Five Best Wednesday Columns

Justin Wolfers on the stimulus, Dana Milbank on Kerry, Robin Harding on stagnation, Aaron David Miller on the Middle East, and Jonathan Bernstein on polarization. 

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Dana Milbank in The Washington Post on why John Kerry's failure to broker a ceasefire in Gaza reflects his overambitious foreign policy. Milbank writes that after Kerry's latest setback in mediating peace in Gaza, Kerry is learning his own limits. "Kerry, former chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, had been rumored as a possible secretary of state since at least 2000. After getting the job in 2013, he’s been making up for lost time. With a golden retriever’s enthusiasm, he has thrust himself into crisis after crisis. But breakthroughs have eluded him; the world has become more unstable and U.S. influence less effective." He concludes that "Kerry deserves credit for trying. But his nearly 18 months on the job are a lesson in humility — not just for Kerry but for those in Congress who smugly second-guess the officials they oversee. Leading the world is harder than it looks."

Justin Wolfers in The New York Times on why the effectiveness of the Obama stimulus is a political issue not an economic one. Wolfers cites a University of Chicago survey of top economists, which asks whether or not the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act helped stimulate the economy. "The economists surveyed constitute a good sample of the leading economists in the nation, and the panel was chosen to be geographically diverse, to include older and younger economists, and importantly, to include Democrats, Republicans and independents. The most important qualification is that these are top-notch economists: senior faculty at the leading economics departments in the United States who are also vitally interested in public policy." Wolfers then summarizes the findings: "Among those who responded, 36 agreed that the stimulus bill had lowered the unemployment rate, while one disagreed...   Indeed, the best research into the views of economists finds that this consensus is pervasive across a range of issues. Call it the hidden consensus in economics. It’s there, but remains largely out of sight, because in a competitive political system there’s always an incentive for at least some advocates to try to portray any empirical claim as deeply contested."

Robin Harding in The Financial Times on why U.S. economic stagnation is more likely, and more dangerous, than the possibility of an asset bubble. Harding suggests that we shouldn't be worried about the danger of low interest rates and rising inflation. Instead, we should worry about a lack of demand in the economy. "The gloomier alternative is that interest rates are low for good reason, and likely to stay that way. In that case, high asset prices make sense, because demand for new investment is miserable and unlikely to accelerate. Investors will not suffer upfront losses on their portfolios, but returns will stay low for a long time. If this is what is going on, mistaking the situation for a bubble would lead to bad policy." Harding warns that stagnation may be the new normal, a reality that's worse than a bubble. "Bubbles are frightening. But constant warnings about them are distracting people from the real danger: that investment returns will not be high enough to meet their needs. If the reality turns out to be secular stagnation, we may envy the day when all we worried about was the risk that a bubble could pop."

Aaron David Miller in The Guardian on how the United States should act to be an effective negotiator in the Middle East. Miller contends that for America to be a successful broker of peace in Gaza, it has to be willing to wait for the right time. "Woody Allen said 80% of success is just showing up. He was wrong – it's showing up at the right time. If I learned anything at the US State Department, it was about rhythm: no mediator can really deliver unless someone says they're done, and Netanyahu just said 'a long operation' is in store.... When America is in a greater hurry to do a deal than the actual parties involved, Houston, we have a problem." According to Miller, the U.S. cannot be an impartial broker in a deal with Hamas. "...the United States is not really an honest broker. It's much closer to Israel on security issues – always has been, always will be. But America can be an effective broker. It requires ceding much to Israel, particularly on security, and it certainly doesn't mean creating the impression that the US is prepared to treat Hamas's requirements as somehow equal. The key next step is for the US to see its role as small, not big – transactional, not transformational."

Jonathan Bernstein in Bloomberg View on why America should stop talking about political polarization. Bernstein writes, "Polarization alone doesn’t make good government impossible. In theory, it's no more difficult to find a compromise midway between two numbers that are far apart than between two numbers that are relatively close. The key isn’t the distance between the parties; it’s the willingness to compromise. That isn’t measured by partisan polarization scores. Put another way, government shutdowns don't happen because the policy gap between the parties is large; they happen when one party (or a decisive faction within a party) decides to shut down the government." Bernstein suggests we should focus on how to make government work better rather than bridging partisan ideological divides. "How can we encourage the political parties (and, yes, the larger problem here is the Republican Party) to value compromise? How can we encourage the parties to renounce Constitutional hardball and become more willing to accept and respect institutional and democratic norms?"

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