The Federal Reserve is crucifying the U.S. economy on a cross of two-percent inflation.
The Federal Reserve balance sheet contains roughly $2.5 trillion worth of Treasuries, Fannie Mae bonds and mortgage-backed securities. But there is one asset the Fed considers invaluable. Credibility.
Most people think the central bank's job is manipulating interest rates, but the Fed is really in the business of making and keeping promises about the economy. Lately the Fed is obsessed with a narrow construction of credibility that is holding back the entire country.
The Fed has fetishized two-percent inflation.
WHO'S AFRAID OF 3%?
The Fed makes a very simple promise: It promises to keep inflation at a certain level every year. That level has changed over the past 30 years, but it's currently around 2% a year. If the economy is running too hot, the Fed raises interest rates. If it's running cold, it lowers rates.
For 30 years, this worked spectacularly. Recessions were rare and shallow. Inflation was low. Then 2008 happened. Even zero interest rates weren't enough to revive the collapsing economy. That's still mostly true now. In fact, our disappointing recovery is in large part the result of a central bank
target that no longer serves the economy.
Let's think about why a two-percent
inflation target is a problem now, and what a better target would look
like. The below chart compares the economy's long-term growth trend
(blue) with the actual size of the economy (red). I've included the
numbers going back to 1980 so that you can see that this isn't a case of
the housing bubble making us vastly overestimate the economy's
productive capacity. You can go back further if you like. The results
are the same. The two lines barely deviate from each other -- until now.
(The only other exception is the Great Depression).
have a lot of catching up to do. But a two-percent inflation target --
mostly -- prevents us from getting the catch-up growth we need. Now for
the disclaimer. The Fed doesn't have a strict two-percent mandate. The Fed
is supposed to pursue full employment too. And as Greg Ip of The Economist has pointed out, Bernanke has
said that he is willing to tolerate greater than two-percent inflation if
unemployment is still high. But practically, the Fed's two-percent
inflation target acts like something fairly close to a ceiling. Indeed, wunderkind blogger Evan Soltas
has found that the Fed becomes approximately 17 percent more sensitive
to changes in inflation than in output for each percentage point the Federal funds rate falls. The Fed might say that it'll let inflation run a bit
higher, but history suggests otherwise. So do its forecasts for inflation over the next few years.
that the economic recovery actually picks up. Unemployment is still far
too high, but it's falling at a rapid clip. And here's the crucial bit:
say inflation creeps over 3 percent -- or even hotter. It's hard to
believe the Fed wouldn't tighten in this scenario given its inflation
bias. Higher interest rates would push down growth and slow the decline
in unemployment. In
other words, when the economy is in a deep hole, a too-low inflation
target puts a speed limit on the recovery.
are easy enough fixes for this too. A higher inflation target, for one.
That's basically the same as raising the speed limit. But we can do
better still. To revert to econospeak, a level NGDP target probably
makes the most sense. In English, this means that the Fed should target
the total size of the economy -- that is, inflation and growth together
-- and try to keep it close to its long-term trend. The "level" part of
the "level target" means that the Fed should make up for any past
mistakes. For instance, if the Fed undershoots its targets for a few
years -- basically, the situation we're in now -- then it should try to
catch up and get back to trend as quickly as possible. That's not a
speed limit. It's a speed minimum.
WAIT, HOW WOULD INFLATION HELP?
All of these alternative Fed targets essentially amount to
saying Bernanke and Co. should create more inflation today. That
raises two questions: 1) Would higher inflation really help us, and 2)
If it would help, would it outweigh any costs? Let's consider these in
The case for higher inflation has to do
with debt. More inflation now would make new debt more attractive and
old debt less onerous. When most people think of inflation, they think
about paying more for gas and groceries. How does that make anything
better? The answer is that those prices are set in international markets
and are mostly beyond the control of the Fed. When we talk about the
Fed creating inflation we're talking about wage inflation.
incomes would make it easier to pay off old debts that don't change. To
go back to econospeak one more time, it would speed up the deleveraging
process that's been holding back private demand. It would also make taking out new loans a better deal. We can thank our depressed economy for this. In normal times, higher inflation
just translates into higher interest rates, so more inflation doesn't
make more borrowing make sense. But these aren't normal times. If
inflation goes up, interest rates won't. Borrowers would pay a lower
real interest rate.
