I would have you understand that I am all for recycling. Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without--it was sound advice during World War II, and it still is today. Still, despite my committment to sustainable blogging, I was not pleased to see the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reissue the graph I blogged about last year in virtually the same form.
I didn't think much of this graph at the time, and I still don't. The effect of the graph is to make it seem as if we could, by simply refusing to extend the Bush tax cuts on high earners, cover virtually all of the Social Security shortfall that is going to be putting immense pressure on the budget deficit over the next century. But this is not the case.
The CBPP gets its figure by taking present values of the Bush upper income tax cuts extended over 75 years, and comparing them to the present value of the Social Security shortfall. For those who haven't taken finance classes, present values are sort of like compound interest, in reverse. Instead of adding up the future gains from interest rates, you discount future cash flows by a discount rate. Why do this? Mostly because of a financial truism: a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow: it's certain, not risky, and while you can only use a dollar tomorrow, erm, tomorrow, you can use today's dollar either immediately, or at any time in the future.
Present value is a very useful tool for comparing different investment projects. Say you have one investment project that gives you an immediate return, and one that will give you a much higher return eventually, but takes ten years to pay off--a present value calculation lets you assess which project is actually going to be worth more.
But present value has some drawbacks, too. Our contractor was over last night trying to shore up some joists in our basement that were inappropriately cut to run electric wire, and I mentioned to him that I was working on this post. He thought for a minute, and then summed it up perfectly: "It seems to me that you've got two main problems here: liquidity constraint, and an inappropriate discount rate." Just so. Let me see if I can unpack that a little.
Because it discounts future dollars, often quite heavily, cash flows which happen beyond 10-20 years out virtually disappear. In this case, I assume that the CBPP used the same 5.25% discount rate that it used last year. Just to illustrate what the effect of that discount rate is, if you had a guaranteed $100 payment every year for the next 75 years, discounted at 5.25%, the present value of that cash flow would be $1864, versus the $7500 you get from just adding them all together. Over half of that present value comes from the first 14 years of the 75-year period. By twenty years out, that $100 is only worth $35 a year to you.
Now let's assume that someone comes along and offers me a deal: I can buy that guaranteed $100 cash flow, worth $1864, by taking out a loan. That loan has no interest payments for the first 30 years, and then I have to pay back $400 a year from year 30 to year 75. Should I do it?
Present value would say yes! The present value of those future $400 payments is only $1563, much less than the present value of my $100 annual payments that start now. But obviously, I am going to have trouble in year 30 covering my $400 payment with the $100 I am taking in every year.
The difference could be made up in savings; if I could save all my $100 payments at a guaranteed interest rate of 5.25%, then by year 30, the interest on my savings would be $382; using a combination of interest and slow withdrawals, I could pay off the loan and still have $4500 in the bank.
But the government does not borrow and save like normal people--its constraints are different. The closest it can come to saving is to pay off debt. And our debt is not yielding 5.25% right now; our highest-yielding debt is paying 4.375%, which the government is trying to sell more of, not pay off, in order to lengthen the average time-to-maturity of the debt held by the public, which lowers the risks to the Treasury of a sudden interest rate spike.
The average interest rate on debt held by the public is around 3% right now; it hasn't been as high as 3.75% since April 2009.
Now, you might say that this is not an ordinary time, and that when we pay off our debt in the future, we will get a better "return" on our savings. But remember that discount rate: it means that the immediate future is what gives you the most bang for your buck. And we've only got nine years of "savings" before the Social Security shortfall becomes larger than the cost of the Bush tax cuts, as this graph from the invaluable Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget points out:
We're not going to let the Bush tax cuts expire until 2012 at this point, which gives us 2013-9 to save by paying off debt. Let's say that you think that interest rates are going to bounce back to the 4.96 we paid in July of 2007, and we will use all of the money gained from repeal to pay down debt. By my extremely generous estimates (adding in my best estimate of other tax provisions that primarily benefit the rich, and which CBPP claims were not included in the Congressional Budget Office's $700 billion 10-year price tag for the repeal of the high-income tax cuts), by the end of the seven year period we might pay off as much as $600 billion dollars worth of debt. That's not nothing! Which is why we should never have extended the Bush tax cuts for anyone.
