Monday, September 22
September 22, 2008
Barack Obama, John McCain and the Language of Race
By BRENT STAPLES
It was not that long ago that black people in the Deep South could be beaten or killed for seeking the right to vote, talking back to the wrong white man or failing to give way on the sidewalk. People of color who violated these and other proscriptions could be designated “uppity niggers” and subjected to acts of violence and intimidation that were meant to dissuade others from following their examples.
The term “uppity” was applied to affluent black people, who sometimes paid a horrific price for owning nicer homes, cars or more successful businesses than whites. Race-based wealth envy was a common trigger for burnings, lynchings and cataclysmic episodes of violence like the Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which a white mob nearly eradicated the prosperous black community of Greenwood.
Forms of eloquence and assertiveness that were viewed as laudable among whites were seen as positively mutinous when practiced by people of color. As such, black men and women who looked white people squarely in the eye — and argued with them about things that mattered — were declared a threat to the racial order and persecuted whenever possible.
This obsession with black subservience was based in nostalgia for slavery. No sane person would openly express such a sentiment today. But the discomfort with certain forms of black assertiveness is too deeply rooted in the national psyche — and the national language — to just disappear. It has been a persistent theme in the public discourse since Barack Obama became a plausible candidate for the presidency.
A blatant example surfaced earlier this month, when a Georgia Republican, Representative Lynn Westmoreland, described the Obamas as “uppity” in response to a reporter’s question. Mr. Westmoreland, who actually stood by the term when given a chance to retreat, later tried to excuse himself by saying that the dictionary definition carried no racial meaning. That seems implausible. Mr. Westmoreland is from the South, where the vernacular meaning of the word has always been clear.
The Jim Crow South institutionalized racial paternalism in its newspapers, which typically denied black adults the courtesy titles of Mr. and Mrs. — and reduced them to children by calling them by first names only. Representative Geoff Davis, Republican of Kentucky, succumbed to the old language earlier this year when describing what he viewed as Mr. Obama’s lack of preparedness to handle nuclear policy. “That boy’s finger does not need to be on the button,” he said.
In the Old South, black men and women who were competent, confident speakers on matters of importance were termed “disrespectful,” the implication being that all good Negroes bowed, scraped, grinned and deferred to their white betters.
In what is probably a harbinger of things to come, the McCain campaign has already run a commercial that carries a similar intimation, accusing Mr. Obama of being “disrespectful” to Sarah Palin. The argument is muted, but its racial antecedents are very clear.
The throwback references that have surfaced in the campaign suggest that Republicans are fighting on racial grounds, even when express references to race are not evident. In a replay of elections past, the G.O.P. will try to leverage racial ghosts and fears without getting its hands visibly dirty. The Democrats try to parry in customary ways.
Mr. Obama seems to understand that he is always an utterance away from a statement — or a phrase — that could transform him in a campaign ad from the affable, rational and racially ambiguous candidate into the archetypical angry black man who scares off the white vote. His caution is evident from the way he sifts and searches the language as he speaks, stepping around words that might push him into the danger zone.
These maneuvers are often painful to watch. The troubling part is that they are necessary.
Sunday, September 7
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
On Wednesday, The New York Times on the Web flashed a headline that caught my eye: “U.S. to Unveil $1 Billion Aid Package to Repair Georgia.” Wow, I thought. That’s great: $1 billion to fix Georgia’s roads and schools. But as I read on, I quickly realized that I had the wrong Georgia.
We’re going to spend $1 billion to fix the Georgia between Russia and Turkey, not the one between South Carolina and Florida.
Sorry, but the thought of us spending $1 billion to repair a country whose president, though a democrat, recklessly provoked a war with a brutish Russia, which was itching to bash its neighbor, makes no sense to me. Yes, we should diplomatically squeeze Russia until it withdraws its troops; no one should be invading neighbors.
But where are our priorities? How many wars can we fight at once without finishing even one? Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Georgia. Which is the priority? Americans are struggling to meet their mortgages, and we’re sending $1 billion to a country whose president behaved irresponsibly, just to poke Vladimir Putin in the eye. Couldn’t we poke Putin with $100 million? And shouldn’t we be fostering a dialogue with Georgia and with Putin? Otherwise, where is this going? A new cold war? Over what?
And that brings me to our election.
What I found missing in both conventions was a sense of priorities. Both Barack Obama and John McCain offered a list of good things they plan to do as president, but, since you can’t do everything, where’s the focus going to be?
That focus needs to be on strengthening our capacity for innovation — our most important competitive advantage. If we can’t remain the most innovative country in the world, we are not going to have $1 billion to toss at either the country Georgia or the state of Georgia.
While we still have enormous innovative energy bubbling up from the American people, it is not being supported and nurtured as needed in today’s supercompetitive world. Right now, we feel like a country in a very slow decline — in infrastructure, basic research and education — just slow enough to lull us into thinking that we have all the time and money to play around in Tbilisi, Georgia, more than Atlanta, Georgia.
As Chuck Vest, the former president of M.I.T., said to me: “Both candidates have spoken a lot about ‘change,’ but in most areas of need, innovation is the only mechanism that can actually change things in substantive ways. Innovation is where creative thinking and practical know-how meet to do new things in new ways, and old things in new ways.
“The irony of ignoring innovation as a theme for our times is that the U.S. is still the most innovative nation on the planet,” Vest added. “But we can only maintain that lead if we invest in the people, the research that enable it and produce a policy environment in which it can thrive rather than being squelched. Our strong science and technology base built by past investments, our free market economy built on a base of democracy and a diverse population are unmatched to date; but we are taking it for granted.”
A developed country’s competitiveness now comes primarily from its capacity to innovate — the ability to create the new products and services that people want, adds Curtis Carlson, chief executive of SRI International, a Silicon Valley research company. As such, “innovation is now the only path to growth, prosperity, environmental sustainability and national security for America. But it is also an incredibly competitive world. Many information industries require that products be improved by 100 percent every 12 to 36 months, just for the company to stay in business.”
Our competitiveness, though, he added, is based on having a broadly educated work force, superb research universities, innovation-supportive taxes, immigration and regulatory policies, a productive physical and virtual infrastructure, and a culture that embraces hard work and the creation of new opportunities.
“America is still the best place for innovation,” said Carlson. However, we are falling behind in K-12 education, infrastructure and in tax, regulatory and immigration policies that no longer welcome the world’s most talented minds. “These issues must be at the top of the national agenda because they determine our ability to provide health care, clean energy and economic opportunity for our citizens.”
(For a good plan, read the new “Closing the Innovation Gap” by the technologist Judy Estrin.)
