Jonathan Portes, master of the political correction

These days, when lefties are losing an argument, they nitpick until it looks as if they’ve won

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

It used to be that the most annoying thing in academic life was political correctness. But a new irritant now threatens to supplant it: the scourge of correct politicalness.

The essence of correct politicalness is to seek to undermine an irrefutable argument by claiming loudly and repetitively to have found an error in it. As with political correctness, which seeks to undermine arguments by declaring the person making them a bigot, correct politicalness originated in the US. But it now has its exponents here, too. Foremost among them is Jonathan Portes.

Portes’s career recalls that of the character Kenneth Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Widmerpool is charmless, pompous and mediocre, yet inexorably ascends the greasy pole by aligning himself with the Labour party.

Portes has no PhD and has published painfully few articles in peer-reviewed journals. Yet his rise through the politicised bureaucracy of the Blair years was Widmerpoolian. Under Gordon Brown he was chief economist at the Cabinet Office. These days he serves as director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

According to its website, the NIESR is ‘independent of all party political interests’. The same is hard to say of its director, who has spent much of the past five years criticising the government’s economic policy. He has been very useful to the BBC, which regularly introduces him as a neutral academic. Radio 4 recently asked him to present a documentary on welfare reform, introducing him simply as an ‘economist’ — rather than as one of Iain Duncan Smith’s most implacable critics.

Portes is the Widmerpool of the Keynesian revival. ‘Aggressive tightening of fiscal policy,’ he argued in 2011, ‘is inappropriate and unnecessary, because it is likely to lead to an extended period of sub-par growth and employment.’ More famous economists (notably Paul Krugman) went much further, denouncing a ‘policy disaster’ that would ‘cripple the UK economy for many years to come’. Robert Skidelsky predicted ‘years of interminable recession’.

In fact, the UK had the best performing of all the G7 economies last year with economic growth of 2.8 per cent — a marked improvement on 2009, the last full year of Labour government, when the figure was minus 4.3 per cent. And the ‘sub-par’ employment that Portes warned about? The UK economy has generated more than 1.9 million jobs since David Cameron came to power. British unemployment is now 5.5 per cent, roughly half the rates in Italy and France. Weekly earnings are up by more than 8 per cent; in the private sector, the figure is above 11 per cent. Inflation is below zero.

Portes loathes being reminded of such figures, and when I made the above argument in the Financial Times he protested. Portes may not have an economics doctorate but he is a master of the art of officious complaint. He went after the last two sentences in the paragraph above — saying they were ‘wholly and deliberately misleading’ because I had cited nominal average weekly earnings, not inflation-adjusted figures.

This is absurd. If I had been talking about inflation-adjusted wages, why would I have written the next sentence about inflation? In a sane world, Portes would have sent a letter to the FT and made his silly point. That is what the editor urged him to do. But he was having none of it. ‘A little surprisingly’, in the words of the FT’s ‘editorial complaints commissioner’, Portes insisted on appealing to him.

This is how he operates. Now that his side is losing the argument, he resorts to nitpicking. Last year David Cameron stated in a Daily Telegraph article that ‘while most new jobs used to go to foreign workers, in the past year more than three quarters have gone to British workers’. He was referring to the rise in the employment level: that’s what politicians (including Brown) mean when they say ‘more jobs’. Even in a recession, some jobs are created; what matters is whether more are created than lost. Portes filed a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission (his sixth that year), and even refused a correction that the PCC judged sufficient, insisting that Telegraph readers needed a full explanation of the distinction between ‘new jobs’ and the ‘net change in employment’.

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’.

If two true statements can now be represented as an ‘error’ requiring clarification, the word ‘error’ has lost its meaning.

To err is human. We all make mistakes, especially if we are busy, as I am, teaching students and writing books. And mistakes need to be corrected. But there is a line to be drawn between setting the record straight and correct politicalness. The latter 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. For weeks after its publication, I was assailed on the internet by self-appointed ‘fact-checkers’ who were in fact doing nothing of the kind. What they were trying to do was to smear me.

Here we are in 2015. 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.

Has Jonathan Portes ever erred? He was the principal author of a controversial report on migration published in 2000 by the Home Office, which concluded that ‘migrants have little aggregate effect on native wages or employment’. Likewise, his 2008 paper on the impact of migration from new EU member-states found ‘little hard evidence that the inflow of accession migrants contributed to a fall in wages or a rise in claimant unemployment’ between 2004 and 2006.

Interestingly, this is no longer his position. The evidence on the impact of EU immigration, Portes wrote in 2013, ‘is mixed on wages, with some evidence of downward pressure for the lower paid’. Was that a correction? If so, I look forward to Portes admitting that he ‘wilfully misled’ the British public. Perhaps he might also admit to the Charity Commission that the NIESR has been ‘wilfully misleading’ them about it’s non-partisan status. But that is not quite Widmerpool’s style, is it?


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  • Richard

    This is the same sort of mentality found in the civil service, where contributions by senior colleagues to reports can be nitpicking about the suitability of certain words. You know, of the should it be “hot” or “very warm” variety. A lot of it is simply an attempt to make you feel that they are some sort of arbitrator of quality, or a sort of schoolmaster. It is, in other words, an attempt to place themselves in a position of power over you.

  • Faulkner Orkney

    Is this article deliberately posted as a counter-balance to articles that have substance and interest?

  • Thom

    Denouncing a smear campaign by…smearing. Classy.

    • blandings

      How as he smeared Portes?

    • WFB56

      Just signed up to the Speccie today? Is that you Mr. Portes?

  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    “Under Gordon Brown he was chief economist at the Cabinet Office”

    That fact alone ought to tell you all you need to know about Portes.

    • Why? How?

    • It wasn’t just Portes and Brown who made mistakes in the run up to the crunch: almost the entire world made the same mistakes.

      • Johnnydub

        No; politicians trying to buy votes made similar mistakes. A lot of the rest of us said “this will end badly” and it did.

        • Paul B

          No. Very few said so. And at any time in history there are a number of doomsayers seemingly tempting fate. A lot of people mute at the time now claim to have said so. I don’t deny some were calling it right and for good reason, but the now many personal revisionists? No.

          • Baron

            True, only very few may have said so, Paul B, yet many thought so, but were wise not to say it because being wrong with the many pays more than being right on one’s own when a bubble is in place, always.

            Only a total imbecile would have thought a self certified mortgage 25% above the market value of the property was a winning proposition, but neither the Treasury, not the financial watchdog, the BoE said a word against it. If (say) King were to stop the insanity, he would be toast today, not a Lord in the Upper House.

          • Paul B

            Your hindsight is perfect. Too perfect.

          • suchan104

            Your hindsight is very blinkered, probably because it suits your desire to make excuses for Labour.

          • Torybushhug

            British self certified mortgages never exceeded 90% loan to value and were usually 75%ltv. The delinquency rate on British SC mortgages was lower than that for standard fully documented mortgages. UK repossessions never went beyond 0.3%.
            So many populist myths around this.

          • Baron

            You missing the point, Torybushhug, it isn’t a myth that both here and in the Republic the banks were forced to lend to those they wouldn’t have touched with an extended barge pole, the 125% mortgages are used as proxy for this insanity, there shouldn’t have been any, it goes against the century long principle of lending, whatever the failure rate (and that assumes you’re correct about it).

          • Mark

            You are wrong, my family had frequent discussions about the way money and debt were too easy to acquire and that money was being lent to those who were unable to pay it back.

            I refused a mortage at a rate of 5-6 times my salary and insisted the calculation be an old fashioned 3 times my salary to the contempt of the greasy haired youth trying to big me up.

            We even discussed it with friends in the pub, we couldn’t understand how young lads in unskilled jobs were buying new build 4 bedroom detacheds when our first houses were Victorian terraces.

            People knew, but there was massive propaganda from media and most politicians, to try and tell us it was all sound and there would be no more boom and bust.

            Still, who cares about the little people, the masters knew best, didn’t they?

          • Paul B

            You want to make the leap from the specific to the general. I did not say no one could see that a disaster was about to unfold. I cannot deny you and yours the foresight you claim. But I too was alive and way above average financially literate and fully engaged with current affairs at the time, and I too know of a few who said that things were odd, but only of one person of my acquaintances who could and did cogently argue, putting his opinion on the line, that there were structural weaknesses which would (not could) cause systemic collapse.

            That’s human nature. Everyone now *knows* that Y2K was never going to be an issue, everyone now claims to always have thought the Iraq war was a mistake, everyone will claim to hold whichever climate change view turns out to be correct.

            Few put themselves on the record. Because the record cannot be changed.

          • suchan104

            No, you’re totally wrong. Perhaps you should acquaint yourself with the Conservative “Opposition Economic Policy review” published at the beginning of 2007. It warns of the dangerous build-up of public and private debt (page 3); a re-iteration of the objections to the financial regulation system that were first raised in the Commons in 1997 by the Shadow Chancellor, Peter Lilley, when the banking regulation was changed; it warned of the off-balance sheet debts (pension liabilities and PFI commitments) (p14/15), and it warned of the under-capitalisation (and lack of transparency) of the banks (p59). Perhaps you should reconsider who is the revisionist?

          • Paul B

            I did not say no one said so, I said very few said so. You have found one of the few. Congrats!

        • Abie Vee

          No, the banks made the mistakes (criminal activity would be more accurate) and the poor man pays for them.

          And you’re right… it indeed “will end badly” (in the not too distant future).

      • Sean Grainger

        No No No Mr M. It was not as one of Labour’s great lies insists a global crisis. Even Spanish banks managed to skip it.

        • Eugene_Norman

          No it absolutely was a global crisis and no the Spanish banks didn’t skip it as a quick google of Spanish banking bailouts would prove.

          • Sean Grainger

            This is just ludicrous — more or less no Asian banks were affected, nor South American, nor Russian. And some Spanish banks did [itals] skip it and I only used that as the extreme example.

          • Fair point. It was large numbers of economists and banks in the West who made the mistake, rather than Asia etc.

          • Eugene_Norman

            100Bn was spent on Spanish bank bailouts. The west was affected by the collapse, globally it affected everywhere. Even without bailouts demand collapsed. That’s what accelerated the increase in the deficit.

      • Cornelius Bonkers

        OK, but two wrongs don’t make a right. And while I’m at it, don’t forget that no man’s an island – I rest my case!

    • Abie Vee

      Yes indeed. Up until the global banking crisis the UK was in great shape… historically and internationally. Shame the Tories have ruined it.

      • suchan104

        Ah, it’s predictable that some leftie will come up with this kind of erroneous comment. While you thought the economy was booming (the “bust” had been abolished by Gordon, don’t forget) the seeds of the biggest economic bust since the 1930s were being sown. We saw massive asset price inflation, public and private debt ballooning and levels of public spending that assumed we would never experience an economic downturn again: hence the £78bn (5.5% GDP) structural deficit in 2007 (we won’t even mention the destruction of pensions and the booming of the welfare budget). So the UK was not in the “great shape” that you and the Left thought it was. Of course, the financial crisis was a global phenomenon, but like all Keynesians, Gordon forgot that when the economy is booming, that is precisely the time to rein in spending and even run a small surplus. As a result when the crisis did strike we were already had a deficit that assumed the good times would go on forever, so when the tax receipts disappeared we were left with a deficit of 11% GDP and unemployment doubling.

        Since then the deficit has been halved (as a %GDP), millions more jobs have been created and GDP growth is the best in the G7 (and forecast to be that way for the next few years). If that’s the “Tories ruining it” then I dread to think what you’d have called Balls’ plans for more borrowing and spending. No doubt you’d have called it an economic miracle.

