Five Best Wednesday Columns
Tripoli's martyrs, Obama's foreign policy, and GOP tax follies
Azza Kamel Maghur on Tripoli's martyrs Azza Kamel Maghur, a Libyan lawyer and human rights activist, fled for Canada with her daughter this spring. Qaddafi's security apparatus had interrogated and harassed Maghur after she wrote an article criticizing undemocratic laws. Before fleeing, Maghur used to drive down Al Sarim Street in Tripoli on the way home from work, she writes in a piece for The New York Times translated by Ghenwa Hayek. The quiet neighborhood was lined with houses, public buildings and small businesses, and is near both the Mediterranean and downtown Tripoli. "The area is also known as Al Zuhur--the neighborhood of flowers--because of the trees and plants that flourish behind the walls of houses... Typically, the neighborhood youths stand on corners and intersections, or in front of the shops, talking, joking or just staring at passers-by." Last Saturday though, the call to prayer from the minarets stretched longer than usual, and young men knew they must take to the streets. "The young men rushed out, during the iftar meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast, their mothers ululating behind them and their fathers praying along with the mosques, knowing deep in their hearts that they would either return with their heads raised high, carrying the torches of freedom, or not at all." Many of them died, victims of snipers who defended the city even as rebels broke through. "The corpses mounted on the hot pavement, a testament to the birth of Tripoli’s freedom. The light in their still open eyes will not be extinguished, and their blood, which has spilled on the streets, will not cool until all of Tripoli is free..." Maghur writes.
Bill Craighead on the folly of the "household budget" analogy There is confusion about the relationship between the deficit and the unemployment crisis, writes Bill Craighead in the Los Angeles Times. "The increased deficit is a consequence, not a cause, of the downturn" he says, the result of lower tax revenues and increased spending on poverty programs. Furthermore, "politicians of both parties have furthered the misunderstanding by frequently drawing an analogy between the federal budget and household budgets." Unlike families, policymakers must consider how their personal budget decisions affect the entire economy. We should think of government not as a family, but as a doctor writing a prescription, Craighead writes. "The U.S. economy slumped largely because of a reduction in spending by households and businesses." This was reasonable, but if the government followed suit, it would only accelerate the downturn. Government should counteract the spending in the larger economy they write, as it did with the stimulus, (which Craighead says was not big enough). "This does not mean that deficits are always harmless. Like prescription medications, large deficits are appropriate only under certain circumstances," he writes. When the economy is healthy, government borrowing can "drive up interest rates and draw money away from private business investment." So while focusing on budget reduction now is distracting, when the economy revives, policymakers will have to make tough choice to reduce spending.
Michael Tomasky on Obama's foreign policy success While Michael Tomasky thinks it would be hard to call President Obama's domestic policy a success, he sees the president's foreign policy differently, he writes in The Daily Beast. "One of the best things an American administration can do when big changes are afoot somewhere in the world is stay out of the way and not act as if we can will an outcome just because we're America." Obama took criticism for being slow to act in Egypt as well as Libya, but those were both the right decisions, Tomasky says. In Libya, Qaddafi posed no direct threat to America's national security and so Obama had to wait for a trigger. "That was completely the right thing to do. It was as textbook a fulfillment of 'R2P,' or 'responsibility to protect,' as one could imagine." In Syria too, people are pressing Obama to move more forcefully. "But now he has imposed those sanctions and said Assad should step down. Doing much more seems dubious. Bashar al-Assad will go. It's a matter of when." Tomasky sees the formation of a new foreign policy doctrine. "Call it the doctrine of no doctrine: using our power and influence but doing so prudently and multilaterally, with the crucial recognition that Egypt is different from Libya is different from Syria is different from someplace else." Of course, events must still break Obama's way for us to fully credit him with greatness. "But it’s hardly impossible to envision an Obama administration in a few years' time that has drawn down Afghanistan and Iraq, helped foster reforms and maybe even the growth of a couple of democracies around the Middle East, and restored the standing of a country that Bush had laid such staggering waste. And killed Osama bin Laden. If this is weak America-hating, count me in."
Harold Meyerson on Republican "class warfare" Republicans have proposed raising the payroll tax back to 6.2 percent from its current 4.2 percent. The move "chiefly hits the middle class and the working poor," writes Harold Meyerson in The Washington Post. "And when taxes come chiefly from the middle class and the poor, all those anti-tax right-wingers have no problem raising them." Meyerson points to a Wall Street Journal editorial which argued against the decision to lower the tax in the first place because tax policy changes should be "broad-based, immediate and permanent." Meyerson finds fault with their logic. The payroll cut is far more broad based than other cuts the Journal opposes, which target the wealthy few. The payroll cut was immediate, he says, and though the Bush tax cuts were extended impermanently, Meyerson can't help pointing out the Journal's "fervent support for them." Republicans in Congress, too, have opposed extending the payroll tax break because it will increase the deficit. "This concern for the debt, touching though it may be... hasn't kept [Republicans] from opposing our current president's proposal to restore the Clinton-era tax rates on the wealthy." Even Grover Norquist, who has asked law makers to sign a pledge against raising taxes, has said he might not oppose returning the payroll tax to the 6.2 percent rate. Republicans have accused Democrats of practicing "class warfare" on the rich in recent weeks, Meyerson writes, but they too are guilty of targeting a class of Americans. "Their double standard couldn’t be more obvious: Tax cuts for the wealthy are sacrosanct; tax cuts for everyone else don’t really matter."
Seth Lipsky on Washington's letter to the Jews The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper discovered earlier this year that George Washington's famous letter to the Jews remains inaccessible to the public, and has since launched a campaign to make it available. "Neither the Forward nor anyone else is suggesting that the owner, who bought the letter in 1949, is not within his rights," writes Seth Lipsky in The Wall Street Journal. "The letter is, after all, private property. But it is also a national treasure, containing one of the greatest statements on religious liberty of all time." The campaign comes at a time when religious freedom is under attack in many countries, Lipsky writes, and so America should support this attempt to celebrate our own commitment to the ideal. Washington wrote his letter in response to a greeting sent to him by Moses Seixas, warden of Newport's Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel. Seixas and his compatriots were hopeful that the new government would provide them more protection than they'd earlier been afforded. Washington wrote his desire that the Jews "continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid." The Forward's editor, Jane Eisner, has argued "that even though the text of the letter can be easily found in books and online, and copies hang in various public museums and libraries, the absence of the original 'leaves history to speak in only a whisper,'" Lipsky writes. "She quotes Ron Chernow, who just won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Washington, as saying original documents 'take us out of the realm of myth and put us into the world of historical events, real people and situations.' About Washington's letter, Mr. Chernow says 'It's the most eloquent statement perhaps in our history of religious tolerance.'"