Thursday, September 27, 2012

Food fight! Nanny state vs. national security -- Sept. 27, 2012 column


The nanny state was undiscovered territory when Congress passed and President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in June 1946.

The law was good for children and farmers, the president said. The military wanted it because it was good for national security.

During World War II, more than 40 percent of rejected military recruits were sent home because they were malnourished.

Today, our platter-sized plates and our gargantuan soda cups runneth over. Rather than being too malnourished, our young Americans are too overweight to enlist. One in four can’t qualify for service.

Obesity, not malnourishment, is our national security issue. More than 300 retired generals and admirals joined a group called Mission: Readiness to goad Congress into taking steps to try to stem the childhood obesity epidemic by improving nutrition in schools.

The group’s 2010 report, “Too Fat to Fight,” pressed Congress for healthier school lunches. For once, Congress listened. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, supported by first lady Michelle Obama, reforms the school lunch program for the first time in 30 years.

New rules requiring more fruits and vegetables, lower-fat milk and less bread and condiments went into effect this fall in schools around the country. It’s America so naturally there have been protests. Students and teachers at a school in Kansas produced a video that has gone viral. Critics are eager to map -- and disarm -- the nanny state.

''This is the nanny state personified,'' declared Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who said constituents tell him their kids are starving in school and are being rationed on calories. King wants to repeal the law.

Really? Under the new rules, a high school lunch must not exceed 850 calories, compared with 825 calories under the old guidelines. Elementary pupils, in kindergarten through fifth grade, now get up to 650 calories at lunch.

Mission: Readiness wants Congress to take more action to curb obesity. This week the group released a follow-up report, “Still Too Fat to Fight,” asking that the government expel junk food from school. Schools sell more than 400 billion empty calories a year, outside the lunch program, in school stores, snack lines and vending machines, the report said.

Again, the brass says, it’s a national security issue.

The military leaders recognize that parents are their children’s first teachers and role models, but parents can’t control junk food at school. America’s children consume up to half their daily calories at school, so stopping the flow of junk food there could be significant.

For the military, overweight isn’t just a recruitment problem. The United States has the highest rate overweight and obese men among major countries -- three in four men are overweight or obese. The Defense Department spends $1.1 billion a year treating diabetes, heart disease and other medical problems related to obesity for service members, their families and veterans.

And problems with staffing the volunteer military go beyond weight, says Richard B. Myers, a retired Air Force general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“When weight problems are combined with other disqualifying factors, like failing to finish high school or being convicted of a serious crime, an estimated 75 percent of Americans age 17 to 24 are not able to join the military,” Myers wrote in an op-ed in Politico.

Three in four young Americans can’t qualify to serve? That’s appalling. We must do more to help kids stay in school and qualify for the military training and personal confidence that service can provide.

We can start with soda.

Three studies in the latest New England Journal of Medicine link obesity to sugary sodas. The American Beverage Association insists that the industry already has reduced sales in schools and no single food or drink is responsible for the obesity epidemic.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York has riled many with his quest to ban gigantic sodas. Starting in March, unless a judge intervenes, New Yorkers will not be able to buy supersized sodas at restaurants, on the street or in movie theaters.

To hear some conservatives, you’d think our God-given rights include the freedom to scarf and guzzle vast quantities of anything and everything without any government interference whatsoever.

Seriously, does that make sense -- with health care costs skyrocketing, with three of four American men overweight or obese?

Does anyone really need more than 16 ounces of a soft drink at a time? The original Coca-Cola bottle held about 6 ounces. If you’re still thirsty, drink water.

In this great country, there will always be another soda. But we don’t have to drink it right now.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

What Maryland voter fraud case proves -- and doesn't


John, a reader in Manassas, Va., writes that he thought of sending me a link to allegations of voter fraud involving a Democratic congressional candidate in Maryland.

“But I decided that you’re so far in the tank for the Democrats’ position on voter fraud, namely that there isn’t any, that…it wasn’t worth the effort. But you could look it up if you really do have an open mind on the matter.”

OK, John and other critics who think my mind is closed, this one’s for you.

And, hello, readers who think my mind is open, I hope you’ll read on too. Wherever you land, let me know what you think about the case.

First, let’s agree on one thing: Every single person who is eligible – and only everyone who’s eligible -- should be able to vote.

Wendy Rosen, a Democratic candidate for Congress, withdrew abruptly from Maryland’s 1st congressional district race this month after it was alleged that she voted in the 2006 general election and the 2008 presidential primaries in both Maryland and Florida.

After Maryland Democratic party officials learned of the dual-voting allegations from someone inside the party, they moved quickly. They confronted Rosen, urged her to quit the race and notified prosecutors in Florida and Maryland, who are investigating.

