People who believe facts are nothing think you'll fall for anything. Call it Niallism.
This is my last word (well, last words) on Niall Ferguson, whose Newsweek cover story arguing that Obama doesn't deserve a second-term has drawn deserved criticism for its mendacity from Paul Krugman, AndrewSullivan, Ezra Klein, Noah Smith, my colleagues James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates and myself. The problem isn't Ferguson's conclusion, but how Ferguson reaches his conclusion. He either presents inaccurate facts or presents facts inaccurately. The result is a tendentious mess that just maintains a patina of factuality -- all, of course, so Ferguson can create plausible deniability about his own dishonesty.
Exhibit A is Ferguson's big lie that Obamacare would increase the deficit. This is not true. Just look at the CBO report Ferguson himself cites. Paul Krugman immediately pointed this out, and asked for a correction. How did Ferguson respond? He claims he was only talking about the bill's costs and not its revenues -- a curious and unconvincing defense to say the least. But then Ferguson reveals his big tell. He selectively quotes the CBO to falsely make it sound like they don't think Medicare savings will in fact be realized. Here's the section Ferguson quotes, with the part he ellipses out in bold. (Note: Pseudonymous Buzzfeed contributor @nycsouthpaw was the first to notice this quote-doctoring. The italics below are Ferguson's).
In fact, CBO's cost estimate for the legislation noted that it will put into effect a number of policies that might be difficult to sustain over a long period of time. 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 achievedthrough greater efficiencies in the delivery of health care or
will instead reduce access to care or the quality of care (relative to the situation under
Ferguson completely changes the CBO's meaning. Why not just say he finds the CBO's analysis unconvincing, like Andrew Sullivan suggested, and leave it at that? Well, Ferguson tries that later -- but not before appealing to the authority of the CBO when the CBO is not on his side. The damage is done.
I don't want to go too far down this Ferguson rabbit hole -- we get it, he lied -- but I do want to answer his response to my fact-check. Ferguson's reading of my criticism was as lacking as his fidelity to facts. I tried to make clear that I was cataloging two categories of errors in his piece. There were untruths misleadingly framed as truths and truths misleadingly framed so as to be untruths. Or, as I put it, "a fantasy world of incorrect and tendentious facts."
Let's take a quick detour into the meta. Ferguson objects that I don't identify "a single error" and that I'm just offering my own opinions. The former is not true -- his description of Obamacare and its budgetary impact are demonstrably false -- but the latter is a legitimate point of debate. Ferguson prefers a very narrow definition of fact-checking; I do not think that is sufficient. Facts twisted out of context can be just as deceptive as outright falsehoods -- sometimes even more so, because you can cloak them in claims of truthfulness.
That said, I want to give Ferguson's rebuttal far more attention than it deserves. This is a tedious exercise, so feel free to skip to the next section. Below are a summary of my critiques in italics, his responses in bold, and then my reply to those. Whew! Let's go.
1. I criticized Ferguson for saying that stocks are up since January 2009, but private sector employment is down since January 2008. I pointed out that private sector payrolls are up 427,000 since Obama took office in January 2009.
NF: Both these statements are true. I picked the high point of January 2008 because it seems to me reasonable to ask how much of the ground lost in the crisis have we actually made up under Obama. The answer is not much. You may not like that, but it's a fact.
Ferguson's fact is deliberately misleading. A better way to make the argument he says he wants to make would be something like, "Private sector payrolls have added 427,000 jobs since Obama took office, but we are nowhere near out of our deep hole -- despite this growth, private sector payrolls are still 4.18 million jobs below their January 2008 peak."
2. I couldn't find Ferguson's source or replicate his result for real median household incomes.
NF: Well, either Newsweek starts publishing footnotes or Matthew O'Brien reads a little more widely than just official statistics, which generally lag months behind. The monthly data for Median Household Income Index (HII) is produced by Sentier
A footnote isn't necessary. A link would suffice. The Sentier numbers are a decent proxy for the official Census numbers, but there are some years where they move in opposite directions. I annualized and normalized the Sentier and Census figures and found an average 2.5 percent difference between their levels from 2001-2010. (I indexed both to 2000, since that's how the Sentier data are presented, and stopped in 2010 because that's the last year for which the Census has numbers). In other words, the Sentier figures are far from authoritative, and could use some context.
