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.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
Cinderella marries Prince Charming. Aladdin weds Princess Jasmine. In 50 Shades of Grey, Ana falls for Christian. From bedtime stories to films, we are exposed to a repeated idea: that love, or at least lust, crosses class lines. In fiction, cross-class relationships either end in marriage and happily-ever-after, or else in dissolution and even death. But what happens in real life?
Last year, I set out to answer this question by interviewing college-educated men and women who had married partners from different class backgrounds, for my book The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages. Not surprisingly, their relationships had little in common with the romances we see in the movies.Class had shaped each spouse so much that the people I interviewed had more in common with strangers.
On Monday, Americans watched televised images of riots and looting in Baltimore, Maryland, where days of peaceful protests sparked by the killing of Freddie Gray gave way to mayhem in at least several locations. As CNN broadcast scenes of young people looting a CVS pharmacy and police cars burning in the streets, its commentators, including anchor Wolf Blitzer, criticized Baltimore officials for allowing such flagrant lawlessness to transpire. "I keep asking where are the police," he said. "They seem to be invisible." In fact, law enforcement had come under attack by high school students throwing cinder blocks, dispersed that crowd, and had officers massed at several spots, just not the particular corner where the news helicopter trained its cameras. The anchor treated truths not captured on CNN's video feeds as if they didn't exist. Americans should avoid that sort of myopia.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
On Monday afternoon the funeral for Freddie Gray took place in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died last week from spinal injuries suffered while in Baltimore Police custody. After the funeral, against the wishes of the Gray family, some peaceful demonstrations took place, but other protests became violent, devolving into chaotic clashes.
Police say that intentionally banging a suspect around in the back of a van isn't common practice. But the range of slang terms to describe the practice suggests it's more common that anyone would hope—and a roster of cases show that Freddie Gray is hardly the first person whose serious injuries allegedly occurred while in police transit. Citizens have accused police of using aggressive driving to rough suspects up for decades in jurisdictions across the country. Though experts don't think it's a widespread practice, rough rides have injured many people, frayed relationships, and cost taxpayers, including Baltimore's, millions of dollars in damages.
“As a basic principle, we can’t tell you to stop recording,” says Delroy Burton, chairman of D.C.’s metropolitan police union and a 21-year veteran on the force. “If you’re standing across the street videotaping, and I’m in a public place, carrying out my public functions, [then] I’m subject to recording, and there’s nothing legally the police officer can do to stop you from recording.”
“What you don’t have a right to do is interfere,” he says. “Record from a distance, stay out of the scene, and the officer doesn’t have the right to come over and take your camera, confiscate it.”
Officers do have a right to tell you to stop interfering with their work, Burton told me, but they still aren’t allowed to destroy film.
Atheism is intellectually fashionable. In the past month, The New York Times has run severalstories about lack of faith in its series on religion. The New Yorker ran an article on the history of non-belief in reaction to twonew books on the subject that were released within a week of each other in February. The veteran writer, Adam Gopnik, concludes this:
What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.
This is a perfect summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false: Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war” between the caricatures of godless liberals and Bible-thumping conservatives in America: One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.