Recoveries have been getting weaker and weaker because that's how the Fed wants them
It's time to talk about everybody's least favorite Davos buzzword -- New Normal.
With GDP unexpectedly contracting 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 (though the private sector mostly kept up, despite the obstacles we've thrown in its way), it's enough to make you wonder if this time really is different. In other words, has the economy settled into a, well, new normal of slower growth?
If it has, it's not quite new, at least when it comes to recoveries. As you can see in this Minneapolis Fed chart of job gains following recessions, something changed after 1981. Recoveries went from being V-shaped affairs characterized by rapid bouncebacks in employment to U-shaped ones better described as nasty, brutish, and long.
(Note: I excluded the recovery from the 1980 recession, because the double-dip in 1981 cut it short).
The story of the jobless recovery is one of what the Fed isn't doing. As Paul Krugman points out, recessions have become post-(or perhaps pre-) modern. Through the 1980s, postwar recessions happened when the Fed decided to raise rates to head off inflation, and recoveries happened when the Fed decided things had tamed down enough to lower rates. But now recessions happen when bubbles burst, with financial deregulation and the global savings glut making these more of a recurring feature of our economy, and the Fed hasn't been able to cut interest rates enough to generate strong post-crash recoveries. Or maybe it hasn't wanted to.
Here's a stupid question. Why have interest rates and inflation mostly been falling for the past 30 years? In other words if the Fed has been de facto, and later de jure, targeting inflation for most of this period (and it has), why has inflation been on a down trend (and it has)? As you can see in the chart below, core PCE inflation, which excludes food and energy costs, fell substantially from the Reagan recovery through the bursting tech bubble, and has more or less held steady since, though a bit more on the less side recently.
Say hello to "opportunistic disinflation." Okay, let's translate this from Fed-ese. Remember, the Fed is supposed to target 2 percent inflation, meaning it raises rates when prices rise by more than that much and lowers them once the economy's cooled off enough, but it wasn't always so. Back in the mid-1980s, inflation was hovering around 4 percent, a major achievement following the stagflation of the previous decade, but the Fed wanted it to go lower -- here's the crucial bit -- without taking the blame for it. The Volcker Fed had come in for quite a bit of abuse when it whipped inflation at the expense of the severe 1981-82 downturn, and the Fed seems to have learned it was better not to leave its fingerprints on the business cycle.
In other words, Let recessions do their dirty work for them.
It's not hard for central bankers to get what they want without doing anything, as long as what they want is less inflation (and that's almost always what central bankers want). They just have to wait for a recession to come along ... and then keep waiting until inflation falls to where they want it. Then, once prices have declined enough for their taste, they cut rates (or buy bonds) to stabilize inflation at this new, lower level. But it's one thing to stabilize inflation at a lower level; it's another to keep it there. The Fed has to raise rates faster than it otherwise would during the subsequent recovery to keep inflation from going back to where it was before the recession. It's what the Fed calls "opportunistic disinflation," and it's hard to believe this wasn't their strategy looking at falling inflation the previous few decades. Not that we have to guess. Fed president Edward Boehene actually laid out this approach in 1989, and Fed governor Laurence Meyer endorsed the idea of "reducing inflation cycle-to-cycle" in a 1996 speech -- the same year the Wall Street Journal leaked an internal Fed memo outlining the policy.
In short: Recoveries have been jobless, because that's how the Fed likes them.
But it gets worse. Pushing inflation progressively lower means recoveries get progressively weaker, since the Fed has to choke off inflation, and hence the recovery, at lower and lower levels. Now, to be fair, the Fed, and Ben Bernanke in particular, have awoken to the dangers of this approach. The danger, of course, is that the Fed gets in a situation where short-term rates are stuck at zero, but the economy stays stuck in a slump. Sound familiar? Bernanke realized this was a threat in 2002 when the economy was flirting with deflation despite 1.34 interest rates, and vowed not to let it happen here. (Remember, "disinflation" means falling inflation, and "deflation" means negative inflation).
The Fed, of course, did let it happen here. But it didn't let prices actually start to fall, which would make debt and borrowing more expensive at the worst possible moment, due to the Fed's bond-buying and to wages that are sticky downwards. Bernanke got the Fed to accept that opportunistic disinflation had gone too far with QE1 and QE2, but it's not clear that he's gotten them to give up on the idea altogether. Core inflation has settled in below 2 percent, and the Fed's economic projections don't show it rising above that level anytime soon. That's pushed nominal GDP growth -- the growth of the total size of the economy -- down to 4 percent for each of the past three years; a low level the Fed is apparently comfortable with. Bernanke seems to be trying to shift the consensus towards undoing some of this disinflation -- unlike previous rounds of bond-buying, QE3 was aimed at lowering unemployment, and not stopping lower prices, while the Evans rule explicitly says the Fed will tolerate inflation up to 2.5 percent -- but there's been no shift in the data so far. The Fed needs to realize there is no try when it comes to reflation. It has to promise to do whatever it takes.
The new normal doesn't have to be new or normal if the Fed doesn't want it to be.
Why haven’t more challengers entered the race to defeat the Iraq War hawk, Patriot Act supporter, and close friend of big finance?
As Hillary Clinton loses ground to Bernie Sanders in Iowa, where her lead shrinks by the day, it’s worth noticing that she has never made particular sense as the Democratic Party’s nominee. She may be more electable than her social-democratic rival from Vermont, but plenty of Democrats are better positioned to represent the center-left coalition. Why have they let the former secretary of state keep them out of the race? If Clinton makes it to the general election, I understand why most Democrats will support her. She shares their views on issues as varied as preserving Obamacare, abortion rights, extending legal status to undocumented workers, strengthening labor unions, and imposing a carbon tax to slow climate change.