    • Copyright101

      All I need to know is that he belongs to a hostile alien minority.

      • Dan O’Connor

        Strange how that hostile alien minority in any official / organised capacity or position , always engages in activities and ideas that are hostile and destructive to the social fabric and group interests of the traditional historical population of the West, but never beneficial to us, and always to the benefit of themselves –at ever available opportunity as if by shear instinct .
        It is a pattern off behaviour that repeats itself with predictable regularity
        It is very dangerous to have 2% of the population being allowed to be constantly overrepresented in all of the West’s economic , cultural , media and academic choke points and our institutions by a factor of 15 X or more , and who never tire of reminding our children of their collective evil because of the real or imaginary sins of the past and their own total lack of any accountablity or responsibilty for it , ever .
        This has been inserted so deeply into the Western psyche that it has paralysed and disarmed the West’s auto.immune seld preservation mechanisms , which is exactly what it was designed to do. To hoodwink us into becoming our own willling ethnic clensers, dispossessors and self censors and jailers

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  • ohforheavensake

    You’re a bit touchy, aren’t you?

    Look. You wrote something stupid. Portes, who knows more about economics than you do, pointed this out: and he wasn’t the only one. A rant in The Spectator doesn’t suddenly make you the winner- it just makes you look like a sore loser.

    Grow up, Niall, there’s a good chap.

    • WFB56

      Ferguson, as the lawyer pointed out, did not write something stupid and you are simply engaging in a transparent effort to inculcate the notion that he does.

      The reality is that if the tactics of Portes, which you appear to aspire to, aren’t slammed down they become pervasive and ultimately undermine the value of public discourse; although, presumably, that’s your preferred outcome.

      • Unlearning Economics

        It was stupid. He failed to adjust nominal earnings properly and it was misleading.

        There were also other errors/misleading elements to Ferguson’s piece, such as the period from which he judged the relative economic performance of labour vs the conservatives (typically, taking the period from the trough of a recession is not considered appropriate). However, Ferguson doesn’t mention these.

        • WFB56

          So, the lawyer engaged by the FT has it wrong and you have it right?
          Keep trying.

          • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

            As Ferguson said, the lawyer said Ferguson’s comment about earnings had the “potential to mislead”.

          • suchan104

            Lots of things have the “potential to mislead” but it makes them neither wrong nor stupid. On the other hand, the commenters here who are desperate to defend Portes are definitely misleading.

          • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

            Lots of things have the “potential to mislead” but it makes them neither wrong nor stupid.
            Correct, although the misled people might reach wrong or stupid conclusions.

          • Unlearning Economics

            Where substance fails, just go for appeals to authority.

            Actually, as Ferguson stated, the lawyer did say that Ferguson was incorrect on earnings, just not that it was worthy of a formal correction. Portes’ complaint did not mention the other errors, but his relevant articles (as well as many other articles on the same topic) have. Ferguson chooses not to engage with these.

    • blandings

      “Portes, who knows more about economics than you do”.

      Portes’ academic credentials don’t demonstrate that, do they?

      • Unlearning Economics

        Academic credentials are not a perfect indicator of knowledge. Portes has demonstrated his economic knowledge is sufficient to have this debate; Ferguson has not.

        In any case, what exactly are Ferguson’s academic credentials in economics?

        • blandings

          “Academic credentials are not a perfect indicator of knowledge.”
          There is always room for the gifted amateur I suppose.

        • ohforheavensake

          He doesn’t have any. He’s a historian.

          • Stevie Mac

            an economic historian?

          • facts

            nope a HISTORIAN!

          • suchan104

            Don’t be obtuse. His speciality, for which he was made a full Professor at Oxford at the age of 36, is economic and financial history. Do you honestly think that he could be a specialist in this area without a knowledge of economics? And if he was no good then why was he recruited as a Professor of Financial History by Stern Business School at NYU and then Harvard University?

          • facts

            suchan104, you seem to know his career very well. what you don’t seem to have is any education in economics, not a MA degree, not a PhD degree. If you had, you would know the difference between economic history and economics. I can’t say for sure but I bet Ferguson’s maths are nothing to write home about. The dispute above seems petty but on the technicality Portes is right. Ferguson writes like a historian…maybe you are one too?

          • facts

            suchan104 obtuse? clearly you have no understanding of what modern economics is. you probably don’t have any instruction on economics at MA or PhD level, if you had you would understand the difference between someone with instruction in economics and an economic historian. Judging from the silly dispute above I bet Ferguson’s maths and econometrics are not very good either….This article shows that your eminent professor is rattled…and by someone most people have not even heard about…

        • Stevie Mac

          That’s silly. Of course Niall’s got the knowledge to have this debate. He showed he understands the issue. He has also debated with leading economists about austerity and its affect on growth and been proved right.

          • Unlearning Economics

            As he has admitted (though with a lot of window dressing), he failed to properly distinguish between real and nominal. This is an elementary mistake that a first year student would be punished for, and demonstrates Ferguson’s lack of expertise in this area.

            “He is an economic historian and he has debated with Krugman, a nobel prize winner in economics.”

            Krugman debates with a lot of people, some (gasp) even less qualified than Ferguson, so I don’t see what simply having the debate proves. Actually, Krugman goes out of his way to avoid directly referencing Ferguson these days and considers him a troll.

            “He has also debated with other economists about the affect of austerity on growth and been proven right.”

            Oh ok, well that’s settled then.

            If Ferguson could actually engage with some of the major criticisms of his initial piece instead of putting together this little tantrum about only one of them by one person, he might win enough credibility to say he ‘has been proven right’. Until then, repeating this doesn’t make it true.

          • suchan104

            UE – you start with the statement “Academic credentials are not a perfect indicator of knowledge.” and then try to use academic credentials to dismiss Ferguson’s ability to conduct economic debate. You’re as illogical and dishonest as Krugman.

