This Is How Bad Ideas Become Received Wisdom: Mark Ambinder, Regulation, and Evil edition
I’m not an Ambinder hater. He knows the mechanics of politics really well, and when he chooses, he’s got useful material to share.
But I’m no fan either — I think he’s allowed himself to play Villager too much too soon. He’s a good reporter, I think, but his pleasure at being a member of the Washington in-crowd is palpable, and I find his site less and less interesting the more reliably conventional its wisdom becomes.
It’s kind of sad, actually. He’s too young and too smart to make it pretty to watch him turn into a kind aspiring Broder with internet skillz. But that’s what’s happening, I think.
Case in point — look at this reflex in action on what would seem to be a subject pretty far removed from the usual Washington sacred cow. Ambinder wrote a very interesting article for the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly about obesity, spinning of his own experience an in depth look at what can and/or should be done about the very real harm obesity is causing in this country.
Mostly, the piece is a pretty good bit of feature writing, with a clear understanding of its subject and its aims. But even in a matter very near to his heart, and one in which he has already made the (for the contemporary Village) significant leap of recognizing a role of government action in confronting the very complex issue of obesity, he still can’t help straying into the easy, mindless tropes of elite posturing on the evils of policy action.
For example, in one passage, he describes President Obama’s choice of FDA chief, Margaret Hamburg, as “another New York City veteran with a strong nanny streak.”
That would be this Dr. Hamburg…
Dr. Hamburg, who was appointed by Mayor David N. Dinkins as acting commissioner in 1991 and became commissioner the following year, was one of the few top officials asked to remain when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani took office in 1994. She was best known for developing a tuberculosis control program that produced sharp declines in the incidences of the disease in New York. Under her tenure, child immunization rates rose in the city.
She left New York in 1997 to become assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, where she created a bioterrorism initiative and led planning for pandemic flu response.
And what was Dr. Hamburg’s sin? That under her leadership, the FDA “warned 17 food manufacturers that their food labeling made misleading health claims that needed to be corrected.”
This is, if I may steal someone else’s snark, Your Liberal Media In Action.
Ambinder seems to see as a nanny — by implication, I think, an emasculating female authority figure — someone who helped roll back what many consider to be one of, if not the greatest looming public health crises around these days (TB) — not to mention someone who has tried to plan ahead for a couple of the most significant anticipatable but not predictable medical threats we face as a nation.
I’m not sure what you would call someone who has that skill set and resume, but she’s a nanny only if you think proactive government planning and decisions in the face of real dangers is somehow Satanic Mary Poppins territory.
But that, of course, is the current elite Washington chattering class consensus. Three decades of hard, effective work by the radical right propaganda apparat — the AEIs and the rest — have produced the unthought conclusion for too many that government action of any sort is an infantalizing, illegitimate assault on the individual’s corporation’s right to lie about the effects of its products.
What’s weird — or rather, telling — is that it actually appears from the passage in question that Ambinder actually admires the FDA’s action in this case. He writes, “This was the most significant FDA enforcement action on such matters in more than a decade.”
But even so, he can’t stop himself from spitting out a cliched epithet that undercuts his own apparent conclusion — and, more broadly, the whole idea that it might make sense for the government to be active in the arena of protecting the public from deceptive practices implicated in a major health concern.
You see this pathology more bluntly in a blog post that Ambinder wrote to follow up on the article, in which he outlined in brief what he thought ought to be done about the American obesity plague. There he writes that we should
Accept that regulation is a necessary evil. (Emphasis added.)
Oh FSM. Not this again.
Easy snark aside, here you have the political editor of The Atlantic Monthly taking as absolutely uncontroversial the idea that regulation, necessary or not, is bad. It’s a truth universally acknoweledged– in his worldview — that such government action cannot be better than the lesser of two lousy outcomes.
And this is the problem. There is no argument that there can be good and bad regulation — as in rules that fail to achieve their policy goals. But the idea that the tool of regulation is itself evil — now that’s the true accomplishment of the Reaganite long war on the whole idea of public governance, of a public interest.
And, of course, it’s false, a lie, told wittingly by some, unconsciously, I think, here.
This really isn’t complicated: regulations are the tools we use to ensure that private ambitions do not trump public interests.
Ambinder even gets this, sort of. In his longer article, he writes of the ways regulatory change works. Sometimes it is simply a rule that compels a change in behavior. Other times, it is process that evokes such changes. He writes,
There is a creative tension here, and the conversations can be difficult,” said the [National Restaurant Association] president, Dawn Sweeney, of its negotiations with the administration. “Having said that, we have to have real things to offer, because if regulation is in the offing at some point down the road, we want to be out in front of it.”
To recap: what has Ambinder tried to say here? One — that our current food practices have led to a deeply damaging national crisis of obesity. Two — that the organization of our food industry and culture are among the primary drivers of this crisis. Three — that absent changes in the way the industries involved do business we are unlikely to resolve said crisis. And four — that such change comes only in the context of explicit incentives to do so, and this administration is using the regulatory process to provide those incentives.
Nothing evil to see here — except, if I may hyperbolize — Ambinder’s swift and sloppy appropriation of a cliche that advances the very political interests that would derail the changes he wants to see here.
Which is to say Ambinder has to choose, as must all the rest of us, which side of this rhetorical and real divide he wants to defend.
*Ambinder himself notes this problem, writing, inter alia, that “wide evidence suggests that advertising feeds obesity, triggering what the psychologist Robert Cialdini has called the brain’s “click-whirr” response.”
Images: James Gillray “A Voluptuary, under the horrors of digestion” (a caricature of the Prince of Wales, later George IV) 1792.