Economy

Beware a Grand Bargain

AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
W ill President Obama and the Democrats win a major battle only to lose the war? The longterm war that Republicans are fighting is a deadly serious struggle to destroy the most important and valued achievements of the New Deal-Great Society legacy, Social Security and Medicare. Wall Street billionaires like Peter G. Peterson and Stanley Druckenmiller have been softening the ground for decades by claiming that Social Security is bankrupting the country and destroying future prospects of America’s youth. So there is a kind of pincer movement between the scorched-earth Republicans of the Tea Party, willing to shut the government if they don’t get their way, and the more mannered Wall Street Republicans who want to gut social insurance for the alleged good of the country. It adds up to the same thing—cut or privatize the Democrats’ two crown jewels. What’s worse, even though Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were able to maintain 100 percent party unity in their House and Senate caucuses in...

Closing the Gender Gap in the Fed's Hallowed Halls

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
J anet Yellen, President Obama’s superb pick to be the next chair of the Federal Reserve, should have been a shoo-in all along. In fact, it was widely thought this past spring that, as vice chair of the Federal Reserve, she was the most likely candidate to replace Ben Bernanke when his term as chair was scheduled to end early in 2014. But in the months before October 9, when she stood beaming next to President Obama in the White House as he finally announced her as his pick to succeed Bernanke, a curious campaign had emerged to nominate Larry Summers, a close economic advisor to the president, for the position. The Summers push received copious media coverage, reportedly fueled by senior White House advisors. As summer reached its doldrums, journalists began reporting that high-level White House advisors worried that Yellen lacked “gravitas,” was too “soft-spoken,” or might not be good in a crisis. A few journalists pointed out that these coded words suggested sexism. (The gender...

A Spine Is a Useful Thing to Have

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci H ow much damage have the Republicans done to themselves going into the elections of 2014 and 2016? And has President Obama resolved to hang tough, not just in this round, but in the one that follows and the one after that? The contrived shutdown crisis proved two things. It proved that Republicans are split down the middle between a lunatic, fundamentalist wing that prefers wreckage to governing and a pragmatic wing often allied with Wall Street. And it proved once and for all that being tough in the face of blackmail beats appeasement that only courts more rounds of blackmail. Business elites applied escalating pressure on the Republicans not to let the United States default on its debt. In the end, 144 House Republicans voted against the measure, and 87 voted for it. That 144, though, exaggerates somewhat the true strength of the Tea Party faction. Some of that vote was a protest against the failure of the Democrats to give anything in return. For now, public...

Tom Friedman’s Worst Column Ever

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Sometimes, Tom Friedman writes a column that is such complete baloney it makes you want to retch. Rather than risking soiling my shoes, here is a point-by-point rebuttal to Friedman’s opus du jour, titled: “ Sorry, Kids. We Ate It All .” Friedman’s column swallows whole the budgetary malarkey of the corporate Fix-the-Debt lobby and its Wall Street sponsors. Namely, the reduced horizons of the next generation are the result of the gluttony of old folks—and of unions. But what makes this piece especially appalling (and emblematic) is that the hero of Friedman’s piece is one Stanley Druckenmiller, a hedge-fund billionaire who has appointed himself as the Paul Revere of deficit reduction to warn America’s college students that The Seniors Are Coming. In passing, Friedman discloses that Druckenmiller is also “a friend.” So on top of the absurd logic of the piece, Friedman is guilty of a conflict of interest—using the most valuable real estate in American journalism to do a favor for a chum...

The Robot Invasion

Jason Schneider
I f you want a sense of where the nation’s job market is headed, a good place to stand is inside the half-mile-long Skechers warehouse in Moreno Valley, California, where box after box of shoes is stacked upon row after row of shelving, which soars some 40 feet in the air. Physically, the place is a wonder—quiet, sleek, and environmentally friendly (at 1.8 million square feet, it’s the largest officially certified “LEED Gold” building in the country). But what’s most remarkable about the $250 million structure, which opened in 2011, is how few people work there. The day I visited, a clump of men and women toiled away near a series of conveyor belts, filling small specialty orders. But machines—not human beings—were handling the bulk of the chores. “As you can see, there are no more people doing the retrieving,” Iddo Benzeevi, the chief executive of Highland Fairview, the firm that developed the site, told me. “It’s the computer doing it all by itself.” A driverless crane swung into...

