Five Best Tuesday Columns
Bret Stephens on Xi Jinping, Frank Bruni on Rick Santorum, Dana Milbank on Obama's budget, Jeffrey Goldberg on homicide rates, and Richard Thaler on incentives for citizenship
Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal on truth-telling in China Media reports in China and the U.S. emphasize Chinese Vice President and heir apparent Xi Jinping's brutal childhood of "reeducation" in the countryside. "The purpose of Mr. Xi's image-making ... is to present him as someone who took his knocks in life and understands what it's like to be dirt poor even as he has risen up the party hierarchy. This, comrades, is baloney," writes Stephens. Wikileaks cables show his education was mostly one in Marxism and he achieved his position at least in part because of his father's prominence. Stephens points to jailed poet and dissident Liu Xiabo and his photographer wife as better examples of those who understand the experience of China's poor and oppressed. Technology, from Twitter-like sites to democracy-promoting singing competitions, is bringing change to China, and Xi will have to confront it. "Renewed attempts to impose ideological conformity will be met only by the kind of cunning subversion that Ms. Liu has helped pioneer."
Frank Bruni in The New York Times on Rick Santorum's wife dodge Rick Santorum excused a section of his 2005 book that argues against "radical feminists" who argue women will find fulfillment in their careers by saying his wife co-wrote the passage. "Once preposterous, his candidacy is newly plausible, giving him fresh motive to blunt some of his divisive edges," Bruni writes, tying it to revisions in his competitors' campaigns. Gingrich, for example, wants us to focus on his Catholicism and stable marriage, not his history of turbulent ones. Ron Paul excuses racist pamphlets from the 1990s saying he didn't approve them. And Romney distances himself from any number of past political stances. Santorum's "dodge" is telling in that it is utterly unconvincing. "Wouldn't it still leave him as the other co-author? Isn't it an ungallant bit of blame shifting? And if he and she weren't on the same page, why was she at the keyboard?"
Dana Milbank in The Washington Post on Obama's budget Gene Sperling, the head of President Obama's National Economic Council, used a wealth of sports metaphors Monday to describe the president's proposed federal budget. "All the sports talk amounted to a head fake, or perhaps a quarterback sneak, because the real game the White House was playing was dodgeball: evading anything resembling a serious budget proposal," writes Milbank. The proposal renegs on a campaign promise to cut the deficit in half by increasing spending and fudging the projected growth figures. Milbank says the President didn't put forward a plan that would be taken seriously, but instead a campaign pitch to act as a foil to the budget Rep. Paul Ryan will likely propose next week. "The White House's budget for fiscal 2013 begins with a broken promise, adds some phony policy assumptions, throws in a few rosy forecasts and omits all kinds of painful decisions."
Jeffrey Goldberg in Bloomberg View on the declining homicide rate Goldberg opens with an anecdote from his time as a crime reporter at The Washington Post covering a homicide and observing children excited to see the scene of a murder. "Washington's problem was severe (and highly symbolic) but not anomalous," but as the murder rate in cities drops, "we are in a period of American history in which everything seems to be getting worse, but here is something that is getting dramatically better." He outlines social theories that predicted the homicide rate would only balloon, but he describes the efforts of D.C.'s police chief Cathy Lanier. Her memories from the time of higher homicide influenced the policies she's put in place to help bring that rate down. Her innovations "suggest it's possible for government to intervene in social crises and fix problems that previously seemed immutable."
Richard Thaler in The New York Times on incentivizing good civics Volkswagon's Swedish division sponsored an initiative encouraging people to take the stairs not the escalator by turning stairs into a musical keyboard. "Government typically use two tools to encourage citizens to engage in civic behavior like paying their taxes, driving safely or recycling their garbage: exhortation and fines. These efforts are often ineffective. So it might be a good time to expand the government's repertory to include positive reinforcement. Rewarding good behavior can work." Thaler gives several examples of governments worldwide using positive reinforcement. Lotteries, in particular, work well because the payoff to just one winner works better psychologically than distributing small sums of money to all who behave well. "The moral here is simple. If governments want to encourage good citizenship, they should try making the desired behavior more fun."