Mr. Fix-It doesn't have a credible plan to fix the economy's biggest problem
What's black and white and red all over? I have no idea. But here's what I do know. Mitt Romney's housing plan is an even worse joke.
It's hard to imagine a bigger vulnerability for Obama than housing. The administration's policy has been too little, too late for too long. To borrow a phrase from Ben Bernanke, it's been a case of self-induced paralysis due to a pair of fears. For one, they were worried about forcing banks to recognize even more losses on mortgages back when the financial system's solvency was far from a sure thing. For another, they were worried about a Rick Santelli-led populist backlash against bailing out "loser" homeowners.
So they went small. Refinancings have barely been a rumor, even after Treasury expanded the program. That's still more than can be said for writedowns. Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) chief Ed DeMarco has blocked those -- and Obama has inexplicably refused to recess appoint his replacement. The result has been a tragedy, both for families and for taxpayers. As the New York Fed pointed out, we would save $134 million for every $1 billion of refinancings thanks to lower default rates. It turns out keeping people in their homes is good for everybody.
In other words, Romney had a big opening to go big on housing. Maybe he would come out for a massive refinancing program, like his top adviser Glenn Hubbard wants. Or maybe he would come out for privatizing the government-sponsored entities (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.Something. Well, the Romney housing plan certainly is something -- something "laughably vacuous" that is, as Matt Yglesias of Slate justifiably lampoons it.
The Romney housing plan comes in two parts: embarrassing, and more embarrassing. Consider this section about fixing the financial system and the GSEs -- and all, as Brad DeLong points out, in 85 words or less!
End "Too-Big-To-Fail" And Reform Fannie Mae And Freddie Mac. The Romney-Ryan plan will completely end "too-big-to-fail" by reforming the GSEs. The four years since taxpayers took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, spending $140 billion in the process, is too long to wait for reform. Rather than just talk about reform, a Romney-Ryan Administration will protect taxpayers from additional risk in the future by reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and provide a long-term, sustainable solution for the future of housing finance reform in our country.
There are so many problems crammed into so few words. For starters, too-big-to-fail is not about the GSEs; too-big-too-fail is about Wall Street. In other words, it's about the heads-we-win; tails-taxpayers-lose calculus behind big bank bets. Taking the GSEs off government life support does nothing to fix this. Then, of course, there's the question of what reforming the GSEs means. Romney says he won't "just talk" about it -- which makes sense, since he doesn't talk about it here either. It's anybody's guess what Romney wants to do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
But there are ways to actually end too-big-to-fail. One way is to tackle the "too big" half of the phrase; the other is to take on the "fail" part. In other words, you can either break up big banks until they are small enough to fail, or create a system where big banks can safely fail. Dodd-Frank tries the latter. Its logic is that even a relatively small bank like Lehman Brothers -- or a hedge fund like Long-Term Capital Management -- can topple the financial system if its counterparties are big and numerous enough. Too-connected-to-fail can be just as much a problem as too-big-to-fail. Now, there's still a political economy argument for breaking up the big banks -- so they aren't quite as powerful -- but it seems clear that we need some sort of resolution authority. Except to Romney. Perhaps. He thinks Dodd-Frank is too complicated -- maybe it is! -- and he thinks its Byzantine structure is holding back the recovery. He wants to repeal and replace it with ... something.
Sensible, Not Overly Complex, Financial Regulation That Gets Credit Flowing Again. By replacing the Dodd-Frank Act with sensible regulation (instead of the 9,000+ pages, and counting, of new rules for financial institutions), a Romney-Ryan Administration will usher in a new era of responsible lending. Sensible regulation will allow banks to approve loans for families with good credit rather than rejecting their mortgage applications. A return to more normal lending standards would produce an estimated 640,000 more home sales and 320,000 jobs next year.
Did you catch that Romney wants to do something sensible? What does that mean? Who knows! Something sensible, probably. What about Romney's claim that nixing Dodd-Frank would add 320,000 jobs in 2013 -- is that a sensible? Not so much. Would you believe it if I told you that number comes from the National Association of Realtors (NAR)? Yup, these guys.
That was from Feburary 2008, two years after housing prices peaked. That uncomfortable reality wasn't lost on NAR when they cut this ad two months later, telling people not to worry about falling prices -- increased affordability! -- because housing tends to double every decade.
