Rubio's call for a single mandate for the Federal Reserve is a dangerous, and potentially disastrous, idea. Unless that single mandate is targeting nominal GDP instead of inflation.
Marco Rubio wants to be president, and unfortunately for him that means he's supposed to have an opinion about everything. I say unfortunately because Rubio has had a hard enough time figuring out the age of the earth, let alone one of the great mysteries like what the Fed should be doing now. The latter came up during Rubio's acceptance speech at the Jack Kemp foundation, and, as Dave Weigel of Slate reports, it did not go well. Hey, he's not a central banker, man.
A long time ago in an administration far, far away, the Republicans were the party of Milton Friedman. It was 2004. As Paul Krugman points out, then-chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Greg Mankiw advocated aggressive monetary policy as a way to mitigate recessions. This was economic boilerplate, but it was only boilerplate because of Friedman. After the Great Depression, economists didn't think central banks could do much to revive the economy if interest rates fell to zero -- the so-called liquidity trap -- and monetary policy consequently took a backseat to fiscal policy when it came to demand management. Friedman reversed this. He and Anna Schwarz argued the Great Depression was only so great because the Fed's inaction made it so. In other words, central banks were only powerless if they thought they were. They could do plenty, even in a liquidity trap, if they just printed money and promised to keep printing money -- what we rather prosaically call "quantitative easing" nowadays. It was a message conservatives could, and did, love. The government didn't need to spend more to stabilize the economy during a downturn as long as the Fed did its job.
And then the Great Recession happened.
With interest rates stuck at zero and the economy stuck in a growth slump, we're very much back in Friedman's world. But now conservatives aren't so sure about that "aggressive monetary policy" thing anymore. Zero interest rates just seem wrong, and quantitative easing must be a big government bailout on the road to Zimbabwe -- at least that's what they've told themselves, despite stubbornly low inflation. Of course, some conservatives claim inflation is "really" much higher than the government says, but, as Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review points out, this conspiracy theory doesn't withstand much more than two seconds of scrutiny.
This paranoid style in monetary policy has inspired a rather odd political crusade -- the crusade against the Fed's dual mandate. Most central banks are only tasked with worrying about inflation, but the Fed is tasked with worrying about inflation and unemployment. (Or, in Fed-speak, fostering the maximum level of employment consistent with price stability). This has become a bête noire for conservatives, because they think that were it not for the Fed caring about unemployment -- the horror! -- then it wouldn't have expanded its balance sheet so much, and that this expanded balance sheet will inevitably mean higher inflation down the road. Apparently Marco Rubio is one of these conservatives who sees the stagflationary 1970s around every corner. Here's what he said to say about the Fed.
Sound monetary policy would also encourage middle class job creation. The arbitrary way in which interest rates and our currency are treated is yet another cause of unpredictability injected into our economy. The Federal Reserve Board should publish and follow a clear monetary rule -- to provide greater stability about prices and what the value of a dollar will be over time.
Translation: Repeal the dual mandate and replace it with a single mandate for inflation only. This is all kinds of uninformed. As we have pointed out before, inflation has been lower with over four times less variance since Congress gave the Fed its dual mandate in 1978. And with inflation mostly undershooting its 2 percent target since Lehman failed, it's not as if the Fed even needed the dual mandate to justify easing -- a sole inflation mandate would have been enough.
But Rubio is right that the Fed needs a better, clearer monetary rule nowadays. That's not to say that Fed policy has been arbitrary, but just that its rule needs some modernizing. For most of the so-called Great Moderation, the Fed followed something close to a Taylor rule, setting policy based on inflation and unemployment, and it served the Fed well. Greg Mankiw has his own simple version of a Taylor rule, which Paul Krugman tweaked slightly, that gives us a good idea of how the Fed thought then, as you can see below.
You can see why the Great Moderation gave way to the Great Recession. Our Taylor rule says the Fed should have made interest rates negative in late 2008, but the Fed can't make interest rates negative. Well, at least not nominal rates. The Fed can increase inflation, which reduces real rates, to get borrowing costs to where they "should" be -- which is what Ben Bernanke has done, in fits and starts, the past four years. You can see all these fits and starts in the chart below that compares our same Taylor rule to Fed policy since 2006. It's not easy to get real rates down to -7 percent.
