Mr. Fix-It doesn't have a credible plan to fix the economy's biggest problem
What's black and white and red all over? I have no idea. But here's what I do know. Mitt Romney's housing plan is an even worse joke.
It's hard to imagine a bigger vulnerability for Obama than housing. The administration's policy has been too little, too late for too long. To borrow a phrase from Ben Bernanke, it's been a case of self-induced paralysis due to a pair of fears. For one, they were worried about forcing banks to recognize even more losses on mortgages back when the financial system's solvency was far from a sure thing. For another, they were worried about a Rick Santelli-led populist backlash against bailing out "loser" homeowners.
So they went small. Refinancings have barely been a rumor, even after Treasury expanded the program. That's still more than can be said for writedowns. Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) chief Ed DeMarco has blocked those -- and Obama has inexplicably refused to recess appoint his replacement. The result has been a tragedy, both for families and for taxpayers. As the New York Fed pointed out, we would save $134 million for every $1 billion of refinancings thanks to lower default rates. It turns out keeping people in their homes is good for everybody.
In other words, Romney had a big opening to go big on housing. Maybe he would come out for a massive refinancing program, like his top adviser Glenn Hubbard wants. Or maybe he would come out for privatizing the government-sponsored entities (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.Something. Well, the Romney housing plan certainly is something -- something "laughably vacuous" that is, as Matt Yglesias of Slate justifiably lampoons it.
The Romney housing plan comes in two parts: embarrassing, and more embarrassing. Consider this section about fixing the financial system and the GSEs -- and all, as Brad DeLong points out, in 85 words or less!
End "Too-Big-To-Fail" And Reform Fannie Mae And Freddie Mac. The Romney-Ryan plan will completely end "too-big-to-fail" by reforming the GSEs. The four years since taxpayers took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, spending $140 billion in the process, is too long to wait for reform. Rather than just talk about reform, a Romney-Ryan Administration will protect taxpayers from additional risk in the future by reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and provide a long-term, sustainable solution for the future of housing finance reform in our country.
There are so many problems crammed into so few words. For starters, too-big-to-fail is not about the GSEs; too-big-too-fail is about Wall Street. In other words, it's about the heads-we-win; tails-taxpayers-lose calculus behind big bank bets. Taking the GSEs off government life support does nothing to fix this. Then, of course, there's the question of what reforming the GSEs means. Romney says he won't "just talk" about it -- which makes sense, since he doesn't talk about it here either. It's anybody's guess what Romney wants to do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
But there are ways to actually end too-big-to-fail. One way is to tackle the "too big" half of the phrase; the other is to take on the "fail" part. In other words, you can either break up big banks until they are small enough to fail, or create a system where big banks can safely fail. Dodd-Frank tries the latter. Its logic is that even a relatively small bank like Lehman Brothers -- or a hedge fund like Long-Term Capital Management -- can topple the financial system if its counterparties are big and numerous enough. Too-connected-to-fail can be just as much a problem as too-big-to-fail. Now, there's still a political economy argument for breaking up the big banks -- so they aren't quite as powerful -- but it seems clear that we need some sort of resolution authority. Except to Romney. Perhaps. He thinks Dodd-Frank is too complicated -- maybe it is! -- and he thinks its Byzantine structure is holding back the recovery. He wants to repeal and replace it with ... something.
Sensible, Not Overly Complex, Financial Regulation That Gets Credit Flowing Again. By replacing the Dodd-Frank Act with sensible regulation (instead of the 9,000+ pages, and counting, of new rules for financial institutions), a Romney-Ryan Administration will usher in a new era of responsible lending. Sensible regulation will allow banks to approve loans for families with good credit rather than rejecting their mortgage applications. A return to more normal lending standards would produce an estimated 640,000 more home sales and 320,000 jobs next year.
Did you catch that Romney wants to do something sensible? What does that mean? Who knows! Something sensible, probably. What about Romney's claim that nixing Dodd-Frank would add 320,000 jobs in 2013 -- is that a sensible? Not so much. Would you believe it if I told you that number comes from the National Association of Realtors (NAR)? Yup, these guys.
