Britain's GDP fell again in the fourth quarter of 2012, raising the specter of a triple-dip recession
Britain's economy is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but this much is clear: it's a disaster. After its Olympics-fueled growth, such as it was, lifted it out of recession in the third quarter of 2012, Britain might be headed back after its economy fell 0.3 percent at the end of the year -- the fourth time in five quarters its GDP has contracted. Britain's now verging on a triple-dip recession, which is just another way of saying a depression.
But it's not so simple.
Britain is stuck in its worst GDP slump in a century, but not so for jobs. As you can see in the chart below from Jonathan Portes, the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, Britain's stagnating economy has left it in worse shape at this point of its recovery than it was during the Great Depression. GDP is still more than 3 percent below its 2008 peak, and it hasn't done anything to catchup in years. At this pace, there will be no recovery in our time, or any other time.
It's no accident this era of zero growth has coincided with an era of austerity. Despite entering office with borrowing costs at 50-year lows, the Cameron coalition decided the government deficit, and not the growth deficit, was the chief threat to future prosperity. It raised taxes and cut the growth of spending, but did so with little regard for what constituted smart cuts and what did not. As Portes points out, public net investment -- things like roads and bridges and schools, and everything else the economy needs to grow -- has fallen by half the past three years, and is set to fall even further the next two. It's the economic equivalent of shooting yourself in both feet, just in case shooting yourself in one doesn't completely cripple you. Austerity has driven down Britain's borrowing costs even further, but that's been due to investors losing faith in its recovery, rather than having more faith in its public finances. Indeed, weak growth has kept deficits from coming down all that much, despite the higher taxes and slower spending. In other words, it's economic pain for no fiscal gain.
But the story of Britain's flatlining growth isn't just one of ignoring Keynes' maxim that the boom, not the slump, is the time for austerity. It's more like an economic whodunit. The euro crisis -- yes, we're rounding up the usual suspects -- has kept Britain from exporting its way out of trouble, as its largest trading partner, the euro zone, has been too busy flirting with breakup and recession to buy as much stuff as it otherwise would. It hasn't helped that some of Britain's big productivity industries like oil and finance have gone into what might be the start of long-term declines; the North Sea oil and gas fields and the City of London have both shed output and jobs. But this downtrend in Britain's top industries doesn't nearly explain the real puzzle of its economy -- the collapse in productivity.
In other words, the disconnect between GDP and jobs. While the economy is, at best, stuck in neutral, Britain has been adding jobs at a better-than-decent clip the past year or so. Unemployment recently reached an 18-month low, and, in absolute terms, more people have a job today than in 2008 (though underemployment is a problem). This combination of zero GDP growth with positive job growth means Britain is working more to do less. Richard Davies of The Economist calculates Britain is 12 percent less productive today than it was at similar points in other recoveries -- and the decline of the North Sea fields and the City probably only explain 1-2 percentage points of this gap. That leaves a pair of, hardly mutually exclusive, possibilities: either Britain has some serious GDP mismeasurement problems or some serious economic problems, full stop. The former is usually the case any time there's an apparent disparity between GDP and jobs data, but the disparity is so large and so persistent in this case that it seems something else is going on. Davies hypothesizes zombie firms are starving new, more productive firms, for credit, which may well be true, but, again, doesn't seem to explain the full scope of the disaster.
The good news, if there is any, is Britain just poached Mark Carney, one of the top central bankers in the world, to run the Bank of England, and he seems determined to do more than his predecessor to get the country out of its economic rut. And that's it. There is no other good news. Thank goodness for stiff upper lips.
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.
The drug modafinil was recently found to enhance cognition in healthy people. Should you take it to get a raise?
If you could take a pill that will make you better at your job, with few or no negative consequences, would you do it?
In a meta-analysis recently published in European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School concluded that a drug called modafinil, which is typically used to treat sleep disorders, is a cognitive enhancer. Essentially, it can help normal people think better.
Out of all cognitive processes, modafinil was found to improve decision-making and planning the most in the 24 studies the authors reviewed. Some of the studies also showed gains in flexible thinking, combining information, or coping with novelty. The drug didn’t seem to influence creativity either way.
All of the downsides of being a subordinate, combined with all of the downsides of having to tell people to do things they don't want to do.
When researchers try to determine the types of workers who are most prone to depression, the focus is usually on the misery of those at the bottomof a company’s hierarchy—the presumed stressors being the menial duties they're tasked with and their lack of say in defining the scope of their jobs.
