Five Best Thursday Columns

Four economists on finding consensus, Vinton Cerf on the right to the internet, Fareed Zakaria on Iran, Doyle McManus on the Tea Party, and John Steele Gordon on the history of negative campaigning. 

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Claudia Goldin, William Nordhaus, Richard Schmalensee, and Anil Kashyap in Bloomberg View on economic consensus Politics and media often make it seem there is little consensus on important issues and policy choices among economists. "Yet the four of us are part of a project that we believe will demonstrate that this proposition is wrong. Each week since late September, along with 37 other economists at top universities, we have been answering questions on major public policy issues," writes the group of economists (whose writings can be found here.) They argue that media often portrays lack of consensus because of journalistic conventions that emphasize finding balance. Editorial pages often prefer opinions that aren't "wishy-washy"or that challenge convention which gives emphasis to fringe theories. But the panel says their past deliberations have shown that top economists agree on most questions and where they don't, they can be used as a resource to show the lack of consensus. "By harnessing the wisdom of crowds, we hope to distill the best economic knowledge and present it in a clear and succinct format."

Vinton Cerf in The New York Times on the internet as a human right The role of the internet in Arab Spring protests and the attempts of governments to restrict access have led many to claim that the internet is a human right. "But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself," writes Cerf, a vice president at Google and internet pioneer. He explains the definition of human rights, pointing out that evolving technology is hard to categorize as such, otherwise we'd have classified horse travel as a human right long ago. He says it comes closer to a civil right, one guaranteed by law, but again, says it is more of an enabler of civil rights than a right in itself. "Yet all these philosophical arguments overlook a more fundamental issue: the responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights," he says, urging engineers to continue empowering and protecting technology users for the improvement of the human condition.

Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post on pressuring Iran Politicians and media talk a lot about Iran's growing power, its nuclear advances, and its threat this week to close down the Straits of Hormuz. "In fact, the real story is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed its economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting," writes Zakaria. He describes the effect of sanctions on Iran's currency, and pegs their threat to close the strait as a desperate measure, saying the disagreement even within the regime about that threat shows their fragmenting politics. He describes other signs of dissension in the government, and credits the multilateral pressures put on by Obama and our allies. But Zakaria warns against pressuring too much."Weak countries whose regimes face pressure can sometimes cause more problems than strong nations."

Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times on the Tea Party's future The victory of Mitt Romney and big-spender Rick Santorum in Iowa over Tea Party favorites like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann could portend the group's waning influence on politics. "So does this mean the Tea Party over? Not exactly. The Tea Party has changed the political landscape in ways that are likely to last for a while," writes McManus. He notes that even non-Tea Party candidates have taken on their rhetoric of fiscal restraint. He credits the poor performance of Tea Party candidates to personal failings of the candidates -- Rick Perry's debate performances for example -- not their ideologies. Meanwhile, Romney's win resulted in part from the fracturing of the field among several Tea Party types. "[I]f they can't settle on a single alternative, Romney is likely to win the nomination the same way he won (or at least squeaked by) in Iowa."

John Steele Gordon in The Wall Street Journal on negative campaigning Newt Gingrich and pundits attribute his quick decline in polls to an onslaught of negative ads from Mitt Romney and his supporters. "And while negative campaigning is routinely decried, it is also routinely practiced and has been since nearly the beginning of politics in this country. The reason is simple enough—it usually works," writes Gordon. To show its enduring hold on American politics, Gordon gives a history of negative campaigning, showing when it's effective and when it isn't. He describes the election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and continues on through the 19th century all the way to Lyndon Johnson's attacks on Goldwater. In most cases, Gordon writes, negative ads worked when they capitalized on an existing perception of a candidate, and failed when they didn't. In 2012, "[t]he negative ads will probably start early and run often ... Let's hope they will not stoop to the personal insults or smearing of innocent individuals as they so often did in the early 19th century."

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