There is no evidence that countries like the United States face debt tipping points
Have you read the opinion section of any newspaper in the last three years? Yes? Then there is a better-than-even chance you have come across some impressive-sounding analyst predict that the United States is "turning into Greece."
Maybe it's been a while, so we'll recap. The short version of this story is that we'll spend ourselves into bankruptcy. The longer version says that too much public debt makes markets nervous. Nervous markets demand higher interest rates. Higher rates mean higher deficits and lower growth, both of which mean more burdensome debt. More burdensome debt makes markets even more nervous. And around and around we go in a vicious circle into insolvency.
As far as scare stories go, this is pretty damn scary. It's also just a story. Rates haven't risen as debt has the last few years; they have fallen to historic lows. Of course, that hasn't stopped the Greek chorus from predicting that the economy is going to Hades. But when? Is it when debt reaches 100 percent of GDP? Or 90 percent, as Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff famously argued?
What about 80 percent?
That was the bright white line drawn in a recent paper by David Greenlaw, James Hamilton, Peter Hooper and Frederic Mishkin. Greenlaw & Co. ran regressions on 20 advanced economies from 2000 to 2011 to see if there's a relationship between a country's borrowing costs one year and its gross debt, net debt, and 5-year current account average the previous one. (Glossary Interlude: Gross debt refers to the total amount of debt, including debt the government owes to itself. Net debt is the amount held by the public, minus any government assets. Current account is the balance of trade, which includes both net exports and net income on foreign investments).
They found a link. By their calculations, the coefficients for gross and net debt were "both highly statistically significant", and increasing both debt levels by 1 percentage point of GDP would increase borrowing costs by 4.5 basis points (or 0.045 percentage points). The coefficient for the current account balance was also highly significant, and decreasing the balance by 1 percentage point of GDP would increase borrowing costs by 18 basis points.
This is a big deal. It's not that this regression equation has much predictive power (the authors admit it doesn't) or that the above 4.5 basis points are all that scary; it's the claim that there's a statistically significant relationship between debt and rates. After all, if Greenlaw & Co. are right about debt tipping points, then we are, technically-speaking, screwed. Our gross debt to GDP is already at 102 percent -- enough to send our borrowing costs soaring, as they predict below.
If they are right.
They almost certainly are not.
WHY WE'RE SPECIAL
[Things are about to get very wonky below, so my editor forced me to sum up things here. The two main conclusions are: (1) For countries that can borrow in their own currency, like the U.S., higher debt doesn't clearly lead to higher interest rates. (2) For countries that don't control their currencies, like Greece, it's borrowing too much from foreigners (NOT borrowing too much in general) that clearly leads to much higher borrowing costs. Okay, forward with the wonkiness... ]
Not all debt is created equal. Countries that borrow in a currency they control play under a different set of rules. They can never run out of money to pay back what they owe, since they can always print what they need as a last resort. That's not to say they actually do or should turn to the printing-press to finance themselves. But the option to do so calms markets. After all, inflation is a lot less bad than default for creditors. That's why it's no so easy for countries that don't borrow in a currency they control. They can default. And this is a case where thinking can make things so. Indeed, as Paul De Grauwe points out, countries that don't have their own central bank, like euro members, can fall victim to self-fulfilling panics that push them into bankruptcy. In other words, markets force up interest rates because they fear default -- which then pushes them into default. It's a bank-run on a country.
So we have to answer one big question. How much of Greenlaw & Co.'s results are driven by euro countries that have completely different debt dynamics than non-euro countries?
Well, as Paul Krugman points out, 12 of the 20 countries they look at are either part of the euro, or, in Denmark's case, pegged to it. The remaining ones show no signs of anything resembling debt tipping points. Often the reverse. That's simple enough to see if we break up their sample. The chart below looks at the pre-crisis years from their sample, and shows the non-euro countries in red, the core-euro countries in green, and the (later) troubled PIIGS countries in blue. Back then, at least, there wasn't any difference between -- except for Japan, which had far more debt, and far lower borrowing costs. Nor was there much of any discernible relationship between debt and interest rates.
But then Lehman failed, and the world changed. Debt went up and borrowing costs came down -- except for the PIIGS.
