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.
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.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
The Nebraska state government, realizing the tremendous mistake it had made, held a special session of the legislature to rewrite the law in order to add an age limitation. Governor Dave Heineman said the change would "put the focus back on the original intent of these laws, which is saving newborn babies and exempting a parent from prosecution for child abandonment. It should also prevent those outside the state from bringing their children to Nebraska in an attempt to secure services."
Can we predict romantic prospects just from looking at a face?
By the time you swear you're his, / Shivering and sighing. / And he vows his passion is/ Infinite, undying. / Lady, make a note of this — /One of you is lying. ― Dorothy Parker
Edward Royzman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asks me to list four qualities on a piece of paper: physical attractiveness, income, kindness, and fidelity. Then he gives me 200 virtual “date points” that I’m to distribute among the four traits. The more I allocate to each attribute, the more highly I supposedly value that quality in a mate.
This experiment, which Royzman sometimes runs with his college classes, is meant to inject scarcity into hypothetical dating decisions in order to force people to prioritize.
What one woman learned from 10 years of teaching in a New York City public school
Laurel Sturt was a 46-year-old fashion designer in New York City whose career trajectory took an unlikely shift one day on the subway. A self-proclaimed social activist, Sturt noticed an ad for a Teaching Fellows program. Then and there, she decided to quit her job in fashion design and shift her focus to her real passion: helping others. She enrolled in the two-year program and was assigned to teach at an elementary school in a high-poverty neighborhood near the South Bronx.
Students at Princeton University are protesting the ways it honors the former president, who once threw a civil-rights leader out of the White House.
The Black Justice League, in protests on Princeton University’s campus, has drawn wider attention to an inconvenient truth about the university’s ultimate star: Woodrow Wilson. The Virginia native was racist, a trait largely overshadowed by his works as Princeton’s president, as New Jersey’s governor, and, most notably, as the 28th president of the United States.
As president, Wilson oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices. It’s a shameful side to his legacy that came to a head one fall afternoon in 1914 when he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office.
Trotter led a delegation of blacks to meet with the president on November 12, 1914 to discuss the surge of segregation in the country. Trotter, today largely forgotten, was a nationally prominent civil-rights leader and newspaper editor. In the early 1900s, he was often mentioned in the same breath as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. But unlike Washington, Trotter, an 1895 graduate of Harvard, believed in direct protest actions. In fact, Trotter founded his Boston newspaper, The Guardian, as a vehicle to challenge Washington’s more conciliatory approach to civil rights.
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.
The frenzied day after Thanksgiving, as we know it, may be dying. That is an extremely good thing.
BlackFridayDeathCount.com keeps a running list of the casualties incurred by the rites and rituals of the day after Thanksgiving. Since 2006, the site says, Black Friday has claimed 97 deaths and injuries—seven of the former, 90 of the latter—as the result of the tramplings, pepper-sprayings, shootings, stabbings, and other tragedies that can occur when the term "doorbuster" is taken too literally.
Ancient Romans filled their Colosseum with throngs thirsting for fights; Americans fill our own arena—our TVs and newspapers and mobile screens—with, among so much else, an annual event that makes bargain-hunting a matter of athletic competition. Black Friday is a media ceremony; it is also an extremely commercialized, and oddly moralized, form of bloodlust. "People are crazy," we say, watching the news reports and shaking our heads and assuring ourselves that we are not part of the "people" in question. "How could they just trample someone?"
Retailers are experimenting with a bold new strategy for the commercial high holiday: boycotting themselves.
It starts with a scene of touch football in the yard. Next, a woman and a girl, cooking together in the kitchen. “Imagine a world,” a soothing voice intones, “where the only thing you have to wrestle for on Thanksgiving is the last piece of pumpkin pie, and the only place we camped out was in front of a fire, and not the parking lot of a store.” And, then, more scenes: a man, cuddling with kids on a couch. An older woman, rolling pie dough on the counter. A fire, crackling in the fireplace. Warmth. Wine. Togetherness. Laughter.
It’s an ad, unsurprisingly, but it’s an ad with a strange objective: to tell you not to buy stuff. Or, at least, to spend a day not buying stuff. “At T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods, we’re closed on Thanksgiving,” the spot’s velvet-voiced narrator informs us, “because family time comes first.” And then: more music. More scenes of familiar/familial delights. More laughter. More pie. The whole thing concludes: “Let’s put more value on what really matters. This season, bring back the holidays—with T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods.”
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.