Five Best Tuesday Columns

On humans and computers, 2011 and 1848, and Libya versus Egypt

This article is from the archive of our partner .
  • Jonah Goldberg on the Case Against Public Unions  Writing today in the Los Angeles Times, Goldberg contrasts public unions and private unions. While private unions were borne out of "bloody adversarial" relationships between employers and employees, public unions have "no such narrative," he says. "Do you recall the Great DMV cave-in of 1959? How about the travails of second-grade teachers recounted in Upton Sinclair's famous schoolhouse sequel to 'The Jungle'? No? Don't feel bad, because no such horror stories exist." Goldberg also notes that the government workers were making good money before John F. Kennedy lifted the ban on federal unions in 1962 and that this decision itself was "rankly political," in what would turn out to be a largely successful attempt to expand the liberal coalition in the country. With all this in mind, Goldberg says he wouldn't be too upset if Wisconsin proved to be a death-knell for government unions.
  • Stanley Fish on What Watson Can't Do  In the continuing debate over Watson's significance after its swift victory on Jeopardy, Fish offers his take on Watson's shortcomings today on the New York Times' website. Watson, like the computers we're all using right now, cannot break rules--it can only follow them. No matter how advanced they are, computers are merely collectors of data he says, that have "no holistic sense of context and no ability to to survey possibilities from a contextual perspective." Compare that to the nearly constant human temptation to break rules and rationalize the action--that's a strength, Fish says, not a weakness. While Watson's achievement has been impressive, it comes nowhere near "replicating the achievements of everyday human thought," Fish argues. Watson's triumph makes for great television, but "that's all it is."
  • Arvind Subramanian on the Key Impediment to Arab Democracy  Arvind Subramanian spotlights the key obstacle in the way of real, Middle Eastern democracy: economic rents. Rents are funds a state collects from mostly geographical resources, such as oil or the Suez Canal, he explains at the Financial Times today. Rents keep a country wealthy without having to tax its citizens, relieving much of the pressure for a representative government. Rentier states also tend to be low on "education and skill creation, in turn limiting the pool of entrepreneurial talent," Subramanian notes, with "bloated democracies, weak legal enforcement of property rights, and obstacles for starting businesses, especially for those outside the regime's inner circle." The author argues that the only way for democracy to prevail in the Middle East is for the countries to cut off their dependence on economic rents.
  • Wall Street Journal Editors Urge the U.S. to Help Fight Qaddafi  The editors at the Wall Street Journal are shocked at how little support the U.S. is showing for demonstrators in Libya. "It is hard to believe, but the Obama Administration seemed more eager to topple Egypt's Hosni Mubarak than it has Moammar Gadhafi, who has more American blood on his hands than anyone living other than Osama bin Laden," they observe. The editors argue that if Western countries really want to promote democracy, they should not only throw their support wholeheartedly behind the Libyan people, but provide the protesters with weapons with which to defend themselves. Hundreds of Libyans have already died from attacks by Gadhafi's army, "and the protesters know that if they stop now the regime will kill them and their families." Without the help of Western, particularly American, aid they will be helpless. 
  • Anne Applebaum on the Middle East Uprisings--Like 1848  Though many observing the ongoing Middle East uprisings have compared the street protests to those that took place in Eastern Europe in 1989, The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum argues that today's unrest is actually more similar to the revolutions that took place in multiple European countries in 1848. This is because while the communism-toppling demonstrations in Eastern Europe "followed in the wake of a single political event: the abrupt withdrawal of Soviet support for the local dictator," the Arab revolutions, like their 1848 counterparts, "are the product of multiple changes-economic, technological, demographic--and have taken on a distinctly different flavor and meaning in each country." If the result of the 1848 efforts is any indication of the Middle East's impending outcome, Applebaum notes, a successful revolution may not be in the cards for every country currently experiencing demonstrations. Nevertheless, the sentiment of the period may be folded into the cultures of the various countries.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.