The good news is the system works. That’s exactly what should happen.

But what on earth was Rosen thinking? I contacted her and asked for an interview, but Rosen emailed that because the issues have been referred to prosecutors, this is “not a good time for a comment.”

Earlier she told Baltimore Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown that she was able to register to vote in Florida because she owns property there. She wanted to help a close friend who was running for City Council in St. Petersburg.

Asked if she voted in both states in the same elections, she said she didn’t remember. Asked if she voted twice in the 2008 primaries, she said she couldn’t comment because of “possible litigation,” the Sun reported.

Her quick exit and bad memory don’t look good for Rosen, 57, an accomplished businesswoman. But let’s see what the investigations turn up, whether she faces and whether she’s convicted of any charges.

In the meantime, here’s something about that rock on which voting is built: residency. It’s slippery.

Only residents of a state can vote in an election, right? Not always. Around the country, non-resident property owners have been fighting for and getting a voice in local elections. The owners want more of a say in property taxes and other issues, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports.

Some states allow municipalities to make the call about who’s eligible to vote on local issues. The idea is to keep separate voter rolls from state elections.

No Maryland law prohibits state voters from registering to vote and casting ballots in local elections in other states, a Maryland election official told the Sun. Some jurisdictions in Maryland allow vacation-home owners in Maryland who live elsewhere to register and vote on local issues and offices. But only on local issues.

It’s illegal to vote more than once in a state or federal election.

The timing of the Rosen scandal hurt Maryland Democrats because Rosen quit after the deadline to put another Democrat’s name on the ballot. Democrats are planning a write-in campaign against incumbent Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican. He’s favored to win in a district that has been redrawn to help Republicans.

Republicans persist in believing that voter fraud is rampant, despite the fact that no studies back them up. A scandal of one – if the one is a Democratic candidate for Congress – is a gift to the GOP. In Annapolis, state Del. Mike McDermott dashed off a press release crowing that Rosen is “the perfect poster child” for voter fraud. The Florida Republican Party chairman called for Rosen’s prosecution under “the full force of our justice system.”

Whatever the investigations find, one thing the Rosen case does not prove is the need for the strict new photo ID laws that have been passed by many Republican state legislatures. Nothing indicates she was impersonating another voter, which is the only kind of fraud voter ID laws can catch.

Rosen apparently registered and voted as herself. The question is how often.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

It's the season of book fairs -- and guilt -- Sept. 13, 2012 column


In the 21st Century spirit of blabbing personal secrets, I’m going to tell you something.

That book I happily bought last September at the National Book Festival on the National Mall, the one I had to have after listening to the author talk about his years of hard work, the book I stood in line in the sweltering sun for him to sign?

That book I then put on the table next to my reading chair by the window?

It’s still there. Unopened and, yes, unread.

It’s not about him or his 700 well wrought pages. It’s about me. I just wasn’t that into it. I put it on the table with every good intention but after a while had to stack books on top to muffle its reproachful cries whenever I walked past.

Months passed, I read other books, magazines and newspapers but never tackled the one book I’d imagined as my erudite companion through the long, snowy winter. But last winter was mild. Could global warming have stolen my book enthusiasm?

That’s silly. Besides, as an anxiety producer, books-I -haven’t-gotten-to-yet is a large category. But it’s hardly the only one that makes me break out in hives of literary remorse. Earnest interviews with authors on C-SPAN’s Book-TV, books I start and put down, even lists of books everyone ought to read exacerbate my unread-book guilt.

This year, it got so bad that when the Library of Congress in June issued its list of Books That Shaped America, I refused to look, fearing I’d feel worse.

I was wrong.

The library chose 88 books that chronicle a wide range of American history, literature and popular culture. The earliest volume is Benjamin Franklin’s “Experiments and Observations on Electricity” in 1751. The latest: “The Words of Cesar Chavez,” 2002.

Note that the list is not titled THE Books that Shaped America. The library intentionally omitted the article “the” to indicate that the list is a starting point, says Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.

“It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this list or not,” Billington said.

Not a list from On High but a list designed to spark a national conversation? That’s refreshing.

The eclectic selection includes the obligatory “Moby-Dick” but also such how-to titles as “The Joy of Cooking” and “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

“Common Sense” by Thomas Paine and “History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark,” by Meriwether Lewis made the list, but so did “Gone With the Wind,” “Goodnight Moon” and “Tarzan of the Apes.”

Why 88 titles? The library thought choosing 10 or 25 or 100 would have indicated finality. The list is a work in progress. Plus, 88 books fit in the exhibit space.

