The only way to close the budget deficit is to close the jobs deficit
It's State of the Union season, which means it's time for the usual suspects to tell President Obama to "go big" on the deficit. Never mind that jobs, not the deficit, top voters' list of priorities, or that austerity has failed everywhere it's been tried recently (includinghere). It's always a good time to lament the lack of bipartisan golf-playing and call for a grand bargain.
But what exactly makes a bargain grand in Washington? It's not just a matter of trading spending cuts for higher taxes. If it were, the combination of the sequester and the fiscal cliff tax deal would count. No, it has to be a specific kind of spending cut. It has to be a cut to social insurance. That's what Obama has offered with chained CPI, which cuts Social Security and raises taxes by using a lower measure of inflation to calculate benefits and brackets, but Republicans and centrist pundits don't think that's enough. They want Obama to increase the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 too. Now, this sounds like the kind of "painful choice" that will put us on the path to fiscal sustainability, but it's not. The Congressional Budget Office figures it will only save about $150 billion over a decade, while, as Matthew Yglesias of Slate points out, costing patients twice that much. (If every state implements Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, it might not be regressive; just wasteful.).
In other words, it's inefficient savings that wouldn't even save all that much.
But wait. What are we even talking about? Are we worried about today's deficit or tomorrow's deficit? Today's deficit is about unemployment, full stop. Tomorrow's deficit is about rising healthcare costs amidst an aging society. These problems have nothing to do with each other. Which one are we trying to solve right now?
Okay, wait again. I can hear you saying But the deficit is about too much spending, not too much unemployment. And that brings us to the most important chart about the deficit you'll ever see. As Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider points out with the graph below of (inverted) surplus-or-deficit-as-a-share-of-GDP and unemployment, there's historically been a pretty correlation between them. Whether unemployment spikes or recedes, deficits follow.
(Note: The blue line shows the surplus-or-deficit-as-share-of-GDP inverted, and the red line shows the unemployment rate).
Unemployment isn't just a human disaster. It's a fiscal one too. Higher unemployment means lower tax revenue, and higher spending on safety net programs like food stamps -- that is, bigger deficits. And that means bringing down unemployment is the only way to bring down the deficit. Trying to slash the deficit during a depression -- in other words, a liquidity trap -- will only make unemployment worse, and hence leave the deficit little, if at all, better (and perhaps worse). This is hardly a novel insight. As Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute discovered, John Maynard Keynes said as much all the way back in 1933, when he said policymakers just need to "look after unemployment, and the Budget will look after itself."
In other words, unemployment hawks are the real deficit hawks.
There's an irony here. The people who care about the deficit in the long run want to increase it in the short run. (As Brad DeLong asks, who said Keynes didn't care about the long run?). More infrastructure spending, more payroll tax cuts, and more debt writedowns and refinancings are the best ways to put people back to work now that the Fed is doing about as much as it's going to do (though it should do more). All of those things mean bigger deficits today, but bigger deficits today are worth a recovery tomorrow.
And no, austerity would not be some kind of magical elixir -- a stimulant, if you will -- for "confidence". With interest rates stuck at zero, austerity has only hurt growth wherever it's been tried the past few years. The evidence on this from Europe is quite clear, but here's some more, from our side of the pond: Atif Mian of Princeton and Amir Sufi of the University of Chicago recently looked at state-level data in the U.S., and found that too little aggregate demand, not too much uncertainty, is what's holding the economy back today. In other words, businesses are worried where their customers are going to come from, not where their taxes are going to go. Trying to cut our way to confidence won't help when that isn't the problem. It will only make our real problem -- too little demand -- worse.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't worry about long-term healthcare costs. It's just not clear how much we should worry about it. As former OMB director Peter Orszag points out, national healthcare inflation slowed to 3.8 percent in 2012 after annually increasing by more than 10 percent much of the preceding decade. Now, as Annie Lowrey of The New York Times explains, it's something of a mystery what is going on here-- is this slowdown just due to the Great Recession, or is it something else? -- but the takeaway is we have to bit more time than we thought to figure out how to keep bending the cost curve.
There are three, hardly mutually exclusive, endgames when it comes to containing healthcare costs: (1) the cost-controls in Obamacare, like IPAB, work; (2) the government uses Medicare's bargaining power to negotiate better prices from doctors and drug-makers; or (3) the government voucherizes Medicare, and hopes competition keeps prices down. This last option sounds great -- who doesn't like competition? -- but, as economist Kenneth Arrow famously argued, the healthcare market doesn't work like other markets. "Consumers" -- that is, patients -- don't exactly have the expertise to shop around for the best deal on, say, heart surgery. Nor do they decide what to pay for. Insurers do that. There's little empirical reason to expect big savings out of increased competition -- with plenty of potential downside if the vouchers don't turn out to be generous enough.
This is the debate over Medicare's future, not whether to increase the eligibility or not. But it's tomorrow's debate. Today's debate is what we can do to put people back to work. The former is hard enough, without making it a pre-condition for solving the latter.
Jobs are the only thing that will make the state of our deficit better.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
As the Vermont senator gains momentum, Claire McCaskill rushes to the frontrunner’s defense.
