Well, there it is: the supercommittee has failed. Supposedly, this means that $1.2 trillion worth of automatic "sequesters" will kick in. But as PJ O'Rourke remarked about a similar budget-balancing attempt, the storied Gramm-Rudman-Hollings act, "this is like trying to quick smoking by hiding your cigarettes from yourself--and leaving a note in your pocket reminding you where you hid them." What Congress did, Congress can undo, any time it wants. And indeed, rumor has it that they're already looking for ways "around" the sequester.
We're obviously nowhere near Italian levels of debt. But the inability to make even quite small changes in our levels of taxes or spending should worry the hell out of everyone. Yes, yes, I know--the other side is evil and intransigent and you don't trust them anyway. The fact remains that we're married to those jerks in the other party, and there's no prospect of divorce. "Stick to your guns, dammit!" is not a workable policy agenda for either side . . . and no, I don't really care how much better things could be if we were more like Europe/19th century America. Given events in Europe, this doesn't really seem like a good time to be talking up the virtues of larger welfare states or a weak central bank.
In a modern democratic state, two things are true of any policy agenda:
1. You eventually have to pay for it, with actual money.
2. You have to get those bastards on the other side to agree to it.
We seem to have an electorate who believes neither of these things, and the political class has followed them. We passed a giant health care entitlement "paid for" with cuts to existing services that should have gone towards deficit reduction, if they can be done at all . . . and with a structure that risks failing spectacularly and making everything worse if the cost projections are wrong, or the necessary changes prove politically unsustainable. When I pointed this out, I was told "it's not our fault if the Republicans fuck it up," as if it were somehow reasonable policy analysis to assume away the existence of anyone who disagrees with you.
Stop snickering conservatives: you didn't pay for your tax cuts at all, and you tried to get through an equally enormous entitlement change (remember Social Security reform) without funding it in any way, even a stupid and likely-to-fail one.
At some level, I wonder if our legislators understand that this matters. Sure, our debt-to-GDP ratio is only in the mid-fifties--but it was in the mid-thirties just a couple of years ago. And the best forecasts I've seen have it heading into the mid-eighties in a very short time.
For several years, as our debt has swelled by nearly 10% of GDP per year, the deficit hawks have panicked and the doves have told them to chill the hell out because, hey, look at how low interest rates are!
In November 2009, Paul Krugman--who ridiculed those who worried about "invisible bond vigilantes"--posted this graph and comment:
Why, people ask, would I want to compare us to Belgium and Italy? Both countries are a mess!
Um, guys, that's the point. Belgium is politically weak because of the linguistic divide; Italy is politically weak because it's Italy. If these countries can run up debts of more than 100 percent of GDP without being destroyed by bond vigilantes, so can we.
Now it looks like Italy and Belgium maybe can't actually run up such debts without being, well, destroyed by bond vigilantes . . . so what does that imply for us?
Well, Krugman has attempted to walk this back a little, pointing out that the euro is precipitating this crisis. While this is, of course, entirely true, I believe that Italy's membership in the euro had been fairly well-publicized by 2009; it's not new information.
Every time a crisis happens you can pick out the reasons that you aren't anything like those yahoos over there, who don't even have their own currency, ferchrissakes, or maybe they aren't a democracy, or they caught a dose of crony capitalism, or they had this huge balance-of-payments problem . . .
Well, never mind about that last one.
It is absolutely true that the specifics of this crisis involve the special problems of borrowing in another currency. Inflation is in some ways a kinder means of default, because you can inflate just a little bit, and see how things go, while nations that default tend to err on the side of a nice, spectacularly large default, because they don't want to have to do it more than once. So theoretically, at least, inflation can be better for both government and creditors.
But it is not true that loads of debt is just fine as long as you're borrowing in your own currency, except in the trivial sense that a government which borrows in its own currency can always resort to hyperinflation. This is rather like saying, "Don't worry about that cancer--you can always shoot yourself!" If you take too much advantage of the benefits of borrowing in your own currency, pretty soon you have trouble borrowing in your own currency, which means that practically, the distinction is not necessarily as strong as some people pretend.
Regardless of the folly of currency pegs, fundamentally, debt adds risk. It does so even if you borrow in your own currency (Greece has been in default for roughly half its life as a modern independent nation). It does so even if the stuff you spent the money on is really, really great--tax cuts, stimulus, shiny new infrastructure. Unless those things are self funding (the former two are not, and infrastructure only sometimes), then they make your government more financially fragile than it was before you borrowed the money. Every time debt grows faster than GDP, the risk of financial crisis inches up.
Conservatives can make fun of Italy all they want, but they're not the ones running deficits that flirt with double digits--and loudly proclaiming that it's better to run those deficits than to raise a dollar in new tax revenue.
In fact, debt adds risk even if you don't call it debt. Any unfunded obligation that is very, very hard to get out of without a great deal of political and economic pain is a debt, whether you call it a "long term lease" or "social security". Every time we add to these obligations we give future citizens less flexibility to deal with future economic conditions.
That doesn't mean that we need aim for zero debt, or zero long-term obligations. But we should understand that every additional dollar we promise in the future is not simply one less dollar that future taxpayers get to spend on themselves--but also one more dollar of risk added to a rapidly growing mountain.
More and more Americans found this out about their own personal finances the hard way. Unfortunately, this painfully acquired knowledge does not seem to have filtered through to our legislators.
On Saturday, the GOP dispensed with concern about keeping up appearances—and put long-simmering anger on display.
Perhaps the most haunting memory of the night will be the audience. Previous presidential debates have banned cheering and booing. Saturday night’s Republican debate in Greenville was marked by both. Permitted or not, the rowdy crowd ventilated its feelings without concern for how it looked or sounded to the viewers at home.