But at 5% average interest rates, we'd be saving less than $30 billion a year in interest. Add that to the $80 billion or so the high-income tax cuts will cost us in 2020 and you get $110 billion a year, or about 0.48% of GDP by my calculations. But in 2020, as you can see from the graph, the Social Security shortfall is 0.51% of GDP. By 2025 it hits around 1% of GDP.
Maybe you think interest rates will jump even further? It's certainly possible. But if you think this, then I assume you aren't among the people making fun of the invisible bond vigilantes, or demanding that we borrow more money for stimulus. Assuming that inflation is not going to suddenly zoom to 5% without Ben Bernanke noticing (or reacting), if you think that interest rates are going to hit 7% in 2013, that means you think that the bond market is going to freak out and raise our real interest rates by hundreds of basis points. Given that the average maturity of our debt is currently less than five years, that means we're going to have to roll over a bunch of debt paying less than 3% for a bunch of debt paying more than 7% . . . which to my ears is the same as shrieking "We're screwed!"
Last year I caught a lot of flak for pointing out that most of the heavy lifting was being done by the discounting, and that if you just looked at the cash flows, there wasn't any good way to pay for Social Security over the next 75 years just by repealing the Bush tax cuts for the rich. But you can see this point illustrated in the CBPP's own graph. At right, you'll see their graph from last year. Notice anything different about it from the one above? I mean, other than the fact that they included the cost of all the Bush tax cuts, not just the ones for high earners?
That's right, last year the costs were equal. This year, the Social Security shortfall is almost 15% larger--0.8% of GDP rather than 0.7%. That's the effect of just one year of poor economic growth, and one year closer to the point where the lines cross on that CFRB graph. That alone tells you how much the timing differences in the cash flows are affecting their results, and why this is not a very useful chart.
There's another problem, one which the CFRB points out in its excellent post on the dangers of this comparison. Actually, they too have recycled--they pointed out exactly the same thing last year when the CBPP debuted the graph. Which is that the CBPP's numbers are incredibly sensitive to initial assumptions about the growth rates in these two budget items.
That's not such a problem with Social Security, where the projections are among the most stable we can make. Demographic change is a slow moving disaster. To a first approximation, every single person who will be collecting benefits in 2030 is now living and working in the United States. And the benefits are tied to the taxes that are paid, which means that unless you think we're going to get a giant burst of immigration, the deficit isn't going to widen or narrow overmuch. Furthermore, the benefits are indexed to wages, which means, broadly, to productivity and GDP growth, so there aren't going to be huge upside or downside surprises.
The estimates of the cost of the Bush tax cuts, however, are extraordinarily sensitive to initial assumptions:, as they pointed out last year:
Essentially, CBPP assumes that the growth rates in revenue loss from 2017 through 2020 will continue forever. Over time, the compounding effects of these growth rates are significant -- increasing the value of the cuts to about 1.1 percent of GDP by 2080. Yet tiny changes in some of the numbers they use can drastically alter this number.
For example, they estimate that the tax cuts will cost $99 billion in 2017 and $120 billion in 2020 based off of a combination of Treasury and TPC estimates. We used some TPC tables to estimates these numbers at $102 billion in 2017 and the same $120 billion in 2020. When we tried to roughly apply their methodology using our $102 billion instead of their $99 billion (in other words, a nominal growth rate of about 5.6% instead of 6%) we found that the shortfall only reaches about 0.65 percent of GDP rather than 1.1 percent.
This is not to say that our $102 billion is right and their $99 billion is wrong - both are plausible and surely both will be wrong. The point is that tiny changes in these numbers cause wild swings in the ultimate cash flow results. (Though the magnitude of the present value cost wouldn't swing nearly as much - under the scenario we presented, the present value of the upper-income cuts would be between 0.5 and 0.6 percent of GDP rather than 0.7 percent).
We also tried projecting forward two other ways: assuming that the upper income tax cuts remained a fixed proportion of total revenue under CBO's extended baseline scenario and assuming bracket creep for the upper-income cuts in line with the total bracket creep we estimate in our CRFB baseline.
