugly thing, something whose effects are still present in our policies, our economy, our workplaces, our schools. You’re not allowed to defend something whose impacts are still being lived by a significant percentage of your countrymen, especially if you are on the benefits end of those impacts. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about race, just that you have to be a little more careful when you do. If you can’t keep your eyes open underwater, don’t jump in the pool.
This sensitivity, this hesitation, is unique in American history. You could get away with saying some bonkers-racist shit in public just a few decades ago. But racism is also unique relative to other social issues. If Paula Deen had said that the death penalty should be expanded, that poor people just don’t work hard enough, that public schools should be abolished, that Medicare should be defunded, that inequality in America isn’t wide enough, yeah the internet would have shitted on her, and maybe she would have lost an endorsement or two, but we would move on. She would have nothing like the systematic ostracism she’s getting now.
Again, this is not a bad thing. Discrimination was the great battle of the 20th century, and winning it is one of the progressive left’s greatest victories. I’m fine with a world where you have to be careful talking about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, where certain opinions (‘women shouldn’t be voting!’ ‘Slavery was adorable‘) will get you kicked off the TV and the ballot.
I am a great big homosexual. Every day I root for homophobia to reach this magical status, to get to the point where a politician says a mean, stupid thing about My People and is instantly shoved off the platform of public life. In fact, I hope when homophobia gets there, it brings some of its friends with it. Poverty, inequality, free health care, free(er) immigration, worker’s rights—I want all these topics to achieve the level of consensus we’ve worked so hard to reach on racism. I hope progressive activists are looking at the way we police each other on race and going ‘yeah, looks about right.’
This sounds like I’m arguing for a new kind of thoughtcrime, for an America where politicians and actors and other public figures feel prohibited from expressing opinions I disagree with. But what I’m saying is that I want them to feel prohibited from expressing the first thing that pops into their head. Race in America is something that, when you talk about it, you have to think a little harder, talk a little slower, squeeze a little empathy out of your words and your heart to be taken seriously.
This, that little pause before you speak, is what progress looks like, and there are a lot more issues in America that deserve it. Next time a TV chef sits down for an interview, I’ll bet they will take it.
I find it a bit difficult to judge the Anthony Weiner story in the NYTimes on its merits. It’s clearly a professionally produced feature, well-written, easy to read, captivating subjects, check check check. But it’s also clearly a marketing vehicle for Weiner. The story even says
By agreeing to be interviewed, Weiner and Abedin [his wife] would seem to be trying to give voters what they want — and gauge public reaction. […]
Weiner and Abedin have realized, it seems, that the only way out is through. So they have agreed to talk — and talk and talk — for the first time about what happened and why and what it looks like from the inside when your world comes crashing down because of, as Weiner puts it, “one fateful Tweet.”
Weiner is planning a comeback to public life, and ‘get a feature in the NYTimes’ is obviously a bullet point on his to do list. He and his wife must have carefully planned what they were going to say, the story they wanted to tell. The fact that the journalist was aware of this doesn’t change the story’s fundamental purpose.
But what’s even more interesting is the tone of sombre bewilderment everyone in the story uses when discussing what Anthony Weiner actually did.
On Friday night, May 27, a photograph of a man’s torso wearing gray boxer briefs and an obvious erection appeared on Weiner’s official Twitter account. […]
It was a sex scandal without any actual sex — more creepy than anything else. But it was hard for people to get their heads around: an affair is one thing, but sending crotch pictures to a virtual stranger? Mike Capuano, a congressman from Massachusetts and Weiner’s roommate in Washington for many years, spoke for a lot of people when he told me, “He obviously did something incredibly stupid that, honestly, I still don’t understand.” […]
Weiner fielded a lot of calls from friends and colleagues, many of them offering advice. One prominent state politician called to confess that he was a sex addict and urged Weiner to join his support group. […]
Is what he did really so extreme? We live in a world where 16 year olds get tips on sexting from talk show hosts, where ‘manage a trois’ is familiar to more Americans than ‘café au lait’, where ‘cyber’ is a verb. Is it really so hard to believe that sending strangers naked pictures of yourself is a turn-on?
But despite the occasional flash of anger or lingering disbelief, [his wife] told me that she had forgiven him. When I asked how long it took for her to think she might be able to get over what her husband did, she said, “That’s a really good question,” and then took a minute. “At the time, we were very early in our marriage, but it was an old friendship. He was my best friend. In addition to that, I loved him. There was a deep love there, but it was coupled with a tremendous feeling of betrayal.”
