Kevin Drum - October 2013

Investors Are Getting Ever More Nervous About a Treasury Default

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 12:01 PM PDT

Last week I linked to a report showing a sharp increase in rates for treasury bonds that mature in late October. This is a signal that markets are starting to get genuinely nervous about the possibility of delayed payment on these notes. Today, Neil Irwin passes along the latest on this. As the chart on the right shows, the rates on short-term bills have hovered right around zero percent for all of September. Then, starting October 1, rates started to rise. In the past 48 hours, they've spiked enormously:

There are reports, including this one from Reuters, indicating that some of the biggest money managers in the world are starting to avoid U.S. government debt that matures in the near future out of fear they will not be repaid promptly. Bond investors seem to be confident that the U.S. government will make good on its obligations in the longer term --securities that mature a year or more from now are actually seeing their rates fall. But they are becoming less confident that these short-term securities will pay on time.

Ironically, this can create self-fulfilling problems for the Treasury. Treasury bills roll over every week, on Thursdays. Here's how it works: The government issues the bills for a "discount," then refunds the par value when they come due. So, for example, an investor might pay $995 for a bill that returns $1,000 in three months, for an equivalent of about a 2 percent annual interest rate.

As Irwin says, there's an easy answer to this. Just raise the debt ceiling.

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The Shutdown Might Be Hurting the GOP's Chances in Next Year's Election

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 10:03 AM PDT

Poll analyst extraordinaire Sam Wang thinks that things are looking fairly bleak for Republicans right now:

PPP surveyed 24 Congressional districts currently held by Republicans. They asked voters to choose between their current representative and a generic Democrat....The swing was toward Democrats for 23 races [] and toward the Republican for 1 race.

....Since the election is over a year away, it is hard to predict how this will translate to future seat gain/loss. If the election were held today, Democrats would pick up around 30 seats, giving them control of the chamber. I do not expect this to happen.

....In a followup series of questions, PPP then told respondents that their representative voted for the shutdown. At that point, the average swing moved a further 3.1% toward Democrats....That would be more like a 50-seat gain for Democrats — equivalent to a wave election. An analyst would have to be crazy to predict that!

I would echo Wang's caution. It's quite normal for Democrats to perform well in generic congressional polls 6-9 months before a midterm election, so this probably doesn't mean much. As for the shutdown, I think it's an open question whether that's still going to be a live issue by next November. It might be! Or it might have been completely forgotten. I just wouldn't put much stock in this either way.

Americans Are Poorly Educated, Part XXVI

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 9:27 AM PDT

The OECD has a big new study out about literacy and numeracy in developed countries, and the United States didn't do very well:

The study, perhaps the most detailed of its kind, shows that the well-documented pattern of several other countries surging past the United States in students’ test scores and young people’s college graduation rates corresponds to a skills gap, extending far beyond school. In the United States, young adults in particular fare poorly compared with their international competitors of the same ages — not just in math and technology, but also in literacy.

More surprisingly, even middle-aged Americans — who, on paper, are among the best-educated people of their generation anywhere in the world — are barely better than middle of the pack in skills.

Every year someone conducts a geography test among America's high school students, and every year the results are the same: lots of kids can't find France on a map. Quelle horreur! And every year I have the same reaction: how about if we give this test to adults? I'll bet most of them can't find France on a map either.

This is why the second paragraph of the excerpt above doesn't surprise me. It also wouldn't surprise me if the same thing were true 50 years ago. There's a widespread myth that America used to be the best educated country in the world and has since slipped into mediocrity, but as near as I can tell it's just a myth. America's kids have always been fairly middle-of-the-pack. Ditto for America's adults. My guess is that this is largely due to averages being pulled down by enduring levels of inequality and the legacy of racism, but that's just a guess.

So I'm honestly not sure what to think about this. Low literacy levels are obviously a serious issue. This isn't something that should be casually dismissed. And yet....as you can see in the chart, the difference in literacy levels between countries is fairly small except at the very top and bottom, and the United States is sandwiched right in between Denmark, Germany, and France. Does anyone think that Denmark and Germany are educational hellholes doomed to decline and poverty?