Alas, though, the Republicans just had a convention where abortion got vastly more attention than innovation, calls to buttress Tbilisi, Georgia, swamped any for Atlanta, Georgia, and “drill, baby, drill” was chanted instead of “innovate, baby, innovate.”
If we were serious about weakening both Putin and Putinism, we would be investing $1 billion in Georgia Tech to invent alternatives to oil — the high price of which is the only reason the Kremlin is strong enough today to bully its neighbors and its own people.
I LIVE IN WASHINGTON, in a neighborhood that is home to lawyers, political consultants, television personalities and the chief executive of the TIAA-CREF pension fund. Not exactly an abode of the superrich, but the kind of neighborhood where almost nobody does her own yardwork or vacuums his own floor. Children’s birthday parties feature rented moon bounces or hired magicians. The local grocery stores offer elegant precooked dinners of salmon, duck and artichoke ravioli.
Four miles to the southeast there stretches a different Washington. More than one-third of the people live in poverty. Close to half the young children are overweight. Fewer than half the adults work. The rate of violent crime is more than 10 times that of the leafy streets of my neighborhood.
Measured by money income, Washington qualifies as one the most unequal cities in the United States. Yet these two very different halves of a single city do share at least one thing. They vote the same way: Democratic. And in this, we are not alone. As a general rule, the more unequal a place is, the more Democratic; the more equal, the more Republican. The gap between rich and poor in Washington is nearly twice as great as in strongly Republican Charlotte, N.C.; and more than twice as great as in Republican-leaning Phoenix, Fort Worth, Indianapolis and Anaheim.
My fellow conservatives and Republicans have tended not to worry very much about the widening of income inequalities. As long as there exists equality of opportunity — as long as everybody’s income is rising — who cares if some people get rich faster than others? Societies that try too hard to enforce equality deny important freedoms and inhibit wealth-creating enterprise. Individuals who worry overmuch about inequality can succumb to life-distorting envy and resentment.
All true! But something else is true, too: As America becomes more unequal, it also becomes less Republican. The trends we have dismissed are ending by devouring us.
THE TREND TO INEQUALITY is not new, and it is not confined to the United States. It has manifested itself just about everywhere in the developed world since the late 1970s, and for the same two reasons.
The first reason is the revolution in family life. Not so long ago, most households were home to two adults, one who worked and one who did not. Today fewer than half of America’s households are headed by married couples, and married women usually work. So America and other advanced countries have become increasingly divided between families earning two incomes and those getting by on one at most.
The family revolution coincided with another: a great shift from a national to a planetary division of labor. Inequality within nations is rising in large part because inequality is declining among nations. A generation ago, even a poor American was still better off than most people in China. Today the lifestyles of middle-class Chinese increasingly approximate those of middle-class Americans, while the lifestyles of upper and lower America increasingly diverge. Less-skilled Americans now face hundreds of millions of new wage competitors, while highly skilled Americans can sell their services in a worldwide market.
As long as all Americans were becoming better off, few cared that some Americans were becoming better off than others. But since 2000, something has changed. Incomes at the middle have ceased to rise. The mood of the country has soured. Conservatives who disregard the mood of unease may forfeit their power to defend the more open and productive American economy they did so much to build.
STEP ACROSS THE COUNTY line between Washington and suburban Fairfax County, Va., and you see the forfeiting process at work.
A third of a century ago, Fairfax had only recently evolved from farm country to bedroom community. Some rich families clustered in the village of McLean, where Robert Kennedy had his Hickory Hill estate. Otherwise, Fairfax housed middle-class families looking for inexpensive housing and excellent schools. These middle-class families voted Republican, leading the Old Dominion’s political transition away from its reactionary segregationist past to a modern business-oriented conservatism.
Under its Republican leadership, Fairfax boomed. Giant shopping malls and futuristic office blocks beanstalked over tract homes. The population surged past the one-million mark. Today Fairfax boasts an economy bigger than Vietnam’s. Fairfax households earn among the highest average incomes of any American county, more than $100,000, but that high average conceals wide variations between the highly educated and new arrivals speaking in 40 different tongues. With wealth comes diversity — and what is inequality but diversity in monetary form?
The county’s new wealth and diversity have created important new social problems. The schools are stressed. The roads are choked. Land use is more contentious. As Fairfax has evolved toward greater inequality, it has steadily shifted into the Democratic column. The Democrats Tim Kaine and Jim Webb won almost 60 percent of Fairfax’s votes in, respectively, the 2005 governor’s race and the 2006 U.S. Senate election. Democrats dominate Fairfax’s local government. In 2004, Fairfax voted for John Kerry over George Bush, 53 percent to 45 — the first Democratic presidential victory in the county since the Johnson landslide of 1964. Don’t imagine that this is a case of the shanties voting against the mansions. Kerry won some of his handsomest majorities in the fanciest of Fairfax’s 99 precincts.
In fact, Fairfax’s Democratic preference is typical of upper America. In 2000, Al Gore beat George Bush, 56-39, among the 4 percent of voters who identified themselves as “upper class.” America’s wealthiest ZIP codes are a roll call of Democratic strongholds: Sagaponack, N.Y.; Aspen, Colo.; Marin County, Calif.; the near North Side of Chicago; Beacon Hill in Boston. (Palm Beach, at least, remains securely Republican.) There is a long list of reasons for this anti-Republican tilt among the affluent: social issues, the environment, an ever more internationalist elite’s distaste for the Republican Party’s assertive nationalism. Maybe the most important reason, however, can be reduced to the two words: “Robert Rubin.” By returning to the center on economic matters in the 1990s, the Democrats emancipated higher-income and socially moderate voters to vote with their values rather than with their pocketbooks.
Republicans still claim the support of the upper-middle, but by dwindling margins. Democrats increased their share of the vote among those earning more than $100,000 by 9 percentage points between 1994 and 1998. Between 1998 and 2006, Democrats increased their share of this upper-middle-class vote by 3 more points.
Till now, conservative strength in the vast American middle more than compensated for any losses at the top and for the immigration-driven expansion of the bottom. Indeed, the Democratic tilt of the very richest Americans could be exploited as a powerful conservative recruiting tool. Resentment of “elites” is a major theme of conservative talk radio. “Who’s looking out for you?” demands Bill O’Reilly, as he excoriates “media elites” who vacation in the Hamptons, Aspen and the Virginia horse country.
But O’Reilly’s question has recoiled upon its onetime beneficiaries. Who is looking out for the Fox-viewing public? For most of the Bush administration, G.D.P. grew strongly, the stock market boomed, new jobs were created. But the ordinary person experienced little benefit. The median household income, which rose in the ’90s, had only just caught up to its 2000 level when the expansion ended in 2007.
