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Kerry Trueman

Kerry Trueman

Posted: May 19, 2009 01:28 PM

Does A Nation of Ninnies Need A Nanny?


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Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Q. What's the difference between a pigeon and an investment banker?

A. A pigeon can still make a deposit on a BMW.

Don't laugh--bird poop's a precious resource. I dispense pellets of Peruvian seabird guano to my gardening friends as if they were Pez, because, as the Worm's Way gardening supply catalogue explains, "There is nothing like it for accelerating growth".

If only guano could goose our stalled economy. Robert Frank, the Cornell economics professor, New York Times columnist, and author, most recently, of Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, declared in a speech last month at Skidmore college--which he prefaced with that pigeon joke--that Americans are worse off now than we were during the Great Depression.

We face a significant decline in our standard of living, Frank warned in his speech, the keynote for The Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference on The Pursuit of Happiness. The conference, co-hosted by Bard College and Skidmore College, brought a group of academics together to scrutinize one of America's most cherished birthrights through a Dickensian lens.

Why? Well, this may not be the best of times, or the worst of times, but in this era of profound economic uncertainty and social unrest, it's as good a time as any for "a reassessment of happiness," the conference's co-organizer, Barbara Black, Skidmore associate professor of English, noted, adding that "tragedy, loss, or challenge can make us more committed to happiness; deeply unhappy times often generate a renewed interest in the power of optimism."

Hope is all the rage, these days, but hope is cheap. That's why the current administration can afford to dispense it so liberally. Happiness, on the other hand, is in much shorter supply, making it the truly hot commodity--or it would be, if you could actually buy it.

We've been trying to buy our way to bliss since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, but we still haven't figured out how to manufacture happiness for the masses. As Deirdre D'Albertis, Black's co-organizer and an associate professor of English at Bard, told me, we've got more in common with Victorian Brits than you might think; ordinary people as well as intellectuals "were concerned with the rise of conspicuous consumption or the worship of what they called "Mammon". You may know him as the god of "Greed is Good".

Then, as now, writers and social activists wondered how to "equitably distribute the wealth generated by a great empire," D'Albertis said, "as well as what the impact of rapid industrialization was doing to the English countryside". D'Albertis credits these nineteenth century 'thought leaders', as they'd be branded today, for inspiring a wide range of current social movements, including environmentalism, utilitarianism, liberalism, and that bête noire of wingnut blowhards, socialism.

So it was only fitting that this group of sepia-steeped scholars launched their conference with Frank, whose latest New York Times column puts those tea-stained tax protestors through the wringer and finds their arguments against taxing the rich decidedly weak.

Frank, an economist who subscribes to the Keynesian theory that our government needs to spend more, not less, at a time like this, believes that our economy won't recover anytime soon without a new New Deal. His speech, entitled "Unsolicited Advice For The Obama Administration," proposed that we spend the stimulus on "a massive laundry list of projects to revitalize the public sphere". You know, repair our crumbling bridges, upgrade our antiquated railway system, improve access to health care and better our schools, for example.

Conservatives carp that the stimulus is "a mere spending program". As Frank drily noted, "That's the whole point." Note, too, that improving education for the less affluent is an investment that would benefit us all. As New York Times economics reporter David Leonhardt noted recently, one unexpected bonus of the Great Depression was a surge in school enrollment among teenagers who would have otherwise dropped out to take a factory job:

In the manufacturing-heavy mid-Atlantic states, the high school graduation rate was just above 20 percent in the late 1920s. By 1940, it was almost 60 percent. These graduates then became the skilled workers and teachers who helped build the great post-World War II American economy.

But rabid tea-baggers will tell you (watch for flying flecks of spittle) that using taxpayer dollars for the betterment of society is a form of fascism. A teary-eyed Glenn Beck called it tyranny. As Jon Stewart pointed out, Beck was apparently confusing tyranny with democracy, but hey, nuance is for liberal weenies. So is community organizing. And community gardens. Especially community gardens filled with organically grown fruits and vegetables! And soup kitchens that serve mushroom risotto and pumpkin soup!

This last category drew the ire of conservative blogger Julie Gunlock, who went off half-cocked the other day about food banks and soup kitchens that are supposedly guilty of committing tax payer-financed food snobbery by offering their clientele fresh, wholesome meals instead of nutritionally bankrupt processed foods and donated donuts.

