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.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.
The condition has long been considered untreatable. Experts can spot it in a child as young as 3 or 4. But a new clinical approach offers hope.
This is a good day, Samantha tells me: 10 on a scale of 10. We’re sitting in a conference room at the San Marcos Treatment Center, just south of Austin, Texas, a space that has witnessed countless difficult conversations between troubled children, their worried parents, and clinical therapists. But today promises unalloyed joy. Samantha’s mother is visiting from Idaho, as she does every six weeks, which means lunch off campus and an excursion to Target. The girl needs supplies: new jeans, yoga pants, nail polish.
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At 11, Samantha is just over 5 feet tall and has wavy black hair and a steady gaze. She flashes a smile when I ask about her favorite subject (history), and grimaces when I ask about her least favorite (math). She seems poised and cheerful, a normal preteen. But when we steer into uncomfortable territory—the events that led her to this juvenile-treatment facility nearly 2,000 miles from her family—Samantha hesitates and looks down at her hands. “I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.”
A recent push for diversity has been blamed for weak print sales, but the company’s decades-old business practices are the true culprit.
Marvel Comics has been having a rough time lately. Readers and critics met last year’s Civil War 2—a blockbuster crossover event (and aspiritual tie-in to the year’s big Marvel movie)—with disinterest and scorn. Two years of plummeting print comics sales culminated in a February during which only one series managed to sell over 50,000 copies. Three crossover events designed to pump up excitement came and went with little fanfare, while the lead-up to 2017’s blockbuster crossover Secret Empire—where a fascist Captain America subverts and conquers the United States—sparked such a negative response that the company later put out a statement imploring readers to buy the whole thing before judging it. On March 30, a battered Marvel decided to try and get to the bottom of the problem with a retailer summit—and promptly stuck its foot in its mouth.
The office was, until a few decades ago, the last stronghold of fashion formality. Silicon Valley changed that.
Americans began the 20th century in bustles and bowler hats and ended it in velour sweatsuits and flannel shirts—the most radical shift in dress standards in human history. At the center of this sartorial revolution was business casual, a genre of dress that broke the last bastion of formality—office attire—to redefine the American wardrobe.
Born in Silicon Valley in the early 1980s, business casual consists of khaki pants, sensible shoes, and button-down collared shirts. By the time it was mainstream, in the 1990s, it flummoxed HR managers and employees alike. “Welcome to the confusing world of business casual,” declared a fashion writer for the Chicago Tribune in 1995. With time and some coaching, people caught on. Today, though, the term “business casual” is nearly obsolete for describing the clothing of a workforce that includes many who work from home in yoga pants, put on a clean T-shirt for a Skype meeting, and don’t always go into the office.
What started as a cold meeting between the pontiff and the U.S. president turned friendly after a brief closed-door discussion.
Meeting Pope Francis can really mess with a guy. The day after then-House Speaker John Boehner met with the pope during his visit to the U.S. in 2015, the Republican politician tearfully resigned. The former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly spent the morning of his last day with the network in Rome, where he met Francis in the Vatican receiving line.
Depressed liberals who hate President Trump and (incorrectly) see Pope Francis as a global avatar for their progressive agenda might have hoped something similar would go down during the meeting between the two leaders at the Vatican on Wednesday. It’s unlikely that their wishful thinking will come to pass, but the two men seem to have warmed to one another during their visit. The Italian newspaper La Stampa noted the tension in the room when the meeting began: Posing for press photos, “Trump smiled, Bergoglio a little less,” they said, referring to Francis by his given name. After a half-hour-long closed-door meeting, though, “the slightly tense climate that marked the beginning of the visit melted,” the newspaper reported. By the end of the visit, members of the two delegations were joking and laughing. “I will not forget what you said,” Trump said.
Why is the president putting ISIS in the same category in which he places Rosie O’Donnell?
Donald Trump has coined a term to describe terrorists like those who murdered 22 people on Monday in Manchester: “Losers.” White House officials claim he came up with it on his own.
That’s not surprising. As USA Today has noted, “losers” is Trump’s go-to epithet. He’s applied the term to the Standard & Poor’s credit-ratings agency, Rosie O’Donnell, George Will, Cher, Salon, Huffington Post, Karl Rove, Graydon Carter, Marc Cuban, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, the Club for Growth, Anna Navarro, The New York Daily News, a Scottish farmer who tried to keep him from building a golf course, and the Republican Party, among others. Maybe the term will prove effective in undermining the aura of rebellious cool that attracts some young Muslims to ISIS, as my Atlantic colleague Uri Friedman suggests, although I have my doubts about Trump’s ability to arbitrate what young Muslims find hip.
Five years ago, on a boat off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, I met the largest animal that exists or has ever existed.
The blue whale grows up to 110 feet in length. Its heart is the size of a small car. Its major artery is big enough that you could wedge a small child into it (although you probably shouldn’t). It’s an avatar of hugeness. And its size is evident if you ever get to see one up close. From the surface, I couldn’t make out the entire animal—just the top of its head as it exposed its blowhole and took a breath. But then, it dove. As its head tilted downwards, its arching back broke the surface of the water in a graceful roll. And it just kept going, and going, and going. By the time the huge tail finally broke the surface, an unreasonable amount of time had elapsed.
What the dystopian series does not imply about the role of religion in politics
As someone who likes to build up my capacity to imagine the worst, I’ve been finding The Handmaid’s Tale, the new television series adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, harrowing to watch. The show is an investigation into religious totalitarianism and patriarchy, and perhaps more interestingly a meditation on collaboration and complicity. I’ve been struggling with it because it seems, at times, so plausible, but also so far-fetched.
In creating the fictional Gilead—a theocratic regime that comes to power in the United States after falling birthrates and terrorist attacks lead to mass panic, then a culture of enforced sexual servitude—Atwood was issuing a warning. That the television series has come out in the era of Donald Trump has apparently helped make it a sensation. “What if it happened here in America?” viewers and critics areasking. Yet, something like Gilead couldn’t happen here, in part because it hasn’t happened anywhere.
Several studies show beneficiaries of the program are more likely to be obese. But the answer is not to cut benefits, some academics say.
Among other programs President Trump proposed slashing in his budget blueprint Tuesday, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as the food stamps program, would lose 29 percent of its funding over 10 years.
Conservative groups praised the budget proposal’s combination of boosted defense spending and cuts to “domestic programs that are redundant, improper, or otherwise wasteful,” as Romina Boccia, a fellow in federal budgetary affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said in a statement. Liberal groups, meanwhile, said it would “harm America's most vulnerable people and make matters worse for those who can least afford it,” as Felicia Wong, president of the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank, put it.