It took a lot of work, both mentally and in the way we engage with each other, for me to get to a place where I said: ‘O.K., I’m in. I’m staying in this marriage.’ Here was a man I respected, I loved, was the father of this child inside of me, and he was asking me for a second chance. And I’m not going to say that was an easy or fast decision that I made. It’s been almost two years now. I did spend a lot of time saying and thinking: ‘I. Don’t. Understand.’ And it took a long time to be able to sit on a couch next to Anthony and say, ‘O.K., I understand and I forgive.’ It was the right choice for me. I didn’t make it lightly.”
Committing to someone who’s embarrassed you in public is one thing. But I hope people aren’t throwing away otherwise good marriages over a few text messages and a fetish that is, at most, one standard deviation away from vanilla.
Ultimately, though, the most interesting thing about this story is that it exists at all. It’s 8,300 words of a politician talking not about his policies, his experience, his goals, but his marriage. This is what redemption looks like in America in 2013. Don’t convince me to vote for you, convince me you’re a good husband. Convince me you’re in therapy.
By that criteria, the story works. It takes two faroff people, public figures, and puts them into a familiar story of love tested and renewed. It takes something strange and makes it relatable. That’s what all the best commercials do.
The Senate was winding up its tem for the fall, and Dole wouldn’t get away till Saturday morning—just in time for a flight to Akron, a press conference and a fund-raising breakfast for two Congressional candidates, then a speech to a rally in the airport; then a quick flight to Sandusky, O., for a press conference and another speech at a luncheon rally; then a flight to Cleveland for a rally speech and a joint press conference on behalf of four GOP hopefuls; then a flight to Findlay, O., for another press conference and a mix-and-mingle for Congressman Oxley; then a flight to Cincinnati for a press conference with gubernatorial candidate James Rhodes at the home of former Senator Taft; then an hour-and-a-half flight east to Monmouth, New Jersey, followed by a twenty-minute drive to a Hilton, where Dole was scheduled to get in about midnight for his Saturday night’s sleep.
Sunday he’d start with a twenty-five-minute ride to a country club in Manalatan Township to do a press conference and a speech at a buffet breakfast; then another drive, another flight, this time to Jamestown, New York, near Buffalo, for a joint news conference with a House candidate; and a drive to another country club for the candidate’s funder-brunch, where Dole would make a few more brief remarks; then another drive to another speech, this to a Chautauqua County veterans’ group, a photo op with members of the Country Veterans Council and the dedication of a bridge in honor of the nation’s veterans; than another flight to State College, Pennsylvania, for a speech to five hundred Penn State students, and another press conference with a Congressman, Bill Clinger, and another drive to another hotel for another speech at a fundraiser, and then another drive and a wheels-up for Washington, National Airport, where the Lincoln Town Car would be waiting in the dark to take him back to the Watergate—unless he decided to stop at the office to get ready for the Senate Monday.
Cramer’s book is totally great (as in large, but also as in awesome), and confirmed my lifelong impression that being a successful politician basically requires you to be a sociopath-caliber extrovert.
Bob Dole was sixty-five when he was living this schedule. The only way to do this, to keep this up, is if you genuinely get energized by constant handshakes, nonstop chit-chat, giving the same old smile to different new people every waking moment. Cramer writes with a deep admiration of these guys, how they keep a million names in their heads, how they can recite legislation by rote, how they can tell the perfect back-slapping joke with the perfect handshake timing. But I read it with a kind of dread. Is this who we’ve outsourced the running of our country to?
But that’s probably just me failing to relate to people who are different than me. Cramer’s book is a powerful reminder of the greatness, the weakness, the weirdness of the people who run our country. And by writing it, he might have achieved greatness himself.
1. The study was designed to prove a racist hypothesis
Clark [the designer of the Tuskegee experiment] started with a profoundly racist hypothesis that he wished to demonstrate, and that is the simple one that the African-American male was racially distinct from the white male, and was so in ways that could be demonstrated by studying the natural history of syphilis in their bodies. […]
In the body of white males, the damage was overwhelmingly to their more highly evolved — and therefore more vulnerable — neurologic systems. He expected that the result in African-American males would be very different, being less neurologically sophisticated, their bodies would experience damage instead primarily to their cardiovascular systems, and proof was to be gained by studying the natural course of the disease in a group of males — African-American males — who were systematically untreated.
