Harvard professor Ken Rogoff has not had a good week (Reuters)
For an economist, the five most terrifying words in the English language are: I can't replicate your results. But for economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff of Harvard, there are seven even more terrifying ones: I think you made an Excel error.
Listen, mistakes happen. Especially with Excel. But hopefully they don't happen in papers that provide the intellectual edifice for an economic experiment -- austerity -- that has kept millions out of work. Well, too late. As Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute reported, Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, have found serious problems with Reinhart and Rogoff's austerity-justifying work. That work, which shows that countries with public debt of 90 percent of GDP or more tend to grow slower, omitted data for five of its 19 countries, and used the wrong data for another. The former was, embarrassingly enough, due to an Excel misadventure, and the latter an unrelated issue. If you use all of the (right) numbers, it turns out growth does slow when debt is high, but not nearly as much as Reinhart and Rogoff -- hereafter, R-R -- claimed.
In other words, there is no evidence for anything resembling a growth tipping point when debt hits 90 percent of GDP.
This is the academic's version of the dream where you're naked in public. Except it's not a dream. It's the mortifying reality for R-R, who have admitted that they forgot to drag their Excel formula down five more cells. But it's worse than mortifying for everybody else. It's been a catastrophe. Not that R-R made a pretty galling mistake; rather, that such a flawed paper gave the intellectual ballast to an idea that has failed everywhere it's been tried the past few years. Now, policymakers would have pursued austerity regardless, but R-R gave them a reason (and seemingly a bright red 90 percent of GDP line) to do so sooner. If too much debt is associated with too little growth, then there's no time to lose for slashing deficits.
Those are important words: "associated with". As I pointed out before, the best argument against taking R-R as austerity's gospel truth was it was just a correlation. Of course a ratio tends to increase more when its denominator increases less. That's how fractions work. But it doesn't prove that the rising ratio causes the stagnating denominator. If anything, the causality runs the other way -- lower growth tends to cause higher debt, as tax revenue falls and safety-net spending rises during a slump. Indeed, as you can see below, Arindrajit Dube of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that debt-to-GDP predicts past GDP growth much better than future GDP growth. In other words, higher debt doesn't cause lower growth as much as lower growth causes higher debt.
Of course, this hasn't stopped deficit hawks from touting R-R's work as proof that we must tackle the long-term debt and we must tackle it now. Including, sometimes, R-R themselves. Now, in their paper, R-R are careful to say the relationship between higher debt and lower growth is just that: a relationship. In fact, that's been their defense: they never said it was anything more than a correlation, and that correlation still holds after correcting for all their mistakes, albeit not as strongly.
That's true ... if you only look at what they said in their paper, and ignore what they said about their paper. For example, here's what they said in Bloomberg View back in July 2011:
Our empirical research on the history of financial crises and the relationship between growth and public liabilities supports the view that current debt trajectories are a risk to long-term growth and stability, with many advanced economies already reaching or exceeding the important marker of 90 percent of GDP....
The biggest risk is that debt will accumulate until the overhang weighs on growth....
Those who remain unconvinced that rising debt levels pose a risk to growth should ask themselves why, historically, levels of debt of more than 90 percent of GDP are relatively rare and those exceeding 120 percent are extremely rare (see attached chart 2 for U.S. public debt since 1790). Is it because generations of politicians failed to realize that they could have kept spending without risk? Or, more likely, is it because at some point, even advanced economies hit a ceiling where the pressure of rising borrowing costs forces policy makers to increase tax rates and cut government spending, sometimes precipitously, and sometimes in conjunction with inflation and financial repression (which is also a tax)?
To be fair, R-R do say that they only found that higher debt and lower growth are "associated" and that there's no "bright red line" (even if policymakers interpret it that way) at 90 percent. But they also make it quite clear that they think their correlation is more than just a correlation. They think higher debt causes lower growth, and, after a little throat-clearing, they're not too shy about saying so.