I could go on. The point isn't that a self-interested group was epically wrong about a once-in-a-generation housing bust. That's true of plenty of others. The point is that Romney is relying on a self-interested group that has been epically wrong to make the case for his -- albeit, nonexistent -- housing plan. It'd be like listening to this guy about, well, anything.
It didn't have to be this way. Conservative wonks have serious ideas about what to do with housing. Mitt Romney even employs some of them as his top advisers. This ambiguity is even more baffling when you consider our jobs slump is the result of our investment slump, which is itself the result of our residential investment slump. Fix housing and you might fix the economy. Now, housing might already be fixing itself, but helping it out would be great policy -- but equally terrible politics.
Obama isn't the only one afraid of anti-bailout rage. Romney is too. Maybe even more so. After all, Romney is counting on the Santellis of the world to back him. And that's why Mr. Fix-It is running on a housing plan short of an actual plan -- a plan that actually fixes things wouldn't pass the Tea Party's ideological sniff test. It would mean helping out homeowners who might not "deserve" help. As Paul Krugman pointed out, Romney is boxed in. He feels like he has to kowtow to the base, but the base does not want to kowtow to the reality of what it will take to get the economy moving again.
Romney is running as an economic expert, but his economic plans either do not add up or do not exist. That leaves him with little more than magical thinking. The joke's on us.
A scientist and a monk compare notes on meditation, therapy, and their effects on the brain
Can training the mind make us more attentive, altruistic, and serene? Can we learn to manage our disturbing emotions in an optimal way? What are the transformations that occur in the brain when we practice meditation? In a new book titled Beyond the Self, two friends—Matthieu Ricard, who left a career as a molecular biologist to become a Buddhist monk in Nepal, and Wolf Singer, a distinguished neuroscientist—engage in an unusually well-matched conversation about meditation and the brain. Below is a condensed and edited excerpt.
Matthieu Ricard: Although one ﬁnds in the Buddhist literature many treatises on “traditional sciences”—medicine, cosmology, botanic, logic, and so on—Tibetan Buddhism has not endeavored to the same extent as Western civilizations to expand its knowledge of the world through the natural sciences. Rather it has pursued an exhaustive investigation of the mind for 2,500 years and has accumulated, in an empirical way, a wealth of experiential ﬁndings over the centuries. A great number of people have dedicated their whole lives to this contemplative science.
The GOP succeeded in delivering on many of its promises. But the new code, which Congress will vote on this week, will not be as lasting, or as simplified, as they’d hoped.
The legislation congressional Republicans finalized on Friday and are likely to enact next week delivers on many of the party’s—and President Trump’s— promises for a landmark overhaul of the tax code. But the rush to pass the bill through a narrow Senate majority and without Democratic support forced the GOP to sacrifice some of their long-held aspirations for tax reform.
The final bill permanently reduces the corporate tax rate all the way from 35 percent to 21 percent, nearly matching the 20 percent goal House Republicans set in their 2016 campaign plan (though not as low as the 15 percent Trump ran on). It cuts taxes sharply for business owners, and companies will be able to write off costly purchases of new equipment and buildings.
A new strategy prevents parasites from adapting to drugs by intensifying the competition between them.
The history of antibiotics is a history of running in place. Two years after the first of these life-saving drugs—penicillin—was mass-produced, bacteria that resisted the drug became widespread, too. With grim inevitability, the same events have unfolded for every other drug. Every time scientists identify a new substance that can hold back the tide of infectious disease, resistant superbugs surge over that barrier in a matter of years.
The evolution of drug-resistant microbes is unavoidable, but it’s not instantaneous. And one might reasonably wonder why. Microbes have been around for billions of years. They have had, quite literally, all the time in the world to invent every possible biochemical trick, including ways of defusing antibiotics that they themselves use to kill and suppress each other. So why aren’t all microbes already resistant to all drugs?
Now that he's raised awareness of his lifestyle, David Jay, founder of AVEN, is working to change mainstream beliefs about sex drives.
Now that he's raised awareness of his lifestyle, David Jay, founder of AVEN, is working to change mainstream beliefs about sex drives.