Let’s remember that this is a study that was based not on any therapeutic objective. On the contrary, the main interest of the syphilis study conducted at Tuskegee was to examine syphilitic black male bodies postmortem.
2. The study went way beyond the researchers and test subjects
This study continues from ’32 to ’72. By later in the 1940s, penicillin, a highly efficacious remedy for syphilis, was developed, and it was determined that the members of the study would be systematically denied the antibiotic.
Local doctors in Macon County were all provided with the names of the members of the study, and they were instructed by the Public Health Service that those men were not to be given penicillin. So the study continued for twenty-five more years, when a therapy actually existed. […]
In fact, there was a time when there was a great threat to this Tuskegee study, and that was when America entered the Second World War, because at that time there was the danger that the members of the study group risked being drafted into the Army, and that would entail blood tests. Their syphilis would be discovered, and the Army would provide treatment, ending the experiment. So, the assistant surgeon general of the United States intervened on behalf of the study and provided the Selective Service Board of Macon County with the list of all those men included in the study, and they were exempted from the military draft. […]
Well, by 1972, at the conclusion, 28 of the men in the study died directly from syphilis. A hundred others died of complications related to syphilis. Forty wives of members of the study were infected with syphilis, and 19 children fathered by members of the study were born with congenital syphilis.
3. This study was not a secret
There was, however, no intention in the Public Health Service to terminate the study, and this was not, strictly speaking, a secret study. There were published reports on a regular basis. This is really one of the more disconcerting parts of this study. What does it say about our society at the time?
In other words, this is a study that was published, that was written about publicly in scholarly articles, and people thought this was okay. The first published report was in 1936, and papers were later written every four to six years or so, until 1970. And strikingly, there was never a protest within the medical community about reports on this type of study that appeared in medical journals for forty years.
In 1969, a committee of the Centers for Disease Control determined that the study should continue, and this conclusion was backed by local chapters of the American Medical Association.
I think I grew up thinking of racism as something one person did to someone else. Racist described an individual, some redneck in a pickup truck, a cop car or, worst-case scenario, judge’s robes. It’s only in my 20s that I realized that the history of racism in America isn’t a bunch of bad apples, it’s the whole tree.
Imagine it’s 2003, and you’ve just been elected the president of a failed state. Its name is Georgia, a little wedge of forest nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. It has spent the last 900 years as a trinket passed back and forth between Russia, Turkey and Iran. If it ever comes up in conversation, which is rarely, people are likely to think you’re talking about the land of peachtrees and Ted Turner, not eggplants and Joseph Stalin.
Nevertheless, it’s 2003, and you’ve got a job to do. Your country has 4.5 million people, an unemployment rate of 50 percent, a median income of about $10 a month and, in its most fortunate cities and regions, two hours of electricity per day.
This was the situation Mikheil Saakashvili found himself in nine years ago. His country had declared independence from Russia in 1991, and the ensuing 12 years had been a countrywide game of Hungry Hungry Hippo. The police force was neither police nor a force, but a mobile fraternity of bribe-extractors. Politicians and civil servants performed the routine functions of governance—issuing licenses, allotting budgets, delivering services—with reluctance so severe the World Bank referred to them as ‘criminalized’. Getting a business license required approval from 29 government agencies. Who even knows how many bribes you had to pay.
Saakashvili studied at Columbia and George Washington University. He had a fellowship at the US State Department in the early ‘90s, and studied human rights in France. It’s sort of surprising he hasn’t given a Ted talk. He was pulled away, his political biography tells us, from a gig at a US law firm and general international awesomeness in 1995, and convinced to come back to his humble homeland, stand for elections and rescue his wedge of Caucasan forest from Russia, Turkey, international donors and, possibly, itself.
Saakashvili got 95 percent of the vote in something called the Rose Revolution, something we all skimmed articles about in the New York Times in 2003 and then immediately began confusing for all the other ones (velvet, orange, etc) we mix up at pub quizzes.
As the spotlight of the world’s attention dimmed, Saakashvili began the impossible, invisible task of making a country work. The way he did this was by giving the entire country the Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glen Ross:
First prize is, your salary goes up by a factor of 20. Second prize is, you get to keep your job. Third prize is, you’re fired.
