Ferrer’s Twanging Chad

New Yorkers know there’s no place quite like this city. And those who follow New York politics know that campaigns

New Yorkers know there’s no place quite like this city. And those who follow New York politics know that campaigns here have their own unique rules and rituals. Suffice to say, New York is not the place for cookie-cutter campaigns and messages.

Surely Fernando Ferrer, a Democratic candidate for Mayor this year, knows this after all the years he has spent in local government. Nevertheless, this veteran of two-fisted Bronx politics has curiously put his political life in the hands of a 33-year-old Texan named Chad Clanton.

Mr. Clanton, a protégé of consultant James Carville and a former senior aide in John Kerry’s Presidential campaign, will be Mr. Ferrer’s communications director in this year’s Mayoral election. That means he’ll be the candidate’s public face, his spokesman and his main advisor on matters relating to media and message. What will city voters make of a guy with a Texas twang, wearing Tony Lama cowboy boots, talking about what’s best for New York?

The quick reply ought to be that New Yorkers don’t seem to mind Michael Bloomberg’s trace of the dreaded Boston accent. Then again, Mr. Bloomberg had become a New Yorker long before he presided over the city. Mr. Clanton, with little experience, is just passing through. Does this say something about Mr. Ferrer’s judgment in picking his trusted advisors?

Mr. Clanton’s assignment will put him in touch with a press corps legendary for its toughness and its institutional memory. If this University of Texas grad knows what he’s doing, he’ll be spending his down time in the company of books like The Power Broker by Robert Caro and Gotham by Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows.

The Ferrer campaign believes that the New York Mayoral election could have national implications for the Democratic Party. And it appears the selection of Mr. Clanton is part of Mr. Ferrer’s strategy to nationalize the race. But New Yorkers don’t want to hear about generic national issues like Social Security or national security, which are best left to federal officials in Congress and the White House. The campaign should rightly focus on local issues, such as the city’s breathtaking decline in crime, the ongoing need to improve public education, and the need for fiscal restraint in order to protect the still-fragile economic recovery after the terrorist attack of 9/11.

New York has come a long way since the early 1990’s, when Time magazine asserted on its cover that the city was ungovernable. (Mr. Clanton may want to take a look at that article and contrast it with the city he sees today from his apartment near Union Square.) The last thing the city needs is a Mayoral campaign that is part of an amorphous national effort by Democrats gearing up for next year’s Congressional elections. New Yorkers want to hear about New York. And there’s no substitute for hands-on knowledge.

Striving After the Wind

What ails America? According to Dr. Peter Whybrow, author of American Mania: When More Is Not Enough and a professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral science at UCLA, the country is in the grip of an addictive, unquenchable need to pursue status and possessions. We are victims, Dr. Whybrow writes, of our own brains’ pleasure centers, which push us to consume far more than we need, while we neglect the things that could actually make us happy, such as relationships with other people. We are unable to turn away from any “offer of affluence,” even if we have plenty of money, a fine house and enough resources to support our family.

“In our compulsive drive for more, we are making ourselves sick,” Dr. Whybrow recently told The New York Times, pointing to surveys which show that 30 percent of Americans report suffering from anxiety-double the percentage from 10 years ago-and that depression is also rising, particularly among those born after 1966. Why are Americans more stricken than, say, our European cousins? Dr. Whybrow speculates that our history as a country of immigrants leads us to place a high value on individual achievement at the expense of community support and connection. He notes that the global marketplace has effectively replaced the small town and, as a result, that greed and ruthlessness can come into play with no personal social downside.

The tendency toward affluence addiction ultimately lies in our brains, said Dr. Whybrow. The act of consumption stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which gives the consumer a rush of pleasure similar to that achieved by caffeine and cocaine. Looking at American society as a patient, Dr. Whybrow postulates that the Internet stock boom of the 1990’s-with its promise of more, more, more-threw the country into a manic episode; and that the country is now in a post-manic phase, characterized by a numb sense of being lost. But rather than stop and reflect, we rush right back to working ourselves around the clock, to earn more, to buy more, to get the dopamine flowing again.

The irony, of course, is that, when we’re “hooked” like this, we never have free time to actually enjoy the fruits of our labors. And having a country filled with dopamine-driven capitalists with no long-term planning ability has a disastrous effect on the debt loads of individuals and society. Look at how George W. Bush’s short-sighted tax breaks-designed to douse the rich in dopamine-have dangerously eroded the country’s financial stability.

Dr. Whybrow has clearly got his hands on an interesting project and has made a compelling diagnosis. But it’s useful to recall that Thorstein Veblen said the same thing 100 years ago, when he wrote: “Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure.” And going back quite a bit further, to Ecclesiastes: “All was vanity and striving after the wind.” The purported author, King Solomon, seemed to say that vanity was the driving force behind possessions, money, knowledge, status, prestige and success. So 3,000 years later, we’re still confronting the exact same human condition. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Buttenwieser Pool

Have you ever tried giving a pool to New York City? It’s not easy, as Ann Buttenwieser can attest. But a great idea that Ms. Buttenwieser had 25 years ago-to give the city a “floating pool” on a barge which could be tied up along the waterfront and used by residents of neighborhoods not served by public pools-is coming closer to reality.

The pool began as a gleam in Ms. Buttenwieser’s eye back in the 1980’s, when she was the director of waterfront planning in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. She started the nonprofit Neptune Foundation to raise funds for the pool, though the city later balked at paying the maintenance and operating costs. And so, in 2000, it was decided the pool project would happen in Hoboken, which was more hospitable to carrying the costs. At least initially; when things didn’t work out in Hoboken, New York’s new Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wooed the Buttenwieser pool back to New York.

But don’t dive in just yet. There’s still some work to be done: Ms. Buttenwieser has raised $3 million of the projected $4 million cost; the city needs to research where to best dock the pool so it won’t be sunk in mud; and the shadow under the pool barge could affect marine life. If additional funds are forthcoming, Ms. Buttenwieser predicts the pool will be ready for swimming next summer. This is a splendid project that will bring renewed activity to the waterfront and improve the recreational opportunities for the city’s children. Those interested in contacting the Neptune Foundation may call 212-427-3514.

Ferrer’s Twanging Chad