Long-term debt isn't a short-term crisis, no matter what Beltway insiders say
Joe Scarborough, a man comically ill at ease with numbers, Powerpoint, or any analysis that doesn't involve polling Beltway insiders, thinks Paul Krugman is crazy for worrying more about unemployment than the long-term debt right now.
In other words, Scarborough can't believe Krugman says we can wait until Medicare spending is a problem before doing more about it. Of course, the arithmophobic Scarborough can't explain why Krugman is wrong -- aside from saying everybody he talks to thinks so too -- which is why Scarborough outsourced the job to the senior economist at the RAND corporation. But, unfortunately for Scarborough, he seems to have found an economist who doesn't know much about the subject -- at least judging from the freshman-level errors throughout. Here are the lowlights from this piece, ostensibly arguing that long-term debt is our gravest short-term economic problem. (Note: Excerpts are italicized).
1) From the beginning of 2002, when U.S. government debt was at its most recent minimum as a share of GDP, to the end of 2012, the dollar lost 25 percent of its value, in price-adjusted terms, against a basket of the currencies of major trading partners. This may have been because investors fear that the only way out of the current debt problems will be future inflation.
It wasn't. Inflation was low, and investors didn't expect that to change, over the last decade. Core PCE inflation averaged 1.9 percent over this period, while 10-year breakevens, which tell us market expectations of future inflation (going back to 2003), averaged 2.18 percent. Now, the financial crisis depressed both inflation and inflation expectations, but, as you can see in the chart below, the latter mostly leveled off around a healthy 2.5 percent for most of the last 10 years. If markets feared future inflation in the face of mounting debt, they sure had a funny way of showing it.
This persistently low inflation, and expectations thereof, meant the Fed could, and did, keep interest rates low -- and lower rates tend to cause a lower dollar. In other words, this wasn't a story about debt. Indeed, as you can see in the chart below, the big decline in the dollar happened between 2002 and 2007, when debt levels were relatively low, while the dollar is actually higher today than it was in 2008, despite the big debt run-up.
2) More troubling for the future is that private domestic investment--the fuel for future economic growth--shows a strong negative correlation with government debt levels over several business cycles dating back to the late 1950s. Continuing high debt does not bode well in this regard.
This is a correlation masquerading as a legitimate point. Recessions happen when private investment falls, and recessions increase deficits and debt due to lower revenues and higher safety net spending. In other words, deficits and debt rise because investment has fallen, not vice versa. Now, it's true that too-big deficits can crowd out private investment during a boom -- that's the legitimate point -- but we know that's not a problem now since interest rates are still so low.
3) But the economics profession is beginning to understand that high levels of public debt can slow economic growth, especially when gross general government debt rises above 85 or 90 percent of GDP.
As Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute points out, the idea that growth slows down when debt hits 90 percent of GDP has not been proven. It's just a correlation. And, again, it probably gets the causation backwards -- low growth causes high deficits and debt, not vice versa.
4) The U.S. share of global economic output has been falling since 1999--by nearly 5 percentage points as of 2011. As America's GDP share declined, so did its share of world trade, which may reduce U.S. influence in setting the rules for international trade.
It's not clear what cutting Medicare would do about China's rapid rise. Poorer countries tend to grow faster than richer ones -- that is, they converge -- and that won't change regardless of whether we raise the eligibility age for Medicare or not. And besides, a richer China (and India, and Brazil, and ...) is good for us, if not our power, since it means more markets for our goods. It's odd that the same people who argue against progressive taxation because growth isn't zero-sum take a decidedly different view when it comes to international growth.
This entire debate is a bit surreal. Nobody disputes that healthcare spending, including Medicare, is on an unsustainable trajectory. It's a matter of what to do to "bend the curve" and when to do it. Scarborough wants to increase the eligibility age, and he doesn't think it can wait, because ... well, it's not clear why. He's not saying anything bond investors don't already know, and yet the inflation-adjusted yield on the 30-year bond is only 0.61 percent. If Scarborough is right and bond investors are wrong, then there's a tremendous money-making opportunity in shorting long-term bonds. I wonder if he has the courage of this particular conviction.
But there's another reason, quiescent bond vigilantes aside, for waiting to deal with our long-term debt. We need more time to figure out how to do it. If we knew how to slow healthcare inflation, we would have slowed healthcare inflation. But we don't. Now, Obamacare introduced payment reforms and death panels IPAB to try to restrain spending, but we don't know if or how much they'll work, though there are some hopeful signs. The CBO just reported that healthcare spending has slowed so much the past few years that it's revised down projected federal healthcare spending by $200 billion over the rest of the decade -- or $50 billion more than raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67 would save. In other words, the things we know how to do won't save that much, and the things we don't know how to do might save much more. That's why we should play for more time.
Our elites are good at manufacturing crises, if nothing else, but Scarborough can't manufacture a debt crisis today. Markets won't cooperate -- and with good reason. They're more concerned about growth than debt, because they've done the math and realize the former is the only solution to the latter.
Don't tell anyone, but Powerpoint might have been involved.
The Republican front-runner’s repetition of a blatantly ridiculous story about Ted Cruz’s father shows his symbiotic relationship with the press.
Brace yourselves for shock, but Donald Trump said something ridiculous and baseless Tuesday morning. The subject was Rafael Cruz, Cuban-born father of his primary remaining rival, Senator Ted Cruz.
“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald's being—you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Trump said during a phone interview with Fox News. “What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. I mean, they don't even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.”
Let’s clear a few things up: It has been reported, which is why Trump knows about it, but it was reported in the National Enquirer. Also there is no evidence for it; it’s bogus. Yes, the National Enquirer has been right about some things in the past, most notably John Edwards’s affair; no, that does not prove that it is right about this.
Journalists and policy makers can have a hard time describing the economy when "average" departs so markedly from what's normal.
There is an easy story to tell about the Obama Recovery. Devastated by a financial crash, the U.S. launched a historic comeback. The private sector added jobs in 73 consecutive months, the longest stretch ever. Unemployment is lower today than in the month Reagan left office. Real GDP has grown more than 13 percent since its most-recent low in 2009, Obama’s first year in office. That’s more than twice as much growth as in some western European countries, like France. Compared to how countries typically perform after financial crises, the United States has “probably managed this better than any large economy on Earth in modern history,” President Obama toldThe New York Times Magazine.
But there is an opposite story that is attracting widespread support and millions of votes: The recovery is a failure. Donald Trump is an IMAX projection of white working-class grievances, calling America “a third-world country.” Bernie Sanders’s supporters describe a country where poverty and financial insecurity are not bugs but rather features of a rigged economy. The pessimistic style is not niche: Trump and Sanders have amassed a combined 16 million votes.
The billionaire’s bid for the nomination was opposed by many insiders—but his success reveals the ascendance of other elements of the party coalition.
In The Party Decides, an influential book about how presidential nominees are selected, political scientists John Zaller, Hans Noel, David Karol, and Marty Cohen argue that despite reforms designed to wrest control of the process from insiders at smoke-filled nominating conventions, political parties still exert tremendous influence on who makes it to general elections. They do so partly through “invisible primaries,” the authors posited—think of how the Republican establishment coalesced around George W. Bush in 2000, long before any ballots were cast, presenting him as a fait accompli to voters who’d scarcely started to think about the election; or how insider Democrats elevated Hillary Clinton this election cycle.
Rampant drug use in Austin, Indiana—coupled with unemployment and poor living conditions—brought on a public-health crisis that some are calling a “syndemic.”
Jessica and Darren McIntosh were too busy to see me when I arrived at their house one Sunday morning. When I returned later, I learned what they’d been busy with: arguing with a family member, also an addict, about a single pill of prescription painkiller she’d lost, and injecting meth to get by in its absence. Jessica, 30, and Darren, 24, were children when they started using drugs. Darren smoked his first joint when he was 12 and quickly moved on to snorting pills. “By the time I was 13, I was a full-blown pill addict, and I have been ever since,” he said. By age 14, he’d quit school. When I asked where his caregivers were when he started using drugs, he laughed. “They’re the ones that was giving them to me,” he alleged. “They’re pill addicts, too.”
The comedian's n-bomb at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner highlights a generational shift in black culture.
Georgia McDowell was born the daughter of farmers and teachers in North Carolina in 1902. She was my great-grandmother, and she taught me to read, despite the dementia that clouded her mind and the dyslexia that interrupted mine. I loved Miss Georgia, though she kept as many hard lines in her home as she had in her classrooms. One of the hardest lines was common to many black households: The word “nigger” and all of its derivatives were strict taboos in person, on television, and on radio from any source, black or otherwise, so long as she lived and breathed. She’d kept the taboo through decades of teaching black students and raising black children. For most of my childhood, the taboo was absolute.
For some, abandoning expensive urban centers would be a huge financial relief.
Neal Gabler has been a formative writer for me: His Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity was one of the books that led me to think about leaving scholarship behind and write nonfiction instead, and Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was the first book I reviewed as a freelance writer. To me, he exemplifies the best mix of intensive archival research and narrative kick.
So reading his recent essay, "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans," was a gut punch: First, I learned about a role model of mine whose talent, in my opinion, should preclude him from financial woes. And, then, I was socked by narcissistic outrage: I, too, struggle with money! I, too, am a failing middle-class American! I, too, am a writer of nonfiction who should be better compensated!
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
When Apple announced in 2013 that its next iPhone would include a fingerprint reader, it touted the feature as a leap forward in security. Many people don’t set up a passcode on their phones, Apple SVP Phil Schiller said at the keynote event where the Touch ID sensor was unveiled, but making security easier and faster might convince more users to protect their phones. (Of course, Apple wasn’t the first to stuff a fingerprint reader into a flagship smartphone, but the iPhone’s Touch ID took the feature mainstream.)
The system itself proved quite secure—scanned fingerprints are stored, encrypted, and processed locally rather than being sent to Apple for verification—but the widespread use of fingerprint data to unlock iPhones worried some experts. One of the biggest questions that hung over the transition was legal rather than technical: How might a fingerprint-secured iPhone be treated in a court of law?
A claymation video with a grim plot line accompanies a blessedly straightforward if nerve-wracking tune.
Radiohead’s music often works like a puzzle, and it’s not clear whether many people ever solved the one posed by their 2011 album, The King of Limbs, whose funereal swirl only fleetingly provided the beauty and pop payoff that defined the band’s previous work.
Today’s new Radiohead song, “Burn the Witch,” blessedly does not hide its power. Sonically novel yet viscerally moving, gorgeous yet terrifying, it is the sound of Radiohead returning to do what it exists to do. The video is a claymation retelling of The Wicker Man, in which a police officer arrives at a town that is—spoiler alert!—secretly preparing to burn him in a ritual sacrifice. Thom York’s lyrics speak of the kind of mass action and complacency that allows such a crime and, the logic probably goes, many other cruelties committed by societies.