I decided to go back and see what kind of results I'd get if I looked at the non-euro countries and PIIGS separately. I started by trying to recreate the Greenlaw & Co. result for the entire 20-country sample over the 12 years -- which I was able to do, with some very slight differences due to slightly different data sources. (I couldn't find IMF data on long-term interest rates for every country, so I used OECD data to fill in the blanks). Next, I ran a regression with country and time-fixed effects on the non-euro countries -- Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S. -- from 2000 to 2011. I got coefficients of .00743, .00575, and -0.0695 for gross debt, net debt, and current account, respectively. None of them were statistically significant at the 95 percent level. (The P>t values were 0.13, 0.18, and 0.087).
To translate from stats-speak: our equation for non-euro countries tells us increasing debt by 1 percentage point of GDP only increases borrowing costs by 1.3 basis points. And that result isn't even statistically significant. In other words, there is no evidence of a debt tipping point for countries that borrow in money they can print.
But what about Europe's troubled economies? The Greenlaw & Co. results should hold up there, if nowhere else, right? Well, kind of. I ran another regression with country and time fixed effects on the PIIGS -- Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain -- from 2000 to 2011, and I got coefficients of 0.0605, 0.0209, and -.8952 for gross debt, net debt, and current account. The coefficients for gross debt and the current account were statistically significant (the latter highly so), but not for net debt, since the PIIGS mostly have the same amount of gross and net debt. (The P>t values were 0.046, 0.342, and 0). I went back and ran the regression again, this time without net debt, and got coefficients of 0.0843 and -0.9157 for gross debt and the current account. Both were highly significant. (The P>t values were 0 for both).
Translated: our equation for the PIIGS tells us increasing debt by 1 percentage point of GDP increases borrowing costs by 8.4 basis points -- but increasing the current account deficit by 1 percentage point of GDP increases borrowing costs by 91 basis points! The PIIGS do have a serious problem, but that problem is borrowing too much from foreigners, not too much government borrowing, in general. Of course, this isn't exactly new information. Paul Krugman, among others, has been pointing out for years that the euro crisis is really a balance of payments crisis that just looks like a debt crisis because of the common currency.
Beware economists bearing regressions -- and journalists too. My sample sizes here are so ridiculously small that the results are hardly dispositive. So don't pay attention to the evidence. Pay attention to the lack of evidence.
There isn't any evidence that the U.S., or other countries that borrow in currencies they control, face some debt tipping point after which borrowing costs spiral out of control. There isn't even much evidence this is true of Europe's troubled economies. Borrowing costs fell for the PIIGS in 2012 (one year after Greenlaw & Co.'s sample ended), not because those countries reduced their debt burdens, but because the ECB promised to do "whatever it takes" to save the euro. A monetary backstop matters more than the amount of debt. Reducing debt isn't as empirically urgent as we hear.
Our Greek chorus are more Chicken Littles than Cassandras.
The president’s latest comments shouldn’t be surprising—but his deliberate inflammation of tense situations is no less stunning.
During last year’s presidential campaign, I conducted a running feature called the “Trump Time Capsule.” Its purpose was to chronicle the things Donald Trump said or did that were entirely outside the range of previous presidents or major-party nominees. This, in turn, was meant to lay down a record of what was known about this man, as the electorate decided whether to elevate him to presidential power.
By the time the campaign ended, the series had reached installment #152. Who Donald Trump was, and is, was absolutely clear by election day: ignorant, biased, narcissistic, dishonest. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in our current issue, everyone who voted for him did so with ample evidence about the kind of person they considered the “better” choice, or even as a minimally acceptable choice for president. Almost nothing Trump has done since taking office should come as a surprise.
One hundred years ago, a retail giant that shipped millions of products by mail moved swiftly into the brick-and-mortar business, changing it forever. Is that happening again?
Amazon comes to conquer brick-and-mortar retail, not to bury it. In the last two years, the company has opened 11 physical bookstores. This summer, it bought Whole Foods and its 400 grocery locations. And last week, the company announced a partnership with Kohl’s to allow returns at the physical retailer’s stores.
Why is Amazon looking more and more like an old-fashioned retailer? The company’s do-it-all corporate strategy adheres to a familiar playbook—that of Sears, Roebuck & Company. Sears might seem like a zombie today, but it’s easy to forget how transformative the company was exactly 100 years ago, when it, too, was capitalizing on a mail-to-consumer business to establish a physical retail presence.