First up: The cops. Overnight, he fired all 16,000 of them. He replaced them with applicants trained in community policing, crime reduction and citizen services. Salaries increased 23-fold between 2004 and 2011.
‘Wasn’t there a period when no one was policing the country at all?’ I asked my friend who works at an NGO here. ‘Wasn’t it just chaos in the streets?’
‘You’re assuming there was policing going on at all,’ he said. ‘Georgia was basically Somalia in 2003. Crime went down after all the cops were fired.’
It didn’t stop there. Police officers were given new uniforms, glass-fronted police stations (transparent, get it?) and—without their knowledge—squad cars equipped with listening devices. The first cops found to be taking bribes, plotting against their superiors or otherwise fucking with their new mandate to protect and serve were accused of such on national television, and sent to prison for up to 10 years. No, seriously, these measures said, we mean this.
Next, politicians and civil servants. Saakashvili made sure every single one got the same message: I don’t care what you did yesterday, I don’t care what you do today, But starting tomorrow, you’re going to hep this country run smoothly, or you’re gone.
He fired 40,000 of them the first year. The rest were watched by cameras, tracked by spreadsheets and evaluated by superiors and customers alike. The better services worked, the more he raised their salaries.
And finally, everybody else. In 2003, tax revenue was only 12 percent of GDP (in the US, it’s 24 percent. In the UK, 39 percent.). Most retailers kept ‘official’ and ‘actual’ books to avoid reporting income.
The first thing Saakashvili did was ban informal vendors—those dudes who sell fruit while you wait at red lights, for example—from city streets. This is too harsh, they protested. Fine, came his response, but at least it’s consistent.
For the formal vendors—corner stores, restaurants, hair salons—It was Alec Baldwin again: You’re all going to install special cash registers that tell the government, in real time, what you’re selling and what you’re earning. If you don’t like it, you don’t stay in business. Oh, and you have to buy the cash registers yourselves. That’s too onerous, they protested. Fine, came his response, but it’s not unfair.
Within months, everything bought and sold was now tracked and reported. The new, policing-focused police force sent undercover officers to stores all over the country to check if vendors were using the cash registers. Saakashvili also worked on the demand side. The special cash registers spit out receipts that had built-in lottery tickets. Each had a barcode that, for a lucky few, could be redeemed for cash. All of a sudden, ‘where’s my receipt?’ became as common in Georgia as ‘have a nice day’ was in America.
Next, he went after the bigwigs. For months after he came to power, the news was animated with raids on Georgia’s biggest businessmen, mafia, oligarchs and political fixers. He gave them all the same deal: You’ve got two options: Go to jail for all the warlord-ass shit you’ve pulled over the last decade, or pay restitution and get a full amnesty. The restitution for some of them was as much as $14 million. There was no special receipt.
The bigwigs didn’t even protest. They knew the response before it came.
At the same time he made everyone pay their taxes, he made sure everyone knew what they owed. He threw out most of the old tax code and installed a flat tax: 12 percent on your income, 20 percent sales tax and 10 percent on any interest you earn. The rates were crazy-low, but everyone was paying them. Tax revenue went from $300 million to $3 billion between 2003 and 2008.
These reforms built a fence and fertilized the soil. All Saakashvili needed now was for the private sector to come and plant the seeds. And came they did: Between 2003 and 2007, foreign direct investment in Georgia rose from $330 million to $1.7 billion. In 2010, two years after the financial crisis, it was $810 million. Two new oil pipelines link Georgia with Asia and Europe. I hear the lines at Carrefour on Saturdays are brutal.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s rank on the Economic Freedom Index went from 93rd in 2005 to 34th in 2012. The World Bank says Georgia is the 16th easiest country in which to do business.
There was other stuff too. The education system got pegged to a nationwide standardized test, ending its reliance on the former ‘pay your teachers for grades’ model. Healthcare was privatized (I know, I know), which reduced corruption among doctors. Border guards and customs agents got their own version of the ‘you’re all fired; the new guys get new uniforms!’ program.The government posts all of its tenders and procurement contracts online.
Georgia doesn’t require a visa for most foreigners to work or start a business. Georgia doesn’t want your tired, your poor. It wants your rich and energetic.
Nine years ago, Georgia was basically Deadwood on the Black Sea. Nowadays it’s not exactly Blade Runner, but it’s not Mad Max either. The lights are on, trains and buses work, construction cranes provide shade for clinking outdoor cafes. Nearly 80 percent of the population reports that they’ve personally experienced a drop in corruption. Violent crime was cut in half, and the homicide rate is the same as the United States. Per capita GDP is $5,400. OK, that’s the same as Angola, but when you consider that a decade ago it was $400, you have to give a little whistle.
