Five Best Thursday Columns

Gail Collins on Iowa, Komail Aijazuddin on Pakistan, George Will on bone marrow transplants, Adam Davidson on U.S competitiveness, and Philip Gourevitch on Syria.

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Gail Collins in The New York Times on the Iowa caucuses The Iowa caucuses are quickly approaching as coverage of them in the media picks up. "Perhaps this would be a good time to point out that the Iowa caucuses are really ridiculous," writes Collins. She notes that voting is restricted both by the Iowa winters and by registration rules such that Republicans are hoping for 100,000 people to weigh in. She draws a series of comparisons to point out that this is not a whole lot of people. ("That is approximately the number of people who go to Michigan Stadium to watch the Wolverines play football.") The caucuses encourage people to vote for candidates whom they've met during the campaign, though major Republican candidates haven't spent much time there. She rehashes arguments that the group is unrepresentative of the nation's electorate. And yet, "The whole world will be watching. The cookies will be excellent."

Komail Aijazuddin in The New Republic on Pakistan's rumored coup d'etat Rumors in the Pakistani and international media suggest the military may oust Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari. "And yet, there are a number of reasons why a coup seems unlikely, at least at the moment," writes Aijazuddin. First, he describes the source of the rumors, chiefly a memo Zardari's administration wrote to the U.S. asking for support and rumors of a meeting between top military leaders to plan the coup. Yet, the rise of a popular third party led by former cricketer Imran Khan also suggests there's no need to stage a coup. Most of all, Aijazuddin says there's a hope in the country to have a successful transition from one government to another without the military, something the nation has yet to accomplish. "Should the army try to depose an elected government now, even one with a leader as unpopular as President Zardari, there is likely to be a major fallout."

George Will in The Washington Post on the 9th Circuit Court and bone marrow The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that bone marrow transplant donors can be paid, effectively revising the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act. Was this 'judicial activism' ... Or was it proper judicial engagement ... ? Herewith an example of a court's conscientious application of law in light of a pertinent change — a technological change — in a medical sphere the law regulates." NOTA was passed to prevent affluent patients in need of an organ from outranking the less fortunate, but it also creates a shortage of marrow for those with lethal blood diseases. A new medical technique called apheresis allows doctors to extract marrow using a less risky procedure, and the court ruled that because the procedure didn't exist when the law was drafted, it isn't covered. Will says the 9th Circuit Court could have gone further to strike down NOTA altogether, but "Pushing back against the too-permissive rational basis test is a project for another day."

Adam Davidson in The New York Times Magazine on investing in research and development During World War II, DuPont provided nylon to the military but also put research into developing materials for women's underwear, helping it smoothly transition into the industrial giant it became in the post-war era. "The image of thousands of industrial researchers in white lab coats and thick black glasses may seem antiquated, but corporate research and development is more important to our economy now than ever," writes Davidson. Our work force gets much more if we invent products in the U.S. not in China, but incentives for long term research and development aren't high enough for companies to look further than two years into the future. China is already looking to breakthroughs that will come in the 2020s, and America needs to find a way to get its industry to reinvest in R and D as well, or we won't like the way our economy looks. "The question of how U.S. companies will make a buck has probably never been more important."

Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker on Syrian intervention Since this spring, Syria's regime led by Bashar al Asad has killed over 5,000 of its citizens, according to the U.N. But for several reasons, we're unlikely to see a foreign intervention like the one that deposed Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, writes Gourevitch. The pressure of a massacre made visible by cell phones and technology has forced the Arab League to condemn Asad's actions and attempt to enforce monitors and other controls, but the killing continues. Gourevitch describes the complex politics involved, in which many old-guard Arab leaders who denounce Asad have interest in his ousting. Meanwhile, many other countries fear the destabilization of regime change. He notes that the Libyan intervention was initially seen as a victory for those who support the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, but Syria has quickly shown Libya to be a specific and unique opportunity, not a new era of foreign intervention. "War is, as it always was, not a humanitarian but a political undertaking."

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