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.
Political, social, and demographic forces in the battleground of North Carolina promise a reckoning with its Jim Crow past.
In 1901, America was ascendant. Its victory over Spain, the reunification of North and South, and the closing of the frontier announced the American century. Americans awaited the inauguration of the 57th Congress, the first elected in the 20th century. All the incoming members of Congress, like those they replaced, were white men, save one.
Representative George Henry White did not climb the steps of Capitol Hill on the morning of January 29 to share in triumph. The last black congressman elected before the era of Jim Crow, White, a Republican, took the House floor in defeat. He had lost his North Carolina home district after a state constitutional amendment disenfranchised black voters—most of his constituents. That law marked the end of black political power in North Carolina for nearly a century.
A dustup between Megyn Kelly and Newt Gingrich shows why Donald Trump and the Republican Party are struggling to retain the support of women.
The 2016 presidential campaign kicked off in earnest with a clash between Megyn Kelly and Donald Trump over gender and conservatism at the first GOP debate, and now there’s another Kelly moment to bookend the race.
Newt Gingrich, a top Trump surrogate, was on Kelly’s Fox News show Tuesday night, jousting with her in a tense exchange stretching over nearly eight minutes. Things got off to a promising start when Gingrich declared that there were two “parallel universes”—one in which Trump is losing and one in which he is winning. (There is data, at least, to support the existence of the former universe.) After a skirmish over whether polls are accurate, Kelly suggested that Trump had been hurt by the video in which he boasts about sexually assaulting women and the nearly a dozen accusations lodged against him by women since. Gingrich was furious, embarking on a mansplaining riff in which he compared the press to Pravda and Izvestia for, in his view, overcovering the allegations.
The best treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder forces sufferers to confront their fears. But for many patients, the treatment is far out of reach.
Some days, Molly C.’s brain insists she can’t wear her work shirt. She realizes this is irrational; a uniform is required for her job at a hardware store. Nevertheless, she’s addled by an eerie feeling—like, “If you wear this shirt, something bad will happen today.” Usually she can cope, but a few times she couldn’t override it, and she called in sick.
She can’t resist picking up litter whenever she spots it; the other day she cleaned up the entire parking lot of her apartment complex. Each night, she must place her phone in an exact spot on the nightstand in order to fall asleep. What’s more, she’s besieged by troubling thoughts she can’t stop dwelling on. (She asked us not to use her last name in order to protect her privacy.)
A century ago, widely circulated images and cartoons helped drive the debate about whether women should have the right to vote.
It seems almost farcical that the 2016 presidential campaign has become a referendum on misogyny at a moment when the United States is poised to elect its first woman president.
Not that this is surprising, exactly.
There’s a long tradition of politics clashing spectacularly with perceived gender norms around election time, and the stakes often seem highest when women are about to make history.
Today’s political dialogue—which often merely consists of opposing sides shouting over one another—echoes another contentious era in American politics, when women fought for the right to vote. Then and now, a mix of political tension and new-fangled publishing technology produced an environment ripe for creating and distributing political imagery. The meme-ification of women’s roles in society—in civic life and at home—has been central to an advocacy tradition that far precedes slogans like, “Life’s a bitch, don’t elect one,” or “A woman’s place is in the White House.”
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump prepare for the final sprint to Election Day.
It’s Thursday, October 27—the election is now less than two weeks away. Hillary Clinton holds a lead against Donald Trump, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling average. We’ll bring you the latest updates from the trail as events unfold. Also see our continuing coverage:
With the candidate flailing in the polls, some on the right are wondering if a better version of the man wouldn’t be winning. But that kinder, gentler Trump would’ve lost in the primaries.
Last week, Peggy Noonan argued in the Wall Street Journal that an outsider like Donald Trump could’ve won handily this year, touting skepticism of free trade and immigration, if only he was more sane, or less erratic and prone to nasty insults:
Sane Donald Trump would have looked at a dubious, anxious and therefore standoffish Republican establishment and not insulted them, diminished them, done tweetstorms against them. Instead he would have said, “Come into my tent. It’s a new one, I admit, but it’s yuge and has gold faucets and there’s a place just for you. What do you need? That I be less excitable and dramatic? Done. That I not act, toward women, like a pig? Done, and I accept your critique. That I explain the moral and practical underpinnings of my stand on refugees from terror nations? I’d be happy to. My well-hidden secret is that I love everyone and hear the common rhythm of their beating hearts.” Sane Donald Trump would have given an anxious country more ease, not more anxiety. He would have demonstrated that he can govern himself. He would have suggested through his actions, while still being entertaining, funny and outsize, that yes, he understands the stakes and yes, since America is always claiming to be the leader of the world—We are No. 1!—a certain attendant gravity is required of one who’d be its leader.
