Here's why Ben Bernanke killed the platinum coin, and what it means for the debt-ceiling showdown
The coin will not be minted.
At least, not in anything remotely close to 13-digit denominations. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post reports, the Treasury and Federal Reserve have ruled out creating a trillion-dollar coin, which was a real possibility thanks to a crazy loophole, to stop us from defaulting on our obligations if the debt ceiling isn't raised. It's Congress or bust, when it comes to paying our bills on time.
This was probably the least surprising development in the history of developments. It wasn't just that the trillion-dollar coin would have been a political liability because it sounds silly -- that was the best, and only, argument against it -- but rather that it required the Fed to give up its sole control of monetary policy. The Fed would not do that. Now, the Treasury minting trillion-dollar coins sure sounds different from the Fed buying bonds, but it's not. It's just sterilized quantitative easing (QE), albeit with a platinum tint. Or, in English, it's printing money, buying stuff, and preventing this new money from increasing inflation. The Fed does this when it 1) electronically "prints" money, 2) buys bonds from banks with this new money, and 3) ties up these new bank reserves with operations like reverse repos. The Treasury does the same when it 1) mints the trillion-dollar coin, 2) uses it to pay for the government's existing obligations, and 3) the Fed sells bonds in equal measure to suck the money out.
You might wonder why the Fed would play along if the Treasury turned to coin seigniorage. Answer: the Fed has its inflation target, and it cares very much about hitting it. The Fed would be compelled to counter the Treasury's coin-minting, although, as as Greg Ip of The Economist points out, the Fed might not need to do so for quite awhile, and could resort to raising interest rates on interbank lending and reserves instead of selling long-term bonds. In either case, the Treasury would be dragging the Fed into QE it didn't want, and, as University of Oregon professor Tim Duy put it, effectively blurring the line between fiscal and monetary policy. Fed independence would be a thing of the past ... unless it killed the coin first. Which, of course, it did, as Zeke Miller of Buzzfeed reports. The platinum coin gambit depended on the Fed accepting it as legal currency for the Treasury's account, and the Fed said it would not. RIP, trillion-dollar coin.
Now, the trillion-dollar coin may be dead, but the debt ceiling is not. President Obama continues to insist he will not negotiate over it, but the administration has said it won't use either of the most likely work-arounds -- the 14th amendment or the platinum coin -- if it comes to that. That leaves the president with (at least) four more outlandish-ish options if House Republicans refuse to pay the bills they authorized, and one actual option. Here they are, from least likely to most likely.
-- The Treasury could repo Mount Rushmore to the Fed. As Karl Smith of Modeled Behavior argues, the Treasury could theoretically sell anything valuable enough, like offshore oil rights, to the Fed, and agree to buy it back later. This kind of repurchase (repo) agreement would give the Treasury cash flow if it's running so low that it can't pay the interest on our debt, but there are two big problems. First, repo agreements are not, economically-speaking, sales, but rather loans, so it would almost certainly violate the debt ceiling. And second, there's no way the Fed would do this. So there's that.
-- The Fed could send some of its bonds back to the Treasury as dividends. Printing money is a pretty good way to make money, never more so than the past few years. The Fed remits most of its profits -- $89 billion in 2012 -- to the Treasury, which kind of makes the Treasury its sole shareholder. As @IvanTheK first suggested, the Fed could advance some of these profits to the Treasury as a dividend if there wasn't enough incoming revenue to pay the interest on the debt on any given day during a debt ceiling standoff. It's an elegant solution, but, again, not one the Fed is likely to go for.
-- Use IOUs to pay our bills. If we don't hit the debt ceiling, we will immediately have to stop paying 40 percent of our bills ... unless we pay the rest with IOUs. Paul Krugman proposed something along these lines, and law professor Edward Kleinbard points out that California successfully used them during its own budget crisis in 2009. Back then, California paid people with IOUs yielding 3.75 percent that people could trade to banks for cash at a slight haircut. In other words, the banks made money off the trades. The federal government could do the same, but there are a few legal hurdles. If the IOUs pay any interest, it's hard to see how they're not debt; but if they don't pay any interest, it's hard to see how they're not money. Either would be illegal. Maybe everybody would be happy enough with this arrangement not to challenge it, like in California, but maybe not -- not to mention the awful optics of "Obama dollars".
-- Refuse to negotiate, and blame the Republicans for any economic damage. Welcome to everybody's favorite game, debt ceiling chicken! Here's how it works. Obama says there's nothing he can do to lift the debt ceiling on his own; that's it up to Republicans to pay the country's bills; and that if they don't, they will get blamed for Social Security checks not going out. It's the strategy former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin used back in the mid-90s when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich threatened to hold the debt ceiling hostage, and it's the strategy Obama seems to be using now. As Ezra Klein points out, Obama has deliberately ruled out all of these different debt ceiling end-arounds, because he doesn't want Republicans to think they have any alternative to increasing it themselves. Now, maybe half of them really do welcome default, as Politico reports, but maybe not. That's a terrifying bunch of "maybes", but it's where we are today.