Last Monday, Saakashvili was voted out. If it all goes smoothly from here (Saakashvili has to voluntarily hand over power to the James Bond villain who defeated him, a mysterious billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili), it will be Georgia’s first democratic transition.
Saakashvili’s zeal for reform, for tearing down existing structures and installing new ones, left some holes in the plaster that he filled with his own power. Saakashvili’s towering achievement is that the state is no longer a vehicle for politicians, civil servants and police officers to enrich themselves. The problem is, it may have become a vehicle for Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, to do so instead.
Crackdowns on journalists, political firings, restriction of free speech, and various backroom sketchiness have increased in recent years, and some of the post-revolution reforms (restitution and amnesty for organized-crime lords, seriously?) have left a bad taste in people’s mouths.
There’s also the prison rape video.
Over the last decade, all those no-tolerance sentences for petty criminals, crooked cops and corrupt bureaucrats swelled Georgia’s incarceration rate to the 4th highest in the world, above even Russia. In September, a video hit the news showing prison guards sodomizing prisoners with broomsticks. The media went to the citizens, citizens went to the streets, politicians went to the media. Saaksashvili’s party got 40 percent of the vote. The opposition, 55 percent.
I want to use the cliché that Georgia is a shadow of its former self. But more accurately, its former self is a shadow that refuses to disappear. Everything Saakashvili has done is fragile. The minute you turn off those cop-car microphones, delete those civil servant spreadsheets, hide those procurement documents, the cost-benefit analysis goes back to where it was, and behavior will adjust to fit.
I don’t know if Saakashvili deserved to lose the election. In a world full of leaders who get elected promising to reduce corruption, he’s one of the only ones who actually did. Georgia, for better or for worse, is a country where someone demonstrably wanted the government to work better, and wasn’t afraid to slap a few hands reaching for the cookie jar.
Mikheil Saakashvili made his country work. He made citizens safer, government more effective and businesses more profitable. And then he paid the cost.
Imagine yourself in his shoes again, this time in 2012. As you look down from the hills above Tbilisi, maybe you’re thinking that in the end, nothing is free, not even the market.
So far I’ve been following this year’s presidential election like a toddler in church.
I don’t know if it’s because I think the result is already preordained, or that I’ve just had my fill of manufactured partisan outrage at meaningless gaffes, but I’m increasingly starting to think that participating in American mass politics is like living next to the freeway.
I’m not one of those people who thinks that all the candidates are the same, and that our choice doesn’t matter. I’m still voting (for Obama, obviously. Viva socialism!), and I’m reasonably familiar with each candidate’s narrative of the problems facing the US and their proposed solution.
I just don’t know what more genuine information I can gather at this point. American political campaigns are basically pantomimes, where we zoom in on the minutae of each candidate’s prescriptions and podium utterances, overlooking the fact that anything that will actually happen in the next four years will be a combination of compromise, serendipity and expediency. Even if Obama is a socialist Muslim, even if Romney hates poor people, their ability to meaningfully implement these agendas is severely constrained by our political system.
Again, I’m not saying their policies don’t matter. They do. I just think American political campaigns are not a particularly good way to assess what will actually happen if either becomes president.
I’m reading Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes right now, and I loved his description of the 1930s rise of the far right:
The past to which they appealed was an artefact. Their traditions were invented.
There’s a little bit of 2012 in that phrasing, isn’t there? Only now it’s not only the past that’s invented, but the future too.
1. Make prevention the only objective
If you’re already fat, you’re screwed. Diets and exercise are so unlikely to work in the long run that you might as well say they don’t. Habits are hard to break, the food environment is a persistent siren and keeping weight off basically means you’re hungry for the rest of your life. Government investment in weight-loss programs for adults are unlikely to have large effects.
Which is why the government should aim its entire obesity effort at preventing childhood obesity. Food industry arguments about personal responsibility, consumer choice and free speech break down when it comes to minors. Children cannot meaningfully understand marketing messages or give consent. They are profoundly subject to their environment and significantly less capable of long-term thinking than adults.