As an aside, one odd result in this study is that America does worse in numeracy than in literacy. This is odd because if you look at NAEP test scores over time, it's the math scores that have gotten substantially better. If there's an area where you'd think the United States would be in relatively better shape, it's math.

For now, I'll wait for some more expert commentary. I've seen too much of this stuff to panic about it without digging a little deeper, and especially without knowing if it's truly an alarming new development, or just the same results as always.

The Problem With Jon Stewart's Obamacare Interview

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 8:06 AM PDT

From First Read:

If you’re a Democrat and you’ve lost Jon Stewart, you have a problem. And that’s exactly what happened when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius went on the “Daily Show” last night to talk about the glitches with the Obamacare website. “As the secretary sat down to begin the segment, Stewart opened a laptop on his desk. ‘I’m going to attempt to download every movie ever made, and you’re going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we’ll see which happens first’”....We said it yesterday and we’ll say it again: The last thing you ever thought would happen is that Team Obama would have a website issue. These were the folks who pioneered how campaigns interact with voters over the internet.

Obamacare's website issues are obviously serious, but at the same time: give me a break, folks. I'm pretty sure the First Read team is well aware that Obama wasn't allowed to just call up his favorite web guru and tell him to get the old campaign team together and set up the Obamacare site. It had to go through the usual government procurement and bidding process, and was designed and created by whichever outside consultants won the job.

The NBC news team knows this, right? So why do they act like they don't?

As for Stewart, I'm not sure what to say. I watched his interview last night, and I thought Stewart was easily as big a problem as Sebelius. He decided to ask about the conservative talking point that it's unfair to delay the employer mandate while leaving the individual mandate in place, and Sebelius clearly tap danced a bit. But the big problem, as near as I can tell, is that Stewart was his usual unprepared self for this interview. Frankly, I couldn't tell throughout the interview if he even understood what the employer mandate was. This happens all the time, usually with conservatives knocking Stewart around because they know what they're talking about and he doesn't. This time it happened to be a liberal, but the result was the same: an incoherent interview in which he couldn't drive home his point because he wasn't really sure what his point was.

Following the interview, he made a gag about still not understanding what was going on, and then suggested that maybe Sebelius had been lying. That was really beneath him. Sebelius didn't do a great job of answering the question, but I sure didn't catch her in any lies. She basically told him that the employer mandate applied only to businesses with more than 50 employees (true); that most of these businesses already offer their employees health coverage (true); and that the number of people affected by the delay of the employer mandate was pretty small (true). RAND estimates that the delay will affect 1,000 firms and 300,000 people, about 0.2 percent of the population.

Now, is delaying the employer mandate "fair?" That's hardly a question with a factual answer, so I'm not sure what kind of reply Stewart expected to get in the first place. In the end, this was just another example of Stewart on his high horse again, and it's always been his least attractive persona, regardless of whether it's prompted by liberal or conservative outrage. Sebelius obviously tried to put the best possible face on the Obamacare rollout, just as all politicians do, but she didn't lie.

POSTSCRIPT: And why was the employer mandate delayed? The truth is that we've never gotten a definitive explanation. The basic answer is that the regulatory requirements turned out to be more complex than anticipated. The deeper answer is roughly the one that Sebelius gave: it was possible to grant the delay because the effect was tiny and didn't affect anything fundamental about Obamacare. Conversely, the individual mandate isn't especially complex and does fundamentally affect Obamacare. It can't be delayed without doing serious damage to the entire law. This answer might or might not be satisfying, but it's roughly the truth.

ANOTHER POSTSCRIPT: If you want a slightly more detailed description of what was wrong with this interview, and what kind of answer Sebelius should have given, Josh Barro has a pretty good rundown here.

Is October 17 Still the Drop Dead Date for the Debt Ceiling?

| Mon Oct. 7, 2013 9:28 PM PDT

I'd still like to know if Treasury thinks October 17 is the drop-dead day for hitting the debt ceiling. I've looked through the various numbers about federal income and outgo, and I accept that the government shutdown probably doesn't affect spending all that much. But it does affect it some, and I'd like to know how much.

Here's why. If October 17 rolls around and Jack Lew suddenly announces that, thanks to the shutdown, we have some extra time before the sky falls, it's going to feed the shockingly common Republican belief that all the debt ceiling chatter is little more than liberal scaremongering. For the same reason, I'd like Treasury to tell us definitively if they can prioritize payments or not. Because if it turns out they can, and the worst effects of the debt ceiling can therefore be deferred, Republicans will take it as even further evidence of scaremongering.

