Celebrity historian Niall Ferguson doesn't like President Obama, and doesn't think you should either.
That's perfectly fine. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to disapprove of the president. Here's the big one: 8.3 percent. That's the current unemployment rate, fully three years on from the official end of the Great Recession. But rather than make this straightforward case against the current administration, Ferguson delves into a fantasy world of incorrect and tendentious facts. He simply gets things wrong, again and again and again. (A point my colleague James Fallows makes as well in a must-read.)
Here's a tour of some of the more factually challenged sections of Ferguson's piece.
"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."
Did you catch that little switcheroo? Ferguson concedes that stocks have done very well since January 2009, but then says that private sector payrolls have not since January 2008. Notice now? Ferguson blames Obama for job losses that happened a full year before he took office. The private sector has actually added jobs since Obama was sworn in -- 427,000 of them, to be exact. For context, remember that the private sector lost 170,000 jobs during George W. Bush's eight years.
Of course, it's not really fair to blame Obama -- or Bush -- for jobs lost in their first few months before their policies took effect. If we more sensibly look at private sector payrolls after their first six months in office, then Obama has created 3.1 million jobs and Bush created 967,000 jobs.
"Meanwhile real median annual household income has dropped more than 5 percent since June 2009."
I can't replicate this result. It's difficult, because Ferguson does not cite his source. The Census Bureau only has data on real median household incomes through 2010 -- and it shows them falling 2.28 percent from 2009. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has numbers on real median weekly earnings that go through 2012, but those only show a 3.7 percent decrease from June 2009.
"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."
It is true that 46 percent of households did not pay federal income tax in 2011. It is not true that they pay no taxes. Federal income taxes account barely account for half of federal taxes, and much less of total taxes, if you count the state and local level. Many of those other taxes can be regressive. If you take all taxes into account, our system is barely progressive at all.
But why do almost half of all households pay no federal income tax? Because they don't have much money to tax. Here's the breakdown from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Half of these households are simply too poor -- they make under $20,000 -- to have any liability. Another quarter are retirees on tax-exempt Social Security benefits. The remaining households have no liability because of tax expenditures like the earned-income tax credit or the child credit.
In other words, the poor, the old, and children. Not exactly the "50-50 nation" of makers and takers -- or "lucky duckies" -- that Ferguson imagines.
"By the end of this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), [debt-to-GDP ratio] will reach 70 percent of GDP. These figures significantly understate the debt problem, however. The ratio that matters is debt to revenue. That number has leapt upward from 165 percent in 2008 to 262 percent this year, according to figures from the International Monetary Fund."
This is incorrect. Ferguson had it right the first time -- the number that matters is debt-to-GDP, not debt-to-revenue. The former reflects our capacity to pay; the latter our willingness to pay right now. Moving on.
"Not only did the initial fiscal stimulus fade after the sugar rush of 2009, but the president has done absolutely nothing to close the long-term gap between spending and revenue."
Ferguson wasn't always a critic of the stimulus. Back in August 2009, he wrote that "the stimulus clearly made a significant contribution to stabilizing the U.S. economy." Perhaps he thinks the stimulus should have been bigger so the "sugar rush" would last lasted longer? It's not clear. What is clear is that Obama has tried to close long-term deficits -- several times! And the sequester scheduled for next January is his deal with Republicans to rein in spending. More on that in a bit.
"The most recent estimate for the difference between the net present value of federal government liabilities and the net present value of future federal revenues--what economist Larry Kotlikoff calls the true "fiscal gap"--is $222 trillion."
That's a lot of trillions! But if our fiscal gap is "really" this many trillions, why can we borrow for 30 years for a real rate of 0.64 percent? It's because this number is meaningless. First of all, it seems to project many decades of growth figures and budget decisions that we simply don't know will happen. It assumes the Bush tax cuts never ever expire and that the healthcare cost curve never ever bends. This is like projecting, in 1942, that the Empire of Japan will rule the entire Asian continent for 70 years based on a few years of battle outcomes. It's an interesting prediction, but it's not an empirical vision of the future.
"The country's largest banks are at least $50 billion short of meeting new capital requirements under the new "Basel III" accords governing bank capital adequacy."
This would be damning if we had already fully implemented the Basel III bank rules. We have not. As this handy timeline from Deloitte shows, the bank capital ratios don't take effect until January 2013. And even if they had -- which again, they have not -- it would be a bad idea to change risk-weighted capital too much too soon. Europe's banks have done just that, and the results have left something to be desired. The IMF projects their banks will deleverage some $2.6 trillion over the next year and a half -- starving their economies of credit when they most need it. In other words, Ferguson not only get the facts wrong; he gets the economics wrong too.