As obesity researcher Yoni Freedhof puts it:
Try to imagine childhood obesity as a flooding river with no end in sight. While teaching children how to swim might help temporarily in keeping them afloat, given that the flood isn’t abating, chances are, even with the best swimming instructions, the kids are going to get tired and sink. So while swimming lessons certainly can’t hurt, what we really need to be shouting about doing is actually changing their environment and building them a levee.
Big Government is perfectly placed to take drastic efforts to prevent childhood obesity. You can’t accuse the government of being a ‘nanny state’ when it comes to children: Protecting children is what nannies do. The government has a clear responsibility–and a profound obligation– to manipulate the economy, environment, infrastructure and legal framework to protect children from companies that lie to them and an environment that manipulates them.
The government needs to lay it out for food companies: When Americans turn 18, you can have them. Until then, they’re ours.
2. Hold companies responsible for obesity outcomes
One of the best ideas I heard on the Rudd Center podcasts was a dude who said that food companies should be given responsibility for quantitative indicators of children’s well-being. So Coca-Cola wants to control all the vending machines in a school district? Fine, but over the next five years the obesity of children in all of those schools has to go down by 5 percent. If obesity goes up during that time, you lose access to them.
This principle could be applied at a city, state or nationwide scale. The best program the government could undertake would be to gather together the major associations of food manufacturers, beverage companies and restaurants and tell them the following:
‘Look, 30 percent of the kids in this country are overweight or obese. We will reduce that to 15 percent, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get there. You can either help us in this goal voluntarily or we will force you through legislation. For the next five years, we’ll work with you to develop voluntary marketing codes, reduce the fat and sugar in your products and promote physical activity. If childhood obesity hasn’t gone down in five years, we’ll legally restrict your ability to sell food in schools. If it hasn’t gone down in 10 years, we’ll ban all marketing to children nationwide. If it hasn’t gone down in 15 years, we’ll tax the shit out of any product that has added sugar.’ And so on.
The food industry always argues that voluntary marketing standards and product guidelines are preferable to legislation. If those standards don’t have any impact on the rise in childhood obesity, however, they’re as useless as day-old French fries.
Holding companies responsible for outcomes instead of processes gives them the freedom to develop their own approaches and an incentive to police each other. Under this plan, industry confederations like the American Grocery Manufacturers and the American Restaurant Association could set industry-wide standards for, say, portion sizes or added sugar that all their members would have to abide by. An objective benchmark allows the government to say ‘you guys figure it out. Or we’ll do it for you’.
Other government agencies already take this approach. The Fed, for example, has committed to keeping inflation around 2 percent, and has said it will do whatever it takes to hit that target (including allowing unemployment to spike above 10 percent). It’s time the rest of the government took the same approach.
Every OECD country has committed to a free-market model that provides food companies unlimited access to consumers, and fuels a cycle of overconsumption, obesity and morbidity. I wonder if any of them will commit to ending it.
I think the reason I’m so interested in obesity as a public policy issue is that its basically unsolvable. Its cause is multifactoral (rising incomes, falling physical activity, fewer family meals, etc.) and its solution is basically a list of things we as a society are not willing to do (restrict marketing, raise taxes on sugar, end subsidies, etc.). So we circle the problem like neanderthals hunting mammoths, poking at it with little sticks, hoping to hit a tendon.
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. They bring on authors and researchers in areas related to food, and ask them what they’re working on and what they’ve found. The conversations cover a wide range of topics including history, politics, economics, marketing and education. Most of them are fascinating. Here’s a couple tidbits I’ve picked up listening to these podcasts on my commute for the past few weeks.
- Obesity began to rise in earnest in the early ’80s, right about the time when the Farm Bill stopped paying farmers to not-grow crops and started paying them to grow as much as they could. As the number of calories available to every man, woman and child in America grew from 3,200 per day to 3,900 per day, the food companies ensured that it all got processed, marketed and consumed. The more I learn about economics, the more convinced I am that this, above anything else, is why we’re all fat.
- Everyone compares Big Food to Big Tobacco, but there are a number of other industries that might make interesting corollaries. Car companies, for example, resisted seat belts for decades before they accepted, then actively marketed, them. Same with air bags.
- The most interesting comparison I heard related the ongoing food fight to the battle for gun control. If you think of the life cycle of each gun from design to manufacture to marketing to final sale, most government interventions have been exclusively aimed at the final point. Instead of regulating the relatively small number of gun manufacturers and sellers, the US aimed regulation at the huge number of gun owners and users. It’s not a fair comparison to food, obviously, but it demonstrates that there are a number of legal interventions that may be much more impactful than aiming at end users.