3. I criticized Ferguson for saying that half of Americans don't pay taxes, since that's only true of federal income tax.
NF: In other words, my fact is true. Because I specifically said "taxable return." You don't tend to record your sales tax payments on those.
This is wrong. Other taxes like state income tax and certain excise taxes also come on taxable returns. Even more wrong is when Ferguson writes that "we are becoming the 50-50 nation -- half of us paying taxes, the other half receiving the benefits." Ferguson does not address this unequivocal error.
4. I said debt-to-revenue was not the measure that "really mattered" when assessing fiscal health.
NF: Again, O'Brien is offering here an opinion as a fact. He should read my book The Cash Nexus (2001) to understand why he doesn't know what he is talking about. Governments don't pay interest and redemption with GDP but with tax revenues. If it were easy to increase the tax share of GDP, we wouldn't be heading for a fiscal cliff. My numbers are correct and can be checked using the IMF's World Economic Outlook online database.
Ferguson is right. It is my opinion that debt-to-GDP is more relevant than debt-to-revenue. But that's a widespread opinion. It's the measure Harvard professor and former IMF chief economist Ken Rogoff looked at when he tried to figure out what level of indebtedness hurts growth. Countries can't pay debts in GDP, but it is much easier to increase taxes than it is to increase GDP. Ferguson inadvertently makes that point himself when he says the chance of hitting the fiscal cliff shows how hard it is to increase the tax share of GDP. He apparently doesn't realize that hitting the fiscal cliff would increase the tax share of GDP!
5. I said that Ferguson seemed to contradict himself on the stimulus and the debt.
NF: This earlier statement does not contradict my article. As anyone who looks at the data knows, the stimulus had a positive but very short-run impact and failed to achieve self-sustaining growth in the way Keynesians hoped.
For his part, Ferguson has looked at the data so closely that he erroneously thinks the surge of Census hiring in 2010 shows the short-run impact of the stimulus. This mistake aside, the point remains that Ferguson 1) supported the stimulus, 2) criticizes the stimulus for not doing enough, 3) criticizes Obama for too much spending.
6. I said that the "$222 trillion fiscal gap" Ferguson cited from economist Larry Kotlikoff was a meaningless number -- chery-picked to make the debt sound worse than it is.
NF: Well, O'Brien is welcome to share his opinion with Larry Kotlikoff, the world's leading authority on generational accounting and long-term fiscal stability. What he can't claim is that my statement is factually inaccurate. As for the argument that current low borrowing costs mean we don't need to worry about the debt--which is like saying that mortgage default rates in 2006 meant we didn't need to worry about subprime--that has been comprehensively demolished in a new paper by Carmen and Vincent Reinhart and Ken Rogoff.
Kotlikoff is projecting policies that won't continue forever, forever into the future. You can choose to believe him or not. I consider it a scare number that Ferguson highlights to make our debt sound scarier. In either case, Ferguson's subprime analogy is meretricious. Yes, financial markets sometimes get things wrong in big ways, but our debt is not the same as an option-ARM mortgage. We certainly need fiscal consolidation over the medium-turn, but there's no reason for investors to dump Treasuries en masse -- despite Ferguson's repeated and repeatedly wrong predictions to the contrary. Markets think our credit risk is lower now than when Obama took office, as this chart from Credit Suisse of credit default swaps on Treasuries shows.
7. I pointed out that we haven't adopted Basel III's banking capital requirements yet.
NF: But I didn't say that we had already implemented Basel III. So that's another fact "checked" and found to be ... correct.
Ferguson is right. He didn't explicitly say Basel III had already been implemented. He just strongly implied it. Why criticize Obama for not forcing banks to comply with a regulation if that regulation is not in effect? And not tell your readers the regulation is not in effect?
