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.
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.
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.
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.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
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.
Today’s college students can’t seem to take a joke.
Three comics sat around a café table in the chilly atrium of the Minneapolis Convention Center, talking about how to create the cleanest possible set. “Don’t do what’s in your gut,” Zoltan Kaszas said. “Better safe than sorry,” Chinedu Unaka offered. Feraz Ozel mused about the first time he’d ever done stand-up: three minutes on giving his girlfriend herpes and banging his grandma. That was out.
This was not a case of professionals approaching a technical problem as an intellectual exercise. Money was riding on the answer. They had come to Minneapolis in the middle of a brutal winter for the annual convention of the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA), to sell themselves and their comedy on the college circuit. Representatives of more than 350 colleges had come as well, to book comics, musicians, sword swallowers, unicyclists, magicians, hypnotists, slam poets, and every kind of boat act, inspirational speaker, and one-trick pony you could imagine for the next academic year.
Grasses—green, neatly trimmed, symbols of civic virtue—shaped the national landscape. They have now outlived their purpose.
The hashtag #droughtshaming—which primarily exists, as its name suggests, to publicly decry people who have failed to do their part to conserve water during California’s latest drought—has claimed many victims. Anonymous lawn-waterers. Anonymous sidewalk-washers. The city of Beverly Hills. The tag’s most high-profile shamee thus far, however, has been the actor Tom Selleck. Who was sued earlier this summer by Ventura County’s Calleguas Municipal Water District for the alleged theft of hydrant water, supposedly used to nourish his 60-acre ranch. Which includes, this being California, an avocado farm, and also an expansive lawn.
The case was settled out of court on terms that remain undisclosed, and everyone has since moved on with their lives. What’s remarkable about the whole thing, though—well, besides the fact that Magnum P.I. has apparently become, in his semi-retirement, a gentleman farmer—is how much of a shift all the Selleck-shaming represents, as a civic impulse. For much of American history, the healthy lawn—green, lush, neatly shorn—has been a symbol not just of prosperity, individual and communal, but of something deeper: shared ideals, collective responsibility, the assorted conveniences of conformity. Lawns, originally designed to connect homes even as they enforced the distance between them, are shared domestic spaces. They are also socially regulated spaces. “When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country,” Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the nation’s first landscaper-philosophers, put it, “we know that order and culture are established.”
On this day in 1967, the U.S. Senate confirmed legendary NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall's appointment to a seat on the Supreme Court. As the nation’s first black justice, Marshall brought the American judiciary closer to resembling the American people it served. This change was easier for some members of the legal community to absorb than for others, to say the least.
Marshall's tenure on the Court has spawned endless anecdotes, but one that sticks out for me is a little-known exchange between Marshall and North Carolina deputy attorney general Jean Benoy during oral arguments in Fowler v. North Carolina in 1975. I first discovered it in Evan Mandery’s indispensable book on the campaign to abolish the death penalty in the early 1970s, A Wild Justice. (A transcript of Fowler isn’t available online, so I've relied on Mandery’s recitation below.)
Residents of Newtok, Alaska voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.