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There’s no doubt that the U.S. economy is in a boom. The Conference Board is reporting the highest levels of job satisfaction in more than a decade. This is probably because of a tight labor market — the ratio between the unemployment level and the number of job vacancies is at its lowest level in a half-century: Number of unemployed to job opening is at a nearly five-decade low Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nick Bunker at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth A broader measure, the prime-age employment-to-population ratio, is back to 2006 levels. Meanwhile, real gross domestic product growth for the second quarter was just revised up to 4.2 percent. Corporate profits are rising strongly. And investment as a percentage of the economy is at about the level of the mid-2000s boom: Investment as a share of gross domestic product Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Wages are still lagging. But all other indicators show the U.S. economy performing as strongly as at any time since the mid-2000s — and possibly even since the late 1990s. Which raises an interesting question: Why is this boom happening? That’s an almost impossible question to answer. Fundamentally, economists don’t know why booms happen. It’s possible that there’s not even such a thing as a “boom” at all — that this is just how the economy works under normal circumstances, when there isn’t a recession or crisis to throw it off its game. But it is possible to identify some factors that might — with the emphasis on “might” — be contributing to the strength of this economic expansion. The first is low interest rates. The Federal Reserve kept short-term rates at or near zero for almost a decade after the financial crisis, suppressing long-term rates in the process. That in turn lowered borrowing rates for corporations and mortgage borrowers, which tends to juice investment. Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Standard macroeconomic theories hold that low rates increase aggregate demand. Those theories also say that when interest rates are low, fiscal deficits provide an added boost to demand, and deficits have been rising as a result of President Donald Trump’s tax cuts: Federal surplus or deficit as a share of gross domestic product Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis These are what are known as demand-side explanations. Typically, it’s believed that goosing aggregate demand with fiscal and monetary policy will eventually lead to rising inflation. So far, it has risen very slightly but is far from alarming: Personal consumption expenditure core price index (excludes food and fuel) Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis via Bloomberg A third demand-side explanation is what John Maynard Keynes called animal spirits, and what modern-day economists call sentiment — potentially random fluctuations in the optimism and confidence of businesspeople and consumers. There is evidence to support this explanation — small business confidence is at record highs, and consumer confidence also is very strong: Consumer sentiment index Source: University of Michigan A final demand-side explanation is that the current boom is simply the tail end of the long recovery from the Great Recession — consumers and businesses might finally be purchasing the houses and cars that they waited to buy when the recovery was still in doubt. Housing, traditionally the most important piece of business-cycle investment and consumption, is still looking weak, with housing starts below their 50-year average. But business investment might be experiencing the positive effects of stored-up demand. There is also another category of potential explanations, known as supply-side factors. These are things that increase the long-term productive capacity of the economy. One such possibility is that Trump’s tax cuts removed distortions that held back business investment, and that fast growth — and the attendant low unemployment — is the result of the economy’s rapid shift to a higher level of efficiency. A second supply-side explanation is that the boom is being driven by technology. Information technology advances such as machine learning and cloud computing might be driving the investment boom — perhaps also spurring companies to invest in intangible assets such as brands and workers’ skills. Evidence says that this sort of technology-driven boom is rare, but it’s at least theoretically possible. Of course, the boom could be due to none of these factors — or to causes that economists haven’t even identified yet. But as of now, these are the prime suspects. And although it’s very difficult to know, it matters how important each of these factors is, because that gives some insight into how the boom might end — and how it might be prolonged. A demand-side boom probably will end of its own accord. If loose monetary and/or fiscal policy is driving up demand, then it will likely eventually cause inflation to accelerate, prompting a clampdown by the Fed. If animal spirits are responsible, it could lead to over-borrowing and an eventual debt crisis and crash — indeed, corporate debt is looking worrisome, as levels of risky debt rise and credit spreads narrow. A supply-side boom, in contrast, is likely to moderate rather than crash. Any positive effect of tax cuts will eventually dissipate as the economy settles at its new steady state. A technological boom could peter out after a few years, or could even accelerate if new discoveries build on each other. If I were forced to pick one leading explanation for the boom, I would go with animal spirits. Exuberant business sentiment and the build-up of risky corporate debt seem indicative of good times that won’t last. Hopefully that guess will prove wrong. To contact the author of this story: Noah Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at email@example.com
Monday is the first day that French schoolchildren under 15 cannot use their cellphones at any point during the school day, thanks to a new nationwide law. The ban, passed in July following a campaign pledge made by French President Emmanuel Macron, will affect elementary and junior high schools across the country as they return from the summer break. The new law, which went into effect on August 5, bans all types of cellphones, as well as tablets and smartwatches. While a ban on cellphones during class hours was already in place since 2010, the new law extends to breaks and mealtimes. Schools are free to choose themselves if they will implement the ban for students over 15. There are also some exceptions to the ban, such as for students with disabilities. Under the new law, students have to turn their phones off during the day or put them in lockers, the Associated Press reported. Schools will independently deal with the logistics of how students will be kept away from their phones, the news agency said. The law was introduced amid fears that students were becoming too dependent on and distracted by their smartphones. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer in June hailed the legislation as "a law for the 21st century," and said it would improve discipline among France's 12 million schoolchildren, Agence France-Presse reported. "Being open to technologies of the future doesn't mean we have to accept all their uses," he said.
It is 9:00AM in our New York City office, and one of us (Jordan) stops by the fifth-floor kitchen to pick up a free piece of fruit — a healthy perk that Weight Watchers offers its employees. When he arrives, he faces a familiar sight: the bananas are already gone and only the oranges remain. When other hopefuls approach and find the bananas missing, they do not take a free orange. They just walk away. What is wrong with these people? Is there a subculture of orange haters lurking at Weight Watchers?