David Jay was in middle school when everyone around him grew suddenly obsessed with the same all-consuming impulse. It wasn't sex per se, but it was its nascent beginnings. While his classmates talked non-stop about which movie stars they thought were hot, eyed each other in the hallway, and made their first, awkward attempts at dating, Jay was left feeling distinctly out of the loop.
"I just didn't get it," he recalls. "I didn't have a reference point to understand what they were going through. And that's really terrifying, because everyone assumes that's what should be happening for you. Sexuality is a really big deal for almost everyone, from middle school on. It's a really central part of a lot of people's lives."
Content moderators review the the dark side of the internet. They don’t escape unscathed.
Lurking inside every website or app that relies on “user-generated content”—so, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, among others—there is a hidden kind of labor, without which these sites would not be viable businesses. Content moderation was once generally a volunteer activity, something people took on because they were embedded in communities that they wanted to maintain.
But as social media grew up, so did moderation. It became what the University of California, Los Angeles, scholar Sarah T. Roberts calls, “commercial content moderation,” a form of paid labor that requires people to review posts—pictures, videos, text—very quickly and at scale.
Roberts has been studying the labor of content moderation for most of a decade, ever since she saw a newspaper clipping about a small company in the Midwest that took on outsourced moderation work.
Russia's strongman president has many Americans convinced of his manipulative genius. He's really just a gambler who won big.
I. The Hack
The large, sunny room at Volgograd State University smelled like its contents: 45 college students, all but one of them male, hunched over keyboards, whispering and quietly clacking away among empty cans of Juicy energy drink. “It looks like they’re just picking at their screens, but the battle is intense,” Victor Minin said as we sat watching them.
Clustered in seven teams from universities across Russia, they were almost halfway into an eight-hour hacking competition, trying to solve forensic problems that ranged from identifying a computer virus’s origins to finding secret messages embedded in images. Minin was there to oversee the competition, called Capture the Flag, which had been put on by his organization, the Association of Chief Information Security Officers, or ARSIB in Russian. ARSIB runs Capture the Flag competitions at schools all over Russia, as well as massive, multiday hackathons in which one team defends its server as another team attacks it. In April, hundreds of young hackers participated in one of them.
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.”
How Iris Chang tried to bridge the gap between a fading memory and a horrific lived reality
The book case in my childhood bedroom contained worlds far from my own. There was my volume of folk tales from the Childcraft encyclopedia series, along with an illustrated Bible. Sandwiched between them was the blood-red spine of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. The book had awoken the mainstream Western consciousness to the truth of the Japanese military’s horrific massacre of Chinese soldiers and civilians prior to World War II. Unlike many historians, Chang thrust stories and photographs of rape, disfigurement, killing contests, and live burials in front of her readers, forcing them to choose either to shudder and remember or look away in complicity.
While Chang faced a barrage of attacks from other historians, as well as from the publisher contracted to translate her book into Japanese, the debate over what happened in Nanking from December 1937 to January 1938 had been raging before the publication of her book. Japan, for instance, remains divided over the number of Chinese killed in Nanking during those six weeks. The massacre camp generally supports the Tokyo War Crimes Trials figure of “upwards of 100,000” deaths; skeptics claim 15,000 to 50,000, while others venture only up to 10,000. Outside of Japan, James Yin and Shi Young, whose work Chang frequently cited, place the minimum death toll as high as 369,366.
Progressive clergy are pushing a new movement that’s unapologetically political—and deeply rooted in textual traditions.
Since Donald Trump was elected one year ago, I’ve heard from a number of rabbis who feel caught. They’re not sure how to speak into this moment of intense partisan division, nasty rhetoric, and outrage; how to console and advise those who are devastated while not alienating congregants who support the president. This conundrum is sharpest in the Orthodox world, where a strong majority of Jews lean Republican. But even liberal Jewish leaders—those in the Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative movements—many feel hemmed in by board members, funders, or their own sense of clerical propriety.
Sharon Brous does not agree. The senior rabbi at IKAR, a non-denominational spiritual community in Los Angeles, believes this is not a normal moment in American politics, and Jewish leaders need to speak out. The models of Jewish movement-building are also changing, she says: Gone are the days when the president of the Union of Reform Judaism or the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly are the only voices who can speak for American Jews. A new generation of rabbis, working outside of traditional, hierarchical structures, are building followings and defining a new, often politicized, way of expressing Judaism.