You’ll hear a lot of partisan roostering from Democrats about the superiority of the Clinton over the Bush economy. But the difference owes little to the policies of either president. Between 2001 and 2008, the amount that employers paid for labor rose impressively, at least 25 percent. Yet almost all of that money was absorbed by the costs of health insurance, which doubled over the Bush years. In the 1990s, thanks to the advent of H.M.O.’s, health-care costs rose more slowly, so more of the money paid by employers could flow to employees.
Out of their flat-lining incomes, middle-class Americans have had to pay more for food, fuel, tuition and out-of-pocket health-care costs. In the past few months, they have suffered sharp tumbles in the value of their most important asset, their homes. Their mood has turned bleak. Almost 70 percent disapprove of the policies of George W. Bush. At intervals over the past two decades, Gallup has asked Americans whether the United States is a society divided into “haves” and “have-nots.” Back in 1988, more than 70 percent of Americans rejected this description. This year, the country split evenly: 49-49. When asked, “Are you better off than you were five years ago?” only 41 percent of middle-class Americans say yes, the worst result since pollsters started asking the question half a century ago.
It’s this pervasive economic unease that is capsizing the Republican Party, even as Americans have arrived in recent months at a somewhat more optimistic assessment of the progress of the Iraq war.
TO WITNESS THE SLOW-MOTION withering of the G.O.P., drive a little farther west into the Washington metropolitan area, to Prince William County. Here is exurban America in all its fresh paint: vast tracts of inexpensive homes, schools built to the latest design, roads still black in their virgin asphalt.
Whether in Virginia, Missouri or Illinois, there are no more egalitarian and no more Republican places in the United States than these exurbs. The rich shun them, and the poor can find no easy foothold, but the middle-income, middle-educated, white married parents who form the backbone of the G.O.P. are drawn to them as if to a refuge. It’s a modest-enough utopia, and comfortable equality has had its usual pro-Republican consequences: Republicans hold six of the eight seats on Prince William County’s Board of Supervisors and all three of the federal Congressional seats that include parts of the county.
Yet in the past couple of cycles, the once-tight Republican hold upon the county has loosened. Prince William voted (very narrowly) for Gov. Tim Kaine in 2005 and then (slightly less narrowly) for Senator Jim Webb in 2006. A big vote for the 2008 Democratic senatorial candidate Mark Warner seems almost certain, and a victory for Barack Obama seems very possible.
To echo an old Republican question: Who lost Prince William County?
Republican economic management since 2001 has not yielded many benefits for middle-income America. Adjusting for inflation, the incomes of college graduates actually dropped by 5 percent between 2000 and 2004 — and 44 percent of the people of Prince William are college graduates. Prince William is also ground zero for the middle-class revolt against the Bush administration’s easy immigration policies. An estimated 10 million migrants have entered the United States since 2000, at least half of them illegally, and few places in the United States have reacted more angrily than Prince William County. Last year, the Prince William Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to require the local police to check the immigration status of all arrested persons.
It’s widely understood that abundant low-skilled immigration hurts lower America by reducing wages. As the National Research Council noted in its comprehensive 1997 report: “If the wage of domestic unskilled workers did not fall, no domestic worker (unskilled or skilled) would gain or lose, and there would be no net domestic gain from immigration.” In other words, immigration is good for America as a whole only because — and only to the extent that — it is bad for the poorest Americans. Conversely, low-skilled immigration enriches upper America, lowering the price of personal services like landscaping and restaurant meals. And by holding down wages, immigration makes the business investments of upper America more profitable.
Middle-class Americans surely share in the cost-lowering benefits of immigration. But the middle class also pays the higher local tax bills that can result from immigration. Immigrants do not qualify for many federal benefits, but they do use the roads, schools, hospitals and prisons supported by state and local property taxes — the taxes that fall most disproportionately on the middle class.
It is also clear that immigration thickens the ranks of the American poor. The poverty rate for post-1970 immigrants and their native-born children is almost 50 percent higher than for the native born. (In 1970, established immigrants were much less likely to be poor than the native born.) No mystery why this should be so: one-third of adult new immigrants have not finished high school. And there is reason to fear that this poverty will become entrenched: barely half of Latino students complete high school on time; 48 percent of births to Latino women occur outside marriage.
IN SHORT, the trend to inequality is real, it is large and it is transforming American society and the American electoral map. Yet the conservative response to this trend verges somewhere between the obsolete and the irrelevant.
Conservatives need to stop denying reality. The stagnation of the incomes of middle-class Americans is a fact. And only by acknowledging facts can we respond effectively to the genuine difficulties of voters in the middle. We keep offering them cuts in their federal personal income taxes — even though two-thirds of Americans pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes, and even though a majority of Americans now describe their federal income tax burden as reasonable.
What the middle class needs most is not lower income taxes but a slowdown in the soaring inflation of health-care costs. If health-insurance costs had risen 50 percent rather than 100 percent over the Bush years, middle-income voters would have enjoyed a pay raise instead of enduring wage stagnation. John McCain’s health plan, which emphasizes tax changes to encourage employees to buy their own insurance rather than rely on employers, is a start — but only the very beginning of a start. Some Republicans have brought great energy to this problem. In the Senate, Robert Bennett of Utah has written a bill with the Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden that would require employers to “cash out” employer-provided health care — and then midwife a national insurance marketplace in which employees would join plans that offered more price control and price transparency. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts put an end to the tax disadvantage that hammers consumers who buy health care directly rather than through their employers. Rudy Giuliani proposed a federal law to enable low-cost insurers in states like Kentucky to sell their products across state lines in high-cost states like New Jersey. But it remains unfortunately true that the Republican Party as a whole regards health care as “not our issue” — and certainly less exciting than another round of tax reductions.
Unlike liberals, conservatives are not bothered by the accumulation of wealth as such. We should be more troubled that the poor remain so poor. With all due respect to the needs of employers, Republicans need to recognize that the large-scale import of unskilled labor is part of the problem.
Meanwhile, the argument over same-sex marriage has become worse than a distraction from the challenge of developing policies to ensure that as many children as possible grow up with both a father and a mother in the home. Over the past 30 years, governments have effectively worked to change attitudes about smoking, seat-belt use and teenage pregnancy. Changing attitudes about unmarried childbirth may prove more difficult. Yet it is a fact that the only way to escape poverty is to work consistently — and that even after welfare reform, low-skilled single parents work less consistently than the main breadwinner in a low-skilled dual-parent household.