"The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 did nothing to address the core defects of the system: the long-run explosion of Medicare costs as the baby boomers retire, the "fee for service" model that drives health-care inflation, the link from employment to insurance that explains why so many Americans lack coverage, and the excessive costs of the liability insurance that our doctors need to protect them from our lawyers."
There are reasons to think the ACA will fail to address the core defects of the health care system. But it's wrong to say it does nothing to address them. Here's a partial list of the things Obamacare does. It tackles the long-run explosion of Medicare costs. It tries to move away from the fee-for-service model that drives healthcare inflation. And it cuts the link between employment and insurance. In other words, Obamacare does everything Ferguson says it doesn't do, with the exception of tort reform. Matt Yglesias of Slate has a good explainer on how Obamacare tries to do these things -- everything from IPAB, to Accountable Care Organizations and guaranteed issue. Read it.
"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."
Maybe Ferguson doesn't understand the meaning of the word "deficit"? The only other explanation is that he is deliberately misleading his readers. The CBO is quite clear about Obamacare's budgetary implications. It reduces the deficit. Here's what the CBO said exactly:
[T]he effects of the two laws on direct spending and revenues related to health care will reduce federal deficits by $210 billion over the 2012-2021 period.
In other words, the law is more than paid for. As Paul Krugman pointed out, it does spend $1.042 trillion covering people, but it pays for this coverage by finding savings in Medicare and levying a surtax on investment income for high-earners. That Ferguson looked up the CBO's estimate of the bill's cost and didn't notice that those costs are paid for is peculiar indeed. Even more peculiar is that he is apparently doubling down on this falsehood. And yes, it is a very deliberate falsehood.
"Having set up a bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, headed by retired Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, Obama effectively sidelined its recommendations of approximately $3 trillion in cuts and $1 trillion in added revenues over the coming decade. As a result there was no "grand bargain" with the House Republicans--which means that, barring some miracle, the country will hit a fiscal cliff on Jan. 1 as the Bush tax cuts expire and the first of $1.2 trillion of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts are imposed. The CBO estimates the net effect could be a 4 percent reduction in output."
Now, Obama did not push Congress to adopt Simpson-Bowles, but neither did Congress adopt it. Among those who voted against it? Paul Ryan, who Ferguson later lauds for his fiscal courage. Although that wasn't the last attempt at a so-called "grand bargain". That came during the debt ceiling standoff the Republicans forced. Obama offered a long-term deal heavily tilted towards Republican priorities -- read: spending cuts -- that the Republicans spurned. Among those who pushed the Republicans to reject it? Paul Ryan, who worried that a deal would burnish Obama's bipartisan credentials and make his re-election a foregone conclusion.
And then there's the cognitive dissonance of it all. Noah Smith points out that Ferguson reproaches Obama for both running big deficits and for closing them.
"The failures of leadership on economic and fiscal policy over the past four years have had geopolitical consequences. The World Bank expects the U.S. to grow by just 2 percent in 2012. China will grow four times faster than that; India three times faster. By 2017, the International Monetary Fund predicts, the GDP of China will overtake that of the United States."
China has 1.3 billion people. The United States has 300 million people. China's GDP will pass ours when they are only four times poorer than us. That might happen in 2017; it might happen later if China's current slowdown is more than a blip. It doesn't really matter if and when this happens. There's nothing Obama can do to prevent China from catching up -- nor should Obama want to! Economics isn't zero sum. The more money China has, the more money they have to buy things from us and other countries. This is good news, and yet Ferguson treats it like a modern-day equivalent of "losing China".
"In his notorious "you didn't build that" speech, Obama listed what he considers the greatest achievements of big government: the Internet, the GI Bill, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the Apollo moon landing, and even (bizarrely) the creation of the middle class. Sadly, he couldn't mention anything comparable that his administration has achieved."
It's bizarre that Ferguson thinks government policies didn't help create America's middle class. America was the first country to make high school compulsory. It was also the first country to make college widely accessible with the G.I. bill. This democratization of education went a long way towards laying the foundation for broad-based prosperity. And as for big things the government has achieved lately, surely moving to near-universal healthcare coverage counts?
In the world as Ferguson describes it, Obama is a big-spending, weak-kneed liberal who can't get the economy turned around. Think Jimmy Carter on steroids. But the world is not as Ferguson describes it. A fact-checked version of the world Ferguson describes reveals a completely different narrative -- a muddy picture of the past four years, where Obama has sometimes cast himself as a stimulator, a deficit hawk, a health care liberal and conservative reformer all at once. And it's a world where the economy is getting better, albeit slowly.
It would have been worthwhile for Ferguson to explain why Obama doesn't deserve re-election in the real world we actually live in. Instead, we got an exercise in Ferguson's specialty -- counterfactual history.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
Two historians weigh in on how to understand the new administration, press relations, and this moment in political time.
