Five Best Friday Columns

Chris Christie's weight, the Iraq withdrawal, and funding for Catholic schools.

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Michael Kinsley on Christie's weight "Look, I'm sorry, but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cannot be president: He is just too fat," writes Michael Kinsley in Bloomberg View. Perhaps Americans could learn to overlook it, he says, but they shouldn't. Kinsley imagines how conservatives would rebut this: "Liberals, who embrace diversity of all other kinds... have the unmitigated gall to encourage discrimination against a truly oppressed group: people of weight." Still others might argue that Christie's weight might establish him as an "everyman," an outsider immune to the trends of urban elite. Indeed, there is a growing number of overweight voters, but rarely an overweight official to "represent" them, Kinsley notes skeptically. "Republicans insist that raising taxes on the rich is bad politics because most Americans hope to be rich eventually. Most overweight people hope to be thin eventually. So appealing to them in this way may not work." We've forgiven other presidents their vices before, he says, "So why should Christie's weight be more than we can bear in a president?" "One reason is that a presidential candidate should be judged on behavior and character, not just on policies," and Christie has shown he does not have "discipline" to portion what he eats and to exercise. "Christie could thin down, and he should -- because the obesity epidemic is real and dangerous. And the president inevitably sets an example." Secondly, there is the symbolism: his weight as a metaphor for America's spending and over-consumption. "Perhaps Christie is the one to help us get our national appetites under control. But it would help if he got his own under control first."

Peter Van Buren on the Iraqis left behind "On Saturday, control of the United States mission in Iraq will formally pass from the military to the State Department," writes Peter Van Buren in The New York Times. Van Buren spent two years with the State Department working outside Baghdad, and he is pessimistic the department will improve the situation there. "I am still haunted by the Iraqis we left behind," he writes. In Iraq, there often wasn't much he felt he could do for suffering civilians. He met an Iraqi who noted the United States had sponsored art shows in his neighborhood three years running, but had yet to fix the non-functioning sewers, electricity, or water supply. "When my team tried to give away fruit tree seedlings to replant ruined orchards, a farmer spat on the ground and said, 'You killed my son and now you are giving me a tree?'" He particularly remembers an interpreter whom he calls Aida. She had been an English professor and to attain that position she'd needed to join Saddam Hussein's Baath party. "Then, after the American invasion, she was fired as part of the de-Baathification process that swept up everyone from preschool teachers to Chemical Ali, a notoriously bloodthirsty henchman of Hussein's." She did simple, boring translation work for Americans and often felt she was at personal risk by helping them, but her family needed her income. When Van Buren's regional team shut down, she was once again out of work. "As we celebrate in some odd way the transition from military to civilian control of the mission in Iraq, it remains important for Americans to know that this is part of what 'victory' looks like." Without a planned refugee program, the U.S. won't be able to protect those that helped them.

Richard Riordan on Catholic schools "Catholic education in the United States is in dire straits," writes Richard Riordan, former mayor of Los Angeles, in The Wall Street Journal. Catholic schools graduate 98 percent of their students and send most of them to college, but enrollment fell 20 percent in the past ten years, and schools continue to close. "This trend is due not to lack of demand, but to the inability of parents to pay tuition," he says. The urban poor, especially, need access to Catholic schools where urban public schools have failed. Riordan himself got "a very good education" in Catholic schools from grammar school through college, he writes. Charter Schools offer a similar answer where public schools have failed, but the publicly funded schools will never have capacity to serve everyone. "Catholic schools infuse beliefs, values and standards that children will carry all their lives. They provide a safe learning environment for those from high-crime neighborhoods as well as structure and a faith-based education." Many non-Catholics attend Catholic schools, he writes. The Los Angeles Catholic Education Foundation received 17,500 applications for financial aid last year, and 17,000 of them qualified, but the funds were lacking. The group hopes to raise $100 million for its endowment to better fund these applicants. As mayor, Riordan says he encountered a surprising number of successful people around him were Catholic school alums. "Each of us, no matter what career we have followed, has an obligation to educate the next generation."

Harold Meyerson on the proposed Chinese tariff The Senate will vote Monday on a bill to impose tariffs on Chinese imports. The bill has bipartisan support and is likely to pass. "For students of America's deranged romance with free trade, the fact that the Senate is willing to take on China is little short of amazing," writes Harold Meyerson in The Washington Post. It is the House that usually opposes free trade. Congressmen hear more immediate feedback from districts who will be hurt by departing manufacturers, whereas the Senate hears more about the theoretical wisdom of free trade from the Beltway. "Between 2001 and 2010, the U.S. trade deficit with China cost Americans 2.8 million jobs, according to a report by economist Robert Scott." It wasn't just because of cheaper labor or more generous corporate subsidies. By buying dollars, China has prevented its currency value from rising along with its growing prosperity. "Data like these have been floating around for years, of course. Until now, however, the Senate has remained largely impervious to the evidence of Chinese cheating and American decay." But increasingly the Senate is hearing arguments that without manufacturing, we lose our innovation, because the two go hand in hand. Typically Wall Street, which has benefited from the shift away from manufacturing, opposes these arguments, and it is opposing this week's bill. That's why the House leaders have already claimed they won't bring it up for a vote. They "don't want to jeopardize their assiduously cultivated Wall Street funding." Republican candidates, though, hear the public opinion, and Romney has vowed to impose a tariff when elected. "Our current president, meanwhile, has maintained a discreet silence on the Senate bill," a silence Meyerson says he needs to break.

Todd Zywicki on debit card fees Saturday, government price controls on debit card interchange fees will take effect, the result of the Durbin amendment to the Dodd-Frank law. Big retailers like Wal-Mart will gain millions, writes Todd Zywicki in The Wall Street Journal. The Durbin Amendment tasked the Federal Reserve with cutting interchange fees, and the Fed slashed them by half. Now banks will take an average of 24 cents per transaction down from 44 cents per transaction. Banks are now imposing monthly maintenance fees on checking and debit accounts to make up for the lost revenue. The wealthiest account holders can maintain high enough balances to avoid the fees, but as many as one million consumers who used to bank will likely drop out of the system because of the new costs. Instead, they will "turn to check cashers, pawn shops and high-fee prepaid cards." "Consumers will also be encouraged to shift from debit cards to more profitable alternatives such as credit cards." This will put off some of the costs of the Durbin Amendment, but will cut some of the money retailers hoped to earn from it, so they will likely ask Washington to extend control to credit card transaction fees as well. "Finally, retail banks will be looking for new ways to cut costs to offset the expected loss of revenues from the Durbin amendment." Customers will see fewer branches and less service. "Conceived of as a narrow special-interest giveaway to large retailers, the Durbin amendment will have long-term consequences for the consumer banking system," he writes. It will mostly affect lower-income customers, and "banking will become less innovative and consumer friendly."

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