Five Best Monday Columns

On vaccines, debts, and prison problems

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Ross Douthat on How Republicans Lost Ground  Ross Douthat wonders how the Republican party, with control of only one chamber, could set the country's agenda for so long and then suddenly lose their control. "In the space of a few days," he writes in The New York Times, "a party that once looked capable of pressing the White House into a deal that would have left liberals fuming found itself falling back on two less-palatable options instead: either a procedural gimmick that would try to pin the responsibility for raising the ceiling on President Obama, or a stand on principle that would risk plunging the American economy back into recession." Douthat blames the Republicans for "an inability to make even symbolic concessions." This position paints Obama as the reasonable negotiator and puts the blame on them for any economic fallout. Now they will likely have to make concessions anyway, though perhaps they will paint them as something else. "But both the politics and the substance of such a deal would probably be worse for conservatives than the kind of bargain that might have been available otherwise."

Lawrence Summers's Prescriptions for Europe  The turmoil in Italian markets should convince European Union officials to abandon "dogma, bureaucratic agenda and expediency" when solving the crisis, writes the former Treasury secretary and economic adviser to President Obama in The Washington Post and Financial Times. Officials must realize that "no country can be expected to generate huge primary surpluses for long periods for the benefit of foreign creditors," and that a country that would be solvent with interest rates near its nominal growth rate becomes insolvent at higher interest rates. "In short, the approach of the official sector lending more and more to countries that cannot access the market at premium rates of interest is unsustainable," he writes. Instead, officials must recognize that the collapse of any one European economy is "unacceptable" and offer struggling countries lower interest rates, deferred payment schedules, and exemption from contribution requirements to bailout funds.

Terry Moe on Online Teaching and Unions  Teachers unions have lost ground this year in a series of legislative defeats to their agenda pushed by Republicans. Their influence will continue to decline for two reasons, argues Terry Moe in The Wall Street Journal. The first is that they are losing the support of the Democratic base, and the second is the advent of online learning programs. Such programs allow students to work at their own pace, take a diversity of course offerings, and receive immediate, personalized attention. "As the cyber revolution comes to American education, it will bring about a massive and cost-saving substitution of technology for labor," Moe writes, talking of hybrid programs that involve some in-school training and some online work. "That means far fewer teachers (and union members) per student. It also means teachers will be far less concentrated in geographic districts, as those who work online can be anywhere. It'll thus be far more difficult for unions to organize." Such trends, he argues, are both "subtle" and "potent."

David Ropeik on Vaccination Free-Riding  David Ropeik gives evidence that a decline in vaccination rates, often in affluent, liberal places where fear of autism and other side-effects leads people to opt out, is causing disease outbreaks. "We pass laws, or impose economic rules or find some other way to discourage individual behaviors that threaten the greater common good," Ropeik writes in the Los Angeles Times. "You don't get to drive drunk. You don't get to smoke in public places...Isn't it time for society to say we need to regulate the risk created by the fear of vaccines?" He offers as an example an unvaccinated woman from Switzerland who got measles, went to a Tuscon hospital, and caused 14 other people to get sick. "Unvaccinated people who get sick and visit doctor's offices or hospitals increase the danger for anyone else who uses those facilities." Ropeik does not prescribe a specific solution but says society should debate options like making it more difficult to opt out or increasing health care premiums on the unvaccinated. Whatever the solution, he concludes, "this is about calling on government to do what it's there for in the first place: to protect us from the actions of others when as individuals we can't protect ourselves."

Colin Dayan on Hunger-Striking Prisoners  Over 1700 prisoners in California have gone on hunger strike, many of them to protest the solitary confinement in which they have been placed. "Solitary confinement has been transmuted from an occasional tool of discipline into a widespread form of preventive detention," writes Colin Dayan in The New York Times. "Placement is haphazard and arbitrary; it focuses on those perceived as troublemakers or simply disliked by correctional officers and, most of all, alleged gang members. Often, the decisions are not based on evidence." Prisoners, especially the gang members, can get out by naming names, but this often creates risk for them and so, for their own safety they are once again placed in solitary confinement. "Hunger strikes are the only weapon these prisoners have left," he writes. He goes on to detail conditions he says are "indistinguishable from torture" at a prison complex he visited in Arizona State and the pleas for humane treatment he heard from its inmates. "Maybe one way to react to prisoners whose only reaction to bestial treatment is to starve themselves to death might be to do the unthinkable--to treat them like human beings," he concludes.

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