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.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
ASPEN, Colo.—At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
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.
The social network learns more about its users than they might realize.
Facebook, you may have noticed, turned into a rainbow-drenched spectacle following the Supreme Court’s decision Friday that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right.
By overlaying their profile photos with a rainbow filter, Facebook users began celebrating in a way we haven't seen since March 2013, when 3 million peoplechanged their profile images to a red equals sign—the logo of the Human Rights Campaign—as a way to support marriage equality. This time, Facebook provided a simple way to turn profile photos rainbow-colored. More than 1 million people changed their profile in the first few hours, according to the Facebook spokesperson William Nevius, and the number continues to grow.
“This is probably a Facebook experiment!” joked the MIT network scientist Cesar Hidalgo on Facebook yesterday. “This is one Facebook study I want to be included in!” wrote Stacy Blasiola, a communications Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois, when she changed her profile.
The question is at the center of the Greek crisis.
In 1961, the economist Robert Mundell published a paper laying out, per the title, “A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas.” In it, he inquired about the appropriate geographic extent of a shared unit of money. Was it the world? A country? Part of a country? A border-spanning region of, say, the western parts of the United States and Canada, with a separate currency circulating in the eastern parts of the two countries?
“It might seem at first that the question is purely academic,” he wrote, “since it hardly seems within the realm of political feasibility that national currencies would ever be abandoned in favor of any other arrangement.” But it was worth considering anyway, in part because “certain parts of the world are undergoing processes of economic integration and disintegration,” and an idea of what an “optimum currency area” would look like could help “clarify the meaning of these experiments.”
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
The country's inability to pay its debt or reach a deal makes it the largest nation in history to be in arrears to the IMF.
What happens now?
Greece’s missed payment to the IMF is a milestone—it’s both the first time a developed country has missed such a payment, and the first time a Eurozone country has defaulted on its debt. (Or it’s “in arrears”—as Bouree Lam explains below, the IMF isn’t using consistent terminology.)
But that doesn’t mean automatic expulsion from the Eurozone. Yanis Varoufakis, the country’s finance minister, made the case on his blog three years ago that “a defaulted Greece can easily remain in the Eurozone,” and that in fact “Europe’s optimal strategy is to let Greece default.” The Lisbon Treaty, which forms the legal basis of the European Union, actually makes no provision for a member’s expulsion. A 2009 legal analysis by the ECB found that, “while perhaps feasible through indirect means, a Member State’s expulsion from the EU or EMU [the European Monetary Union], would be legally next to impossible.”
As sunny and smiley as gyms’ front-desk employees can be, they’re covering up a secret that keeps the industry going: Once you’ve signed up for a membership, they don’t want you to come in very often.
In fact, gyms are set up to entice the type of customer who will prepay for months or years and then rarely show up. In order to make money, private clubs need to bring in about 10 times as many members as their weight and cardio rooms can accommodate at any given time. This fact ends up shaping the way gyms are designed as physical spaces. In order to attract the type of people who will buy a membership but probably never work out with any regularity, designers give gyms sleek, hotel-like lobbies where membership paperwork is handled. Meanwhile, the intimidating equipment is kept in the back, out of sight—along with the sometimes intimidating brutes who grunt while using them.
The second episode of the new season was a slow burner with a dramatic twist.
Let’s start at the beginning, with Frank in bed with his wife, Jordan, discussing water stains on the ceiling and childhood entombments. I don’t know about you guys, but I found this whole bit slack and familiar. Maybe there was a two-minute scene in there, but five? Maybe a more charismatic actor could have pulled off that lengthy monologue. But Vince Vaughn is no Robert Shaw, and his childhood basement is no U.S.S. Indianapolis.
The star has been accused of having a “large blind spot” on issues of race—but testing the boundaries of jokes is part of the process of stand-up.
There’s a fine line in comedy between subversive and offensive, and with every meteoric rise from stand-up to film and television stardom these days, there tends to be controversy over whether or not that line has ever been crossed. Amy Schumer, whose Comedy Central sketch show Inside Amy Schumer has been dominating the Internet on a weekly basis since its third season debuted in April, and who stars in the upcoming Judd Apatow comedy Trainwreck, is the latest figure to experience the pitfalls of being under such sharp scrutiny. A recent profile of Schumer in The Guardian by Monica Heisey, although largely positive, criticizes the comedian for having a “shockingly large blind spot” on race—and cites some clunky jokes she’s made about Latinos as examples.
The power in the president’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney came not from his singing, but from the silence that preceded it.
Coverage of the memorial service held for Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston last week focused largely on the surprising moment when the leader of the free world broke into song. That song, of course, was “Amazing Grace” and the president sang it distinctly in the style of the black church.
For all the attention Obama’s unexpected performance received, though, it’s worth taking another look at the “Amazing Grace” clip, this time watching for the silence. His singing seems to be a release of the collective tension that had been building for a week after the Emanuel A.M.E. shooting. But the preceding pause seems to hold its hearers captive. Though he is frequently interrupted with cheers and amens throughout his eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, the pause he takes 35 minutes into the speech is easily the longest break from the text before him.