Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Niall Ferguson vs. Liberal Bloggers

If Tina Brown wanted to elevate the national debate by putting Niall Ferguson’s critique of Obama on the cover of Newsweek, she did not quite succeed.

More than provoking debate, the article has elicited an assault on Niall Ferguson by liberal journalists and bloggers. It's a lot closer to character assassination than to deliberative discussion.

Ferguson has been dismissed, reviled, vilified… and that was just for starters.  His detractors pay lip service to his accomplishments, and then accuse him of lying and being unethical.

We are not in the realm of rational debate. Liberals have formed a hit squad to discredit Niall Ferguson. A writer in Esquire just explained that Ferguson was marketing himself because he wanted to keep receiving his generous speaking fees.

This impugns the motives of one of the world’s leading economic historians. It ignores ideas in order to defame. 

Liberals are saying that you should ignore everything Ferguson is saying and continue to allow your mind to be manipulated by the liberal journalists and bloggers who are jealously guarding their monopoly power over the marketplace in political ideas.

But, why not say that, as an academic, Ferguson enjoys bringing the weight of his expertise to bear on current events. Were it not for Niall Ferguson and his like we would have to rely on the insights of Andrew Sullivan and James Fallows.

When it comes to substantive intellectual achievement, Sullivan and Fallows are, when compared with Ferguson, the entertainment.

Ferguson’s opinions are not especially original or groundbreaking.  Similar judgments of the Obama administration have been made by many writers in great detail in many places.

What mattered to liberal bloggers was their placement: on the front page of a major liberal newsmagazine. They saw it as an intrusion into their world, a gesture that would render opposing points of view respectable.

And yet, from the reaction to his article, you would think the bloggers were not talking about a distinguished scholar, but about someone who had received a bachelor’s degree from Idaho State.

Apparently, liberal bloggers feel no need to engage in rational debate. When name calling and casting aspersions on a man’s character will suffice, why bother to think.

They refuse to engage with Ferguson’s arguments; their primary and very thinly disguised motive is to shut him up and to make clear to Tina Brown that she should never again make such a mistake.

Paul Krugman denounced Ferguson for being unethical and demanded that Tina Brown apologize. Berkeley economist Brad DeLong called on Harvard University to fire a tenured professor for having the wrong opinions. And James Fallows, in an act of supreme arrogance, chose to apologize on behalf of Harvard University, with which he has no official connection.

We are not in the realm of free and open debate. We have entered a twilight zone that liberal intellectuals call home. There, you do not engage with a man’s ideas, you assassinate his character. And you try your best to punish him, to make him pay. In such a world, heresy is simply not tolerated.

Ferguson is perfectly capable of defending himself. He did so on The Daily Beast yesterday.

One can see through the liberal pretense by examining the arguments. Beginning with Krugman many bloggers have gotten lathered up over Ferguson’s position on whether or not Obamacare will increase or decrease the deficit.

They have gotten especially agitated over Ferguson’s reading of the Congressional Budget Office estimate. Bloggers have denounced Ferguson for deliberately misreading the CBO estimate.

Let’s take a deep breath here. A CBO estimate is exactly that: an estimate. It is as much prophecy as fact. Ferguson doubts the estimate's conclusions. Others take it to be holy writ.

Both are engaging in the fine art of prediction. To denounce someone as unethical for offering a vision of the future that differs from yours is absurd.

You cannot say that either side is right or wrong based on the facts because there are no facts. The future is not yet here. 

Ah yes, they will say, but Ferguson misrepresented the text of the estimate.

Between us, the language of the estimate is anything but pellucid.

Ferguson quoted:

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 ...”

Ferguson has truncated the sentence that I have made bold-faced. The original read as follows:

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.

The sentence says that the reduced cost—which Ferguson and many others dispute—might be achieved through more efficient health care delivery. Or else, the estimate says, it might be achieved through reduced access to health care.

Surely, this is not a fact. It does not even come close to being plausible. More efficient health care delivery could easily be offset by more expensive treatments or by greater longevity. One assumes that the CBO analysis takes into account the burden of putting the baby boom generation on Medicare.

But then the CBO says, the cost might be contained by rationing medical care. An interesting prospect, to say the least. But still, one finds it difficult to imagine American politicians voting to ration health care for senior citizens.

If anything an analysis of the CBO statement would, at the very least, provide yet another reason to reject its estimates.

Or else, take another substantive issue: would the job market have been better or worse if a different administration has been implementing different policies?

If you want to say that the Obama administration failed, you are also saying that a different administration would have done better.

You are comparing the current state of the labor market—dismal by anyone’s reasoning—to a counterfactual, what the market would have been if Obama had not been elected.

No one, I believe, will dispute that the current unemployment situation is bad. As for the counterfactual, there are no facts that can prove or disprove a counterfactual… by definition.

To assassinate a man’s character on the basis of different visions of the future or of different visions of a counterfactual is dishonest and disingenuous.

You may not respect Harvard University’s tenure policies, but Niall Ferguson is one of the eminent political economists in the world today. His considerable intellectual achievements deserve some degree of respect.

We have learned from this kerfuffle that liberal bloggers will ignore achievement in order to enforce liberal dogma.


Anonymous said...

"Dogma," indeed. I suppose Niall Ferguson won't be invited to do anymore PBS programs, will he? The more wacky the Left beomes about stuff like this, the more it looks like religion, another institution they despise because they are smarter than the rest of us. Andnmake no mistake: this is about flaunting orthodoxy according o the political theologians of the blogosphere. Orwell is no doubt turning in his grave over Fallows' condescending "As a Harvard Alum..." comment. Good God man, how embarrassing... have some self-respect. This just in: I don't give a @$&# where you went to school. And can anyone please explain for me why Andrew Sullivan is often referred to as a "conservative writer"??? Did I miss him writing on some conservative topic or position?

Anonymous said...

BBC just nixed an Orwell statue because their most distinguished employee was "too Left Wing". How ... Orwellian.

After another recent Muslim terror plot in US was thwarted, I entered the Left blog swamps. During 25 yrs of military speechwriting, I amassed a well-thumbed personal library on history, theology, ideology, and ambitions of Islam & Middle East.

I adhered to objective reasoning and facts. Books, journals, reputable authorities. The responses were enlightening. ALL ad hominem.

A few: "Insane". "Drugged". "Drunk". "Islamaphobic".
"Racist". "Bigot". "Klansman". "Stupid". "Ignorant". "Fit for death".

The Right has its own nuts. Most holed up in the hills. But to me, the Enlightenment Left is far more ubiquitous, pernicious, and (dare I say it?) uninformed.

I think it's called "confirmation bias". -- Rich

n.n said...


Of course the Right has its own nuts. A philosophy cannot prevent existence of nuts, it can only hope to discourage their development. That's why religions, cults, ideologies, etc., should be judged based upon the principles they engender. Whether individuals profess a belief in God or Satan is irrelevant if the principles they adhere to are unsound. For example, if they are incompatible with evolutionary fitness or incapable of preserving individual dignity.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for response. But this is why I cannot fully subscribe to any dogma, philosophy, religion, ideology, or teleology.

The people who do Invariably (almost) proclaim and believe in the Rightness, Goodness, and Sanctity of their beliefs. And feel justified in their actions.

Heretics. Enemies of God. Kulaks. "Wreckers". Untermenschen. "Socialists". Those are some of the hecatombs of casualties.

I revere WCiv, the US Founders, Isaiah Berlin. I was willing to die for their principles. And I share their skepticism concerning Human Fallibility and potential brutality in everything. -- Rich

Sam L. said...

"Apparently, liberal bloggers feel no need to engage in rational debate." Have they ever? I suspect some have, but a hot-button challenge will not elicit rational debate. And so much is now considered hot-button by liberal/progressive bloggers.

"If you want to say that the Obama administration failed, you are also saying that a different administration would have done better." Negatory, big guy. We have his chart (we have it to this day) and Glenn Reynolds posts it most every day--the one showing predicted results with stimulus and without.

Anon, my good person, I missed Andy Sullivan too. I suspect he could have been conservative 5 or more years ago, but I am not knowing.

Sam L. said...

The left has their "one true wat to think". Deviationists must be cast OUT!