At the same time, conservatives need to ask ourselves some hard questions about the trend toward the Democrats among America’s affluent and well educated. Leaving aside the District of Columbia, 7 of America’s 10 best-educated states are strongly “blue” in national politics, and the others (Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia) have been trending blue. Of the 10 least-educated, only one (Nevada) is not reliably Republican. And so we arrive at a weird situation in which the party that identifies itself with markets, with business and with technology cannot win the votes of those who have prospered most from markets, from business and from technology. Republicans have been badly hurt in upper America by the collapse of their onetime reputation for integrity and competence. Upper Americans live in a world in which things work. The packages arrive overnight. The car doors clink seamlessly shut. The prevailing Republican view — “of course government always fails, what do you expect it to do?” — is not what this slice of America expects to hear from the people asking to be entrusted with the government.
It is probable that the trend to inequality will grow even stronger in the years ahead, if new genetic techniques offer those with sufficient resources the possibility of enhancing the intelligence, health, beauty and strength of children in the womb. How should conservatives respond to such new technologies? The anti-abortion instincts of many conservatives naturally incline them to look at such techniques with suspicion — and indeed it is certainly easy to imagine how they might be abused. Yet in an important address delivered as long ago as 1983, Pope John Paul II argued that genetic enhancement was permissible — indeed, laudable — even from a Catholic point of view, as long as it met certain basic moral rules. Among those rules: that these therapies be available to all. Ensuring equality of care may become inseparable from ensuring equality of opportunity.
Equality in itself never can be or should be a conservative goal. But inequality taken to extremes can overwhelm conservative ideals of self-reliance, limited government and national unity. It can delegitimize commerce and business and invite destructive protectionism and overregulation. Inequality, in short, is a conservative issue too. We must develop a positive agenda that integrates the right kind of egalitarianism with our conservative principles of liberty. If we neglect this task and this opportunity, we won’t lose just the northern Virginia suburbs. We will lose America.
David Frum, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.”
Friday, September 5
It turns out there was something more nauseating than the nomination of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate this past week. It was the tone of the acclaim that followed her acceptance speech.
“Drill, baby, drill,” clapped John Dickerson, marveling at Palin’s ability to speak and smile at the same time as an indication of her unexpected depths and unsuspected strengths. “It was clear Palin was having fun, and it’s hard to have fun if you’re scared or a lightweight,” he wrote in Slate.
The Politico praised her charm and polish as antidotes to her lack of foreign policy experience: “Palin’s poised and flawless performance evoked roars of applause from delegates who earlier this week might have worried that the surprise pick and newcomer to the national stage may not be up to the job.”
“She had a great night. I thought she had a very skillfully written, and very skillfully delivered speech,” Joe Biden said, shades of “articulate and bright and clean” threatening a reappearance. (For a full roundup of these comments go here.)
Thus began the official public launch of our country’s now most-prominent female politician. The condescension – damning with faint praise – was reminiscent of the more overt misogyny of Samuel Johnson.
“A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs,” the wit once observed. “It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.”
Palin sounded, at times, like she was speaking a foreign language as she gave voice to the beautifully crafted words that had been prepared for her on Wednesday night.
But that wasn’t held against her. Thanks to the level of general esteem that greeted her ascent to the podium, it seems we’ve all got to celebrate the fact that America’s Hottest Governor (Princess of the Fur Rendezvous 1983, Miss Wasilla 1984) could speak at all.
Could there be a more thoroughgoing humiliation for America’s women?
You are not, I think, supposed now to say this. Just as, I am sure, you are certainly not supposed to feel that having Sarah Palin put forth as the Republicans’ first female vice presidential candidate is just about as respectful a gesture toward women as was John McCain’s suggestion, last month, that his wife participate in a topless beauty contest.
Such thoughts, we are told, are sexist. And elitist. After all, via Palin, we now hear without cease, the People are speaking. The “real” “authentic,” small-town “Everyday People,” of Hockey Moms and Blue Collar Dads whom even Rudolph Giuliani now invokes as an antidote to the cosmopolite Obamas and their backers in the liberal media. (Remind me please, once again, what was the name of the small town where Rudy grew up?)
Why does this woman – who to some of us seems as fake as they can come, with her delicate infant son hauled out night after night under the klieg lights and her pregnant teenage daughter shamelessly instrumentalized for political purposes — deserve, to a unique extent among political women, to rank as so “real”?
Because the Republicans, very clearly, believe that real people are idiots. This disdain for their smarts shows up in the whole way they’ve cast this race now, turning a contest over economic and foreign policy into a culture war of the Real vs. the Elites. It’s a smoke and mirrors game aimed at diverting attention from the fact that the party’s tax policies have helped create an elite that’s more distant from “the people” than ever before. And from the fact that the party’s dogged allegiance to up-by-your-bootstraps individualism — an individualism exemplified by Palin, the frontierswoman who somehow has managed to “balance” five children and her political career with no need for support — is leading to a culture-wide crack-up.
Real people, the kind of people who will like and identify with Palin, they clearly believe, are smart, but not too smart, and don’t talk too well, dropping their “g”s, for example, and putting tough concepts like “vice president” in quotation marks.
“As for that ‘V.P.’ talk all the time … I tell ya, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me, What is it exactly that the ‘VP’ does every day?” Palin asked host Lawrence Kudlow on CNBC sometime before her nomination. “I’m used to bein’ very productive and workin’ real hard in an administration and we want to make sure that that ‘V.P.’ slot would be a fruitful type of position.”
And, I think, they find her acceptably “real,” because Palin’s not intimidating, and makes it clear that she’s subordinate to a great man.
That’s the worst thing a woman can be in this world, isn’t it? Intimidating, which appears to be synonymous with competent. It’s the kiss of death, personally and politically.
But shouldn’t a woman who is prepared to be commander in chief be intimidating? Because of the intelligence, experience, talent and drive that got her there? If she isn’t, at least on some level, off-putting, if her presence inspires national commentary on breast-pumping and babysitting rather than health care reform and social security, then something is seriously wrong. If she doesn’t elicit at least some degree of awe, then something is missing.
One of the worst poisons of the American political climate right now, the thing that time and again in recent years has led us to disaster, is the need people feel for leaders they can “relate” to. This need isn’t limited to women; it brought us after all, two terms of George W. Bush. And it isn’t new; Americans have always needed to feel that their leaders were, on some level, people like them.
But in the past, it was possible to fill that need through empathetic connection. Few Depression-era voters could “relate” to Franklin Roosevelt’s patrician background, notes historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “It was his ability to connect to them that made them feel they could connect to him,” she told me in a phone interview.
The age of television, Goodwin believes, has made the demand for connection more immediate and intense. But never before George W. Bush did it quite reach the beer-drinking level of familiarity. “Now it’s all about being able to see your life story in the candidate, rather than the candidate, with empathy, being able to relate to you.”
There’s a fine line between likability and demagoguery. Both thrive upon manipulation and least-common-denominator politics. These days, I fear, this need for direct mirroring — and thus this susceptibility to all sorts of low-level tripe — is particularly acute among women, who are perhaps reaching historic lows in their comfort levels with themselves and their choices.
