There is no evidence that countries like the United States face debt tipping points
Have you read the opinion section of any newspaper in the last three years? Yes? Then there is a better-than-even chance you have come across some impressive-sounding analyst predict that the United States is "turning into Greece."
Maybe it's been a while, so we'll recap. The short version of this story is that we'll spend ourselves into bankruptcy. The longer version says that too much public debt makes markets nervous. Nervous markets demand higher interest rates. Higher rates mean higher deficits and lower growth, both of which mean more burdensome debt. More burdensome debt makes markets even more nervous. And around and around we go in a vicious circle into insolvency.
As far as scare stories go, this is pretty damn scary. It's also just a story. Rates haven't risen as debt has the last few years; they have fallen to historic lows. Of course, that hasn't stopped the Greek chorus from predicting that the economy is going to Hades. But when? Is it when debt reaches 100 percent of GDP? Or 90 percent, as Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff famously argued?
What about 80 percent?
That was the bright white line drawn in a recent paper by David Greenlaw, James Hamilton, Peter Hooper and Frederic Mishkin. Greenlaw & Co. ran regressions on 20 advanced economies from 2000 to 2011 to see if there's a relationship between a country's borrowing costs one year and its gross debt, net debt, and 5-year current account average the previous one. (Glossary Interlude: Gross debt refers to the total amount of debt, including debt the government owes to itself. Net debt is the amount held by the public, minus any government assets. Current account is the balance of trade, which includes both net exports and net income on foreign investments).
They found a link. By their calculations, the coefficients for gross and net debt were "both highly statistically significant", and increasing both debt levels by 1 percentage point of GDP would increase borrowing costs by 4.5 basis points (or 0.045 percentage points). The coefficient for the current account balance was also highly significant, and decreasing the balance by 1 percentage point of GDP would increase borrowing costs by 18 basis points.
This is a big deal. It's not that this regression equation has much predictive power (the authors admit it doesn't) or that the above 4.5 basis points are all that scary; it's the claim that there's a statistically significant relationship between debt and rates. After all, if Greenlaw & Co. are right about debt tipping points, then we are, technically-speaking, screwed. Our gross debt to GDP is already at 102 percent -- enough to send our borrowing costs soaring, as they predict below.
If they are right.
They almost certainly are not.
WHY WE'RE SPECIAL
[Things are about to get very wonky below, so my editor forced me to sum up things here. The two main conclusions are: (1) For countries that can borrow in their own currency, like the U.S., higher debt doesn't clearly lead to higher interest rates. (2) For countries that don't control their currencies, like Greece, it's borrowing too much from foreigners (NOT borrowing too much in general) that clearly leads to much higher borrowing costs. Okay, forward with the wonkiness... ]
Not all debt is created equal. Countries that borrow in a currency they control play under a different set of rules. They can never run out of money to pay back what they owe, since they can always print what they need as a last resort. That's not to say they actually do or should turn to the printing-press to finance themselves. But the option to do so calms markets. After all, inflation is a lot less bad than default for creditors. That's why it's no so easy for countries that don't borrow in a currency they control. They can default. And this is a case where thinking can make things so. Indeed, as Paul De Grauwe points out, countries that don't have their own central bank, like euro members, can fall victim to self-fulfilling panics that push them into bankruptcy. In other words, markets force up interest rates because they fear default -- which then pushes them into default. It's a bank-run on a country.
So we have to answer one big question. How much of Greenlaw & Co.'s results are driven by euro countries that have completely different debt dynamics than non-euro countries?
Well, as Paul Krugman points out, 12 of the 20 countries they look at are either part of the euro, or, in Denmark's case, pegged to it. The remaining ones show no signs of anything resembling debt tipping points. Often the reverse. That's simple enough to see if we break up their sample. The chart below looks at the pre-crisis years from their sample, and shows the non-euro countries in red, the core-euro countries in green, and the (later) troubled PIIGS countries in blue. Back then, at least, there wasn't any difference between -- except for Japan, which had far more debt, and far lower borrowing costs. Nor was there much of any discernible relationship between debt and interest rates.
But then Lehman failed, and the world changed. Debt went up and borrowing costs came down -- except for the PIIGS.
