Five Best Wednesday Columns

Dana Milbank on Hagel's confirmation, Sheila Bair on why the GOP should care about income inequality, Richard Karlgaard on Wal-Mart's dipping sales, Simon Jenkins on Europe's resurgent populism, and Mathew Ingram on new anti-piracy rules. 

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Dana Milbank in The Washington Post on Hagel's confirmation Former Senator Chuck Hagel was finally confirmed as secretary of defense yesterday, but only after having to sit through more unfounded allegations and ugly insinuations from Republicans like Jim Inhofe, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul. Reports in the conservative media about Hagel's supposed appearances before extremist groups like Friends of Hamas (no such group exists) have been widely discredited, yet Republican Senators continued to harp on these criticisms even while giving up on filibustering Hagel further. "These gentlemen seemed not to grasp that the extraordinary variable here was not Hagel’s candidacy but their unprecedented level of opposition, directed at a former colleague who had become an Obama supporter," argues Dana Milbank. But no harm done to the U.S.'s new Pentagon head, Milbank writes (sarcastically), "They merely suggested that he is on the payroll of terrorists and in the pockets of America’s enemies."

Sheila Bair in The New York Times on why the GOP should care about income inequality As a committed Republican and believer in capitalism, former FDIC chairwoman Sheila Bair says that she believes "some level of income inequality is both inevitable and desirable." But there's a point at which governments allow the chasm between rich and poor to grow so wide that it begins to harm economic morale. And the U.S. may have reached that point in the last few years, she argues. "This is not a situation that any freethinking Republican should accept," she writes. "Skewing income toward the upper, upper class hurts our economy because the rich tend to sit on their money — unlike lower- and middle-income people, who spend a large share of their paychecks, and hence stimulate economic activity. But more fundamentally, it cuts against everything our country and my party stand for. Government’s role should not be to rig the game in favor of 'the haves' but to make sure 'the have-nots' are given a fair shot."

Richard Karlgaard in The Wall Street Journal on Wal-Mart's dipping sales Speaking of haves and have-nots, these two camps may react to news about Wal-Mart's underperforming February differently, but Rich Karlgaard says we should all be concerned to see the retail behemoth suffer. "It once was true that as General Motors goes, so goes the U.S. economy," he writes. "Today that is truer of Wal-Mart, and that's a problem. The political left loves to see the Bentonville Union Bashers suffer a bit, but does Wal-Mart's bad February herald another recession? If so, what would that do for the Obama administration's recovery narrative and credibility? If higher gas prices and lower income levels represent a new normal, consumer spending is in trouble — and with it, the fortunes of both Wal-Mart and the U.S. economy at large."

Simon Jenkins in The Guardian on Europe's resurgent populism Elections in Europe have been getting a jolt from populist political movements lately, notes Simon Jenkins. Take the results from this week's Italian election, which put Beppe Grillo — a satirist and fierce opponent of austerity measures — at the top, reflecting voters refusal to stomach any more automatic budgetary belt-tightening. "In Greece and Spain, unemployment is touching an appalling quarter of the workforce. France is in trouble and, even in Germany, the strain is telling as growth falls," Simon Jenkins writes, setting context for Grillo's win. "Wildcat populism always terrifies the existing order. In America it is the Tea Party and Occupy. In Scandinavia, Holland, Austria and France, a communist, poujardist or fascist periodically crashes the system. Mosley did it in pre-war Britain. Since then Powellism, nationalism, Respect, even the odd Liberal has threatened, for a while, to upset the bipartisan apple cart. It seldom lasts. Italian politics will establish a new equilibrium. If lucky it will be outside the euro and on the way to recovery; if not it will be in lifetime bondage to eurozone bankers. Either way Italy will remember the heady moment of February 2013, and so should we."

Mathew Ingram in GigaOm on new anti-piracy rules The Copyright Alert System went into effect this week, setting up a system that warns net surfers when they're coming up on six copyright infringement strikes. Should we be worried about the precedent this sets for maintaing and free and open Internet? Mathew Ingram says yes, we should be a little bit worried about how this empowers copyright-holding companies to essentially create what act like laws, how it doesn't take fair use into account, and what it does to online privacy. "One fear about the six-strikes process is that it is just the latest move in an ongoing attempt by copyright holders and content companies to exert more and more control over what users can do, and that allowing it to proceed only encourages them to pursue even harsher measures such as SOPA and PIPA," Ingram writes. But there are other reasons not to worry, he notes. "Even if you do get flagged for something, the worst that most of the ISPs say they will do is limit your download speeds, show you popup warnings or send annoying emails. And some have said even if you ignore them, nothing will happen (although they could always change their minds about that later)."

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