          • Unlearning Economics

            My argument is of the form ‘you say X matters but I don’t think it does. However, even if X did matter, X fails to support your argument’.

            This is not dishonest: I’m merely claiming that it doesn’t matter which way you spin things, appealing to Ferguson’s academic credentials isn’t going to get you anywhere.

            In any case, the substantive issues are more important. But you’ve ignored those.

          • facts

            Stevie don’t be silly . where exactly Nial got his economic knowledge? He is a historian!!!

          • Stevie Mac

            Where did Elon Musk get his rocket science knowledge? People who are intelligent enough can just read text books and learn the material better than most people who did formal courses. I realise this undermines Niall’s own criticism of the fellow not having a phd, although the stuff about the lack of peer reviewed articles might be more valid. Plus he is an economic historian. He writes histories related to economics. Subjects do cross over.

            Niall obviously knows a lot about economics.

      • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

        It would be a different media if the writers weren’t permitted to stray into topics beyond their academic credentials. Ferguson included.

        • blandings

          Agree whole-heartedly. Most of us would end up mute. What annoyed me was the willie waving

          • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

            I think that began with Ferguson on 4 June.

          • blandings

            Yeah – but he really has got the bigger willie.

          • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

            In economics?

        • Stevie Mac

          He is an economic historian. His work requires in depth knowledge of economics.

          • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

            Yeah – I’m not suggesting he should be restricted to talking about the topic of his academic credentials, I’m suggesting he should be cautious in making that kind of demand of others because it can be easily turned around.

          • 65noname

            “His work requires in depth knowledge of economics.”
            which is why he shouldn’t be engaged in his political rantings that are disguised as economic reasoning.

          • facts

            ha that is funny Stevie…

        • Orbilius

          Portes isn’t a real economist either, if academic qualifications are your criteria, as he read Maths at Balliol – albeit followed by a Public Affairs (Economics and Public Policy) at Princeton. At least it wasn’t PPE.

          • Schoolswot

            What’s a ‘real economist’?

            One you agree with presumably…

          • Sean Grainger

            A real economist is one who says “Let’s assume a can-opener.”

        • suchan104

          So how do you define this? Ferguson has been a Professor of Financial and Economic History at Oxford, NYU and now Harvard, so it is extremely helpful to know something about economics to be able to judge economic history. Portes has a degree in Maths and a masters in Public Affairs. Where do you stop? Krugman sounds off regularly about monetary policy but that is not his expertise. Fellow Nobel economists who are experts in monetary policy, such as Ed Prescott (or even the late Milton Friedman) strongly disagree with him. Does that make Krugman wrong or ineligible to debate monetary policy? I think Ferguson raised Portes lack of academic credentials to suggest that his economic opinion has no more academic weight than Ferguson’s, despite the fact that he describes himself as an economist.

          • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

            OK. I think Ferguson snarked about Portes’s lack of PhD because Ferguson can dish it out but can’t take it.

    • suchan104

      “Portes, who knows more about economics than you do, pointed this out”

      Really? You think so? Perhaps you’d like to tell us how you’re qualified to judge? Portes has a maths degree and a masters in public policy. Clearly he’s up there with Paul Krugman and Ed Prescott. (I think not).

  • Sam

    This is pretty pathetic from Niall. Portes is a class economist, who took a job in the politically-neutral civil service. He’s now part of a politically independent economic organisation.

    Even if he wasn’t, the basic truth is that you made a mistake in your FT article- not a big deal, could happen to anyone, why not admit it and move on? You haven’t done yourself any favours, you big baby.

    • Johnnydub

      Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

      • Verbatim

        Amen. Now say 3 Hail Mary’s please.

  • WFB56

    “Portes’s career recalls that of the character Kenneth Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Widmerpool is charmless, pompous and mediocre, yet inexorably ascends the greasy pole by aligning himself with the Labour party.” A beautiful description, well done, as always, Ferguson.

    • flannobrien

      Whereas when the Tories get in, everyone else gets an ungreased ascending pole.
      (You do see that you are praising Niall for stealing someone else’s trope. No, you don’t see. Which I guess is the point. Rah team.)

    • DiTurno

      Yes, that’s a beautiful description. Of course, one might wonder why, if this is a debate about facts, Ferguson would employ such a long and elaborate ad hominem.

      The reason, of course, is that Portes was right and Ferguson refuses to admit that.

    • bearsall

      I can’t stand Portes, but here Ferguson is overlooking his own inexorable ascent of the greasy pole. The two are more alike than they would like to acknowledge.

    • Verbatim

      Niall Ferguson; all round hero and champion!! Go Niall.

  • JonBW

    There is no need for the personal stuff; the debate should be about the facts.

    Mr Portes is one of a group of commentators who have been wrong about nearly everything and whose position overall is fundamentally flawed. The important questions are why, and why that position (broadly Liberal/Social Democratic Keynesianism) has been given so much respect despite all the evidence.

    The answers in my view are that their position is based on an outdated economic model which, however, fits neatly with the politcial prejudices of the modern centre-left.

    • global city

      He is constantly called upon by the BBC as the voice of reason.

    • Paul B

      I agree: Resorting to ad hominem argument neither makes your point nor contradicts his.

    • DiTurno

      I agree that the debate should be about the facts. In this instance, Feguson was wrong, and he refuses to admit it. That’s a problem. As Portes notes, bigger problem is when Ferguson says “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.” Those sentences refer to two entirely different time periods. Had he used consistent times, inflation would be 11%, not -2%.

      At best, that’s inexcusable sloppiness. At worst, it’s a willful deception.

      • JonBW

        It’s also arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin….

        There are two real questions: has ‘austerity’ damaged the economy (as Jonathan Portes predicted it would) and has immigration at it recent levels suppressed the wages of the least well off.

        I’m afraid that I think Mr Portes is wrong about both.

