A Mess of a Screed

August 20th, 2012 at 2:41 pm

What do you do if you’re loaded for bear and they call off the hunt?

I was just in the chair at MSNBC about to argue with Naill Ferguson about his anti-Obama screed in Newsweek but they had to cancel the hit.

NF’s piece is such a mess of factual errors, contradictions, and misguided impressions that one shouldn’t spend a lot of time on it, but since I prepped, allow me a bit of a data dump.

First off, note to Newsweek: create a job and hire a fact-checker.  On my first read through this piece I listed 13 errors, including factual mistakes and misleading impressions.  Here are a few examples:

–The President failed to deliver on his promises on new investments in infrastructure and clean energy.

Put aside for a second that NF later in the piece supports an agenda that precludes such investments.  The claim is wrong.  I was about to start collecting the evidence when I recalled just reading it all packed together very nicely in Mike Grunwald’s new book, as he lists the investments in the Recovery Act, passed less than four weeks into the President’s term.  He even provides the sections of the bill.

“roads and bridges (Title XII), transmission lines (Secs. 301, 401, 1705) and broadband lines (Titles I, II), scientific research (Titles II, III, IV, VII), electronic medical records (Title XIII), solar and wind power (over a dozen provision), biofuel refineries (Title IV), electric cars (Sec. 1141), green manufacturing (Sec. 1302), and education reform (Sec. 14005).”

[See my recent discussion with Grunwald here.]

–One half of Americans don’t pay taxes (NF: “We are becoming a fifty-fifty nation—half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits).

That’s only true of federal income taxes.  Virtually everyone who works pays payroll taxes, and they and everyone else often face state and sales taxes as well.  Furthermore, the latter are regressive, as lower income households pay larger shares of their income in these forms of taxes than wealthy households (see figures here).

–The Affordable Care Act adds to the deficit.

No.  According to various scores by the CBO, it reduces the deficit (slightly in the first decade, more in the second).  NF cites the costs of the bill but ignores the spending cuts and tax increases that more than pay for it.

This is the stuff of House Republican talking-point sheets.  How it ended up in Newsweek is more than a little scary.

One could go on for much longer, including the foreign policy parts, where NF scratches his head as to why the President polls “relatively strong on national security.”  (Um…bin Laden…out of Iraq…draw down in Afghanistan).  There’s even a graph of China’s level of GDP passing that of America’s around 2017, as predicted by the IMF.  That’s surely an interesting observation but what is the point in an article about the President’s alleged policy failures?  Does NF really believe that a different president would change that prediction?  If so, let us ask the IMF who will tell us of course not.  It’s a function of a billion+ Chinese in an emerging economy generating high growth rates and thus higher levels of aggregate GDP (as opposed to per capita).

But let’s just touch on fiscal policy, and NF’s position that the President has failed where Paul Ryan would succeed.  Here we are passing through a deeper portal into a fact-free zone.

He touts the House budget leader and presumptive VP nominee as a guy who “understands the challenges of fiscal reform” better than anyone.  That’s certainly not what we’ve found here at CBPP after extensive analysis of his various budget proposals.

Now, I’d like NF to deal with the facts that Rep Ryan supported the Bush tax cuts, the wars, and prescription drug bill, all of which were not paid for, and, particularly as regards the tax cuts, are major drivers of today and tomorrow’s deficits.

But perhaps NF only wants to look forward, ignoring those past votes (this despite that fact that he’s an historian of sorts, is he not?).  Perhaps he wants to ignore that fact that he both touts Ryan’s alleged fiscal hawkery and the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan, never mentioning that Ryan, a member of the fiscal commission, voted against that plan because he is pledged enemy of any tax increases (and B-S raises new revenue).

But he also ignores the deficit-inducing fiscal irresponsibility of the current House budget, authored by Ryan, that goes well beyond GW Bush in terms of tax cuts, paid for by loophole closures to be named later.

He further ignores that on the spending side, the Ryan budget eventually takes government spending outside of Social Security, health insurance programs, and interest on the debt down to less than 4% of GDP.  NF ignores CBO’s point re this trajectory that “spending for defense alone has not been lower than 3% of GDP in any year [since World War II]” which is particularly tricky because  Rep Ryan seeks higher levels of defense spending in the future.

As Krugman points out today, these are not serious proposals.  And yet, despite the fact that the President’s most recent budget has been scored by the CBO as stabilizing the debt/GDP ratio over the next decade (see figure 2 here), it is this budget that gets labeled a “fantasy” by NF.

Enough.  The problems here are twofold.  One, that NF gets away with this stuff, and two, that he does so in a prominent place like Newsweek.

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8 comments in reply to "A Mess of a Screed"

  1. Doug Plank says:

    “We are becoming a fifty-fifty nation—half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits).”

    NF makes it sound like those who pay taxes never receive benefits, and that those who receive benefits never pay taxes.

    Do you mean the people that get Farm subsidies never pay taxes?

    Do you mean that the banks that received TARP never pay taxes?

    Do you mean the subsidies that the USA has given oil companies never pay taxes? (oh wait, bad example here)


  2. Darren M says:

    My favorite part was where he used data from January, 2008 to establish that Obama hadn’t accomplished enough.

    Next up:

    Niall Ferguson explains how President Obama’s New Deal Programs caused the Great Depression to last longer than it should have….

    Followed by

    Niall Ferguson explains why President Obama’s foreign policy during WWII exacerbated the situation.


  3. Joe Smith says:

    Ferguson is a part of a larger pattern of the Republican campaign trying to use academics as validators.

    Why was the appearance cancelled? Who made the decision?

    These phony validators need to be exposed and destroyed promptly.


  4. Rima Regas says:

    There isn’t a fact checker that’s going to fix the problem of publications that are willing to give space to people who write their pieces around an opinion, rather than a set of facts. Unfortunately, the vast majority of newspapers and magazines that used to have reputations as “serious” now allow this stuff and people buy it because they don’t know how to analyze information that isn’t pre-digested to at least some degree.

    If we’re so lucky as to reelect our pres, retake the House, and keep the Senate, we must make it our first priority to ensure that the next generations of Americans is well-read, can think critically, analyze a modicum of numbers, and never allow the kind of moral breakdown we are seeing across the political and business spectrums.

    I hope it isn’t too many ifs.


  5. Mike says:

    Any chance you two could conduct an email debate and publish the results? I always like to see someone respond when they’re accused of factual errors.


  6. Misaki says:

    Is high unemployment the result of intentions, or capabilities?


  7. Jason says:

    Any reason why Naill Ferguson’s anti obama screed was cancelled?


    • Jared Bernstein says:

      The station was covering a Rom/Ry town hall that went on longer than expected. That kind of thing happens all the time.


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