THE BLOG

This Week in Magazines : Is the "End of Excess" Near? Why Krugman is Pissed at Obama, and Why the Death of Newspapers Won't Harm Democracy

April 6 Time proclaims "The End of Excess" is here. Ah, were it true.

Kurt Andersen pens a provocative, extended op-ed-as-cover story (the two giant newsweeklies' increasingly favorite species), essentially arguing that we're coming back to Kansas from Oz after a self-destructive economic era. We will have to admit our powerlessness over easy money and cheap fuel and "make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and be entirely read to remove our defects of character."

He's correct in asserting we're exceptional but not magical as a country, and thus not "exempt from the laws of economic and geopolitical gravity." But does that mean that "our age of self-enchantment has ended," with a long-term, potentially sharp recalibration of expectations for how we lead our lives now imminent?

One would hope that a new humility were on the way, that we will now plot what he calls our "reconstruction and reinvention," with the aggressively sober President Obama leading the way. And, yet, when the downturn is over, it will be interesting to assess how much soul-searching will have prompted individual and national recalibration of our goals and behavior.

One can hope he's correct and still take note of how one of the symbols of our just-concluded era of accumulation, namely Wall Street pacesetter Goldman Sachs, is impatiently and publicly craving to return the federal aid it received last fall. Its aim is simple: to be liberated from federal limits on executive compensation.

And there may be other yellow warning lights that our pre-crash quests for the extra car, the fancy master bathroom and the multitasking perfection of our children may simply return and override any fleeting contrition inspired by our current comeuppance.

You could juxtapose Andersen's essay with "The Life Cycle of Conspicuous Consumption" in April Money, where George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen suggests the current modesty will give way to "a new social dynamic" in which, "It will start to look smart to affiliate yourself with a nascent economic recovery. The pendulum will swing back toward consumption."

And, perhaps, that consumption will include some of the high-end goodies (and oddities) comprising the April 13 Forbes cover story, "What Recession? Some Entrepreneurs Have Hungry Customers Waiting in Line for Years." From $7,000 hand-built bicycles to $12,000 English Labradors, there's an unceasing market for deluxe.

Elsewhere in Time, Laura Fitzpatrick's "The Financial Aid Game" is a terrific inside look how one college, Skidmore, is juggling its need for revenue and applicants' increasing need for assistance, with handy examples of multiple families and how much aid they are receiving, if at all. Will applying for aid hurt your chances of acceptance?

"At Skidmore, one figure suggests the answer is yes: students of color, who disproportionately applied for financial aid, made up a higher percentage of this year's applicant pool than last year's." But reflecting 'the demands of financial aid,' says [dean of admissions-financial aid Mary Lou] Bates, they make up only 24 percent of the admitted pool this year, in contrast to 28 percent last year.

As the magazine quotes Morton Schapiro, president of Williams College and a higher-education economist, "You've always been in an advantaged position to be rich and smart. Now you're at an even greater advantage."

---Newsweek's "Obama is Wrong" is a solid profile of Princeton economist Paul Krugman, a high-profile voice criticizing the president's economic recovery strategy from the political left. Much of his argument turns on doubts about the amount of assistance being given directly to banks and his belief that nationalization of some is incumbent. Since he's an intellectually honest Nobel Prize winner, it's no surprise that few White House folks will go on the record but, clearly, they think he's totally wrong. And, conspicuously, Krugman concedes he's not totally versed in all the "details" of the various recovery plans dealing with rather complex issues.

This quotes one unidentified White House officials as noting that pundits will always be right some of the time and can outlandish, knowing that, at worst, they'll lose a few readers even if wrong. The White House, meanwhile, could totally wreck the economy if it's wrong. It's a predictable, media-bashing response but not without a scintilla of truth, given the undoubted dynamic among many elite pundits, especially in Washington, to be constantly provocative in this 24/7 Internet world. And, when it comes to Obama, one suspects many don't want to look as if they're doing too much cheerleading from the left, or that they've gotten on, or off, an Obama bandwagon too quickly if they're on the political right.

Elsewhere, Newsweek.com includes "The End of Verse?" Marc Bain tries to dissect a National Endowment for the Arts report on the seeming increase in reading of fiction, but decline in reading of poetry.

"Sunil Iyengar, the NEA's director of the Office of Research and Analysis, says the agency can't answer with certainty why fewer adults are reading poetry. He and others believed the opposite would be true, largely because of poetry's expansion onto the Internet. 'In fact,' he says, 'part of our surmise as to why fiction reading rates seem to be up might be due to greater opportunities through online reading. But we don't know why with poetry that's not the case.'"

---Nicholas Lemann has these words to the wise in April 6 New Yorker's Talk of the Town "Madder and Madder" offering:

"Those in Washington who say they represent, or even embody, the public's anger at bankers should do their constituents a favor by focusing not on whom to demonize but on the hard work of building support for a program that would actually help people. Those who aren't angry--like, maybe, President Obama--ought to stop pretending they are, and, instead, try to persuade the country that pure rage is not something to be honored and respected at this dangerous moment."

And you're informed elsewhere in Talk of the Town that the United Nations, amid all its generally depressing topics of discussion, had a rollicking discussion one recent evening on, ah, "Battlestar Galactica," the Sci Fi Channel cult classic which just finished a four-year run. Mike Peed's "Shuttle Diplomacy" tells you why, while disclosing the identity of a UN official who opined that "every one of us is a Cylon, and every one of us is a Colonial."

