How the Economy Helps Trump

The American economy suffers from a split personality, and Donald Trump appears to be the chief beneficiary of this illness. A study just released by Pew shows that for the first time in decades, the middle class is no longer in the majority in the United States. Instead, the upper and lower classes are. Now the middle class—defined as people earning between two-thirds and twice the median income (from $42,000 to $126,000 a year)—constitute just under 50 percent of the earning populace. Twenty-nine percent are in the lower brackets, and 21 percent in the upper.

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Janet Yellen's Quiet Revolution

Donald Trump turned his rhetorical bazooka on Janet Yellen this week, accusing the Fed chair of being “highly political” and merely doing President Barack Obama’s bidding by declining to raise interest rates. In this as in so many things he says, Trump was issuing wisdom from his rear end, but the GOP candidate from clowntown did serve one useful purpose. He prompted us to ask yet again: What is Janet Yellen’s game?

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Ben Bernanke, the Grown-Up in the Room

Ben Bernanke’s new memoir, The Courage to Act, is neither easy nor scintillating reading. But clunky and dry as it is, the 600-page tome serves as a provocative reminder that not all high officials in our largely dysfunctional government are motivated by partisanship or the desire to protect bureaucratic turf. It offers proof that Bernanke and the Fed were the grown-ups in the room during a period of crises unprecedented since the Great Depression, regardless of whether you believe they have conducted themselves brilliantly or poorly.

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How Fed Inaction Changes the 2016 Election


It may sound like a Zen koan, but the longer the Federal Reserve declines to take action in coming months, the more its inaction will seem like action. To put the paradox another way, the Fed’s failure to raise rates makes it even more of an election cycle factor in U.S. domestic politics, keeping the central bank in the spotlight to an excessive and unconstructive degree, like a low-level fever that doesn’t keep you in bed but casts a general pall.

It has now been more than seven years since the Fed last raised interest rates, and the rationale for last week’s most recent decision came as something of a surprise to market players: In addition to seeing little evidence of inflation, the Fed in its statement also expressed concern about global volatility and continued instability.

That was not taken well by some. Said Rick Santelli of CNBC, he of Tea Party fame, the Fed has now expanded its mandate to become “the U.N. central bank.” Others wondered whether, in addition to its mandate to assure price stability and full employment, the Fed was now unofficially adding a third goal: maintaining global financial stability. And that, you can be sure, will be sure fodder for Republicans and not a few Democrats who already believe that the Fed is too powerful, too unaccountable and too focused on the needs of the financial system at the expense of average workers.

There are, of course, legitimate questions about whether the Fed and other central banks are erring in their multiyear course of easy money. The European Central Bank is now in the midst of its own policy of “quantitative easing.” While the European Union has ceased its economic free-fall, that is about the most that can be said of its current economic recovery. Japan has been in the midst of more than two decades of easy money and near-zero interest rates since the 1990s. It too has exhibited low growth. The United States has recovered from the worst of the global financial crisis of 2008-09, especially in terms of a low unemployment close to 5 percent and growth above 2 percent, but years of zero interest rates have hardly fueled a boom in anything other than some speculative stocks, urban real estate in select cities, and high-end art.

Because the Fed has given no clear sense of when it might actually start to raise rates, it thus has solidified its profile as an eternal Hamlet for months to come. The question "Will they or won't they?" has become tedious and borderline-obsessive. There was some hope that this conversation would come to an end; now it will simply go on, absent some major event that makes it irrelevant.

Lost in the market noise and the political spin, however, is precisely the point underscored by the Fed itself and Janet Yellen: It is a major actor on a complicated global stage that has a large cast of characters—one of whom, Chinese President Xi Jinping, is visiting Washington this week. Its mandate, based on legislation in 1913 and updated in the 1970s, speaks to a world that no longer exists. A mature governing legislature would, of course, update and refine that mandate to reflect changed global realities. But the American Congress today is incapable of that type of thinking, as least as a body; individual members are certainly able to recognize the ways in which an entire swath of laws and institutions are out of date. But good luck doing something about it.

Instead, the appointed officials of the Fed are left to muddle through and to try to reconcile a series of demands along with a political minefield. Markets want certainty, and politicians want transparency, and everyone wants more growth. The problem is that certainty is a myth; transparency is a code word for forcing a partisan agenda; and growth for mature economies facing technological disruption and labor competition globally is beyond the control of any one institution.

None of those realities plays well in an election cycle. The very messiness of a modern mature economy in flux may be why none of the Republicans during the last debate mentioned it much. There is no good sound bite. Meanwhile, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have been advancing detailed economic plans, ranging from an end to short-termism on Wall Street to an attack on economic inequality. Worthy those may be, but they engage on a cerebral level rather than on the visceral, and hence get short shrift in our national discussion.

