How Star Wars tells you everything you need to know about the miserable U.S. recovery and the Federal Reserve that has failed to improve it.
(Reuters/Lucasarts/Kasia Cieplak-von Baldegg)
This may not be our darkest hour, but the disappointing May jobs report showed the U.S. economy once again slowing towards stall speed. It's not just the anemic 69,000 jobs the economy added last month. More disconcerting were the sharp downward revisions to previous months. It looks like we could be in for an unwelcome rerun of the summer doldrums we have gotten to know all too well in 2010 and 2011.
Markets have a bad feeling about this. It isn't just about the deteriorating U.S. outlook. Europe and China are turning to the dark side of growth too. The euro is continuing its game of Schrödinger's currency: At any moment it is both saved and doomed. Right now, it's looking more and more doomed. Then there's the slowdown in China -- along with India and Brazil. These economies powered global growth during the dark days of 2008 and 2009, but seem certifiably wobbly now.
The Fed is our last hope -- and there isn't another. Republicans in Congress continue to block further fiscal stimulus, despite historically low borrowing costs and a clear need for better infrastructure. So that leaves Ben Bernanke & Co. as the last and only line of defense. But with short-term interest rates at zero, how much more can the Fed do? What would more quantitative easing accomplish -- and what does that even mean?
In a galaxy far, far away, there wouldn't be any question about whether the Fed could kickstart more growth. That galaxy is called Israel, or Sweden, or Switzerland. Even with zero interest rates, a central bank can increase growth thanks to three things: expectations, expectations, and expectations. Oh, and expectations. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's step back and first consider why critics say the Fed is "out of ammo". Then, we'll explain why that's wrong -- by referring to the ur-text of monetary policy: the script of Star Wars. Really.
IT'S A (LIQUIDITY) TRAP!
A long time ago -- in 2008, to be exact -- monetary policy seemed simple. Central banks raised short-term interest rates when the economy got too hot, and lowered them when it got too cool. The way they did this was simple too. They sold short-term bonds to banks when they wanted to raise rates, and bought short-term bonds from banks when they wanted to lower rates. Central banks got so good at this that the business cycle seemed tamed. Unemployment was low, inflation was lower, and recessions were rare. Economists gave themselves a pat on the back for this self-proclaimed Great Moderation.
That was before the dark times. Before Lehman. Then this tidy little world came crashing down. The shock from the financial crisis was so big that even a zero percent interest rate wasn't enough to turn the economy around. It still isn't. The Fed looks stuck. It can't push nominal rates below zero. What more can it do?
The Fed has tried a new strategy. It has bought long-term bonds. In other words, bonds that still have nonzero interest rates. The idea behind this unconventional easing is the same as for conventional easing: To push up growth by pushing down interest rates -- just on different bonds. These different bonds have mostly been longer-dated Treasures, as well as mortgage-backed securities and agency debt from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Taken together, this rather misunderstood bond-buying goes by the rather unfortunate name of "quantitative easing".
From a certain point of view, quantitative easing is money-printing. From another, it's just an asset swap. Let's think about what this means. Or rather, let's think about where the money for quantitative easing comes from. The magic of central of banking is that the money comes from nowhere. Or whatever the digital equivalent of nowhere is. Remember: Each bank holds a reserve account with the Fed that must meet a certain minimum balance. When the Fed buys longer-dated Treasuries from a bank, it simply creates money and credits the bank's reserve account with this newly-created money. Banks usually only keep the minimum amount in their reserve accounts -- until now, that is. The chart below shows how so-called excess reserves have grown since 2008.
Lots of people don't like this. They worry that this increasing pile of reserves will mean increasing inflation when banks eventually lend them out. Or that this is really just another backdoor bank bailout. Or that this shows that quantitative easing doesn't work.
Let's consider these in turn. First, the Fed has a number of tools to prevent excess reserves from being lent out too quickly. It's actually using one right now, although it really shouldn't be. It pays interest on these reserves. That's right: It pays banks not to lend. So relax, Zimbabwe is not in our future. Second, the Fed doesn't give banks this money for free. The banks give up bonds in return. It's swapping one asset for another. And third, just because so many reserves aren't lent out doesn't mean that quantitative easing accomplishes nothing. If nothing else, it signals that the Fed will not passively watch inflation fall too low. That message matters.
THESE AREN'T THE RATES YOU'RE LOOKING FOR
"These aren't the droids you're looking for." That's what Obi-Wan Kenobi famously tells a trio of less-than-with-it baddies in Star Wars
when -- spoiler alert! -- they actually were the droids they were
looking for. But thanks to the Force, Kenobi convinces them otherwise.
