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.
My view on the Hillary Clinton email “scandal,” as expressed over the months and also yesterday, is that this is another Whitewater. By which I mean: that the political and press hubbub, led in each case on the press’s side by the New York Times, bears very little relationship to the asserted underlying offense, and that after a while it’s hard for anyone to explain what the original sin / crime / violation was in the first place.
The Whitewater investigation machine eventually led, through a series of Rube Goldberg / Jorge Luis Borges-style weirdnesses, to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, even though the final case for removing him from office had exactly nothing to do with the original Whitewater complaint. Thus it stands as an example of how scandals can take on a zombie existence of their own, and of the damage they can do. The Hillary Clinton email “scandal” has seemed another such case to me, as Trey Gowdy’s committee unintentionally demonstrated with its 11-hour attempted takedown of Clinton last year.
Hillary Clinton’s realistic attitude is the only thing that can effect change in today’s political climate.
Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz have something in common. Both have an electoral strategy predicated on the ability of a purist candidate to revolutionize the electorate—bringing droves of chronic non-voters to the polls because at last they have a choice, not an echo—and along the way transforming the political system. Sanders can point to his large crowds and impressive, even astonishing, success at tapping into a small-donor base that exceeds, in breadth and depth, the remarkable one built in 2008 by Barack Obama. Cruz points to his extraordinarily sophisticated voter-identification operation, one that certainly seemed to do the trick in Iowa.
But is there any real evidence that there is a hidden “sleeper cell” of potential voters who are waiting for the signal to emerge and transform the electorate? No. Small-donor contributions are meaningful and a sign of underlying enthusiasm among a slice of the electorate, but they represent a tiny sliver even of that slice; Ron Paul’s success at fundraising (and his big crowds at rallies) misled many analysts into believing that he would make a strong showing in Republican primaries when he ran for president. He flopped.
Thenew Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, is smooth and charming, but he hasn’t found his edge.
It’s a psychic law of the American workplace: By the time you give your notice, you’ve already left. You’ve checked out, and for the days or weeks that remain, a kind of placeholder-you, a you-cipher, will be doing your job. It’s a law that applies equally to dog walkers, accountants, and spoof TV anchormen. Jon Stewart announced that he was quitting The Daily Show in February 2015, but he stuck around until early August, and those last months had a restless, frazzled, long-lingering feel. A smell of ashes was in the air. The host himself suddenly looked quite old: beaky, pique-y, hollow-cheeky. For 16 years he had shaken his bells, jumped and jangled in his little host’s chair, the only man on TV who could caper while sitting behind a desk. Flash back to his first episode as the Daily Show host, succeeding Craig Kilborn: January 11, 1999, Stewart with floppy, luscious black hair, twitching in a new suit (“I feel like this is my bar mitzvah … I have a rash like you wouldn’t believe.”) while he interviews Michael J. Fox.
Republicans may have a lock on Congress and the nation’s statehouses—and could well win the presidency—but the liberal era ushered in by Barack Obama is only just beginning.
Over roughly the past 18 months, the following events have transfixed the nation.
In July 2014, Eric Garner, an African American man reportedly selling loose cigarettes illegally, was choked to death by a New York City policeman.
That August, a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed an African American teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. For close to two weeks, protesters battled police clad in military gear. Missouri’s governor said the city looked like a war zone.
In December, an African American man with a criminal record avenged Garner’s and Brown’s deaths by murdering two New York City police officers. At the officers’ funerals, hundreds of police turned their backs on New York’s liberal mayor, Bill de Blasio.
Rand Paul, once viewed as the frontrunner, is leaving the Republican race after never gaining much momentum. So is Rick Santorum.
The story of Rand Paul’s presidential campaign, which he’s suspending today, is one of unfulfilled expectations.
Paul, a first-term senator from Kentucky, entered the race with high hopes. In January 2014, my colleague Peter Beinart deemed him the Republican frontrunner. A few months later, in October, Time named him “the most interesting man in politics.” But voters never seemed to agree, and he limped into Iowa trailing in the polls, and he ended up tallying less than 5 percent there—better than Jeb Bush, but still not a figure that set him up to compete down the road.
It’s understandable why Paul’s presidential prospects once seemed so bright. The nation was in the midst of what appeared to be a “libertarian moment.” Liberals and conservatives alike were joined in their backlash against an overweening security state, revealed by Edward Snowden. Newfound skepticism about the police fit in, too, and Paul was talking about the GOP’s dire need to reach out to minorities like no other candidate. The Tea Party, which had helped him upset an establishment candidate in the Kentucky Senate primary, was still a major force. His 13-hour filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan’s nomination won widespread acclaim. While rivals like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio either alienated colleagues or flailed, Paul was consolidating the support—unexpectedly—of Mitch McConnell, the powerful Senate majority leader and fellow Kentuckian. Paul was also expected to bring in the organizational energy and know-how that his father, former Representative Ron Paul, had built over many years.
If passion is a job requirement, says the writer Miya Tokumitsu, employees have little room to complain about mistreatment at work.
It’s been said in many places and by many luminaries: Do what you love.
But what does this phrase actually mean?
Miya Tokumitsu, a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine and author of the new book Do What You Love And Other Lies About Success and Happiness, criticizes the pervasiveness of this idea in American work culture. She argues that “doing what you love” has been co-opted by corporate interests, giving employers more power to exploit their workers.
I recently spoke with Tokumitsu about work myths and why we should pay attention to them. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Bourree Lam: Your book started as an essay, “In the Name of Love,” (which was later republished by Slate) that really touched a nerve with people. What were you talking about in that essay and why are people so drawn to it?
The justices will take on a complicated set of cases related to the birth-control mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
On Friday, the Supreme Court decided to tackle the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns who believe, along with some priests, a Roman Catholic Archdiocese, and several universities, that the government is compelling them to violate their beliefs. Their claim: The so-called birth-control mandate of the Affordable Care Act places a burden on their religious exercise, even with an accommodation from the government.
The first thing to know about these cases is that they are incredibly complicated. The Court granted cert in seven different cases related to this topic, which means they’ve agreed to hear the questions in those seven cases. All of them have come through different circuit courts in the past months, where they’ve mostly lost. But, these cases are a big deal: They are the latest in a long series of challenges to this portion of the law, the most notable of which was last summer’s Hobby Lobby case, which involved for-profit employers.
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.
The championship game descends on a city failing to deal with questions of affordability and inclusion.
SAN FRANCISCO—The protest kicked off just a few feet from Super Bowl City, the commercial playground behind security fences on the Embarcadero, where football fans were milling about drinking beer, noshing on $18 bacon cheeseburgers, and lining up for a ride on a zip line down Market Street.
The protesters held up big green camping tents painted with slogans such as “End the Class War” and “Stop Stealing Our Homes,” and chanted phrases blaming San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee for a whole range of problems, including the catchy “Hey Hey, Mayor Lee, No Penalty for Poverty.” They blocked the sidewalk, battling with tourists, joggers, and city workers, some of whom were trying to wheel their bikes through the crowd to get to the ferries that would take them home.