At a game played in London on Sunday afternoon, many of their fellow Ravens and Jaguars took a knee.
Before the Lions met the Falcons in Detroit on Sunday, Rico LaVelle sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And then he took a knee.
They were replicating the gesture of Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who, starting in 2016, had been kneeling during the pre-game singing of the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick’s 49ers teammates, Eric Reid and Eli Harold, took a knee. The Beaumont Bulls, a high school team, took a knee. Their collective protests, however, had been limited—deviations from the norm.
NFL athletes are protesting on behalf of America’s founding values––and Donald Trump neither loves nor understands them.
Donald Trump, who has a disturbing history of praising brutal dictators, possesses no better than a Twitter troll’s understanding of what it means to be an American patriot. He spent the weekend trolling the NFL over the players protesting police violence during the national anthem, though any other president would have been attending to the millions of fellow citizens suffering in Puerto Rico; and the NFL athletes who defied him by taking a knee Sunday in solidarity with protests against police killings had the high ground, as good students of American history will understand.
When the Founding Fathers affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, the first act of political courage in United States history, the American flag as we know it did not yet exist. And it would be more than a century before the Star Spangled Banner was adopted as the national anthem. Yet the Founders were not deficient in love of country for lacking the Stars and Stripes. In bravely dissolving political bonds with Britain, Thomas Jefferson set forth the premise of the United States, the core ideas around which his countrymen rallied: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
A good marriage is no guarantee against infidelity.
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Priya is right. Few events in the life of a couple, except illness and death, carry such devastating force. For years, I have worked as a therapist with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. And my conversations about affairs have not been confined within the cloistered walls of my therapy practice; they’ve happened on airplanes, at dinner parties, at conferences, at the nail salon, with colleagues, with the cable guy, and of course, on social media. From Pittsburgh to Buenos Aires, Delhi to Paris, I have been conducting an open-ended survey about infidelity.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
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.”
What J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit still has to offer, 80 years after its publication
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So began the legendarium that dominated a genre, changed Western literature and the field of linguistics, created a tapestry of characters and mythology that endured four generations, built an anti-war ethos that endured a World War and a Cold War, and spawned a multibillion-dollar media franchise. J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is probably best remembered today by the sword-and-sandal epic scale of The Lord of The Rings films, but it started in the quiet, fictionalized English countryside of the Shire. It started, 80 years ago in a hobbit-hole, with Bilbo Baggins.
Although Tolkien created the complicated cosmological sprawl of The Silmarillion and stories like the incestuous saga of Túrin Turambar told in The Children of Húrin, Middle-earth itself is mostly remembered today as something akin to little Bilbo in his Hobbit-hole: quaint, virtuous, and tidy. Nowadays, George R.R. Martin’s got the market cornered on heavily initialed fantasy writers, and his hand guides the field. High and epic fantasy are often expected to dip heavily into the medieval muck of realism, to contain heavy doses of sex and curses, gore and grime, sickness and believable motives and set pieces. Characters like Martin’s mercenary Bronn of the Blackwater are expected to say “fuck.” Modern stories, even when set in lands like A Song of Ice and Fire’s Essos that are filled with competing faiths, tend toward the nihilist, and mostly atheist. Heavenly beings are denuded of potency and purity; while the gods may not be dead, divinity certainly is.
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President Trump apparently slept on it overnight and woke up early on Sunday morning thinking: “Yes, I will fight a cultural war against black athletes.”
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Two new books explore America’s changing romantic landscape.
C.S. Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, died of bone cancer on July 13, 1960. The next day, the famous author wrote a letter to Peter Bide, the priest who had married them, to tell him the news.
“I’d like to meet,” Lewis writes, suggesting the two grab lunch sometime soon. “For I am—oh God that I were not—very free now. One doesn’t realize in early life that the price of freedom is loneliness. To be happy is to be tied.”
When it comes to romance, Americans are freer than they’ve ever been. Freer to marry, freer to divorce, freer to have sex when and with whom they like with fewer consequences, freer to cohabitate without getting married, freer to remain single, freer to pursue open relationships or polyamory.