The exhibit at the Library of Congress closes Sept. 29, but you don’t need to come to Washington to see Books That Shaped America. It’s online at

Be sure to take the quick survey and give the library your own suggestions for future lists. Send me your thoughts too. I’d love to hear them.

I have my candidates that didn’t make the list, and many that did I’v e not yet read. It’s nice to know others suffer unread-book anxiety.

A cartoon in the Sept. 3 New Yorker showed two guys at the beach. One, reading a big book, is only a little way into it. The other guy says, “I got tired of ‘Moby-Dick’ taunting me from my bookshelf, so I put it on my Kindle and haven’t thought of it since.”

Aha! Expiation by gadget – perfect.

But wait a minute. There’s no “read-by” expiration date on books. And unlike with e-readers, there are no dying batteries in me-readers. I can take a non-judgmental path, be glad I have the book I haven’t yet read, knowing that when the time is right, I’ll pick it up. I can move on -- to the next National Book Festival.

Yes, more than 100 authors will be at the celebration of reading and books Sept. 22 and 23. About 200,000 people showed up last year, and I plan to be among the crowd on the National Mall this year.

Among the hundred-plus authors slated to speak and sign books are Mario Vargas Llosa, T.C. Boyle, Geraldine Brooks, Robert Caro, Patricia Cornwell and Jeffrey Eugenides.
I’ll be there, guilt-free.

One more thing. The Library of Congress plans next year to issue a list of Books That Shaped the World.

Get ready.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Economy: Impossible? -- Can any president fix it? -- Sept. 6, 2012 column


On the Food Network’s hit show “Restaurant: Impossible,” Chef Robert Irvine sweeps in and transforms a failing restaurant in just two days with $10,000.

He installs new d├ęcor, menu and image, diners flock to the place, the grateful owner beams in amazement, credits roll. Viewers eat all this up; the show is in its fourth season.

We Americans love turnarounds – especially when the miracles come quickly and under budget.

Alas, there’s no TV show called “Economy: Impossible.” Nobody has invented the formula to turn around the economy quickly. Unemployment is stuck above 8 percent, consumer confidence is down, and the presidential race is neck and neck.

The key question in 2012: Will voters fire President Barack Obama and hire former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to engineer the country’s economic makeover?

And that leads to another question: Does who’s in the White House affect the economy? You’d certainly think so, to hear the politicians.

Romney insists that he has the business savvy to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, although he hasn’t spelled out details. Obama blames Republicans in Congress for thwarting his plans to rebuild the economy.

Presidents are praised when the economy is going well and blamed when it’s not. Many economists think the world picture is more complicated and that the president actually has little control over economic success or failure.

Here’s Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s former top economic adviser and a University of Chicago Booth Business School professor: “I think the world vests too much power – certainly in the president, probably in Washington in general – for its influence on the economy, because most all of the economy has nothing to do with the government.”

Romney does have business experience, but most presidents don’t. Bill Clinton had none but George W. Bush did – and yet the economy thrived under Clinton and fell under Bush into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Still, since James Carville tacked up the sign that read “the economy, stupid” in Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters in 1992, candidates have tried to persuade voters they can work economic miracles.

At the GOP national convention in Tampa, Republicans urged disappointed Obama voters to jump ship. Romney conceded Obama’s popularity four years ago but said, “You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”

His running mate, Paul Ryan, evoked the image of young, jobless Obama voters living in their parents’ basements, staring at fading Obama posters.

In Charlotte, the Democrats tried to put to rest the nagging question of whether we’re better off than we were four years ago. Clinton emphatically said the country is better off with Obama, although nobody is satisfied with the current economy.

Obama “has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity. And if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it. You will feel it,” Clinton promised, adding, “whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election.”

Affable Clinton rebutted Republican charges one by one, including the frequent knock that Obama doesn’t believe in free enterprise and despises individual success.

“This Republican narrative – this alternative universe – says that every one of us in this room who amounts to anything, we’re all completely self-made,” Clinton said.

He quoted one of the all-time great lines in American politics, from Bob Strauss, Democratic Party chairman in the 1970s, “Every politician wants every voter to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself.”

Clinton insisted that Obama has the values, ideas and direction we need to build a stronger, 21st century economy – “a nation of shared opportunities, shared responsibilities, shared prosperity, a shared sense of community.”

But he also served up a cautionary note. In 1994, although he and his advisers felt their policies were bringing the economy around, voters couldn’t feel it, Clinton said. The result was the Republican takeover of the House for the first time in decades.

As we move through the fall, both campaigns will target the very few voters who are still undecided. Much will depend on whether these voters feel that the economy is moving in the right direction.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.