That was from Feburary 2008, two years after housing prices peaked. That uncomfortable reality wasn't lost on NAR when they cut this ad two months later, telling people not to worry about falling prices -- increased affordability! -- because housing tends to double every decade.
I could go on. The point isn't that a self-interested group was epically wrong about a once-in-a-generation housing bust. That's true of plenty of others. The point is that Romney is relying on a self-interested group that has been epically wrong to make the case for his -- albeit, nonexistent -- housing plan. It'd be like listening to this guy about, well, anything.
It didn't have to be this way. Conservative wonks have serious ideas about what to do with housing. Mitt Romney even employs some of them as his top advisers. This ambiguity is even more baffling when you consider our jobs slump is the result of our investment slump, which is itself the result of our residential investment slump. Fix housing and you might fix the economy. Now, housing might already be fixing itself, but helping it out would be great policy -- but equally terrible politics.
Obama isn't the only one afraid of anti-bailout rage. Romney is too. Maybe even more so. After all, Romney is counting on the Santellis of the world to back him. And that's why Mr. Fix-It is running on a housing plan short of an actual plan -- a plan that actually fixes things wouldn't pass the Tea Party's ideological sniff test. It would mean helping out homeowners who might not "deserve" help. As Paul Krugman pointed out, Romney is boxed in. He feels like he has to kowtow to the base, but the base does not want to kowtow to the reality of what it will take to get the economy moving again.
Romney is running as an economic expert, but his economic plans either do not add up or do not exist. That leaves him with little more than magical thinking. The joke's on us.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
Everything that was supposed to be silenced is suddenly being said.
The tight grip of oligarchy upon the American political system slipped a little last night in New Hampshire.
On the Democratic side, voters cast their ballots for one of the most implausible candidates in modern presidential history—less because his rhetoric was so mesmerizing or his program so inspiring than as a protest against an expected winner perceived as a lavishly compensated servitor of organized wealth.
In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton boasted of her small donors. More than 70 percent had given less than $100, she claimed: “I know that doesn’t fit with the narrative.” As Ken Vogel of Politico immediately tweeted, the claim also distorts the facts. Clinton may have a lot of donors, but the bulk of the value of her donations—85 percent—has come from the biggest givers. And her family’s personal wealth, and its foundation’s assets, can also be seen as built on the largesse of banks, corporations, and foreign governments.
It was the apotheosis of the outsiders—two candidates, written off when their campaigns began, recovering from defeat in Iowa to deliver resounding victories in the Granite State.
In a year of outsider success, Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary was the apotheosis of the outsiders. On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders coasted to a huge victory over Hillary Clinton. And for the Republicans, Donald Trump regained his footing after a letdown in Iowa, winning about a third of the vote and notching a huge victory over the rest of the GOP field.
The results for the rest of the field threatened to remake the race, too. Ohio Governor John Kasich, a moderate technocrat who had seemed to lack traction throughout the campaign, saw his decision to bet all his marbles on New Hampshire pay off, as he came in second. Meanwhile, Senator Marco Rubio had a painful night, falling to an apparent fifth-place finish with the vote mostly tallied—a major stumbling block to his momentum. Chris Christie, whose demolition of Rubio during Saturday night’s debate helped knock Rubio down, didn’t get much of a boost and seemed headed for the exits. Ted Cruz appeared to land in third place and Jeb Bush trailed behind in fourth, while Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson lagged far behind.
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.
In many developed countries, the rate of twin births has doubled or more than doubled over the past few decades, according to a recent study published in Population and Development Review.
In 1975, there were 9.5 twin births per 1,000 deliveries in the United States. In 2011, there were 16.9 twins per 1,000 births. The increase over that time was similar in England and Wales (from 9.9 to 16.1), France (9.3 to 17.4), and Germany (9.2 to 17.2), and a little steeper in Denmark (9.6 to 21.2) and South Korea (5 to 14.6).
