Whether it's the 1930s or the 2010s, depressions are the only casualties in a currency war
I don't know how it compares to peeing in your bed, as one anonymous senior Fed official put it, but a currency war is one of the surest ways to end a global slump. Despite what you may have heard, it was a big part of what stopped the vicious circle of the Great Depression.
Currency wars are the best type of wars. Nobody dies, and everybody can recover, as long as everybody plays along. Here's how it works. One country devalues its currency -- in other words, prints money -- which, in a time of weak global demand, puts pressure on other countries to do the same, lest they lose out on trade. Then another country devalues, and so on, in a cascade of looser money. It's the invisible hand pushing for expansionary monetary policy when it's needed most.
But there are a few caveats. For one, a currency war only makes sense during a global depression when short-term interest rates are mostly stuck at zero. It's about boosting monetary stimulus when conventional methods are out of ammo. For another, devaluing forever (a là China) is not a sustainable growth strategy. It might make sense for developing nations to subsidize export industries early on, but, eventually, this will only cause imbalances to build up, while robbing the domestic population of purchasing power. And finally, there's a risk that a currency war could turn into a trade war. In other words, countries will retaliate to expansionary monetary policy not with expansionary monetary policy of their own, but with tariffs. Presumably that's what our silver-tongued senior Fed official was getting at with this head-scratcher of a quote:
Devaluing a currency is like peeing in bed. It feels good at first, but pretty soon it becomes a real mess.
This fear of a currency war begetting a trade war is certainly serious, but it's made to sound more serious thanks to some bad history. Here's the erroneous story you might have heard (especially now that Japan's talk of more aggressive easing has revived fears of a currency war):
After the Great Crash of 1929, countries abandoned the gold standard and devalued their currencies in a beggar-thy-neighbor battle to the bottom. This currency war turned into a trade war, with countries eventually resorting to tariffs and counter-tariffs, as they tried to grab a hold on an ever-shrinking pie of demand. The consequent collapse in world trade is what made the Great Depression so great, and set the stage for the trade war to turn into an actual one.
Scary stuff. But not quite true. The reality is the trade war started before the currency war, and the latter jump-started recovery wherever it was tried. The infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff in the U.S., the first salvo in the trade war to come, was actually passed in June 1930, more than a full year before any country devalued its currency. It wasn't until September 1931 that Britain abandoned the gold standard ... and that's when things get a bit complicated. It's hard to accuse Britain of "competitive" devaluation here, because it had no choice but devaluation; it had simply run out of gold. Nonetheless, other countries responded to Britain's increased competitiveness by increasing their trade barriers; in this case, the currency war, such as it was, did exacerbate the ongoing trade war, as Gavyn Davies of the Financial Times points out.
But then a funny thing happened. The punishment for Britain's economic weakness was a recovery. Ditching gold gave Britain (and everybody else who did so) the freedom to pursue more aggressive monetary and fiscal policies than the "rules of the game" of the gold standard had allowed.* As you can see in the chart below (via Brad DeLong) from Barry Eichengreen's magisterial work on the depression, Golden Fetters, recovery followed devaluation everywhere. There was no reward for financial orthodoxy in the 1930s. The countries that stayed with the gold standard the longest, the so-called Gold Bloc of France, Belgium, and Poland, were the last to begin growing again. In other words, the currency war didn't deepen the depression; it ended it.
And that brings us to one last, stupid question. How did beggar-thy-neighbor policies kickstart growth even after world trade had already collapsed? In other words, how did stealing a trade advantage help so much when there wasn't much trade to steal? Well, it's not entirely, or even mostly, about stealing trade. Indeed, as Scott Sumner points out, the U.S. trade balance actually worsened in 1933 after FDR took us off gold, even as the economy quickly reversed its death-spiral and began a virtuous cycle. It's easiest to frame devaluation as grabbing demand from abroad, but it's really about increasing demand at home. Devaluation means printing money, and more money during a liquidity trap means more demand, period. It also allows more stimulus spending than a fixed-exchange rate system (like the gold standard) would. The next time you hear someone lamenting the "destructive devaluations that followed the Great Depression," remember to ask them -- what was so destructive about ending the most destructive depression in modern history?
The only thing we have to fear is fear of currency wars itself. Depressions are the only casualties in these kind of conflicts.
* There were two exceptions. The gold standard did not constrain looser monetary policy in the U.S. and France in the early years of the depression, as both had more than enough gold to back more credit growth, but chose instead to sterilize their gold inflows out of fear of nonexistent inflation in the face of actual deflation. This stockpiling drained everybody else of gold, and consequently made staying on the gold standard impossible. Even the U.S. and France had to eventually abandon it to reverse years of deflation.
Why Nixon's former lawyer John Dean worries Trump could be one of the most corrupt presidents ever—and get away with it
Sometime early last fall, John Dean says he began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves. “I’m not somebody who remembers the details of dreams,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles. “I just know that they were so bad that I’d force myself awake and out of bed just to get away from them.”
Few people are more intimately acquainted than Dean with the consequences of an American presidency gone awry. As White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, he was a key figure in the Watergate saga—participating in, and then helping to expose, the most iconic political scandal in modern U.S. history. In the decades since then, Dean has parlayed that resume line into something of a franchise, penning several books and countless columns on the theme of presidential abuses of power.
Can Republicans repeal Obamacare without imposing the greatest costs on the older, white, blue-collar voters who put Trump into office?