Just look at how quickly the reaction to Palin devolved into what The Times this week called the “Mommy Wars: Special Campaign Edition.” Much of the talk about Palin (like the emoting about Hillary Clinton before her) ultimately came down to this: is she like me or not like me? If she’s not like me, can I like her? And what kind of child care does she have?
“This election is not about issues,” Rick Davis, John McCain’s campaign manager said this week. “This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.” That’s a scary thought. For the takeaway is so often base, a reflection more of people’s fears and insecurities than of our hopes and dreams.
We’re not likely to get a worthy female president anytime soon.
By Hanna Rosin
Posted Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008, at 1:15 PM ET
When I first heard about Sarah Palin's, uh, domestic irregularities, I expected social conservatives to react with a kind of qualified, patronizing support—we are all sinners, there but for the grace of God, something like that. Instead, they are embracing her with unbridled admiration. The Family Research Council praised her for "choosing life in the midst of a difficult situation." Cathie Adams of the Eagle Forum, a conservative women's group, called her "the kind of woman I've been looking for all along." The two difficult pregnancies—Palin's with a Down syndrome baby and now her unmarried teenage daughter's—is just proof that "they're doing everything right," gushes Adams. Even the stern religious right godfather James Dobson doted: "A lot of people were praying, and I believe Sarah Palin is God's answer."
Some of this reaction can be explained just by listing the religious right's priorities in order. In the pantheon of family values, avoiding abortion sits at the top, above marriage or staying home to raise your children. Conservatives have spent the last 30 years seeding the country with crisis pregnancy centers dedicated to convincing young women not to abort their babies, regardless of their personal situations. The fact that Britney Spears' younger sister made the same decision to keep her pregnancy at 17 and that Juno was a hit movie only adds an unexpected glamour to the choice.
But this explanation takes you only so far. What's missing from the conservative reaction is still remarkable. Just 15 years ago, a different Republican vice president was ripping into the creators of Murphy Brown for flaunting a working woman who chose to become a single mother. This time around, there's no stigma, no shame, no sin attached to what Dan Quayle would once have mockingly called Bristol Palin's "lifestyle" choices. In fact, so cavalier are conservatives about Sarah Palin's wreck of a home life that they make the rest of us look stuffy and slow-witted by comparison. "I think a hard-working, well-organized C.E.O. type can handle it very well," said Phyllis Schlafly, of the Eagle Forum.
Suddenly it's the Obamas, with their oh-so-perfect marriage and their Dick Van Dyke in the evenings and their two boringly innocent young girls, who seem like the fuddy-duddies.
What happened? How did the culture war get flipped on its head? Of course, conservatives are partly lining up behind Palin just so they can stay in the game. But it's not all crass opportunism. To any religious conservative, Palin, with all her contradictions and hypocrisies, is a very familiar type in this peculiar moment in evangelical history.
Starting in the 1970s, leaders such as Dobson began rewriting the rules of the traditional Christian marriage to make it more palatable in an age of feminism. Domestic work was elevated to a special calling; Christian women were told their child-rearing decisions had national implications, as they were raising a generation of righteous soldiers. Mom took on a political tinge. Home-schooling mothers dragged their large broods to volunteer in campaigns. Like with many Christian moms of her generation, Palin's résumé starts with the PTA.
In the Gingrich era, a few of the Christian mom-types, including Palin, broke out and started their own political careers. Andrea Seastrand was an elementary-school teacher elected to Congress in California in those years. Linda Smith, of Washington state, kept a blown-up picture of her granddaughters in her congressional office. I remember interviewing her one day while her husband, Vern, sat in a hard chair in a corner and gave words to the obvious contradiction: "One of the reasons we got into politics, we wanted to preserve some of the traditional lifestyle we'd grown up with," Vern told me. "It's funny, with Linda away, we end up sacrificing some of that traditional family life to pass some of that heritage to our children."
Conservative women became a powerful tool for the party, and everyone was willing to overlook the cost to their personal lives. If a conservative Christian mother chose to pursue a full-time career in, say, landscape gardening or the law, she was abandoning her family. But if she chose public service, she was furthering the godly cause. No one discussed the sticky domestic details: Did she have a (gasp!) nanny? Did her husband really rule the roost anymore? Who said prayers with the kids every night? As long as she was seen now and again with her children, she could get away with any amount of power.
The larger Palin clan, meanwhile, reflects a different trend among evangelicals. The stereotype we associate with evangelicals—intact marriage, wife at home, teenage daughter saves it for marriage—actually applies only to the small minority who attend church weekly.
The rest of the 30 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelical have started to slip in their morals and now actually poll worse than the rest of America on traditional measures of upstanding behavior—they are just as likely to live together and have kids out of wedlock, and their teenage daughters lose their virginities at an earlier age than the girls of most Americans. University of Virginia historian W. Bradford Wilcox blames this partly on class differences and particularly on a lingering "redneck" Appalachian strain in evangelical culture. (I'm a "fucking redneck," wrote Levi, the father of Bristol's baby, on his MySpace page, before it was taken down.)
In that way, Bristol's pregnancy can be spun as just another one of the Palins' impeccable working-class credentials—salmon fisherman, union member, DWI, hockey mom, soldier son, pregnant teenage daughter.
The most remarkable differences between the large mass of evangelicals and the rest of Americans are in divorce statistics. Since the '70s, evangelicals and the coastal elites have effectively switched places. Evangelicals are now far more likely to get divorced, whereas couples with four years of college education have cut their divorce rates in half. An intact happy marriage that produces well-behaved children, it turns out, is becoming a luxury of the elites—bad news for the Obamas.
Hanna Rosin is the author of God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission To Save the Nation and a contributing editor at the Atlantic. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Wednesday, August 27
By Daniel Gross
Barack Obama's tax plan, laid out by advisers Austan Goolsbee and Jason Furman in the Wall Street Journal in mid-August, promises to improve the nation's fiscal standing by scaling back tax cuts for people making more than $250,000. Since then, the business pundit class has been griping that people who make $250,000 a year aren't really wealthy, especially if they live in and around New York; San Francisco; or Washington, D.C. (Check out this CNBC debate, for example.) On Wednesday afternoon, CNBC's unscientific online poll found that (surprise!) only 35 percent of respondents believed an income of $250,000 qualified a household for elite rich status.
I have two pieces of bad news for the over-$250,000 crowd. First, the reversal of some of the temporary Bush tax cuts is probably inevitable, given the Republican fiscal clown show of the past eight years. Second, I regret to inform you that you are indeed rich.