That's a Jedi mind trick -- and it's a pretty decent model for how
central banks can manipulate expectations. Thanks to the printing press,
the Fed can create a self-fulfilling reality. Even with interest rates
Central banks have a strong influence on market expectations. Actually, they have as strong an influence as they want to have. Sometimes they use quantitative easing to communicate what they want. Sometimes they use their words. And that's where monetary policy basically becomes a Jedi mind trick.
The true nature of central banking isn't about interest rates. It's about making and keeping promises. And that brings me to a confession. I lied earlier. Central banks don't really buy or sell short-term bonds when they lower or raise short-term interest rates. They don't need to. The market takes care of it. If the Fed announces a target and markets believe the Fed is serious about hitting that target, the Fed doesn't need to do much else. Markets don't want to bet against someone who can conjure up an infinite amount of money -- so they go along with the Fed.
Don't underestimate the power of expectations. It might sound a like a hokey religion, but it's not. Consider Switzerland. Thanks to the euro's endless flirtation with financial oblivion, investors have piled into the Swiss franc as a safe haven. That sounds good, but a massively overvalued currency is not good. It pushes inflation down to dangerously low levels, and makes exports uncompetitive. So the Swiss National Bank (SNB) has responded by devaluing its currency -- setting a ceiling on its value at 1.2 Swiss francs to 1 euro. In other words, the SNB has promised to print money until its money is worth what it wants it to be worth. It's quantitative easing with a target. And, as Evan Soltas pointed out, the beauty of this target is that the SNB hasn't even had to print money lately, because markets believe it now. Markets have moved the exchange rate to where the SNB wants it.
I FIND YOUR LACK OF A TARGET DISTURBING
I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but nothing quite as strange as the Fed's reluctance to declare a target recently. Rather than announce a target, the Fed announces how much quantitative easing it will do. This is planning for failure. Quantitative easing without a target is more quantitative and less easing. Without an open-ended commitment that shocks expectations, the Fed has to buy more bonds to get less of a result. It's the opposite of what the SNB has done.
Many economists have labored to bring us this knowledge -- including a professor named Ben Bernanke -- and yet the Fed mostly ignores it. I say mostly, because the Fed has said that it expects to keep short-term interest rates near zero through late 2014. But this sounds more radical than it is in reality. It's not a credible promise because it's not even a promise. It's what the Fed expects will happen. So what would be a good way to shift expectations? Let's start with what isn't a good way.
Interest rates can deceive you. Don't trust them. Because most people think the point of quantitative easing is to push down long-term interest rates, they think that any time long-term interest rates fall that it's a form of "stealth quantitative easing". Not so. Consider the chart below from Bloomberg that shows one-year inflation expectations.
Inflation expectations have jumped whenever the Fed has eased. That's not surprising. That's the point of Fed easing. What might be surprising is that sometimes long-term interest rates have fallen when inflation expectations have fallen. In other words, targeting interest rates alone can be misleading. A far better target would be the variable that the Fed ultimately cares about: the total size of the economy. Unfortunately, that kind of regime change is too radical for the Fed now. A second-best policy would be targeting the second-best variables: inflation and unemployment. Chicago Fed president Charles Evans has proposed such a rule, saying the Fed should commit to keeping rates at zero as long as core inflation is below 3 percent or unemployment is above 7 percent. Even better would be to promise to keep doing quantitative easing until the economy hits one of those targets.
EASE OR EASE NOT: THERE IS NO TRY.
The ability to manipulate interest rates is insignificant next to the power of expectations. The latter is never out of ammo, because the Fed can always promise to turn on the printing press and buy stuff until people get the message. It's not magic, but it's the closet thing we have to it. The only reason the Fed has failed so far is that it hasn't been determined to succeed. It's tentatively tried things instead. Switzerland shows that there is another path.
Use the force, Ben. Use the force of inflation expectations.
Beginning in July of this year, most everywhere we look, there will be a giant number on our food. The change will affect hundreds of thousands of edible products, and, so, hundreds of millions of people. It will affect the way we think about food for decades. (This update is the first in more than 20 years—so long ago that the FDA earnestly describes its current label design as “iconic.”)
Current nutrition labels, legally required on all packaged foods, are to be be replaced with the explicit purpose of improving people’s health. As Michelle Obama said at the unveiling of the new labels on Friday, “Very soon, you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids.”
