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.
Some researchers believe that the microbiome may play a role in regulating how people think and feel.
By now, the idea that gut bacteria affects a person’s health is not revolutionary. Many people know that these microbes influence digestion, allergies, and metabolism. The trend has become almost commonplace: New books appear regularly detailing precisely which diet will lead to optimum bacterial health.
But these microbes’ reach may extend much further, into the human brains. A growing group of researchers around the world are investigating how the microbiome, as this bacterial ecosystem is known, regulates how people think and feel. Scientists have found evidence that this assemblage—about a thousand different species of bacteria, trillions of cells that together weigh between one and three pounds—could play a crucial role in autism, anxiety, depression, and other disorders.
In the 1970s, a new wave of post-Watergate liberals stopped fighting monopoly power. The result is an increasingly dangerous political system.
It was January 1975, and the Watergate Babies had arrived in Washington looking for blood. The Watergate Babies—as the recently elected Democratic congressmen were known—were young, idealistic liberals who had been swept into office on a promise to clean up government, end the war in Vietnam, and rid the nation’s capital of the kind of corruption and dirty politics the Nixon White House had wrought. Richard Nixon himself had resigned just a few months earlier in August. But the Watergate Babies didn’t just campaign against Nixon; they took on the Democratic establishment, too. Newly elected Representative George Miller of California, then just 29 years old, announced, “We came here to take the Bastille.”
Just why was Tom Hanks dancing in a black-and-orange suit on Saturday Night Live so funny?
This weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live offered a mini masterpiece: a gloriously silly Halloween-themed piece revolving around a “Haunted Elevator” ride and its unusual star attraction. Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon played a couple looking for spooky thrills who instead found something far more bewildering: a pumpkin-suited man who would randomly appear alongside two cheerful skeletons and perform a dance routine. “Who are you?” asked a frustrated Bennett after the man (played by Tom Hanks) appeared for the second time. “I’m David Pumpkins!” came the reply.
McKinnon followed up: “Yeah, and David Pumpkins is … ?”
Tom Hanks’s Doug has a lot in common with “Black Jeopardy” contestants—except, of course, for politics.
SNL’s ongoing “Black Jeopardy” series has been, in part, about divisions. In each edition, black American contestants answer Kenan Thompson’s clues with in-jokes, slang, and their shared opinions while an outsider—say, Elizabeth Banks as the living incarnation of Becky, Louis C.K. as a BYU African American Studies professor, or Drake as a black Canadian—just show their cluelessness.
When Tom Hanks showed up in a “Make America Great Again” hat and bald-eagle shirt to play the contestant “Doug” this weekend, it seemed like the set-up for the ugliest culture clash yet. The 2016 election has been a reminder of the country’s profound racial fault lines, and SNL hasn’t exactly been forgiving toward the Republican nominee on that front: Its version of Trump hasn’t been able to tell black people apart, and it aired a mock ad painting his supporters as white supremacists—which, inarguably, some of them really are.
Why cultures that value interdependence, like Japan, win at being deep
Think of the last piece of big news you got. How did you feel about it? Happy? Sad? Angry? Worried? Excited? Grateful? A little bit of all of the above? Experiencing multiple emotions at once may make it seem like you don’t actually know just how you feel about something—that you’re ambivalent, or indecisive, or wishy-washy. Psychologists would say it just means you’re emotionally complex. And according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, emotional complexity varies a lot between countries.
There are two definitions of emotional complexity that researchers tend to use. One is called “emotional dialecticism,” which just means feeling positive and negative emotions at the same time. The other is “emotional differentiation,” which is when someone is able to separate out and describe the discrete emotions they’re feeling.
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.
Trump supporters are convinced Democrats are using “oversampling” to stuff the polls in Hillary Clinton’s favor. But they’re just wrong about statistics.
Late last night, pro-Trump Twitter lit up with excited chatter. Donald Trump is falling fast in the polls, sliding through a month-long decline most statisticians would say is a result of him being, you know, unpopular. (And maybe this. Or this. Or this.) But one blogger had another theory: Polling organizations are deliberately interviewing more Democrats to skew the surveys toward Hillary Clinton.
This afternoon, Trump threw his support behind the idea. “When the polls are even, when they leave them alone and do them properly, I’m leading,” he said at a rally in Florida. “But you see these polls where they’re polling Democrats. How’s Trump doing? Oh, he’s down. They’re polling Democrats. The system is corrupt and it’s rigged and it’s broken.”
What use is there today for one of the oldest virtues?
As many Americans go about their days, I imagine they have two little angels perched on their shoulders, whispering conflicting messages about happiness and material wealth. One angel is embodied by James Altucher, a minimalist self-help guru recently profiled by The New York Times. Altucher claims to have only 15 possessions, after having unburdened himself a few months ago of 40 garbage bags’ worth of stuff and never looking back. As I read about Altucher, I rolled the numbers 15 and 40 over in my mind, thinking about the belongings in my bedroom and the garbage bags under my kitchen sink.
The other angel is Tyler Brûlé, the editor in chief of the fantastically high-end lifestyle magazine Monocle and a columnist for the Financial Times. He is the sort of writer who tosses off such lines as “I zipped along the autostrada through the Val d’Aosta with the ever-trusty Mario (my Italian driver for the past 20 years) at the wheel” with little regard for how privileged and pretentious he sounds (especially in his superfluous parentheticals). Still, there is something, I’m a little ashamed to say, that I envy about Brûlé’s effortless cosmopolitanism—which, it’s hard to miss, is only made possible by unusual wealth.
Tristan Harris believes Silicon Valley is addicting us to our phones. He’s determined to make it stop.
On a recent evening in San Francisco, Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google, took a name tag from a man in pajamas called “Honey Bear” and wrote down his pseudonym for the night: “Presence.”
Harris had just arrived at Unplug SF, a “digital detox experiment” held in honor of the National Day of Unplugging, and the organizers had banned real names. Also outlawed: clocks, “w-talk” (work talk), and “WMDs” (the planners’ loaded shorthand for wireless mobile devices). Harris, a slight 32-year-old with copper hair and a tidy beard, surrendered his iPhone, a device he considers so addictive that he’s called it “a slot machine in my pocket.” He keeps the background set to an image of Scrabble tiles spelling out the words face down, a reminder of the device’s optimal position.
By ridiculing Kid Cudi’s substance use and depression, he proves how much guts his rival had in fighting stigmas.
When the rapper Kid Cudi announced he’d checked himself into rehab for depression and suicidal thoughts earlier this month, it sparked a social-media conversation about stigmas around mental illness in America generally, and among black men specifically. The hashtag #YouGoodMan went viral, people shared their favorite hip-hop songs about mental health, and many praised Cudi for his courage in going public.
Now, a new track from Drake makes clear how powerful the stigma Cudi defied remains. In “Two Birds, One Stone,” the rapper seems to describe Cudi, saying,
You were the man on the moon
Now you just go through your phases
Life of the angry and famous
Rap like I know I'm the greatest
Then give you the tropical flavors
Still never been on hiatus
You stay xanned and perked up
So when reality set in you don’t gotta face it