To a large degree, feeling rich or poor is a state of mind, as John McCain recently noted. "Some people are wealthy and rich in their lives and their children and their ability to educate them. Others are poor if they're billionaires." But income data can surely tell us something. And they tell us that $250,000 puts you in pretty fancy company. The Census Bureau earlier this week reported that the median household income was $50,223 in 2007—up slightly from the last year but still below the 1999 peak. So a household that earned $250,000 made five times the median. In fact, as this chart shows, only 2.245 million U.S. households, the top 1.9 percent, had income greater than $250,000 in 2007. (About 20 percent of households make more than $100,000.)
In dealing with aggregate nationwide numbers, we should of course take account of the significant differences in the cost of living from state to state. It's obvious that $250,000 doesn't go as far in Santa Barbara, Calif., or Manhattan—or in most places where CNBC viewers, employees, and guests live—as it does in Paducah, Ky. As census data show, state median incomes vary from $65,933 in New Jersey to $35,971 in Mississippi. But even in wealthy states, $250,000 ain't bad—it's nearly four times the median income in wealthy states like Maryland and Connecticut. And even if you look at the wealthiest metropolitan areas—Washington, D.C. ($83,200); San Francisco ($73,851); Boston ($68,142); and New York ($61,554)—$250,000 a year dwarfs the median income.
But people in Georgetown mansions don't necessarily compare themselves to fellow Washingtonians in Anacostia. Relative income really works at the neighborhood level. As we know from the work of Cornell economist Robert Frank, people rate their well-being not so much based on how much they make and consume, but on how much they make and consume compared to their neighbors. After all, you have to compete with them for status and for important positional goods such as housing and schools. And here the CNBC crowd has a point. It is certainly true that in a few ZIP codes and neighborhoods, brandishing a $250,000 salary is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. There is a significant number of rich people—including a healthy contingent of filthy rich people—in places like New York City and San Francisco. If you want to live in a neighborhood where starter homes cost $1 million, and you want to send your kids to private schools, and you want to go on great vacations and have a beach house, then $250,000 likely won't cut it. For people in this situation, the knowledge that they're doing better than 98 percent of their fellow Americans is little solace when the investment banker down the street has just pulled down a $2 million bonus.
But the number of places where $250,000 stretches you is small indeed—certain parts of Greenwich, Conn.; several neighborhoods in Manhattan; some of California's coast. Even in the most exclusive communities where the wealthy congregate, $250,000 is still pretty good coin. Consider this: CNNMoney recently ranked America's 25 wealthiest towns. In all of them, someone making $250,000 would have a difficult time buying his dream house. But in all of them, making $250,000 means you're doing better than most of your neighbors. Even in America's richest town, New Canaan, Conn., the median income is $231,138.
I await the tidal wave of e-mails and blog posts from self-made, hardworking, accomplished people who earn $250,000 but who don't feel financially secure and who don't consider themselves rich, especially compared to the venture capitalist next door. Having spent my entire adult life in and around Washington, Boston, and New York, I feel you. I'm eager to listen and empathize. Tell me all about how home prices in areas with good public schools are insanely expensive. Tell me about how many other seemingly undeserving people make so much more. Tell me about your proposals to devise an income tax system that accounts for geographically divergent costs of living (the Alternative Yuppie Tax?). Just don't tell me you're not rich.
Sunday, August 24
The Olympics may just be a sporting event, but it is hard not to read larger messages into the results, especially when you see how China and America have dominated the medals tally. Both countries can — and will — look at their Olympic successes as reaffirmations of their distinctly different political systems. But what strikes me is how much they could each learn from the other. This, as they say, is a teaching moment.
Call it: One Olympics — two systems.
How so? You can’t look at the U.S. Olympic team and not see the strength that comes from diversity, and you can’t look at the Chinese team and not see the strength that comes from intense focus and concentrated power.
Let’s start with us. Walking through the Olympic Village the other day, here’s what struck me most: the Russian team all looks Russian; the African team all looks African; the Chinese team all looks Chinese; and the American team looks like all of them.
This is especially true when you include the coaches. Liang Chow, the coach of the Iowa gymnast Shawn Johnson, was a popular co-caption of China’s national gymnastics team in the 1980s before he emigrated to West Des Moines. The U.S. women’s volleyball team was coached by a former Chinese player, Jenny Lang Ping, when it defeated China a few days ago. Lang, a national hero in China, led the Chinese team to a gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It would be like Michael Jordan coaching China’s basketball team to a win over America.
The Associated Press reports that there are 33 foreign-born players on the U.S. Olympic team, including four Chinese-born table tennis players, a kayaker from Britain, seven members of the track-and-field team — as well as Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan’s civil war, who was resettled in the U.S. by Catholic Charities, and Leo Manzano, the son of an illegal immigrant Mexican laborer. He moved to the U.S. when he was 4 but didn’t gain citizenship until 2004.
It is amazing that with our Noah’s Ark of an Olympic team doing so well “that at the same time you have this rising call in America to restrict immigration,” said Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. “Some people want to choke off the very thing that makes us strong and unique.”
China could learn something from our Olympic team as well: the power that comes from a strong society, woven together of many strands from the bottom up. For instance, it’s hard to drive around Beijing these days and not enjoy the thinned-out traffic and blue sky — which are largely the result of China ordering drivers off the roads and closing factories — and not wonder how these can be sustained after the Olympics. Many Chinese I have spoken to have asked: How can we keep this? Now that we have seen how blue the sky really can be, we don’t want to give it away.
The problem for China, though, is that environmentalism is a bottom-up movement in the rest of the world. While it requires a strong government to pass regulations from the top, it also can’t work without a strong, independent civil society acting as a watchdog, spotlighting polluters and suing businesses that do not comply. China can be green for the two weeks of the Olympics from the top down, but it can’t be green for the next 20 years without more bottom up.
That said, there are some things we could learn from China, namely the ability to focus on big, long-term, nation-building goals and see them through. A Chinese academic friend tells me that the success of the Olympics is already prompting some high officials to argue that only a strong, top-down, Communist Party-led China could have organized the stunning building projects around these Olympics and the focused performance of so many different Chinese athletes. For instance, the Chinese have no tradition of rowing teams, but at these Games, out of nowhere, Beijing fielded a women’s quadruple sculls crew that won China’s first Olympic gold medal in rowing.
The lesson for us is surely not that we need authoritarian government. The lesson is that we need to make our democracy work better. The American men’s basketball team did poorly in the last Olympics because it could not play as a team. So our stars were beaten by inferior players with better teamwork. Our basketball team learned its lesson.
