A blog about business and economics.

Oct. 12 2015 2:13 PM

The Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics Has Deep Concerns About Income Inequality

On Monday, Angus Deaton, a British-American economist and professor at Princeton University, won the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work on “consumption, poverty, and welfare.” As that description might suggest, Deaton’s academic interests are quite vast. His areas of research include “poverty in the world and in India,” “health status and economics,” and “household surveys.” His list of papers and publications is similarly extensive.

In addition to all that, Deaton has also focused a good deal on income inequality. The topic has appeared in both the biannual “Letter from America” he pens for the Royal Economic Society’s Newsletter and, more prominently, in his book on 250 years of income inequality, The Great Escape. (A book which, incidentally, was released in October 2013, several months before the English-language version of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century). In his April 2014 letter, for example, Deaton pointed out how the United States appeared to have suddenly “rediscovered” income inequality following decades of stagnant median wages and dramatic wealth accumulation at the very top. “There are many unfamiliar things in a new country,” he wrote, “and one of the most immediate, for me, when I first came to America, was the lack of interest in inequality, among either academics or the general public.” And:

In politics too, income inequality had little traction. Americans, unlike the British, are not interested in or disturbed by stories of ‘fat cats’, indeed they rather approve of them. Attempts by Democratic politicians to talk about inequality or redistribution were effectively met by cries of ‘class warfare’ from the Republicans. Americans, we were told, believed in the American Dream, that everyone could get rich if they tried hard enough. It was equality of opportunity that was important, not inequality of outcomes, and America, so the story went, was the land of opportunity.

As for what such newly rediscovered gaps in equality might mean, The Great Divide offers the following commentary (via Cardiff Garcia):

There is much to be said for equality of opportunity, and for not penalizing people for the success that comes from their own hard work. Yet, compared with other rich countries, and in spite of the popular belief in the American dream that anyone can succeed, the United States is in fact not particularly good at actually delivering equal opportunities ...
Even if we believe that equality of opportunity is what we want, and don't care about inequality of outcomes, the two tend to go together, which suggests that inequality itself is a barrier to equal opportunity.

And while some feel that concerns about poverty get too easily conflated with angst over the super-wealthy, or “envy of the rich,” Deaton disagrees:

The very wealthy have little need for state-provided education or health care; they have every reason to support cuts in Medicare and to fight any increase in taxes. They have even less reason to support health insurance for everyone, or to worry about the low quality of public schools that plagues much of the country. They will oppose any regulation of banks that restricts profits, even if it helps those who cannot cover their mortgages or protects the public against predatory lending, deceptive advertising, or even a repetition of the financial crash.
To worry about these consequences of extreme inequality has nothing to do with being envious of the rich and everything to do with the fear that rapidly growing top incomes are a threat to the wellbeing of everyone else.

This might not be the work that Deaton won his Nobel for, but with 2016 ramping up and subjects like the economy and income inequality likely coming back into focus, it’s every bit as worth revisiting. In related news: Princeton’s economics department canceled a class this afternoon and asked students to attend the university’s press conference for Deaton instead—“you will get much more out of going to that than of the marginal econometrics lecture.”

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Oct. 9 2015 4:46 PM

Dear Twitter: The Blue Notification Dot on Moments Is Driving Me Nuts

There is a specter haunting Twitter—the specter of a stupid blue notification dot.

You know of what I speak. This week, Twitter debuted Moments, its new section meant to make the social network accessible to a larger audience and bring the company closer to profitability. Users can pop onto the feature in the Twitter app or in their Web browser and find a list of the day's trending stories accompanied by a handful of curated tweets, allowing them to quickly catch up on anything major they might have missed while their eyes weren't glued to a screen.


In theory, this could be a useful little tool. Twitter's infinite cascade of ephemera can be confusing. Even for regular users, checking in sometimes feels like stumbling into seven different angry dinner arguments midstream. Having one place to figure out what's going on without backtracking through a tangled web of tweets sounds like a decent idea.