In other words, Obama is happy not to mint the coin, because he thinks minting it reduces his leverage. Now it's a psychological game of chicken, with Obama and Republicans accelerating toward the other, each convinced they cannot swerve, and when they meet in the middle, they'll set off the mother of all global market crashes.
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
Ben Stiller’s follow-up to his own comedy classic is a downright bummer, no matter how many celebrity cameos it tries to cram in.
You don’t need to go to the theater to get the full experience of Zoolander 2. Simply get your hands on a copy of the original, watch it, and then yell a bunch of unfunny topical lines every time somebody tells a joke. That’s how it feels to watch Ben Stiller’s sequel to his 2001 spoof of the fashion industry: Zoolander 2 takes pains to reference every successful gag you remember from the original, and then embellish them in painful—often offensive, almost always outdated—fashion. It’s a film that has no real reason to exist, and it spends its entire running time reaffirming that fact.
The original Zoolander, to be fair, had no business being as funny as it was—it made fun of an industry that already seems to exist in a constant state of self-parody, and much of its humor relied on simple malapropisms and sight gags. But it was hilarious anyway as a candid snapshot of the fizzling-out of ’90s culture. Like almost any zeitgeist comedy, it belonged to a particular moment—and boy, should it have stayed there. With Zoolander 2, Stiller (who directed, co-wrote, and stars) tries to recapture the magic of 2001 by referencing its past glories with increasing desperation, perhaps to avoid the fact that he has nothing new to say about the fashion industry or celebrity culture 15 years laters.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
The bureau successfully played the long game in both cases.
The story of law enforcement in the Oregon standoff is one of patience.
On the most obvious level, that was reflected in the 41 days that armed militia members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns. It took 25 days before the FBI and state police moved to arrest several leaders of the occupation and to barricade the refuge. It took another 15 days before the last of the final occupiers walked out, Thursday morning Oregon time.
Each of those cases involved patience as well: Officers massed on Highway 395 didn’t shoot LaVoy Finicum when he tried to ram past a barricade, nearly striking an FBI agent, though when he reached for a gun in his pocket they finally fired. Meanwhile, despite increasingly hysterical behavior from David Fry, the final occupier, officers waited him out until he emerged peacefully.
The revolution that ended the reign of beards occurred on September 30, 331 b.c., as Alexander the Great prepared for a decisive showdown with the Persian emperor for control of Asia. On that day, he ordered his men to shave. Yet from time immemorial in Greek culture, a smooth chin on a grown man had been taken as a sign of effeminacy or degeneracy. What can explain this unprecedented command? When the commander Parmenio asked the reason, according to the ancient historian Plutarch, Alexander replied, “Don’t you know that in battles there is nothing handier to grasp than a beard?” But there is ample cause to doubt Plutarch’s explanation. Stories of beard-pulling in battles were myth rather than history. Plutarch and later historians misunderstood the order because they neglected the most relevant fact, namely that Alexander had dared to do what no self-respecting Greek leader had ever done before: shave his face, likening himself to the demigod Heracles, rendered in painting and sculpture in the immortal splendor of youthful, beardless nudity. Alexander wished above all, as he told his generals before the battle, that each man would see himself as a crucial part of the mission. They would certainly see this more clearly if each of them looked more like their heroic commander.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
A robotic road safety worker in India, a sacrificial llama in Bolivia, a sea otter receives a valentine, a deadly earthquake in Taiwan, a leopard attack in India, and much more.
A murmuration of starlings over Israel, a robotic road safety worker in India, a sacrificial llama in Bolivia, border barriers between Tunisia and Libya, a sea otter receives a valentine, a deadly earthquake in Taiwan, the annual Shrovetide football match in England, a leopard attack in India, and much more.
Jim Gilmore joins Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina, and leaves the race after a poor showing in New Hampshire.
Jim Gilmore’s candidacy this year was improbable—but even more improbable was the minor cult of personality that developed around it.
The former Virginia governor never had a chance. Not, like, in the sense of Lindsey Graham, a candidate with national standing but no path to the presidency. More in the George Pataki sense: a guy who had no real business in race, but was running anyway. Except that Gilmore made Pataki look like a juggernaut. Also, Pataki saw the writing on the wall and had the sense to drop out in late December. Gilmore soldiered on, and ended up as the last of the truly longshots to leave.
The result was that Gilmore turned into a sort of folk hero. Not for voters, mind you—he managed only 12 votes in Iowa and 125 in New Hampshire, and his campaign was funded largely by loans from himself. Because of his low support in the polls, Gilmore only made the cut for the very first kid’s-table debate in August, and then again for the undercard in late January. Other than that, he was shut out completely.
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.
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?