Congress has gotten worse. Our democracy feels increasingly paralyzed because collaboration in Washington has become nearly impossible — whether because of money, gerrymandering, a 24-hour-news cycle or the permanent presidential campaign. And as a result, our ability to focus America’s incredible bottom-up energies — outside of sports — has diminished. You see it in our crumbling infrastructure and inability to shape a real energy program. China feels focused. We feel distracted.
So, yes, America and China should enjoy their medals — but we should each also reflect on how the other team got so many.
Saturday, August 23
Posted Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008, at 12:02 AM ET
What with the Bush legacy of reckless war and economic mismanagement, 2008 is a year that favors the generic Democratic candidate over the generic Republican one. Yet Barack Obama, with every natural and structural advantage in the presidential race, is running only neck-and-neck against John McCain, a sub-par Republican nominee with a list of liabilities longer than a Joe Biden monologue. Obama has built a crack political operation, raised record sums, and inspired millions with his eloquence and vision. McCain has struggled with a fractious campaign team, lacks clarity and discipline, and remains a stranger to charisma. Yet at the moment, the two of them appear to be tied. What gives?
If it makes you feel better, you can rationalize Obama's missing 10-point lead on the basis of Clintonite sulkiness, his slowness in responding to attacks, or the concern that Obama may be too handsome, brilliant, and cool to be elected. But let's be honest: If you break the numbers down, the reason Obama isn't ahead right now is that he trails badly among one group, older white voters. He does so for a simple reason: the color of his skin.
Much evidence points to racial prejudice as a factor that could be large enough to cost Obama the election. That warning is written all over last month's CBS/New York Times poll, which is worth examining in detail if you want a quick grasp of white America's curious sense of racial grievance. In the poll, 26 percent of whites say they have been victims of discrimination. Twenty-seven percent say too much has been made of the problems facing black people. Twenty-four percent say the country isn't ready to elect a black president. Five percent of white voters acknowledge that they, personally, would not vote for a black candidate.
Five percent surely understates the reality. In the Pennsylvania primary, one in six white voters told exit pollsters race was a factor in his or her decision. Seventy-five percent of those people voted for Clinton. You can do the math: 12 percent of the Pennsylvania primary electorate acknowledged that it didn't vote for Barack Obama in part because he is African-American. And that's what Democrats in a Northeastern(ish) state admit openly. The responses in Ohio and even New Jersey were dispiritingly similar.
Such prejudice usually comes coded in distortions about Obama and his background. To the willfully ignorant, he is a secret Muslim married to a black-power radical. Or—thank you, Geraldine Ferraro—he only got where he is because of the special treatment accorded those lucky enough to be born with African blood. Some Jews assume Obama is insufficiently supportive of Israel in the way they assume other black politicians to be. To some white voters (14 percent in the CBS/New York Times poll), Obama is someone who, as president, would favor blacks over whites. Or he is an "elitist" who cannot understand ordinary (read: white) people because he isn't one of them. Or he is charged with playing the race card, or of accusing his opponents of racism, when he has strenuously avoided doing anything of the sort. We're just not comfortable with, you know, a Hawaiian.
Then there's the overt stuff. In May, Pat Buchanan, who writes books about the European-Americans losing control of their country, ranted on MSNBC in defense of white West Virginians voting on the basis of racial solidarity. The No. 1 best-seller in America, Obama Nation by Jerome R. Corsi, Ph.D., leeringly notes that Obama's white mother always preferred that her "mate" be "a man of color." John McCain has yet to get around to denouncing this vile book.
Many have discoursed on what an Obama victory could mean for America. We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives. The rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America. But does it not follow that an Obama defeat would signify the opposite? If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race.
Choosing John McCain, in particular, would herald the construction of a bridge to the 20th century—and not necessarily the last part of it, either. McCain represents a Cold War style of nationalism that doesn't get the shift from geopolitics to geoeconomics, the centrality of soft power in a multipolar world, or the transformative nature of digital technology. This is a matter of attitude as much as age. A lot of 71-year-olds are still learning and evolving. But in 2008, being flummoxed by that newfangled doodad, the personal computer, seems like a deal-breaker. At this hinge moment in human history, McCain's approach to our gravest problems is hawkish denial. I like and respect the man, but the maverick has become an ostrich: He wants to deal with the global energy crisis by drilling and our debt crisis by cutting taxes, and he responds to security challenges from Georgia to Iran with Bush-like belligerence and pique.
You may or may not agree with Obama's policy prescriptions, but they are, by and large, serious attempts to deal with the biggest issues we face: a failing health care system, oil dependency, income stagnation, and climate change. To the rest of the world, a rejection of the promise he represents wouldn't just be an odd choice by the United States. It would be taken for what it would be: sign and symptom of a nation's historical decline.
Monday, August 18
Posted Monday, Aug. 18, 2008, at 12:00 PM ET
While it is almost certainly true that Moscow's action in the Ossetian and (for good measure) the Abkhazian enclave of Georgia has been, in a real sense, the revenge for the independence of Kosovo (on Feb. 14 Vladimir Putin said publicly that Western recognition of Kosovar independence would be met by intensified Russian support for irredentism in South Ossetia), it is extremely important to bear in mind that this observation does not permit us the moral sloth of allowing any equivalence between the two dramas.
Perhaps one could mention just some of the more salient differences?
Russia had never expressed any interest in Ossetian or Abkhazian micronationalisms, while Georgia was an integral part of the Soviet Union. It is thus impossible to avoid the suspicion that these small peoples are being used as "strategic minorities" to negate the independence of the larger Georgian republic and to warn all those with pro-Russian populations on their soil of what may, in turn, befall them. This is like nothing so much as Turkish imperialism in Cyprus and Thrace and Iraq, where local minorities can be turned on and off like a faucet according to the needs of the local superpower.
Kosovo, which was legally part of Yugoslavia but not of Serbia was never manipulated as part of the partition or intervention plan of another country—the United States, in fact, spent far too long on the pretense that the Yugoslav federation could be saved—and, for a lengthy period, pursued its majority-rule claims by passive resistance and other nonviolent means. NATO intervention occurred only when Serbian forces had resorted to mass deportation and full-dress ethnic "cleansing." Whatever may be said of Georgia's incautious policy toward secessionism within its own internationally recognized borders, it does not deserve comparison with the lawless and criminal behavior of the Slobodan Milosevic regime. And in any case, it is unwise for Moscow to be making the analogy, since it supported Milosevic at the time and has excused him since on the less-than-adorable grounds (barely even disguised in Russian propaganda) of Christian Orthodox solidarity. It also armed and incited the most extreme and least pacifist forces in Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Does anybody remember the speeches in which the Russian ambassador to the United Nations asked the General Assembly or Security Council to endorse his country's plan to send land, air, and sea forces deep into the territory and waters of a former colony that is now a U.N. member state? I thought not. I look at the newspaper editorials every day, waiting to see who will be the first to use the word unilateral in the same sentence as the name Russia. Nothing so far. Yet U.N. Resolution 1441, warning Saddam Hussein of serious consequences, was the fruit of years of thwarted diplomacy and was passed without a dissenting vote.
