Five Best Monday Columns

John Sununu on primaries, Yu Hua on Chinese grievances, Robert Samuelson on the economy and 2012, Kevin Sabet on drug policy, and Nicholas Lemann on Ron Paul.

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Yu Hua in The New York Times on the grievance system in China Each year in China, nearly 10 million complaints are heard through the central government's grievance system, which runs outside the courts. "Victims of corruption and injustice have no faith in the law, and yet they dream that an upright official will emerge to right their wrongs," writes Yu Hua. Though the law has become more established of late, Chinese officials keep the complaint system, perhaps to release some pressure among frustrated citizens. Yu uses anecdotes to show that sometimes just the threat or process of filing a complaint allows citizens to effect change or, less ideally, receive pay-offs from local officials. The payoff system shows how maintaining order outranks resolving corruption. That's why during scandals like the Wukan protests and the Wenzhou train crash, politicians, not courts, dealt with the fallout.

John Sununu in The Boston Globe on the purpose of primaries In the lead up to the Iowa caucuses, we've seen familiar debate over whether the contest is even politically relevant in selecting a nominee. "The very point of a primary system is to elect the strongest and therefore most 'electable' nominee. Despite evidence that this works quite well in practice, the press often views primaries as random nominee generators driven by the whims of some vaguely defined 'base,'" writes Sununu. Iowa's results can be random. They allow the media to say no candidate will be able to pull ahead and to judge candidates on their electability. But Sununu uses historical example to show it's far too early to expect Republican candidates to "break out of the pack." "The primary is meant to be a long process - a test - that forces candidates to organize, raise resources, sharpen their message, and build a broad base. Like democracy itself, it can be a bit messy; but it remains far better than the alternatives."

Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post on the 2012 economy Conventional wisdom says that President Obama's reelection chances are hampered by the weak economy. "Here's what might happen: The economy gradually improves, and although unemployment stays high (exceeding 8 percent), what counts politically is the palpable sense that things are moving in the right direction," Samuelson writes. Whoever wins in an argument over whether Obama's policies are helping us recover or holding us back will likely win the election. But the argument will perhaps be decided by the economy itself. Samuelson says experts do predict a slow recovery in 2012, but notes that some factors don't look great, and optimistic predictions often don't pan out. "Given all the possibilities, handicapping the election based on the economy is nearly futile. It's 2012's political wild card that — when played — may prove decisive, if accidental."

Kevin Sabet in The New York Times on extremism in the drug debate Drug overdoses now outrank automobile accidents as the top cause of accidental death among Americans. "One might expect such news to spur politicians to explore new options for drug abuse treatment, prevention and enforcement. Instead, at precisely the wrong time, extremists on both sides have taken over the conversation," writes Sabet. He says historically, drug policy advances have been forged by moderates, but lately, the only people talking about the problem are libertarians who advocate legalization and hard-liners who advocate only incarceration. But he says "a new range of cost-effective, evidence-based approaches to prevention, treatment and the criminal justice system" now exist and should be drawn upon to find a middle ground. "Most recently, R. Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama's top drug policy adviser, introduced a sensible four-point plan to curb prescription drug abuse ... Yet his plan received little attention from the news media or Capitol Hill."

Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker on Ron Paul's moment Though Republicans will likely nominate Mitt Romney, Ron Paul has become the latest to see a surge in polls and increased media attention. "It seems fitting that the final surge should belong to Ron Paul, who speaks most directly to one of his party's deepest emotions: hostility to government," writes Lemann. He recounts Paul's unique policy positions, giving particular attentions to his beliefs on currency, and notes that those positions are united by a sincere belief in government's harm. Democrats, he says, will benefit in ways from a highlighting of Paul's principles, but the focus on too large government can be persuasive. "Obama would do well to take Paul's success as an opportunity to engage in a debate about fundamentals. He’ll have an easier time governing in practice if he can defend governance in principle."

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