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.
It isn’t the only democratic institution that finds itself in danger.
Four years ago, as a speechwriter for President Obama, I commissioned a binder full of women.
A little context. It was the morning of the Al Smith Dinner, the election-year tradition in which both parties’ nominees don white-tie attire and deliver comedy monologues to New York City’s elite. Our opponent, Governor Mitt Romney had recently used the words “binders full of women” while discussing gender parity in government. Eager to mock the clumsy phrase, I asked a staffer on the advance team to put together a prop.
But our binder never saw the light of day. Obama nixed the idea. I remember being disappointed by the president’s decision, and wondering if POTUS was phoning it in. Of the jokes that did make it into the final draft, one in particular stood out for its authenticity.
First there was McCain’s caving to Bush’s signing statement on his own torture bill, then his selection of an extremely unqualified and unvetted running mate, then he backed Trump until nearly the bitter end—even after Trump insulted his POW experience and his fellow vets with PTSD. And now, a shameless betrayal of constitutional principle that would have gotten far more attention this week if Trump hadn’t one-upped McCain with all his incendiary “rigged” rhetoric. Reader Don explains:
I don’t know if your readers have seen this yet, but it seems that McCain has announced that his fellow GOP Senators will not confirm any Supreme Court nomination by Clinton. Trump is an ignorant, narcissistic, nasty piece of work. But McCain used to be a guy who remembered and honored (at least sometimes) the old bipartisan traditions of the Senate. His statement is just outrageous and inexcusable. What he’s basically saying is that only Republican presidents get to appoint Supreme Court Justices.
I understand that their thinking is that they don’t want the bias of the Court to shift from conservative to liberal. But the Court has shifted back and forth over the years, and we have managed to survive those changes. Apparently, today’s Republican Party feels that the country somehow won’t survive a Democratic administration or a liberal Supreme Court.
We have what might be described as an asymmetric politics. One party disagrees with the other party’s policy domestic policy positions, but recognizes the legitimacy of an opposition party and accepts that the other party is patriotic and loyal to the country. The other party rejects the legitimacy and loyalty of the other party. The efforts to de-legitimize former President Clinton, President Obama, and likely future President Hillary Clinton are part of this effort. The refusal of the GOP Congress to allow Obama any legislative accomplishments was another part of it. I expect that a GOP House will adopt the same obstructionist tactics starting in 2017.
People predict that the U.S. population will continue to get younger, better educated, and less white. I hope our political experiment lasts long enough to see that day.
“Light” events are some of the heaviest lifting in political life. Comedy is hard to begin with, and for the kinds of people involved in politics, jokes are vastly more difficult to write or deliver than “substantive” remarks. And for presidents or presidential aspirants, we’re talking about a special kind of joke. These eminent figures need to come across as “modest” and self-deprecatory, but only up to a humble-brag point. (That is, just enough so the audience and reviewers will say, “Oh, isn’t it charming that he’s willing to laugh at himself!”) Real comedy often includes a “what the hell!” willingness to say something that will genuinely shock or offend, which national politicians can’t afford to do. The White House Correspondents Dinner, the Gridiron, the Al Smith Dinner—any event like this is hard (as David Litt, a former member of the Obama speechwriting team, explains in a very nice item just now).
The easiest way to take down the web is to attack people’s access to it.
For more than two hours on Friday morning, much of the web seemed to grind to a halt—or at least slow to dial-up speed—for many users in the United States.
More than a dozen major websites experienced outages and other technical problems, according to user reports and the web-tracking site downdetector.com. They included The New York Times, Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit, GitHub, Etsy, Tumblr, Spotify, PayPal, Verizon, Comcast, EA, the Playstation network, and others.
How was it possible to take down all those sites at once?
Someone attacked the architecture that held them together—the domain-name system, or DNS, the technical network that redirects users from easy-to-remember addresses like theatlantic.com to a company’s actual web servers. The assault took the form of a distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS) on one of the major companies that provides other companies access to DNS. A DDoS attack is one in which an attacker floods sites “with so much junk traffic that it can no longer serve legitimate visitors,” as the security researcher Brian Krebs put it in a blog post Friday morning.
What began as a two-hour morning outage spanned well into the afternoon as Twitter, Reddit, Spotify, Github, and many other popular websites and services became effectively inaccessible for many American web users, especially those on the East Coast.
The websites were not targeted individually. Instead, an unknown attacker deployed a massive botnet to wage a distributed denial-of-service attack on Dyn (pronounced like dine), the domain name service (DNS) provider that they all share.
A distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS, is not an uncommon attack on the web, and web hosts have been fending them off for years. But according to reports, Friday’s attack was distinguished by its distinctive approach. The perpetrator used a botnet composed of so-called “internet-of-things” devices—namely, webcams and DVRs—to spam Dyn with more requests than it could handle.
The candidates are back on the campaign trail, following the third, and final, debate on Wednesday night.
It’s Friday, October 21—the election is now less than three weeks away. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are back on the campaign trail to deliver their final pitch to voters, ahead of Election Day. We’ll bring you the latest updates from the trail, as events unfold. Also see our continuing coverage:
Science says lasting relationships come down to—you guessed it—kindness and generosity.
Every day in June, the most popular wedding month of the year, about 13,000 American couples will say “I do,” committing to a lifelong relationship that will be full of friendship, joy, and love that will carry them forward to their final days on this earth.
Except, of course, it doesn’t work out that way for most people. The majority of marriages fail, either ending in divorce and separation or devolving into bitterness and dysfunction. Of all the people who get married, only three in ten remain in healthy, happy marriages, as psychologist Ty Tashiro points out in his book The Science of Happily Ever After, which was published earlier this year.
Social scientists first started studying marriages by observing them in action in the 1970s in response to a crisis: Married couples were divorcing at unprecedented rates. Worried about the impact these divorces would have on the children of the broken marriages, psychologists decided to cast their scientific net on couples, bringing them into the lab to observe them and determine what the ingredients of a healthy, lasting relationship were. Was each unhappy family unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy claimed, or did the miserable marriages all share something toxic in common?
The more emotional and hopeful tale stars Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Sophie Gilbert and David Sims will be discussing the new season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, considering alternate episodes. The reviews contain spoilers; don’t read further than you’ve watched. See all of their coveragehere.
Sophie, I agree that “Shut Up and Dance” was nightmarish—but it certainly left me scratching my head. If the point was simply to dramatize the terrifying grip of online surveillance, there was nothing innovative or surprising about the technology on display. If the grander concept was about internet witch-hunts, or people’s propensity to dispense justice when they only have bits of information at their fingertips, then why were the protagonists seemingly guilty of such heinous crimes? Perhaps Charlie Brooker just wanted to avoid any easy judgments: Even if the main characters of “Shut Up and Dance” were bad people, their treatment was excruciating all the same. That sort of “slippery slope” metaphor can only get me so involved, though I admired the episode’s execution.
The third episode of the new season is one of the most disturbing of the series.
Sophie Gilbert and David Sims will be discussing the new season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, considering alternate episodes. The reviews contain spoilers; don’t read further than you’ve watched. See all of their coverage here.
David, I agree with you that the ending of “Playtest” fell flat. After so many twists (bullies! spiders! spider bullies! Terminator hookups!), the end didn’t evoke pathos so much as a sense of absurdity. In terms of focusing on the evils of technology, though, it seems to me that Black Mirror has always seen technology as something with the potential to enable and encourage human evil, rather than something that’s inherently evil by itself. It takes our worst instincts as people, as societies, and magnifies them.
Her “personal” comeback album uses retro references in songs that don’t quite communicate what makes her special.
“I want your everything as long as it’s free”—right there, in her biggest single, Lady Gaga nailed the eternal tease of pop music. In three easy minutes, you feel immortal, unbeatable, the ultimate person. You stand at the edge, the edge, the edge, but know you won’t tumble over. It was a proposition Gaga tested with ever-more gusto until the safety harness snapped for 2013’s Artpop, where each songs seemed to have six different choruses and 42 layers of synthesizer and zero filter on its lyrics about the insatiable need to feed off of human attention. Suddenly, the listener felt implicated; the rush became lurid; everything was no longer free.
Gaga then retreated into tribute performances and the grounding wisdom of Tony Bennett, resulting finally in her new album Joanne, a self-described return to pop “without makeup.” It used to be that although she was among one of the most famous performers in the world, most people wouldn’t have been able to identify her in plainclothes. Now she sits unadorned on her album cover, with the only controversial fashion choice for the related marketing campaign being a bit of underboob. Decent move, PR-wise, perhaps: Here I am, humbled by my Icarus fall. But musically, she has overcorrected and hired a team with more gimmicks than guts, resulting in a “personal” album that—while often enjoyable—seems like it’s trying to hide its personality.