There is a problem, however. Moments, so far, is terrible. The story selection feels scattershot and stale. Most of the headlines are newswire-dull. The carefully selected tweets are rarely sparkling. It feels a bit like reading a desperate, me-too version of Snapchat Discover, and I have no desire to use it.  

Except, there's that dot.

Yes, that dot. In its mobile app, Twitter has taken the same blue notification dot that lets users know about a new mention and deployed it to alert them that, hey, there's a new moment to check out. For a neurotic, social-media-addled individual like myself, it is absolutely infuriating.

Let me elaborate. For avid Twitter users, the blue recognition dot triggers a Pavlovian response, sort of the same way hearing "you've got mail" did back when we were all logging on to AOL with 56K modems. It sends a frisson of anticipation. Perhaps someone has favorited your deliciously witty tweet, feeding you a small but satisfying digital breadcrumb of recognition. Maybe somebody out there in the digital ether wants to chat. Or maybe it's a troll knocking at your door ready to ruin your day. Who knows! Point being, there is something potentially interesting and maybe even flattering sitting there waiting to be revealed. You must thumb your way over. 

By putting the blue dot above the Moments lightning bolt, Twitter is attempting to take advantage of the quick-twitch psychological response it has so effectively wired into its users thanks to mentions. Except it's a bait-and-switch. If you click the Moments tab, there will be no gratification, just another bland menu of news stories you could frankly find elsewhere. And so you have a choice. Either capitulate and click just to make the dot disappear, or leave it there to nag you for hours while you can only mutter, Lady Macbeth–like, "Out out, damn dot!"

Frankly, I thought the irritation would pass after a few days. It has not. And a quick search of Twitter makes it clear other feels similarly.

There are plenty more where those came from.

When I tried to explain all of this to my Twitter-abstaining wife the other night, she stared at me in silence as if I had lost my mind. And maybe, to some degree, I have. But that's the thing. Twitter has done an excellent job cultivating slavish devotion among its core fans for whom small changes to the app can become inordinately irritating, like a small splinter in your finger or a pebble in your shoe. At the same time, there are little things it could probably do to avoid alienating them while on its quest to catch up with Facebook's scale. Like, you know, giving us the option to turn off the moments notification. It's a small request, really.

Oct. 9 2015 4:26 PM

New Airbus Patent Would Stack Passengers on Top of Each Other

Every so often, we get a new chapter in the ongoing saga of the incredible shrinking plane seat. Usually, it involves an airline trimming another fraction of an inch off the width of your seat cushion, or ever-so-slightly decreasing what’s left of your legroom. But a patent filed by aviation manufacturer Airbus this month boldly goes where no seat shrinker has gone before: the space above your head.

“In modern means of transport, in particular in aircraft, it is very important from an economic point of view to make optimum use of the available space in a passenger cabin,” Airbus explains in an application filed Oct. 1 with the U.S. Patent and Trade Office. “Passenger cabins are therefore fitted with as many rows of passenger seats as possible, which are positioned with as little space between them as possible. In order to still more efficiently use the space in a passenger cabin of an aircraft, U.S. Pat. No. 4,066,277 proposes to position an elevated deck structure on a main deck floor in the passenger cabin of a wide-body aircraft for providing a mezzanine seating area in a substantially unused upper lobe of the aircraft fuselage.”


Screenshot from USPTO


As you can see in the image above, Airbus proposes accomplishing this still more efficient use of aircraft space by essentially stacking passengers on top of each other. Feeling claustrophobic? Fear not! Each seat includes a “supporting surface” that can move between an upright seating position and a fully reclined one. As Airbus helpfully notes, when these seats are dropped into their lying-down positions, the result is “a lowering of the supporting surface” and thus an increase in the distance between your seat and that of your vertical neighbor.


Screenshot from USPTO

See? It looks cramped when the people are sitting upright. But then they lie down, and their heads get further apart!