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
The author Moira Weigel argues that the various courtship rituals of the past hundred-odd years have reflected the labor-market conditions of their day.
Love, it turns out, has always been a lot of work.
While every generation will lament anew the fact that finding love is hard, history seems to indicate that this particular social ritual never gets any easier or less exciting. In Labor of Love, a new book documenting the history of dating in America, Moira Weigel, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale University, confirms this lament: Since dating was “invented,” it has always been an activity that required a lot of effort.
As part of her research, Weigel read dating-advice books from the 1800s and hundreds of articles on dating from teen and women’s magazines over the years, and she found two common themes: First, there is usually an older part of the population that perceives dating to be “dying,” or, at least, as not being done “appropriately.” Second, Weigel found that the way people date has almost always been tied to the market forces of their era.
Petty political fights distract from the Vermont senator’s goal of a long-lasting movement.
Bernie Sanders’s beliefs have been obvious from the start. He thinks wealthy elites exert too much influence over American politics. He wants the U.S. government to lessen income inequality. He believes climate change is a pressing threat to the world. The clarity and overarching ambition of his agenda has been central to his appeal and expectations-defying political success so far.
If Sanders wants his political revolution to last, he will need to win widespread support for his ideas well into the future. Yet as the primary election draws to a close, the campaign has increasingly made arguments that may undercut the long-term viability of the movement that has coalesced around the Vermont senator.
The film, released 25 years ago, is best known as an icon of early-’90s feminism. But it feels just as fresh today as it did in 1991.
Thelma & Louise is a movie that, like The Sixth Sense and Casablanca and Citizen Kane and a handful of other classics, is best known for its ending. “Let’s not get caught,” Thelma tells her best-friend-turned-partner-in-crime, after their run from the law ends with their, well, being caught. “Let’s keep going.” And keep going they do—driving their dust-covered Thunderbird (worst-kept spoiler in history alert) right into the Grand Canyon.
Flight, ending in flight: It’s a satisfyingly symbolic conclusion to a film that is laden with symbolism—about feminism, about female friendship, about a world that can have such little use for either. As Callie Khouri, the film’s screenwriter, explained of that final scene: “They flew away, out of this world and into the mass unconscious. Women who are completely free from all the shackles that restrain them have no place in this world. The world is not big enough to support them.”
On the Colorado River, one of America’s largest reservoirs may be doing more harm than good.
Wedged between Arizona and Utah, less than 20 miles up river from the Grand Canyon, a soaring concrete wall nearly the height of two football fields blocks the flow of the Colorado River. There, at Glen Canyon Dam, the river is turned back on itself, drowning more than 200 miles of plasma-red gorges and replacing the Colorado’s free-spirited rapids with an immense lake of flat, still water called Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reserve.
When Glen Canyon dam was built, in the middle of the last century, giant dams were championed as a silver bullet promising to elevate the American West above its greatest handicap: a perennial shortage of water. These monolithic wonders of engineering would bring wild rivers to heel, produce cheap, clean power, and stockpile water necessary to grow a thriving economy in the middle of the desert. And because they were often remotely located they were rarely questioned.
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.
Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”
Harry Reid says ‘Hell no’ to a running mate who would be replaced in the Senate by a Republican. That means you, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Cory Booker.
As she turns her attention to selecting a running mate, Hillary Clinton has, in theory, a wide array of contenders from which to choose. There are up-and-coming Latino leaders like Julián Castro and Tom Perez from President Obama’s Cabinet; liberal favorites like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown; prominent African Americans such as Senator Cory Booker or Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor. Unlike Donald Trump, she has forged solid relationships with elected Democrats from across the country, and virtually the entire party establishment lined up behind her candidacy—either publicly or with a private wink and nod—early on.
Clinton really should have the pick of the political litter. But thanks to a handful of Republican governors, her options might be far more limited.
Why aren’t the critics comparing Donald Trump to a fascist acknowledging that the office he seeks is too powerful?
Wake up, establishment centrists: Donald Trump is coming!
After the Vietnam War and Watergate and the spying scandals uncovered by the Church Committee and the Nixon Administration cronies who nearly firebombed the Brookings Institution, Americans were briefly inclined to rein in executive power—a rebuke to Richard Nixon’s claim that “if the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Powerful committees were created to oversee misconduct-prone spy agencies. The War Powers Resolution revived a legislative check on warmaking. “In 34 years,” Vice President Dick Cheney would lament to ABC News in a January 2002 interview, “I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job. I feel an obligation... to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors."