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 most personally moving, and most fundamentally patriotic, moment of the Democratic National Convention was the appearance by the bereaved parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, and the statement about the meaning of their son’s life and death, and about the Constitution, by Mr. Khizr Khan.
After Khizr Khan spoke, politicians and commentators on most networks said they were moved, humbled, inspired, choked up. (Commentators on Fox did not say these things, because their coverage cut away from the Khans for Brit Hume and Megyn Kelly, plus a Benghazi ad.)
How the election looks to backers of the Republican nominee
Perhaps the hardest thing to do in contemporary American politics is to imagine how the world looks from the other side. I’ve made no secret of why, as a Republican, I oppose Donald Trump and what he stands for. But I’ve also been talking to his supporters and advisors, trying to understand how they see and hear the same things that I do, and draw such very different conclusions. What follows isn’t a transcription—it’s a synthesis of the conversations I’ve had, and the insights I’ve gleaned, presented in the voice of an imagined Trump supporter.
“You people in the Acela corridor aren’t getting it. Again. You think Donald Trump is screwing up because he keeps saying things that you find offensive or off-the-wall. But he’s not talking to you. You’re not his audience, you never were, and you never will be. He’s playing this game in a different way from anybody you’ve ever seen. And he’s winning too, in a different way from anybody you’ve ever seen.
Not the people—the term. How generational divisions have driven down voter turnout over the last century of American politics.
Throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential election, pundits and activists have debated how to get more Millennials involved in politics, always stressing their distinctive character. But it was actually this tendency to slice up the electorate into unique generations that drove young people from politics in the first place.
In the 19th century, children, youths, and adults “mingled freely together” at rowdy campaign rallies, lured by the holy trinity of booze, barbecue, and bonfire. Older citizens introduced young people to politics, helping to drive voter turnouts to their highest levels in U.S. history. “It’s the ‘big fellow,’” observed the Republicans canvassing in pool halls and saloons in the 1880s, who does the best job getting “the ‘little fellow”’ into politics.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Last night, in her overall very successful acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton said with ruthless precision about her opponent:
Ask yourself: Does Donald Trump have the temperament to be Commander-in-Chief?
Donald Trump can't even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign.
He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. When he's gotten a tough question from a reporter. When he's challenged in a debate. When he sees a protestor at a rally.
Emphasis added, as it was in her delivery:
Imagine—if you dare, imagine—imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.
I can’t put it any better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban Missile Crisis. She said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started—not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men—the ones moved by fear and pride.
A collection of books recommended by The Atlantic’s editors and writers
The Atlantic’s editors and writers share their recommendations for summer reading—new titles, old favorites, and others in between.
By Yaa Gyasi
In her first novel, Yaa Gyasi cleverly weaves the intergenerational tale of a family through a series of short, but interrelated stories set in what’s now Ghana during the mid-18th century. The two women at the center of the novel, Effia and Esi, are half-sisters who wind up on vastly different paths. One is captured during a battle between tribes, sold, and winds up on a slave ship bound for the U.S. The other—separated from her village and married off to a British slaver—ends up living on top of the dungeons that hold her own kin and hundreds of others who would also become slaves. The novel traces the lineage of these women through the tales of their children, and their children’s children, and so on—up until the present day.
Last month, my wife and I found ourselves in a disagreement about whether or not our apartment was clean enough for guests—the type of medium-sized disagreement that likely plagues all close relationships. In the midst of it, there was a lull and, feeling exhausted all of a sudden, I got up and left the living room. In the bedroom, I immediately fell face down into the sheets. The next thing I knew it was 20 minutes later and my wife was shaking me awake. I hadn’t meant to fall asleep; I just felt so fatigued in that moment that there was nothing else I could do.
This wasn’t new for me. A few weeks earlier, I had come into conflict with an acquaintance over some money. We were exchanging tense emails while I was at my office, and I began to feel the slow oozing onset of sleep, the same tiredness that came on when, as a child, I rode in the backseat of the car on the way home from some undesired trip. A sleepiness that overtakes the body slowly but surely and feels entirely outside of your control.
It’s a staple in American homes, but at what environmental cost?
As Hurricane Katrina raged through New Orleans in 2005, neighborhood after neighborhood collapsed from flooding. Of the houses that stood, many still had to be bulldozed due to mold within the walls. But one building, a plantation-home-turned-museum on Moss Street built two centuries before the disaster, was left almost entirely unscathed.
“The Pitot house was built the old way, with plaster walls,” says Steve Mouzon, an architect who helped rebuild the city after the hurricane. “When the flood came, the museum moved the furniture upstairs. Afterwards, they simply hosed the walls—no harm done.”
The other houses weren’t built the old way. “All the homes around the Pitot house were lost because they were built with drywall,” says Mouzon.
Learning how to bond with my daughter, who found comfort in the familiarity of being alone, has come through understanding reactive attachment disorder.
My hands hover over the computer keyboard. They are trembling. I hold down the shift key and type the words with intention, saying each letter aloud: “R-e-a-c-t-i-v-e A-t-t-a-c-h-m-e-n-t D-i-s-o-r-d-e-r.” The words “reactive attachment disorder” are memory beads I gather into a pile and attempt to string along on a necklace.
I think back to when Judith, my neighbor who is a psychiatrist, offhandedly threw out the term the first time she met Julia. We were talking about babies who start their lives in orphanages, and she mentioned the disorder. She wasn't suggesting that my daughter Julia showed any signs, but she’d said it was a well-known problem with children who’d been adopted from Romanian orphanages in the '80s and '90s. I remember nodding my head and thinking, Shut up, Judith. We got Julia young. It shouldn't be an issue.
A federal appeals court finds the impact of the state’s voting law can only be explained by “discriminatory intent.”
Updated on July 29 at 9:30 p.m.
DURHAM, N.C.—The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down key portions of North Carolina’s strict 2013 voting law on Friday, delivering a stern rebuke to the state’s Republican General Assembly and Governor Pat McCrory. The three-judge panel in Richmond, Virginia, unanimously concluded that the law was racially discriminatory, and it blocked a requirement that voters show photo identification to vote and restored same-day voter registration, a week of early voting, pre-registration for teenagers, and out-of-precinct voting.
“In what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race—specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise,” wrote Judge Diana Gribbon Motz.