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.
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.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Can we predict romantic prospects just from looking at a face?
By the time you swear you're his, / Shivering and sighing. / And he vows his passion is/ Infinite, undying. / Lady, make a note of this — /One of you is lying. ― Dorothy Parker
Edward Royzman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asks me to list four qualities on a piece of paper: physical attractiveness, income, kindness, and fidelity. Then he gives me 200 virtual “date points” that I’m to distribute among the four traits. The more I allocate to each attribute, the more highly I supposedly value that quality in a mate.
This experiment, which Royzman sometimes runs with his college classes, is meant to inject scarcity into hypothetical dating decisions in order to force people to prioritize.
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
The Nebraska state government, realizing the tremendous mistake it had made, held a special session of the legislature to rewrite the law in order to add an age limitation. Governor Dave Heineman said the change would "put the focus back on the original intent of these laws, which is saving newborn babies and exempting a parent from prosecution for child abandonment. It should also prevent those outside the state from bringing their children to Nebraska in an attempt to secure services."
What one woman learned from 10 years of teaching in a New York City public school
Laurel Sturt was a 46-year-old fashion designer in New York City whose career trajectory took an unlikely shift one day on the subway. A self-proclaimed social activist, Sturt noticed an ad for a Teaching Fellows program. Then and there, she decided to quit her job in fashion design and shift her focus to her real passion: helping others. She enrolled in the two-year program and was assigned to teach at an elementary school in a high-poverty neighborhood near the South Bronx.
Retailers are experimenting with a bold new strategy for the commercial high holiday: boycotting themselves.
It starts with a scene of touch football in the yard. Next, a woman and a girl, cooking together in the kitchen. “Imagine a world,” a soothing voice intones, “where the only thing you have to wrestle for on Thanksgiving is the last piece of pumpkin pie, and the only place we camped out was in front of a fire, and not the parking lot of a store.” And, then, more scenes: a man, cuddling with kids on a couch. An older woman, rolling pie dough on the counter. A fire, crackling in the fireplace. Warmth. Wine. Togetherness. Laughter.
It’s an ad, unsurprisingly, but it’s an ad with a strange objective: to tell you not to buy stuff. Or, at least, to spend a day not buying stuff. “At T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods, we’re closed on Thanksgiving,” the spot’s velvet-voiced narrator informs us, “because family time comes first.” And then: more music. More scenes of familiar/familial delights. More laughter. More pie. The whole thing concludes: “Let’s put more value on what really matters. This season, bring back the holidays—with T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods.”
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.
Students at Princeton University are protesting the ways it honors the former president, who once threw a civil-rights leader out of the White House.
The Black Justice League, in protests on Princeton University’s campus, has drawn wider attention to an inconvenient truth about the university’s ultimate star: Woodrow Wilson. The Virginia native was racist, a trait largely overshadowed by his works as Princeton’s president, as New Jersey’s governor, and, most notably, as the 28th president of the United States.
As president, Wilson oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices. It’s a shameful side to his legacy that came to a head one fall afternoon in 1914 when he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office.
Trotter led a delegation of blacks to meet with the president on November 12, 1914 to discuss the surge of segregation in the country. Trotter, today largely forgotten, was a nationally prominent civil-rights leader and newspaper editor. In the early 1900s, he was often mentioned in the same breath as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. But unlike Washington, Trotter, an 1895 graduate of Harvard, believed in direct protest actions. In fact, Trotter founded his Boston newspaper, The Guardian, as a vehicle to challenge Washington’s more conciliatory approach to civil rights.
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.