In Which I Dissect One Harvard Professor’s Tabloid Cover Story (…At Length)
I won’t waste time giving you the context. Niall Ferguson wrote the cover story for Newsweek’s August 19th issue. It is an affront to sound reasoning, intellectual curiosity, and charitable discourse. Here’s why.
You’re In Good Hands
Ferguson begins by trying to curry favor with the audience (his piece is written more like a Convention speech than a political essay). The professor was, after all, a “good loser” when Obama won the 2008 election. He praised it as a landmark achievement in a country whose history is plagued by racism.
This is the only good thing Ferguson has to say about the President, though in truth, he is saying less about the President than the presidency, and the voters who elect men (at least thus far) to that office. The professor is trying to dismiss ahead of time, any feelings we might get later on that he is a partisan opportunist. No, Ferguson just calls them like he sees them, one of the few white men with the intellectual integrity to note just how historic it was electing “Felix the Cat” to the nation’s highest office.
What he Promised
So fair minded is Ferguson, in fact, that he won’t even judge Obama by partisan standards, but by the President’s own standards. How equitable! “Yet,” remarks Ferguson, “the question confronting the country nearly four years later is not who was the better candidate four years ago. It is whether the winner has delivered on his promises.”
Except that this is exactly not the question. Why Ferguson thinks it is, or would be, or could ever be, is beyond me. Yet the fact that he says it is leads me to believe he really is just that rhetorically slimy. It is but the second (if you count his opening gambit) sleight of hand to lead readers astray, preferring, it seems, to deceive his audience rather than educate them. The question that logically follows from the above construction isn’t did Obama deliver. The question that logically follows from “not who was the better candidate four years ago” is “who is the better candidate today/this time/here and now.”
This is an entirely valid question. It is, contrary to Ferguson, *the* question. This is what it means to democratically elect a president. A judgment that is subordinate this one may very well be, “did Obama do what he said he was going to do,” but such a question is only one among many other subordinate questions, including, “will Romney do what he says he’s going to do.”
Ferguson goes on to list four promises Obama made on Inauguration Day that he has since broken:
1. Create jobs and lay a foundation for growth
2. Rebuild the country’s infrastructure
3. Restore science to its rightful place and use it to make health care more efficient
4. Remake schools and colleges to meet current economic needs
“The President’s scorecard on every single one of those bold pledges is pitiful,” Ferguson tells us. Interestingly enough, what Ferguson won’t tell us by the time he’s finished is how Obama failed on each of these fronts. Numbers 2 through 4 aren’t even mentioned again, and number 1, what we can loosely call the President’s economic record, is explored in detail, but likewise never explained. Ferguson’s first assertion in “Obama’s Gotta Go” is that the President failed to deliver what he promised. It is the first of many, many assertions. And like these others, it is never explained or substantiated. It never even appears as though Ferguson makes an attempt to prove this or any other claim with reasoning and evidence. Rather he proceeds undaunted by the analytic lackadaisicality with which he builds his argument.
What he Inherited
Next, Ferguson goes on to describe what has happened in the last four years. Unemployment has not come down as much as Obama said it would. Fewer jobs have been created than are needed or were promised. These are two ways of saying the same thing, but for anyone *not* counting, that’s two knocks against the President. But bad things come in threes, and as Ferguson explains, “since 2008, a staggering 3.6 million Americans have been added to Social Security’s disability insurance program.”
What Ferguson does not explain is whether that 3.6 million is the net increase in Social Security disability recipients or just the number of new ones added in the last four years, or how exactly this number compares with previous years. Ferguson goes on to claim that SS disability recipients mask the true amount of unemployment. Perhaps I’m missing something, but isn’t the whole point of SS disability to assist those who are unable work because of, well disability?
What he Oversaw
Ferguson then berates the President for poor economic forecasting. After all, Obama “envisaged growth” of 3.2, 4.0, and 4.6 percent for 2010, 2011, and 2012 respectively. The country’s economic output hasn’t come close to meeting those targets. Again though, what Ferguson fails to tell us is what the President did, or did not do, that led us to fall so woefully short of those goals. Rather, Ferguson’s critique amounts to, “Obama promised X, X didn’t happen, Obama has failed.” There is nothing strictly wrong in saying this, except that this reductive syllogism leaves out the most important part of the political analysis necessary to make an educated decision regarding the election: Why did X not happen?
Likewise, Ferguson lays the falling median annual household income at Obama’s feet as well. It has dropped by 5 percent since June of 2009. But Ferguson, once again, offers no analysis for why that is. A basic argument against the President would lay the blame for falling household incomes on Obama’s economic policies. But Ferguson does not even attempt to do that. He simply recounts events from the last four years, points to the man in the White House, and shrugs his rhetorical shoulders while waiting for the reader to ponder this presumably damning information. This line of attack uses reasoning that, if employed against George W. Bush in 2004, would have resulted in something like the following, “9/11 happened while George W. Bush was president, so he’s responsible for 9/11.”
There are plenty of arguments to be made against the President, and the economic policies his administration has proposed, and often failed to implement, but Ferguson does not make them.
Instead, the professor welcomes us to “Obama’s America,” one with “half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits.” There wouldn’t be anything too egregious about this statement if he simply didn’t write the word, “other” (forgetting for the moment the fact that just about everyone pays some kind of tax). The statement, unchanged, is demonstrably false. The half that receives benefits is not a separate half from the one paying taxes. This is a common error in freshman statistics. Just because set A and set B are different sets, doesn’t mean we are safe to assume there is no overlap. Indeed there may be a set C such that it includes all of those entities which reside in both A and B.
And in this case, set C is quite large and not only ignored by Ferguson, but implicitly denied. Ferguson’s assertion that we are a “50/50” nation is an outright lie has he as worded it. If it were not such a common conservative talking point, it might be chalked off to sloppy writing. As it stands, it is almost certainly an attempt to deliberately mislead readers.
Money, Money, Money
Next, Ferguson talks about the budget. Once again (if anyone is keeping count, it certainly isn’t Ferguson) the professor lists things that happened during the last four years, in this case the annual deficit and increasing level of total U.S. government debt, without telling us what Obama did that caused these things to happen. Ferguson even uses his old trick of mentioning the same phenomenon twice by listing two different ways of measuring it. In this case he mentions the increasing national debt, *and* the ratio of debt to revenue. And still, nowhere in this analysis is there any mention of what revenues actually were and why they’ve fallen, or what spending was and why it was so high (or if indeed it even was unusually high).
Then we have the first mention of an Obama policy: the fiscal stimulus. Ferguson doesn’t even critique it! He only says that Obama’s fiscal stimulus was too small (how else do you evaluate his phrasing, “Not only did the initial fiscal stimulus fade after the sugar rush of 2009.” To me that looks like he’s calling for something other than a sugar rush…i.e. a prolonged infusion…which sounds a lot like a bigger stimulus…) What Ferguson does critique is Obama’s failure to do anything to close the long term gap between spending and revenue. There is no mention of the Simpson-Bowles commission he established, or the debt ceiling negotiations, both of which would have moved the country in a right-of-center direction toward controlling government spending. Ferguson does not say such steps wouldn’t have been enough, or try to argue that Obama ultimately derailed both: he simply doesn’t mention them at all.
Instead, he goes on to list deficit and debt projections for the next 30 years based on forecasted government spending due to Social Security and Medicare. “Under the President’s policies,” writes Ferguson, “the debt is on course to approach 200 percent of GDP in 2037.” Which policies? Which projections?
Now, Ferguson is an academic historian, so it makes sense that he might feel more comfortable rattling off statistics and dates and events instead of offering a rigorous analysis of Obama’s policies (or even a list of what they are), and how they have hurt the country. Whether that’s the case or not though, it doesn’t matter, since next Ferguson decides to concede every point he tried to imply in the previous eight paragraphs.
In his retreat to higher, and presumably safer rhetorical ground, Ferguson notes that there are many explanations for everything he has just talked about that don’t have to do with President. The President’s unthinking defenders will blame Bush or Europe or Wall Street, and, proclaims Ferguson, “There’s some truth in this,” though how much he is never comfortable enough to say. When you concede a point of such magnitude though, it is perhaps best to be more specific on the precise terms of your surrender, lest we being to have reservations about everything else you argue as well.
The Unimperial Presidency
Rather than trudge through a more complex analysis of the economy, Ferguson decides that, even if we can’t blame the economy on the President, we can certainly blame him for failing to effectively run the executive branch. And this makes sense. It is the President’s job after all.
Yet immediately Ferguson goes back to talking about the economy, in this case using Obama’s economic team as proxy. They were a “dream team”, at least to Ferguson. But they had no one to lead them, at least according to the one excerpt of Ron Suskin’s Confidence Men which Ferguson cites. The snippets of a dinner conversation between Larry Summers and Peter Orszag, though extremely critical of the President, basically consists of Summers telling Orszag that the President has no idea what he’s doing. I haven’t read Suskin’s book, but perhaps if I did I would be convinced that in fact Obama did not know what he was doing. Having not done so though, I remain at least skeptical that this simplistic review of the situation is wholly accurate. However, it is the most convincing argument so far that Ferguson has offered in his take-down of the President. Too bad it was not his own.
Don’t Hate the Game, Hate the Player
What is Ferguson’s own is a much less convincing, and even somewhat perverse theory about Obama’s parliamentary reign during his first two years in office. Waxing nostalgic over Bush’s imperial presidency, Ferguson laments that the Obama decided to propose while letting Congress dispose. Never mind that this is a vision of the U.S. government more in line (more, not completely) with its founding principles (the U.S. presidents are not supposed to be a supreme legislators, and ever since they started trying to be things have only gotten worse). Such a humble approach allowed Obama’s policies to be perverted and run through the Congressional sausage maker until they were ground down to an ineffectual, pork infested series of mangled laws.
Dodd-Frank is impotent and the ACA skirted all of the key issues regarding exploding health care costs. Others have taken Ferguson to task on his understanding of both of these laws, so I won’t waste time doing the same here. What I will point out is that once again Ferguson is happy to merely assert his point rather than explain it. Banks still don’t have adequate capital; the ACA does nothing to bend the cost curve. Nowhere does Ferguson offer to explain why exactly Dodd-Frank has no teeth, or what mechanisms in the ACA will fail to bend costs, but only that the former doesn’t and the latter won’t.
Ferguson does mention the individual mandate, only in passing, remarking upon the irony that what has become the hall mark of Obamacare is something that Obama didn’t even support back when he was on the campaign trail. Yes, how ironic. So ironic, in fact, that it leads Ferguson to argue that the ACA should actually be called “Pelosicare,” begging the question, among others, why Ferguson blames Obama for the ACA when he thinks it was actually the Speaker of the House who crafted and passed it, unless it really, really is the case that Ferguson blames Obama for not somehow controlling Congress and managing to get the deliberative body to do what he says.
He Never Led, So They Never Followed
The President also failed to lead on fiscal reform, Ferguson now argues. Finally mentioning Simpson-Bowles, Ferguson blames the President for sidelining its recommendations, failing to note that it was his favorite new politician, Paul Ryan, who voted against it and stopped the proposal from getting to the floor. Even more confounding is the “fiscal cliff” the country is headed on January 1st as a result of a failed “grand bargain” on the debt. The Bush tax cuts will expire and over a trillion dollars in automatic spending cuts will go into effect, potentially derailing GPD by 4 percent.
