Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Let's Make Him Do It

Let's Make Him Do It

by Mark Bittman


The New York Times

August 16, 2012


For positive change in the issues that affect our daily lives

- not only food but also jobs, income, housing - we need

active political leadership. But until President Obama is

pushed more strongly by the left, the coming presidential

election represents a choice between a full-fledged attack on

government services and a continuing slide into the gloomy and

depressing world of austerity economics. That's a real choice,

but it's not a happy one.

When Obama has been pressured on issues, like gay rights,

immigration and the Keystone XL pipeline, he's responded

positively. But he hasn't been pushed on food, and as a result

has not followed up on campaign promises like his vow to label

foods containing genetically modified ingredients, nor has he

used his bully pulpit to try to protect SNAP (food stamps)

from the ravages of Congress. Since there isn't a real food

movement - yet! - progressives haven't made Obama do much.

At least he won't dismantle government, as Mitt Romney and

Paul Ryan would. Ryan's anti-stimulus plan is an unemployment-

boosting scheme that would finance the military at a high

level, the social safety net at the lowest possible level

(Ryan is calling for a 17 percent cut in food stamps, enough

to elicit criticisms from a pair of high-ranking Catholic

bishops, for example) and just about nothing else. It benefits

no one but the superrich and their representatives.

Not that that's anything new. Most people - call them working

class, middle class or the 99 percent - have less money than

they did a generation ago; the superrich have scads more. A

vast majority of Americans are on the losing side of the class

war, as evidenced by lower pay scales, eviscerated unions,

fewer benefits, later retirement, shortened or eliminated

vacations, starved municipalities and of course the quality of

our food and the impact it has on us and the environment.

Obama has seen more power and money arrayed against him than

perhaps any Democrat ever. But his lack of a workable plan for

economic recovery and his right-leaning stances on fiscal

responsibility and debt reduction remind us that the basic

problem is not one of "progressive" Democrats versus

"conservative" Republicans.

This isn't new either: in the last 40 years we've witnessed a

long, steady move to the right, which Democrats occasionally

whine about, protest and even fight, but in which they've been

mostly complicit. Unless you reduce defense budgets -

practically unheard of - whenever you cut taxes, you starve

social programs and infrastructure, thus undermining the

legitimate and beneficial role of government. (Even

"progressive" Democrats are onboard with some cuts to food

stamps in the as-yet-unpassed farm bill.) With government

providing fewer services, it becomes easy to persuade people

that it's an albatross, so why not cut taxes further? Enter

Paul Ryan.

Candidate Obama led us to believe that he was a different kind

of Democrat, and he stirred new and even skeptical old voters.

Yet he's disappointed many supporters. You can argue that his

hands have been tied: money is power - Citizens United has

made this even more so - and until there's meaningful

electoral and campaign-finance reform, along with real limits

on lobbying, there's no chance for real progress.

President Obama didn't create this system; he's a product of

it. A fundamental problem now is that the right has devised

both a strategy and a movement, and the left has done neither.

"All the bold answers are only from one side," Van Jones,

author of "Rebuild the Dream," told me. "But we have to stop

acting like there's one person with agency in America, whose

name is Obama. It's not what he should do - it's what we

should do."

That's right. Only by building real movements around food and

other important issues can we pressure Obama (or even Romney;

just look at the inroads the right made with a Democrat in

office) to act in the interests of the great majority. A

strategy for this is neatly outlined in the just-published

paper "Prosperity Economics" by Jacob Hacker and Nate

Loewentheil, which counters the nonsense of austerity

economics and lays out a credible plan for public investments

and economic security, a plan that could help revive jobs and

growth and ensure "that gains are broadly shared." Their

agenda improves on most economic plans by adding demands for

dramatic political reform. "The best ideas are of little use

without political movements, and those movements can only

succeed in a political regime in which votes count more than

money," Hacker said to me.

It's worth voting for progressives, but it's equally important

to recognize that until there is real pressure from the left,

the money and influence of the right will continue to pull any

president in that direction.

Mark Bittman is an Opinion columnist and the Times magazine's

food columnist; his Minimalist column ran in the Dining

section of The Times for more than 13 years. In 2009, Mr.

Bittman, who has been urging Americans to change the way we

eat for decades, published "Food Matters," which explored the

crucial connections among food, health and the environment.

His most recent book is "The Food Matters Cookbook"; he is

also the author of "How to Cook Everything" and "How to Cook

Everything Vegetarian," among others. Mr. Bittman's television

series include "Bittman Takes on America's Chefs," "The Best

Recipes in the World," "Spain: On the Road Again" and an

upcoming series based on his Minimalist column. His Web site

is markbittman.com.


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