Five Best Thursday Columns
China's 'cat and mouse' media freedom game, Fareed Zakaria's unemployment prescriptions
Fareed Zakaria on Jobs Obama is right to criticize Republicans for being passive on the employment crisis, writes Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post, but to improve his election chances, he really needs to improve employment numbers with policies that can actually pass Congress. In the past 20 years, America has had more and more difficulty creating jobs during recession recovery periods. Before 1990, it typically took six months to return to pre-recession employment levels. In 2001, it took 39 months. And at the current rate, we won't return to pre-2008 employment for five years. Zakaria says this coincides with two important trends: the rise in information technology and globalization. To point out how technology leads to declines in jobs, he write, "Today, computer programs that do conceptual searches are used at law firms to read and code documents, replacing the dozens of young associates who used to be hired and paid handsomely to do the same job." Globalization has been important for U.S. companies but has increased pressure for unprepared U.S. workers. "As Bill Gross, the founder of the world’s largest bond fund, Pimco, succinctly put it, 'Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today's marketplace.'" The government will need to make jobs its first priority. In some cases, this will mean spending more money. Zakaria likes the proposal for an independent but government backed infrastructure bank. Tourism too, "one of the largest growth industries," should be encouraged, with streamlined visa processes. All of this will take cooperation and a common goal in Congress.
The Wall Street Journal on Debating Fed Policy Though Rick Perry chose the wrong words to criticize the Fed's monetary policy, he is right to make it a campaign issue, writes The Wall Street Journal editorial board. He should not have said Fed chief Ben Bernanke would be "treasonous" or "treacherous" to print more money. "Both of those words ought to be reserved for specific acts of betrayal against America, and the Fed chief is certainly a patriot," they write. On the other hand, "[t]he faux-outrage from liberals who routinely refer to the tea party as 'terrorists' shouldn't be taken seriously." Though Perry is often compared to George W. Bush, on monetary policy he differs from the "easy-money, weak-dollar President." Perry understands what the middle class knows--that their real income has not increased in 10 years. "[E]ven as the recovery is supposedly underway, their meager salary increases are being washed away with another burst of commodity inflation caused by near-zero interest rates and quantitative easing," they write. Meanwhile, some economists are calling for slight and steady inflation as a solution to our debt problem. While debating policy, we should also debate politics and question the Fed's independence, as it often seems too close to the White House, The Journal board writes. "Mr. Bernanke sometimes seems to be a veritable arm of the Treasury, reinforcing its fiscal and regulatory agendas at every opportunity." Perry should pick his words more carefully, but he should not be deterred from raising these issues in the 2012 debate, they conclude.
David Pilling on the Chinese Media's 'Cat-and-Mouse Game' The minority of Chinese web users who take to the Internet to criticize the government are useful for the Communist Party. "There are no official channels, such as elections, through which people can make their opinions known," writes David Pilling in Financial Times. "So having a degree of free speech is a good way of keeping tabs on the mood of the non-electorate." It can also root out local government corruption and serves as an outlet for dissenters to let off steam under the illusion of free speech. "And if they go too far, you can always lock them up," he writes. "There is a cat-and-mouse game going on between the state censors and a public testing the bounds of the permissible," but it is a dangerous one for the authoritarian government. The apparent power of the people was on display last week in Dalian when a 12,000-person protest of a petrochemical plant elicited a promise from the local party boss to move it. The media, too, has grown bolder as news outlets proliferate and thus compete for consumer demand not just party favor. The press reported extensively and critically on the Chinese high-speed train crash last month and efforts to crack down on coverage "mostly backfired." But this new criticism can be dangerous. In a democracy, elected officials try to listen to the moderate voters who decide elections. But the Chinese government risks listening only to those on the extreme who "scream loudest." All this makes the Chinese game "fascinating to watch," Pilling writes.
Frances Beinecke on Arctic Drilling 55,000 gallons of oil have leaked into the North Sea from a leaky Shell pipeline this week. And last year, America watched the biggest oil disaster in its history unfold in the Gulf Coast. "Now imagine the increased danger and difficulty of trying to cope with a similar debacle off Alaska's northern coast," writes Frances Beinecke in The New York Times. "There, waters are sealed by pack ice for eight months of each year, gales roil fog-shrouded seas with waves up to 20 feet high and the temperature, combined with the wind chill, feels like 10 degrees below zero by late September." Obama has given preliminary approval to Shell's proposal to drill in Alaska, but several more regulatory agencies will have to sign off. The administration should not approve the project, says Beinecke, who served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. "We don't have the infrastructure, the knowledge or the experience to cope with one if it occurs. It's irresponsible to drill in these waters unless we have those capabilities." We need to research the Alaskan ecosystems we will put at risk and we need containment and response plans in the case of a blowout. America assumed when BP's Macondo well blew out last year that the spill could be contained in the epicenter of the offshore oil industry. But all the systems failed one by one. "We have yet to embrace the lessons of the BP blowout, the worst oil spill in our history," and before we drill in the Arctic, we need to learn them.
Los Angeles Times on Buffett's Critics "Investors might hang on Warren Buffett's every word when it comes to financial advice, but Republicans are less than enthusiastic about the Oracle of Omaha's opinions on taxation," writes the Los Angeles Times editorial board. Buffett wrote a New York Times op-ed claiming that tax rates on the super-rich are too low. Many critics suggested he just cut the government a bigger check and leave his rich compatriots alone. "Not only are they willfully missing Buffett's point, they're seemingly oblivious to the fact that in many ways his tax ideas mirror those of Ronald Reagan. Under the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which was signed by President Reagan, the number of tax brackets was reduced, loopholes were closed, the top tax rate was lowered and capital gains were taxed at the same rate as ordinary income," the board writes. Those loopholes and tax breaks have slowly been added back in the years since, while taxes on investments are now taxed differently as well, eliciting Buffett's complaint. One conservative critic in the California state legislature is jokingly introducing a bill which would add a line-item allowing people to voluntarily pay more taxes. "Practically no one would pay voluntary taxes, not only because people resent paying more than their fair share but because, unlike charities, government spends money on many things that individual donors would prefer it didn't," writes the board. "Of course, Buffett's conservative critics know this; like most bullies confronted with a powerful argument, they'd rather mock it than try to refute it."