Screenshot from USPTO

Not convinced? OK, yeah, neither am I. If we’re being honest, the Airbus seating diagram evokes several unmentionable things which I will not state here but invite you to share in the comments. Lowering the seats into their fully reclined mode also doesn’t seem like much of a solution, unless you intend to spend every flight lying flat on your back. On a practical level, the design also raises safety concerns, cabin interiors expert Mary Kirby tells Reuters. “The obvious number one is the regulatory requirement for safe evacuation of passengers in 90 seconds,” she says.

On the other hand: The layout in Airbus’s patent could bring our era of Knee Defender fights and “recline rage” to an end. When passengers are bunked into planes like kids at camp, they’ll surely find better things to be angry about.

Oct. 8 2015 4:10 PM

Netflix Is Getting $1 More Expensive and Wall Street Is Thrilled

Netflix said Thursday that it is raising the price of its most popular video streaming plan by $1 a month. The hike, which will bring the monthly cost of a subscription that lets two viewers stream simultaneously to $9.99, affects new customers in United States, Canada, and parts of Latin America. Current account holders paying $8.99 a month won’t see a change in pricing until at least October 2016. Lucky Netflix customers who have thus far held onto their grandfathered $7.99-a-month plans will reportedly face a $2 price increase slightly sooner—some time after May 2016.

The last time Netflix raised its plan prices was in May 2014, when they edged up to $8.99 from $7.99. Then and now, Netflix justified the increases by saying they would help it add more movies, TV shows, and original content to its library. Which makes sense if the logic is something like, We need money to do things—give us more money and we will do more things. That increase didn’t go over so smoothly. When earnings rolled around in October 2014, they showed a year-over-year decline in U.S. subscriber growth. Netflix blamed the added $1 for the stymied growth; its stock tanked 25 percent after hours.


Long term, though, that $1 increase doesn’t seem to have done much damage. Netflix shares are up 78 percent from a year ago, and rose nearly 7 percent today to $114.93 on news that subscription prices are climbing. Contentwise, the broad consensus is also that Netflix has made good on its promise to build out its streaming offerings. Over the past year Netflix has cranked out critically beloved original content like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and grabbed attention for upcoming projects such as Beasts of No Nation, a film starring Idris Elba.

So a $1 increase in monthly plan costs might feel outrageous to some right now, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Netflix’s subscriber growth hurts in the short term. But Wall Street has proved that a quarter or so of poor numbers don’t have to be a financial death knell, and any aggravated recent subscribers won’t feel the impact of the change for a year. If the company does in fact keep producing great content, chances are those customers won’t mind so much when the hike actually rolls around.

Oct. 8 2015 2:58 PM

Bobby Jindal Sends Up Wan Smoke Signal Reminding the World He Is Still Running for President

Tragicomic political afterthought Bobby Jindal is still, for some reason, running for president. As such, he  apparently felt compelled to release a tax plan, which the conservative Tax Foundation apparently felt duty-bound to evaluate.

If you've read anything whatsoever about Republican tax proposals so far, you can probably guess some of the details—fewer tax brackets, lower rates, lower taxes on investment. You could pretty much put these things together with a Mad Lib. Jindal's would apparently cost the government $11.3 trillion over 10 years, which puts it closer to the Donald Trump school of bug-eyed tax-cutting maximalism than the Jeb Bush/Marco Rubio school of boring-but-nonetheless-extreme tax-cutting maximalism.  


Anyway, congrats to Bobby Jindal, who still exists. In celebration, I'm posting a favorite song of mine by the Chameleons, "Soul in Isolation." The refrain goes: "I'm alive in here!" I'm sure he'll relate.  

Oct. 8 2015 2:25 PM

Ben Carson Knows Terrifyingly Little About the Government or the Economy

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has risen to second place in the Republican presidential primary by presenting himself to voters as the accomplished, affable, soft-spoken face of conservatism's lunatic fringe—the sort of guy who will suggest that evolution was influenced by "the forces of evil" (aka Satan), that there are meaningful parallels between the United States in 2015 and Nazi Germany, and that next year's elections might just get canceled due to social unrest. With that in mind, his relative lack of expertise on subjects like the federal budget or monetary policy are neither the most shocking nor worrisome aspects of his candidacy, especially considering that the current GOP poll leader is the human embodiment of belligerent ignorance and even the established candidates have staked their runs on fantastical policy platforms.

Nonetheless, given that Carson is attempting to become president of the United States, it seems worth noting that he appears to understand little about how the government he would lead actually functions or relates to the economy. On Wednesday, Marketplace ran an extensive interview in which the candidate discussed his thoughts about economics with host Kai Ryssdal, and it makes for some harrowing reading. I've broken out a few of the takeaways.


Ben Carson Has No Grasp of the Federal Budget

Like many a candidate before him, Ben Carson thinks the federal government would be more effective if it ran "like a business," which in his mind would mean applying some corporate management techniques, like Lean Six Sigma, to make it more efficient. Unlike most candidates, he seems to think this will eliminate the government's deficit. Asked how he plans to balance the federal budget, as he has said he would like to, Carson explains:

What I would do is first of all, allow the government to shrink by attrition. Don't replace the people who are retiring, thousands of them each year. And No. 2: Take every departmental head, or sub-department head and tell them, "I want a 3 to 4 percent reduction." Now anybody who tells me there's not 3 to 4 percent fat in virtually everything that we do is fibbing to themselves.

This is a preposterous answer. The Congressional Budget Office reports that last fiscal year, the federal budget deficit was $435 billion (which, by the way, was the lowest since 2007 and below the 50-year average as a percentage of GDP). If you were to cut all federal outlays, including Medicare, Medicaid, military spending, and social security, by 4 percent, you would save less than $150 billion. It is unclear, however, whether Carson actually thinks he would need to cut any entitlement program spending—when Ryssdal pressed him on this point specifically, Carson said he was in favor of an "across the board" cut, but then went back to talking about "fat" in departments, which isn't typically how people discuss Medicare benefits, for instance. Meanwhile, the CBO believes that reducing the entire federal workforce by 10 percent through attrition would only save about $50 billion over a decade.

It is a popular delusion that Washington could solve its long-term fiscal issues by eliminating waste and inefficiency. The reality is that we spend a great deal of money on benefits for the elderly and the poor while maintaining a massive military; the government, as the joke goes, is basically an insurance company with an army attached. The fact that a semiserious contender for president doesn't seem to recognize this is slightly dispiriting.

Ben Carson Does Not Understand What the Debt Ceiling Is

By now, you are likely familiar with the debt ceiling. By law, the Treasury is only allowed to borrow a limited amount to cover all of its obligations. Every so often, Congress has to vote to raise that amount, so that the government can pay its bills. Failing to do so would result in an economically catastrophic default, but in recent years Republicans on Capitol Hill have tried to hold the debt ceiling hostage by threatening not to raise it without policy concessions from President Obama, a trick that they pulled off somewhat successfully in 2011, and far less so in 2014. As of now, it appears the government will need to increase the borrowing limit again in November.

The essential fact in all of this is that raising the debt ceiling does not authorize new spending. It lets the government pay for old spending. Ben Carson does not seem to understand said fact. Here is his exchange with Ryssdal on the subject.

Ryssdal: All right, so let's talk about debt then and the budget. As you know, Treasury Secretary Lew has come out in the last couple of days and said, "We're gonna run out of money, we're gonna run out of borrowing authority, on the fifth of November." Should the Congress then and the president not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?
Carson: Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.
Ryssdal: To be clear, it's increasing the debt limit, not the budget, but I want to make sure I understand you. You'd let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit.
Carson: No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, "Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we're not raising any spending limits, period."

Given the repeated showdowns over this issue, it is simply mystifying that Carson is still missing the distinction between increasing the budget and raising the borrowing limit.