This rise is pretty much entirely from fraternal twins—two eggs released during ovulation and fertilized by two different sperm. The rate of identical twins, who develop from one zygote that splits and forms two embryos, tends to stay relatively constant around the world, and doesn’t seem to be affected by any external factors. But the likelihood of having fraternal twins, or dizygotic twins, changes depending on the age of the mother, how many children she’s already had, the country she lives in, and genetic factors.
Why Donald Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric was enough for movement conservatives to forgive his history of liberalism.
Last summer, Donald Trump described Mexican immigrants as “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In December, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Many commentators claim that this wild rhetoric helps Trump suck up media oxygen or appear like a straight-talking political outsider. But the most important benefit of the anti-immigrant language is that it inoculates Trump against the charge of being a closet liberal.
Trump has a seemingly fatal vulnerability in the Republican primary: His past support for a host of moderate and liberal positions. In recent years, Trump said he would “press for universal health care,” claimed that he was “pro-choice in every respect,” remarked that “I hate the concept of guns,” stated that Hillary Clinton would “do a good job” in negotiating with Iran, asserted that the GOP was “just too crazy right,” and even said, “In many cases, I probably identify more as a Democrat.”
The Warriors star is the embodiment of basketball’s analytics revolution.
The Golden State Warriors are now some 15 months in to their turn as one of the best teams in basketball history. Last season, they won 67 games, the most in the NBA in eight years, and secured a championship in June against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This season’s Warriors make last season’s Warriors look like a team that hadn’t yet gotten loose. They started the year winning their first 24 games in a row, a record opening, and as of now have won 46 of 50.
Golden State’s brilliance is more than just statistical. The Warriors are a basketball idyll, a paradise of skill and collaboration. Their offense runs on nifty ballhandling, willing passing, and sublime shooting, with their point guard and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player acting as ringleader. A slim 6’3” and 185 pounds, with a bouncy jog and a barely post-pubescent tuft of beard at his chin, Stephen Curry dribbles with the intentional abandon of a card hustler, flings one-handed passes to all sectors of the court, and shoots better than anyone ever has.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
Donald Trump is back, Bernie Sanders is blowing up, and Marco Rubio is battered after the New Hampshire primary.
Trump is back, baby! The man who has made his business career by recovering from disasters did the same in his new political career Tuesday, setting aside his weak second-place showing in Iowa and delivering a commanding win in New Hampshire. The victory sets Trump up as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination once again.
How strong a frontrunner is he? There are still those who think he’s an unlikely nominee, but the wind is at his back for the moment. The next GOP contest is February 20 in South Carolina, where polls show him far ahead. And Marco Rubio, who the establishment hoped could rally an anti-Trump, anti-Ted Cruz coalition, had an awful night in the New Hampshire primary, finishing fifth—well short of his stated goal of second. Suddenly, Rubio seems less like the man who can unify the disparate party forces and more like, well, a robot.
The Wall Street Journal’s eyebrow-raising story of how the presidential candidate and her husband accepted cash from UBS without any regard for the appearance of impropriety that it created.
The Swiss bank UBS is one of the biggest, most powerful financial institutions in the world. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton intervened to help it out with the IRS. And after that, the Swiss bank paid Bill Clinton $1.5 million for speaking gigs. TheWall Street Journal reported all that and more Thursday in an article that highlights huge conflicts of interest that the Clintons have created in the recent past.
The piece begins by detailing how Clinton helped the global bank.
“A few weeks after Hillary Clinton was sworn in as secretary of state in early 2009, she was summoned to Geneva by her Swiss counterpart to discuss an urgent matter. The Internal Revenue Service was suing UBS AG to get the identities of Americans with secret accounts,” the newspaper reports. “If the case proceeded, Switzerland’s largest bank would face an impossible choice: Violate Swiss secrecy laws by handing over the names, or refuse and face criminal charges in U.S. federal court. Within months, Mrs. Clinton announced a tentative legal settlement—an unusual intervention by the top U.S. diplomat. UBS ultimately turned over information on 4,450 accounts, a fraction of the 52,000 sought by the IRS.”