- In spite of all the research and experience on obesity, it’s surprising how little is still known about it. Performing nutrition experiments on humans is an ethical minefield (‘Yeah, we’re gonna need you to live in a lab, gain 40 pounds and fill out a bunch of questionnaires. Aight?’), not to mention prohibitively expensive, so basically all we know about obesity is from fattening and starving a bunch of rats.
- Weight stigma is a large and growing issue in workplaces (and courtrooms) across America. Both men and women report being discriminated against because of their weight. Women report constant verbal harassment, whereas men report being passed over for promotions.
- Some states are sending kids home with ‘BMI report cards‘. Surprisingly enough, this has proven problematic.
- Weight loss pills, for reasons as corrupt as they are disappointing, are regulated as food, not drugs. Therefore anyone can manufacture pills, put them in a bottle and tell you that they’ll help you lose weight. Most of the ones currently on the market are slightly modified speed. Maybe we should be thankful they have any content at all.
- Food companies are becoming increasingly sophisticated in marketing to children without their parents’ knowledge. They’re already designing online games websites that include marketing, and they get the kids’ cellphone numbers so they can text them with ads. This is some Blade Runner shit.
Personally, I think the obesity epidemic isn’t going to be solved by academics, public health advocates or politicians. It will be solved by pharmacists. The first company to release a pill that reliably suppresses appetite, speeds metabolism or makes broccoli taste like marzipan will make billions. For a problem that encompasses as wide a range of issues as obesity, sometimes all you need to know is one thing.
Yeah I’m not gonna bother reading anything about Rick Santorum. I’m sure he has unacceptable opinions on any number of important policy issues. I’m sure that the media will reveal hypocrisy between these opinions and his personal conduct. I’m sure there are skeletons in his closet waiting to be illuminated by the reporters and paraded on a stick by the bloggers.
But really, what’s the fucking point? He’s not going to win the nomination, nor the presidency. It’s only been five weeks since Herman Cain quit the primaries, and I’m already thinking that all those minutes I spent gathering news and opinion about him could have been spent reading a short story, or learning German, or shitting into my cupped hand and throwing it at my neighbors.
Looking back on this election in five years, whatever its outcome, I don’t see myself saying ‘Drat, I wish I had spent more time gathering information about the personality, achievements and thoughts of Richard John Santorum.’ Maybe I don’t have better things to do, but I do have other things to do.
This NYTimes Magazine profile of the hipster mayor of a Rust Belt small town is really interesting.
Here was a guy in biker boots bringing the Park Slope (Aspen, Marin, Portland, Santa Fe) ethos — organic produce, art installations, an outdoor bread oven — to the disenfranchised. “What was Braddock like before we took office? Braddock was a notorious community that was steeped in violence. But as of — knock on wood — today, we are now 27 months without a homicide.” The audience began to clap and didn’t stop for a long time.
The piece ends up revealing that the mayor doesn’t have any actual political power, and the only people he’s managed to attract to the city are big-city runaways who want to live as cheaply as possible, and have little interest in contributing to the betterment of the city. In sum, it’s an indictment of the idea that bringing fixie bikes, Barcelona chairs and PhDs to downtrodden areas is a recipe for upward mobility.
James Smith, a 32-year-old Braddock native, often hangs out in the dollar-store parking lot with a group of friends. A graduate of the local high school, Smith can find only temp work, like cleaning Heinz Stadium after Steelers games. The weekly farmers’ market in Braddock is O.K., Smith says, but even if he wanted to shop there, he couldn’t afford it. Jobs and public transportation to get to them remain in short supply.
Nothing that was happening in Braddock — not the green roof on the old furniture store, not the screen printing studio run by members of a socially-conscious arts collective, not beehives, not the Shepard Fairey art installation on a nearby wall, not the Levi’s ad campaign — has changed the most essential facts of his life: he is poor and without prospects.
When I was in Taipei, I randomly came across a copy of Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology The New Journalism. Since all the pieces were written in the ’60s, most of them are accounts of hippies and other lefty counterculture types.
I was really surprised at how moronic the hippies seem, reading about them 40 years later. The overall goals of racial and gender integration, breaking oppressive social mores and letting your hair touch your collar and beyond all sound great from far away, but not every hippie thought deeply about these ideas and their implications.