Ben Carson May Not Understand Anything About Monetary Policy 

As conservatives are wont to do, Ben Carson professes to be very worried about the federal debt. How come? For one, he cites the famous and controversial Reinhart-Rogoff paper that suggested countries with debts equal to more than 90 percent of their GDP tend to grow more slowly. Of course, later analysis of their data that corrected for things like spreadsheet errors and the influence of outliers found that the relationship between debt and growth was seemingly nonexistent, but at least Carson is just buying into a popular misconception.

Then there's this: "You know, one of the things that happens with this level of debt is that it's very difficult for the Fed to raise interest rates."

Come again? Is Ben Carson really suggesting the Federal Reserve hasn't raised interest rates because of the national debt? Why yes, yes, that appears to be the case. Asked about Fed Chair Janet Yellen's performance, he says:

Carson: Well, you know, I've known Janet Yellen for a long time. We've served on boards together, and she's a very intelligent individual, very responsible, and obviously is trying to do what she thinks is right. But she's caught between a rock and a hard place, and I understand that. And that's why I would tend to really put the emphasis on driving down our debt, because that's how we begin to correct the problem.

I'm first going to reach for the most charitable possible interpretation here. Carson thinks debt slows down growth. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve hasn't felt comfortable raising interest rates because GDP and job growth has been pretty tepid during these post-recession years. Therefore, Carson might think that if we erased the debt, we'd get higher interest rates.

That line of thinking would lead us back to the most fundamental problem with the Reinhart-Rogoff paper—it doesn't really offer a convincing story to explain why a country's total stock of debt would slow down its growth rate (theoretically, a country borrowing to finance a large annual deficit could force up interest rates and crowd out private investment, but that's a somewhat different, if related, issue). In fact, it's just as reasonable to think causation runs the other way—that countries with slow growth end up with high debts because they don't collect enough tax revenue. The U.S. debt ballooned after the Great Recession, for instance, because of both stimulus spending and because IRS collections plummeted.

The less charitable possibility is that Carson thinks Janet Yellen is really just eyeing the federal debt when she's contemplating a rate hike. Which is something nobody else anywhere actually believes.

Ben Carson Doesn't Understand Inequality

One way in which Carson does diverge from the typical conservative line is that he professes to be very worried about inequality. But his explanations for it are bit strange. Whereas we know the income gap has been primarily driven over the long term by skyrocketing pay for successful professionals and corporate managers, he seems to blame a combination of low interest rates and regulations. Regarding the former:

Well it used to be that Joe the Butcher would take 5 percent of his earnings every week and put it into a savings account. And he would watch that grow over two, or three, or four decades. And by the time he was ready to retire, he was in good shape. Now, poor people and middle-class people really don't have a mechanism to grow their money. The only people who can grow their money are people who have a certain risk tolerance. And those tend to be upper-income people who can utilize the stock market. And therefore you see that income gap growing.

Some of this is true to a limited extent. (Emphaiss on limited: In reality very few Americans, including the elderly, have ever gotten much of their income from interest on savings.) However, it really has very little bearing on the general story of inequality. Yes, the post-recession bull market helped the rich recover much faster than the poor, but that would have been the case even if Bank of America were offering a few extra percentage points of interest on its savings accounts. The real problem for middle-class and low-income families, both in recent years and  the long term, has been relatively lackluster wage growth. And on this front, Carson has some odd thoughts:

The other thing that's growing—that income gap, I think that's a severe problem for us—are the numerous regulations, and every single regulation costs in terms of goods and services. It is passed on. But who is most adversely affected? Poor people and middle-class people. It doesn't hurt the rich very much. So again, you see the buying power of the middle class and poor people going down. These things are increasing the gap.

So in Carson's mind, the rising cost of living is fueling the income gap. This is a bit tangled. On the one hand, he does make a potentially solid point: Some regulations, like restrictive development and housing policies as well as pricy vocational licensing requirements, definitely make life more expensive for the poor and middle class. But those tend to be local and state issues, not federal ones. On the other hand, by definition, the cost of living can't really explain much about the growing income gap, because inequality statistics are adjusted for inflation. And, contrary to what Carson says, inflation actually seems to affect the wealthy more severely than lower-income families.