Obscured by the recent avalanche of momentous news is this intriguing development from the campaign trail: The Hillary Clinton campaign now considers Bernie Sanders threatening enough to attack. Fresh off news that Sanders is now virtually tied with Hillary in New Hampshire, Claire McCaskill went on Morning Joe on June 25 to declare that “the media is giving Bernie a pass … they’re not giving the same scrutiny to Bernie that they’re certainly giving to Hillary.”
The irony here is thick. In 2006, McCaskill said on Meet the Press that while Bill Clinton was a great president, “I don’t want my daughter near him.” Upon hearing the news, according to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book Game Change, Hillary exclaimed, “Fuck her,” and cancelled a fundraiser for the Missouri senator. McCaskill later apologized to Bill Clinton, and was wooed intensely by Hillary during the 2008 primaries. But she infuriated the Clintons again by endorsing Barack Obama. In their book HRC, Aimee Parnes and Jonathan Allen write that, “‘Hate’ is too weak a word to describe the feelings that Hillary’s core loyalists still have for McCaskill.”
In the United States, when an unmarried man has a baby, his partner can give it up without his consent—unless he happens to know about an obscure system called the responsible father registry.
Christopher Emanuel first met his girlfriend in the fall of 2012, when they were both driving forklifts at a warehouse in Trenton, South Carolina. She was one of a handful of women on the job; she was white and he was black. She ignored him at first, and Emanuel saw it as a challenge. It took multiple attempts to get her phone number. He says he “wasn’t lonely, but everybody wants somebody. Nothing wrong with being friends.”
Emanuel, who is now 25, describes himself as a non-discriminatory flirt. He was popular in high school and a state track champion. According to the Aiken High School 2008 yearbook, he was voted “Most Attractive” and “Best Dressed.” Even his former English teacher Francesca Pataro describes him as a “ray of sunshine.” Emanuel says he’s “talked”—euphemistically speaking—with a lot of women: “Black, Puerto Rican, Egyptian, and Vietnamese.” But before he met this girlfriend, he says, he had never seriously dated a white girl.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
New data shows that students whose parents make less money pursue more “useful” subjects, such as math or physics.
In 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he laid out his plans for what his children and grandchildren would devote their lives to. Having himself taken the time to master “Politicks and War,” two revolutionary necessities, Adams hoped his children would go into disciplines that promoted nation-building, such as “mathematicks,” “navigation,” and “commerce.” His plan was that in turn, those practical subjects would give his children’s children room “to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”
Two-hundred and thirty-five years later, this progression—“from warriors to dilettantes,” in the words of the literary scholar Geoffrey Galt Harpham—plays out much as Adams hoped it would: Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.
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.
Most adults can’t remember much of what happened to them before age 3 or so. What happens to the memories formed in those earliest years?
My first memory is of the day my brother was born: November 14, 1991. I can remember my father driving my grandparents and me over to the hospital in Highland Park, Illinois, that night to see my newborn brother. I can remember being taken to my mother’s hospital room, and going to gaze upon my only sibling in his bedside cot. But mostly, I remember what was on the television. It was the final two minutes of a Thomas the Tank Engine episode. I can even remember the precise story: “Percy Takes the Plunge,” which feels appropriate, given that I too was about to recklessly throw myself into the adventure of being a big brother.
In sentimental moments, I’m tempted to say my brother’s birth is my first memory because it was the first thing in my life worth remembering. There could be a sliver of truth to that: Research into the formation and retention of our earliest memories suggests that people’s memories often begin with significant personal events, and the birth of a sibling is a textbook example. But it was also good timing. Most people’s first memories date to when they were about 3.5 years old, and that was my age, almost to the day, when my brother was born.
Harsh crackdowns provoke suspicion and mistrust within the very communities whose cooperation police require.
How do you prevent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants?
Parodoxically, America doesn’t need even more intensified efforts to aggressively hunt down unlawful immigrants and deport them. What it needs is a path to citizenship.
This past weekend, an undocumented immigrant who had reportedly been deported on five previous occasions shot and killed a woman in a busy part of San Francisco. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who had previously made waves for suggesting that most Mexican immigrants were drug dealers and rapists, doubled down in the wake of the San Francisco homicide. Trump argued the shooting provided “yet another example of why we must secure our border.”
And while some in the GOP field took exception to Trump’s remarks, Senator Ted Cruz supported Trump’s conclusion. “I salute Donald Trump for focusing on the need to address illegal immigration,” said Cruz before attacking the idea of immigration reform.
A team of Australian researchers want to protect surfers by dressing them in zebra stripes.
To understand why so many people are drawn to deadly creatures of the deep, look to the quote by the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson: “We are not afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them … We love our monsters.”
The best example of this paradox: Even as shark attacks have spiked off the coast of the Carolinas this year, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week kicked off this weekend with the most programming hours in its history. People should be at least a little afraid of sharks, it seems, yet they can’t get enough of them.
Perhaps that explains why surfers brave shark-invested waters again and again in search of the perfect wave—and suffer some of the most gruesome shark attacks as a result. After hearing about a rash of shark attacks—five of them fatal—in Western Australia a few years ago, the kitesurfer and entrepreneur Hamish Jolly began exploring ways to protect ocean-sport enthusiasts without forcing them to get out of the water.