8. I criticized Ferguson for saying that Obamacare does not do things that it does.
NF: Now let's check O'Brien's facts. So the ACA "tackles the long-run explosion of Medicare costs." Right. That's why the net cost of Medicare is still projected by the CBO to treble from 3.2 percent of GDP to between 9 and 10 percent by 2087.
The CBO thinks Obamacare will slow the increase in Medicare spending. Full stop. Ferguson should know this. It's the sentence he lopped off from the CBO report in his doctored quote. Also notice Ferguson doesn't dispute that the provisions he said were not in Obamacare are in fact in Obamacare.
9. I criticized Ferguon's partial history of the Simpson-Bowles commission and the debt ceiling standoff. He left out the part about his fiscal hero, Paul Ryan, nixing a deal both times.
NF: So that's another fact "checked" and found to be correct. And if you want to gauge the president's share of the responsibility for the failure of a fiscal grand bargain, read Matt Bai in The New York Times.
I didn't say it was incorrect, just incomplete. Ferguson harangues Obama for not tackling the long-term debt, and names Paul Ryan as a counter-example of someone serious about getting our proverbial fiscal house in order. It seems relevant that one of those people (Obama) offered a long-term debt deal, and the other (Ryan) turned down that deal.
10. I said it was silly to blame Obama for China's GDP likely passing ours in the near future, since they have more than four times as many people as we do.
NF: Well, there you have it. It "doesn't really matter" that for the first time since the 1880s the United States is about to cease being the world's largest economy. Fact checked, found to be correct, and countered with an utterly naive opinion.
Ferguson's argument is one without any implications. The Solow Model tells us poorer countries should generally grow faster than richer countries -- in other words, they should converge. It's unclear what Ferguson thinks Obama should do to repeal this law of economics. Start a trade war? That would certainly hurt China's growth, but at great cost to ourselves as well. In any case, Ferguson doesn't say. Fearmongering replaces arguments.
11. I said the government had helped created our middle-class society thanks to pushing mass education.
NF: Fact checked and--oh no! I really did get that wrong. It was the government that created the middle class, as well as the Golden Gate Bridge! Remind me to tell Karl Marx about this. It will come as news to him that, contrary to his life's work, the superstructure in fact created the base. (Come to think of it, this is going to come as shock to a lot of American liberals too. Imagine! The state actually created the bourgeoisie! Who knew?)
If thinking that public goods can help the economy makes me a communist, then I'm a communist. And so was Adam Smith.
Is this nit-picking? Maybe. Ferguson gets some facts wrong. Ferguson gets some facts right, but frames them incompletely. Why the outrage? Because he's treating facts as low-grade and cheap materials that are meant to be bent, spliced and morphed for the purpose of building a sensational polemic. Even more outrageous is that his bosses didn't mind enough to force him to make an honest argument, or even profess embarrassment when its dishonesty came to light.
Let's try a counterfactual. Say Ferguson hadn't made his big errors about Obamacare. Then his smaller errors of omission would not seem quite so serious -- or deliberate. But Ferguson did make his big errors. And he defends these omissions with more elisions. It makes it impossible not to read his entire piece as an effort to deceive. Ferguson should consider what kind of grade he would give an undergraduate who turned in a paper that treated facts and counter-arguments so cavalierly.
Of course, it's not just Ferguson. There is an epidemic of Niallism -- which Seamus McKiernan of the Huffington Post defined as not believing in anything factual. It's the idea that bluster can make untruths true through mere repetition. We expect this from our politicians, not our professors. Consider Mitt Romney's attacks on Obama for supposedly eliminating the work requirement in welfare. That sounds damning, unless you know it's a complete lie -- as Alec MacGillis of The New Republic has tirelessly pointed out. Or consider the economic white paper Romney's campaign put out. As EzraKlein has pointed out, the papers Romney's team cites do not say what they say they say. In other words, Romney's team draws conclusions from these papers that the authors who wrote them do not agree with. Romney adviser and Stanford professor John Taylor defended their work on the grounds that they quoted their sources accurately. This was never in dispute. The question was whether they selectively quoted their sources, not whether they selectively quoted their sources accurately.
