Niall Ferguson attacks Obama, poorly

The economic historian penned a cover-piece for Newsweek which doesn't show the best grasp of his subject.

Niall Ferguson has written the cover story in this week's Newsweek slating Obama for his economic performance, and forcefully arguing against the president's re-election.

Ferguson writes:

In his inaugural address, Obama promised "not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth." He promised to "build the roads and bridges, the electric grids, and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together." He promised to "restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost." And he promised to "transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age." Unfortunately the president’s scorecard on every single one of those bold pledges is pitiful.

But much of the article reveals that it is Ferguson himself who is pitiful. The people slating him may largely be the usual suspects, but their criticisms still hold.

Noah Smith points out that the very paragraph quoted above, the third in the entire piece, isn't quite accurate:

I'll just quickly note that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act contained substantial funding for infrastructure. So Ferguson, when he says that Obama has not built infrastructure, is simply asserting something that is not true. In the parlance of my generation, he is "spouting BS".

Paul Krugman, for instance, argues that Ferguson offers "just a plain misrepresentation of the facts" when discussing the effect of healthcare reform.

Ferguson says:

The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit. But the CBO [Congressional Budget Office, the model for our OBR] and the Joint Committee on Taxation now estimate that the insurance-coverage provisions of the ACA will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012–22 period.

The passage reads as though Ferguson is saying that the CBO thinks Obamacare adds to the deficit, when in fact they say the exact opposite; the insurance-coverage provisions cost money, but they are funded by other measures in the act. It's difficult to work out whether Ferguson is deliberately misleading or just mistaken, but either way he's wrong.

Similar weirdness happens with his arguments over America's comparative performance. He writes:

The failures of leadership on economic and fiscal policy over the past four years have had geopolitical consequences. The World Bank expects the U.S. to grow by just 2 percent in 2012. China will grow four times faster than that; India three times faster. By 2017, the International Monetary Fund predicts, the GDP of China will overtake that of the United States.

Illustrated with this chart:

Both Matt Yglesias and Joe Weisenthal pointed out that it's a tad unfair to blame Obama for the fact that the BRICS are growing faster than America.

Yglesias writes:

Ferguson is implicitly making two points with this graphic and it's difficult to know which of them is more absurd—the idea that Obama is responsible for rapid economic growth in China or the idea that if he were responsible that would be blameworthy.

And Weisenthal adds:

It even hits Obama for stuff like this, which seems totally inevitable at some point, regardless of who is President.

Weisenthal also focuses on Ferguson's shoddy prior record when it comes to economic forecasting, concluding:

Bottom line: Ferguson has made some big calls about economic collapse ever since Obama took over. As he declares that Obama has been a failure, note that those own calls in recent years have been off the mark.

Of course, as Paul Cotterill wrote last week for the New Statesman, Niall Ferguson isn't actually the best economic writer around. Or really that good at all. Discussing his Newsweek article on the Indian blackouts, Cotterill concludes:

For Ferguson simply to set the long term consequences of colonialism to one side, in favour of a simplistic view of why India is where it is now - a paradox not of its own making - confirms his fall from decent historian to celebrity charlatan, interested more in soundbite opportunity than in real economics and history.

Just a week on, it seems Ferguson has proved that suspicion correct.

Update, 17:55:

Ferguson has responded to Krugman's criticism with an excuse which boils down to "I didn't lie, I deliberately mislead my readers!". 

He writes:

I very deliberately said “the insurance coverage provisions of the ACA,” not “the ACA.” There is a big difference.

Brad DeLong, at least, is not having it:

The "But" at the start of the second sentence in the quote tells readers two things: (i) that Obama has violated his pledge--that he promised that the ACA would not increase the deficit, but that it did--and (ii) that the rest of the second sentence will explain how Obama violated his pledge. . .

Now comes Ferguson to tell us that he lied.

Now comes Ferguson to tell us that his "But" at the start of the second sentence in the quote is completely, totally, and deliberately false. . .

And his only excuse--now, it's not an excuse for the lie, it's a "I can lie cleverly" boast--is: "I very deliberately said 'the insurance coverage provisions of the ACA', not 'the ACA'".

Fire his ass.

Fire his ass from Newsweek, and the Daily Beast.

Convene a committee at Harvard to examine whether he has the moral character to teach at a university.

There is a limit, somewhere. And Ferguson has gone beyond it.

Niall Ferguson's Newsweek cover

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.