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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder