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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.