Five Best Tuesday Columns
'The Help,' reforming Libya's education, and examining economic extremism
Joe Nocera Wants Businesses to Solve the Jobs Problem In 2008, rather than lay off workers, German companies reduced employee hours and the government used money set aside to pay people a portion of their lost wages. "As we suffer through our own economic hard times, the German approach is something we can only envy. Here, companies quickly lay off workers, many of whom never find their way back into the full-time labor force," writes Joe Nocera in The New York Times. But the government is looking pretty helpless at this point. "With all their cash, companies shouldn't be waiting for Congress to give them tax incentives to hire people," he writes. "They should be trying to jump-start the economy--and fend off another recession--by making investments, and hiring workers, that will lead to renewed prosperity." Unfortunately a private sector emphasis on promoting "shareholder value" above all else has business leaders focused only on short-term profits. In fact, helping the economy as a whole "get on its feet again," would benefit these companies in the long term. Businesses could enter into a joint commitment facility whereby their promise to hire a certain number of workers would only go into effect if their competitors made a similar promise. That kind of idea might not work, Nocera concedes, but it gets Americans thinking creatively about a job issue that isn't getting solved.
Joanna Weiss on 'The Help,' Barack Obama, and Progress "The Help," a movie based on a bestselling book about black maids in the South, is "the definition of a crowd-pleaser," writes Joanna Weiss in The Boston Globe. "A film that lets us pat ourselves on the back over how far we've come." The movie tells the story of Skeeter, a girl raised by a black maid, that returns from college, interviews many black maids anonymously, and publishes their experiences in a book which influences others. Audiences can celebrate that America no longer resembles the overtly racist society depicted in the film. But Weiss cautions the American audience against just cheering for battles on equality that we have already won. "If we've lost most of our tolerance for stark discrimination, we've moved onto different battles, over subtler ills: embedded prejudices, achievement gaps, structural inequalities." In "The Help," the racists are more cartoonish in their villainy and they get satisfying but mild comeuppances. Americans cheer such plots because we look for validation and symbolism. For instance, Barack Obama won the presidency in part because of what he stood for, Weiss argues. His presidency has not turned out to be quite the transformative unifier that was sought. On the other hand, he does represent the progress we like to applaud in movies like "The Help." After all, "He's not only the first black president now; he's also just the president, capable of plenty of misjudgments and mistakes. If he wins or loses in 2012, it will be largely on his merits, his actions, his ability to translate ideas into a campaign," she writes. "That's not Hollywood-caliber drama, but it’s progress."
Ann Marlowe on the Challenges of Reviving Libyan Education Suliman el Sahli and the Education Working Group are trying to revive Libya's long-malfunctioning education system in liberated regions. "They face a massive task," says Ann Marlowe in The Wall Street Journal. "Nearly everything was wrong with Libyan education at the start of the February 17 revolution." Qaddafi stopped building schools decades ago, stopped raising teacher salaries, and made erratic decisions from the top that left educators unsure what to expect from week to week. The months of battle have created new challenges as well. The schools must deal with children who witnessed atrocities or lost family members and must educate them on avoiding mines. Despite continuing upheaval, "the council is determined to open schools in September--without the Green Book-inflected ideology and with an aim to changing Libyan culture to prepare students for democracy." The current system separates out a small percent in the ninth grade to continue with academic, not vocational, school. The curriculum is narrow and students are not trained in foreign languages. It disproportionately favors the wealthy who can pay for private education. "For the very young, this fall promises much. But many older Libyans must live this moment through their children," Marlowe writes. "Aisha el Sallawi, who has a degree in electrical engineering, apologizes for being unable to speak English: 'I still remember the day they burned the English books at my school. I was crying.'"
Eugene Robinson on the Ames Staw Poll The Ames Iowa straw poll is "one crazy way to pick a major-party candidate for president," reflects Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. "That someone with views as extreme as Bachmann's could win--and that Ron Paul, who seems to inhabit his own little reality, could finish second--would seem to rob the straw poll of all but comic value, making it analogous to the opening joke a speaker might tell to warm up a stone-faced audience," he says. Mitt Romney was the presumed front-runner but now the field seems to have three contenders: Romney, Bachmann, and Perry. President Obama's team has been targeting Romney because he is seemingly the most appealing to independent voterss. "Romney has tried to walk a delicate line, moving far enough to the right to satisfy the party's activist base, including the Tea Party wing, but leaving himself a path back to the center in the general election. It's a smart strategy--but first he has to win the nomination, and he will be hard-pressed to throw red meat to the GOP primary electorate the way Bachmann and Perry can," Robinson writes. Bachmann and Perry are staunchly conservative and this is moving the terms of the debate right, which can only be good for Obama. "The 16,892 Iowans who voted in the straw poll certainly didn’t intend to brighten Obama's prospects of reelection, but that's just what they might have accomplished."
Steven Rattner on Candidates' Economic Extremism The economic policies of Republican presidential candidates "amount to the most radically conservative positions of any set of candidates at least since Barry M. Goldwater in 1964," writes Steven Rattner in The New York Times. In the recent debate, only one candidate, John Huntsman, supported the agreement to raise the debt ceiling. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul said they would have raised it under no circumstances. "Then there's 'cut, cap and balance,' the Tea Party-backed bill that the House passed in the midst of the debt ceiling showdown," Rattner writes. "It would have forced the elimination of a quarter of government spending, down to a share of the economy last reached in 1966." Rick Perry has said he wouldn't have supported any bailouts in 2008. "Without the bailout, initiated by the Bush administration, we would not have a functioning economy today," Rattner says. Perry also wants to repeal the income tax. "Like his fellow aspirants, Mr. Perry has offered no analysis to explain how the government would function under his vision." Bachmann this weekend said in interviews she supports repealing the health care law, the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, opposes extending unemployment benefits, and says auto companies should have been allowed to fail. "Even The Wall Street Journal's editorial page appears unnerved; it called Monday for 'a candidate who can appeal across the party's disparate factions,'" Rattner notes. Keith T. Poole, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego has found that Congress is more polarized than ever, mostly because of Republican moves to the right. "Perhaps these Republican aspirants are simply pandering to antigovernment sentiment and, if elected, would govern more sensibly." We can only hopes so, he says.