The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.
To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum
A $100 million gangster epic starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci has become too risky a proposition for major studios.
Martin Scorsese’s next project, The Irishman, is as close as you can get to a box-office guarantee for the famed director. It’s a gangster film based on a best-selling book about a mob hitman who claimed to have a part in the legendary disappearance of the union boss Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro is attached to play the hitman, Al Pacino will star as Hoffa, and Scorsese favorites Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel are also on board. After Scorsese branched into more esoteric territory this year with Silence, a meditative exploration of faith and Catholicism, The Irishman sounds like a highly bankable project—the kind studios love. And yet, the film is going to Netflix, which will bankroll its $100 million budget and distribute it around the world on the company’s streaming service.
Consolidated corporate power is keeping many products’ prices high and quality low. Why aren’t more politicians opposing it?
There are many competing interpretations for why Hillary Clinton lost last fall’s election, but most observers do agree that economics played a big role. Clinton simply didn’t articulate a vision compelling enough to compete with Donald Trump’s rousing, if dubious, message that bad trade deals and illegal immigration explain the downward mobility of so many Americans.
As it happens, Clinton did have the germ of exactly such an idea—if one knew where to look. In an October 2015 op-ed, she wrote that “large corporations are concentrating control over markets” and “using their power to raise prices, limit choices for consumers, lower wages for workers, and hold back competition from startups and small businesses. It’s no wonder Americans feel the deck is stacked for those at the top.” In a speech in Toledo last fall, Clinton assailed “old-fashioned monopolies” and vowed to appoint “tough” enforcers “so the big don’t keep getting bigger and bigger.”
“The question confronting us as a nation is as consequential as any we have faced since the late 1940s,” a group of Republican and Democratic experts write.
Ben Rhodes, one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, once dismissed the American foreign-policy establishment—those ex-government officials and think-tank scholars and journalists in Washington, D.C. who advocate for a particular vision of assertive U.S. leadership in the world—as the “Blob.” Donald Trump had harsher words. As a presidential candidate, he vowed never to take advice on international affairs from “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Both men pointed to one of the Beltway establishment’s more glaring errors: support for the war in Iraq.
Now the Blob is fighting back. The “establishment” has been unfairly “kicked around,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former official in the Reagan administration. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, “invented a foreign policy and sold it successfully to the American people. That’s what containment was and that’s what the Truman Doctrine was. … That was the foreign-policy establishment.” During that period, the U.S. government also helped create a system for restoring order to a world riven by war and economic crisis. That system, which evolved over the course of the Cold War and post-Cold War period, includes an open international economy; U.S. military and diplomatic alliances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; and liberal rules and institutions (human rights, the United Nations, and so on).
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This was an important find. Scientists for years had focused on stars like our sun in their search for potentially habitable planets outside our solar system. Red dwarfs, smaller and cooler than the sun, were thought to create inhospitable conditions. They’re also harder to see, detectable by infrared rather than visible light. But the astronomers aimed hundreds of hours worth of observations at this dwarf, known as TRAPPIST-1 anyway, using ground-based telescopes around the world and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.
Neither truck drivers nor bankers would put up with a system like the one that influences medical residents’ schedules.
The path to becoming a doctor is notoriously difficult. Following pre-med studies and four years of medical school, freshly minted M.D.s must spend anywhere from three to seven years (depending on their chosen specialty) training as “residents” at an established teaching hospital. Medical residencies are institutional apprenticeships—and are therefore structured to serve the dual, often dueling, aims of training the profession’s next generation and minding the hospital’s labor needs.
How to manage this tension between “education and service” is a perennial question of residency training, according to Janis Orlowski, the chief health-care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Orlowski says that the amount of menial labor residents are required to perform, known in the profession as “scut work,” has decreased "tremendously" since she was a resident in the 1980s. But she acknowledges that even "institutions that are committed to education … constantly struggle with this,” trying to stay on the right side of the boundary between training and taking advantage of residents.
Rod Dreher makes a powerful argument for communal religious life in his book, The Benedict Option. But he has not wrestled with how to live side by side with people unlike him.
Donald Trump was elected president with the help of 81 percent of white evangelical voters. Mike Pence, the champion of Indiana’s controversial 2015 religious-freedom law, is his deputy. Neil Gorsuch, a judge deeply sympathetic to religious litigants, will likely be appointed to the Supreme Court. And Republicans hold both chambers of Congress and statehouses across the country. Right now, conservative Christians enjoy more influence on American politics than they have in decades.
And yet, Rod Dreher is terrified.
“Don’t be fooled,” he tells fellow Christians in his new book, The Benedict Option. “The upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.”
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Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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