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.
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.
When Kenneth Jarecke photographed an Iraqi man burned alive, he thought it would change the way Americans saw the Gulf War. But the media wouldn’t run the picture.
The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.
On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name. He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad.
Heather Armstrong’s Dooce once drew millions of readers. Her blog’s semi-retirement speaks to the challenges of earning money as an individual blogger today.
The success story of Dooce.com was once blogger lore, told and re-told in playgroups and Meetups—anywhere hyper-verbal people with Wordpress accounts gathered. “It happened for that Dooce lady,” they would say. “It could happen for your blog, too.”
Dooce has its origin in the late 1990s, when a young lapsed Mormon named Heather Armstrong taught herself HTML code and moved to Los Angeles. She got a job in web design and began blogging about her life on her personal site, Dooce.com.
The site’s name evolved out of her friends’ AOL Instant-Messenger slang for dude, or its more incredulous cousin, "doooood!” About a year later, Armstrong was fired for writing about her co-workers on the site—an experience that, for a good portion of the ‘aughts, came known as “getting dooced.” She eloped with her now ex-husband, Jon, moved to Salt Lake City, and eventually started blogging full time again.
It’s not just Trump: With Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina on the rise, Republicans are loving outsiders and shunning politicians.
For the first time in a long time, Donald Trump isn’t the most interesting story in the 2016 presidential race. That's partly because his dominance in the Republican polls, while still surprising, is no longer novel and increasingly well explored and explained, but it’s also partly because what’s going on with the rest of the GOP field is far more interesting.
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.
ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society.
If the ruined ruins of Palmyra could speak, they would marvel at our shock. After all, they have been sacked before. In their mute and shattered eloquence, they spoke for centuries not only about the cultures that built them but also about the cultures that destroyed them—about the fragility of civilization itself, even when it is incarnated in stone. No designation of sanctity, by God or by UNESCO, suffices to protect the past. The past is helpless. Instead these ruins, all ruins, have had the effect of lifting the past out of history and into time. They carry the spectator away from facts and toward reveries.
In the 18th century, after the publication in London of The Ruins of Palmyra, a pioneering volume of etchings by Robert Wood, who had traveled to the Syrian desert with the rather colorful James Dawkins, a fellow antiquarian and politician, the desolation of Palmyra became a recurring symbol for ephemerality and the vanity of all human endeavors. “It is the natural and common fate of cities,” Wood dryly remarked in one of the essays in his book, “to have their memory longer preserved than their ruins.” Wood’s beautiful and meticulous prints served as inspirations for paintings, and it was in response to one of those paintings that Diderot wrote some famous pages in his great Salons of 1767: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures. ... Wherever I cast my glance, the objects surrounding me announce death and compel my resignation to what awaits me. What is my ephemeral existence in comparison with that of a rock being worn down, of a valley being formed, of a forest that’s dying, of these deteriorating masses suspended above my head? I see the marble of tombs crumble into powder and I don’t want to die!”
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
Though it wasn’t pretty, Minaj was really teaching a lesson in civility.
Nicki Minaj didn’t, in the end, say much to Miley Cyrus at all. If you only read the comments that lit up the Internet at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, you might think she was kidding, or got cut off, when she “called out” the former Disney star who was hosting: “And now, back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what’s good?”
To summarize: When Minaj’s “Anaconda” won the award for Best Hip-Hop Video, she took to the stage in a slow shuffle, shook her booty with presenter Rebel Wilson, and then gave an acceptance speech in which she switched vocal personas as amusingly as she does in her best raps—street-preacher-like when telling women “don’t you be out here depending on these little snotty-nosed boys”; sweetness and light when thanking her fans and pastor. Then a wave of nausea seemed to come over her, and she turned her gaze toward Cyrus. To me, the look on her face, not the words that she said, was the news of the night:
The past is beautiful until you’re reminded it’s ugly.
Taylor Swift’s music video for “Wildest Dreams” isn’t about the world as it exists; it’s about the world as seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment. In the song, Swift sings that she wants to live on in an ex’s memory as an idealized image of glamour—“standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset.” In the video, her character, an actress, falls in love with her already-coupled costar, for whom she’ll live on as an idealized image of glamour—standing in a nice dress, staring at a giant fan that’s making the fabric swirl in the wind.
The setting for the most part is Africa, but, again, the video isn’t about Africa as it exists, but as it’s seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment—a very particular nostalgia and kind of entertainment. Though set in 1950, the video is in the literary and cinematic tradition of white savannah romances, the most important recent incarnation of which might be the 1985 Meryl Streep film Out of Africa, whose story begins in 1913. Its familiarity is part of its appeal, and also part of why it’s now drawing flack for being insensitive. As James Kassaga Arinaitwe and Viviane Rutabingwa write at NPR:
Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease. Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?
Late last year, in a small health-food eatery called Cafe Sprouts in Oberlin, Ohio, I had what may well have been the most wholesome beverage of my life. The friendly server patiently guided me to an apple-blueberry-kale-carrot smoothie-juice combination, which she spent the next several minutes preparing, mostly by shepherding farm-fresh produce into machinery. The result was tasty, but at 300 calories (by my rough calculation) in a 16-ounce cup, it was more than my diet could regularly absorb without consequences, nor was I about to make a habit of $9 shakes, healthy or not.
Inspired by the experience nonetheless, I tried again two months later at L.A.’s Real Food Daily, a popular vegan restaurant near Hollywood. I was initially wary of a low-calorie juice made almost entirely from green vegetables, but the server assured me it was a popular treat. I like to brag that I can eat anything, and I scarf down all sorts of raw vegetables like candy, but I could stomach only about a third of this oddly foamy, bitter concoction. It smelled like lawn clippings and tasted like liquid celery. It goes for $7.95, and I waited 10 minutes for it.