Five Best Monday Columns

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James Surowiecki in The New Yorker on fixing the European crisis The fundamentals of troubled European economies haven't drastically changed. Instead, the financial crisis they face is largely caused by rising interest rates on their debt and a lack of investor confidence. "The frustrating thing about all this is that there is a ready-made solution. If the European Central Bank were to commit publicly to backstopping Italian and Spanish debt, by buying as many of their bonds as needed, the worries about default would recede and interest rates would fall," Surowiecki argues. He uses the history of central banks to show that it would be within the ECB's role to take these measures, and he describes the political restraints that are causing them not to, including the sense that we shouldn't bail out irresponsible countries. "Plenty of people in Italy and Spain and Greece were irresponsible, and reform is necessary. But destroying the euro in order to teach a lesson is too blunt an instrument," he says.

Bill Keller in The New York Times on the state of economics Bill Keller spent time consulting economists and textbooks to conclude that short-term stimulus really is the scientifically proven way to help us recover from a recession, and yet, for many reasons we've confused ourselves on this point.  "I've come to think something is rotten in the state of economics. The dismal science, as Thomas Carlyle called it, has been ravaged by the same virus that has corrupted the rest of our national discourse." Keller describes the negative impact of our widened political discourse in which the "loudest voices" tend to break through the clutter best, and he says economists sign onto more extreme theories for similar reasons. Because the internet allows anyone to be an expert, people can cherry pick opinions from the mass of information. "I've never in my professional life seen the disjunction between the political debate about economics and the consensus of economists be as large as it is today," he quotes one economist saying.  

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Simon Gass in The Washington Post on funding Afghanistan's security In Afghanistan, there are signs the Taliban has been weakened by the U.S. and NATO troop surge, which is accelerating our ability to transition out of the country by 2014. "The good news is that Afghanistan has huge mineral resources ... that, in time, will allow its government to pay its bills ... Until then, however, we should be willing to help pay for and train Afghanistan's armed forces and offer development assistance," writes Gass, the senior civilian NATO representative in Afghanistan. He describes the reason for optimism there, but also the challenges that the new armed forces will face when we leave. He notes our interest in keeping Afghanistan from becoming a security risk to America again, and the relatively small cost of keeping their armed forces funded. "If we tighten the purse strings too early, we will risk all the gains we have made at such cost."

Noah Feldman in Bloomberg View in defense of law professors A recent New York Times article revealed a broad dislike for law professors, whom critics accuse of being too scholarly and unconcerned with the real practice of law. "I think the dislike, though, is a result of law professors being too much in the world," writes Feldman, himself a Harvard law professor. "As an elite within an elite, law professors deserve a close look, and a bit of an explanation about how they think." Feldman lists several prominent policy makers and elites, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, who have worked as law professors and influence today's discourse. These people rise because they share the similar habit of thinking abstractly about how government should be working and comparing it to how it does work. He says this method makes them good at forming new, progressive policies and means they get praise from colleagues for influencing the modern world. "So don't expect law professors to begin restricting themselves to doing obscure and technical legal doctrine," he writes. 

James Carroll in The Boston Globe on 'the city on the hill' Newt Gingrich has revived a prominent political catch phrase, "the city on the hill," evoked by John Winthrop in a 1630 sermon, and since taken up by Kennedy, Reagan, and Sarah Palin. "Yet in evoking Winthrop's image over and over, neither Reagan nor his followers considered what the City on a Hill of the Puritan forebears actually was. In fact, it was anything but an experiment in democratic liberalism or political freedom," Carroll writes. John Winthrop's Puritanism used God as justification to war with natives, to banish ideological diversity, and to infuse government with religion. Though later users of the phrase also evoke God and discuss American exceptionalism, our exceptional contributions to ideas of freedom and democracy came after Winthrop. "[T]his nation's genius arose not as a gift from God, but as a challenge to those cloaking totalitarian impulses in appeals to God. Not a city on a hill, but a nation down to earth," Carroll writes.

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