        • DiTurno

          No, it’s not angels dancing on the head of a pin. It’s a question about facts, and Ferguson was wrong.

          And of course austerity has damaged the economy: GDP growth *since the start of the recession* is still below that of France and the US. Osborne’s government eased up on austerity and growth increased — as the Keynesians said would happen.

          And that’s why Ferguson only talks about growth over the last year. That’s another example of his intent to mislead.

          • ActualModerateConservative

            It is the equivalent of hitting yourself in the head with a mallet for 4 years and then stopping, and exclaiming “look! I cured my headache!!”

          • MildredCLewis



          • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

            Yeah, but apart from all the things Ferguson gets wrong, he’s right isn’t he?

          • DiTurno

            That’s not the issue here, which is that Ferguson is essentially a liar. But no, he’s not right: UK GDP still lags behind that of the US and France, and austerity has clearly failed.

          • Cim Thayne

            The UK had a significantly larger debt-to-GDP, and the financial sector as a MUCH higher share of GDP. A slower recovery here was inevitable.

          • bearsall

            DiTurno – that’s a very harsh word to use about Ferguson. I don’t believe for a moment he intended to lie. He got something wrong, and looks stupid now because he should have had the grace to admit it. However Portes is such an ar$e that Ferguson – who I think is broadly right on the economic front – didn’t want to give anything away to his political enemy. A mistake whose consequences are providing entertainment for the rest of us.

          • DiTurno

            Bearsall, yes, it is a harsh word, and I’ll use a harsher one: liar. I think it’s extremely unlikely that someone with Ferguson’s academic background could accidentally mix up those statistics.

            But Ferguson has done that before: his hit piece on Barack Obama in Newsweek was filled with the exact same errors and misleading statistics. Read Matthew O’Brien’s analysis in the Atlantic.

            So when I say he’s a liar, I’m not saying that casually, and I’m not merely disagreeing with his arguments. Instead, I’m saying that he intentionally sets out to mislead. He’s a liar.

          • bearsall

            OK. Fair enough. We disagree. For what it’s worth I think Portes is just as guilty – although not necessarily in this spat – of being selective with the evidence when it suits him. Everyone in economics and social science tends to suffer from confirmation bias. We know Portes is a left winger. Lo and behold he tends to pursue evidence and quote studies which buttress his view of the world. For what it’s worth I’ve read a couple of Ferguson’s books and thought they were often interesting but also often poorly thought through. I think in general he’s a little more likely to go after an idea for its own sake than because it will prop up his political outlook. You just don’t get any sense of open-mindedness in Portes’ work. I find his reluctance to acknowledge the downsides of immigration ridiculous and verging on the pathological. I’m not sure Ferguson is quite as blinkered, pompous and vain though he undoubtedly comes across.

          • Verbatim

            I think you’ve correctly identified the process of an ‘expert’ in any field writing to prop up an idea they already have. This is endemic in the polity and academe today. It is especially true of the Left, with its agenda-driven challenges to just about everything we know about life today – with an especial intention to undermine it. Of course, the Left offers no alternatives whatsoever – the epitome of damaging negativity and political correctness – except to suggest more of other people’s money should be spent!! It’s a hideous ideology altogether.

          • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

            Just making fun of Ferguson’s use of “nitpick”. How much nitpicking does it take to refute a thesis?

          • Torybushhug

            What austerity? We spend vastly more than we produce and huge sums in interest. The daft flat Earth left is in denial to the bitter end. French unemployment rate far higher than ours, many French came to Britain as a result of the better economy.
            Britain faired much better than the EU otherwise immigrants would be queuing at Dover to get to France.

            Labours last throes spending splurge obviously provided a transitory illusory growth, any tool could have taken such an unimaginative measure.

            The UK did remarkably well given the dragging effect of the EU decline.

          • suchan104

            1. No austerity – or perhaps you think deficit spending and £375bn of QE was austere?
            2. Did the French and the US lose as much GDP in the crisis as we did? No. So it took us about 12-18 months longer to get going (part of which is the drag effect of a stagnant Eurozone) but now we are growing well, wages rising, unemployment has fallen the same as the US (and far superior to France), and we have less debt that if we’d gone on a borrowing and spending spree.
            3. You should be very careful about accusing someone else of lying, especially when you’re pretty selective with the facts yourself.

          • Jamie Stevenson

            Congratulations, DiTurno. I have just posted a rather more laboured comment making the same point about Ferguson’s failure to face up to his own significant factual error. It is depressing that someone with apparently serious academic credentials and near pop star status in various quarters rides roughshod over a blatant factual error and does not do the normal intellectual duty of admitting it. How can he retain serious academic credibility?

          • suchan104

            No Ferguson was not wrong, no matter how many times you want to say it. Are you related to Mr. Portes by any chance?

          • DiTurno

            Ferguson was “not wrong?” You might want to notify the Financial Times, since they clearly state that one point was wrong, and another was “unclear”:

            “An article by Niall Ferguson 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. Confidence had risen from the third quarter of 2009 until the end of 2010, according to the ICAEW/Grant
            Thornton UK Business Confidence Monitor. We also wish to clarify that Prof Ferguson’s statement that weekly earnings were up by more than 8 per cent referred to nominal earnings growth. Real wage growth was negative from 2010 until September 2014.”

            The “unclear” point is actually more damning, since Ferguson continues to insist juxtaposing two unrelated statistics was absolutely fine. There’s no way anyone with a shred of integrity could say that, so (again) Ferguson is a liar.

  • Portes, unlike yourself, prefers fact-based argument over ideology-based argument.

    • blandings

      It’s difficult to imagine Portes’ arguments being untainted by ideology,
      “Unike you” please.

      • EnosBurrows

        Everyone’s arguments are affected by ideology.

        • Paul B

          That doesn’t make it a good thing. Everyone needs to address themselves to the truth or we might as well just shoot it out. Argument here descends far too readily to the “and my dad’s bigger than your dad” level.