Is Ferguson for deficit control or against it? He’s frustrated with the lack of a long term plan for controlling spending, but against the short term policies that would move the country further in that direction. Perhaps what Ferguson really wants is short term fiscal expansion coupled with long term efforts to cut entitlement spending, in which case he has more in common with the current President (if not any member of Congress) than he knows. Again, whatever the case, what remains clear is Ferguson’s entire lack of explanative clarity. Where he could say, these are Obama’s policies and this is why they are bad for the country, have been bad for the country, and will be bad for the country if given another four years, Ferguson does not, settling instead for sophomoric hit and run tactics.
He nails Obama for poor executive performance, in effect blaming the President for the Congressional politics of the last four years due to his parliamentary style of governance. And yet at no point during his analysis of health care reform, banking reform, or the debt and debt ceiling negotiations does Ferguson explain what the President did that led to such poor Congressional performance. If Bush’s imperial presidency was better, why exactly? How would an imperial presidency have dealt with the past two Congresses? What, if anything, should Obama have done in his relationship with Congress that he didn’t do?
Who knows, who cares. Definitely not Ferguson, that’s for sure. And if he does, he would do better, being the Harvard professor that he is, predisposed as we might assume to some deeper pedagogical mission, to let us in on it. Alas he does not, preferring to move onto a critique of Obama’s foreign policy wherein we shall see, we are told, how Obama’s hitherto still unexplained failures to lead on economic and fiscal policy, are both mirrored by and in part the cause of, the Obama Administration’s pitiful performance on the world stage.
It is this section of Ferguson’s screed that I find most maniacal. It is a funny coincidence that he begins his criticism of Obama’s foreign policy by pointing out the phenomenal economic growth China has realized in recent history. The first time I ever witnessed Ferguson accost reason was on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS. Set up alongside Jeffrey Sachs, the two were meant to debate the economic challenges facing the country. It was in his setting that Ferguson appealed to China’s growth in an attempt to fear monger about the U.S.’s decline and all the bad things that would come with it. Sachs sat there, seemingly puzzled almost, asking Niall how he could compare the economic growth of a developing country to that of a developed one?
Ferguson does the same thing here, proclaiming China’s economic ascendency as if it is something that (1) we should try and stop or (2) that is possible to stop. Of course, as is his want for the duration of this cover story, he says no more about it, neither explaining what the rise of China means nor what should be done about it (perhaps his answer is to start growing at between 8 and 10 percent annually).
The Empire that Could Have Been
The fiscal train wreck that the Obama Administration has exacerbated hasn’t just been bad for the economy, according to Ferguson, it’s also the root cause of the U.S.’s receding global power. Without having the financial house in order, the U.S. can’t hope to spend what it needs to on defense in order to contain all of the world’s boogey men a hundred times over.
Ferguson’s central critique of the President’s foreign policy is that it is not coherent, though after reading “Obama’s Gotta Go,” I’m wondering if Ferguson is in any position to judge. Basically, if Obama focused more on how to contain the rest of the developing world, rather than going around holding out the olive branch to them in touchy-feely speeches, the United States wouldn’t be where it is today.
For Ferguson, neither engaging China openly or antagonizing it with a military “pivot” back to the pacific have credibility “from the vantage point of Beijing.” What does have credibility? Why don’t these have credibility? You guessed it, Ferguson never says.
What he does say is that Obama should have predicted the “Arab Spring” just as the neocons did. He should have been prepared to help all the revolutionaries in all of the countries, from Iran to Syria, because I guess for Ferguson it’s just that easy. I can only read him as saying there should have been Iraq style occupations in at least three more countries in the Middle East, or that a more adept Commander-in-Chief would have been able to arm and support enough internal revolutionaries to allow all regimes in question to be toppled over, and liberal democracies friendly to the U.S. to grow in their place. The former is not only militarily impractical, but also completely contradictory to Ferguson’s other goals of long term fiscal sustainability and renewing the strength of the American empire. The latter is naïve and has no basis in reality, at least none that Ferguson is willing to posit.
Ferguson, to his credit, does call out the current Administration for its dependence on drone warfare, with all of its civilian killing side-effects. Unfortunately, he follows this important truth up some staggeringly perverse reasoning:
“The real crime is that the assassination program destroys potentially crucial intelligence (as well as antagonizing locals) every time a drone strikes.”
Let us dwell on that for a moment. Ferguson, in the paragraph before, goes through the trouble of mentioning that by some estimates 16 percent of drone victims are civilians, only to say that the real tragedy is the terrorists who are killed instead of questioned. That is “the real crime.” Oh, and it’s also a shame that “locals” are “antagonized.” This is gross. I hope it speaks for itself.
After deriding the President for not accomplishing such things as creating the Internet, establishing a GI Bill, building the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam, landing on the moon, or the creation of the middle class, Ferguson goes on to size up the Republican competition.
“Now Obama is going head-to-head with his nemesis: a politician who believes more in content than in form, more in reform than in rhetoric,” he trolls. What content, what reform?
And of all the running mates Romney could have picked, he picked Paul Ryan, one of Ferguson’s favorites, “For me, the point about him is simple. He is one of only a handful of politicians in Washington who is truly sincere about addressing this country’s fiscal crisis.” Yes, it was Ferguson who emphasized sincere. Ryan is so sincere, in fact, about putting the nation’s fiscal house in order that he bailed on Simpson-Bowles while voting for the most expensive policies of the Bush years.
Ferguson then lays the substance of Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” on the table:
“replace Medicare with a voucher program for those now under 55 (not current or imminent recipients), turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grants for the states, and—crucially—simplify the tax code and lower tax rates to try to inject some supply-side life back into the U.S. private sector. Ryan is not preaching austerity. He is preaching growth.”
Actually, I think that’s exactly what austerity is, and if it leads to growth, fantastic. But Ferguson still supplies no rational, not even the standard issue supply-sided ones, for why such a plan won’t just balance the check books, but will also lead to more growth than the status quo. And to Ryan’s Reaganite detractors? Well they simply don’t understand his mastery of the subject. He has a plan. But like Battlestar Galactica, we’ll never know what it actually is, and according to Ferguson we don’t need to: just trust him!
The professor first became enchanted with Ryan when the Congressman “blew him away” at a low-key debt discussion meeting back in April 2010. What exactly it was that “blew him away,” Ferguson keeps characteristically secret. Ferguson does say that ever since that time he has wanted to see Ryan in the White House, presumably because being the neo-imperialist that he is, Ferguson feels that Ryan could do more to legislate away the country’s fiscal problems from the executive branch than the one that actually determines the nation’s laws.
According to Ferguson, Ryan also psyches Obama out. Why we should care about this is unclear. Why Ferguson believes this is unclear. And why anyone else should take is psychological insights seriously is never explained.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
Though Romney is not Ferguson’s ideal choice, as perhaps is evidenced by his decision to spend so little time talking about him, he does have more executive experience than Obama had four years ago. Again, it is not four years ago; it’s 2012. Why Romney’s business experience and comparable level of executive experience make him a better presidential choice than Obama requires the same things Ferguson fails to employ throughout the entirety of “Obama’s Gotta Go”: reasoning that links claims to the evidence on which they are based.
It would be difficult to argue that Ferguson really even uses evidence, since most of the “facts” he lists in his piece are never contextualized in such a way that we can see why they direct support the argument he’s trying to construct. Without reasoning, the facts become meaningless and the argument deteriorates into mere assertion, something Ferguson, despite supposedly being a public intellectual devoted to rational discourse and the pursuit of truth and knowledge, is all too willing to sleazily peddle. Anyone looking to attend Harvard, or currently enrolled, should reflect on their current and future plans given the kind of thoughtless hacks the university likes to give tenure to.