Thinking the Unthinkable

Listen up, class. World War I never happened. It didn’t happen because nobody wanted it, and everybody grasped the horrific risks. In the event, the common European civilization was destroyed, three empires fell, 16 million people died, and 20 million were wounded. So World War I couldn’t happen because everyone knew how awful it would be. In August 1914, virtually all leaders anticipated a short set of skirmishes, a readjustment of borders as in other recent wars, and everyone would be home for Christmas. But, you know, stuff happens. Then there was the American Civil War. It didn’t happen either. Many Southern leaders knew that staying in the Union and accepting some limitations on slavery in the territories and new states would allow them to keep their “peculiar institution” and avoid the economic catastrophe of a war on their soil. Oops. Thus the Republican game of chicken with the debt default. It can’t happen because its consequences would be too unthinkable, right? The stock...

An Ignoble Prize

Eugene Fama, one of the winners of this year’s Nobel in economics, is the fellow who proposed that all markets are efficient all of the time—more precisely that market pricing accurately captures all available information and thus creates “correct” prices. Fama also insisted that there is no such thing as a price bubble. Somehow, the man missed one of history’s great bubbles and the collapse that followed—an epic case of markets getting prices wrong. He also missed the fact that markets have incorrectly priced carbon, leading to global climate disaster, which Lord Nicholas Stern correctly termed “history’s greatest case of market failure.” For this, they give the man a Nobel. What timing! The mind boggles in search of an apt comparison. It’s like giving a posthumous Nobel in physics to Ptolemy rather than Copernicus for demonstrating that the sun revolves around the earth. Or maybe in biology not to Gregor Mendel or Charles Darwin but to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s court geneticist, for...

Old Conservatives Can't Learn New Tricks

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
AP Photo/Alex Brandon I f President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats wanted to maximize the political advantage they're getting from the shutdown/default crisis, they'd agree to at least one part of the short-term deals Republicans have offered, raising the debt ceiling for only six weeks at a time. Then we'd have one default crisis after another, and the standing of the GOP would keep on its downward trajectory until—let's just pick a date at random here—November 2014. But Republicans won't do that; they're now insisting (and good for them) that the deal has to extend at least a year into the future so we don't have to keep going through this. If they get that deal, though, the issue will fade and voters could start to forget how reckless Republicans have been. They could forget, but I'm guessing Republicans won't let them. It isn't as though the ultimate conclusion of this crisis is going to result in a chastened GOP, ready to be reasonable and assure the public it can...

Notes from the Underground Economy

The Prospect talks to Sudhir Venkatesh about his new book Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy .

Flickr/omar.hassawi
Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy is a new book by Sudhir Venkatesh that explores the struggles and aspirations of disparate New Yorkers and shows how the city’s underground economy connects its inhabitants from all walks of life. In the book, Venkatesh introduces us to a range of characters: Shine, a crack dealer breaking into the high end cocaine market centered around the art galleries, bars, and clubs of the rich; Manjun, a porn store clerk who allows prostitutes to rent his back room; and Venkatesh’s friend, Analise—the beautiful daughter of a wealthy family—who confesses to him that she manages a group of high-end prostitutes that cater to the rich. In his previous work, Gang Leader For a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, which chronicles the lives of drug dealers in Chicago, Venkatesh found that people took pride in staying within their own communities. That’s not the case for the characters in Floating City —as the...

Postcards from the Shutdown Edge

AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)
AP Photo/Chuck Burton T en days into the shutdown, it’s easy to wonder just how much the federal government helps people day-to-day. We’ve heard about delays in highways maintenance and about federal workers who have to wait until the government opens to get paid. What about those programs conservatives are always complaining about? You might have expected stories about people suffering without help from various federal services—from food stamps to welfare checks. Instead, there’s been little to indicate needy people are going without. That’s because the worst potential effects of the shutdown have been delayed—for now. States, even deep red states, are currently covering for the feds. Some programs waiting for re-authorization—like food stamps—are still largely intact because the federal government sends out reimbursements at the end of the month, so there’s still money and state employees to administer the benefits. Others programs have state money to thank. Through moving funds...

