The fiscally conservative case to borrow and spend -- and feel good about it
What if borrowing money made you so much richer over the long-term that it paid for itself? It's not crazy. Millions of families make such a decision every year when they take on debt to pay for school. Indeed, investing in yourself is a bet that often pays off. But can the same be true for an entire country?
Brad DeLong and Larry Summers say yes. In a provocative new paper, they argue that when the economy is depressed like today, government spending can be a free lunch. It can pay for itself.
It's a fairly simple story. With interest rates at zero, the normal rules do not apply. Government spending can put people back to work and prevent the long-term unemployed from becoming unemployable. This last point is critical. If people are out of work for too long, they lose skills, which makes employers less likely to hire them, which makes them lose even more skills, and so on, and so on. Even when the economy fully recovers, these workers will stay on the sidelines. It's not just these workers who suffer from being out of work. We all do. High unemployment is a symptom of a collapse in investment. If we don't make needed investments now, that will put a brake on growth down the line. Together, economists call these twin menaces hysteresis. And if it sets in, it reduces how much we can do and make in the future. Assuming that spending now can forestall hysteresis, then this spending might be self-financing. In other words, spending now might "cost" us less than not acting.
This doesn't mean that government spending is magic. Often, it's anything but. But this is a special case. DeLong and Summers identify three factors that determine whether fiscal stimulus will pay for itself: 1) how much hysteresis hurts future output, 2) the inflation-adjusted interest rate, and 3) the size of the fiscal multiplier. Let's consider these in turn.
THE MONSTER OF HYSTERESIS
Economists know a lot about a lot of things. Hysteresis is not one of them.
Indeed, it's not clear whether long-term unemployment and investment shortfalls really do damage potential growth over the really long-term. Maybe hysteresis "only" wounds us for the next 20 years, but not the next 40 years. Unfortunately, there's reason to fear that this is optimistic. A recent paper by Stephen Davis and Till von Wachter finds that workers who are laid off during recessions -- who presumably take longer to find a new job -- take worse hits to their lifetime earnings than do workers who are laid off during good times. Lasting unemployment has lasting consequences. That should terrify our policymakers.
The below chart from DeLong and Summers shows the unemployment rate versus the percentage of working-age people who are actually working. Any divergence between the two shows us how many people have given up on trying to find a job after being out of work for too long. The recent numbers paint a frightening picture.
While quantifying just how much this will hurt our long-term productive capacity is a matter of guesswork, DeLong and Summers show that it doesn't have to be much to justify doing something now -- provided that rock bottom interest rates super-charge fiscal stimulus.
DeLong and Summers argue that real rates -- that is, adjusted for inflation -- don't have to be that low to make more spending a good deal. They calculate that real rates of anywhere between three and seven percent make fiscal stimulus worthwhile. Inflation-adjusted rates are negative now. But low rates don't only make borrowing cheaper. They might also make government spending more effective.
STIMULUS THAT WORKS: A BLACK SWAN, NOT A UNICORN
Government spending usually doesn't increase growth. Or, as economists put it, "the fiscal multiplier is usually close to zero." The multiplier just refers to how much total spending a dollar of government spending generates. For instance, if the government spends $1 billion and GDP goes up by $1.5 billion, then the multiplier would be 1.5. In normal times, the multiplier is zero, because the Federal Reserve offsets any additional spending. The Fed has its inflation target, and if more government spending pushes up inflation, then the Fed neutralizes it by raising interest rates. But with short-term rates hugging zero and inflation falling below target, this calculus might change. The Fed might allow the multiplier to be greater than one. And that would certainly make more spending a very good deal.
There are two broad objections to the notion that the fiscal multiplier might be quite high right now. First, just because short-term interest rates are at zero doesn't mean the Fed is out of ammunition. The Fed can still buy long-term bonds -- aka quantitative easing -- or tell markets that it will keep short-term rates low for an extended period. These things matter. If fiscal stimulus precludes the Fed from doing more monetary stimulus, then the apparent multiplier will be misleading. Second, it's hard to find many historical examples of a high fiscal multiplier. Critics like to point out that even during World War II -- when interest rates were also negligible -- that the multiplier was no better than during normal times. So, after all of this, does this mean that government spending isn't worth it?
