Five Best Wednesday Columns

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Vivek Kundra on cloud computing in the government  When Vivek Kundra joined the Obama administration as its chief information officer, a position he held until last month, he found huge inefficiencies and waste in the federal government's IT budget. Private contractors encourage "reliance on inefficient software and hardware that is expensive to acquire and to maintain." By embracing "cloud computing," Kundra writes in The New York Times, the federal government could save money and increase productivity and security. Cloud computing is "the shift from hardware and software that individuals, businesses and governments buy and then maintain themselves, to low-cost, maintenance-free services that are based on the Internet and run by private companies" like Amazon and Google. "Like a large office building," Kundra writes, "cloud data centers are efficient: many different tenants occupy the same space, sharing the same critical infrastructure, yet each tenant still has its own secure, customizable space." The government has already required agencies to move toward cloud computing, but some, like the State Department, have resisted, citing security concerns. "But cloud computing is often far more secure than traditional computing, because companies like Google and Amazon can attract and retain cyber-security personnel of a higher quality than many governmental agencies." The United States should not abandon the advantages of the cloud, Kundra says, because countries like Japan and India are already embracing it and reaping economic benefits. "One of the critical remaining issues concerning cloud computing is whether cloud data can and should flow between nations and what restrictions should be placed upon it." The United States, he says, should lead in finding solutions for these issues.

Mark Essig on America's wild pig problem  Rick Perry recently signed legislation in Texas that would allow those with a hunting license to shoot feral pigs from helicopters. "Biologists and wildlife officials hope to wipe out feral hogs--which are simply domestic stock turned wild--because they tear up wetlands, kill native vegetation and eat the eggs of turtles and ground-nesting birds," writes Mark Essig in The New York Times. "Farmers detest them because they destroy fences, root up crops and harbor livestock diseases." Most of the wild pig population came from pioneers, who depended on pigs for meat because they bred quickly. Farmers allowed their stock to run wild, keeping them in line with offerings of food. But some pigs chose to run free. "They are tenacious, weedy creatures; release a pair of fat, placid porkers into the woods and within a few generations their descendants will be lean, hairy, tusked beasts, happily dining at a garbage dump, browsing on acorns or rooting for grubs." The pig population is spreading quickly northward because some hunters want to expand hunting programs. To do so, they trap the pigs and release them elsewhere. "Trapping and hunting are important parts of controlling feral pig populations, though aerial shooting is unnecessarily cruel because it often wounds rather than kills," Essig says. Public efforts should be stepped up, and though they are expensive, they will outweigh the millions in damage to farms and crops the pigs currently cause. "Most important, we must deal with the hunters who are helping pigs spread." Laws should be strengthened and "ethical hunters" should spread the word to stop the practice, he writes.

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Dana Milbank on Rick Perry the theocrat  Many observers say Rick Perry will move the Republican party in a libertarian direction. But Perry's not even close to being a libertarian, Milbank says in The Washington Post. "Rick Perry is a theocrat." Milbank proceeds to provide textual evidence from Perry's books. "By his own account, he is a cultural warrior, seeking to save marriage, Christmas and the Boy Scouts from liberals, gay people and moral relativism." His most recent book, inspired by the Tea Party movement, mostly puts aside these social issues, but in his 2008 book On My Honor, he likens homosexuality to alcoholism, Perry writes that "the radical homosexual movement seeks societal normalization of their sexual activity. . . . They must respect the right of millions in society to refuse to normalize their behavior." His politics are more religiously infused than those of any mainstream politician we have seen of late, Milbank says. He cites several quotes from the book touching on Christianity. Among them, "the governor forecasts divine punishment for those who hold different political views. 'Shall they stand before God and brag that they fought to scrub His glorious name from the nation's pledge?' he asks. 'Shall they seek His approval for attacking private organizations merely because these organizations proclaim His existence?'" Says Milbank, "My problem with Perry’s zeal is one of my problems with the Tea Party generally: Though it claims to be libertarian, it is remixing the religious right's greatest hits."

P.J. Crowley on WikiLeaks' harm  P.J. Crowley may have lost his job at the State Department criticizing U.S. treatment of WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning, but that doesn't mean he supports WikiLeaks. This week, WikiLeaks released 134,000 more cables, but instead of using the mainstream media and carefully redacting the names of those harmed, they "dropped the massive trove hurriedly and wholesale," writes Crowley in The Daily Beast. "With the new revelations, familiar questions rise again. What will the damage be? Aren't you overreacting? Doesn't this put the United States in a favorable light?" Damage, Crowley asserts, has been done to U.S. relationships abroad, and it will be again with the latest release. "Even though the cables involve lots of truth telling, no population wants to see its laundry hung on the front page of the world's leading newspapers," he writes. "Just as before, a couple of ambassadors will have tours curtailed because the host country resents their candid reporting. It doesn't sound like much, but having experienced and effective ambassadors at posts in troubled countries matters. Think Syria." Julian Assange measures damage by whether anyone died, but the effect of his information dump is more complicated than that. "Lives have been fundamentally changed--people forced to move to new countries, jailed, fired, or threatened." The cables did not reveal scandal, just State Department officials candidly reporting on their assignments. Assange thus did not accomplish any changes in U.S. policy. His efforts did lead to poorer information. Foreign governments are less candid with American officials. "Reporting cables are still written, but they are less robust and seen by fewer people. The good stuff is still sent to Washington, but via email or phone. Why is this harmful? It undoes some of the progress made after 9/11 to push information out of agency silos and share it widely across the government," he writes. We don't know whether we will fail to connect crucial dots between agencies in the future, but "none of this helps."

Mark Thoma on the disabling divide in macroeconomics  "What caused the financial crisis that is still reverberating through the global economy?" asks Mark Thoma in The Fiscal Times. "Last week's 4th Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany--a meeting that brings Nobel laureates in economics together with several hundred young economists from all over the world--illustrates how little agreement there is on the answer to this important question." Economists offered all sorts of conflicting answers like "the banks, the Fed, too much regulation, too little regulation, Fannie and Freddie, moral hazard from too-big-to-fail banks, bad and intentionally misleading accounting, irrational exuberance, faulty models, and the ratings agencies." This lack of consensus among the world's most renowned economists is troubling, Thoma writes, because we cannot find a solution to a problem we do not agree on. Perhaps we could try to fix all the potential problems cited. "But that unnecessarily constrains a whole range of activities in the hope that we limit the particular behaviors at the root of the crisis. That's an inefficient way to fix the problem. And in any case, how do you proceed when some of the causes cited by economists are at odds with each other?" The truth is, macroeconomists have not yet agreed on a single model for the economy. Because economic theories are applied to historical, not experimental, data, economists can come up with multiple theories that explain the past equally well. "This problem is not just of concern to macroeconomists; it has contributed to the dysfunction we are seeing in Washington as well. When Republicans need to find support for policies such as deregulation, they can enlist prominent economists--Nobel laureates perhaps--to back them up. Similarly, when Democrats need support for proposals to increase regulation, they can also count noted economists in their camp." Thoma says he hoped that a cycle-interrupting cataclysm like the 2008 crisis would provide enough new macroeconomic data to support one theory over another--he thinks it supports demand side over supply side. In fact, economists have just used it to back up their previously held positions and "dig in their heels," making our debates "larger and more contentious than ever."

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