          • Stevie Mac

            shut up. I’m older than you so I’m the boss.

            (I’m probably not, lets face it).

        • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

          I am objective and principled.
          You have a subjective agenda.
          They have a completely biased ideology.

        • Sean Grainger

          What a weird idea — as in arguments about whether it was offside or not?

    • Fred Yang


  • Eugene_Norman

    Portes is also disingenuous in his immigration papers and worse was influential with badly educated politicians but Ferguson is wrong here. It’s been reported fairly widely that median wages stayed the same in real terms from 2008-2015. As it happens immigration is a part of this. Ferguson statement is clearly misleading. He compares the last year of one government then segues into the total term of another, and in the latter his growth rate ignores inflation. Ignoring inflation is ridiculous, and remember it was very high from 2008-2011.

    As for his argument against Keynes, he doesn’t quite get what happened. Clearly withdrawing money from an economy is going to exacerbate recessions, just as easing on the accelerometer slows a car. The argument against Keynes is that long term deficits can cause interest rate spikes but Keynes favoured surpluses in good times. Osbourne is being Keynsian in his approach to boom time deficits (the question is whether we are in a real boom).

    in fact in the last few years of parliament QE was pumping money into the economy, mostly increasing assets, and Osbourne stopped fiscal consolidation and fueled even more housing bubbles with help to buy. That’s what he will be remembered for when the wheels fall of that train.

    • Sean Grainger

      I bet none of you can do the actuarial rate of return in tax-based leases where the lessor has a three-year reporting drag on tax.

      • Eugene_Norman

        Great comment Sean. That showed up all of us who can’t do an actuarial rate of return, and if that were in any way relevant I still wouldn’t care.

  • John Carins

    Mr Ferguson’s analysis is quite illuminating. This is exactly the situation that UKIP finds itself on every argument: proposed reasonable policy/ideas countered by subjectivity, nit picking and smears.

  • EnosBurrows

    It’s fair enough to attack Portes’ arguments, although your complaint here is not that his argument was wrong, but that it was nit-picking.

    Meanwhile, your *main* complaint about him seems to be that he does not have a Ph.D. That is not a nit-picking argument it is a direct ad hominem made because he successfully faulted you.

    • RecoveringEconomist

      Also worth noting that there’s quite a long queue of economists with PhDs, tenured positions, Nobel prizes and painfully long lists of articles in peer reviewed acadamic journals who think Ferguson’s got a terrible understanding of economics (and track record on predictions), if that is your preferred measure.

      • facts

        …and Nial’s PhD is in history so who cares! except him…

    • bearsall

      Yes, EnosBurrows – it makes Ferguson look small-minded.

    • Calzo

      Indeed, as someone who is about to receive a PhD I can let everyone know that 4 years of working on a very narrow sub-topic of any broad subject in no way makes you the infallible bastion of knowledge Ferguson apparently sees in himself.

  • A typical stupid Niall Ferguson article. The author completely fails to establish the opening claim namely that Portes is guilty to any great extent of “correct politicalness” which is seeking “to undermine an irrefutable argument by claiming loudly and repetitively to have found an error in it.” I certainly don’t always agree with Portes, but it’s never struck me he is particularly guilty of that crime.

    Second, Ferguson’s only evidence that Portes is guilty of “correct politicalness” is that Portes disagrees with an apparently “irrefutable” argument often put by Ferugson (in relation to Keynsianism). Absolutely hilarious.

    I hereby declare that anyone who disagrees with me is a moron because they are guilty of “correct politicalness”.

    Ferguson’s logic is of much the same quality as we get from other pro-austerity economists at Harvard: Kenneth Rogoff, Carmen Reinhart, Albert Alesina. Quite why Harvard is still classified as a “university” I’m not sure.

    • GUBU


      You, on the other hand, apparently prefer to judge people as stupid simply because they are guilty of having views which, we must assume, differ from your own.

      A much simpler position to take – in every sense.

    • Johnnydub

      no – you’re a moron because you’re a sock puppet defending those who make economic prognostications based on their political leanings (e.g. Krugman) who whinge when those forecast turn out to be worth bugger all.

      Kind of like when Brown said “i’ve ended boom and bust” – a stupid statement from a stupid man.

      • The fact that one or two of Krugman’s forcasts turned out wrong (which is what Ferguson makes a big song and dance about) proves nothing. Weather forecasters are often wrong. Does that prove their forecasts are no better than chance?

        • bearsall

          Actually weather forecasters are very rarely wrong these days. Just saying.

    • Verbatim

      Your last comment consigned all your comments to the garbage dump. Adios.

      • That’s an amazingly intelligent and carefully thought out comment. But I’ve got an answer for it: your last comment consigned all your comments to the garbage dump. Adios.

  • stephengreen

    Portes of course, most damningly, is the author of the “Portes Report,” best remembered by the man who disclosed it, Andrew Neather, that allegedly sought to ‘rub the right’s nose in diversity’ and change the demographic balance of the UK for ever.

    Jack Straw eventually went off into the wilderness (but not before hypocritically trying to have his two penneth on the Muslim grooming gangs and side swipes at multi-culturalism), Portes appears to have been gifted a cosy sinecure at NIESR where he in part advances the arguments for mass immigration and Barbara Roche landed a position at the ‘Migration Matters Trust’ where she did the same. Of course, all these people are of immigrant backgrounds themselves with little historical attachment to this country and its people.

    • Philsopinion

      The NIESR was founded by the Rockerfeller Foundation. Historically that family always used immigrants to break workers organising in the States.

      For that reason I have always wondered why the Conservatives took such a strong line on the issue. Indeed I suspect Cameron isn’t so bothered in reality and Osbourne is positively pro-mass immigration.

      I agree with everything you said above nonetheless.

