What Really Ails America This Election Season

The internet is abuzz with criticism of Niall Ferguson’s factually-challenged rebuke of President Obama’s performance in the latest Newsweek cover story. His views include a steady stream of slanted statistics circulating these days (which is not to say there aren’t reasonable criticisms out there). But that’s nothing new for the historian turned pundit.

Consider his January 16, 2012 Newsweek article “Rich America, Poor America” in which he uses Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart” as evidence for the uneducated, lazy and irreligious poor in America essentially being the cause of their own misfortune. After all educated people simply self-segregate themselves, have smarter children, go to church more, and work harder than the poor (his assessment). By the end of the article he recommends Romney read the book as a guide to fixing the country (article here).

In “The Cure for Our Economy’s Stationary State”, 7/16/12, he focuses on rising disability claims and people not moving around the country as much as they purportedly did in the past to find jobs as reasons for U.S. economic stagnation. Again it’s the “lazy” poor abusing the system or just not working hard enough.

Disability claims have been rising. Yet he doesn’t bother to address precisely how much is due to an increase of the aging population and other factors or exactly how much fraud is occurring (or its cost on economic growth). Instead he leans on overly general statistics and insinuation. Here’s a certainty, something definitely happened back in 2008 on Wall Street that stinks like abuse. Maybe that was a plot by overnight janitors to sneak derivative trading schemes into the computers at night and pad their retirement accounts, maybe not.

Then he uses the overplayed China card saying:

“It is Westerners who are in the stationary state, while China is growing faster than any other major economy in the world.”

As economists and well informed historians know all too well countries in different stages of economic development grow at different rates. That China is in a growth spurt coming out of a very low developmental base starting in the late 1980’s is a well studied phenomenon. Rwanda, Indonesia and Lithuania have all been growing (and outpacing the U.S.) lately as well. Good for them. That says absolutely nothing about what ails America.

And finally he says:

“The mood disorder is especially bad for investors. Only seven out of 47 national stock markets around the world have posted gains in the last 12 months.”

Is he suggesting that U.S. markets are among those without gains and U.S. investors have fallen on hard times? Fact check: The Dow Jones Industrial (DJI) is up over 22% from 12 months ago. Maybe he meant since January, 2012. Um, nope. Still up. Here’s the chart.

Okay, okay, maybe he was referring to NASDAQ. Wrong again. A gain of almost 24% since a year ago, and up since January too. Take a look here. These two data points took all of five minutes and basic math to figure out.

Mislead and misdirect appear to be the commentary tricks of the trade these days rather than fact-based opinion. Maybe this is what you get when a historian tries to play economist, except that he isn’t even playing economist but simply an information-twisting partisan hack.

As we go into election season what America really needs is informed debate. There are plenty of thinkers who take the future of this country very seriously and have good arguments to support their positions (conservative and liberal alike). Ferguson is not among them.