There have been far too many fits and not nearly enough starts since 2008. Yes, the Fed tried unconventional easing in late 2008, early 2009, late 2010, late 2011 and late 2012, but it should have been easing this whole time. The Taylor rule has been negative this whole time, which means that the Fed should have been cutting interest rates, and cutting them a lot, this whole time. Instead, we got zero rates. Because inflation hasn't been that far off target, Bernanke has had a hard time convincing the rest of the FOMC to go along with quantitative easing -- so easing has been far less quantitative than the situation calls for. In other words, policy hasn't quite been arbitrary as much as ad hoc, with the unhappy result being an era of tight money.
Imagine the Fed had a single mandate, but not for inflation. Imagine instead the Fed had a single mandate for the total size of the economy, which goes by the unwieldy name of nominal GDP (NGDP). During the Great Moderation, NGDP grew about 5 percent a year, but it's only grown about 2.85 percent a year since 2008. If the Fed had an NGDP target of 5 percent a year, and was supposed to make up for any over-or-undershooting, it would have been aggressively easing the entire time since 2008. It's a dual mandate that doesn't get confused by low inflation and low growth.
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.
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.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.
“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.
It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.
“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”
As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
Nervous Democrats are looking for alternatives as Hillary Clinton falters. But is the VP the right person for the job?
“I think panic is the operative mode for the Democratic Party,” David Axelrod, who has been on the receiving end of panic mode many times over the years, told me this week. I had asked Obama’s political guru how bad the current panic was for Hillary Clinton—bad enough for the party to seek an alternative? Bad enough, perhaps, to create an opening for Joe Biden?
Axelrod didn’t think so. “I think it’s indisputable she’s had a rocky few months,” he said. “But if you look at her support among Democrats, and the resources she brings, she’s still very strong—I think she’s going to be the nominee.”
Not everyone is so sure. Public opinion has turned starkly negative on Clinton in recent months, as she has struggled to put the scandal over her use of email as secretary of state to rest. In a poll released this week, the word most commonly summoned when people were asked about her was “liar.”
Bruce Springsteen’s breakout album embodied the lost ‘70s—the tense, political, working-class rejection of an increasingly unequal society.
Forty years ago, on the eve of its official release, “Born to Run”—the song that propelled Bruce Springsteen into the rock-and-roll stratosphere—had already attracted a small cult following in the American rust belt.
At the time, Springsteen desperately needed a break. Despite vigorous promotion by Columbia Records, his first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, had been commercial flops. Though his band spent virtually every waking hour either in the recording studio or on tour, their road earnings were barely enough to live on.
Sensing the need for a smash, in late 1974 Mike Appel, Bruce’s manager, distributed a rough cut of “Born to Run” to select disc jockeys. Within weeks, it became an underground hit. Young people flooded record stores seeking copies of the new single, which didn’t yet exist, and radio stations that hadn’t been on Appel’s small distribution list bombarded him with requests for the new album, which also didn’t exist. In Philadelphia, demand for the title track was so strong that WFIL, the city’s top-40 AM station, aired it multiple times each day. In working-class Cleveland, the DJ Kid Leo played the song religiously at 5:55 p.m. each Friday afternoon on WMMS, to “officially launch the weekend.” Set against the E Street Band’s energetic blend of horns, keyboards, guitars, and percussion, “Born to Run” was a rollicking ballad of escape, packed full of cultural references that working-class listeners recognized immediately.
What the Iran “debate” has taught us about our ability to discuss world affairs
Over the past month I’ve run a series of messages from readers in North America, the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere about the JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal that the Congress will soon formally consider. You can see the latest item here, and the whole collection here. That most recent installment, from Samuel J. Cohen in Israel, emphasized the contrast between the fury over the deal in the United States and Israel, and its taken-for-granted treatment everywhere else.
Here is another reaction worth considering. It is about the way the debate has evolved inside the United States. This comes from a young American who works for a well-known international organization and who himself has experience overseas. He writes:
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.