Audit Notes: CEO Porn; Ryan Avent on Paul Ryan; Sbarro, Cooked

Gary Weiss says the tarnishing of Warren Buffett is a useful moment for the press to stand back and quit the CEO worship. Indeed:

The annual “we love Warren” extravaganza long ago acquired many of the aspects of a cult ritual, and we in the media were right there with the shareholders, sipping the Kool-Aid. But this year’s Buffett-fest was different. For the first time, the adulatory press coverage soured a bit. The media isn’t negative by any means, but this time — and it was long overdue — the tenor of the coverage was skeptical. For example, good takedowns of the annual Buffett love-fest were written by Joe Nocera of the New York Times and Allan Dodds Frank of the Daily Beast, and there was solid work throughout the Omaha press corps. Good work, guys. Keep it up.

I mean it. Let’s keep this non-honeymoon going on forever. As a matter of fact, the adulation directed at Buffett, who repaid it with a tawdry insider trading scandal, is a lesson to us all. Sure, CEO porn is alluring. Sure, rich people are inherently fascinating, virtuous and fantastic individuals. Sure, billionaire investors can do no wrong. The media acted that way before the financial crisis of 2008 and still does. I don’t expect that to change everywhere, but I do think that Buffett is a good place to start.

Alas, CEO porn and Buffett worship is so ingrained in the business-press culture it will always be with. It just ebbs and flows—a pattern that correlates pretty well with whatever the Dow happens to be doing the last couple of months.

The Economist’s Ryan Avent rips into the macroeconomic ideas of Paul Ryan, the Republicans’ latest Ayn Rand-lovin’ front man.

Avent on Ryan’s call for the Fed to rein in its loose money policy:

And then there’s the money issue. It wasn’t so long ago that both parties supported countercyclical monetary policy. Top economists from across the ideological spectrum—from Milton Friedman to Christina Romer—point to tight monetary policy as a major factor exacerbating and prolonging the Great Depression. Mr Ryan claims he’s worried about inflation. But based on what markets are saying, 10-year expected inflation is just 1.94%. That is, according to the Cleveland Fed, “the public currently expects the inflation rate to be less than 2 percent on average over the next decade”. Mr Ryan said that he wished the Fed would drop its mandate for full employment and focus on price stability. Well, current inflation expectations indicate that tighter policy would maintain inflation below the Fed’s implicit target of around 2%, which is the level of inflation most rich-country central banks have decided is conducive to stable prices and growth. Moreover, Mr Ryan’s suggestion that high inflation is imminent cuts directly against the prevailing market view. That’s a fine belief to have, provided you aren’t spending your time arguing that markets know best and need to be free to guide the economy.

Paul Krugman says Ryan’s views are evidence of the Republican Party’s descent into a “Dark Ages of macroeconomics.”

— Finally, let me push my colleague Justin Peters’s piece over at Slate on the culinary wonders of Sbarro, “America’s least essential restaurant.” This is my kind of food journalism:

Beyond pizza, the restaurant also offers a full line of Italian-American steam table delicacies. At the dirty, cavernous Sbarro attached to Penn Station, where I was accosted by a mumbling beggar while waiting to order, I paired the pizza with a plate of baked ziti, which was similarly rank and unappetizing. The ziti had been sitting in the pan for awhile, and all components of the dish had dried out, such that it was brittle where it should have been soft, like some failed avant-garde culinary experiment.

It’s quite a good business story, too. I’ve always wondered: How did a company with food as bad as Sbarro’s become so ubiquitous? By becoming something of a last-resort for tourists and shoppers:

Sbarro’s biggest asset is its ubiquity. The store has slightly more than 1,000 worldwide locations, mostly in shopping malls—a footprint that lots of chains would kill for. (In a recent SEC filing, the restaurant called itself “the largest shopping mall-focused restaurant concept in the world.”) But malls are in decline. Whereas in my youth the Hawthorn Mall featured the finest in mid-priced chain apparel, its 2011 version is much less vital. On a recent trip there I saw one good-sized store selling peel-and-stick wall decals. Another was offering “Swords up to 70 percent off.” It’s hard to thrive in a consumer oncology ward, and at noon on a recent Saturday, this Sbarro was far less busy than McDonald’s, Taco Bell, or the place selling bourbon chicken…

For the most part, though, appealing to the sort of person who actually likes food has never been Sbarro’s strong point. Blair Chancey, editor of fast-food trade journal QSR magazine, told me that Sbarro’s target demographic is “young, hungry males,” and this might be so. But it also seems as though Sbarro courts the indifferent eater—tourists, children, people who just want a slice and a place to sit while they talk about the amazing pants they saw on sale at The Limited. As far as I could tell, I was the only employed New Yorker dining at the two Manhattan venues I tried. The Sbarro I visited at the Hawthorn Mall food court was crowded with teenagers lured by the promise of free breadstick samples. And the Sbarro in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station (where my slice tasted no better or worse than expected) was busy with commuters, tourists, and children wearing T-shirts advertising the fact that they were on a field trip.

I’ve suffered through some bad Sbarro slices in my day. This almost makes up for it.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,