Five Best Thursday Columns

Ezra Klein on Simpson-Bowles redux, Jonathan Cohn on the inevitably growing budget, Richard Weitz on Obama's second turn toward Asia, George Will on solitary confinement as torture, and Meghan Daum on Vassar's Westboro deflection. 

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Ezra Klein in Bloomberg View on Simpson-Bowles redux The original Simpson-Bowles budget plan, released in December 2010, was chock full of tax hikes, and still many Republicans could get behind the seemingly bipartisan package. But the new version that Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson are pushing this week as a solution to sequestration aims to slash new tax revenue in half, and Ezra Klein sees that as a sign that the Washington consensus on tax raises has shifted to the right. "In releasing this new plan, however, the two budgeteers radically change the nature of their project," Klein argues. "Their original effort was an attempt to build a center around a proposal they thought was the right answer. The new effort is an attempt to pick a center between the two parties. The credibility that once came from being at least somewhat outside the political system has been traded for the possible influence that comes from working within it."

Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic on the inevitably growing budget Whether the Simpson-Bowles plan gets through Congress or not — whether new revenue comes from taxes or increased borrowing, the federal budget is going to increase and fiscal conservatives should get used to it, argues Jonathan Cohn. "'Discretionary spending,' the money that government spends on everything besides entitlements, is already at historic lows," he notes. "Further reductions would push it lower. It’s hard to see how government could function in a way most Americans would find acceptable. Conservatives insist that higher taxes will strangle the economy, a claim that the evidence (from Europe, among other places) doesn’t support. But if we don’t find the money to pay for infrastructure and training tomorrow’s workforce, then we really might be undermining the future."

Richard Weitz in The Diplomat on Obama's second turn toward Asia With North Korea's nuclear program moving forward, Chinese hacking rampant, and tension brewing in Japan, Obama has his work cut out for him in Asia for his second term. But before he pivots to the East, Richard Weitz recommends the President referee his own country's fiscal fight. "Perhaps the most serious challenge for the Obama administration’s Asian policy lies at home," he writes. "The United States faces a tight fiscal environment that will constrain the resources Washington needs to implement its Asian pivot. Even more than further increases in the Pentagon’s budget the United States needs to “rebalance the rebalance”—in other words, to augment the non-military elements of the pivot by increasing the resources available to the U.S. civilian national security agencies."

George Will in The Washington Post on solitary confinement as torture When we think torture, we often think of painful devices or frightening tactics like water-boarding. But one of the simplest ways to torture someone, George Will argues, is to keep them in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, a harrowing experience that about 25,000 inmates in U.S. federal and state supermax prisons have endured. This reality doesn't just test the limits of cruel and unusual punishment, Will writes—it's also wasteful: "Mass incarceration is expensive (California spends almost twice as much on prisons as on universities) and solitary confinement costs, on average, three times as much per inmate as in normal prisons. And remember: Most persons now in solitary confinement will someday be back on America’s streets, some of them rendered psychotic by what are called correctional institutions."

Meghan Daum in the Los Angeles Times on Vassar's Westboro deflection Getting picketed by the deliberately rage-provoking Westboro Baptist Church isn't something any college administrator wants happening on their campus. But liberal arts school Vassar College was able to turn the impending presence of Fred Phelps and his congregation into an unlikely fundraising effort. "An alumnus organized an online fund drive for the Trevor Project, a national LGBT suicide intervention group, with the goal of raising $100 for each of those 45 minutes. Within days, 10 times that amount had been raised," Meghan Daum writes. "And though I fear that the college is essentially functioning as a Westboro publicity machine, I also know that the excellent tactic of just ignoring the church would simply never hold up at a place like Vassar."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.