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.
Allegations against the comedian are proof that women are angry, temporarily powerful—and very, very dangerous.
Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space. You’re just too old.
This was my experience reading the account of one young woman’s alleged sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, published by the website Babe this weekend. The world in which it constituted an episode of sexual assault was so far from my own two experiences of near date rape (which took place, respectively, during the Carter and Reagan administrations, roughly between the kidnapping of the Iran hostages and the start of the Falklands War) that I just couldn’t pick up the tune. But, like the recent New Yorker story “Cat Person”—about a soulless and disappointing hookup between two people who mostly knew each other through texts—the account has proved deeply resonant and meaningful to a great number of young women, who have responded in large numbers on social media, saying that it is frighteningly and infuriatingly similar to crushing experiences of their own. It is therefore worth reading and, in its way, is an important contribution to the present conversation.
A viral story highlights the lingering difference between the language—and the practice—of consent.
It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.
I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.
That was Aziz Ansari, responding to a story that was published about him over the weekend, a story that doubled as an allegation not of criminal sexual misconduct, but of misbehavior of a more subtle strain: aggression. Entitlement. Excessive persistence. His statement, accordingly—not an apology but not, either, a denial—occupies that strange and viscous space between defiance and regret. I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart.
With the president fuming, a funding deadline looming, and a DACA deal far off, a climactic confrontation in Congress might be impossible to avoid.
The first government shutdown of the Donald Trump presidency has been a long time coming.
It has been eight months since the president, in a tweet of pique during a soon-forgotten spending fight with Democrats, suggested that the country “needs a good ‘shutdown’” to fix its mess. The two parties veered away from the brink then, and they have kept refueling the federal tank a few gallons at a time in the months since.
But for an angry president and an impatient opposition, there may be no way out of the showdown that is building this week. At its core are the competing promises Trump made to his base—to crack down on illegal immigration and build a giant southern border wall—and that many Democrats made to theirs—to protect at any cost the young undocumented immigrants who face possible deportation under a March deadline set by the president.
At the same time that the president sows doubt and confusion to undermine his adversaries, he finds those forces depriving him of credit he believes he deserves.
A long weekend with lots of executive time, simmering tensions with politicians of both parties, a looming government shutdown: It’s the most potent cocktail that Donald Trump, a teetotaler, could imbibe, and it produced a predictably jarring and erratic series of statements.
Over the course of several days, mostly in tweets, Trump tried to make three points. First, he sought to discredit the idea that he had referred to African nations as “shithole countries” and said, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” (Trump also declared to a reporter that he was “the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”) Second, he jockeyed for position in negotiations over funding the government, arguing Democrats were imperiling the military as he tried to preemptively shift blame to them. Finally, for good measure, he whined a little bit that he doesn’t get more credit for what he’s done:
President Trump is the embodiment of over 50 years of resistance to the policies Martin Luther King Jr. fought to enact.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In response, a week later President Lyndon B. Johnson scrambled to sign into law the Fair Housing Act, a final major civil-rights bill that had languished for years under the strain of white backlash to the civil-rights movement.
Five years later a New York developer and his son—then only a few years out of college—became two of the first targets of a massive Department of Justice probe for an alleged violation of that landmark act. After a protracted, bitter lawsuit, facing a mountain of allegations that the two had engaged in segregating units and denying applications of black and Puerto Rican applicants, in 1975 Trump Management settled with the federal government and accepted the terms of a consent decree prohibiting discrimination. So entered Donald Trump onto the American stage.
This isn’t the first moment astrology’s had and it won’t be the last. The practice has been around in various forms for thousands of years. More recently, the New Age movement of the 1960s and ’70s came with a heaping helping of the zodiac. (Some also refer to the New Age as the “Age of Aquarius”—the 2,000-year period after the Earth is said to move into the Aquarius sign.)
The evidence comes from the 16th-century victims’ teeth.
In the decades after Hernán Cortés invaded Mexico, one of the worst epidemics in human history swept through the new Spanish colony. A mysterious disease called “cocolitzli” appeared first in 1545 and then again in 1576, each time killing millions of the native population. “From morning to sunset,” wrote a Franciscan friar who witness the epidemic, “the priests did nothing else but carry the dead bodies and throw them into the ditches.”
In less than a century, the number of people living in Mexico fell from an estimated 20 million to 2 million. “It’s a massive population loss. Really, it’s impressive,” says Rodolfo Acuña-Soto, an epidemiologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. What can even kill so many people so quickly?
The cryptocurrency was meant to be stateless and leaderless. Ironically, the culprits of its latest plunge are ... state leaders.
Bitcoin is a bubble.
That much was clear to economists, investors, and analysts for quite some time. But one of the shortcomings of such analysis is that certainty of an economic bubble offers little insight on how, when, or why that bubble will pop. "I can say almost with certainty that they will come to a bad ending," Warren Buffett said last week, to the great consternation of crypto fans. "When it happens or how or anything else, I don't know."
Maybe—maybe—it’s finally happening.
The price of bitcoin plummeted by as much as 20 percent on Tuesday to $12,000, or about 40 percent below its all-time high in December. Other popular cryptocurrencies, like ethereum and Ripple, also posted double-digit losses.
A new breed of online retailer doesn’t make or even touch products, but they’ve got a few other tricks for turning nothing into money.
It all started with an Instagram ad for a coat, the West Louis (TM) Business-Man Windproof Long Coat to be specific. It looked like a decent camel coat, not fancy but fine. And I’d been looking for one just that color, so when the ad touting the coat popped up and the price was in the double-digits, I figured: hey, a deal!
The brand, West Louis, seemed like another one of the small clothing companies that has me tagged in the vast Facebook-advertising ecosystem as someone who likes buying clothes: Faherty, Birdwell Beach Britches, Life After Denim, some wool underwear brand that claims I only need two pairs per week, sundry bootmakers.
Perhaps the copy on the West Louis site was a little much, claiming “West Louis is the perfection of modern gentlemen clothing,” but in a world where an oil company can claim to “fuel connections,” who was I to fault a small entrepreneur for some purple prose?
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”