I know Treasury is in a tough position. But it could be disastrous if they've been less than 100 percent forthright and pundits everywhere start claiming that the whole thing has been a cynical game and there was never any serious danger after all. It wouldn't be true, but it would nonetheless make resolution of the debt ceiling crisis even harder than it seems now.

New Study Says Conservatives React More Strongly to Insults Than Liberals

| Mon Oct. 7, 2013 6:16 PM PDT

Via Henry Farrell, here's something that won't surprise you at all. Lafayette College professor Elizabeth Suhay ran an experiment recently that tested the effect of incendiary blog comments. As you can see in the chart below, when the test included obnoxious liberal comments, it didn't have much effect on liberals compared to a control group. But conservatives reacted pretty strongly. The comments pissed them off and their views became even more conservative than before:

Like I said, this is no surprise. You'd expect conservatives to react more strongly than liberals to liberal insults.

But here's the surprise: Another version of the test included obnoxious conservative comments. And the results were the same. Liberals pretty much shrugged off the insults, but conservatives reacted strongly compared to a control group. When they read nasty comments from their fellow conservatives, it fired them up to be even more conservative than before:

Now, there are a few reasons to take this with a grain of salt. First, it's only one study. There may be problems with methodology or question wording or a dozen other things. Second, this is pretty much what we liberals would like to believe, isn't it? That should give us pause before we get too self-righteous over this. Third, the study was done using volunteers recruited via Mechanical Turk, and I've had some pretty uncomplimentary things to say about MT before.

Still, it's intriguing and certainly deserves some follow-up. I presume this result is related in some way to the fact that conservatives tend to have higher in-group loyalty than liberals, but that's just an armchair guess. Maybe further research could dig into that.

From a political point of view, I guess the big question this study raises is: What fires up liberals? We have a pretty good idea of what fires up conservatives, but what gets us lefties going?

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Why Washington Is Stuck in an Endless Loop of Dysfunction and Squabbling

| Mon Oct. 7, 2013 11:51 AM PDT

Today Ezra Klein lists "The 13 reasons Washington is failing," and to be honest, I was all ready not to like this post. I mean, seriously? Thirteen reasons? Spare me.

But it's pretty good! Sure, numbers 5, 10, and 11 are kinda the same, but that's OK. It's an idea that deserves some repetition. And many of the others don't always get the attention they deserve even though they're surprisingly important. The most important one of all, I think, is way at the bottom of the list at #13. Generally speaking, I'm not part of the crowd that thinks we're doomed to eternal gridlock and dysfunction, but there's not much question that the transformation of American parties into ideological European-style parties is very, very, underappreciated. Regardless of how our current crisis works itself out, we're on a massive collision course between de facto parliamentary rule, with party discipline as its fundamental feature, and a presidential system that never developed the parliamentary norms that make this work.

Maybe we'll work things out. But governing norms are critical when the actual governing rules are incoherent, as ours have become, and the Republican Party has been gleefully tearing down governing norms ever since Newt Gingrich took over. I'm not sure how this is supposed to end.

Maybe Obama's Team Needs to Be a Little More Alarming on the Debt Ceiling

| Mon Oct. 7, 2013 10:26 AM PDT

Bob Somerby writes today about Sen. Rand Paul's appearance on Meet the Press this weekend, but throws in an aside about Treasury Secretary Jack Lew's appearance:

[Paul] followed Jack Lew, who pretty much convinced the nation that we have little to fear from a failure to raise the debt limit. We know, we know! Lew was trying to say the opposite. But what a horrible, narcotized spokesman!

It's true that Lew took a pretty low-key approach, despite host Savannah Guthrie's best efforts. "Are you talking catastrophe?" she asked. Lew wouldn't bite, so then she gave him another chance. "It would be calamitous for the economy?" Still no bite! "It would be very bad," was the worst Lew could summon up.

That's pretty soporific, all right. The problem, I assume, is that Lew is in an impossible situation. Breaching the debt ceiling would be pretty calamitous, but Treasury secretaries have an obligation not to panic markets with loose talk. Backbench congressmen, by contrast, can say anything they think might get them a few minutes on the evening news.