---April 6 ESPN The Magazine is very good on "Welcome to Mannywood," a breakdown of the hitting aplomb of iconoclastic baseball superstar Manny Ramirez. Its baseball preview issue will be a statistics lover's delight, as it focuses on a new obsession with analyzing how well players are defensively. With stats maven Nate Silver employing his Fielding Runs Above Average metric, which seeks to account for runs saved or lost relative to the Major League Average, "Defensive Shift" argues that Seattle, Detroit and the New York Yankees made very positive, off-season defensive changes, while the Cardinals, Cubs and Angels should be worse defensively. Interestingly, a related piece, "Smell the Glove," argues that Yankees icon Derek Jeter has been dead last defensively at his position for three consecutive years when one factors in "the number of balls he doesn't reach compared with the average major league shortstop."

----This week's Journey to the Obscure, or, as my five-year-old puts it, "This makes my head hurt" comes via "Factors Influencing Olive Oil Brand Choice in Spain: An Empirical Analysis Using Scanner Data." It's in Vol. 25 of Agribusiness, in case your copy was not delivered.

Here's the abstract:

"Olive oil consumption is growing all around the world as a consequence of the extension of the Mediterranean diet. Because of limited production, pricing, promotions, and consumer-related variables are essential to explain olive oil consumer behavior. As a consequence of this increasing consumption, it is fundamental to analyze the main factors influencing consumers' olive oil choices for both brands and retailers to be able to compete more efficiently and satisfy consumer needs more closely. But, few such studies are concerned with olive oil (although a great many works in the literature analyze the influence of these factors in other product categories). In a sociocultural context like the Spanish market, in which brand awareness is strong and the use of the product is very high, these factors are even more important. Thus, the main objective of this article is to determine and assess how different marketing variables, such as price, price discounts, use of store flyers and loyalty, explain olive oil brand choice."

I'll save you the wait. Apparently, being a national brand is important, given unusually strong loyalty to those brands. Price is a factor but the brand leaders don't play around much with pricing promotions, lest they endanger their image.


--- "Democracy"s Cheat Sheet?" on Slate.com is newspaper lover Jack Shafer's cautionary note about those folks (present company included) who assert that vibrant daily newspapers are important to democracy. He disagrees.

Shafer is really smart and has some good points ("Democracy survived its first century without much in the way of the investigative and accountability journalism we associate with newspapers"). But some other points are not quite as telling, such as citing a Pew poll showing that less than half of Americans "say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community 'a lot.'" All that might tell you is that a long self-satisfied industry never made the case to citizens as to its relevance, or that civics instruction in the nation's schools is so dismal that kids are clueless as to papers'

role in the political process (and thus television's and radio's role, given how those guys rip off papers each day).

As for the suggestion that Illinois exemplifies the disjoint between ongoing corruption and admirable journalism, the reality is that there probably would be a lot more had it not been for lots of expensive exposes about the process. And, even if one argues that no newspaper can truly keep government accountable all the time, it might be mentioned that declining coverage (especially of institutions like state legislatures) will accelerate the lack of accountability. And, somewhere in there, is bad news, even if one stipulates that many papers are mediocre and that most people wouldn't lose sleep if they disappeared. When the cat's away.....

---March-April Foreign Affairs' "Reshaping the World Order" by Dartmouth's Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth suggests that despite the inherent, even "anarchic" world of decidedly self-interested states, a needed reshaping of the world order, notably international institutions like the United Nations and World Bank, is in order. In fact, it's a desperate need, they argue, as they lay out a variety of prospective changes; with the underlying premise that the United States should be the Big Fish and tailor changes in our national self-interest.

This is thoughtful but misses a chance to make far more specific suggestions for some critical areas, notably the growing and generally underappreciated mess of humanitarian aid. As it stands now, the key institutions, mostly part of the United Nations universe, tend to serve as their own judge and jury when assessing their roles in particular crises, as well as being independent fundraisers. Far greater cohesion and centralization is a desperate need, with more thought to also be given the tricky matter of military intervention in certain instances, given the near certainty that humanitarian aid crises will just mushroom. The mess in Darfur, with an awful Sudanese dictator, is one of multiple examples.

---Is the $2,000 Nano from India's Tata Motors the car for a new century? "The New People's Car" in March 26 Economist has some doubts, especially given the firm's many corporate troubles. But maybe, just maybe.

"Rakesh Batra of Ernst & Young India, a consultancy, says rivals are watching closely, and Tata must succeed when it comes to quality, service and the availability of parts if the Nano is not to fall flat on its pert little nose. Undaunted, Mr Kant believes that the Nano is tapping into a social and economic revolution in India. 'There is a paradigm shift under way in the country,' he says. 'Through the explosive growth of cellphones and television, the aspirations of rural people are converging with urban people.' He also points to India's plan to connect every village with a population of more than 1,000 to the road network by 2010. Nor are his ambitions for the Nano limited to India. The Nano Europa, a plusher version that meets Western safety and emissions standards, will go on sale in 2011, with an American version due a year or so later. 'The interest in the Nano", he says, 'is worldwide.'"

---"Inside the Ivory Tower" in March-April Foreign Policy surveyed 1,743 international relations scholars at four-year colleges and universities and found ample frustration with the role they see themselves playing in policymaking, "and, more often, the frustrating lack of influence they think they have from their perch above the fray of international politics. Most revealing? Nearly 40 percent of respondents reported that these scholars have 'no impact' on foreign policy or even the public discourse about it. Indeed, the only academics judges less effectual in the policy realm were historians."

Of course, if you were looking to influence President Obama, it probably didn't hurt to be an Abe Lincoln scholar, like Doris Kearns Goodwin. She, and probably others, have likely had some impact, especially with the "team of rivals" notion. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might concur.