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.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
There’s a common perception that women siphon off the wealth of their exes and go on to live in comfort. It’s wrong.
A 38-year-old woman living in Everett, Washington recently told me that nine years ago, she had a well-paying job, immaculate credit, substantial savings, and a happy marriage. When her first daughter was born, she and her husband decided that she would quit her job in publishing to stay home with the baby. She loved being a mother and homemaker, and when another daughter came, she gave up the idea of going back to work.
Seven years later, her husband told her to leave their house, and filed for a divorce she couldn’t afford. “He said he was tired of my medical issues, and unwilling to work on things,” she said, citing her severe rheumatoid arthritis and OCD, both of which she manages with medication. “He kicked me out of my own house, with no job and no home, and then my only recourse was to lawyer up. I’m paying them on credit.” (Some of the men and women quoted in this article have been kept anonymous because they were discussing sensitive financial matters, some of them involving ongoing legal disputes.)
The latest (very funny and very political) episode of the performer’s sketch show doubles as a call to arms.
Last night came the airing of Amy Schumer’s long-anticipated show about gun-control. Things kicked off with “Welcome to the Gun Show,” which found Schumer playing the role of an HSN-style stuff-seller, all smarm and schlock and pseudo-mullet. First, she and her co-stuff-seller hawked Steve Irwin commemorative coins. But, then, they moved on to guns. They sold the virtues of guns—“make perfect stocking stuffers,” “they’re great for every age group,” etc.—and pointed out that anyone can get a gun on the Internet or at a gun show. (Even a guy with “several violent felonies” and “a suspected terrorist on the no-fly list.”) Act fast: don’t think about it, a chyron encourages.
Garry Marshall's patronizing 'holiday anthology' film boasts a star-studded ensemble, but its characters seem barely human.
It’s hard to know where to begin with Mother’s Day, a misshapen Frankenstein of a movie that feels like it escaped the Hallmark headquarters halfway through its creation and rampaged into theaters, trying to teach audiences how to love. The third in Garry Marshall’s increasingly strange “holiday anthology” series, Mother’s Day isn’t the rom-com hodge-podge that Valentine’s Day was, or the bizarre morass of his follow-up New Year’s Eve. But it does inspire the kind of holy terror that you feel all the way down to your bones, or the revolted tingling that strikes one at a karaoke performance gone tragically wrong.
While it’s aiming for frothiness and fun, Mother’s Day is a patronizing and sickly sweet endeavor that widely misses the mark for its entire 118-minute running time (it feels much longer). The audience gets the sense that there are many Big Truths to be learned: that family harmony is important, that it’s good to accept different lifestyles without judgment, that loss is a natural part of the circle of life. But its overall construction—as a work of cinema—always feels a little off. One character gets a life lesson from a clown at a children’s party, and departs with a hearty “Thanks, clown!” Extras wander in the background and deliver halting bits of expositional dialogue like malfunctioning robots. Half of the lines seem to have been recorded post-production and are practically shouted from off-screen to patch over a narrative that makes little sense. Mother’s Day is bad in the regular ways (e.g. the acting and writing), but also in that peculiar way, where it feels as though the film’s creator has never met actual humans before.
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Of course it would be daunting to solve the conflicts the Islamic State feeds on. But that isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the mission.
Stephen Biddle and Jacob Shapiro’s recent Atlantic article, “America Can’t Do Much About ISIS,” advocated containing the Islamic State and questioned America’s ability to destroy the group. The first problem with this analysis is how the authors define “destroy ISIS.” They compare the amorphous fight against al-Qaeda with the one against ISIS, discussing how to get at the roots of its terrorist ideology and fix the ungoverned space that provides its sanctuary. This leads them repeatedly to conflate destroying ISIS in its current form as a quasi-state with the monumental task of resolving the Syrian Civil War and the Sunni-Shia split in Iraq. To the contrary, if the mission is properly defined, America can destroy ISIS, and must.