Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

A new American dream for a new American century

Zachary Karabell
Jul 26, 2013 13:22 UTC

In a major speech this week on the economy, President Obama emphasized that while the United States has recovered substantial ground since the crisis of 2008-2009, wide swaths of the middle class still confront a challenging environment. Above all, the past years have eroded the 20th century dream of hard work translating into a better life.

As Obama explained, it used to be that “a growing middle class was the engine of our prosperity. Whether you owned a company, or swept its floors, or worked anywhere in between, this country offered you a basic bargain — a sense that your hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and decent benefits, the chance to buy a home, to save for retirement, and most of all, a chance to hand down a better life for your kids. But over time, that engine began to stall.” What we are left with today is increased inequality, in wages and in opportunity.

The assumption is that this is unequivocally a bad thing. There have been countless stories about the “death of the American dream,” and Detroit’s bankruptcy last week was taken as one more proof. Yet lately the unquestioned assumption of a better future based on hard work has not served America well. If anything, today’s version of that dream has been the source of complacency rather than strength, and its passing may be necessary in order to pave the way for a constructive future.

But you wouldn’t know that from the president’s speech and from continued news stories and academic studies. The inequalities of opportunity were underscored by a recent study that was brought to national attention by the New York Times this week that showed wide variations in income mobility depending on what part of the United States you live in. Those who live in metropolitan areas, as well as those with more higher education and wealthier parents, have significantly more upward mobility than many in rural areas.

The wage stagnation for tens of millions of working Americans over the past decades combined with the financial crisis has been painful and even calamitous for millions. In truth, however, the middle class security that has now disappeared only existed for a very brief period after World War Two, when the United States accounted for half of global industrial output and achieved a level of relative prosperity and growth that was substantially higher than in any other country. Before the Great Depression and World War Two, there was no assumption in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries that the future would be inherently better for one’s children.

The Obamacare plot twist

Zachary Karabell
Jul 18, 2013 18:25 UTC

For months, we’ve been told that the impending implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) will lead to soaring healthcare costs and more expensive premiums. That narrative has taken hold, even for those who otherwise support the suite of reforms. And that’s why the recent front-page article in the New York Times, reporting that premiums in New York State may actually fall 50 percent or more, came as such a surprise.

Only a few weeks prior, the Wall Street Journal announced that “Healthy consumers could see insurance rates double or even triple when they look for individual coverage under the federal health law later this year.” Their analysis did acknowledge that ailing individuals could see rates fall, but the driving point was one that has been made ad infinitum by critics of the reforms: costs will soar.

So entrenched is that view that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives continues its quixotic quest to repeal the bill, and voted this week for the 38th and 39th times to repeal parts of the bill, including the “employer mandate” that the Obama administration has already decided to delay. Paul Ryan said about the latest vote: “This law needlessly raises healthcare costs. And this law will cause millions of people to lose the health insurance that they have, that they want to keep.”

Bonds are not safe

Zachary Karabell
Jul 11, 2013 11:16 UTC

The old stock market cliché “sell in May, and go away” had so far proved untrue this year. Instead, it is the bond market — so often perceived as steady, low risk and dependable — that has bitten investors. In fact, June was one of the worst months for bonds in many years. The declines were steep enough to serve as an acute reminder that nothing, and I do mean nothing, in the financial world is without risk.

Stocks have been rising with volatility for more than four years. Yet money has poured into bonds. That reversed dramatically in June, with investors pulling $28 billion from bond funds, the most since monthly records began in 2007. Pimco, one of the largest bond managers in the world, saw its normally staid and stable Total Return Fund drop by 2.6 percent, and investors yanked $14 billion from Pimco alone.

The proximate cause was the meeting of the Federal Reserve and the subsequent statements by Chairman Ben Bernanke. Bernanke said that if the U.S. economy continues its gradual path towards strength and stability, the Fed would consider ending its purchases of $85 billion of bonds per month. Those statements accelerated what had begun a few weeks earlier, namely a sharp rise in interest, with yields on U.S. 10-year Treasuries rising above 2.5 percent after they had been hovering around 1.5 percent.

Stormy markets, smooth seas

Zachary Karabell
Jun 28, 2013 13:23 UTC

You could be forgiven for missing the latest installment of market panic over the past ten days. It came and went like a summer thunderstorm — passing over the global financial landscape quickly and violently. But unlike meteorological events that inflict actual harm, the sharp gyrations of financial markets have increasingly less relationship to real-world economies and exist in their own never-never land of self-fulfilling prophecies and conventional wisdom.

The proximate cause of the swoon was June’s monthly statement from the Federal Reserve and Ben Bernanke’s comments that the Fed might taper its purchases of bonds sooner than many market players had anticipated. The exact quote wasn’t exactly dramatic (so few Fed quotes are!):

“The Committee currently anticipates that it would be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year. And if the subsequent data remain broadly aligned with our current expectations for the economy, we would continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year, ending purchases around midyear.”

Surveilling a double standard

Zachary Karabell
Jun 14, 2013 12:16 UTC

As the week continues, so does the furor over the government’s electronic and big data surveillance. It’s largely framed in the terms that President Obama described on June 7th: “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” That observation may be true, but we are approaching this issue 100 percent wrong.

We should all “welcome” a healthy debate — as the president says he does — on vital questions of freedom versus security, safety versus privacy, and which is our priority. Such debate is a hallmark of a functional democracy. We should not accept, however, that what’s at issue here is American freedom versus potential Big Brother government tyranny. That’s too narrow a parameter. What’s really evident: we’re willing to give private corporations data, but we refuse to offer government agencies the same courtesy. That contradiction highlights a muddled, overwrought and inconsistent attitude towards privacy and freedom.

Privacy has rarely existed; it doesn’t now, and it didn’t way back when. It is more of a Platonic ideal than a lived reality. Most of human history lived in small communities. There was no Internet, no electronic surveillance of communications, no Big Brother fears of an all-seeing digital eye scanning our private lives. But there were still neighbors, who were right there, and family, and shared, cramped living. Not much privacy there or room for behavior that deviated much from whatever the norm was. Remember The Scarlet Letter? The Crucible? Think there was much privacy in Massachusetts Bay in 1650?

Obama and Xi’s weekend getaway

Zachary Karabell
Jun 7, 2013 17:44 UTC

This weekend, President Obama and China’s new leader Xi Jinping will meet at a retreat outside of Los Angeles. The two men are scheduled to spend six to seven hours covering a range of issues that confront the two countries, from the increasingly fraught issue of hacking and cybersecurity to what to do about an evermore unpredictable and rogue North Korea. The summit was arranged only recently, almost impromptu and more casual and low-key than the pomp and circumstances state visits of the past decade. That should in no way, however, obscure just how important the meeting is.

Rarely in history has an emerging power met an existing power without mayhem and conflict ensuing. China today is clearly emerging, with an economy that will soon be larger than the U.S.’s, though the income of Chinese citizens will remain far behind their U.S. counterparts for many years to come. In spite of recent stumbles, the U.S. remains the only country with global reach both economically and militarily.

Yet tensions notwithstanding, by any historical standard, the U.S.-China relationship has been managed remarkably well, and this casual but symbolically significant summit between the two leaders is yet another indication of that. We focus habitually on all that is going wrong in the world, yet for now at least, the China-U.S. relationship is going right. That’s not because either country and its people like the other or trust the other, but it is because we need each other.

Building a better economic yardstick

Zachary Karabell
May 31, 2013 15:33 UTC

This week the government released yet another revision of first-quarter economic growth showing that the U.S. economy grew a tad less than initially reported ‑- 2.4 percent rather than 2.5 percent. This revision was hardly consequential, but over the summer the Bureau of Economic Analysis will unveil a new way to calculate the overall output of the United States. And that revision will be dramatic.