In a series of academic papers with Carmen Reinhart - including, most recently, joint work with Vincent Reinhart ("Debt Overhangs: Past and Present") - we find that very high debt levels of 90% of GDP are a long-term secular drag on economic growth that often lasts for two decades or more....
Of course, there is two-way feedback between debt and growth, but normal recessions last only a year and cannot explain a two-decade period of malaise. The drag on growth is more likely to come from the eventual need for the government to raise taxes, as well as from lower investment spending. So, yes, government spending provides a short-term boost, but there is a trade-off with long-run secular decline.
It's the same pattern: a few caveats, and then a semi-speculative overselling of their results. But their biggest overselling didn't come in the media. It came behind closed doors -- in Congress. Tim Fernholz of Quartz flagged the following passage from Senator Tom Coburn's recent book about the time R-R briefed members of Congress in April 2011, a few months before the debt ceiling debacle:
Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia and always a gentleman, stood up to ask his question: "Do we need to act this year? Is it better to act quickly?"
"Absolutely," Rogoff said. "Not acting moves the risk closer," he explained, because every year of not acting adds another year of debt accumulation. "You have very few levers at this point," he warned us.
Reinhart echoed Conrad's point and explained that countries rarely pass the 90 percent debt-to-GDP tipping point precisely because it is dangerous to let that much debt accumulate. She said, "If it is not risky to hit the 90 percent threshold, we would expect a higher incidence."
R-R whisper "correlation" to other economists, but say "causation" to everyone else. Now, they don't always say it outright -- at least not at first. Rather, they say "this isn't definitely causation ... but come on, what else could it be?" That's been more than enough for the austerians who have been desperate for any kind of justification to forget about unemployment and worry about debt instead.
The boring reality is the relationship between public debt and growth isn't clear. As Justin Fox of Harvard Business Review points out, there simply isn't enough data. Some countries run up big debts fighting wars, and then grow fine. Some countries run up big debts fighting financial crises, and then grow slowly as the private sector deleverages. Some countries run up big debts as a matter of course, and then grow slowly as rising rates crowd out private investment. And even the few data points we do have don't always tell us all that much. Indeed, as Paul Krugman points out, it shouldn't surprise us that the U.S. has averaged negative growth during its high debt years, because most of those years came during the World War II demobilization. In other words, it's impossible to say anything dispositive about debt and growth more broadly.
But that hasn't stopped R-R from trying. This kind of overhyping is why Joe Weisenthal called them "the most dangerous economists in the world" back in 2011. And it's a far more damning error than anything they did with Excel.
As he prepares for a presidential run, the governor’s labor legacy deserves inspection. Are his state’s “hardworking taxpayers” any better off?
This past February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, D.C., Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rolled up his sleeves, clipped on a lavalier microphone, and without the aid of a teleprompter gave the speech of his life. He emerged from that early GOP cattle call as a front-runner for his party’s nomination for president. Numerous polls this spring placed him several points ahead of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the preferred candidate of the Republican establishment, in Iowa and New Hampshire. Those same polls showed him with an even more substantial lead over movement conservative favorites such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee. In late April, the Koch brothers hinted that Walker would be the likely recipient of the nearly $900 million they plan to spend on the 2016 election cycle.
It wasn’t that bad. But it did help me understand why it made people so angry.
From the Gray Lady, a Modest Dip Proposal. On Microblogging Platform, a Furor. For Peas, a New Use. There are times when The Times out-Timeses itself, and then there was Wednesday. The country's largest newspaper smugly tweeted a link to a recipe for guacamole. One made with peas. "Trust us," it read.
The Republican hopeful’s comments about Hispanics have been disastrous for his brand and reputation, which he values at an outlandish $3.3 billion.
Donald Trump’s run for the presidency is premised on one fact above all: He’s a fabulously successful businessman. And yet, paradoxically, running for president may be the most disastrous business decision he’s made—or, at the very least, his worst in a while.
The trouble started with Trump’s rambling announcement speech on June 16. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best,” Trump said of immigrants to the United States. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.”
I spent a year in Tromsø, Norway, where the “Polar Night” lasts all winter—and where rates of seasonal depression are remarkably low. Here’s what I learned about happiness and the wintertime blues.
Located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø, Norway, is home to extreme light variation between seasons. During the Polar Night, which lasts from November to January, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Then the days get progressively longer until the Midnight Sun period, from May to July, when it never sets. After the midnight sun, the days get shorter and shorter again until the Polar Night, and the yearly cycle repeats.
So, perhaps understandably, many people had a hard time relating when I told them I was moving there.
“I could never live there,” was the most common response I heard. “That winter would make me so depressed,” many added, or “I just get so tired when it’s dark out.”
But the Polar Night was what drew me to Tromsø in the first place.
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.
This Independence Day, we should take a page from the Founding Fathers, as well as our ancestors around the world, who imbibed gallons of low-alcohol beer pretty much all the time.
“Beer,” writes the Egyptologist Wolfgang Helck, “could easily have been discovered by chance.” The Babylonians and ancient Egyptians didn’t have microbrewing supplies, but they had grains—grains that would, from time to time, get wet, interact with airborne yeasts, and voila, a brewski was born.
That’s according to Ian Spencer Hornsey, who describes in his book, A History of Beer and Brewing, the long, global history of fermented beverages.
Today, most beer is made either by multinational conglomerates or careful artisans, but originally, all men were (rather careless) home-brewers. The Babylonians would mix crumbled bread with water, add yeast, and just forget about it for a while. One of the Sumerians’ few female deities was Ninkasi, “Lady of the inebriating fruit,” who watched over the “cooked mash” as it cooled.
The untold story of the improbable campaign that finally tipped the U.S. Supreme Court.
On May 18, 1970, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell walked into a courthouse in Minneapolis, paid $10, and applied for a marriage license. The county clerk, Gerald Nelson, refused to give it to them. Obviously, he told them, marriage was for people of the opposite sex; it was silly to think otherwise.
Baker, a law student, didn’t agree. He and McConnell, a librarian, had met at a Halloween party in Oklahoma in 1966, shortly after Baker was pushed out of the Air Force for his sexuality. From the beginning, the men were committed to one another. In 1967, Baker proposed that they move in together. McConnell replied that he wanted to get married—really, legally married. The idea struck even Baker as odd at first, but he promised to find a way and decided to go to law school to figure it out.
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.
Was the Concorde a triumph of modern engineering, a metaphor for misplaced 20th-century values, or both?
The box sat untouched in his bottom desk drawer. For weeks we discussed opening it, and one January morning he was ready. I set the box on his white bedsheets and removed the stack of passports, which could have belonged to a family with dual citizenship. But all nine—from 1956 to a valid update issued in 2014—belong to my 89-year-old grandfather.
Lying in bed, he unfolded a stamp-covered page like an accordion and held it open above his chest. “Oh my,” he kept repeating. He paused, and pointed.
London. March 22, 1976. My then-50-year-old grandfather, Raymond Pearlson, the inventor ofSyncrolift, was traveling the world selling his shiplift system. Concorde had launched commercially that January. He knew exactly what this stamp represented: Washington Dulles to London Heathrow in 3.5 hours—the first of at least 150 supersonic flights he took on the legendary aircraft.
On Wednesday, the United States and Cuba announced that they would reopen embassies in each other’s capitals, thus restoring diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961. The agreement doesn’t mean that Washington-Havana ties will go back to where they were before Fidel Castro’s revolution: Congress still maintains an economic embargo on the island, a policy that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. But the re-establishment of embassies, scheduled to occur on July 20, is nonetheless a major breakthrough in the long-acrimonious relationship between the two countries.
According to The New York Times, the overture to Cuba leaves just three countries with which the United States has no diplomatic relations. Two of these are easy enough to guess: Iran and North Korea. Washington severed ties with Tehran in 1980, months after Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy there and took 52 Americans hostage. U.S. ties with North Korea, meanwhile, have been fraught throughout the latter country’s existence, and have only grown worse since Kim Jong Un assumed control of the country in 2011.