The upshot is that Carson spends a lot of energy trying to come up with explanations for inequality that lend themselves to conservative solutions, like deregulation. But the results, however, are awkward.

You Know Nothing, Ben Carson

Again, none of this is quite so colorful as Carson's talk of Nazis and Satan. But it's disconcerting nonetheless. Carson is more genial, and given his storied career in neurosurgery, certainly smarter than Trump. But he demonstrates only the slightest bit more thoughtfulness when it comes policy, and an equally willful, talk-radio-ish disregard for math. Meanwhile, these two men combined are currently carrying about 40 percent of the Republican vote. It truly is the modern know-nothing party.

Oct. 8 2015 12:33 PM

Ousted Bond King Bill Gross Is Suing His Old Firm for Hundreds of Millions of Dollars

Bill Gross, billionaire, “Bond King,” and deposed Pimco executive, is suing his former firm for hundreds of millions over his ouster. Per Bloomberg, Gross claims in a complaint filed Thursday in California state court that Pimco high-ups conspired to push him out and, in doing so, lay claim to his share of the fund’s hefty bonus pool.

“Driven by a lust for power, greed, and a desire to improve their own financial position and reputation at the expense of investors and decency, a cabal of Pimco managing directors plotted to drive founder Bill Gross out of Pimco,” the complaint states. “Their improper, dishonest, and unethical behavior must now be exposed.”


Other than to dull the pain of the alleged betrayal, why does Gross feel he’s owed so much money? Here, again, from Bloomberg:

Gross was expecting a bonus of about $250 million for 2014, with most of that due in the second half of the year, according to the lawsuit. Because he left the firm days before the third quarter ended, Pimco refused to pay him a proportionate amount, said the complaint, which claims that his termination resulted in damages to Gross of no less than $200 million.

Gross, incidentally, is worth an estimated $2.3 billion and has all the trappings of a wealthy eccentric. He used to be a professional blackjack player. He credits some of his best ideas to balancing upside-down in a yoga position known as the “feathered peacock.” His investment outlooks are almost never dry, and when they are, people start to worry. He once had a stock-picking cat.

But Gross is also generous! At least, generous with whatever money he’s able to extract from those who jilted him. Should Gross prevail in his lawsuit, his lawyer tells Bloomberg, all proceeds will go charity.

Oct. 7 2015 7:33 PM

Why Coffee Snobs Shouldn’t Be Steamed That Peet’s Bought Stumptown

Once upon a time, all coffee in America was swill, and no one cared because they didn’t know any better. Oh, sure, some sophisticates were aware that there was far better caffè available elsewhere in the world, but conventional wisdom held that it wouldn’t sell stateside. Americans preferred their caffeine fast, cheap, and sans frills.

One day in 1966, a Dutch immigrant named Alfred Peet decided he’d had enough, and he opened his own little shop on the corner of Walnut and Vine streets in Berkeley, California, to show the Yanks what they’d been missing. His rich, flavorful dark roasts surprised and delighted those liberal-minded Berkeleyites, and he soon expanded throughout the Bay Area. Among those who had their eyes opened by Peet’s bold style were three young men who moved to Seattle and founded a little shop of their own. They called it Starbucks.


Half a century later, American coffee has progressed—and, some might say, Peet’s and Starbucks have regressed—to the point where Peet’s and Starbucks have become the generic swill. Predictably, a new generation—the “third wave”—of small, independent roasters has arisen to quench the cognoscenti’s thirst for something different.

It should surprise no one, then, that some of the most successful members of this new crop are following a similar path to mainstream popularity. I wrote last year about Bay Area–based Blue Bottle’s venture capital funding and impending nationwide expansion.