But it turns out that middle managers have it worse. In a new study from researchers at Columbia University, of nearly 22,000 full-time workers (from a dataset from the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions), they saw that 18 percent of supervisors and managers reported symptoms of depression. For blue-collar workers, that figure was 12 percent, and for owners and executives, it was only 11 percent.
A new study shows that the field suffers from a reproducibility problem, but the extent of the issue is still hard to nail down.
No one is entirely clear on how Brian Nosek pulled it off, including Nosek himself. Over the last three years, the psychologist from the University of Virginia persuaded some 270 of his peers to channel their free time into repeating 100 published psychological experiments to see if they could get the same results a second time around. There would be no glory, no empirical eurekas, no breaking of fresh ground. Instead, this initiative—the Reproducibility Project—would be the first big systematic attempt to answer questions that have been vexing psychologists for years, if not decades. What proportion of results in their field are reliable?
Four and a half years of violent conflict have destroyed entire regions of Syria. Caught in the middle of all this horror are the children of Syria, relying on parents who have lost control of their own lives and are now being forced to make difficult choices in desperate circumstances.
Four and a half years of violent conflict have destroyed entire regions of Syria. Neighborhoods have been smashed by shelling and government barrel bombs, and towns have been seized by rebels and ISIS militants, then retaken by government troops, killing hundreds of thousands and injuring even more. The United Nations now estimates that more than 4 million Syrians have become refugees, forced to flee to neighboring countries or Europe. Caught in the middle of all this horror are the children of Syria, relying on parents who have lost control of their own lives and are now being forced to make difficult choices in desperate circumstances. Though many families remain in Syria’s war zones, thousands of others are taking dangerous measures to escape, evading militias, government forces, border guards, predatory traffickers, and more, as they struggle to reach safety far from home.
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.
Yanis Varoufakis on Grexit, the media, and economics
When Yanis Varoufakis was elected to parliament and then named as Greek finance minister in January, he embarked on an extraordinary seven months of negotiations with the country’s creditors and its European partners.
On July 6, Greek voters backed his hardline stance in a referendum, with a resounding 62 percent voting No to the European Union’s ultimatum. On that night, he resigned, after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, fearful of an ugly exit from the euro zone, decided to go against the popular verdict. Since then, the governing party, Syriza, has splintered and a snap election has been called. Varoufakis remains a member of parliament and a prominent voice in Greek and European politics.
It is not too late to strengthen the Iran deal, a prominent critic says.
It appears likely, as of this writing, that Barack Obama will be victorious in his fight to implement the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his secretary of state, John Kerry. Republicans in Congress don’t appear to have the votes necessary to void the agreement, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to subvert Obama may be remembered as one of the more counterproductive and shortsighted acts of an Israeli prime minister since the rebirth of the Jewish state 67 years ago.
Things could change, of course, and the Iranian regime, which is populated in good part by extremists, fundamentalist theocrats, and supporters of terrorism, could do something monumentally stupid in the coming weeks that could force on-the-fence Democrats to side with their Republican adversaries (remember the Café Milano fiasco, anyone?). But, generally speaking, the Obama administration, and its European allies, seem to have a clearer path to implementation than they had at the beginning of the month.
But no tale of posthumous success is quite as spectacular as that of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the “cosmic horror” writer who died in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1937 at the age of 46. The circumstances of Lovecraft’s final years were as bleak as anyone’s. He ate expired canned food and wrote to a friend, “I was never closer to the bread-line.” He never saw his stories collectively published in book form, and, before succumbing to intestinal cancer, he wrote, “I have no illusions concerning the precarious status of my tales, and do not expect to become a serious competitor of my favorite weird authors.” Among the last words the author uttered were, “Sometimes the pain is unbearable.” His obituary in the Providence Evening Bulletin was “full of errors large and small,” according to his biographer.
In the United States and Israel, a heated debate about whether to accept the nuclear deal with Iran continues. In the rest of the world, Iran’s reintegration is already underway.
The survival of the Iran deal seems more likely by the day; for past assessments of what that might mean for the Middle East, the United States, and beyond, please see the items grouped here.
Two weeks ago, as part of a collection of notes from readers in Israel, I quoted Samuel J. Cohen, who is originally American but has lived and worked in Israel since the 1970s, on the possibility that “Obama and Netanyahu are both right.” That is: President Obama is right that ending Iran’s pariah status will overall be good for the United States, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is right that the same change may be overall bad for Israel, even if Iran never develops a nuclear weapon. Thus the interests of the two nations genuinely diverge.