This unconcern for appearances was a Republican theme of the weekend. Hours before the debate opened, news broke that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died. Candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio promptly issued statements opining that any appointing any replacement should be left to the next president. It’s not unheard of for candidates to express emotive positions adopted for political advantage. But that same evening, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined in, with a statement ruling out any Senate action on any Supreme Court nominee, no matter who it might be.
The iconic conservative justice, who died Saturday at age 79, left an indelible stamp on the nation’s courts, its laws, and its understanding of itself.
Antonin Scalia, the judicial firebrand who stood as the intellectual leader of the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative wing during his three-decade tenure as a justice, died Saturday at a ranch in western Texas. He was 79 years old.
“He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues. His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he so loyally served,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement on behalf of the Court.
President Obama, who will have the opportunity to nominate Scalia’s successor, offered his sympathies to the justice’s family on Saturday night. “He will no doubt be remembered as one of the most consequential judges to serve on the Supreme Court,” he said.
The Republican frontrunner repudiated a long litany of party orthodoxies in a contentious debate—but will that hurt his candidacy, or help it?
Donald Trump blamed the Bush administration for failing to heed CIA warnings before 9/11; denounced the Iraq War for destabilizing the Middle East; defended the use of eminent domain; promised to save Social Security without trimming benefits; and credited Planned Parenthood for “wonderful things having to do with women's health.”
He’s fresh off a crushing victory in New Hampshire, and the prohibitive favorite in the polls in South Carolina. Will his flouting of Republican orthodoxy sink his chances—or is it his very willingness to embrace these heterodox stances that has fueled his rise?
Even his rivals no longer seem certain of the answer. Jeb Bush, at one point, called Trump “a man who insults his way to the nomination.” He sounded like a man ruing a race that has run away from him.
Fredrickson, a leading researcher of positive emotions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents scientific evidence to argue that love is not what we think it is. It is not a long-lasting, continually present emotion that sustains a marriage; it is not the yearning and passion that characterizes young love; and it is not the blood-tie of kinship.
Rather, it is what she calls a "micro-moment of positivity resonance." She means that love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day. You can experience these micro-moments with your romantic partner, child, or close friend. But you can also fall in love, however momentarily, with less likely candidates, like a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, or an attendant at a grocery store. Louis Armstrong put it best in "It's a Wonderful World" when he sang, "I see friends shaking hands, sayin 'how do you do?' / They're really sayin', 'I love you.'"
The current system for gaining entry to elite colleges discourages unique passions and deems many talented students ineligible.
March madness is almost here. No, I’m not referring to the college-basketball playoffs; I’m alluding to the anxious waiting of young people and their families of word about their fate from the highly selective colleges of America. And I’m talking as well about those who are about to venture forth on the ritualistic campus tours to determine where they will apply next fall. What few of these families realize is how broken the admission system is at these selective colleges.
At these institutions of higher learning, the goal is to “shape a class,” which involves trying to admit qualified and diverse students who will learn from each other as well as from their experiences in the classroom. These are the students who have the greatest potential to use their education in productive ways and to contribute to their own well-being and to the needs of the larger society. Diversity is not defined here as solely pertaining to race, ethnicity, or gender, although that weighs on decisions, but also on a range of interests and talents that students can develop and share with others during their college years. These are high-minded goals.
The GOP presidential candidate—and at least two of his rivals—are acting as if the meaning of the Constitution changes depending on the timing of the next election.
Antonin Scalia is dead. Is it legitimate for the Republican-controlled Senate to refrain from confirming a replacement for the late Supreme Court justice until a new president is elected, as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and others on the right have urged? Or does the Senate have an obligation to approve a qualified nominee put forth by President Obama, as many on the left argued as soon as news of the death broke?
The debate on Twitter was instantaneous. “The Democrat-controlled Senate confirmed Ronald Reagan's nominee to the Court, Anthony Kennedy, in his last year in office: 1988,” the liberal journalist Glenn Greenwald observed. Jim Antle, a paleoconservative, retorted with a Robert Bork reference, writing, “And it wouldn't quite have been in his final year if first choice had been confirmed in 1987.”
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
A profanity-filled new self-help book argues that life is kind of terrible, so you should value your actions over your emotions.
Put down the talking stick. Stop fruitlessly seeking "closure" with your peevish co-worker. And please, don't bother telling your spouse how annoying you find their tongue-clicking habit—sometimes honesty is less like a breath of fresh air and more like a fart. That’s the argument of Michael Bennett and Sarah Bennett, the father-daughter duo behind the new self-help book F*ck Feelings.
The elder Bennett is a psychiatrist and American Psychiatric Association distinguished fellow. His daughter is a comedy writer. Together, they provide a tough-love, irreverent take on “life's impossible problems.” The crux of their approach is that life is hard and negative emotions are part of it. The key is to see your “bullshit wishes” for just what they are (bullshit), and instead to pursue real, achievable goals.
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
“During the 100 days before the relationship starts, we observe a slow but steady increase in the number of timeline posts shared between the future couple.”
Facebook might understand your romantic prospects better than you do.
In a blog post published yesterday, the company’s team of data scientists announced that statistical evidence hints at budding relationships before the relationships start.
As couples become couples, Facebook data scientist Carlos Diuk writes, the two people enter a period of courtship, during which timeline posts increase. After the couple makes it official, their posts on each others’ walls decrease—presumably because the happy two are spending more time together.
During the 100 days before the relationship starts, we observe a slow but steady increase in the number of timeline posts shared between the future couple. When the relationship starts ("day 0"), posts begin to decrease. We observe a peak of 1.67 posts per day 12 days before the relationship begins, and a lowest point of 1.53 posts per day 85 days into the relationship. Presumably, couples decide to spend more time together, courtship is off, and online interactions give way to more interactions in the physical world.