As a Harvard Alum, I Apologize

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Yes, I know, you could imagine many sentences that would follow that headline. But here is what I have in mind right now:  A tenured professor of history at my undergraduate alma mater has written a cover story for Daily Beast/Newsweek that is so careless and unconvincing that I wonder how he will presume to sit in judgment of the next set of student papers he has to grade. It's by the irrepressible Niall Ferguson, it is headlined "Obama's Gotta Go," and its case rests on logic of this sort:

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.

Hmmm, what might possibly be the flaw in this comparison? Apart from the fact that Obama did not take office until January 2009 and that private sector jobs have recovered better in his first three-plus years than they did under George W. Bush. As The Atlantic's Derek Thompson recently pointed out:
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I do wonder how a criticism of a president, based on a benchmark a year before he took office, and about 16 months before his main "stimulus" effort began taking effect, would be assessed in Harvard's history or economics departments. Unemployment is America's worst economic problem, and Obama's. But this is not the way to demonstrate it. The Atlantic's Robert Wright has argued, to similar effect, that relative to European economies also hit by the terrible employment shock of 2008-2009, the U.S. has recovered better, faster, than others have.

You should read the article for yourself, but a few other highlights:

- "Remarkably the president polls relatively strongly on national security."

Remarkably the name Osama bin Laden does not appear in this article.


- On Afghanistan and Iraq: "Understandably, the men and women who have served there wonder what exactly their sacrifice was for, if any notion that we are nation building has been quietly dumped. Only when both countries sink back into civil war will we realize the real price of Obama's foreign policy."

The men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were not told that "nation building" was the reason for their sacrifice. A review of the relevant history will reveal that they were sent in to rout the Taliban and al Qaeda, and to prevent Saddam Hussein from exercising his [claimed] impending threat to use weapons of mass destruction. Everything since then has been "mission creep" of a spectacular variety, and unlike Ferguson most Americans view it as a success rather than failure of Obama's to be reducing rather than expanding America's commitment in both wars.


- "In Tokyo in November 2009, the president gave his boilerplate hug-a-foreigner speech... Yet by fall 2011, this approach had been jettisoned in favor of a 'pivot' back to the Pacific, including risible deployments of troops to Australia and Singapore. From the vantage point of Beijing, neither approach had credibility."

The "from the vantage point of Beijing" assertion is based on no adduced evidence, and based on my experience and interviews there is more or less the opposite of the truth. Again, note that a Harvard professor of history uses the phrase "boilerplate hug-a-foreigner speech."


- He presents an ominous chart showing that, if Obama is reelected, China's economy might become bigger than America's around the time he leaves office:

ChinaEconomy.png

What this chart demonstrates is not "a nation losing ground" but the reality that China has four times as many people as America does. When its overall economy exceeds ours, its per capita output will be only one-quarter as great. A historian would presumably know that the conscious strategy of every president from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama has been to encourage rather than thwart China's continued development, on the reasoning that a poor and festering China would be more dangerous to the United States than one that is becoming richer.


- "I was a good loser four years ago. But this year, fired up by the rise of Ryan, I want badly to win."

According to an article in the Telegraph this year, Ferguson has chosen America over Britain because the intellectual life back home is so shallow. It is good that he is deepening our discourse with observations like these. (To the best of my knowledge, he is not a U.S. citizen, which I note only because it gives the "good loser" and "want badly to win" observations an unusual edge.)

There is lots more, which you can judge for yourself. Let me re-establish the point: I have no complaint with anyone making a strong case against Obama, or in his favor. That's what an election year is for. My point concerns the broadside pamphleteering nature of his argument, which is no worse than what we expect on cable-news talk shows but also no better. And it comes from someone trading heavily on the prestige that goes with being a tenured professor at the world's leading university.

Three years ago, I got crosswise of Niall Ferguson when I noted his remark that President Obama reminded him of Felix the Cat. Like Obama, Ferguson observed, "Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky." A little earlier I had a testy on-stage exchange with him about the United States and China. He said that U.S. budget deficits would lead to the certain collapse of the U.S.-China relationship, since China would cut off further credit to the spendthrift Yanks. I said that might sound like a neat theory but reflected no awareness of actual Chinese incentives and behavior, and that the showdown he considered "inevitable" in fact would not occur. As it has not.

Again, anyone can be wrong, and I often have been. But scholars are supposed to be different from mere pamphleteers and journalists. We give the judgments of academics -- like those of doctors, scientists, renowned jurists, etc. -- extra weight because we assume that scholars have considered evidence, precedent, and probabilities more carefully before offering conclusions. Think: E.O. Wilson on ants and ecological patterns.

The big claims and conclusions Ferguson has offered in recent years, with the extra authority of his academic standing, have been attention-getting and mostly wrong. Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider has an analysis here (and please also see this from Noah Smith). For instance:
   - U.S. budget deficits were going to lead to a US-China breakup. They didn't.
   - U.S. budget deficits were going to drive bond rates sky high. The opposite has occurred.
   - U.S. budget deficits would make us like Greece. They have not.
  - A year ago, Ferguson warned that we were on the verge of a damaging new round of inflation. We were not.

You can say these things if you're a talk-show host or a combatant on some cable-news gabfest. To me this is not what the tradition of Veritas and the search for scholarly enlightenment is supposed to exemplify. Seriously, I wonder if one of Ferguson's students will have the panache to turn in a similar paper to see how it fares.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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