By failing to appoint new members to the Federal Reserve, Obama has failed the economy
Behind every great president stands a great central banker. Ronald Reagan had Paul Volcker. Dwight Eisenhower had William McChesney Martin. And FDR had, well, FDR.
There's a corollary. Behind every great central banker stands a great central banking committee. Or at least a pliant one. It's this latter reality that President Obama still has not quite recognized. And this malign neglect of most matters monetary has added a wholly unnecessary degree-of-difficulty to the economic recovery.
Here's a depressing reminder: We're in a $1 trillion hole. That's how much income we have been losing every year since the onset of the Great Recession. Ben Bernanke and Co. have done a good job preventing a full-on replay of the Great Depression, but Ben Bernanke and Co. have not done a good job preventing a lost decade. The key phrase here is "and Co."
Bernanke doesn't set monetary policy by himself. That's what the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) votes on. Its structure is a bit Byzantine and not terribly important, but what is important is that the Fed Chairman usually gets his way without any dissent. That hasn't been true lately. The Fed's unconventional measures have unsurprisingly not been too popular with the FOMC's more conventional members. Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped Bernanke from trying to reach a consensus. He thinks he needs to. Bernanke recently told Roger Lowenstein that he thinks any policy that doesn't get at least a 7-3 majority simply won't be credible. This political calculation gives the hawks more policy influence than they would otherwise have.
And now it looks like there are more hawks. As Greg Ip of The Economist has pointed out, most of Bernanke's colleagues now want to raise rates before he does. He increasingly looks isolated. Even if Bernanke is inclined to ease a bit more -- and reading between the lines, he might be -- there's little chance of it happening. It's worth remembering that even the hawks project inflation to remain below target and unemployment to remain above target for the next few years. If the Fed believes its own forecasts, it should be doing more.
IT'S TIME TO CALL IN THE CAVALRY
I've left out a fairly important detail. There are two unfilled seats on the FOMC. President Obama's picks for those positions have been among the victims of the endless Republican obstruction in the world's greatest deliberative body. There's a simple solution. Obama could just bypass the Senate with recess appointments. That's what he did for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Why not do the same for the Federal Reserve (or the Federal Housing Finance Agency)?
There's no good reason not to. The administration's rationale is that Republican obstruction over the CFPB and NLRB was particularly pernicious -- that it amounted to de facto nullification. Hence, the extraordinary recess appointments for just those vacancies. But even if that's true, who cares? It's hard to run the government if it's not staffed. So staff it! More importantly, there's little Obama can do that might help the economy more than sending Bernanke a few more friendly faces on the FOMC.
Regrettably, the Obama administration has consistently underestimated the importance of the Fed. That there are still two empty FOMC seats proves as much. So do the administration's (blocked) nominees. Consider Peter Diamond. He's a phenomenal economist -- a Nobel-prize winner -- who's clearly qualified to serve on the FOMC. But he's said that he doesn't think there's much more the Fed can do now. Even if he's right -- and I clearly don't think he is -- wouldn't you rather appoint someone who thinks otherwise and find out if the Fed really is powerless? Someone like ... former Council of Economic Advisers Chair Christina Romer.
Let's try pushing some more before we declare that we're pushing on a string.
NECESSARY, BUT NOT SUFFICIENT
Sending Bernanke some reinforcements wouldn't be some economic panacea. Fed policy actually might not change all that much. But it could shift the FOMC's bias away from hiking and back towards easing, which its forecasts say it should be doing. That potential benefit is worth the cost -- which is approximately zero. (Remember the steep political price Obama paid for his previous recess appointments? Neither do I).
We tend to overlook monetary policy when we judge presidents. It's only natural that we think about presidential accomplishments in terms of things the president, you know, actually does. So we talk about how Reagan unleashed the supply side revolution, Eisenhower balanced the budget, and FDR's New Deal turned the tide against depression. But none of that would have been possible without good central banking. Reagan wouldn't have whipped inflation without Volcker. Eisenhower's postwar boom wouldn't have been quite so strong without Martin's fiercely independent Fed. And FDR might not have broken the psychology of deflation had ... FDR not devalued against gold. (Okay, FDR deserves heaps of credit).
It's hard to have a great presidency without great central banking. It's a necessary, but not sufficient condition. Just ask Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter. That's company Obama should be terrified of joining.
We're all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.
In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?”he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.
This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”
Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”
Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.
For those who didn't go to prestigious schools, don't come from money, and aren't interested in sports and booze—it's near impossible to gain access to the best paying jobs.
As income inequality in the U.S. strikes historic highs, many people are starting to feel that the American dream is either dead or out of reach. Only 64 percent of Americans still believe that it’s possible to go from rags to riches, and, in another poll, 63 percent said they did not believe their children would be better off than they were. These days, the idea that anyone who works hard can become wealthy is at best a tough sell.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life. We've grown more adept at shaping these underground shelters and passages over the millennia, and today we dig for hundreds of reasons. We excavate to find both literal and cultural treasures, digging mines and unearthing archaeological discoveries. We use caverns for stable storage, for entertainment, and for an effective shelter from natural and man-made disasters. And as the planet's surface becomes ever more crowded, and national borders are closed, tunnels provide pathways for our vehicles and for smugglers of every kind. Collected below are more recent subterranean scenes from around the world.
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.
The danger of uploading one’s consciousness to a computer without a suicide switch
Imagine a supercomputer so advanced that it could hold the contents of a human brain. The Google engineer Ray Kurzweil famously believes that this will be possible by 2045. Organized technologists are seeking to transfer human personalities to non-biological carriers, “extending life, including to the point of immortality.” My gut says that they’ll never get there. But say I’m wrong. Were it possible, would you upload the contents of your brain to a computer before death, extending your conscious moments on this earth indefinitely? Or would you die as your ancestors did, passing into nothingness or an unknown beyond human comprehension?
The promise of a radically extended lifespan, or even immortality, would tempt many. But it seems to me that they’d be risking something very much like hell on earth.
New research confirms what they say about nice guys.
Smile at the customer. Bake cookies for your colleagues. Sing your subordinates’ praises. Share credit. Listen. Empathize. Don’t drive the last dollar out of a deal. Leave the last doughnut for someone else.
Sneer at the customer. Keep your colleagues on edge. Claim credit. Speak first. Put your feet on the table. Withhold approval. Instill fear. Interrupt. Ask for more. And by all means, take that last doughnut. You deserve it.
Follow one of those paths, the success literature tells us, and you’ll go far. Follow the other, and you’ll die powerless and broke. The only question is, which is which?
Of all the issues that preoccupy the modern mind—Nature or nurture? Is there life in outer space? Why can’t America field a decent soccer team?—it’s hard to think of one that has attracted so much water-cooler philosophizing yet so little scientific inquiry. Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?
What it’s like to watch a komodo dragon get dissected
Try to imagine how hard it would be to skin a Komodo dragon.
It is harder than that.
The problem is that the giant lizard’s hide is not just tough and leathery, but also reinforced. Many of the scales contain a small nugget of bone, called an osteoderm, which together form a kind of pointillist body armor. Sawing through these is tough on both arms and blades.
I’m at the Royal Veterinary College, about 20 kilometers outside of central London, watching four biologists put their shoulders into the task. A Komodo dragon, which recently died in London Zoo for unexplained reasons, lies on a steel gurney in front of them. Their task, over the next three days, is to dissect it and measure all of its muscles. So, first, the skin must come off.
Along with the Nancy Drew series, almost all of the thrillers in the popular teenage franchise were produced by ghostwriters, thanks to a business model that proved to be prescient.
In the opening pages of a recent installment of the children’s book series The Hardy Boys, black smoke drifts though the ruined suburb of Bayport. The town's residents, dressed in tatters and smeared with ash, stumble past the local pharmacy and diner. Shards of glass litter the sidewalk. “Unreal,” says the mystery-solving teenager Joe Hardy—and he's right. Joe and his brother Frank are on a film set, and the people staggering through the scene are actors dressed as zombies. But as is always the case with Hardy Boysbooks, something still isn’t quite right: This time, malfunctioning sets nearly kill several actors, and the brothers find themselves in the middle of yet another mystery.
A song from 2011 is causing controversy now, proving how slowly the genre’s attitudes about women are evolving.
The rapper Action Bronson, whose major-label debut came out recently, is mostly known for his love of food, his large frame, and the fact that he sounds so much like Ghostface Killah that even Ghostface Killah gets confused sometimes. He will likely now be known by more people for one particular lyric of his, due to a headline-making petition asking Toronto’s NXNE music festival to kick the artist off the bill because, in its words, he “glorifies gang-raping and murdering women.”
The lyrics in question come from the 2011 song, “Consensual Rape,” which has a verse that mentions giving a girl MDMA and then having very rough sex with her. The petition also calls out a 2011 music video that portrays Bronson happily disposing of a woman’s corpse.