Five Best Wednesday Columns

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Salman Rushdie on the Protecting Artists Who Speak Out  "Art is dangerous," writes author Salman Rushdie in The New York Times today. "Very often artistic fame has proved dangerous to artists themselves." China's Ai Weiwei is just one of many artists who have used their platform to speak out against political injustice or human rights violations and are now suffering for it at the hands of their own repressive governments. "We needed the samizdat truth-tellers to reveal the ugliness of the Soviet Union. Today the government of China has become the world’s greatest threat to freedom of speech, and so we need Ai Weiwei, Liao Yiwu and Liu Xiaobo," argues Rushdie. "It is the world's artists, particularly those courageous enough to stand up against authoritarianism, for whom we need to be concerned, and for whose safety we must fight."

David Ignatius on Shifting the U.S. Focus to Egypt  Contrary to the worries many have been expressing about Egypt distracting from Afghanistan, David Ignatius argues in the Washington Post that investing in the "Arab spring" is what the U.S. needs to insure security in the AfPak region. A democratic transition in Egypt will curb Islamic terrorism better than a stable Afghanistan and lead to "a prosperous democratic Pakistan." Ignatius also suggests that as we near closer to the 2014 goal of transferring responsibility to the Afghans, we should aim for "a smaller military footprint, more use of paramilitary forces and more emphasis on diplomacy."

Ruth Marcus on Heeding Standard & Poor's Warning  Standard & Poor's recent warning that "it may downgrade the credit rating of the United States" is not the first from such an agency, but it should be a "welcome wake-up call," writes Ruth Marcus in today's Washington Post. "Our greatest intangible asset--the fact that the United States is viewed as the world's safest investment--could evaporate." That means "interests rates would rise. The economy would tank. The higher cost of servicing the debt and the accompanying collapse of tax revenue would make it that much harder to escape this decidedly unvirtuous circle." This fate seems unavoidable due to the "dysfunctionality of the political system," says Marcus, and who to listen to is unclear--S&P itself may even be "engaged in a bit of corporate butt-covering." But awarenss of "a looming crisis ... creates the potential to change it."

John Kay on Consistency's Place in Everyday Life  At the Financial Times, John Kay examines economics professor John Cochrane's view of "consistency as the most prized virtue in economic reasoning," through a societal lens. In economics, "if I am faced with the same menu of options, I will always make the same choice" because it's rational, but, he asks, if I "go to the same restaurant on successive nights, is it irrational to choose a different dish?" Speaking more generally, "our imperfect knowledge means we see similarities where there are differences and differences where there are similarities," Kay points out, taking the example of historical analogies of Nasser's Suez to Hitler's Sudentenland or the dotcom bubble to the Dutch tulip mania. The important thing to remember is that "different people will assess the same necessarily incomplete information in different ways. And what we do depends on the social context in which we receive information and make decisions ... True irrationality lies in failing to perceive this sensitivity to context."  

Frank McNamara on the Wrong Approach to Teen Sex  In today's Boston Globe, Frank McNamara derides approaching teen sex as "morally wrong" while providing free condoms at school under the assumption that teens will have sex anyway. "Would any teen with an IQ higher than that of a small barnyard animal take seriously an adult prohibition against, say, tobacco products, were a school to supply ashtrays, filtered cigarettes, and spittoons, on the rationale that because kids are going to indulge anyway, we should give them the accoutrements to make the illicit activity cleaner and safer?" Here's the problem, he explains: "Adult exhortations to 'safe sex' can translate in young minds to invitations to have sex, as students interpret adult quiescence as a green light to experiment. This opens the way for many young people (girls especially) to be coerced and exploited by those who do not love them." If schools are going to educate, they need to educate--not just distribute condoms.

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