Five Best Thursday Columns

Dysfunction on the Hill, a modern-day 'Grapes of Wrath', and Herman Cain as a credible candidate.

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Ezra Klein on a modern-day Grapes of Wrath "Want to learn about the plight of unemployed workers during the Great Depression? Head to and order John Steinbeck's Depression-era epic, The Grapes of Wrath," writes Ezra Klein in Bloomberg View. "Want to learn about the plight of workers during our own Lesser Depression? Head over to Amazon's warehouse in Lehigh, Pennsylvania, and watch them prepare your book for shipping." In Steinbeck's book, the Joad family travels to California to answer an ad for pea pickers, but when they arrive, thousands are looking for work. Someone put out the ad, one Californian tells Pa Joad, because the worker surplus means they don't have to pay their farmers a good wage. "In a weak labor market, when there are multiple workers aspiring for any one job, unskilled laborers have very little power," Klein notes. This imbalance exists in today's labor market, as you can discover reading an expose on Amazon's warehouse conditions in Allentown, Pennsylvania's Morning Call newspaper. The warehouses are kept so hot during the summer that many workers were treated for heat exhaustion. "Right now, there are about five unemployed Americans for every open job... the Joads would surely recognize the men and women competing to work in that hundred- degree heat, climbing over one another for the chance to support their kids."

George Will on Barney Frank and Fed independence Rep. Barney Frank "wants to strip the presidents of the Fed's 12 regional banks of their right to vote as members of the policymaking Federal Open Market Committee," writes George Will in The Washington Post. This makes him the "certain kind of liberal," Will writes, who "favors mandatory harmony." Five regional bank presidents can vote on the FOMC at one time, and last month, three of them voted against the decision to extend low interest rates. "Frank says he has 'long been troubled' from a 'theoretical democratic standpoint' by the 'anomaly' of important decisions affecting national economic policy being made by persons 'selected with absolutely no public scrutiny or confirmation,'" Will says. Frank worries the bank presidents are selected by an in-bred community of regional bank peers and "overwhelmingly" represent the financial sector and business so "they are not in any way representative of the American economy." "Not 'in any way'?" Will asks. Frank says the 7 to 3 vote for interest rates, "'is clearly less effective' influencing economic behavior than unanimity would be. Therefore, dissent must be discouraged as inimical to the national interest." Frank's opinions are a threat to Fed independence (though with Democrats in the minority, not a huge threat) because he implies that Fed leaders who aren't subject to public election or scrutiny should be eliminated, Will argues, making the Fed more pliant to political cultures. "It is notable that the left now has its Ron Paul. Notable and, in a sense, appropriate because one of liberalism's steady aims is to break more and more institutions to the saddle of centralized power."

Daniel Henninger on Herman Cain's credibility It is the political consensus that Herman Cain has "interesting ideas" but he cannot win the election, because of "that cloudy word 'electability.' Or that Mr. Cain has never held elected political office," writes Daniel Henninger in The Wall Street Journal. Last week, Cain won the Florida straw poll, so Henninger examines what top-tier candidates have that Cain does not. Mitt Romney, unlike Cain has held major political office, but like Cain, he mostly touts his private sector experience. "But measured by résumés, Herman Cain's [experience] looks deeper in terms of working on the private sector's front lines." In the 1970s, Cain moved from Coca-Cola to Pillsbury where he rose quickly. He revived Philadelphia's Burger King franchise for the company, and then he turned around Pillsbury's Godfather Pizza business before buying it off them. As CEO of the National Restaurant Association from 1996 to 1999, he "tried hard to devise a health-insurance program able to serve the needs of an industry whose work force is complex." Thus can we watch him on YouTube confronting Bill Clinton on health care in 1994 saying "The cost of your plan . . . will cause us to eliminate jobs." Henninger says Cain "flounders" because the current debate formats don't allow him to explain this business background or go in depth on his policy proposals. Cain is also interesting because he would compete with Barack Obama for the black vote. "[T]he GOP is desperate for a savior. The reality is that, at some point, Republicans will have to start drilling deeper on their own into the candidates they've got.... Herman Cain is a credible candidate," Henninger says, so Republicans should give him another look.

Marc Thiessen on Republicans "soak the rich" policies President Obama wants America's wealthiest to give back to the federal government. So do Republicans, writes Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post, but they propose a different method for "soaking the rich." Rep. Paul Ryan wants to stop paying out "the billions of dollars in government benefits, taxpayer subsidies and corporate welfare they receive each year and do not need." To help stabilize the struggling entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare, Ryan wants to cut back on benefits paid to the rich. "On Social Security, he says, 'you can get the bulk of your way to solvency without tax increases by indexing benefits so that they don't grow as fast for wealthier people." John Boehner, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney have all also expressed support for "means testing" to ensure they aren't subsidizing Medicare benefits for those who need it least. Sen. Tom Coburn says unemployment benefits are being paid out to non-working people who still report incomes of over $1 million. Means testing could also be applied to D.C. tuition assistance programs and farm subsidies. Obama constantly reminds voters of Republican support for numerous tax breaks and loopholes that benefit millionaires. But Republicans would support eliminating all of those, Ryan says, in exchange for an overhaul of the tax code. "With all the benefit cuts he has proposed for wealthy Americans, is Paul Ryan a 'soak the rich Republican'?" Thiessen asks. " 'No,' he says with a smile, 'I just don’t spend money on them.'"

Gail Collins on the Hill's dysfunction and.. Willow the cat "Let's focus today on the fact that Congress appears to have reached a deal to keep the government operating for seven more weeks," writes Gail Collins in The New York Times. The government nearly stalemated this time, she says, because Republicans thought this year's extra FEMA expenditures should be paired with cuts elsewhere. Democrats said traditionally, the government just swallows these disaster costs. "O.K., I can hear you all asking: Whatever happened to Willow the cat?" Collins says in an attempt to distract disheartened readers with a more heart-warming news story. Willow disappeared from her home in Colarado but got a lot of media attention when she showed up in New York City five years later. Okay, "Back to Congress," Collins says. Twelve Republicans voted against the bill to keep the government running. Sen. Marco Rubio voted no "because he wanted to protest 'this dysfunctional Washington way' of running the government. This is a little like protesting the slowness of rush-hour traffic by abandoning your car in the center lane," Collins says. Frustrated, she once again distracts us with news of Willow the cat, but alas, "during one of her TV reunions, Willow bit her owners' 3-year-old daughter... Maybe she liked living in New York." So Collins returns to Congress, where another bill designed to keep the government running for four days while Congress is on vacation is also expected to pass in the House. "The bill is supposed to be passed on Thursday in an empty chamber. If a single representative shows up and objects, the four-day funding bill is dead and the government shuts down this weekend." No one would be "crazy enough" to fly back to Washington and shut down the government, right? " Actually, the possibility had Republican leaders so worried, they "made a list of the most free-spirited members of the Tea Party cadre and got commitments from everyone to get through the weekend with the Grand Canyon open for business." It is "good news" that no one wants to single-handedly shut down the government, Collins says, gloomily surmising, "Ever lower, goes the bar."

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