Committing the odd factual error is an occupational hazard in journalism. For Niall Ferguson, the commission of error is more than a hazard. It’s a cherished way of life. Ferguson’s distinct contribution to the contemporary political debate is the fascinating juxtaposition of his prestige — author, Harvard professor, resident faculty member of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, omnipresent talking head, and all-around handsome authority figure — with an inability to get his facts straight. There is, of course, a link between the two aspects of Ferguson’s profile: Only a figure of his standing would have the ability to publish wildly erroneous claims in major mainstream publications.
Ferguson has finally put his practice into theory. Apparently aware that his habits require a broader defense than “whoops,” his latest Spectator column assails his many fact-checkers for their literalness, and gestures toward a novel theory of truth.
Ferguson’s column attacks “correct politicalness,” a tendency he defines as “seek[ing] to undermine an irrefutable argument by claiming loudly and repetitively to have found an error in it.” The most recent example of “correct politicalness” is the humiliation Ferguson suffered when the Financial Times was forced to correct his recent column there. Ferguson, the FT concedes, “incorrectly stated that at no point after May 2010 did business confidence sink back to where it had been throughout the past two years of Gordon Brown’s premiership.” Ferguson likewise committed an act of extreme deception. He wrote, “Weekly earnings are up by more than 8 per cent; in the private sector, the figure is above 10 per cent. Inflation is below 2 per cent and falling.’” That passage would seem to convey that wages had grown sharply and stayed well above the rate of inflation. In fact, the opposite is true. As the FT concedes, “Real wage growth was negative from 2010 until September 2014.” Ferguson defended fiscal austerity on the basis that it produced higher wages, when in reality it produced lower wages.
As Ferguson notes, this episode is not the first time he has been victimized by correct politicalness, which, he reports, “has been tried on me once before, when I wrote a Newsweek cover story in 2012 that argued against the re-election of President Obama on the grounds that his economic policies were bad and his foreign policy worse.”
That cover story was, as The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien called in a thorough fact-checking, “a fantasy world of incorrect and tendentious facts.” In that essay, Ferguson used his trademark habit of switching statistical measures halfway through, in order to conjure pseudo-evidence for a claim that is actually false. For instance, Ferguson wrote, “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.”
Any reader would interpret that passage to mean that Obama promised his health-care law would not add to the deficit, but according to the CBO and the JCT, it adds $1.2 trillion to the deficit. Then Ferguson pulled a sleight-of-hand. The first sentence describes Obama’s promise that health-care reform would not increase the deficit — a promise that, according to the CBO, he kept. Ferguson’s second line begins “But,” implying that it contradicts the promise and shows it to be false. That next sentence describes “the insurance-coverage provisions” of Obamacare — in other words, just the cost of spending to cover the uninsured, and not the savings from spending cuts and higher revenue. Obviously the new subsidies to cover the uninsured add to the deficit. Obama’s promise was that the savings would exceed the costs, which they did.
Ferguson sums up the Newsweek episode as a “smear” campaign by what he calls “self-appointed ‘fact-checkers.’” (He does not mention other episodes, such as his use of laughably false inflation statistics to bolster his hysterical analysis, or his bizarre argument that Keynes opposed the harsh reparations in the Treaty of Versailles because he was gay and in love with German dudes.)
In addition to his contempt for “self-appointed fact-checkers,” Ferguson expresses contempt for the fact-checker who was appointed by the Financial Times:
In my case, the FT ‘complaints commissioner’ turned out to be a lawyer and, as lawyers will, opted to write 16 circumlocutory pages and split the difference. Rightly, he noted that what I had said was in no way inaccurate. He dismissed Portes’s claim that I had ‘wilfully or deliberately sought to mislead’. Inexplicably, however, he decided that what I had written ‘had the potential to mislead’, as ‘an objective reasonable reader’ would have taken my reference to earnings to refer to ‘real wage growth’. There was, he concluded, no need for a correction. But there was a need for a ‘clarification’.
Given his opposition both to self-appointed fact-checkers and to fact-checkers appointed by his publication, it’s not clear what kind of fact-checking he would accept. His argument sweeps the entire fact-checking enterprise into the rubric of “correct politicalness.” Ferguson fails to adequately explain why “correct politicalness” continues to target Niall Ferguson personally, as opposed to other targets, of which his column supplies zero examples. It seems strange for such an important phenomenon to be limited in its scope to a single target, even one as brilliant and important as Niall Ferguson.
Perhaps the most enduring contribution of Ferguson’s column will be the novel epistemology it proposes. Ferguson calls his beliefs “irrefutable.” As he puts it, “Almost no one seriously claims that Obama’s second term has been a success. As for the UK economy, the Keynesians’ doom-mongering now looks laughable. All these people have got left is phoney fact-checking: correct politicalness.” Traditional reasoning uses facts to build toward conclusions. Wages rose under austerity, therefore austerity has succeeded; Obama’s health-care plan increases the deficit, therefore Obama has failed. Ferguson is suggesting that we invert the process. Since David Cameron is irrefutably good, and Obama irrefutably bad, Ferguson should be free to make any factual statement on behalf of the former and against the latter without being hounded by “fact-checkers.”