We live in a post-truth age. That's the term David Roberts of Grist coined to describe the way the way lies get amplified in our media ecosystem. (If I were feeling cynical, I might say we live in a pre-truth age -- maybe things have always been this deplorable). It's bad enough when politicians do it. It's even worse when journalists do too. Now, everybody has biases and those biases unwittingly slant the way we frame facts -- myself included. That's why I try to follow best practices of writers like Felix Salmon. I try to show my work, and admit when I make mistakes. The irony is that there's an academic who would probably agree with all of the above. His name is Niall Ferguson. His early academic work was as good as his punditry is bad. It's a shame that Niall Ferguson wasn't the Niall Ferguson who wrote the Newsweek story.
The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us restrain ourselves.
You’ve likely seen the video before: a stream of kids, confronted with a single, alluring marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they’ll get two. Some do. Others cave almost immediately.
This “Marshmallow Test,” first conducted in the 1960s, perfectly illustrates the ongoing war between impulsivity and self-control. The kids have to tamp down their immediate desires and focus on long-term goals—an ability that correlates with their later health, wealth, and academic success, and that is supposedly controlled by the front part of the brain. But a new study by Alexander Soutschek at the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is also influenced by another brain region—and one that casts this ability in a different light.
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
Americans are optimistic about the communities they live in—but not their nation. Why?
I have been alive for a long time. I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when I was a 10th-grader, and then watching with my family through the grim following days as newscasters said that something had changed forever. The next dozen years were nearly nonstop trauma for the country. More assassinations. Riots in most major cities. All the pain and waste and tragedy of the Vietnam War, and then the public sense of heading into the utterly unknown as, for the first time ever, a president was forced to resign. Americans of my children’s generation can remember the modern wave of shocks and dislocations that started but did not end with the 9/11 attacks.
Through all this time, I have been personally and professionally, and increasingly, an American optimist. The long years I have spent living and working outside the United States have not simply made me more aware of my own strong identity as an American. They have also sharpened my appreciation for the practical ramifications of the American idea. For me this is the belief that through its cycle of struggle and renewal, the United States is in a continual process of becoming a better version of itself. What I have seen directly over the past decade, roughly half in China and much of the rest in reporting trips around the United States, has reinforced my sense that our current era has been another one of painful but remarkable reinvention, in which the United States is doing more than most other societies to position itself, despite technological and economic challenges, for a new era of prosperity, opportunity, and hope.
Strangling public-sector unions in Wisconsin has shrunk teachers’ pay and benefits. Who’s next?
Back in 2009, Rick Erickson was happy with his job as a teacher in one of the state’s northernmost school districts on the shores of Lake Superior. He made $35,770 a year teaching chemistry and physics, which wasn’t a lot of money, but then again, he received stellar healthcare and pension benefits, and could talk honestly with administrators about what he needed as a teacher every two years when his union sat down with the school district in collective bargaining sessions.
Then, five years ago, Wisconsin passed Act 10, also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, which dramatically limited the ability of teachers and other public employees to bargain with employers on wages, benefits, and working conditions. After Act 10,Erickson saw his take-home pay drop dramatically: He now makes $30,650. His wife is a teacher, too, and together they make 11 percent less than they did before Act 10. The local union he once led no longer exists, and so he can’t bargain with the school district for things like prep time and sick days. He pays more for health care and his pension, and he says both he and his wife may now not be able to retire until they are much older than they had planned.
Long-shot efforts to stop Donald Trump or change the election system risk taking up time and energy with little to show at the end.
As Donald Trump’s inauguration draws near, Democrats are channeling time and energy into long-shot political fights focused on the Electoral College. But while their efforts have generated media attention, they ultimately seem unlikely to win back the power liberals lost in the presidential election.
A group of Democratic electors areleading the charge for an Electoral College revolt by attempting to convince electors to deny Trump the White House when they vote for president later this month. At least one Republican elector has also publicly advocated for his colleagues to reject Trump: “I believe electors should unify behind a Republican alternative,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday.
Unless he divests himself of his business holdings, the president-elect could violate constitutional rules meant to guard against corruption.
With the recent news that two Republican electors are refusing to vote for Donald Trump, we have been inundated with inquiries asking whether other electors should decline to select Trump because of a particular constitutional issue. It’s one we worked on when we were advising Presidents Bush and Obama, respectively: the Emoluments Clause.
Every elector must search his or her own conscience, but after a blizzard of reporting on the president-elect’s foreign business relations in recent days, it appears that Trump will be in violation of this clause of the Constitution from the moment he takes office—and the plan for his business that he hinted at on Twitter last week does not solve the problem.
Babylonian tablets suggest that Earth’s rotation is slowing less than expected.
On the morning of April 15, 136 B.C.E., residents of the ancient city of Babylon, in what is now Iraq, experienced quite a sight. An hour and a half after sunrise, the moon moved across the face of the sun, blotting it out so only the golden halo of its atmosphere was visible. The sky went dark.
“Venus, Mercury and the Normal Stars were visible; Jupiter and Mars, which were in their period of disappearance, were visible in that eclipse,” a Babylonian astrologer inscribed in cuneiform, on a clay tablet now stored in the British Museum.
To measure the eclipse’s duration, the astrologer would have used a cylindrical vessel called a clepsydra, or a water clock, whose slow draining marked the passage of time. “It moved from SW to NE. 35 us [time duration] for obscuration and clearing up. In that eclipse, north wind which...” The rest of the observation is on a missing chunk of tablet and was lost to history, but the astrologer may have been noting that the wind shifted direction, which happens during a total eclipse.
In a completely new approach, scientists reduced a hallmark of the disease in mice by stimulating their neurons with flickering lights.
When a crowd starts to applaud, each person initially does so to their own rhythm. But in some cases, those claps can synchronize, with hundreds or thousands or millions of hands striking in unison.
Something similar happens in the brain. When a single neuron fires, it sends an electrical pulse down its length. But large networks of neurons can also fire together, creating regular cycles of electrical activity that resemble the synchronized applause of a rapturous crowd. Formally, these are called neural oscillations; more colloquially, they’re brain waves.
These waves are classified by how frequently the neurons fire in a single second. If they fire one to four times, that’s a delta wave, which occurs during deep sleep. If they fire 12 to 30 times, that’s a beta wave, which is typical of normal wakefulness. And if they do so 30 to 90 times, that’s a gamma wave, which has been linked to higher mental abilities, like memory, attention, and perception. It’s no surprise, then, that scientists have seen disrupted gamma waves in many types of brain disorders, including injuries, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Trump’s nominee for attorney general claims to have “filed 20 or 30” desegregation cases as U.S. attorney in Alabama, but there’s little evidence to support that.
Civil-rights organizations balked when Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who was rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986 over allegations he made racist remarks, was chosen to succeed Loretta Lynch as attorney general. Sessions’s allies have sought to portray those criticisms as unfair, in part by pointing to his record of filing desegregation lawsuits as U.S. attorney in Alabama.
Sessions himself claims to have been a champion of desegregation. “I filed 20 or 30 civil-rights cases to desegregate schools and political organizations and county commissions when I was a United States attorney,” Sessions told National Review in 2009. Trump spokesman Jason Miller offered a similar claim in November, telling reporters on a conference call that “when Senator Sessions was U.S. attorney, he filed a number of desegregation lawsuits in Alabama.” Miller’s claim about his record has been reported by outlets including Politico, Wired, and The Washington Times. Conservative outlets have dismissed the questioning of his civil-rights record as "another in a long line of liberal smears" against a principled conservative, in part by citing his record on school desegregation.