By not acting, the Fed feeds into an old red-meat political narrative of indifferent or downright malicious financial elites of the East Coast establishment making policies secretly and opaquely to benefit the interests of a privileged few at the expense of real hard-working Americans who suffer the consequences. Such a story was spun more than a century ago by the populist William Jennings Bryan and his doomed presidential campaign thundering that Americans were being crucified on a “cross of gold.” The Fed today isn’t responsible for that history, but surely it could be less tone-deaf to it.

Fed blame, however, is no more a winning proposition now than it was then. We can excoriate (or credit) the Fed all we want. Its inaction makes it easier for various actors casting about for sound bites and solutions to use the Fed as Exhibit A for why things aren’t better. Would that it were so simple.

How Big Business is Lining Up With Hillary

Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to win over just the middle class. She wants to win over business elites as well. And in this tightening labor market, with business worried about losing workers to the growing demand for higher wages, there’s ample evidence that what she has started to advocate is increasingly aligned with what many businesses are beginning to do.  

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Don't Worry About China

Over the past month, as Greece has occupied headlines, China has been rocked by a crashing stock market. The oscillations appear far from over, with the Shanghai exchange up 6 percent on Wednesday, having plummeted more than 30 percent in the weeks before, which still leaves the index up about 80 percent over the past 52 weeks. That amounts to trillions of dollars gained and then lost in a very short time.

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The Greek Catastrophe Is Finally Here (Unless It Isn’t)

It was a grim weekend in Greece, and it’s likely to be an even grimmer week ahead, both for the Greeks and the European (and possibly world) economy. What wouldnormally be the beginning of the profitable tourist season—a summer idyll in the lovely Greek islands and crowds piling into the Parthenon—has turned into the next chapter of the slow-motion economic train wreck that the world has been witnessing queasily since 2011. Now the wreck is finally here, and the only real question—the one none of us can really answer—is whether it will be modest or huge.

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GDP’s Going Down? That’s Good!

It’s our national mantra: GDP. Gross Domestic Product. No other figure rules our world more completely. We saw it again this week when the government released its latest revision of the first-quarter GDP numbers that showed the U.S. economy is contracting slightly. The only thing that’s now growing, it seems, is the fretting of pundits and economists over the new numbers. Their common cry: How do we get things moving again?

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Are the Germans Going to Crash the World Economy?

As Greece squeezes by without a “Grexit” — earlier this week eurozone ministers approved a four-month bailout extension— markets, politicians, pundits are far calmer today than they were a few years ago. Back then, in the fall of 2011, the prospect of a eurozone without Greece sent global markets into turmoil. Granted, it was bad year, what with a near-U.S. debt default and pervasive fears of a European Monetary Union undone by mountains of bad bank debt. By late November 2011, international credit markets were exhibiting the same danger signs of stress that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, and it appeared that the long-feared next stage of a global financial implosion was at hand. It took the simultaneously actions of the world’s central banks, followed by a “final” bailout of Greece by the “troika” of the IMF, the European Central Bank and the Eurozone countries to the tune of 240 billion Euros.

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Is Hillary Running for Bill’s Third Term?

When Hillary Clinton announces her candidacy on Sunday, the Republicans will no doubt redouble their efforts to make the case that a vote for Hillary is a vote for Barack Obama’s third term—and the GOP believes no one wants that, for Pete’s sake. Clinton’s campaign, by contrast, will almost certainly make a very different case: If they vote for her, Americans will be getting something far closer to Bill Clinton’s third term.

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Lead, America, or Get Out of the World’s Way

The United States is doing a poor job of leading the global economy. But apparently we won’t let anyone else lead it either. In a world increasingly defined by the global flow of goods and services, Washington finds not just curiously adrift but actively at odds with itself and a coherent approach.

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Hillary’s Not the Problem

For Hillary Clinton—and most of Washington—email-gate may be a relatively new issue, but it is an issue with a decades-long pedigree in American history. Once upon a time, in the era before email and whose “server” was whose, it wouldn’t have been an issue at all: Dean Acheson, for instance, lived in no fear that the public would have access to his personal letters musing about the intentions of Stalin or the presence of possible Soviet spies in the State Department alleged by Joe McCarthy, or any number of other matters of state. Long before that, presidents in particular were free to keep or dispose of their papers as they saw fit; one obscure president, Chester Arthur, sealed his obscurity by instructing his family to burn his papers after his death.

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Why the Jobs Report Means Diddly

The monthly ritual known as the jobs report made its appearance last week, followed metronomically by the monthly ritual of commentary and political reaction to the jobs report. It was a good report, as they go, with “ better-than-expected” job creation, more workers returning to look for work (hence a slightly higher unemployment rate of 5.7 percent) and major upward revisions to reported job creation in November and December of 2014.

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Don’t Turn America Into Europe

The Europeans—some of them, anyway—are finally beginning to concede that austerity has gone awry. There’s less growth, more structural unemployment, little bank lending and economic contraction. And now, of course, we have a political backlash in the person of Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s Syriza party, who upon winning the prime ministership last Sunday declared grandly (and probably over-optimistically) that Greece will now “leave behind the austerity that ruined it.”

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