The welfare state is dead. Long live the welfare state!
It's getting hard to keep track of which countries aren't Greece anymore.
First, Ireland wasn't Greece. Then it kind of was. Then it was Portugal's turn to not be Greece. Then it was Portugal's turn to be Greece. Next, Spain wasn't Greece. But now it might be. At the very least it's Ireland. Although Uganda looks like it's in the clear. It's not Spain, which could be Greece. That's better than Cyprus can say. They're pretty much Greece. And, of course, Greece is almost certainly Greece. That goes without saying.
But there's one country that definitely isn't Greece. That's the United States.
Let's step back. What makes a country "Greece"? It's become shorthand for wild government overspending -- especially on entitlements. Paul Ryan says we don't have long to avoid the same fate. Neither does the terrifyingly successful investor Michael Burry. They think that absent drastic reform -- read: cuts -- to the social safety net, we'll end up in penury like the Greeks.
It's a scary story. But it's just a scare story. Yes, we have a long-term healthcare spending problem. But that doesn't make us Greece. Heck, Greece isn't even Greece. At least not the "Greece" that's become such a political football. The evidence -- or lack thereof -- is in the chart below. It compares each country's average social spending since 1999, via the OECD, against its current borrowing costs. See the pattern?
There is none. Europe's biggest social spenders don't have any problems. And Europe's biggest problem countries don't spend that much on social programs. The death knell of the welfare state this is not.
Here's the dirty little secret of the euro debt crisis. There is no euro debt crisis. There is a euro crisis. The debt is a symptom of the crisis of the common currency.* Europe's bailed out countries all saw piles of capital pour in during the boom, only to pour out during the bust. They were left with inflated, uncompetitive wages -- and that's sent them into deep slumps. That's been despite lower social spending than their northern euro neighbors. Germany, Austria, Finland, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium and -- at least for now -- France have all been able to sustain more generous safety nets thanks to the magic of competitive wages.
It's the same story for Europe's non-euro nations. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and the Czech Republic are all lucky enough to not be passengers on the Titantic members of the common currency. (Denmark has pegged its krone to the euro, but they still have their own central bank). Most of them spend more on social programs than the so-called PIIGS, but all of them can borrow for almost nothing. Investors are actually paying the Swiss and Danish governments for the privilege of lending to them short-term. Think about that. What's going on? Well, if things ever get rough, they can just print money or devalue their currencies. In other words, they can never run out of money.
But Greece can. Being in the euro means never being able to print your own money. And that turns each euro country into a bank. Imagine a bank run. Fear becomes self-fulfilling. Depositors try to pull their money out before everyone else because they're worried the bank will collapse -- which, of course, causes the bank's collapse. Very Oedipal -- minus the parent love. It's the same with Greece. Investors worry that Greece will run out of euros. That's a very rational fear right now. So they try to sell-off their bonds, which pushes up Greece's borrowing costs -- and makes it more likely that Greece will run out of euros. This kind of panic is why Italy -- which has a primary surplus! -- is flirting with trouble too. Only the ECB can stop this.
Notice that I didn't talk about debt at all in the previous paragraph. The PIIGS have too-high wages, too little growth, and face crippling crises of confidence. Austerity won't cure any of that. It'll make things worse. It has. It kneecaps growth. And investors are more worried about growth right now than they are deficits.
Also notice that none of this applies to the United States. We never have to worry about self-fulfilling prophesies of bankruptcy because we can never run out of dollars. As the Boomers retire, we'll spend more on entitlements. That's not the end of the world. Unless you think Sweden is the end of the world. Yes, we need to rein in healthcare inflation, and, yes, we need to raise some more revenue. The former might already be happening. The latter is a political choice. Neither makes us Greece.
So don't believe the rumors of the welfare state's death. They're greatly exaggerated.
* Caveat: Greece is sui generis. They really did just spend too much money. They're not pictured here, because their 10-year bond yield is -- wait for it -- off the chart. Fitting their 27 percent borrowing costs onto this graph makes it too hard to see anything else. But Greece's average social spending is only 21.4 percent of GDP.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
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.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.
In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."
“I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals. I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants.”
If the U.S. and Iran conclude a nuclear deal next week, the Islamic Republic stands to gain billions of dollars in eventual sanctions relief. But money isn’t the most important reason the Iranian leadership may be set to shake hands with its historic enemy after 18 months of negotiations.
“One of the most important reasons Iran is signing this deal, in my opinion ... is not actually sanctions,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “It’s ISIS. There is actually support for this deal within the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, because their day job is right now fighting ISIS, and they need the United States, particularly in Iraq, on the right side of that fight.”
The retired general and former CIA director holds forth on the Middle East.
ASPEN, Colo.—Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus pioneered America’s approach to counterinsurgency, led the surge in Iraq, served as director of the CIA for a year, and was sentenced to two years probation for leaking classified information to his mistress. On Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he was interviewed by my colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, about subjects including efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program; the civil war in Syria; ISIS and the threat it poses to the United States; and the Iraq War.
Here are several noteworthy moments from their conversation, slightly condensed:
The Risks of Attacking Iran
Jeffrey Goldberg: So you believe that, under certain circumstances, President Obama would still use military force against Iran?
David Petraeus: I think he would, actually. I know we’ve had red lines that didn’t turn out to be red lines. ... I think this is a different issue, and I clearly recognize how the administration has sought to show that this is very, very different from other sort of off-the-cuff remarks.
Goldberg: How did the Obama administration stop Israel from attacking Iran? And do you think that if this deal does go south, that Israel would be back in the picture?
Petraeus: I don’t, actually. I think Israel is very cognizant of its limitations. ... The Israelis do not have anything that can crack this deeply buried enrichment site ... and if you cannot do that, you’re not going to set the program back very much. So is it truly worth it, then?
So that’s a huge limitation. It’s also publicly known that we have a 30,000-pound projectile that no one else has, that no one else can even carry. The Massive Ordinance Penetrator was under design for almost six years. ... If necessary, we can take out all these facilities and set them back a few years, depending on your assumptions.
But that’s another roll of the iron dice, as Bismarck used to say, and you never know when those dice are rolled what the outcome is going to be. You don’t know what risks could materialize for those who are in harm’s way.
You don’t know what the response could be by Iran.
There’s always the chance that there will be salvos at Israel, but what if they decide to go at the Gulf states, where we have facilities in every single one.
This is not something to be taken lightly, clearly.
A European heat wave, lightning over California, a building made of 8,500 beer bottles, shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, the first-ever White House Campout, mine detection rats in Cambodia, and much more.
A European heat wave, lightning over California, a building made of 8,500 beer bottles, cosplay in Paris, shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, the first-ever White House Campout, mine detection rats in Cambodia, a train wreck in Pakistan, an airshow over St. Petersburg, Russia, and much more.