Germany has to decide what to do with Spain -- and soon.
I've got some shocking news for you. Things are going badly in Europe.
The big story is Spain's borrowing costs. On Thursday yields on 10-year Spanish bonds touched the dreaded 7 percent level -- which they have continued to flirt with on Friday. What's so important about 7 percent? Two things. First, banks have to post more margin -- i.e., cash -- if yields cross that threshold when they use bonds as collateral. A downward spiral awaits. Banks might sell the bonds off because they aren't as useful -- leading to higher yields and worse margin requirements. And so on, and so on. But it doesn't even really matter. Borrowing costs of 7 percent are already ruinous for Spain. As Brad Plumer pointed out, inflation is so low in Spain that its economy would have to grow at a 4-5 percent clip to not fall into a debt trap with yields that high. But Spain isn't growing at 4 or 5 percent. Spain is in a recession.
So yes, it's fair to call the week-old bailout of Spain's banks afailout. The putative bailout has 1) Added to Spain's public debt, 2) Made that debt riskier, and 3) Likely made it harder for Spain to pay back its debt. The euro zone can hardly take any more such successes.
But the financial apocalypse isn't here yet. Just close. Spain relies on a lot of shorter duration debt to fund itself too. The borrowing costs on those bonds are still semi-manageable -- for 2-year bonds, if not 5-year bonds. Still, Spain is far too close to insolvency for comfort. Unless the European Central Bank (ECB) pushes down yields, Spain will need another bailout. And soon.
That brings us to the most interesting euro development of the past week. German bonds started to sell off -- before rallying recently. This was ... odd. German bonds never sell off when things look bad in euroland. The opposite. There's usually a flight to safety to them. If there's one euro zone country that won't go bankrupt, it's Germany. But things are getting so bad in Spain that Germany might have to cross the financial Rubicon it's so far been unwilling to countenance: joint debt.
Spain is too big to save. But that's almost irrelevant. The bailout status quo is toxic. It hasn't solved anything for Greece, Portugal or Ireland. It won't for Spain either. Southern Europe needs to reduce its debt and reduce the interest it pays. Bailouts do the latter, but not the former. But mutual debt -- so-called "eurobonds" -- would work. There's a problem. Germany doesn't want to give southern Europe a credit card with no limit. Germany wants there to be a very specific limit. That's where the so-called "sinking fund" comes in. The idea here is that each country would dump all of its debt in excess of 60 percent of GDP into a single fund. Each country would have to pay its own portion back over 20 years, but Europe would issue debt jointly.
This isn't a fiscal union. It's not an open-ended bailout of Spain by Germany. It's a one-time bailout of Spain by Germany. It's not perfect, but it could work. And it would cost Germany a good chunk of change. That's why Germany's borrowing costs surged at the beginning of the week. Of course, Angela Merkel gave her best Herman Cain impersonation later -- Nein, nein, nein! -- which is when German borrowing costs receded.
Germany will have to make up its mind soon. Markets don't have much patience for its Hamlet act. Time to decide whether the euro will be or not be.
A GOP law on judicial appointments has been thrown out, and now it’s the judiciary itself that hangs in the balance.
What began as merely a fiscal mess in Kansas has become a full-blown judicial crisis.
On Wednesday, a district court ruled against the state, and threw out a 2014 law passed by Republicans that took the power of appointing chief judges away from the Kansas Supreme Court and handed it to local judges. But that rather simple question of judicial administration could have further-reaching consequences, thanks to a provision in a second law passed by the legislature earlier this spring that would cut off funding for the state’s entire court system, if the 2014 law was struck down.
Kansas officials were so worried about the consequences of the court’s decision that the state’s attorney general, Derek Schmidt, successfully filed to have the ruling stayed until the courts rule on an appeal and the validity of the 2015 law.
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.
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.
Would Donald Trump still seem like a good leader if his reality television show had offered an unedited view of his style?
When Donald Trump flirted with a 2012 presidential run, I argued that starring on The Apprentice had helped him to build a brand that any politician would envy: decisive, averse to bullshit, impossible to swindle, and guided in all decisions by common sense. Kevin Drum has similar thoughts about the billionaire’s appeal in the 2016 primary. After describing The Celebrity Apprentice to his readers, Drum urged them to reflect on how the hit show made Trump look to millions of NBC viewers:
He is running things. He sets the tasks. The competitors all call him ‘Mr. Trump’ and treat him obsequiously. He gives orders and famous people accept them without quibble. At the end of the show, he asks tough questions and demands accountability. He is smooth and unruffled while the team members are tense and tongue-tied. Finally, having given everything the five minutes of due diligence it needs, he takes charge and fires someone. And on the season finale, he picks a big winner and in the process raises lots of money for charity. Do you see how precisely this squares with so many people's view of the presidency?
The president is the guy running things. He tells people what to do. He commands respect simply by virtue of his personality and rock-solid principles. When things go wrong, he doesn't waste time. He gets to the bottom of the problem in minutes using little more than common sense, and then fires the person responsible. And in the end, it's all for a good cause.
ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society.
If the ruined ruins of Palmyra could speak, they would marvel at our shock. After all, they have been sacked before. In their mute and shattered eloquence, they spoke for centuries not only about the cultures that built them but also about the cultures that destroyed them—about the fragility of civilization itself, even when it is incarnated in stone. No designation of sanctity, by God or by UNESCO, suffices to protect the past. The past is helpless. Instead these ruins, all ruins, have had the effect of lifting the past out of history and into time. They carry the spectator away from facts and toward reveries.
In the 18th century, after the publication in London of The Ruins of Palmyra, a pioneering volume of etchings by Robert Wood, who had traveled to the Syrian desert with the rather colorful James Dawkins, a fellow antiquarian and politician, the desolation of Palmyra became a recurring symbol for ephemerality and the vanity of all human endeavors. “It is the natural and common fate of cities,” Wood dryly remarked in one of the essays in his book, “to have their memory longer preserved than their ruins.” Wood’s beautiful and meticulous prints served as inspirations for paintings, and it was in response to one of those paintings that Diderot wrote some famous pages in his great Salons of 1767: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures. ... Wherever I cast my glance, the objects surrounding me announce death and compel my resignation to what awaits me. What is my ephemeral existence in comparison with that of a rock being worn down, of a valley being formed, of a forest that’s dying, of these deteriorating masses suspended above my head? I see the marble of tombs crumble into powder and I don’t want to die!”
But lower oil prices are almost definitely bad news for the governments whose budgets are dependent on them being high: Saudi Arabia, ostensibly the leader of OPEC, is facing huge budget deficits this year due to decreased oil prices. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the deficit will be about $140 billion.
It’s not just Trump: With Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina on the rise, Republicans are loving outsiders and shunning politicians.
For the first time in a long time, Donald Trump isn’t the most interesting story in the 2016 presidential race. That's partly because his dominance in the Republican polls, while still surprising, is no longer novel and increasingly well explored and explained, but it’s also partly because what’s going on with the rest of the GOP field is far more interesting.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.