The six former constituent republics of Yugoslavia, which all exercised their pre-existing constitutional right to secede from rule by Belgrade, are seated as members of the United Nations, as, indeed, is Georgia. Twenty out of 27 states of the European Union have also recognized the government of Kosovo as an entity de jure as well as de facto. The Kosovar population is estimated at 1.8 million, which makes it larger than that of some existing E.U. member states. Does anyone seriously imagine that Russia ever even remotely intends to sponsor any statehood claims for the tiny local populations of Ossetia and Abkhazia? On the contrary, these peoples will be reassimilated into the Russian empire. So any comparison with Kosovo would have to be not to its breaking away but to its potential absorption and annexation by Albania. And nobody has even proposed this, let alone countenanced the unilateral stationing of Albanian armed forces on Kosovar soil.
Heartbreakingly difficult though the task has been, and remains, the whole emphasis of Western policy in the Balkans has been on de-emphasizing ethnic divisions; subsidizing cities and communities that practice reconciliation; and encouraging, for example, Serbs and Albanians to cooperate in Kosovo. One need not romanticize this policy, but it would nonetheless stand up to any comparison with Russian behavior in the Caucasus (and indeed the Balkans), which is explicitly based on an outright appeal to sectarianism, nationalism, and—even worse—confessionalism.
The fans of moral equivalence may or may not have noticed this, but the obviously long-meditated and coordinated Russian military intervention in Georgia comes in the same month as explicit threats to the sovereignty of Poland and Ukraine, and hard on the heels of a Russian obstruction of any U.N. action in the case of Zimbabwe. Those who like to describe Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev as reacting to an "encirclement" of Russia may wish to spill some geopolitical ink on explaining how Kosovo forms part of this menacing ring of steel—or how the repression of the people of Zimbabwe can assist in Moscow's breakout strategy from it.
If it matters, I agree with the critics who say that the Bush administration garnered the worst of both worlds by giving the Georgians the impression of U.S. support and then defaulting at the push-comes-to-shove moment. The Clintonoids made exactly that mistake with Serbian aggression a decade and more ago, giving the Bosnians hope and then letting them be slaughtered until the position became untenable—and then astoundingly, and even after the Dayton Accords, repeating the same series of dithering errors in the case of Kosovo. The longer the moment of truth was postponed, the worse things became. But this in itself argues quite convincingly that there was no deliberate imperial design involved. Will anyone say the same about Putin's undisguised plan for the forcible restoration of Russian hegemony all around his empire's periphery? It would be nice to think that there was a consistent response to this from Washington, but I would not even bet someone else's house on the idea, which is what President Bush has given the strong impression of doing in the low farce and frivolity of the last two weeks.
Sunday, August 10
Suppose you have two groups of pregnant female rats. Rats in the first group can either eat as much regular lab-rat chow as they like, or they can eat their fill of human junk food — cookies, doughnuts, marshmallows, potato chips, muffins, chocolate. Rats in the second group only get chow, but again, can eat as much as they like. After the rats have given birth, continue the different regimens while the pups are suckling. Then give both groups of pups access to the chow and the junk food.
Experiments like this have found that pregnant females with access to junk food ate, on a daily basis, roughly 40 percent more food (by weight) and 56 percent more calories than rats that just had chow. Moreover — and this is the interesting bit — pups whose mothers ate junk food while pregnant and lactating had a greater taste for food high in fat and sugar than those whose mothers did not. The junk-food pups ate more calories and were more prone to gaining weight.
What goes for rats does not necessarily go for humans. Nonetheless, such results are thought-provoking. As everyone knows, humans are getting fatter and fatter. According to the World Health Organization, 400 million adults around the world weighed in as obese in 2005. In the United States, more than a third of women between 20 and 39 are obese, some of them extremely so. For the first time in history, large numbers of obese women are having children.
Being obese during pregnancy is dangerous for the mother and expensive for the health care system. But does it affect the babies?
There are reasons to think it might. The period between conception and birth is crucial — after all, you’re growing from a single cell into a baby. Your heart is being built; your brain is being wired. Exposure to alcohol during this time can disrupt brain development; lack of iodine may permanently stunt growth. Being starved in the womb can lead to health problems such as heart disease later in life, especially if food becomes abundant. So what about overnourishment? Does an “obese” environment in the womb somehow predispose babies to obesity later on?
At the moment, such questions are difficult to answer. Humans are much harder to study than rats, and the phenomenon of obesity in pregnancy is relatively new, so we don’t know much about it yet. Moreover, many factors contribute to someone’s becoming obese, and picking them apart is tricky. Added to that, an “obese” environment in the womb has two separate elements: the nutrients provided by the mother via the food she eats, and the hormonal environment of someone who is overweight. (Being obese can profoundly alter a woman’s hormonal profile.) Again, picking these apart is hard.
But the results of several studies suggest that the very fact of a woman being obese during pregnancy may predispose her children to obesity. For example, one study found that children born to women who have lost weight after radical anti-obesity surgery are less likely to be obese than siblings born before their mother lost weight. Another study looked at women who gained weight between pregnancies; the results showed that babies born after their mothers put on weight tended to be heavier at birth than siblings born beforehand. Since the mother’s genes haven’t changed, the “fat” environment seems likely to be responsible for the effect.
Why might this happen? Perhaps an “obese” environment in the womb alters the wiring of the developing brain so as to interfere with normal appetite control, fat deposition, taste in food, or metabolism. Studies on other animals suggest that parts of the brain that control appetite develop differently under “obese” conditions. And in humans, one study has found that babies born to obese mothers have lower resting metabolic rates than babies whose mothers are of normal weight.
For most of our evolutionary past, the problem has been avoiding starvation. An environment awash with sugars and fats is, therefore, an evolutionary novelty: in hundreds of millions of years of evolution, this is the first time such foods have been abundant. Giant quantities of fats and sugars have not, historically, been available to a developing fetus, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they do have a harmful impact.
If this is right, it raises the alarming possibility that the obesity epidemic has a built-in snowball effect. If children born to obese mothers are, owing to the environment in the womb, predisposed to obesity, they may find staying thin especially hard. Reversing the epidemic may thus rest on helping women to lose weight before they conceive and helping them to eat a balanced, non-junk-food diet while they are pregnant. The well-being of the next generation may depend on it.
Olivia Judson, a contributing columnist for The Times, writes The Wild Side at nytimes.com/opinion. Frank Rich is off today.