Not so fast. Just because the Fed can use unconventional policy doesn't mean that fiscal stimulus is a waste. Much of the Fed's current strategy involves making (quasi) promises to keep rates low for a long time -- till late 2014, to be exact. It's a very watered down version of what Paul Krugman called "credibly promising to be irresponsible". The problem, though, is credibility. Markets might not believe the Fed. Actually, they don't. And that means that spending wouldn't be canceled out nearly as much right now. As for past instances of a high multiplier, World War II actually does offer solid evidence. You just need to know when to look. While we were actively fighting in the war, the government imposed private sector rationing. So it's hardly surprising that government spending didn't spur on private spending when the private sector was forbidden from spending. But here's an oft-forgotten fact: we started spending on the war long before we entered the war -- to help arm Great Britain. Those were our "arsenal of democracy" days. More importantly, there was no rationing from 1939-41. Over this period Robert Gordon and Robert Krenn found that the multiplier was as high as 1.8. That's really, really good.
The Cliff Notes version of all of this is that a fiscal multiplier greater than one is not a unicorn. It's more like a black swan. It exists. It's just rare. And this looks like one of those rare times. Taken together with our historically low rates, now seems like a great time to make some investments in ourselves. Putting the long-term unemployed back to work is an investment in their human capital. Refurbishing roads and bridges is an investment in the physical infrastructure we need to keep competing globally. Both make us better off in the long run, and could conceivably pay for themselves. Of course, none of the above means that the Fed can't or shouldn't try to do more. It's more of a practical appraisal about what the Fed will -- and won't -- do.
Usually comparing the government's budget to a family's budget is a bad idea. Governments can borrow for far longer and on far better terms. And, counterfeiters aside, families can't print money. But in this case it's a worthwhile comparison. A family struggling to make ends meet wouldn't be wise to save money by pulling their kids out of college if they can afford tuition. Similarly, governments running massive deficits during a depression wouldn't be wise to embrace austerity if markets will lend to them on favorable terms. In both cases, the long-term damage outweighs any short-term benefit.
Which is to say: When people offer you free money, don't say no.
The Arizona veteran cast an unexpected vote against Mitch McConnell’s last-ditch proposal to partially repeal the Affordable Care Act, leaving the GOP once again without a way forward.
Senator John McCain brought down the latest Republican health-care plan early Friday morning.
In a moment of high drama on the Senate floor, the Arizona senator, stricken with brain cancer and railing against his party’s secretive legislative maneuvering, provided the decisive vote against Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposal to partially repeal the Affordable Care Act. The amendment fell, 51-49, thwarting once again the GOP’s longstanding efforts to deliver on a central campaign promise. Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska also voted against the bill, continuing their opposition to the GOP’s partisan repeal effort. But it was McCain who surprised the Senate, breaking with his party after earlier helping it on a key procedural vote.
“I hope that my story will help you understand the methods of Russian operatives in Washington and how they use U.S. enablers to achieve major foreign policy goals without disclosing those interests,” Browder writes.
The financier Bill Browder has emerged as an unlikely central player in the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney Browder hired to investigate official corruption, died in Russian custody in 2009. Congress subsequently imposed sanctions on the officials it held responsible for his death, passing the Magnitsky Act in 2012. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government retaliated, among other ways, by suspending American adoptions of Russian children.
Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who secured a meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, was engaged in a campaign for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, and raised the subject of adoptions in that meeting. That’s put the spotlight back on Browder’s long campaign for Kremlin accountability, and against corruption—a campaign whose success has irritated Putin and those around him.
Even prominent right-wing populists are beginning to worry that they invested their faith in an unstable leader.
This week, as Donald Trump publicly attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an assault one restrained observer described as “a multitiered tower of political idiocy, a sublime monument to the moronic, a gaudy, gleaming, Ozymandian folly,” even David Horowitz, the anti-Leftist intellectual and author of Big Agenda: President Trump’s Plan to Save America, felt compelled to admit something to his Twitter followers: “I have to confess, I'm really distressed by Trump's shabby treatment of Sessions.”
Trump has always been vehemently opposed from the left and distrusted on the right by Never Trump conservatives, who continue to be dismayed by his behavior. But this week as never before, public doubts surfaced among Trump boosters and apologists, prompting Jay Cost to quip, “at the end it's just gonna be Sean Hannity huddled in a corner, quietly whispering to himself that Trump is a great American.”
One of Trump’s top aides viciously attacks the others, even as the president lambastes his own attorney general. Is there any limit on this administration’s dysfunction?
If Anthony Scaramucci is conducting an experiment in radical transparency at the White House, then things are going well. Otherwise, his tenure as communications director might not be off to a great start.
Thursday began with Scaramucci giving a preposterous interview to CNN—cutting off a segment with New Yorker journalist Ryan Lizza—in which he accused White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus of leaking to the press, suggested he is trying to “save America from this president,” and likened his own relationship with Priebus to that of the biblical figure Cain and to Abel, the brother he slew.