    • Eugene_Norman

      Then Ferguson should have said “yes I made a mistake but let’s look at Portes’ mistakes and how much more costly they were”. Instead he continued with his weasly half truths.

      • stephengreen

        I’m talking about Portes, for the comment readers who may be unfamiliar, not the rights and wrongs of NF’s article. Not so interested in that aspect.

    • Frank

      Why is Jonathan Portes living here – isn’t he American? Surely America needs his gifts?

      • stephengreen

        His dad was an Oxbridge don IIRC and British passport holder.

        • Frank

          Thank you, but why is he described as American?

          • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

            British American

          • Frank

            We are blessed!

        • Frank

          By the way, can you provide further details, what does IIRC mean, how did he get a British passport and what of his wife?

          • stephengreen

            If I remember correctly. His father is a Rhodes Scholar and therefore born in America originally. The son holds dual citizenship.

          • Frank

            Thanks, the net is suspiciously void of details on his parentage!

  • DavidL

    An entertaining diatribe but really Niall, have you not got better things to do with your time?
    The people have spoken. Those who think debt and deficits do not matter that much have not only lost the argument, they have lost the election. We have enough real problems to be getting on with and your insights are valuable.

  • LutherZBlissett

    Anyone remember when Niall Ferguson was an actual (respected!) historian and not a US-based pundit pissing away the scrag end of his academic reputation in exchange for large sums of money?

    I know, I know, it’s difficult. But since Prof Ferg has decided to run with ad hominem here, perhaps we should read this piece as the wheezy retort of someone who had a chance at greatness and instead chose wealth and partisan mediocrity.

  • Persuasive

    Excellent. Keep at it. http://www.couragetolaugh.com

  • Sleazy Boat on the Bayou

    He was the principal author of a controversial report on migration published in 2000 by the Home Office, which concluded that ‘migrants have little aggregate effect on native wages or employment’. Likewise, his 2008 paper on the impact of migration from new EU member-states found ‘little hard evidence that the inflow of accession migrants contributed to a fall in wages or a rise in claimant unemployment’ between 2004 and 2006.
    Interestingly, this is no longer his position. The evidence on the impact of EU immigration, Portes wrote in 2013, ‘is mixed on wages, with some evidence of downward pressure for the lower paid’. Was that a correction?

    A “correction” or an “update”? It seems reasonable to assume there might be more evidence either way after five years.

  • Perseus Slade

    “We’ll never run out of other people’s money,
    we’ll just print some more.”

  • Stevie Mac

    Niall’s statement was factually correct and therefore not an error but it did lack clarity and could be misleading. To say that wages are up 8% and inflation is zero is a bit misleading because the wage growth is since 2010 and inflation is only now zero, recently down. A person could easily get the impression that there had been real wage growth since 2010 but there was real wage decline for most that time. There is now real wage growth, because inflation is zero and wages are still rising. Why not just avoid the confusion and talk about real wages, admit that they declined due to the recession but that the government has now turned things around. This would strike me as more honest and clear.

    I also think the following sentence a bit disingenuous: “the UK had the best performing of all the G7 economies last year with economic growth of 2.8 per cent — a marked improvement on 2009, the last full year of Labour government, when the figure was minus 4.3 per cent.” 2009 was the worst recession year (correct me if I’m wrong but one of them) after the 2008 financial crisis…which, to my knowledge, was not labour’s fault (again, correct me if I’m wrong).

    I’m a fan of Niall as a historian and respect his insights and he has been proven right about austerity and growth (regardless of the ethics of specific cuts and reforms) but it seems that in his support of the government he is inclined to present things in a slightly biased way.

  • flannobrien

    Uh, Niall. “Inflation is below zero” is a BAD thing. It’s called deflation. It is historically closely linked to some pretty terrible economic conditions. And “Almost no one seriously claims that Obama’s second term has been a success?” The exact economic measures you use to define Cameron’s policies as successful make Obama’s at least as successful. But best of all, you attack Portes for – what? – not having a PhD in Economics and having “published painfully few articles in peer-reviewed journals?” Excuse me? Whatwhat? Do YOU have a PhD in Economics? How many articles in peer-reviewed economics journals have YOU written? You have broken new ground in the realm of self-parody. An adult at this point would stop petulantly responding to being wrong by doubling down over and over again. You do not seem to be an adult. It’s too bad, because your books have informed me of many historical facts of which I was unaware. Sadly, these facts far too often seem marshaled specifically to support some tedious neo-imperial or liberal-hating ideological agenda. A waste of talent.

    • Verbatim

      I’m sure you know better than a Harvard lecturer. I’d mortgage my house on it.

  • NBeale

    To be fair you should really have written: “Weekly earnings are up by more than 8 per cent in cash terms; in the private sector, the figure is above 11 per cent. Inflation is below zero.”
    It would have made perfect sense to have quoted real earnings in that context as well.
    But I agree Portes is over-reacting.

  • Schoolswot

    I’m assuming that this was written because Portes pointed out that when Ferguson found an article where he said that Portes was wrong…it turned out to have been written by Portes’ father and not him.

    Read the exchange…he aims…he shoots!…and blasts it over the bar.



    This article doesn’t make you look good…just petty point scoring.

    • ActualModerateConservative

      And ineffective point scoring, at that!

  • Conall Long

    I agree with Niall here, and while I disagree with him on many his historical arguments (Particularly his stance on The Great War) I think that, overall, his historical work has value. The penchant for personal attacks however, might, over time, have the effect of discrediting his whole bibliography.

  • sarahsmith232

    It was Portes that Andrew Neather was referring to when he wrote that his immigration reports ‘main purpose – to rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date.”
    Portes is a gay Jew, he sees himself as belonging to a persecuted minority group. They define themselves against their ‘backward imperialist white’. Mass, uncontrolled immigration is this kind of an idiots way to wipe out English imperialist arrogance. They’re not able to understand that only reason why he believes the country is majority populated by their backward racists is because he’s an old world, pig ignorant, class snob.