It's an asymmetrical war, and it's not clear what the answer is. Administration officials have a fine line to walk, trying to make sure they have well and truly warned everyone about how disastrous a debt ceiling breach would be, but at the same time not sending markets into a tailspin unnecessarily. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think Bob is right: Lew pushed the balance a little too far into yawn inducing territory yesterday. He needs to be clearer about what exactly would happen once we finally get to the day when we can't pay our bills.

Ted Yoho: We Must Destroy the World In Order to Save It

| Mon Oct. 7, 2013 9:34 AM PDT

Government policy may or may not have been a prime cause of the 2008 financial crisis, but Dan Drezner says it sure is a prime cause of the lousy recovery since then:

A standard lament about the 2008 financial crisis is that it happened because of "market fundamentalism."....But between the Eurozone crisis and U.S. policy deadlocks, it's striking how much the gyrations of the past few years are because of governance failures. And it's depressing to consider how much better the global economy would be doing if politicians in the advanced industrialized economies were a bit better at their jobs.

Yep. And speaking of governance failures, here is Rep. Ted Yoho over the weekend:

"I think we need to have that moment where we realize [we’re] going broke. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, that will sure as heck be a moment. I think, personally, it would bring stability to the world markets," since they would be assured the United States had moved decisively to curb its debt.

Yes indeedy. Breaching the debt ceiling will bring stability to world markets. I wonder what other ideas Yoho has for bringing stability to world markets? I'd love to hear them.

I think Yoho deserves to be immortalized for this. As we all know, the increasingly annoying acronym YOLO means You Only Live Once. So what does YOHO stand for? You Only Hijack Once?

How Population Genetics May Help Explain Economic Growth

| Mon Oct. 7, 2013 8:18 AM PDT

Alex Tabarrok links to a short post today by a couple of researchers who study the transmission of ideas throughout history. Their conclusion is that the speed of diffusion depends on a country's "genetic distance" from the source of the idea, and when I first read this I thought they were using genetic distance as a metaphor of some kind. That is, they were measuring the distance between various cultures, and the math happened to be similar to the math for measuring the genetic distance between human population groups, so that's what they called it.

But no. The two researchers, Enrico Spolaore and Romain Wacziarg, are literally talking about population genetics:

Measures of average differences between vectors of allele frequencies (different genes) across any two populations provide a measure of genetic distance....The goal of this approach is not to study any genetic characteristics that may confer any advantage in development....On the contrary, they are neutral: their spread results from random factors and not from natural selection. For instance, neutral genes include those coding for different blood types....Instead, genetic distance is like a molecular clock — it measures average separation times between populations. Therefore, genetic distance can be used as a summary statistic for divergence in all the traits that are transmitted with variation from one generation to the next over the long run, including divergence in cultural traits.

Their hypothesis is that populations that are genetically more distant are also culturally more distant and are therefore more resistant to trading and adopting each others' cultural traits. In the case of the Industrial Revolution, the epicenter was in Great Britain, so the adoption of new technology was strongly influenced by the genetic distance of different populations from Britain. Sure enough, they claim that was the case. The chart on the right shows the effect of genetic distance from Britain on the adoption of machine technology. It starts out fairly modestly, rises to a high level by 1913, and then declines as technology finally diffuses everywhere.

In a sense, this comes as no surprise. Genetic distance is pretty obviously correlated with both physical distance and cultural distance, so you'd expect that it might also correlate with the spread of ideas as well. Path dependence and deliberate policy (for example, colonial rules that deliberately inhibited the spread of technology) can then account for most of the rest. Spolaore and Wacziarg's conclusion:

In sum, we find considerable evidence that barriers introduced by historical separation between populations are central to account for the world distribution of income....These results have substantial policy implications. A common concern when studying the persistent effect of long-term history is that not much can be done today. But if a major effect of long-term historical divergence is due to barriers, there is much room and scope for policy action. Populations that are historically farther from the frontier can benefit from policies that specifically aim at reducing barriers to exchange and communication.

Needless to say, "reducing barriers" is a two-edged sword. But it's an interesting proposition nonetheless.