The Task Rabbit Economy

T askRabbit.com markets itself as a Web service that matches clients seeking someone to do odd jobs with “college students, recent retirees, stay-at-home moms, [and] young professionals” looking for extra income. The company website calls it “a marketplace dedicated to empowering people to do what they love.” The name Task Rabbit doesn’t exactly suggest the dignity of work, and the love often takes humble forms. Customers hire Task Rabbits to clean garages, haul clothes to the laundry, paint apartments, assemble Ikea products, buy groceries, or do almost anything else that’s legal. The San Francisco–based company, which has raised $38 million in venture capital since it was founded in 2008, makes its money by tacking on a 20 percent surcharge to the fees paid by clients. The firm performs criminal background checks on aspiring Rabbits, who then get access to chore requests posted by customers. Using the familiar metrics of the Internet, the more than 10,000 approved Rabbits are rated...

Enter Yellen

AP Images/Eugene Hoshiko
With President Obama’s belated decision to name Janet Yellen to chair the Fed, several questions arise. First, is Yellen likely to be confirmed? Almost certainly. The Republicans have lost a lot of public support by shutting down the government and playing chicken with the debt ceiling. They are not likely to trifle with the one functioning branch of government. Despite the Republicans’ intermittent uses of the filibuster, I’d be surprised if they went to the barricades to block Yellen. Second, there is the question of whether Yellen will have the same working majority on the Fed’s board of governors and open market committee that Ben Bernanke has enjoyed. There are now three vacancies on the Fed. One will be filled by Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs, Lael Brainard, a woman who is close to both Larry Summers but also to Dan Tarullo, the progressive Fed governor responsible for banking regulation at the Fed. However, the shift of Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin to be...

The She-covery that Wasn't

Press Association via AP Images
AP Photo W hen the government shutdown ends and September’s jobs report is released (it was supposed to appear last Friday), careful readers will notice that women are holding a number of jobs either at or just above their all-time high (which came in early 2008), while men are still millions short of their own pre-crash milestone. Hailing a successful she-covery, however, obscures the fact that women still face an elevated unemployment rate and that the barriers that kept that them from earning as much as men before the recession are still in place. Women are millions of jobs short of where they would be if the economy was at its full potential. Many of the new jobs they have are low-paying. The main causes of the pay gap, like gender segregation in the labor market, have not gone away. That women are gaining jobs is a good thing, but policymakers should not be convinced their work is over. Quantity Even though women hold about as many jobs now as they did before the crash,...

Dancing with the Shutdown Spin that Brought You

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite S pin is overrated. Alas, it’s never going away. If there’s one thing that political scientists try, repeatedly, to convince the reporters and correspondents who cover politics of, it’s that fundamentals tend to matter a lot more than they think, and opinion manipulation matters less. Not none—but in many cases, not very much. That’s why, for example, it was easy to predict that Republicans would lose the polling battle over the shutdown. If spin mattered, then that wouldn’t be the case; we would have to wait to see how well each side developed and delivered their “messaging” and their “narratives.” Oh, they do that; it just doesn’t matter nearly as much as structural elements, such as the advantage that a president has over congressional leaders in these sorts of situations or the fact that going into this particular battle, Democrats were united while Republicans were split. When this is over and you read a behind-the-scenes story about how the White...

Michael Bay Blows Up Detroit

Cal Sport Media via AP Images
I t's a morning in early August when Detroiters awaken to find a piece of Hong Kong rising in their midst. Beneath the shuttered skyscrapers of Grand Circus Park, the multi-story setpiece for Michael Bay's Transformers 4 buzzes with work crews painting balustrades and roofing life-sized tong lau . It has been little more than a week since Detroit became the largest city in the United States to declare bankruptcy. Under the People Mover, a monorail loop newly outfitted with sleek Chinese-language Red Bull ads, a group of professionals commute to work as if nothing were amiss. They take sips from covered cups of coffee and frown at the news on their smartphones, look towards the river and shake their heads at the distant rainclouds. To them, it's just another morning, off to the law office or accounting firm or the mortgage superbank. They aren’t incurious. It’s just that this isn’t the first time the Motor City has played host to China as a cinematic fabulation, though it may be the...

Pages