As congressional Republicans race to repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, one of their principal challenges is finding an alternative that does not expose older and less affluent white voters at the core of Donald Trump’s electoral coalition to greater costs and financial risk.
The paradox of the health-reform debate is that many of Obamacare’s key elements raised costs on younger and healthier people who generally vote Democratic as a means of limiting the financial exposure of older and sicker people, even as older whites have stampeded toward the GOP. Conversely, many of the central ideas common to the Republican replacement plans would lower costs for younger and healthier adults while exposing people with greater health needs, many of them older, to the risk of much larger out-of-pocket costs, even if it reduces the health-insurance premiums they initially pay.
After an unexpected loss in November, Democrats are nowhere near ready to take on the president-elect.
For Democrats and other progressive types, Winter Is Coming. Scratch that. Winter has hit—full force—and hordes of White Walkers are now wilding across the land.
It’s not merely that the party’s presidential dreams were crushed. Defeat came at the hands of a chest-thumping reality-TV star with the attention span of a toddler on speed to whom the norms of civilized society, much less politics, don’t seem to apply. Donald Trump’s jerkiness is central to his appeal, and for whatever cocktail of reasons—fear, awe, confusion—even many of the guy’s detractors find him hard to resist.
How the heck is non-Trump America supposed to forge an effective opposition to such a character, especially when his political team controls all the levers of power?
Is there room in the movement for people who morally object to abortion?
Updated on Monday, January 16 at 4:05 p.m.
Pro-life women are headed to D.C. Yes, they’ll turn out for the annual March for Life, which is coming up on January 27. But one week earlier, as many as a few hundred pro-lifers are planning to attend the Women’s March on Washington, which has been billed as feminist counterprogramming to the inauguration.
With organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America co-sponsoring the event, pro-life marchers have found themselves in a somewhat awkward position. What’s their place at an event that claims to speak for all women, but has aligned itself with pro-choice groups? With roughly a week to go before the march, organizers also released a set of “unity principles,” and one of them is “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people.”
Why some people are withdrawing from mainstream society into “intentional communities”—and what the rest of the country can learn from them
VIRGINIA— For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
“Trump’s wall is already under construction,” Wole Soyinka says. “Walls are built in the mind.”
Wole Soyinka, the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, once fled to the United States from Nigeria. Now the fickle winds of politics are pushing him in the opposite direction.
Back in the 1960s, jailed for alleged associations with rebels amid the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, Soyinka composed protest poems on toilet paper in solitary confinement. “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny,” Soyinka wrote in the collection of prison notes he later published. In the 1990s, the Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha confiscated Soyinka’s passport after the playwright urged Nigerians to stop paying taxes in defiance of military rule in the country. Soyinka managed to sneak out of his homeland and take refuge in the United States—a period he described to me as his “political sabbatical, because I never accepted, really, that I was in exile.”Abacha sentenced Soyinka to death in absentia. Soyinka’s crime was said to be treason.
When it comes to basic policy questions such as the minimum wage, introductory economics can be more misleading than it is helpful.
In a rich, post-industrial society, where most people walk around with supercomputers in their pockets and a person can have virtually anything delivered to his or her doorstep overnight, it seems wrong that people who work should have to live in poverty. Yet in America, there are more than ten million members of the working poor: people in the workforce whose household income is below the poverty line. Looking around, it isn’t hard to understand why. The two most common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson and cashier. Eight million people have one of those two jobs, which typically pay about $9–$10 per hour. It’s hard to make ends meet on such meager wages. A few years ago, McDonald’s was embarrassed by the revelation that its internal help line was recommending that even a full-time restaurant employee apply for various forms of public assistance.
Surfing the app on a trip back home can be a way of regressing, or imagining what life would be like if you never left.
My parents moved out of my hometown almost as soon as I left for college, and therefore I am obsessed with the idea of other people’s hometowns. Over any major holiday or break from a work schedule, hometowns become a sort of time travel, a way for people who have made adult lives elsewhere to return to their origin story.
Going home for the holidays can act as a kind of regression. Most of us know people, whether our friends, our partner, even our own parents, who suddenly turn into their teen or pre-teen self once they step foot in the house where they grew up. My mom used to say that whenever my dad got within 50 miles of his mom’s house, he suddenly became a teenage boy. Our hometowns become a kind of permission and hideaway, a place where we don’t have to be ourselves, where our actions don’t count and we get to be briefly less visible than we are in the adult homes we’ve made for ourselves elsewhere, the places where we expect ourselves to take action and achieve things and move upward through each day. For many of us, hometowns allow the luxury of a brief period of stasis, a rare few days of doing nothing.
The site is only one of many unregulated online people-search services that offer up personal information with few safeguards on how it’s used.
Last week, Anna Brittain, a young-adult author based in Birmingham, Alabama, got a surprising text from her sister. As a part of a routine search for her own internet footprint—Brittain’s sister works at a child-advocacy center—she had entered her own name into the genealogy site FamilyTreeNow she’d just read about on Facebook. Something unusual popped up: Her niece, Brittain’s kids, were listed as her “associates.”
Brittain was rattled. Her sister’s profession puts her at risk of retaliation, and Brittain didn’t want her young kids to be put in harm’s way, too. She followed a labyrinthine set of steps to remove her and her husband’s profiles from the website, and tweeted out instructions for others to do the same.