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.
Friends say the ousted White House chief strategist has a range of ways to make mischief—from returning to Breitbart, to helming an outside group, to leaking dirt about rivals.
In firing Steve Bannon, President Trump has lost his chief ideologue, the man who channeled his base and advocated for the populist-nationalist policies that helped propel Trump to victory.
But he has gained an unpredictable and potentially troublesome outside ally who has long experience running a media organization, and an even longer list of enemies. “Steve is now unchained,” said a source close to Bannon. “Fully unchained.”
“He’s going nuclear,” said another friend. “You have no idea. This is gonna be really fucking bad.”
Bannon had in recent days mused about leaving, according to people who have spoken with him; he has expressed to friends that he feels the administration is failing and is a sinking ship. And last week, he told people in a meeting that he would have 10 times more influence outside the White House than inside it.
As the president cuts ties with establishment staffers, and forces out his populist firebrand, what’s left of Trumpism other than white identity politics?
Steve Bannon, the enigmatic but influential strategist who joined Donald Trump’s campaign at a low ebb, helped coax a win in the 2016 election from it, and then won acclaim and hatred as Trump’s eminence grise, is leaving the White House.
It is the latest in a string of senior departures from a White House that—like the Republican Party itself—was split between establishment Republicans and populist outsiders. But Bannon’s exit, following on the heels of those other departures, leaves Trump largely untethered from the Republican Party—and the president’s ideology, never especially defined on most issues, even more up for grabs.
In a statement Friday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Steve Bannon have mutually agreed today would be Steve's last day. We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.” The New York Times had reported that Trump had told aides he was going to remove Bannon. Rumors of Bannon’s demise have bubbled up repeatedly over Trump’s seven months in office, but each time they proved to be wrong—or at least premature.
The aftermath of Charlottesville has brought up important questions about who should be speaking, and who should be listening.
In a 2012 article published in the Public Opinion Quarterly, a group of researchers shared the results of a study they had done in the aftermath of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The researchers, based on panels with young voters, found that the impression of Sarah Palin that Tina Fey had made famous on Saturday Night Live—“I can see Russia from my house!”—had changed the public’s feeling about the actual vice-presidential candidate. Fey’s jokes, the researchers suggested, had proven comedy’s power, especially in times of question and perhaps also in times of crisis, to shape people’s sense of the world. The jokes had woven themselves into the workings of American democracy. The researchers called it the Fey Effect.
The scientists are all talking like it’s a sure thing.
On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.
This seems extremely unlikely. I can’t even find these eclipse calculations on their website to check them for myself.
Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”
The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.
The strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee is how few of the qualities his admirers profess to see in him he actually possessed.
Memorial Day has the tendency to conjure up old arguments about the Civil War. That’s understandable; it was created to mourn the dead of a war in which the Union was nearly destroyed, when half the country rose up in rebellion in defense of slavery. This year, the removal of Lee’s statue in New Orleans has inspired a new round of commentary about Lee, not to mention protests on his behalf by white supremacists.
The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.
Trump has again recirculated a debunked history about terrorism. But what the general was really doing in the Philippines can tell us something more important about America.
Another day, another sputtering orgy of confusion following a cryptic Donald Trump tweet. This one came Thursday, a few hours after a van plowed into a crowd on the Barcelona pedestrian mall of Las Ramblas, an attack claimed by the reeling Islamic State. The president replied, via iPhone:
Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!
It seemed to be a reference to a story Trump told at campaign rallies during the 2016 primaries, which in turn was a garbled version of an Islamophobic meme that has made its way around the internet for years. In the fable, the legendary U.S. General John J. Pershing once ended a wave of Muslim terrorism in the Philippines by executing prisoners with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. Other superstitious fighters were so terrified by the prospect of being killed while touching part of a forbidden animal, the story goes, that fighting immediately stopped, for some period of time. (For 25 years, Trump said at a North Charleston, South Carolina, rally in February 2016; a few weeks later, in Costa Mesa, California, it had jumped up to 42.)
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
The overwhelmingly male crowd at the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville shouldn’t be seen as an absence of women in the movement overall.
Last Friday night, the white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park all looked strikingly similar. They were almost exclusively white, of course. But they were also relatively young. And with a handful of exceptions, they were men.
The “Unite the Right” rally brought together white nationalists of all stripes, including traditional white supremacists like Neo-Nazis and the KKK, and other racist groups that have united under the banner of the new, internet-oriented “alt-right.” The rally was violent and bloody—one of the white supremacist attendees is being charged with deliberately ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring more than a dozen others.
Just seven months into his presidency, Trump appears to have achieved a status usually reserved for the final months of a term.
In many ways, the Trump presidency never got off the ground: The president’s legislative agenda is going nowhere, his relations with foreign leaders are frayed, and his approval rating with the American people never enjoyed the honeymoon period most newly elected presidents do. Pundits who are sympathetic toward, or even neutral on, the president keep hoping that the next personnel move—the appointment of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, say, or the long-rumored-but-never-delivered departure of Steve Bannon—will finally get the White House in gear.
But what if they, and many other people, are thinking about it wrong? Maybe the reality is not that the Trump presidency has never gotten started. It’s that he’s already reached his lame-duck period. For most presidents, that comes in the last few months of a term. For Trump, it appears to have arrived early, just a few months into his term. The president did always brag that he was a fast learner.
Antifa’s activists say they’re battling burgeoning authoritarianism on the American right. Are they fueling it instead?
Since 1907, Portland, Oregon, has hosted an annual Rose Festival. Since 2007, the festival had included a parade down 82nd Avenue. Since 2013, the Republican Party of Multnomah County, which includes Portland, had taken part. This April, all of that changed.
In the days leading up to the planned parade, a group called the Direct Action Alliance declared, “Fascists plan to march through the streets,” and warned, “Nazis will not march through Portland unopposed.” The alliance said it didn’t object to the Multnomah GOP itself, but to “fascists” who planned to infiltrate its ranks. Yet it also denounced marchers with “Trump flags” and “red maga hats” who could “normalize support for an orange man who bragged about sexually harassing women and who is waging a war of hate, racism and prejudice.” A second group, Oregon Students Empowered, created a Facebook page called “Shut down fascism! No nazis in Portland!”