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.
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.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
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."
Can we predict romantic prospects just from looking at a face?
By the time you swear you're his, / Shivering and sighing. / And he vows his passion is/ Infinite, undying. / Lady, make a note of this — /One of you is lying. ― Dorothy Parker
Edward Royzman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asks me to list four qualities on a piece of paper: physical attractiveness, income, kindness, and fidelity. Then he gives me 200 virtual “date points” that I’m to distribute among the four traits. The more I allocate to each attribute, the more highly I supposedly value that quality in a mate.
This experiment, which Royzman sometimes runs with his college classes, is meant to inject scarcity into hypothetical dating decisions in order to force people to prioritize.
What one woman learned from 10 years of teaching in a New York City public school
Laurel Sturt was a 46-year-old fashion designer in New York City whose career trajectory took an unlikely shift one day on the subway. A self-proclaimed social activist, Sturt noticed an ad for a Teaching Fellows program. Then and there, she decided to quit her job in fashion design and shift her focus to her real passion: helping others. She enrolled in the two-year program and was assigned to teach at an elementary school in a high-poverty neighborhood near the South Bronx.
Students at Princeton University are protesting the ways it honors the former president, who once threw a civil-rights leader out of the White House.
The Black Justice League, in protests on Princeton University’s campus, has drawn wider attention to an inconvenient truth about the university’s ultimate star: Woodrow Wilson. The Virginia native was racist, a trait largely overshadowed by his works as Princeton’s president, as New Jersey’s governor, and, most notably, as the 28th president of the United States.
As president, Wilson oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices. It’s a shameful side to his legacy that came to a head one fall afternoon in 1914 when he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office.
Trotter led a delegation of blacks to meet with the president on November 12, 1914 to discuss the surge of segregation in the country. Trotter, today largely forgotten, was a nationally prominent civil-rights leader and newspaper editor. In the early 1900s, he was often mentioned in the same breath as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. But unlike Washington, Trotter, an 1895 graduate of Harvard, believed in direct protest actions. In fact, Trotter founded his Boston newspaper, The Guardian, as a vehicle to challenge Washington’s more conciliatory approach to civil rights.
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.
The frenzied day after Thanksgiving, as we know it, may be dying. That is an extremely good thing.
BlackFridayDeathCount.com keeps a running list of the casualties incurred by the rites and rituals of the day after Thanksgiving. Since 2006, the site says, Black Friday has claimed 97 deaths and injuries—seven of the former, 90 of the latter—as the result of the tramplings, pepper-sprayings, shootings, stabbings, and other tragedies that can occur when the term "doorbuster" is taken too literally.
Ancient Romans filled their Colosseum with throngs thirsting for fights; Americans fill our own arena—our TVs and newspapers and mobile screens—with, among so much else, an annual event that makes bargain-hunting a matter of athletic competition. Black Friday is a media ceremony; it is also an extremely commercialized, and oddly moralized, form of bloodlust. "People are crazy," we say, watching the news reports and shaking our heads and assuring ourselves that we are not part of the "people" in question. "How could they just trample someone?"
Retailers are experimenting with a bold new strategy for the commercial high holiday: boycotting themselves.
It starts with a scene of touch football in the yard. Next, a woman and a girl, cooking together in the kitchen. “Imagine a world,” a soothing voice intones, “where the only thing you have to wrestle for on Thanksgiving is the last piece of pumpkin pie, and the only place we camped out was in front of a fire, and not the parking lot of a store.” And, then, more scenes: a man, cuddling with kids on a couch. An older woman, rolling pie dough on the counter. A fire, crackling in the fireplace. Warmth. Wine. Togetherness. Laughter.
It’s an ad, unsurprisingly, but it’s an ad with a strange objective: to tell you not to buy stuff. Or, at least, to spend a day not buying stuff. “At T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods, we’re closed on Thanksgiving,” the spot’s velvet-voiced narrator informs us, “because family time comes first.” And then: more music. More scenes of familiar/familial delights. More laughter. More pie. The whole thing concludes: “Let’s put more value on what really matters. This season, bring back the holidays—with T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods.”
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.