Gunlock notes that Obama's stimulus package contains $150 million for food banks and other organizations that provide food to people in need. Citing an unacceptably delicious-sounding meal served at a California soup kitchen, she huffed "No wonder these places need a bailout," adding that dispensing donuts or other unhealthy foods to the down-and-out does them no great disservice:

Millions of Americans are out of jobs, and some are inevitably relying on the occasional trip to the food bank. Should they be advised to stay away from food banks because they give out Velveeta, hot dogs, white bread, and (gasp!) canned vegetables -- food that doesn't meet some gourmet ideal?

Another conservative blogger, Ken Shepard, whose website NewsBusters is dedicated to exposing liberal media bias, derides Obama's pick to head the Center For Disease Control, Dr. Thomas Frieden, as a "nanny state activist" because he favors a "sin tax" on soda pop.

The Seattle Times, on the other hand, applauded the choice of Frieden, noting that he's won the admiration of the public-health community in his role as New York City's health commissioner "for tackling unhealthy habits behind diseases, including smoking, obesity and poor diet."

Shepard objects to Frieden's proposed penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugared beverages on the grounds that "it's designed to hurt. Its purpose is to discourage you from buying soda, on the grounds that soda, like smoking, is bad for you." He goes on:

Isn't soda a kind of food? Isn't food a good thing? And isn't it a matter of personal choice?

Well, actually, no, sometimes, and maybe, maybe not.

First, soda's not a food. It's a beverage with no redeeming nutritional value. An 8 ounce soda is the liquid equivalent of a candy bar, so chugging a 64 ounce Double Gulp Coke is comparable to eating 8 candy bars.

Second, yes, food can be a good thing--especially fresh, unprocessed plant-based foods that are full of fiber, nutrients and antioxidants.

Other foods, especially convenience foods and processed meats, are loaded with toxins, empty calories, excess sodium and other disease-inducing ingredients that contribute to the epidemic of ill health that afflicts so many Americans.

Third, is it really a matter of choice? I have several friends who claim they are addicted to soda and can't do without it. And they may be right. David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner, has a new book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite , which reveals how the food industry manipulates us to consume excess calories.

Kessler spent years researching the causes of our obesity epidemic and discovered that foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter the brain's chemistry in ways that compel people to overeat. As he told the Washington Post:

"Much of the scientific research around overeating has been physiology - what's going on in our body...The real question is what's going on in our brain."

You could argue that excess soda consumption is a choice, but if it is, it's a bad choice. So what, some folks say--it's a free country, and people are free to make bad choices. Meanwhile, these are the same people who oppose taxes on the grounds that it's "our" money, and
we know better than the government how best to spend it.

But in fact, we've made some astonishingly idiotic choices. We've been seeking satisfaction from things that haven't actually enhanced our lives: outsized houses with mortgages we couldn't pay; cars with lousy mileage whose tanks we can't afford to fill; dollar menus that are giving us all kinds of diseases our health care system's not equipped to treat; and so on. What's the difference between an overly bubbly housing market and sugary carbonated beverages? Both appeal to our infantile desire for instant gratification.

That's why Robert Frank believes that Americans stand to benefit from the reduced standard of living that seems inevitable. He takes issue with the doom-and-gloomers who peddle pessimism porn and Depression lust. Where they see "protracted misery," Frank sees a higher quality of life.

Yes, times are tough--and they're likely to get worse, but Frank's take is that things aren't as bad as they seem, despite our dire economic circumstances. In fact, we stand to gain by losing. Why? Because our "satisfaction depends more on relative consumption than absolute consumption".

In other words, we don't mind having to make do with less if our neighbors and coworkers are making do with less as well. It's the sense that other people are much better off than we are that breeds dissatisfaction, even if our own circumstances are fairly comfortable.

So a stimulus package that improves our collective well-being may be our best hope for happiness. But we've got some high hurdles to overcome--many of them self-imposed.

As New York City's new public health commissioner, Thomas Farley, pointed out in his book Prescription For A Healthy Nation, "about half of all deaths in the United States are caused by individual human behavior: too many of us smoke, drink alcohol, eat high-calorie and high-fat foods, don't get enough exercise, and use cars and guns to kill ourselves and each other. The major reason why we Americans die early is that we behave in an unhealthy way. It is what we do that makes us sick, not lack of access to medical care."

Farley's picking up right where Frieden left off, to the consternation of nanny state naysayers who don't want to pick up the tab for other folks' poor choices, or pay a 'sin tax' for their own. Hey, all you tea-baggers, I hate to break the news, but you're already paying. We all are.