There's a specter haunting
this inflation debate -- the specter of the 1970s. Back then, we got
something that most economists at the time didn't think was possible: a
combination of high inflation and high unemployment. (Milton Friedman,
of course, predicted this would happen back in 1968). Previously,
economists had thought there was a fairly clear trade-off between
inflation and unemployment called the Phillips Curve -- if you got more
of one, you got less of the other. What happened in the 1970s? Oil shocks. Cost-of-living-adjustment contracts were common enough back
then that higher oil prices got transmitted to the rest of the economy
in a way they don't today. More expensive oil pushed up both unemployment and
The problems of
the 1970s are not our problems. We've had oil shocks in 2008 and 2011
and 2012 that have not set off inflationary booms. There's little reason
to expect high inflation to coexist with high unemployment today. And as long
as higher inflation is expected, there's little reason to expect
there to be much in the way of actual costs. The Fed just has to tell
us it wants higher inflation.
A CASE OF SELF-INDUCED PARALYSIS?
it's so easy, why isn't the Fed doing it?
On Wednesday, Binyamin Appelbaum of The New York Times asked Ben Bernanke if it was worth tolerating slightly higher inflation over the medium-term to bring unemployment down faster. Here's the Fed Chairman's response:
We, the Federal Reserve, have spent 30 years building up credibility for low
and stable inflation, which has proved extremely valuable in that we've
been able to take strong accommodative actions in the last four, five
years to support the economy without leading to an unanchoring of
inflation expectations or a destabilization of inflation. To risk that
asset for what I think would be quite tentative and perhaps doubtful
gains on the real side would be, I think, an unwise thing to do.
This is equal parts misguided and afraid. Let's
tackle the misguided part first. Inflation has remained low despite the
Fed's unprecedented and unconventional actions the past 4 years not
because of its credibility. Inflation has remained low because of the severity of the slump. Massive deflationary forces have battered the
world economy since 2008. We wouldn't expect, what were in retrospect,
relatively modest asset purchases to radically unmoor inflation
expectations in this context.
broader critique. The Fed is acting as though it gets credibility from
its target itself, rather than from hitting its target. The Fed won't lose credibility if it changes its target. The Fed will lose credibility if it misses its target -- if it gets more (or less) inflation than it wants. If the Fed says
it wants four-percent inflation and gets it, that's no less "credible" than
if it says it wants two-percent inflation and gets it.
I'm afraid to say something else might be going on here. The Fed might be worried that it can't
get four-percent inflation if it says it wants it. This is almost
certainly not the case, but the thing about unconventional strategies is
that they are inherently uncertain. And that uncertainty seems to be
tilting the FOMC towards inaction. The logic is that it's not better to
have tried for four-percent inflation and lost than not to have tried
for four-percent inflation at all. The former risks losing credibility,
while the latter doesn't -- albeit at the cost of an economy running
well below capacity. It's what a certain Princeton professor called a
case of "self-induced paralysis" when he excoriated the Bank of Japan for a similar mindset a
decade ago. Of course, that professor was none other than Ben Bernanke,
which gives this all a tint of Greek tragedy.
Let's try a quick thought experiment. Imagine that you and a friend -- let's call him Ben -- meet up every Sunday at 2pm to workout. But then something comes up. Ben tells you that he has
to leave early the next few weeks -- unless you want to meet at 4pm instead. The obvious solution is get together later. You trust that Ben will show up at 4pm, because he's showed up at 2pm all this time.
It's the same with inflation targeting.
This probably sounds facile. It is. But that's only because the answers to our problems are facile. There's no reason to think prices will spiral out of control if the Fed targets four-percent inflation, because the Fed is credible. And it's not as if the Fed doesn't have experience targeting higher inflation. It did it in the 1980s, when it targeted ... four-percent inflation. That wasn't some inflationary nightmare. That was "Morning in America."
don't doubt that Bernanke wants to do more. I just wish he'd ditch his
soft-spoken, professorial demeanor. Get mean. Maybe practice in the
mirror. (YOU WANT THE TRUTH? YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH ABOUT HOW MUCH
INFLATION WE NEED). Whatever it takes to get him to drag the rest of the
FOMC to do more. We promise we won't think you're less credible if you
put people back to work. Just the opposite.
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.
Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”
George Will is denouncing a GOP that has been ailing for years, but quitting won’t help—an American political party can only be reformed from within.
This past weekend, George Will revealed that he had formally disaffiliated himself from the Republican Party, switching his Maryland voter registration to independent. On Fox News Sunday, the conservative pundit explained his decision: "After Trump went after the 'Mexican' judge from northern Indiana then [House Speaker] Paul Ryan endorsed him, I decided that in fact this was not my party anymore.” For 40 years, George Will defined and personified what it meant to be a thoughtful conservative. His intellect and authority inspired a generation of readers and viewers, myself very much among them.
His departure represents a powerful image of divorce between intellectual conservatism and the new Trump-led GOP. Above all, it raises a haunting question for the many other Republicans and conservatives repelled by the looming nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for president of the United States: What will you do?
Hillary Clinton wrote something for The Toast today. Are you sobbing yet?
Either you’ll immediately get why this is crazy, or you won’t: Hillary Clinton wrote a thing for The Toast today.
