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.
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.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
The year after my father died, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
That same week I got a call from my mom—she was struggling to pay off my dad’s funeral expenses. I looked at my “House Fund” and sighed. Then I deleted it and typed the words “Funeral Fund” instead.
My father’s passing was unexpected. And so was the financial burden that came with it.
For many Millennials of color, these sorts of trade-offs aren’t an anomaly. During key times in their lives when they should be building assets, they’re spending money on basic necessities and often helping out family. Their financial future is a rocky one, and much of it comes down to how much—or how little—assistance they receive.
Maya Arulpragasam is a famous rapper, singer, designer, producer, and refugee. When she was 9, her mother and siblings fled violence in Sri Lanka and came to London, and the experience was formative for her art. As she explained to The Guardian in 2005 after the release of her debut Arular, “I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about. Take everybody’s bad bits and say, ‘Actually, they’re good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?’”
That goal—to glorify people and practices that the developed world marginalizes—has been a constant in her career. Her new music video tackles it in a particularly literal and urgent way, not only by showing solidarity with refugees at a moment when they’re extremely controversial in the West, but also by posing a simple question to listeners: Whose lives do you value?
To solve climate change, we need to reimagine our entire relationship to the nonhuman world.
Humans were once a fairly average species of large mammals, living off the land with little effect on it. But in recent millennia, our relationship with the natural world has changed as dramatically as our perception of it.
There are now more than 7 billion people on this planet, drinking its water, eating its plants and animals, and mining its raw materials to build and power our tools. These everyday activities might seem trivial from the perspective of any one individual, but aggregated together they promise to leave lasting imprints on the Earth. Human power is now geological in scope—and if we are to avoid making a mess of this, our only home, our politics must catch up.
Making this shift will require a radical change in how we think about our relationship to the natural world. That may sound like cause for despair. After all, many people refuse to admit that environmental crises like climate change exist at all. But as Jedediah Purdy reminds us in his dazzling new book, After Nature, our relationship with the nonhuman world has proved flexible over time. People have imagined nature in a great many ways across history.
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.
The generation has been called lazy, entitled, and narcissistic. Their bosses beg to differ.
Yes, many Millennials are still crashing on their parent’s couches. And there’s data to support the claim that they generally want more perks but less face time, and that they hope to rise quickly but don’t stick around for very long. Millennials have also been pretty vocal about their desire to have more flexible jobs and more leave time.
But does all of this mean that all Millennials are actually worse workers?
Laura Olin, a digital campaigner who ran social-media strategy for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, says that’s not been her experience. “You always hear about Millennials supposedly being entitled and needing coddling, but the ones I’ve encountered have been incredibly hard-working and recognize that they need to pay their dues.”
Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and other presidential contenders appease Donald Trump at their own peril.
Give Donald Trump this: He has taught Americans something about the candidates he’s running against. He has exposed many of them as political cowards.
In August, after Trump called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and vowed to build a wall along America’s southern border, Jeb Bush traveled to South Texas to respond. Bush’s wife is Mexican American; he has said he’s “immersed in the immigrant experience”; he has even claimed to be Hispanic himself. Yet he didn’t call Trump’s proposals immoral or bigoted, since that might offend Trump’s nativist base. Instead, Bush declared: “Mr. Trump’s plans are not grounded in conservative principles. His proposal is unrealistic. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.” In other words, demonizing and rounding up undocumented Mexican immigrants is fine, so long as it’s done cheap.
While Saint Nicholas may bring gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe's Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways—or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack.
While Saint Nicholas may bring gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe's Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways—or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack. In keeping with pre-Germanic Pagan traditions, men dressed as these demons have been frightening children on Krampusnacht for centuries, chasing them and hitting them with sticks, on an (often alcohol-fueled) run through the dark streets.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
What I learned from attending a town-hall meeting and listening to students’ concerns
Sometimes it takes a group of young people to set you straight.
For months now, I’ve been reading about college students who’ve been seeking “safe spaces.” They’ve often been met by derision—even the highest ranked Urban Dictionary definition is mired in sarcasm, describing them as having “pillows” and “soothing music” that “allows them to recover from the trauma... of exposure to ideas that conflict with their leftist professors.”
I also had some mid-life skepticism about teenage hyperbole, that is, until I attended a town hall meeting at Duke University (my alma mater) earlier this month. The “community conversation,” as it was called, had been hastily convened to discuss the rash of racist and homophobic incidents on campus. Listening to those students—and watching their expressions—I realized that what’s been happening at Duke is serious, and no amount of sarcasm can disguise the pain and anger on campus, or cover up the real dangers lurking there.