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 Onion had a problem: It fell behind the times. The mock newspaper hadn’t printed an issue on actual paper since 2013, and in the period since, it never redesigned its website. As the media world changed—as the New York Times and the Washington Post adapted the ways they published stories online—The Onion lost a key satirical weapon. Visually, it no longer looked like many of the publications it parodied. And so, like it had done many times before, The Onion tagged along.
Infomercials are fond of marketing strategies that rely on a theory of psychological pricing. You don't pay a flat fee for your Shake Weight or Magic Bullet or Ginsu Knife; you dish out three easy payments. And your payments aren't $40, of course; they're $39.99.
Most of us, for better but probably for worse, are familiar with the sneaky logic of infomercials. That doesn't mean, however, that we are immune to their charms. Nor are we immune to the pull—ironic, and also very much not—of the products that are sold to us in the late night and early morning, our most vulnerable hours, via charismatic pitchmen and sad-sack stand-ins for human frailty. Oxyclean. The PedEgg. The Pocket Hose. The Clapper. The Socket Dock. The food dehydrator. GLH. Which is, I mean, hair that you spray onto your scalp! Even the most savvy consumers among us can find ourselves ensnared by the bleary promise of life-improvement that can be ours, we are told, for only two easy payments of $19.95 (plus shipping and handling).
In 2004, two women who were long past college age settled into a dorm room at a large public university in the Midwest. Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, and Laura Hamilton, then a graduate assistant and now a sociology professor at the University of California at Merced, were there to examine the daily lives and attitudes of college students. Like two Jane Goodalls in the jungle of American young adulthood, they did their observing in the students’ natural habitat.
The researchers interviewed the 53 women on their floor every year for five years—from the time they were freshmen through their first year out of college.
Their findings about the students’ academic success later formed the basis for Paying for the Party, their recent book about how the college experience bolsters inequality. They found that the women’s “trajectories were shaped not only by income ... but also by how much debt they carried, how much financial assistance they could expect from their parents, their social networks, and their financial prospects.”
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.
There are plenty of things to be gained from going abroad: new friends, new experiences, new stories.
But living in another country may come with a less noticeable benefit, too: Some scientists say it can also make you more creative.
Writers and thinkers have long felt the creative benefits of international travel. Ernest Hemingway, for example, drew inspiration for much of his work from his time in Spain and France. Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, moved from the U.K. to the U.S. in his 40s to branch out into screenwriting. Mark Twain, who sailed around the coast of the Mediterranean in 1869, wrote in his travelogue Innocents Abroad that travel is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
In 2008, I was elected governor of Delaware. In politics, timing is everything. You can be a fantastic candidate and run in a bad year for your party and get clobbered. You can be an absolute dud and run in the right year and get the brass ring. 2008 was a good year to be a Democrat.
But beyond the political benefit, my timing was awful. A month before I took office at the depths of the Great Recession, Chrysler closed its assembly plant in Newark, my hometown. A few months after my inauguration, General Motors shuttered its plant a few miles away. That fall, Valero closed its refinery. Those three employers had represented the best opportunities for high school graduates to get middle-class jobs for decades. Within a year, all were gone.
Do you understand money? Let’s see how well you do with the following questions.
1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? A) more than $102; B) exactly $102; C) less than $102; D) do not know; refuse to answer.
2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account is 1 percent per year and inflation is 2 percent per year. After one year, would you be able to buy A) more than, B) exactly the same as, or C) less than today with the money in this account?; D) do not know; refuse to answer.
3. Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.” A) true; B) false; C) do not know; refuse to answer.
Before Napoleon Bonaparte uttered his last words ("France, l'armée, tête d'armée, Joséphine") and perished on the windswept island of Saint Helena at the age of 51, he reportedly treated himself to a feast. The exiled French leader scarfed down liver and bacon chops, sauteed kidneys in sherry, shirred eggs with cream, and garlic toast with roast tomatoes.
Those wishing to revisit his last meal might have a hard time recreating it—Trader Joe's doesn't stock kidneys, last I checked—but they can enjoy the next best thing. The food-advertising director Gus Filgate is creating a series of short films that reproduce the last meals of noteworthy individuals.
The one for Napoleon seems to hint at the visceral, brutal nature of 19th-century French rule: Lard snaps in an iron skillet; kidneys drip with milk; a tomato's head is severed and its guts spew out.