Niall Ferguson Can’t Be Factchecked!

Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek cover story “Hit the Road, Barack” has attracted lots of the wrong kind of attention. As Dean Baker put it:

It’s hard to believe that progressive bloggers didn’t get together to pay Newsweek to run Niall Ferguson’s piece on Obama. The thing is so shot full of easily identifiable errors no serious publication would ever allow it into print.

But printed it was–a lengthy cover-story argument against re-electing Obama, based on an array of charts and economic facts that the Harvard professor believes bolster his case.

The first–and arguably most important–error was flagged in a blog post by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Ferguson wrote:

The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit. But the CBO 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.

As Krugman pointed out, that’s a totally misleading characterization of what the CBO said. He wrote that as

anyone who actually read, or even skimmed, the CBO report (pdf) knows that it found that the ACA would reduce, not increase, the deficit–because the insurance subsidies were fully paid for.

So how did Ferguson get that wrong? Well, if you ask him, he didn’t. He explains in his response that the CBO report says the coverage provisions of the law cost what he says they cost. Which is true. But that’s also not what he wrote. Look back at the first sentence of that excerpt: “The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit.” The CBO says the law saves money: Expanding insurance costs money, but the taxes, penalties and cost-saving measures save more money.

Ferguson is wrong on the facts. But he makes matters worse; Ferguson edits the CBO report to his liking. He points to this passage:

The combination of those policies, prior law regarding payment rates for physicians’ services in Medicare, and other information has led CBO to project that the growth rate of Medicare spending (per beneficiary, adjusted for overall inflation) will drop from about 4 percent per year, which it has averaged for the past two decades, to about 2 percent per year on average for the next two decades. It is unclear whether such a reduction can be achieved …”

Ferguson zeroes in on the last line, writing: “Indeed, it is, which is why I wrote what I wrote.”

But that sentence of the CBO report continued, as Politico‘s Dylan Byers noted:

Ferguson cut the CBO excerpt off mid-sentence and changed the meaning entirely. Here is how that last sentence in the excerpt actually reads:

It is unclear whether such a reduction can be achieved through greater efficiencies in the delivery of healthcare or will instead reduce access to care or the quality of care (relative to the situation under prior law.)

So contrary to what Ferguson leads readers to believe, the CBO report does not state that the reduction is “unclear.” What is “unclear” is whether the reduction will come through greater efficiencies in healthcare delivery or reduced access to care.

Once you understand that this is the level of dishonesty, there’s not much more that needs be said.  But the piece is actually full of similarly muddled arguments. Such as:

Certainly, the stock market is well up (by 74 percent) relative to the close on Inauguration Day 2009. But the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak.

That would be an even more convincing case against Obama if you could argue he was president during 2008.

One of Ferguson’s arguments is pulled right from the Fox News/talk radio playbook:

Welcome to Obama’s America: Nearly half the population is not represented on a taxable return–almost exactly the same proportion that lives in a household where at least one member receives some type of government benefit. We are becoming the 50-50 nation–half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits.

Of course, the first thing to point out is that most people who pay no federal income tax pay an array of other taxes, from sales tax to payroll taxes.

And as the Tax Policy Center explained, about half of the people are in this “receiving benefits” category “because their incomes are so low that they are less than the sum of the standard deduction and personal and dependent exemptions for which the household qualifies.”

Presumably Obama is to blame for that. Another 22 percent in this category are free-loading senior citizens.

Other parts of the Ferguson piece aren’t so much misleading as they are simply incoherent. As Slate’s Matthew Yglesias pointed out, Ferguson uses a chart showing the rise of China’s GDP to argue…well, something. Apparently Obama should be doing more to slow the growth of the Chinese economy.

In Krugman’s original post, he mentioned–seemingly as a throwaway line–“I guess they don’t do factchecking.” Well, it turns out that Newsweek actually doesn’t:

“We, like other news organizations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material,” Newsweek spokesman Andrew Kirk told Politico.

The magazine went on tell Politico‘s Byers that it “continues to monitor the debate.” Well, that’s something.



About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.