Today it’s Portlandia’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters that is cashing in. It has been acquired by none other than Peet’s Coffee & Tea, which today is owned by JAB Holding Co., a secretive German concern that also controls Caribou Coffee and other mass-market consumer brands. Stumptown aficionados were predictably frothed about it:

But hold the froth for a moment. Both Peet’s and Stumptown say the two brands will continue to be run independently, with neither hawking the other’s beans. That makes sense, because Stumptown’s value lies in its reputation as an alternative to the likes of Peet’s. To buy it and then make it more like Peet’s would be self-defeating. More likely, as the Awl’s Matt Buchanan observes, the path to big profits is to put Stumptown’s bottled cold brew in groceries and convenience stores the world over. Sure, the scale might dilute the quality a bit over time. But Stumptown’s bottled cold press was designed from the start to be produced and sold in large quantities. If anything, an infusion of cash from the new ownership should make it easier to maintain quality while ramping up production.  

Besides, what some of the Peet’s critics don’t seem to realize is that Stumptown had already gone quietly corporate. Its majority owner since 2011 has been the private equity firm TSG.

There’s irony here, although it isn’t the kind that would fit neatly on a T-shirt. The irony is that a lot of the people now decrying Stumptown’s sale would never have had the chance to try it if TSG hadn’t pumped money into its expansion four years ago.

If nothing else, those crying into their mugs at Stumptown’s sale can console themselves with the knowledge that the coffee business is cyclical: What’s artisanal today will be corporate tomorrow, clearing the field for the next Peet’s or Stumptown to take its place.  

Previously in Slate:

Oct. 7 2015 6:18 PM

Beijing Is Showing Us Exactly Why America’s Debt to China Isn’t a Problem

Fearmongering politicians and writers love to wave around the idea that China's government could one day wage war on the American economy by simply selling off its massive stockpile of U.S. Treasury debt. Sometimes, their message is a little more nebulous than that—the famous Chinese professor ad from the 2010 midterm elections merely hinted that we'd end up being enslaved to Beijing thanks to our borrowing habits while eliding over the details of exactly how that might come to pass. But the basic notion that China has financial power over the U.S. simply because it’s one of our top lenders is both oft-repeated and irritatingly sticky: Last month, the Pew Research Center reported that 89 percent of Americans thought "the large amount of American debt held by China" was either a somewhat or very serious problem.

Well, as the Wall Street Journal notes Wednesday, China has in fact started selling off an unprecedented amount of U.S. government bonds. And it’s mostly serving as an illustration of why there’s no real reason to fret about our debt to Beijing.


Let’s start with a little review of U.S.-Sino paranoia. The treasuries-as-financial-weapon-of-mass-destruction theory goes something like this: China currently holds more than $1 trillion worth of U.S. government bonds, equal to about 20 percent of all treasury debt owned by foreigners. If one day the Communist Party leadership felt like starting some havoc, or just simply lost confidence in Washington’s ability to or desire to repay its obligations, it could liquidate that stash, driving down treasury values and forcing the U.S. government to offer sky-high interest in order to borrow (as treasury prices go down, rates go up).

Now here's what's going on in the news: After accidentally terrifying investors this summer by slightly devaluing its currency without warning, China has been trying to prevent the yuan from collapsing even further against the dollar by, well, selling off treasuries. The way this works is simple. The country’s central bank unloads some its bond holdings for dollars, then it uses said dollars to buy yuan, thereby pushing down the value of the greenback and pushing up the redback. In August, it reportedly spent about $120 billion to $130 billion intervening this way. At first, there was some worry that all this selling might indeed end up sending U.S. interest rates higher, acting as a sort of reverse monetary stimulus. But the bond markets seem to have largely reacted with a big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, largely because the treasury market is enormous, and with the global economy in a shaky spot, there are ample buyers out there looking to purchase American government debt as a relatively safe place to put their money.

All of this drives home a very simple point that people who worry about our debt to China tend to overlook: Buying and selling treasuries is how Beijing manages its delicate exchange rate, which is essential to keeping the country’s all-important exports flowing. And if it were to actually dump enough of its treasury holdings to cause trouble, the likely end result would be a less valuable U.S. dollar, which would mean fewer Americans buying goods made in China. That would especially be the case if the U.S. Federal Reserve responded by printing money to buy up whatever bonds China sold in order to keep interest rates from jumping, which in this extended hypothetical, is a pretty likely scenario. Beijing would be cutting off its nose to spite its face, which isn’t typically how one subjugates a geopolitical rival.

Oct. 6 2015 4:13 PM

McDonald’s All-Day Breakfast Is Finally Here, but the Hash Browns Might Be Missing

Today is the magical day that Slate’s Moneybox team has been waiting for: the nationwide rollout of McDonald’s all-day breakfast. We told you McDonald’s was testing it in March; we got the news in early September that all-day breakfast would soon reach the entire country; and on this sixth day of October two-thousand-and-fifteen we are excited to report that our dream has become reality.

Naturally, to mark the occasion, a Slate colleague and I decided to get McDonald’s breakfast for lunch. At about 1 p.m., well after the traditional 10:30 a.m. end of McDonald’s breakfast hours had passed, we headed down to a McDonald’s outpost on Varick Street in New York’s West Village.


Photo by Slate


Inside, multiple customers carried brown paper bags with “All-Day Breakfast Menu: The Wait Is Over” emblazoned on them. Yet when we went to order, a cashier informed us that this particular McDonald’s location was not participating in all-day breakfast. (When I contacted McDonald’s to ask how many others weren’t participating, Lisa McComb, a company spokeswoman, responded that she was “not aware of any restaurants that are not offering all day breakfast” and that this was “an anomaly.”)

Not so easily deterred, we turned north to the McDonald’s near West Fourth Street, and this time it was clear we’d come to the right place. The inside of the store was decked out in balloons. Staff members wore shirts that read “Show Breakfast Who’s Boss” on the back. My co-worker snapped a few photos while I got on line; one of the few other customers there came over to ask if we were tourists.

A West Village McDonald’s celebrates all-day breakfast with balloons.

Photo by Slate

At the counter, I ordered a Sausage McMuffin With Egg as well as hash browns, which is when I learned that hash browns weren’t available. That this might be the case was reported Monday by BuzzFeed, which explains that about 10 percent of restaurants will not offer hash browns once they begin serving fries for the day. The reason for this, per a former McDonald’s franchisee, is that hash browns and french fries cook in the same fry vats and some stores don’t have the capacity to accommodate both.

Another McDonald’s breakfast favorite missing from the all-day menu: the savory and syrupy McGriddles.* Breakfast sandwich options will also vary by location. While most McDonald’s in the U.S. are offering the Egg McMuffin family past 10:30 a.m., a cluster of states in the Southeast are carrying the biscuit versions instead (dubbed the “Biscuit Belt” by Nation’s Restaurant News).

McDonalds_ADB_Map Menu Breakdown

McDonald’s via Nation’s Restaurant News

As momentous a day as this is for Egg McMuffin fans, it’s a much bigger one for McDonald’s. Over the past year, McDonald’s has seemed at its wit’s end for what to do about its flagging business. Globally, the company’s same-store sales fell every month from June 2014 to June 2015, when it stopped reporting them altogether. In the U.S. things weren’t much better, with same-store sales falling 11 out of the same 13 months. McDonald’s brought in a MythBuster. It tried “Pay With Lovin’. ” It hired a new chief executive and began selling an artisan chicken sandwich. None of that worked. With nationwide all-day breakfast, McDonald’s is finally giving consumers something they’ve long wanted and requested. When the next few quarters’ worth of earnings roll around, we’ll know whether it did the trick.

*Correction, Oct. 7, 2015: This post originally misstated the proper name of McDonald’s syrupy-sweet breakfast offering. It is the McGriddles, not the McGriddle.