Five Best Thursday Columns

Nicholas Kristof on capitalism, E.J. Dionne on the Vatican, and Jonathan Chait on Paul Ryan.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Nicholas Kristof on 'crony capitalism' Readers often ask Nicholas Kristof if Occupy Wall Street protesters "really are half-naked Communists aiming to bring down the American economic system," he writes in The New York Times. "The answer is no," he says. "On the contrary, [Occupy Wall Street] highlights the need to restore basic capitalist principles like accountability," or to save the system from "crony capitalism." Kristof says he's "as passionate a believer in capitalism as anyone." But in recent years, the system has allowed financiers more than a "fair share," which, once achieved, is only natural for them to want to keep. Furthermore, capitalism succeeds because it provides the possibility of bankruptcy and failure. "It's the possibility of failure that creates the opportunity for triumph. Yet many of America's major banks are too big to fail, so they can privatize profits while socializing risk." It isn't just the protesters making these claims. Without structural changes to this system, Paul Volcker noted this month, we can look forward to "increasingly frequent, complex and dangerous financial breakdowns." Some inequality in an economy provides incentives, Kristof notes, but too much can be harmful. "First, the very wealthy lobby for favors, contracts and bailouts that distort markets; and, second, growing inequality undermines the ability of the poorest to invest in their own education," which generates still more inequality. That's why Kristof thinks the crisis facing capitalism comes not from protesters but from a banking system with no accountability.

E.J. Dionne on the Vatican's progressive policies "Is Pope Benedict XVI joining the protest movement?" asks E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post. "The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a strong and thoughtful critique of the global financial system this week that paralleled many of the criticisms of unchecked capitalism that are echoing through Lower Manhattan and cities around the world," he writes. The report advocated for political regulation that advocates the common good and for an "international authority to oversee the global economy," though the Vatican carefully noted that its report was coincidental with, not related to, global Occupy protests. Catholic conservatives, Dionne says, sought to discredit the document, saying the "small office" doesn't speak for the pope or the church as a whole. "It is always entertaining for those of us who are liberal Catholics to watch our conservative Catholic friends try to wriggle around the fact that, on the matters of social justice and the economy, Catholic social teaching is, by any measure, 'progressive,'" Dionne says. Conservatives complain that liberal Catholics pick from the church's teachings, but so too do conservatives ignore "what Pope John Paul II called the 'idolatry of the market.'" Actually, the document echoed Pope Benedict's recent encyclical where he "spoke explicitly of the need for a global political authority to keep watch on an increasingly integrated world economy." Most importantly, the document "reflects an ethical approach to economics that is shared well beyond Catholic circles." It talks of the challenges of globalization and of implementing an international authority. Furthermore, "If our religious leaders won't challenge us to love mercy and do justice, who will?"

Joshua Green on Obama's reelection strategy With stubbornly high unemployment, slow recovery, and low job approval numbers, Obama's chances of reelection look unlikely, writes Joshua Green in The Boston Globe. "But the news isn't all bad. Obama remains personally popular -- remarkably so, given all this lousy news. And he continues to amass a set of accomplishments that, taken together, could supply his reelection campaign with a compelling narrative," Green writes. He has corrected or improved many of the problems "bequeathed him by his predecessor, George W. Bush." He ran on an anti-Iraq war campaign, and he has kept his promise to end it. That "should resonate even with voters frustrated about the economy. So should his record of dispatching terrorists and dictators." On the trickier issue of the economy,  "two successes stand out," Green says. "First, the Troubled Asset Relief Fund - the bailout - initiated under Bush has been almost entirely repaid under Obama's stewardship, and money lent to Wall Street banks has earned taxpayers a profit." Second, he has initiated banking reforms that, though they don't go far enough for Occupy Wall Street protesters, go much further than the repeal proposed by Republican opponents. Whoever gets the White House in 2013 will still have to find a way to help the economy recover, but Obama's path, letting the Bush tax cuts expire and raising taxes on the wealthy, is one preferred by most voters. "Despite all this," Obama's campaign doesn't often bring up Bush. "Certainly, pinning every misfortune on one's predecessor would wear on the public .. As reelection strategies go, this is far from ideal. But it may be Obama's best bet."

Simon Sebag Montefiore on the death of tyrants "The political lives of tyrants play out human affairs with a special intensity: the death of a democratic leader long after his retirement is a private matter, but the death of a tyrant is always a political act that reflects the character of his power," writes Simon Sebag Montefiore in an essay for The New York Times. If a tyrant dies in his bed, "his death is a theater of that power," but if he's executed as Qaddafi was, it reflects "a fallen regime." "This was never truer than in the death, last week, of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The only difference between his death and those of so many other tyrants across history was that it was filmed with mobile phones." In Biblical and modern times, there have been examples of even more brutal takedowns of tyrants. Iraqis reportedly played soccer with the head of their 23-year-old King Faisal II. "Western leaders and intellectuals find Colonel Qaddafi's lynching distasteful," yet the problem with dictators is that while they live, they "reign and terrorize." "Only death can end both the spell to bewitch and the prerogative to dominate." Even with cell-phone footage available, a mile-long line of Libyans paraded past Qaddafi's body to convince themselves he was gone. Leaders like Catherine the Great have even been haunted by imposters posing as the dead leaders they deposed, but in the age of the cell phone, it is harder for Qaddafi to maintain that kind of post-mortem "mystique." Qaddafi "thrived in the age of television," and thus he found "an entirely fitting end." "If a tyrant cannot die in his own bed, the best he can do is try to stage manage his downfall, because such characters find it unthinkable to exist without ruling." Qaddafi was unable to manage his own downfall by retiring or standing trial. "this monstrous poseur totally bungled his own death. He should have followed the example of Hitler, who died on his own terms, or Charles I, who said just before he was executed, "I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world."

Jonathan Chait on Paul Ryan and income inequality "Rising income inequality," writes Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine, "is an ideologically inconvenient issue for conservatives." Yet the fact that income inequality is growing ever greater is "stark." Our debate, though, is between Democrats who want "to slightly arrest the growth of inequality by hiking taxes on the rich a few percentage points" and Republicans, who want "to slash taxes for the rich and programs for the poor, thereby massively increasing inequality." Rather than defend the position, the right denies the facts, Chait says. Rep. Paul Ryan spoke to the Heritage Foundation, and he gave a "portrait of a mind in the grips of an ideological fantasy." One reason he gave for opposing tax hikes on the rich is because it won't raise very much money. "A 100 percent tax rate on their total annual income would only fund the government for six months," he said. Chait counters, "Another way to put this is that the richest 1 percent of taxpayers earn 17 percent of the nation's income." Ryan then contrasts European "class-bound society" with America's "economic opportunity," saying that in Europe, "Top-heavy welfare states have replaced the traditional aristocracies, and masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class." Chait says, "Unfortunately, Ryan's understanding of reality is a complete inversion of actual reality" in America where rich children are provided vastly better educations and even poor children who overcome odds and go to college are less likely to graduate. "Ryan's decision to cite Europe as a place where people can't move beyond their birth station is especially unfortunate. In fact, social mobility in Europe is higher than in the United States," Ryan can be understood as someone who is "deeply influenced by the theories of Ayn Rand," who feared redistribution of wealth, and at a time in America's history where Russian Communism gave legitimate real-world cause for that fear. "The world of Rand's imagination bore a slight resemblance to the world she inhabited," Chait writes, "but it bears no resemblance to the contemporary United States."

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