Five Best Monday Columns
Christian conservatives, the Ladies in White, and saving bookstores
Ross Douthat on liberal misconceptions of the religious right During George W. Bush's presidency, some liberals tended to see the rise of religious conservatives as more than a political threat. "Rather, it was an essentially illiberal force, bent on gradually replacing our secular republic with what Kevin Phillips's 2006 best seller dubbed an 'American Theocracy,'" writes Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Journalists are right to probe politicians who "wear their religion on their sleeves" about their beliefs, but they should keep in mind some points, Douthat writes. First, conservative Christianity is a large, complex community of diverse beliefs. "It's easy to succumb to a paranoid six-degrees-of-separation game, in which the most radical figure in a particular community is always the most important one," he says. Second, journalists should "avoid double standards. If you roll your eyes when conservatives trumpet Barack Obama's links to Chicago socialists and academic radicals, you probably shouldn't leap to the conclusion that Bachmann's more outré law school influences prove she's a budding Torquemada." Third, journalists should avoid the language of conspiracy. Just because Bush or others dropped Biblical language into speeches without citing it as such does not mean they were signalling with "code words" or "dog whistles". In fact, "all they're doing is employing the everyday language of an America that's more biblically literate than the national press corps." And lastly, journalists should remember that even when politicians successfully rally the religious right, they do not always follow their agendas once elected. The enthusiasms and excesses of the religious right are not the sign of the movement's success, Douthat reminds us, but in fact, "evidence of its persistent disappointments and defeats."
John Steele Gordon's primer on the national debt When discussing the national debt, people tend to cite different figures. "Some news organizations use the debt held by the public, others use total debt. Still others report total future liabilities of the federal government, without making clear what, exactly, that means," writes John Steele Gordon in The Wall Street Journal. The future liabilities reflect "the future pensions, health care, Social Security payments, etc., that are promised under current legislation." So a simple change in the law could instantly reduce those liabilities by trillions of dollars. While some do not count intra-government debt--Treasury bonds held by other Federal agencies--when calculating the national debt, Gordon argues we ought to. It is likely, he says, that as Social Security's surplus dwindles, that agency, holder of much of this intra-government debt, will redeem its bonds, and Treasury will have to reissue them in the form of public debt. The sum of the public debt and the intra-government debt in August totaled $14.587 trillion. But, he notes, "It's the debt's size relative to gross domestic product that matters, just as personal debts must be measured against a person's income before they can be properly evaluated ... Total debt is now 97.2% of GDP and climbing rapidly." The U.S. has supported higher debt as percentage of GDP in the past, but Gordon is most concerned with the rate at which our proportion is climbing. In the 1990s, the ratio was much lower. "But a president and a Congress committed to reforming Washington's ways face no insuperable problem getting the debt under control," he writes. "No one expects the United States to pay off its debt ... Even in a best-case scenario, the absolute size of the debt will not get smaller. But if we can summon the necessary political will, we can dramatically affect the measure of the debt burden that matters: the debt-to-GDP ratio."
Harry Mount on how bookstores can win Bookshops are going the way of other "shops we like the sound of, even if we do not use them much." The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker all seem charming, but like bookshops, they have dwindled over time. "Independent bookshops have a double charm," writes Harry Mount in the Financial Times. "Not only do they sell much-loved, high-minded objects; but also that word 'independent' brings a warm glow of cheerfully resilient anti-corporatism, of the man in the half-moon specs and cardie who has spent half his life buried in goatskin-bound folios by Thomas Aquinas." Independent bookstores must deal with the same market forces as everyone else, and those market forces do not look good, especially coupled with the rise of Amazon, e-books, and discount chains. But the story of Waterstone, a struggling chain recently bought and turned around by Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, provides hope. The Amazon model has beaten out the need for a bookstore that has an exhaustive selection. If a book is not in stock at the store, Mount can order it on Amazon and have it delivered to his home. So high-end bookstores must provide something that Amazon does not. "If you play the game right, you can turn a profit precisely because you are charming, because you have the right choice of full-price books, and because you accept that Amazon will inevitably do some things better," he writes. "Thousands of candlestick-makers must have cursed Thomas Edison's light bulb. The clever ones got to work on making more beautiful and desirable candlesticks."
John Tamny on Steve Jobs and compensation Steve Jobs' success "speaks to the wonders of capitalism," writes John Tamny in Forbes. He reminded us that the success of an organization hinges on talented individuals, and so everyone from CEOs to athletes who hope to be paid according to their enormous value to their organization should thank him for reminding us of this. "What's perhaps not been stressed enough in the myriad testimonials to Jobs since his announcement is how very little he's been paid by the corporation he's so identified with," Tamny writes. Jobs took a salary of $1, so most of his wealth came from his shares in Apple. "Commentators and politicians who perhaps should know better regularly decry CEO pay, but Jobs' staggering success with Apple shows how very meaningful a skilled chief is to any corporation," Tamny writes. So then, should we stagger CEOs' pay according to their talents? Maybe, but when Jobs came in, we now forget, his record did not necessarily indicate the stunning success he would bring the company. "Jobs has once again raised the bar of possibility when it comes to the impact corporate chiefs can have on company valuations, and the vital few with the rare skill set necessary to build and operate companies will be compensated handsomely as a result." In sports, highly valuable players and coaches should benefit in the same way. They too can mean the difference between a struggling franchise and a championship team. "The point here is that talent matters, and whether it resides within CEOs, athletes or coaches, the value of unique individuals can’t be stressed enough, and can’t be compensated enough," Tamny writes.
Mary Anastasia O'Grady on peaceful protests in Cuba On August 7, government forces assaulted a group of unarmed Cuban women with rocks and iron bars, writes Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal. It was just one of a rising number of incidents in which the government has attempted to crack down on peaceful female dissenters, most prominently a group called the Ladies in White. The regime is risking international rebuke, but its fear shows an insecurity fueled by images of dictators falling across the Middle East. In March 2003, 75 journalists, writers, librarians, and democracy advocates were arrested. The wives and mothers of prisoners began marching silently in protest after Sunday mass. The Ladies in White were born. Cell phones caught the regime's repression. By 2010, the government was embarrassed enough to release the prisoners and send them and their families to Spain. But some refused to leave, and their movement has grown to include "Ladies in Support" in other cities across Cuba. One leader, Laura Pollan, told O'Grady that the group will continue as long as even one political prisoner remains jailed. Their cause is "evidence of a new chapter in Cuban history," O'Grady writes, "and it is being written by women. How it ends may depend heavily on whether the international community supports them or simply shields its eyes from their torment."