I Have Six Questions for Niall Ferguson (and One Chart)

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Oct. 15 2013 8:45 AM

Six Questions for Niall Ferguson (and One Chart)

This post originally appeared in Business Insider.

By Josh Barro

Niall Ferguson has produced a devastating chart showing that, compared to me and the rest of Paul Krugman's claque of vicious bloggers, he is very good at Twitter. His index is a simple calculation of followers divided by tweets, and voila, he comes out on top!

131015_bi_blogviation1

Niall Ferguson

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I will grant the point that Ferguson has a large number of followers for someone who has sent only 140 tweets, and will not raise quibbles, such as the point that Ferguson's Twitter follower list is suspiciously heavy on bots. But I will note a problem of sample selection. We all want to get our guidance on inflation, interest rates and budget deficits from whoever has the best followers-to-tweets ratio, and Ferguson didn't provide the full menu of options. So, I made a better chart:

131015_bi_blogviation2

Josh Barro/Business Insider

Put in the proper context, Ferguson's high "blogviation" score looks considerably less impressive. The weird thing is that, in defending the idea that people should take him seriously, Ferguson has moved from a "who has written the most scholarly works of history" standard to a "who is the least into Tweeting" standard.

This sidesteps the obvious question we should ask when deciding whether to honor or mock Ferguson's statements about the economy: Are they stupid? For example, Ferguson is annoyed with me for attacking him for his views on inflation when he has only written one recent article on the topic. Ferguson thinks I was being very uncivil when I called that 2011 Newsweek column "asinine."

Was I being unfair? Let's go to the tape. Ferguson wrote:

And the reason the CPI is losing credibility is that, as economist John Williams tirelessly points out, it’s a bogus index. The way inflation is calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been “improved” 24 times since 1978. If the old methods were still used, the CPI would actually be 10 percent. Yes, folks, double-digit inflation is back.

I would note that John Williams is not an "economist" in the traditional sense of having a graduate degree in economics. (It seems Ferguson is only obsessed with the credentials of the people he disagrees with.) Williams holds an MBA and is a small businessman: He's the operator of a conspiracy nut website called Shadowstats that produces "alternative" economic estimates.

Shadowstats purports to use an old BLS methodology to measure "real" inflation, though as James Hamilton of Econbrowser found out in 2008, Williams' actual calculation method is to take the CPI figures that BLS releases and add a fixed constant onto them. Shockingly, if your method is to take BLS' CPI figure and add a few points onto it, you will find that inflation is higher than BLS claims.

One of many problems with the Shadowstats "data set" is that real GDP growth is calculated by measuring nominal GDP growth and adjusting for inflation. If you claim that inflation has been running around 10 percent for the last decade, as Williams and Shadowstats do, you are implicitly claiming that the U.S. economy has been in recession for the entire last decade.

So, that leaves me with a few questions for Niall:

1. Do you still believe that inflation was approximately 10 percent in 2011?
2. If you recognize your inflation claim in the Newsweek piece was wrong (an incorrect statement of fact, not an incorrect prediction), why did you not retract it?
3. Do you believe that inflation is approximately 10 percent today?
4. How is it possible to have a sustained period of price inflation around 10% without similar wage inflation—or do you think BLS' wage stats are bogus, too?
5. Has the U.S. economy really been in recession for a decade?
6. Shouldn't you at least pretend you have something better to do with your time than lose a blog fight with the politics editor at Business Insider?

One final note. In the process of criticizing me, Ferguson writes: "If you are defending someone against a charge of incivility..." I'm going to stop him right there. I'm not defending anybody against a charge of invicivility. Paul Krugman is often quite uncivil. I am sometimes uncivil too—in this blog post, for example.

The reason Ferguson wants to talk about civility is that he can't talk about not being full of crap. Ferguson trades on his academic credentials to write popular articles that contain misleading and false claims. His writing causes readers to come away with a worse understanding of the economy than they entered with. He is changing the world for the worse.

My contention is not that we haven't been uncivil to Ferguson. We definitely have. My contention is that he deserves it.

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