The day closed with Lizza writing his own, devastating account of a deranged conversation he’d had with Scaramucci Wednesday night, after Lizza reported on a dinner Scaramucci had with Fox News personalities past and present. Politico had also published Scaramucci’s financial disclosure, obtained by a routine public-records request, but which Scaramucci was for some reason convinced had been leaked. (One fascinating lesson of Scaramucci’s appointment is how fast the debilitating paranoia of this White House can infect a new hire.)
Trump says that he surrounds himself with “the best people”—but too often, that means people like himself.
The world’s best Donald Trump impersonator is now in charge of White House communications—and if nothing else, it’s making for great television.
For evidence, look no further than Anthony Scaramucci’s mesmerizing Thursday morning interview with CNN. “The Mooch”—as he is known among his friends and admirers (a group that seems to include a growing number of reporters)—was coming off a late night spent waging a bitter and outrageously public battle against White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, when he called in to CNN’s morning show New Day. For the next 30 minutes, he put on a compulsively watchable performance that so precisely captured his boss’s style that it seemed designed to demoralize Alec Baldwin.
The internet’s favorite fact-checkers are caught in a messy dispute.
On Monday, the editorial staff of Snopes.com wrote a short plea for help. The post said that the site needed money to fund its operations because another company that Snopes had contracted with “continues to essentially hold the Snopes.com web site hostage.”
“Our legal team is fighting hard for us, but, having been cut off from all revenue, we are facing the prospect of having no financial means to continue operating the site and paying our staff (not to mention covering our legal fees) in the meanwhile,” the note continued.
It was a shocking message from a website that’s been around for more than 20 years—and that’s become a vital part of internet infrastructure in the #fakenews era. The site’s readers have responded. Already, more than $92,000 has been donated to a GoFundMe with a goal of $500,000.
A new study finds that believing society is fair can lead disadvantaged adolescents to act out and engage in risky behavior.
Brighton Park is a predominantly Latino community on the southwest side of Chicago. It’s a neighborhood threatened by poverty, gang violence, ICE raids, and isolation—in a city where income, race, and zip code can determine access to jobs, schools, healthy food, and essential services. It is against this backdrop that the Chicago teacher Xian Franzinger Barrett arrived at the neighborhood’s elementary school in 2014.
Recognizing the vast economic and racial inequalities his students faced, he chose what some might consider a radical approach for his writing and social-studies classes, weaving in concepts such as racism, classism, oppression, and prejudice. Barrett said it was vital to reject the oft-perpetuated narrative that society is fair and equal to address students’ questions and concerns about their current conditions. And Brighton Elementary’s seventh- and eighth-graders quickly put the lessons to work—confronting the school board over inequitable funding, fighting to install a playground, and creating a classroom library focused on black and Latino authors.
What Russian officials mean when they talk about “adoptions”
Let’s get something straight: The Magnitsky Act is not, nor has it ever been, about adoptions.
The Magnitsky Act, rather, is about money. It freezes certain Russian officials’ access to the stashes they were keeping in Western banks and real estate and bans their entry to the United States. The reason Russian (and now, American) officials keep talking about adoption in the same breath is because of how the Russian side retaliated to the Magnitsky Act in 2012, namely by banning American adoptions of Russian children. The Russians vowed they were punishing Americans who violated the human rights of Russians, after an adopted Russian toddler died of heat stroke in a Virginia family’s car. But the only Americans the bill directly targeted were the ones involved in putting the Magnitsky Act together.
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is no vulnerable GOP squish—she wields significant power over the Interior Department and once won her seat as a write-in candidate.
Updated on July 27 at 1:22 p.m. ET
It’s arm-twisting time in the Senate as Republicans close in on a decisive health-care vote, and the arm President Trump has decided to wring hardest belongs to Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Murkowski, a former member of the party leadership now beginning her third six-year term, angered the president by defying him on a key procedural vote to begin debate on Tuesday. Along with Senator Susan Collins of Maine, she was one of two Republicans voting against the motion, which succeeded only when Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie. Trump ignored Collins but assailed Murkowski in a tweet on Wednesday morning, saying she “really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday.”
The vote he cast, more than the speech he gave, will help define his legacy.
The effort to repeal Barack Obama’s health-care bill is not over, and neither presumably is the public career of John McCain. But each crossed an important threshold yesterday, and Senator McCain gave us a clearer idea of who he is and what he stands for.
The repeal effort isn’t over, because debate and further voting is now under way to determine whether the bill will pass and, more basically, to define what it would actually do. McCain will have more votes to cast, on this measure and others, and it’s possible that in the end he will turn against this bill because of its provisions (whatever they turn out to be) or because of the rushed and secretive process that led to it. Just this afternoon, McCain voted No on a “straight repeal” bill that would eliminate Obamacare without any replacement.