One of the stories (the totally great ‘Charlie Simpson’s Apocalype’) follows some antiwar kids in the aftermath of one of their number killing four cops with a machine gun in the middle of a Missouri town square. The ‘longhairs’ refuse to condemn their compatriot, and offer lame defenses like ‘he’s fighting the system, man!’ It’s shocking to hear a bunch of pacifists (the good guys, dammit!) defend the murder of cops and citizens in cold blood, and about halfway through the article you realize these people are idiots.
I have to admit I had a somewhat similar reaction reading the Rust Belt mayor piece. I mean, what was this chick expecting, exactly?
Morrison grew up a few towns over and moved to Braddock from Brooklyn in 2008 after learning about its progressive mayor. Morrison, who is 33, was showing me the colossal bank building she bought almost three years ago for $125,000. At the time, Morrison wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it but figured it didn’t matter. She’d come to Braddock, and the spirit of the place would move her. Not long after that, the roof sprang a massive leak.
It’s sort of reassuring that our ideological fads are just as palsied as our parents’. I feel like they deliberately didn’t warn us, just so they could watch.
In the kind of news designed for talk-show monologues, a woman is suing the makers of Nutella for claiming that the chocolate-and-hazelnut goop is good for you.
There’s a tendency to look at these stories and have a kneejerk reaction against the woman filing the lawsuit. How the hell didn’t she know that Nutella is bad for you? Look at it! Taste it! Read the label! The comments on the article are almost exclusively of the ‘give me a break!’ variety.
But do we really want to live in a country where a product that is less nutritious than a milkshake can be marketed as a reasonable breakfast food for children? The government in this case failed to do its job of preventing a company from lying to its customers. This woman, and this lawsuit, are trying to fill that gap.
This is not an isolated incident. As Marion Nestle’s always pointing out at Food Politics, food companies are allowed to say all kinds of bonkers shit on their packaging. This cereal, for example, is at least one-third composed of marshmallows:
The fact that Nutella lied and that this woman is an idiot are not mutually exclusive. In cases where an ignorant individual is fighting against a dishonest corporation, though, I think our contempt should go first toward the one doing the lying, rather than the one who believed what they were told.
In the wake of the Arizona shooting, Stephen Budiansky makes the analogy between guns and cars:
We have made a reasonable social decision, I think, that the benefits of the automobile outweigh its harm; yet that has not prevented us from honestly acknowledging its harm and the perfectly plain fact that how roads and cars are designed and regulated have an enormous impact on death and injury, completely apart from human volition. (Per capita auto-related fatalities are today half what they were in 1950; deaths per vehicle-mile have dropped sixfold, almost entirely through technological modifications.)
Yet only when it comes to guns do people attempt, usually furiously, to deny that anything but individual responsibilitymatters, as I mentioned the other day. If we are ever to have a real discussion on this topic, we need to begin with the simple admission that guns — like drugs, medicines, cars, power tools, ski helmets, and every other piece of technology in the universe — can be built and employed in ways that are inherently safer or ways that are less safe.
The real difference between gun control and auto safety, it seems to me, is that one is politicized and one is not. You can discuss auto safety in detail because you don’t have to spend your time debating the broader principles of how far the ‘freedom to drive’ extends. Changes in policy are not seen as an assault on fundamental values or a slippery slope toward governmental tyranny (if you’re a gun-nut) or indiscriminate violence (if you’re a pacifism-nut).
If gun control wasn’t politicized to the degree that it is, it could be discussed and regulated at the detail rather than the principle level, with the full participation of gun owners, gun manufacturers and gun opponents. If you accept good faith on all sides, of course no one wants guns to be unnecessarily abundant or unsafe. If the NRA wasn’t a de facto political organization, I’m sure they would have great insight into the factors that increase and exacerbate gun violence, and how to rally gun owners behind preventing them.
A number of other issues suffer from the same politicization-imposed mass blindness, immigration being the most prominent. The details of immigration policies, including their actual economic and social impacts, can’t be discussed honestly or in detail because they’ve become signifiers for a larger debate. You want to relax immigration rules because you don’t care about falling domestic wages! You want to tighten immigration rules because you’re a racist!
But once you get into the details, of course no one is advocating for open borders. And of course there are impacts of immigration that need to be prevented and mitigated. But we’re so busy debating the principles we don’t share that we forget the details we do.