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.
Hillary Clinton’s realistic attitude is the only thing that can effect change in today’s political climate.
Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz have something in common. Both have an electoral strategy predicated on the ability of a purist candidate to revolutionize the electorate—bringing droves of chronic non-voters to the polls because at last they have a choice, not an echo—and along the way transforming the political system. Sanders can point to his large crowds and impressive, even astonishing, success at tapping into a small-donor base that exceeds, in breadth and depth, the remarkable one built in 2008 by Barack Obama. Cruz points to his extraordinarily sophisticated voter-identification operation, one that certainly seemed to do the trick in Iowa.
But is there any real evidence that there is a hidden “sleeper cell” of potential voters who are waiting for the signal to emerge and transform the electorate? No. Small-donor contributions are meaningful and a sign of underlying enthusiasm among a slice of the electorate, but they represent a tiny sliver even of that slice; Ron Paul’s success at fundraising (and his big crowds at rallies) misled many analysts into believing that he would make a strong showing in Republican primaries when he ran for president. He flopped.
If passion is a job requirement, says the writer Miya Tokumitsu, employees have little room to complain about mistreatment at work.
It’s been said in many places and by many luminaries: Do what you love.
But what does this phrase actually mean?
Miya Tokumitsu, a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine and author of the new book Do What You Love And Other Lies About Success and Happiness, criticizes the pervasiveness of this idea in American work culture. She argues that “doing what you love” has been co-opted by corporate interests, giving employers more power to exploit their workers.
I recently spoke with Tokumitsu about work myths and why we should pay attention to them. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Bourree Lam: Your book started as an essay, “In the Name of Love,” (which was later republished by Slate) that really touched a nerve with people. What were you talking about in that essay and why are people so drawn to it?
Thenew Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, is smooth and charming, but he hasn’t found his edge.
It’s a psychic law of the American workplace: By the time you give your notice, you’ve already left. You’ve checked out, and for the days or weeks that remain, a kind of placeholder-you, a you-cipher, will be doing your job. It’s a law that applies equally to dog walkers, accountants, and spoof TV anchormen. Jon Stewart announced that he was quitting The Daily Show in February 2015, but he stuck around until early August, and those last months had a restless, frazzled, long-lingering feel. A smell of ashes was in the air. The host himself suddenly looked quite old: beaky, pique-y, hollow-cheeky. For 16 years he had shaken his bells, jumped and jangled in his little host’s chair, the only man on TV who could caper while sitting behind a desk. Flash back to his first episode as the Daily Show host, succeeding Craig Kilborn: January 11, 1999, Stewart with floppy, luscious black hair, twitching in a new suit (“I feel like this is my bar mitzvah … I have a rash like you wouldn’t believe.”) while he interviews Michael J. Fox.
The championship game descends on a city failing to deal with questions of affordability and inclusion.
SAN FRANCISCO—The protest kicked off just a few feet from Super Bowl City, the commercial playground behind security fences on the Embarcadero, where football fans were milling about drinking beer, noshing on $18 bacon cheeseburgers, and lining up for a ride on a zip line down Market Street.
The protesters held up big green camping tents painted with slogans such as “End the Class War” and “Stop Stealing Our Homes,” and chanted phrases blaming San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee for a whole range of problems, including the catchy “Hey Hey, Mayor Lee, No Penalty for Poverty.” They blocked the sidewalk, battling with tourists, joggers, and city workers, some of whom were trying to wheel their bikes through the crowd to get to the ferries that would take them home.
A growing field of research is examining how life satisfaction may affect cellular functioning and DNA.
“What is the truest form of human happiness?” Steven Cole asks.
It’s a question he’s been considering for most of his career—but Cole is a genomics researcher, not a philosopher. To him, this question isn’t rhetoric or a thought experiment. It’s science—measureable and finite.
Cole, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, has spent several decades investigating the connection between our emotional and biological selves. “The old thinking was that our bodies were stable biological entities, fundamentally separate from the external world,” he writes in an email. “But at the molecular level, our bodies turn out to be much more fluid and permeable to external influence than we realize.”*
I coined the term—now I’ve come back to fix what I started.
O reader, hear my plea: I am the victim of semantic drift.
Four months ago, I coined the term “Berniebro” to describe a phenomenon I saw on Facebook: Men, mostly my age, mostly of my background, mostly with my political beliefs, were hectoring their friends about how great Bernie was even when their friends wanted to do something else, like talk about the NBA.
In the post, I tried to gently suggest that maybe there were other ways to advance Sanders’s beliefs, many of which I share. I hinted, too, that I was not talking about every Sanders supporter. I did this subtly, by writing: “The Berniebro is not every Sanders supporter.”
Then, 28,000 people shared the story on Facebook. The Berniebro was alive! Immediately, I started getting emails: Why did I hate progressivism? Why did I joke about politics? And how dare I generalize about every Bernie Sanders supporter?
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The story behind "the most legendary act of SEO trolling ever"
Perusing the metaphorical tomes of modern civilization, we can already speak to some of the Great Questions—the ones that might define our era. “How do we balance security and liberty?” captivates our public discussions. Scientists struggle to resolve “Is light a wave or a particle?”
Yet one question mesmerizes us above all the rest. It can never truly be solved, we must admit. Our best epistemological hope is to resolve it from year-to-year. It is, of course:
What time is the Super Bowl?
But how did this enigma come to dominate our era? The history—only now becoming visible—is as follows.
On February 5, 2011—Super Bowl Saturday—Craig Kanalley noticed that a set of queries were peaking on Google Trends. They were all along the same lines: “what time is the super bowl 2011,” “superbowl time” and “superbowl kickoff time 2011.”
A new brain-scanning technique could change the way scientists think about human focus.
Human attention isn’t stable, ever, and it costs us: lives lost when drivers space out, billions of dollars wasted on inefficient work, and mental disorders that hijack focus. Much of the time, people don’t realize they’ve stopped paying attention until it’s too late. This “flight of the mind,” as Virginia Woolf called it, is often beyond conscious control.
So researchers at Princeton set out to build a tool that could show people what their brains are doing in real time, and signal the moments when their minds begin to wander. And they've largely succeeded, a paper published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience reports. The scientists who invented this attention machine, led by professor Nick Turk-Browne, are calling it a “mind booster.” It could, they say, change the way we think about paying attention—and even introduce new ways of treating illnesses like depression.
At a policy summit in Washington, Paul Ryan tried to smooth out wrinkles in the Republican Party, and steer House members toward leadership.
What do Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell, and Bernie Sanders have in common? (Besides disliking Ted Cruz, of course.) All were among the top villains invoked—repeatedly—at this week’s annual Conservative Policy Summit, hosted by Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation. For seven-plus hours Wednesday (followed by cocktails and dinner schmoozing), die-hard conservatives gathered in Heritage’s stately Capitol Hill digs to hear Republican lawmakers hold forth on topics ranging from “the three-legged stool” of conservatism (defense, economy, and social issues), to the state of the movement, to the pros and cons of killing the filibuster. (At least, that was supposed to be the closing panel until anti-filibuster Representative Bob Goodlatte bailed at the last minute, leaving filibuster defender Senator Mike Lee with a half-hour to fill and no one to debate—his own mini-filibuster of sorts.)