Services like Tinder and Hinge are no longer shiny new toys, and some users are starting to find them more frustrating than fun.
“Apocalypse” seems like a bit much. I thought that last fall when Vanity Fair titled Nancy Jo Sales’s article on dating apps “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’” and I thought it again this month when Hinge, another dating app, advertised its relaunch with a site called “thedatingapocalypse.com,” borrowing the phrase from Sales’s article, which apparently caused the company shame and was partially responsible for their effort to become, as they put it, a “relationship app.”
Despite the difficulties of modern dating, if there is an imminent apocalypse, I believe it will be spurred by something else. I don’t believe technology has distracted us from real human connection. I don’t believe hookup culture has infected our brains and turned us into soulless sex-hungry swipe monsters. And yet. It doesn’t do to pretend that dating in the app era hasn’t changed.
Evangelicals at the school are tired of politics—and the party that gave them Trump.
LYNCHBURG, Va.—When Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University in 1971, he dreamed of transforming the United States. As heput it, “We’re turning out moral revolutionaries.”
Forty-five years later, the school formerly known as Liberty Baptist College has become a kingmaker and bellwether in the Republican Party. Politicians routinely make pit stops in Lynchburg; Ted Cruz even launched his ill-fated presidential campaign from Liberty’s campus in March of 2015.
That’s why it was such a big deal when, two weeks ago, a group of Liberty students put out a letter explaining why they’re standing against the Republican presidential nominee. Jerry Falwell Jr., who has run the school since his father died in 2007, announced his support for Donald Trump back in January, and he has since spoken on the candidate’s behalf in interviews and at events. “We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history,” the students wrote. “Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.”
A new book takes a philosophical approach to assessing the morality of modern finance.
The financial scandals of the past decade have left many Americans wondering whether or not Wall Street is an inherently immoral place. Does finance attract people who are comfortable with doing morally dubious things? Or, perhaps worse, does it simply turn good people bad?
Maureen O’Hara, a professor of finance at Cornell University’s business school and the author of the recent book Something for Nothing: Arbitrage and Ethics on Wall Street, would say no to both questions. In her book, O’Hara provides a detailed accounting of common financial strategies, and then analyzes recent scandals, weighing in on whether or not the strategies at play in them were unethical.
One of her main arguments is that the moral boundaries that can be so apparent in everyday life can be difficult to see, let alone adhere to, when financial firms and their workers are so often involved with purposely opaque financial products and strategies. This opaqueness represents a departure from the past. “What might have been obviously exploitative when contracts were simpler is now concealed by layers of cash flows transformed in ways that require complex calculations even to construct, let alone to value,” O’Hara writes.
A society that glorifies metrics leaves little room for human imperfections.
A century ago, a man named Frederick Winslow Taylor changed the way workers work. In his book The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor made the case that companies needed to be pragmatic and methodical in their efforts to boost productivity. By observing employees’ performance and whittling down the time and effort involved in doing each task, he argued, management could ensure that their workers shoveled ore, inspected bicycle bearings, and did other sorts of “crude and elementary” work as efficiently as possible. “Soldiering”—a common term in the day for the manual laborer’s loafing—would no longer be possible under the rigors of the new system, Taylor wrote.
The principles of data-driven planning first laid out by Taylor—whom the management guru Peter Drucker once called the “Isaac Newton … of the science of work”—have transformed the modern workplace, as managers have followed his approach of assessing and adopting new processes that squeeze greater amounts of productive labor from their employees. And as the metrics have become more precise in their detail, their focus has shifted beyond the tasks themselves and onto the workers doing those tasks, evaluating a broad range of their qualities (including their personality traits) and tying corporate carrots and sticks—hires, promotions, terminations—to those ratings.