Are you weeping? Did your heart skip a beat? Maybe your reaction was, “What. Whaaaat. WHAT,” or “Aaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!” or “OH MY GOD,” or simply “this is too much goodbye I'm dead now.”
Perhaps your feelings can only be captured in GIF form, as was the case for someone commenting on Clinton’s post under the name Old_Girl:
Reader comments like the ones above are arguably the best part of Clinton’s post, because they highlight just how meaningful hearing directly from Clinton is to The Toast’s community of readers. The Toast is a small but beloved feminist website known for its quirky literary humor. It announced last month it couldn’t afford to continue operating. Friday is its last day of publication.
“This western-front business couldn’t be done again.”
On this first day of July, exactly 100 years ago, the peoples of the British Empire suffered the greatest military disaster in their history. A century later, “the Somme” remains the most harrowing place-name in the annals not only of Great Britain, but of the many former dependencies that shed their blood on that scenic river. The single regiment contributed to the First World War by the island of Newfoundland, not yet joined to Canada, suffered nearly 100 percent casualties that day: Of 801 engaged, only 68 came out alive and unwounded. Altogether, the British forces suffered more than 19,000 killed and more than 38,000 wounded: almost as many casualties in one day as Britain suffered in the entire disastrous battle for France in May and June 1940, including prisoners. The French army on the British right flank absorbed some 1,600 casualties more.
What percentage graduated from high school and enrolled within a year at a four year institution where they live on campus?
Who are today’s college students?
The answer surprises most people who attended four year universities, according to Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina Foundation. Addressing audiences, like the one he spoke to Friday at The Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, he frequently poses this question: “What percentage of students in American higher education today graduated from high school and enrolled in college within a year to attend a four year institution and live on campus?”
Most people guess “between forty and sixty percent,” he said, whereas “the correct answer is five percent.” There is, he argued, “a real disconnect in our understanding of who today’s students are. The influencers––the policy makers, the business leaders, the media––have a very skewed view of who today’s students are.”
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?
Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.
But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?
There needs to be more nuanced language to describe the expanding demographic of unmarried Americans.
In 1957, a team of psychology professors at the University of Michigan released the results of a survey they had conducted—an attempt to reflect Americans’ attitudes about unmarried people. When it came to the group of adults who remained single by choice, 80 percent of the survey’s respondents—reflecting the language used by the survey’s authors—said they believed that the singletons remained so because they must be “immoral,” “sick,” or “neurotic.”
It’s amazing, and reassuring, how much has changed in such a relatively narrow slice of time. Today, certainly, marriage remains a default economic and social arrangement, particularly after having been won as a right for same-sex couples; today, certainly, those who do not marry still face some latent social stigmas (or, at the very least, requests to explain themselves). But the regressive language of failed morality and psychological pathology when it comes to singledom? That has, fortunately, been replaced by more permissive attitudes.
The trend helps explain Trump and Brexit. What’s next?
On Wednesday, Facebook made an announcement that you’d think would only matter to Facebook users and publishers: It will modify its News Feed algorithm to favor content posted by a user’s friends and family over content posted by media outlets. The company said the move was not about privileging certain sources over others, but about better “connecting people and ideas.”
But Richard Edelman, the head of the communications marketing firm Edelman, sees something more significant in the change: proof of a new “world of self-reference” that, once you notice it, helps explain everything from Donald Trump’s appeal to Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. Elites used to possess outsized influence and authority, Edelman notes, but now they only have a monopoly on authority. Influence largely rests with the broader population. People trust their peers much more than they trust their political leaders or news organizations.
Sharing platforms are meant to scale seamlessly throughout the world, but they’ve faced a different knotty set of rules in nearly every city they’ve colonized.
For years now, Airbnb, the popular home-sharing platform, has featured this line of copy at the end of a company mission statement that mostly pledges to promote a sense of adventure and discovery: “And with world-class customer service and a growing community of users, Airbnb is the easiest way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions."
It’s a business model condensed into a coda, casually set off with an “And.” The subtext is that the revenue-making potential of the platform is an afterthought, which implies that its appeal lies in its ease of use. Sign up and rent out your apartment or guest room. It’s easy.
Easy, that is, unless you live in Chicago, where regulations passed last week will require hosts to register with the city, impose a tax on each transaction to pay for the city’s homeless services, and limit the number of apartments that can be rented out in a particular building, depending on its size. Or in San Francisco, Airbnb’s hometown, where a law that went into effect in 2015 limits the total number of days an apartment can be rented out per year and similarly requires hosts to register with the city. (This week, the company, which coincidentally helped draft the 2014 law, decided to sue the city over it.) Months after San Francisco imposed those limits, Santa Monica passed regulations requiring hosts to get business licenses and restricted them from renting out entire properties.