The Magazine

Notes on Nanny Bloomberg

From the Scrapbook

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Mayor Michael Bloomberg made headlines last week with his plan to prohibit the sale of sugary drinks in New York City in any size larger than 16 ounces. “Public health officials,” the mayor said, “are wringing their hands” over rising rates of obesity. But “New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something. I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do.”

Mayor Bloomberg

Thomas Fluharty

The Scrapbook, for its part, is all about the handwringing. And two things about this story have us wringing ours: (1) This is a preview of the future under Obamacare. Once you socialize health care costs, you license the Michael Bloombergs of the world, at every level of government, to busy themselves intruding on the minutiae of what we used to quaintly call our private lives. After all, your choice of what to eat and drink, and whether and how to exercise, may burden taxpayers with the bill for managing your adult-onset diabetes. When the government takes over the health care sector, the personal truly is the political. 

(2) Government nannies are inept and malevolent. Excessive sugar intake is ill-advised. But note the details of Bloomberg’s intervention. Plus-size soft drinks, verboten. Fruit juice, venti lattes, and cappuccinos loaded with caramel and whipped cream? Drink up! They’re exempt from the mayor’s edict. The Scrapbook defies anyone to distinguish the caloric effects of sugar delivered by 7-Eleven in a Big Gulp from that delivered by Starbucks in a white paper cup. Looks like Nanny Bloomberg is sternly superintending the beverages of the teeming masses while carving out an exemption for the sugary drinks favored by his own upper-crust cheering section.

Prominent among the latter would normally be the editors at the New York Times, who, besides being ideologically sympathetic to the mayor, are not-so-secretly hoping he’ll rescue their perks and pensions by buying the paper from the struggling Sulz-berger dynasty. However, even the Times worried in an editorial about “too much nannying” in this case. On the other hand, alongside the Times’s story on the mayor’s anti-soda jihad was this sidebar: “What Else Should the Mayor Ban? With super-size soft drinks facing prohibition, we seek your suggestions for other vices the Bloomberg Administration should outlaw.” We think this is meant to be lighthearted, but we’re not laughing.

Misunderestimating Herbert Hoover

The Scrapbook will go to great lengths to avoid being pedantic, but sometimes we are so astonished by the ignorance—the sheer bricks-for-brains philistinism—of certain journalistic celebrities that we feel constrained to set the historical record straight. 

We are thinking, among other instances, of the Washington Post’s resident boy genius Ezra Klein, who once explained that many Americans misunderstand the U.S. Constitution since “the text is confusing because it was written more than a hundred years ago.” (That is, before 1912!) And of a similarly eye-popping observation we ran across last week by
Margaret Carlson, who these days writes for Bloomberg.com. 

Carlson customarily tends to substitute a certain snarkiness of tone for actual knowledge—which, we suppose, entertains her readers. But in a tortured attempt to make the case that Mitt Romney, as a onetime businessman, is disqualified by experience for the presidency, she said the following: 

The only successful candidate to run as a businessman—it was all he had—was Herbert Hoover. Look where that got us.

Now, The Scrapbook does not wish to enter into an extended discussion of the qualities and defects of the Hoover administration, or the virtues of Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corp. versus New Deal pump-priming, and so on. And of course, as a loyal Democrat, Carlson is entitled to express her opinion—“Look where that got us”—about Herbert Hoover’s place in history. But to suggest that Hoover ran “as a businessman” for the White House in 1928, and that his (spectacularly successful) commercial background “was all he had,” is not only unfair but profoundly and self-evidently wrong. 

Herbert Hoover was, indeed, a businessman: He parlayed his training as a mining engineer (and member of Stanford’s first graduating class) into a storied career as a geologist, miner, and investor in the American West, in Australia, in China—where he was a hero of the resistance to the Boxer Rebellion—and in Europe before the outbreak of World War I.

As a wealthy American resident in London at the time, Hoover organized the (private, voluntary) Commission for Relief in Belgium, which successfully tackled the monumental problem of feeding and caring for the millions of refugees displaced by fighting across the continent; and after American entry into the war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to the newly created U.S. Food Administration.

Hoover continued his work after the Armistice, founding the American Relief Commission to assist in the recovery and reconstruction of war-ravaged nations from Poland to Armenia, and as a consequence became (with the possible exception of Wilson) the most famous and beloved American in Europe.