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 NBC show isn’t casting its net wide enough when it comes to finding new players.
Since the departure of many of its biggest stars two years ago, Saturday Night Live has mostly avoided major cast changes. Yesterday, NBC announced the show would add only one new cast member for its 41st season—the near-unknown stand-up comic Jon Rudnitsky. SNL is, of course, a sketch-comedy show, but it keeps hiring mostly white stand-ups who have a markedly different skill set, with limited results. As critics and viewers keep calling out for greater diversity on the show, it’s hard to imagine the series’s reasoning in sticking to old habits.
As is unfortunately typical today, controversy has already arisen over some tasteless old jokes from Rudnitsky’s Twitter and Vine feeds, similar to the furore that greeted Trevor Noah’s hiring at The Daily Show this summer. But Rudnitsky was apparently hired on the back of his stand-up performances, not his Internet presence, similar to the other young stand-ups the show has hired in recent years: Pete Davidson, Brooks Wheelan (since fired), and Michael Che. It’s a peculiar route to the show, because SNL is 90 percent sketch acting, and unless you’re hosting Weekend Update (like Che), you’re not going to do a lot of stand-up material. So why hire Rudnitsky?
Conservatives want to defund the group, even if it means shutting down the government. And they’re holding the GOP leadership accountable.
It has become an annual harbinger of autumn in this era of divided government: The calendar swings from August to September, Congress returns from its long summer break, and Republican leaders try to figure out how to keep the federal lights on past the end of the month.
In 2013, John Boehner gave in to Senator Ted Cruz and his conservative allies in the House, and the government shut down for two weeks in a failed fight over Obamacare. A year ago, Boehner and Mitch McConnell succeeded in twice putting off a losing battle over immigration until after they could wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats.
With federal funding set to expire on September 30, conservatives are once again demanding a standoff that Boehner and McConnell are hell-bent on avoiding. This time around, the issue that might prevent an orderly—if temporary—extension of funding is Planned Parenthood. Along with Cruz, House conservatives insist that any spending bill sent to President Obama's desk explicitly prohibit taxpayer dollars from going to the women’s health organization, which has come under fire over undercover videos that purportedly show its officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue. Democrats have rallied around Planned Parenthood, and an effort to ax its approximately $500 million in annual funding is likely to fall short, either by running into a filibuster in the Senate or a presidential veto.
Many educators are introducing meditation into the classroom as a means of improving kids’ attention and emotional regulation.
A five-minute walk from the rickety, raised track that carries the 5 train through the Bronx, the English teacher Argos Gonzalez balanced a rounded metal bowl on an outstretched palm. His class—a mix of black and Hispanic students in their late teens, most of whom live in one of the poorest districts in New York City—by now were used to the sight of this unusual object: a Tibetan meditation bell.
“Today we’re going to talk about mindfulness of emotion,” Gonzalez said with a hint of a Venezuelan accent. “You guys remember what mindfulness is?” Met with quiet stares, Gonzalez gestured to one of the posters pasted at the back of the classroom, where the students a few weeks earlier had brainstormed terms describing the meaning of “mindfulness.” There were some tentative mumblings: “being focused,” “being aware of our surroundings.”
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 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.
After calling his intellectual opponents treasonous, and allegedly exaggerating his credentials, a controversial law professor resigns from the United States Military Academy.
On Monday, West Point law professor William C. Bradford resigned after The Guardianreported that he had allegedly inflated his academic credentials. Bradford made headlines last week, when the editors of the National Security Law Journaldenounced a controversial article by him in their own summer issue:
As the incoming Editorial Board, we want to address concerns regarding Mr. Bradford’s contention that some scholars in legal academia could be considered as constituting a fifth column in the war against terror; his interpretation is that those scholars could be targeted as unlawful combatants. The substance of Mr. Bradford’s article cannot fairly be considered apart from the egregious breach of professional decorum that it exhibits. We cannot “unpublish” it, of course, but we can and do acknowledge that the article was not presentable for publication when we published it, and that we therefore repudiate it with sincere apologies to our readers.
Beijing’s top five scapegoats, from journalists to hedge funds to the U.S. federal reserve
China’s stock markets continue to stumble, despite the massive stimulus that the government has unleashed to prop them up. The Shanghai benchmark index fell by 1.23 percent Tuesday, after closing down slightly Monday. The index has fallen by nearly 40 percent from its mid-June peak.
In some ways, the slide isn’t surprising—after all, Chinese stocks were trading at extremely rich valuations before they started to fall, even as signs emerged that China’s economy was slowing.
The super-cheap Foldscope carries on a centuries-long tradition of simple, curiosity-enabling microscopes.
It took about six months for the jungle to kill Aaron Pomerantz’s microscope.
Pomerantz, an entomologist working with Rainforest Expeditions, had been doing fieldwork in the remote Tambopata Research Centre, nestled within the Peruvian Amazon. At first, he had examined his minute specimens with the center’s fancy optical microscope. But thanks to the sweltering humidity, water started condensing on all the microscope’s glass components. Soon, it was caked in fungus. “Everything out here gets consumed by the jungle,” says Pomerantz.
An entomologist without a microscope is like an astronomer without a telescope, so Pomerantz needed a replacement. Ideally, he wanted something portable enough to carry while hiking, robust enough to withstand the Amazon, and cheap enough to avoid breaking his budget. After a quick search, he learned that 5,000 miles away, a Stanford University engineer named Manu Prakash had been building exactly what he wanted.