Over the past few decades, gross domestic product (GDP) has become the prima inter pares of economic statistics. It is not only a measure of national economic output, it is a proxy for “the economy.” The number exerts substantial influence on what we spend collectively and individually, not just in the United States but throughout the world. China has five-year plans with GDP targets, and the European Union has rigid – albeit loosely enforced – rules about how much debt a government can take on relative to its GDP. It is, in short, a big-deal number.

And it is treated as an accurate gauge of economic activity. That would have come as something of a surprise to its inventors. Simon Kuznets, the economist most responsible in the 1930s for the formation of the national accounts that provide the data for GDP, was always disturbed that domestic work, volunteer work and, of course, transactions in cash are invisible in GDP. The choice to leave those out may have made sense – after all, what is the market price of preparing a family meal? – but it underscores that GDP is not a complete measure.

Two cheers for the tech industry’s goofy energy

Zachary Karabell
May 24, 2013 18:49 UTC

The national conversation of late has revolved around a trio of Washington scandals, a weather disaster, and the seesaw views in financial markets about whether crisis looms. Yet for all their prominence, none are as tied to trends that will shape our collective future as the myriad of events that took place this week in New York City under the banner of “Internet Week.”

Now in its sixth year, Internet Week is a loosely coordinated series of gatherings ranging from daylong symposiums to open houses of tech companies large and small to the Webby Awards, which is the online version of the Oscars. Topics cover the gamut from healthcare in the digital age to marketing your startup to crowd funding. The attendees are young and at times terminally hip. The whole thing is, quite frankly, fun.

The events are filled with strivers and startups. Some may be bought in a few short years, at massive multiples, as Tumblr just was by Yahoo; some may soar higher and become the next Yahoo or Facebook; many will fail. But the collective outcome points resoundingly toward creativity, innovation and continually morphing modes of commerce and connectivity. Half of it may be frivolous, but what matters more is that half of it is serious about changing the world.

Massive, open, online disruption

Zachary Karabell
May 17, 2013 12:19 UTC

The United States has a problem: rapidly rising student debt. It also has a solution: online education. The primary reason for spiraling student debt is the soaring costs of a college education at a physical college. Online education strips away all of those expenses except for the cost of the professor’s time and experience. It sounds perfect, an alignment of technology, social need and limited resources. So why do so many people believe that it is a deeply flawed solution?

Because it means massive swaths of higher education is about to change. Technology has disrupted many industries; now it’s about to do the same to higher ed.

But it is the students who need aid, and not the financial kind. They have too much of that as it is. The amount of student debt is large and getting larger. It will top $1.1 trillion this year; two-thirds of college students will graduate with debt. The average debt burden is $27,000, though that is skewed higher by a small percentage who owe a lot more. Forty percent of students owe less than $10,000. The amount of student debt has doubled since 2007, tripled since 2004, and many economists believe that the effect on the overall economy is negative.

Online sales tax: a good idea done badly

Zachary Karabell
May 9, 2013 11:31 UTC

On Monday, by a comfortable 69-27 majority, the U.S. Senate passed a controversial bill that will require online retailers with annual sales of more than $1 million to collect state sales taxes. Said Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming: “This bill is about fairness. It’s about leveling the playing field between the brick-and-mortar and online companies, and it’s about collecting a tax that’s already due. It’s not about raising taxes.”

Wait, isn’t it? Leaving aside the anomaly in today’s world of a Republican sponsoring a bill that raises revenue, the proposed law is entirely about raising taxes. The question, then, is whether these are taxes that ought to be raised, and if this is the way to raise them.

The short answers: yes to the first, no to the second. This bill is precisely the wrong way to raise revenue from a growing stream of business. It applies a tax designed for physical entities to new commerce and does so in ways that will do little to help states or to reinvigorate small businesses that are hurting.

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