So famous and beloved, indeed, that many of his friends and admirers (including his future rival Franklin D. Roosevelt) urged “the Great
Humanitarian” to run for president in 1920. Instead, Hoover opted to serve as secretary of commerce in the Harding and Coolidge administrations, where he influenced economic policy, reorganized domestic agencies, deployed the resources of the federal government to encourage growing industries (such as radio), and became the federal government’s point man for disaster relief, most notably in the devastating Mississippi River floods of 1927.

Which, of course, is only a partial description of Hoover’s private and public career before his election to the White House. So did he “run as a businessman” for president? Well, only in the sense that Jimmy Carter ran as a peanut farmer, and Barack Obama as a community organizer.

The War on Girls

One of the most interesting things about the abortion debate is the barely disguised moral unease of even the most ardent defenders of abortion-on-demand. Last week, for instance, a pro-life group released an undercover video of a woman purporting to seek an abortion at a Planned Parenthood clinic simply because she doesn’t want to give birth to a girl. A Planned Parenthood worker is glad to help out. Planned Parenthood’s sputtering response to the tape was revealing. One, they insisted the video was misleadingly edited. Two, they announced that they had fired the worker in the video. Three, they asserted they were nonjudgmental with regard to sex-selective abortions.

But why claim the video was misleading and fire the employee? Alas, being tacitly forced to concede that sex-selective abortion is morally revolting kicks a hole in the “war on women” theme Planned Parenthood and its Democratic allies are so invested in. 

As it happens, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) put forth a bill last week—the Prenatal Non-discrimination Act—that would ban sex-selective abortions. In response to the legislation, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank more or less called Franks racist. “Sex-selection abortion is a huge tragedy in parts of Asia, but to the extent it’s happening in this country, it’s mostly among Asian immigrants. .  .  . [Franks’s bill] was the latest -attempt to protect racial minorities from themselves.” Moreover, Milbank warns that by alienating another minority group, Franks’s bill is fraught with electoral peril: “According to primary exit polls, 90 percent of GOP voters this year have been white. It’s difficult in 2012 to win with such a statistic.”

Milbank’s abuse wasn’t even the worst of it. “I think the next act will be dragging women out of patient rooms into the streets and screaming over their bodies as they get dragged out of getting access to women’s health care,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Insufferable). Well, Milbank and Jackson Lee can rest easy. Franks’s bill failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote in Congress. The right to kill a child because you want a son and not a daughter is safe for now.

Perhaps the Obama campaign should update its “Life of Julia” cartoon strip and add a panel for the gestational period: Good luck kid, for the next few months you’re on your own.

Secular Trends 

The Scrapbook is getting a headache trying to keep up with all the developments relating to church and state. The other day a Washington think tank unveiled its plan to foster a religious liberty caucus in every state legislature, to educate lawmakers on issues like conscience protections for professionals (with or without Obamacare, may a pharmacist decline to sell abortifacients?) and the freedom of religious organizations to choose leaders who share their faith (must a Christian student group allow a gay activist to run for leadership?). The new American Religious Freedom program of the Ethics and Public Policy Center will provide networking, model legislation, successful strategies from other states, and encouragement to tackle issues of concern to various faiths and both parties.

Barely a week later, the atheists shot back: The Secular Coalition for America aims to have a chapter of its own up and running in every state by the end of this year, with a similar purpose of developing awareness, expertise, and readiness to lobby legislators. Both groups are backed by powerful advisory boards: Big guns behind American Religious Freedom include Harvard jurist Mary Ann Glendon, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, and theologian and rabbi David Novak, while the dream team advising the Secular Coalition for America includes evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, and novelist Salman Rushdie. Each board has a celebrity member in memoriam—prison evangelist Chuck Colson for the former, journalist and crusading atheist Christopher Hitchens for the latter.

The deliberate focus on state legislation is interesting in a presidential year. At the national level, the choice is relatively clear. Few would argue with the Secular Coalition’s presidential scorecard, which gives Obama an average grade of B+ on its top issues, to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s C. But meanwhile, up and down the land, seemingly small controversies over hitherto settled liberties are simmering (may an adoption agency prefer husband-and-wife couples to same-sex couples?), as the effects of changes with national implications begin to be felt—like President Obama’s and some appeals courts’ rejection of DOMA, the federal law enshrining the until-recently unquestioned definition of marriage. State legislatures have work to do as citizens start to grasp the implications for them of the creeping establishment of secularism. One way of putting the question coming into focus is: Can American pluralism continue to make room for the free exercise of orthodox Bible-based religion, including its teaching about marriage and sex? Can we live and let live in this area, or must government-
imposed neutrality sweep the field? The Scrapbook’s headache just got considerably worse.

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