Ben Bernanke listened to his critics, but the recovery is still stuck. What went wrong?
To print or not to print? That is the question dividing the Federal Reserve.
Back in September the Fed launched its latest, and most ambitious, bond-buying program to date, dubbed QE3. Unlike before, the Fed hasn't committed to buying a specific dollar amount of bonds with QE3; instead, it's committed to buying $85 billion of bonds a month until the labor market improves "substantially". But what's "substantial" and what's not? And what if the Fed loses its nerve before the economy arrives at this mysterious moment of "substantial" improvement?
This latter question has gripped markets after the Fed's January meeting when "a number" of members said it should "taper" its bond purchases even before, you guessed it, there's any substantial improvement in unemployment. In other words, an increasing, and increasingly vocal, minority at the Fed are nervous about keeping open-ended bond-buying quite so open-ended. Now, a vocal minority is still a minority -- and besides, Bernanke tends to get his way -- but this hawkish talk has been enough to spook markets that thought QE3 wouldn't end much before 2014.
But there's a better question than how long QE3 will last. That's how much QE3 will work. Let's back up for a minute. Whether you want to call it "quantitative easing" (QE) or "bond-buying" or "large-scale asset purchases" (LSAP), the idea here is fairly simple: the Fed is printing money and buying pieces of paper. It's doing this because it can't boost the economy like it normally does by cutting short-term interest rates; those rates are stuck at zero, and can't go lower. Okay, that's not entirely true. The Fed can't cut nominal rates now, but it can cut real ones -- in other words, it can push up inflation, thereby reducing inflation-adjusted borrowing costs. That's what the Fed has done by printing money and buying long-term bonds from banks. Even if this freshly-printed money ends up as bank reserves (which it mostly has), the Fed is signaling that it wants more inflation.
Take a look at the chart below of what markets (roughly) think will happen with inflation over the next 5 years, annotated with the Fed's unconventional policies. Markets expect more inflation every time the Fed eases, and less every time it stops ... until QE3. Then, almost nothing. That's crazy. QE3 is open-ended, whereas previous rounds were not. This difference should have convinced markets that this time the Fed was really serious about jump-starting the recovery. Has QE hit a wall of diminishing returns? (Note: The black line shows the Fed's 2 percent inflation target).
Look again, but this time, focus on the black line. QE has hit a wall, but it's a wall of incredibly well-anchored inflation expectations, not diminishing returns. In other words, the Fed has quite easily been able to push inflation expectations back up to its 2 percent target, but no more. QE1 and QE2 had big effects, because they came when expected inflation was well below 2 percent and falling; QE3 has not, because expected inflation was already around 2 percent.
But wait. The Fed unveiled the Evans rule back in December, telling us it wouldn't raise rates before unemployment falls to 6.5 percent or inflation rises to 2.5 percent. In other words, isn't the Fed's 2 percent inflation target really a 2.5 percent inflation target now? Not exactly. The Fed is telling us it will tolerate 2.5 percent inflation, not that it will create it -- indeed, the Fed doesn't think inflation will stray at all above 2 percent over the next few years.
The best way to figure out what the Fed wants is to listen. After all, it tells us what it thinks will happen with GDP, unemployment, and inflation over 1, 2, and 3-year periods. Now, it's GDP and unemployment predictions have been, in the spirit of generosity, a tad optimistic, but not so for inflation (which, not-so-coincidentally, is the only above variable the Fed controls directly). The chart below looks at the Fed's core PCE inflation projections since late 2008; upper-range estimates for 1, 2, and 3-year periods are in red, and lower ranges ones are in blue. This is what a 2 percent inflation ceiling looks like.
There's a lot going on here, but there's a depressingly simple message in this chart: QE3 isn't working, because the Fed doesn't want it to work. The Fed revised its inflation projections up after QE1 and QE2, and markets followed; the Fed has kept its inflation projections steady after QE3, and, again, markets have followed. Now, this doesn't mean QE3 is entirely useless -- it's at least stopping inflation expectations from falling -- just that it could be doing much more if the Fed let it. That would be simple enough. The Fed could make its forecasts symmetrical around 2 percent, rather than peaking at 2 percent. Or it could say it expected (or is that wanted?) inflation well above 2 percent over the next two years, but not after that; in other words, make its target more explicitly flexible.
That leaves us with one last question. The Fed has shown time and again it can push inflation expectations (which largely determine inflation) up to 2 percent, even when short-term rates are parked at zero. But is that as much inflation as the Fed can create? It's hard to see why that would be the case, other than the Fed's self-imposed 2 percent ceiling. But the great thing about self-imposed problems is you can stop imposing them. The Fed doesn't need a new mandate (like NGDP targeting) to speed up the recovery; it just needs to tell us it wants -- gasp! -- 3 percent inflation for a year or two.
Until then, the recovery will suffer the outrageous slings and arrows of our 2 percent ceiling.
The president-elect borrows an idea from his predecessor, using his bully pulpit to take on Boeing and a costly new set of wings.
One of the sacrifices Donald Trump will have to make upon taking the oath of office is that the famous creature-of-comfort will have to give up his own gold-plated airplane for a bigger, far costlier one: Air Force One.
But Trump wants the public to know that he’s not particularly happy about it. In fact, he wants to scrap plans to upgrade the presidential fleet entirely, as a money-saving move. “Cancel order!” decreed the president-elect on Tuesday morning.
Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!
Trump elaborated on his criticism in a brief exchange with reporters at Trump Tower: “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I think Boeing is doing a little bit of a number. We want Boeing to make a lot of money, but not that much money.”
In the four weeks since the election, which seem like four centuries, Donald Trump has dominated the news and done real strategic and economic damage with his stream of intemperate tweets. For a reckoning of the chaos that his tweets about Taiwan and China have already induced, please see these Atlantic items: by Uri Friedman with Shen Dengli, by David Graham, by Chris Bodenner, and by Isaac Stone Fish, with links to many other analyses. The harm he petulantly inflicted today on Boeing, a company that is perennially the United States’s leading exporter and one of its most important high-tech manufacturing employers and standard-setters, is only the latest and most flagrant illustration.
To many white Trump voters, the problem wasn’t her economic stance, but the larger vision—a multi-ethnic social democracy—that it was a part of.
Perhaps the clearest takeaway from the November election for many liberals is that Hillary Clinton lost because she ignored the working class.
In the days after her shocking loss, Democrats complained that Clinton had no jobs agenda. A widely shared essay in The Nationblamed Clinton's "neoliberalism" for abandoning the voters who swung the election. “I come from the white working class,” Bernie Sanders said on CBS This Morning, “and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.”
But here is the troubling reality for civically minded liberals looking to justify their preferred strategies: Hillary Clinton talked about the working class, middle class jobs, and the dignity of work constantly. And she still lost.
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
The Nebraska state government, realizing the tremendous mistake it had made, held a special session of the legislature to rewrite the law in order to add an age limitation. Governor Dave Heineman said the change would "put the focus back on the original intent of these laws, which is saving newborn babies and exempting a parent from prosecution for child abandonment. It should also prevent those outside the state from bringing their children to Nebraska in an attempt to secure services."
The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us restrain ourselves.
You’ve likely seen the video before: a stream of kids, confronted with a single, alluring marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they’ll get two. Some do. Others cave almost immediately.
This “Marshmallow Test,” first conducted in the 1960s, perfectly illustrates the ongoing war between impulsivity and self-control. The kids have to tamp down their immediate desires and focus on long-term goals—an ability that correlates with their later health, wealth, and academic success, and that is supposedly controlled by the front part of the brain. But a new study by Alexander Soutschek at the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is also influenced by another brain region—and one that casts this ability in a different light.
Trump's election has reopened questions that have long seemed settled in America—including the acceptability of open discrimination against minority groups.
When Stephen Bannon called his website, Breitbart, the “platform for the alt-right” this summer, he was referring to a movement that promotes white nationalism and argues that the strength of the United States is tied to its ethnic European roots. Its members mostly stick to trolling online, but much of what they do isn’t original or new: Their taunts often involve vicious anti-Semitism. They make it clear that Jews are not included in their vision of a perfect, white, ethno-state.
On the opposite side of American politics, many progressive groups are preparing to mount a rebellion against Donald Trump. They see solidarity among racial minorities as their goal, and largely blame Trump’s election on racism and white supremacy. Three-quarters of American Jews voted against Trump, and many support this progressive vision. Some members of these groups, though, have singled out particular Jews for their collusion with oppressive power—criticisms which range from inflammatory condemnations of Israel to full-on conspiracies about global Jewish media and banking cabals.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
A Chinese scholar argues that the U.S. shouldn’t touch Taiwan—just like China wouldn’t back separatists in Texas or Hawaii.
Shortly after news broke of Donald Trump’s phone call with the head of Taiwan—the first direct communication between American and Taiwanese leaders in 37 years—one of the leading Chinese scholars of U.S.-China relations offered a stunning proposal: If the U.S. president-elect took similar actions as president, the Chinese government should suspend the world’s most important (and precarious) partnership. “I would close our embassy in Washington and withdraw our diplomats,” said Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. “I would be perfectly happy to end the relationship.”
What made the recommendation especially notable was that, just days earlier, Shen had been arguing that Trump’s victory was good for China—much better than the election of Hillary Clinton would have been. So what was it about the Taiwan call that had so quickly soured Shen on Trump? Where did he now think the U.S.-China relationship was headed, and what might that mean for the wider world?
The HBO drama’s finale hinted at a dark, meta message.
This post contains spoilers for the season finale of Westworld.
In 2013, a widely cited study published in Science suggested that reading literature increases a person ability to understand other peoples’ emotions. In 2016, another study seemed to debunk it, finding the original study’s results irreplicable and its resulting media coverage way too broad. “Reading Literature Won’t Give You Superpowers,” went The Atlantic’s headline from last week about the reversal.
It might seem laughable in the first place for anyone to think literature bestows superpowers. But that’s actually one of the more abiding beliefs of popular culture, and the question of whether stories improve the soul and mind—and better humanity more broadly—remains eternally in dispute. It’s a question that HBO’s Westworld has riffed on for 10 episodes, with the popular drama’s finale last night suggesting a cynical take on the social value of storytelling.
In two high-profile trials—those of Officers Michael Slager and Ray Tensing—juries declined to hold cops accountable for taking the lives of civilians.
How could the trial have ended in anything but a conviction?
On April 4, 2015, the 50-year-old black motorist was pulled over in North Charleston, South Carolina, to address a broken brake light—a matter that inanely requires citizens to submit to impromptu interactions with armed agents of the state, despite the risk roadside stops pose to the safety of motorists and police officers.
The motorist, Walter Scott, unlawfully fled on foot from his 1991 Mercedes. Then Officer Michael Slager, who executed the traffic stop, pursued him on foot, drew his weapon, and shot the unarmed man in the back as he ran away. A passerby captured what appeared to be a murder on his mobile phone camera, thought about erasing it for fear of his own safety, but decided to come forward after details of the video contradicted the police report that the officer in the case filed.