Here are the results:
The CBPP is entirely right to point out that the Bush tax cuts were extremely costly. Given our parlous fiscal condition, we cannot afford to extend them--we couldn't in 2010, either, but we did it anyway, and that's water under the bridge. Come 2012, they need to expire. But this is what the CBO says our budget looks like if the Bush tax cuts for high earners expire, but the rest of the budget is business-as-usual: "fixing" the AMT and Medicare doctor reimbursement rates, easing the cutbacks made by ObamaCare, and otherwise acting the way we've acted for the last decade:
This is obviously not sustainable. And much of it is simply driven by the growing ratio of retirees to workers, requiring ever-more Social Security and Medicare dollars to sustain them.
That's why I think it's a terrible idea to juxtapose the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and Social Security in a graph that implies that the costs are roughly the same size. Not just because they're not really equivalent--but because we don't have that money to spend. We're already assuming that we let those tax cuts go in 2012, and the budget picture is still a disaster.
Easing the budget pressure from Social Security is going to require finding new revenue, or new cuts to existing programs--we can't solve the shortfall with revenues we've already spent, any more than you can pay the mortgage with the check you sent to the electric company last week. And those revenues and cuts will have to be large. It is not helpful to imply otherwise. The American public is already unwilling to confront the actual costs of the programs it has. They don't need any more encouragement to push their heads ever deeper into the sand.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.
“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.
It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.
“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”
As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.
A new study finds an algorithmic word analysis is flawless at determining whether a person will have a psychotic episode.
Although the language of thinking is deliberate—let me think, I have to do some thinking—the actual experience of having thoughts is often passive. Ideas pop up like dandelions; thoughts occur suddenly and escape without warning. People swim in and out of pools of thought in a way that can feel, paradoxically, mindless.
Most of the time, people don’t actively track the way one thought flows into the next. But in psychiatry, much attention is paid to such intricacies of thinking. For instance, disorganized thought, evidenced by disjointed patterns in speech, is considered a hallmark characteristic of schizophrenia. Several studies of at-risk youths have found that doctors are able to guess with impressive accuracy—the best predictive models hover around 79 percent—whether a person will develop psychosis based on tracking that person’s speech patterns in interviews.
"You have to remember," says someone who knows him, "that the great passion in his life is his hatred of the Labour Party"
ON October 3 of last year the world awaited the verdict from a Los Angeles courtroom. That Tuesday was also the opening day of the Labour Party's annual conference at Brighton, and at 6:00 P.M.--10:00 A.M. Pacific Time, when the jury's decision was due--many of us covering the conference headed for televisions in bars or hotel rooms. To our astonishment, the BBC led off its news program not with the O. J. Simpson verdict but with the keynote speech that Tony Blair, the Labour leader, had given earlier that day. Surprise turned into a mixture of irritation and amusement when the full story emerged. The television companies had been badgered by faxes from Alastair Campbell, Blair's press secretary: "Whilst I fully understand there is much interest in the verdict, I would implore you not to lose sight of the news value and of the importance to the country of Mr Blair's speech." Nor did they lose sight of it. The BBC did as it was told. This went beyond spin-doctoring. It was news management worthy of a none-too-democratic Balkan state, or of some Third World country rejoicing in the "new information order."
Nervous Democrats are looking for alternatives as Hillary Clinton falters. But is the VP the right person for the job?
“I think panic is the operative mode for the Democratic Party,” David Axelrod, who has been on the receiving end of panic mode many times over the years, told me this week. I had asked Obama’s political guru how bad the current panic was for Hillary Clinton—bad enough for the party to seek an alternative? Bad enough, perhaps, to create an opening for Joe Biden?
Axelrod didn’t think so. “I think it’s indisputable she’s had a rocky few months,” he said. “But if you look at her support among Democrats, and the resources she brings, she’s still very strong—I think she’s going to be the nominee.”
Not everyone is so sure. Public opinion has turned starkly negative on Clinton in recent months, as she has struggled to put the scandal over her use of email as secretary of state to rest. In a poll released this week, the word most commonly summoned when people were asked about her was “liar.”