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.
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.
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?.
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.”
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.”
Meet the first human-related species to be identified with more than fossil records.
We don’t know what the Denisovan looked like. We don’t know how it lived, what tools it used, how tall it was, what it ate, or if it buried its dead.
But from only two teeth and a piece of finger bone smaller than a penny, we’ve been able to extract the rich history of a species that split off from Homo sapiensapproximately 600,000 years ago. We know they’re more closely related to Neanderthals than humans—though still distantly. We know they made their way to Southeast Asian islands, interbreeding with indigenous modern human groups in New Guinea and Australia. We know their interspecies mingling with modern humans in mainland Asia was brief, but enough to impart a few genes. And we know Denisovan genes reveal evidence of interbreeding with Neanderthals and an even more archaic hominin species.
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.
What the Iran “debate” has taught us about our ability to discuss world affairs
Over the past month I’ve run a series of messages from readers in North America, the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere about the JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal that the Congress will soon formally consider. You can see the latest item here, and the whole collection here. That most recent installment, from Samuel J. Cohen in Israel, emphasized the contrast between the fury over the deal in the United States and Israel, and its taken-for-granted treatment everywhere else.
Here is another reaction worth considering. It is about the way the debate has evolved inside the United States. This comes from a young American who works for a well-known international organization and who himself has experience overseas. He writes: