They go up, they go down. It doesn't sound confusing. But it is. Even for economists. Just ask James Bullard, the president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
Let's step back for a moment. What does the Federal Reserve do exactly? The story you usually hear is all about interest rates. The Fed raises rates when the economy is too hot, and lowers them when it's too cool. But there's a problem. The Fed can't cut short-term interest rates now. They've been stuck at zero since 2008. But longer-term interest rates aren't. So the Fed has tried to push those longer rates down to spur stronger growth.
The big question now is whether the Fed should do more. This shouldn't be a big question if the Fed believes its own economic projections -- which show inflation staying too low and unemployment too high for years to come. So why did the Fed basically sit pat at its latest meeting? For one, Ben Bernanke wants to see more data confirming a slowdown before doing more. For another, James Bullard -- and some other FOMC members -- don't think the Fed needs to do more.
Bullard thinks Europe is doing the Fed's job for it. Or something. Here's what Bullard had to say recently about why he doesn't think further easing is called for:
Treasury yields have gone to extraordinarily low levels. That took some
of the pressure off the FOMC since a lot of our policy actions would be
trying to get exactly that result.
In other words, the Fed doesn't need to push down long-term interest rates because long-term interest rates have already been pushed down by investors looking for a financial safe haven. This would be right if the point of Fed policy was lower interest rates. But the point of Fed policy isn't lower interest rates.
The point is more growth. Lower interest rates only matter insofar as they promote more growth. Lower interest rates do not matter unto themselves. Think about it this way. Interest rates might fall for good or bad reasons. The Fed buying bonds is a good reason. Investors buying bonds due to fears of eurogeddon is a bad reason. They are not equivalent.
Don't take my word for it. Ask the markets. The chart below from Bloomberg gives us a sense of how much inflation markets have expected in five years time.
So-called breakevens just take the borrowing costs on normal Treasury bonds and subtract the borrowing costs from inflation-protected Treasury bonds. That difference should be a decent proxy of expected inflation. That's not always the case because inflation-protected Treasury bonds are traded so little that they're prone to fairly violent swings.
But why do we care about inflation? Well, when the Fed pushes up growth, it also pushes up inflation. Breakevens have jumped dramatically whenever the Fed has eased -- whether that was QE2 in late 2010, Operation Twist in late 2011, or extended guidance in early 2012. But breakevens are falling dramatically now. In other words, markets expect less growth and less inflation right now. That's a weeee bit different than what happens when the Fed eases.
And that brings us to the paradox of interest rates. (Feel free to skip to the next paragraph for the big reveal, if your'e so inclined.) Take a look at the breakeven chart again. Whenever the Fed eases, it says that it's trying to reduce long-term borrowing costs. For breakevens to rise while Treasury yields fall, inflation-protected Treasuries would have to fall even more. Now, that's happened a bit. But not enough to explain the rise in breakevens.
In other words, Treasury yields rise when the Fed eases. Huh? Isn't the whole point to lower interest rates? Technically, yes. But if the Fed succeeds in reducing borrowing costs, that increases inflation. And when inflation increases, investors demand higher yields on Treasuries. So if the Fed succeeds, we'd expect interest rates to rise. If the Fed fails, we'd expect interest rates to fall. It's an upside down world.
There's no big mystery why our economic recovery hasn't felt like much of one. The Fed has run far too tight a policy for far too long. The worst part is that too many Fed officials don't seem to understand that. They think policy has been loose. That's a shame.
Maybe it's time for them to start doing the opposite.
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?
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.
19 Kids and Counting built its reputation on preaching family values, but the mass-media platforms that made the family famous might also be their undoing.
On Thursday, news broke that Josh Duggar, the oldest son of the Duggar family's 19 children, had, as a teenager, allegedly molested five underage girls. Four of them, allegedly, were his sisters.
The information came to light because, in 2006—two years before 17 Kids and Counting first aired on TLC, and thus two years before the Duggars became reality-TV celebrities—the family recorded an appearance on TheOprah Winfrey Show. Before the taping, an anonymous source sent an email to Harpo warning the production company Josh’s alleged molestation. Harpo forwarded the email to authorities, triggering a police investigation (the Oprah appearance never aired). The news was reported this week by In Touch Weekly—after the magazine filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the police report on the case—and then confirmed by the Duggars in a statement posted on Facebook.
The mock metropolis is meant to have everything but people who live there.
Grigory Potemkin, the 18th-century war hero and nobleman, was also Catherine the Great’s lover and military advisor. According to ubiquitous legend, Potemkin fabricated villages along the banks of the Dnieper River in a bid to impress her. Historians aren’t convinced that Potemkin really constructed entire fake villages, their facades illuminated by enormous bonfires—but the concept may not be so far-fetched.
These days, when people talk about a Potemkin village, they’re usually referring to a ruse to make something appear better than it actually is. It’s a useful metaphor, but also a reflection of people’s fascination with fake cities and questions about the line between authenticity and artificiality in man-made environments.
Advocates say that a guaranteed basic income can lead to more creative, fulfilling work. The question is how to fund it.
Scott Santens has been thinking a lot about fish lately. Specifically, he’s been reflecting on the aphorism, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” What Santens wants to know is this: “If you build a robot to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?”
Santens is 37 years old, and he’s a leader in the basic income movement—a worldwide network of thousands of advocates (26,000 on Reddit alone) who believe that governments should provide every citizen with a monthly stipend big enough to cover life’s basic necessities. The idea of a basic income has been around for decades, and it once drew support from leaders as different as Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. But rather than waiting for governments to act, Santens has started crowdfunding his own basic income of $1,000 per month. He’s nearly halfway to his his goal.
In an interview, the U.S. president ties his legacy to a pact with Tehran, argues ISIS is not winning, warns Saudi Arabia not to pursue a nuclear-weapons program, and anguishes about Israel.
On Tuesday afternoon, as President Obama was bringing an occasionally contentious but often illuminating hour-long conversation about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a persistent worry. “A majority of American Jews want to support the Iran deal,” I said, “but a lot of people are anxiety-ridden about this, as am I.” Like many Jews—and also, by the way, many non-Jews—I believe that it is prudent to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of anti-Semitic regimes. Obama, who earlier in the discussion had explicitly labeled the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an anti-Semite, responded with an argument I had not heard him make before.
“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said, referring to the apparently almost-finished nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of world powers led by the United States. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
Why agriculture may someday take place in towers, not fields
A couple of Octobers ago, I found myself standing on a 5,000-acre cotton crop in the outskirts of Lubbock, Texas, shoulder-to-shoulder with a third-generation cotton farmer. He swept his arm across the flat, brown horizon of his field, which was at that moment being plowed by an industrial-sized picker—a toothy machine as tall as a house and operated by one man. The picker’s yields were being dropped into a giant pod to be delivered late that night to the local gin. And far beneath our feet, the Ogallala aquifer dwindled away at its frighteningly swift pace. When asked about this, the farmer spoke of reverse osmosis—the process of desalinating water—which he seemed to put his faith in, and which kept him unafraid of famine and permanent drought.
A majority of Senators wanted to stop a spy program that they never approved. They failed despite having more votes. And it only gets more bizarre from there.
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the U.S. Senate played host to a moment that took mass surveillance on the phone records of Americans from outrage to farce.
The NSA’s phone dragnet had already been declared illegal.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that while the surveillance agency has long claimed to be acting in accordance with Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the text of that law in fact authorizes no such program. The Obama Administration has been executing a policy that the legislature never passed into being.
But the law that doesn’t even authorize the program is set to expire at the end of the month. And so the court reasoned that Congress could let it expire or vote to change it. For this reason, the court declined to issue an order shutting the program down.
Why it’s so hard to defeat an enemy that won’t fight you, and what this means for U.S. strategy on everything from the Islamic State to China
The Scythians were nomadic horsemen who dominated a vast realm of the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea, in present-day Ukraine and southern Russia, from the seventh century to the third century b.c. Unlike other ancient peoples who left not a trace, the Scythians continued to haunt and terrify long after they were gone. Herodotus recorded that they “ravaged the whole of Asia. They not only took tribute from each people, but also made raids and pillaged everything these peoples had.” Napoleon, on witnessing the Russians’ willingness to burn down their own capital rather than hand it over to his army, reputedly said: “They are Scythians!”
The more chilling moral for modern audiences involves not the Scythians’ cruelty, but rather their tactics against the invading Persian army of Darius, early in the sixth century b.c. As Darius’s infantry marched east near the Sea of Azov, hoping to meet the Scythian war bands in a decisive battle, the Scythians kept withdrawing into the immense reaches of their territory. Darius was perplexed, and sent the Scythian king, Idanthyrsus, a challenge: If you think yourself stronger, stand and fight; if not, submit.