I decided to go back and see what kind of results I'd get if I looked at the non-euro countries and PIIGS separately. I started by trying to recreate the Greenlaw & Co. result for the entire 20-country sample over the 12 years -- which I was able to do, with some very slight differences due to slightly different data sources. (I couldn't find IMF data on long-term interest rates for every country, so I used OECD data to fill in the blanks). Next, I ran a regression with country and time-fixed effects on the non-euro countries -- Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S. -- from 2000 to 2011. I got coefficients of .00743, .00575, and -0.0695 for gross debt, net debt, and current account, respectively. None of them were statistically significant at the 95 percent level. (The P>t values were 0.13, 0.18, and 0.087).
To translate from stats-speak: our equation for non-euro countries tells us increasing debt by 1 percentage point of GDP only increases borrowing costs by 1.3 basis points. And that result isn't even statistically significant. In other words, there is no evidence of a debt tipping point for countries that borrow in money they can print.
But what about Europe's troubled economies? The Greenlaw & Co. results should hold up there, if nowhere else, right? Well, kind of. I ran another regression with country and time fixed effects on the PIIGS -- Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain -- from 2000 to 2011, and I got coefficients of 0.0605, 0.0209, and -.8952 for gross debt, net debt, and current account. The coefficients for gross debt and the current account were statistically significant (the latter highly so), but not for net debt, since the PIIGS mostly have the same amount of gross and net debt. (The P>t values were 0.046, 0.342, and 0). I went back and ran the regression again, this time without net debt, and got coefficients of 0.0843 and -0.9157 for gross debt and the current account. Both were highly significant. (The P>t values were 0 for both).
Translated: our equation for the PIIGS tells us increasing debt by 1 percentage point of GDP increases borrowing costs by 8.4 basis points -- but increasing the current account deficit by 1 percentage point of GDP increases borrowing costs by 91 basis points! The PIIGS do have a serious problem, but that problem is borrowing too much from foreigners, not too much government borrowing, in general. Of course, this isn't exactly new information. Paul Krugman, among others, has been pointing out for years that the euro crisis is really a balance of payments crisis that just looks like a debt crisis because of the common currency.
Beware economists bearing regressions -- and journalists too. My sample sizes here are so ridiculously small that the results are hardly dispositive. So don't pay attention to the evidence. Pay attention to the lack of evidence.
There isn't any evidence that the U.S., or other countries that borrow in currencies they control, face some debt tipping point after which borrowing costs spiral out of control. There isn't even much evidence this is true of Europe's troubled economies. Borrowing costs fell for the PIIGS in 2012 (one year after Greenlaw & Co.'s sample ended), not because those countries reduced their debt burdens, but because the ECB promised to do "whatever it takes" to save the euro. A monetary backstop matters more than the amount of debt. Reducing debt isn't as empirically urgent as we hear.
Our Greek chorus are more Chicken Littles than Cassandras.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
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.
Trying to find clarity in a world muddied by differing opinions and too much information
The deadlock began around week 20 of my pregnancy, when my mom casually asked about when and where our son would be circumcised. I presumptuously told her we weren’t going to do that. Then I saw the surprised look on my husbands face.
“We’re not?” he asked.
Sensing an opportunity to mount an offensive, my mom backed him with the full force of the guilt-inducing tone she’d perfected over the years. “But honey, it’s not natural to leave your son uncircumcised,” she said. “You don’t want to do that to him, do you?”
Quickly realizing that I would never win a drawn-out argument, I decided to end the conversation. To do this, I summoned the petulant teenager lying dormant inside me—something that only a mom can awaken in a 33-year-old woman—and said, “Actually mom, circumcision is the exact opposite of natural. That’s the whole point, to do away with the ‘natural’.” Then I gave my husband the ‘you’d like to have sex with me again, right?’ look and said to him, “We’ll talk about this later.”
Nervous Democrats are looking for alternatives as Hillary Clinton falters. But is the VP the right person for the job?
“I think panic is the operative mode for the Democratic Party,” David Axelrod, who has been on the receiving end of panic mode many times over the years, told me this week. I had asked Obama’s political guru how bad the current panic was for Hillary Clinton—bad enough for the party to seek an alternative? Bad enough, perhaps, to create an opening for Joe Biden?
Axelrod didn’t think so. “I think it’s indisputable she’s had a rocky few months,” he said. “But if you look at her support among Democrats, and the resources she brings, she’s still very strong—I think she’s going to be the nominee.”
Not everyone is so sure. Public opinion has turned starkly negative on Clinton in recent months, as she has struggled to put the scandal over her use of email as secretary of state to rest. In a poll released this week, the word most commonly summoned when people were asked about her was “liar.”
Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.
“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.
It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.
“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”
As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”