The safest place in economics is wherever Niall Ferguson isn't

The historian isn't so hot when he's looking forwards in time.

Last week, historian Niall Ferguson made some bizarre remarks about John Maynard Keynes, alleging that the economist was gay, and that because of that and the fact that he didn't have children, he did not care about the future.

Ferguson has since apologised, but Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal puts the comments into the context of the professor's war on Keynesian economics:

Then in May 2011 he wrote for The Daily Beast about "The Great Inflation Of The 2010s."

He actually said in the piece: "Yes, folks, double-digit inflation is back. Pretty soon you’ll be able to figure out the real inflation rate just by moving the decimal point in the core CPI one place to the right."

This was totally incorrect. Double-digit inflation is not back. Hopefully by this point you don't need a chart to show you that.

In February 2010 he predicted a Greek crisis was coming to America. Verdict: Wrong.

And in June 2009, he predicted a painful conflict (imminently) between monetary and fiscal policy. Verdict: wrong.

Meanwhile in more timely silliness, here's a video (via Mike Konczal) in which Niall Ferguson calls it a "law of finance" that when debt passed 90% of GDP, growth slows precipitously. Ferguson is at 1:18 mark. Of course that study has since been debunked after an Excel coding error was found by a grad student.

Weisenthal had the scorecard ready to go after he examined Ferguson's record the last time the historian hit the news, when he penned an attack on Barack Obama which fell apart on examination. As he concludes:

While none of this speaks to his skills as a historian, the crisis and post-crisis period has been characterized by him railing against the Keynesian establishment, and impaling himself at every turn.

Meanwhile, while the Keynesian consensus has utterly failed to collapse, the justification for austerity has. Paul Krugman writes:

Expansionary austerity has been refuted and even the IMF sayis that short-run multipliers are big. The 90 percent red line on debt was an artifact of fuzzy math. The bond vigilantes remain invisible, and the confidence fairy refuses to make an appearance. Clearly, austerian economics has imploded (and some prominent austerians seem to be personally imploding too).

One of the safest bets to make in the last three years is that whatever Niall Ferguson says will happen, won't. If only he would come out and predict the unending dominance of austerity politics, things might even get better.

Keynes in the Mount Washington hotel in 1944. Photograph: Getty Images

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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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt