The fiscally conservative case to borrow and spend -- and feel good about it
What if borrowing money made you so much richer over the long-term that it paid for itself? It's not crazy. Millions of families make such a decision every year when they take on debt to pay for school. Indeed, investing in yourself is a bet that often pays off. But can the same be true for an entire country?
Brad DeLong and Larry Summers say yes. In a provocative new paper, they argue that when the economy is depressed like today, government spending can be a free lunch. It can pay for itself.
It's a fairly simple story. With interest rates at zero, the normal rules do not apply. Government spending can put people back to work and prevent the long-term unemployed from becoming unemployable. This last point is critical. If people are out of work for too long, they lose skills, which makes employers less likely to hire them, which makes them lose even more skills, and so on, and so on. Even when the economy fully recovers, these workers will stay on the sidelines. It's not just these workers who suffer from being out of work. We all do. High unemployment is a symptom of a collapse in investment. If we don't make needed investments now, that will put a brake on growth down the line. Together, economists call these twin menaces hysteresis. And if it sets in, it reduces how much we can do and make in the future. Assuming that spending now can forestall hysteresis, then this spending might be self-financing. In other words, spending now might "cost" us less than not acting.
This doesn't mean that government spending is magic. Often, it's anything but. But this is a special case. DeLong and Summers identify three factors that determine whether fiscal stimulus will pay for itself: 1) how much hysteresis hurts future output, 2) the inflation-adjusted interest rate, and 3) the size of the fiscal multiplier. Let's consider these in turn.
THE MONSTER OF HYSTERESIS
Economists know a lot about a lot of things. Hysteresis is not one of them.
Indeed, it's not clear whether long-term unemployment and investment shortfalls really do damage potential growth over the really long-term. Maybe hysteresis "only" wounds us for the next 20 years, but not the next 40 years. Unfortunately, there's reason to fear that this is optimistic. A recent paper by Stephen Davis and Till von Wachter finds that workers who are laid off during recessions -- who presumably take longer to find a new job -- take worse hits to their lifetime earnings than do workers who are laid off during good times. Lasting unemployment has lasting consequences. That should terrify our policymakers.
The below chart from DeLong and Summers shows the unemployment rate versus the percentage of working-age people who are actually working. Any divergence between the two shows us how many people have given up on trying to find a job after being out of work for too long. The recent numbers paint a frightening picture.
While quantifying just how much this will hurt our long-term productive capacity is a matter of guesswork, DeLong and Summers show that it doesn't have to be much to justify doing something now -- provided that rock bottom interest rates super-charge fiscal stimulus.
DeLong and Summers argue that real rates -- that is, adjusted for inflation -- don't have to be that low to make more spending a good deal. They calculate that real rates of anywhere between three and seven percent make fiscal stimulus worthwhile. Inflation-adjusted rates are negative now. But low rates don't only make borrowing cheaper. They might also make government spending more effective.
STIMULUS THAT WORKS: A BLACK SWAN, NOT A UNICORN
Government spending usually doesn't increase growth. Or, as economists put it, "the fiscal multiplier is usually close to zero." The multiplier just refers to how much total spending a dollar of government spending generates. For instance, if the government spends $1 billion and GDP goes up by $1.5 billion, then the multiplier would be 1.5. In normal times, the multiplier is zero, because the Federal Reserve offsets any additional spending. The Fed has its inflation target, and if more government spending pushes up inflation, then the Fed neutralizes it by raising interest rates. But with short-term rates hugging zero and inflation falling below target, this calculus might change. The Fed might allow the multiplier to be greater than one. And that would certainly make more spending a very good deal.
There are two broad objections to the notion that the fiscal multiplier might be quite high right now. First, just because short-term interest rates are at zero doesn't mean the Fed is out of ammunition. The Fed can still buy long-term bonds -- aka quantitative easing -- or tell markets that it will keep short-term rates low for an extended period. These things matter. If fiscal stimulus precludes the Fed from doing more monetary stimulus, then the apparent multiplier will be misleading. Second, it's hard to find many historical examples of a high fiscal multiplier. Critics like to point out that even during World War II -- when interest rates were also negligible -- that the multiplier was no better than during normal times. So, after all of this, does this mean that government spending isn't worth it?
Not so fast. Just because the Fed can use unconventional policy doesn't mean that fiscal stimulus is a waste. Much of the Fed's current strategy involves making (quasi) promises to keep rates low for a long time -- till late 2014, to be exact. It's a very watered down version of what Paul Krugman called "credibly promising to be irresponsible". The problem, though, is credibility. Markets might not believe the Fed. Actually, they don't. And that means that spending wouldn't be canceled out nearly as much right now. As for past instances of a high multiplier, World War II actually does offer solid evidence. You just need to know when to look. While we were actively fighting in the war, the government imposed private sector rationing. So it's hardly surprising that government spending didn't spur on private spending when the private sector was forbidden from spending. But here's an oft-forgotten fact: we started spending on the war long before we entered the war -- to help arm Great Britain. Those were our "arsenal of democracy" days. More importantly, there was no rationing from 1939-41. Over this period Robert Gordon and Robert Krenn found that the multiplier was as high as 1.8. That's really, really good.
The Cliff Notes version of all of this is that a fiscal multiplier greater than one is not a unicorn. It's more like a black swan. It exists. It's just rare. And this looks like one of those rare times. Taken together with our historically low rates, now seems like a great time to make some investments in ourselves. Putting the long-term unemployed back to work is an investment in their human capital. Refurbishing roads and bridges is an investment in the physical infrastructure we need to keep competing globally. Both make us better off in the long run, and could conceivably pay for themselves. Of course, none of the above means that the Fed can't or shouldn't try to do more. It's more of a practical appraisal about what the Fed will -- and won't -- do.
Usually comparing the government's budget to a family's budget is a bad idea. Governments can borrow for far longer and on far better terms. And, counterfeiters aside, families can't print money. But in this case it's a worthwhile comparison. A family struggling to make ends meet wouldn't be wise to save money by pulling their kids out of college if they can afford tuition. Similarly, governments running massive deficits during a depression wouldn't be wise to embrace austerity if markets will lend to them on favorable terms. In both cases, the long-term damage outweighs any short-term benefit.
Which is to say: When people offer you free money, don't say no.
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 protesters 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.
This is the paradox at the heart of rioting in Baltimore. Protestors have been in the streets of Charm City for a week to demonstrate against violence by police officers. But when matters started to spin out of control Monday afternoon, the group dispatched to solve the problem was the police.
The context for these events is a slowly building anger, beginning with the arrest of Freddie Gray on April 12, his grievous injury in a police van that day, and his death on April 19. The 25-year-old black man's funeral was Monday. His life and death have prompted a series of questions about how the police interact with residents of Baltimore, particularly black ones, and about segregation and poverty in the city.
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.
“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.
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.’”
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.
Take a walk along West Florissant Avenue, in Ferguson, Missouri. Head south of the burned-out Quik Trip and the famous McDonalds, south of the intersection with Chambers, south almost to the city limit, to the corner of Ferguson Avenue and West Florissant. There, last August, Emerson Electric announced third-quarter sales of $6.3 billion. Just over half a mile to the northeast, four days later, Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. The 12 shots fired by Officer Wilson were probably audible in the company lunchroom.
Outwardly, at least, the City of Ferguson would appear to occupy an enviable position. It is home to a Fortune 500 firm. It has successfully revitalized a commercial corridor through its downtown. It hosts an office park filled with corporate tenants. Its coffers should be overflowing with tax dollars.