Leave Niall Ferguson Alone!

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 21 2012 1:01 PM

Leave Niall Ferguson Alone!

I'm a fan of Niall Ferguson's earlier books. I think Newsweek's strategy of trolling the Internet with every cover story is fascinating. Merge these two media phenomenons, though, and the result is embarassing to all involved.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

To catch you up quickly: Ferguson, whose academic credentials give him cover for a lot of lazy columns, wrote a feature about the failures of Barack Obama. The content of such a piece doesn't really matter as much as the presentation -- Rush Limbaugh's guest host opened his Monday show by praising Newsweek, encouraging listeners to "send a message" and buy a copy. For seven days, at least, Tina Brown's magazine would be the ink-and-paper version of Chick-fil-A.

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But liberal readers cracked the cover, and noticed that Ferguson made a series of logic-hops to goose his argument. "The total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak," wrote Ferguson. Obama took office in January 2009. "We are becoming the 50–50 nation—half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits," wrote Ferguson. But poor people pay payroll taxes, property taxes, sales taxes. And so on. Lots of hackwork, up until this part:

[T]he 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.

Paul Krugman pointed out that this was false.

Anyone who actually read, or even skimmed, the CBO report (pdf) knows that it found that the ACA would reduce, not increase, the deficit — because the insurance subsidies were fully paid for.

After this, as Dylan Byers first noticed, Ferguson defended himself by apparently quoting the CBO.

“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 achieved ...”
Indeed, it is, which is why I wrote what I wrote.

But he didn't finish the quote. Indeed, comically, Ferguson italicized the "killer" part of the quote, but his mouse didn't capture the final letter or the elipsis, so you can see his edit. This, via Byers, is the rest of the sentence.

It is unclear whether such a reduction can be achieved through greater efficiencies in the delivery of healthcare or will instead reduce access to care or the quality of care (relative to the situation under prior law.)

In other words, "there will be reductions." Back to Ferguson today. He sneers at his "liberal blogger" critics (Krugman and Brad DeLong, two critics, are trained economists), and sort of breezes past his admission of error about the CBO.

The point... is that the net effect of ACA on the deficit is not positive if you look at the likely costs and the likely revenues from the tax hikes that will finance it. To get to the Congressional Budget Office’s conclusion that, over ten years, the ACA will reduce the deficit, you need to believe that the act will half the rate of growth of Medicare costs. I am not inclined to be optimistic about that.

Well, then -- debate over, right? On the one hand, the CBO affirms that the cost reductions will happen if the act is implemented. On the other hand, Ferguson is "not inclined to be optimistic about that." His response to Byers is not actually a response -- he just laughs at all the names Byers used to describe the dishonesty.

I suppose Ferguson could have argued that the CBO has been wrong before, that the specific Medicare cost reductions might be reversed legislatively, something like that. But he preferred to troll. What a tedious waste of media real estate.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.