    • DiTurno

      That’s a truly spectacular ad hominem: it flirts with homophobia, anti-semitism and xenophobia, all through the lens of a completely specious psychoanalysis.

      And best of all, it ignores the central fact: Portes was right, and Ferguson is wrong.

      Well done!

      • Fred Yang

        And my oh my have the indigenous Angles had their faces rubbed in diversity…. maybe Portes will still be around to witness the coming backlash

      • suchan104

        “And best of all, it ignores the central fact: Portes was right, and Ferguson is wrong.”

        Oh well, if you say that then it must be true! Alternatively you’re as blinkered and stupid as you claim everyone else is.

  • Sean Grainger

    This seems to come up every day at the moment; as the great — as in truly great — HL Mencken said “The trouble with democrats is when you disagree with them they get mad.”

    • Schoolswot


      You’re writing under an article which is the very definition of someone getting mad and you’re accusing Portes of doing that?

  • Joec

    This mess is another disaster for Ferguson who resorts to this sort of ad hominem attack and smear against he critics who have rightly pointed out his basic problems with facts.

    As in the time he signed on as a support of a Bizarre “Shadow” Cost of Living nut who simply made up figures the claimed double digit inflation was here and has been for some time. That was Portes who pointed out the stupidity of what Ferguson was writing who was forced to row back. Although he continues to smear Portes.

    True he doesn’t have a PHD in economics, but neither does Ferguson. And Portes, aside from being son of a noted (conservative) economist, has worked as a financial and economics journalist for years, very effectively. In trying to belittle Portes, Ferguson belittles himself.

    Ferguson has degenerated to something worse than a complete political hack on both sides of the Atlantic. He should be spending more time in his chosen field — or actually spending some time researching his articles and stop making up “facts”

  • RealAlexTurner2020

    It’s quite obvious that Ferguson is a leftist plant. He acts an incompetent boob on purpose in order to diminish the conservative movement. It’s not rocket science.

  • Neil Saunders

    Portes is a globalist, open-borders, CFR shill, not a Keynesian Social Democrat.



    Who votes for these back-room manipulators, who frame public policy far away from public discussion or oversight?



  • 65noname

    first ferguson writes an article that was found by the Press Complaints Commission to be misleading and inaccurate. then he writes a critique of the Press Complaints Commission decision that misleads as to what it found.

    and that’s not to mention his unique feeling of irritation because “[t]he essence of correct politicalness is to seek to undermine an irrefutable argument by claiming loudly and repetitively to have found an error in it.” leaving aside his own use of “loudly and repetitively” attacks on writings and opinions that he disagrees with, most people would probably agree that when a propsition is based on errors its facts, the proposition actually “undermine[s]” itself. and that pointing out that a proposition is based on errors is part of intellecxtual debate. by the way, it is a bit circular to claim that one’s work contains errors because he is ” busy, as I am, teaching students and writing books” when the point is that that teaching and book writing contains uncorrected errors.

    and, similarly, his so-called definition of political correctness. he defines it as “seek[ing] to undermine arguments by declaring the person making them a bigot”. actually most people that ferguson objects to are arguing that the “argument” itself is bigoted or, in some cases, are with filled with bigoted terminology and/or use biased examples that in turn biase the argument. it is actually ferguson that is wrongly attacking people who object to bigotry by misleading claims about the nature of their criticism.

  • RedMiner

    It’s now agreed unpaid Workfare placements can be described as new jobs, ditto zero hrs contracts, sham apprenticeships (6 months in trolley locomotion and shelf stacking), and the thousand and one other ways Governments of all persuasions have found to bury neoliberalism’s continental mass unemployment.

    Luckily, they can also still find people who like to prosecute personal grudges in ad hominen attacks on rivals.

    See above.

    See polished brogues lathered in phlegm.

  • bearsall

    Of course Ferguson was caught out, because it looked as if his inflation figures related to the same period as the wage growth he quoted. However Portes has gone after him with all the zeal of someone who has lost the big argument about austerity and would rather focus on a relatively minor mistake by Ferguson as a distraction.

    After all, Ferguson didn’t have to lie about wage growth in order to be able to show that the economy has grown despite deficit reduction, which Keynesians-lite like Portes would like to think couldn’t happen. There’s plenty of evidence that it has worked.

    If Ferguson really wanted to have a go at Portes he would focus on his record as a Government economic advisor during the oh-so-successful reign of Gordon Brown. Or he might look at Portes’ rather strange devotion to immigration, which he desperately maintains creates more jobs than immigrants themselves take (this might perhaps be related to the fact that his own father was an immigrant).

    Incidentally we get a glimpse of Portes’ dialectical style here in his reference to the Jonathan Wadsworth paper on migration. Use the word “empirical” a lot and refer to papers written by your friends and colleagues. Portes does it all the time. I’ve read the Wadsworth paper, and it’s a pretty thin piece of work.

    Portes is one of those people like Simon Wren Lewis who argue that HMG should borrow as much as it can to fund infrastructure. It doesn’t matter if you push up Government debt, they argue, because the associated growth will, er, enable you to pay it off. In other words you borrow more in order to borrow less. However they never deal with the need to get finances under control before the next recession pushes debt up to dangerous levels. Ah they say, but if you run the economy in the way we recommend, there won’t be another recession. We shouldn’t really be surprised by this from Portes, because after all he was working for the Blair government during the “no more Tory boom and bust” years.

    You could argue that Portes isn’t really a Keynesian at all. After all, Keynes argued for surpluses in the good times, whereas I don’t think Portes ever really feels HMG should run a surplus.

    Ferguson is a Gilderoy Lockhart figure, pompous, vain and self-aggrandising. Portes on the other hand conducts his spats in a tone that’s aggressive and sneering. They probably deserve each other.

  • facts

    FT and others make the point that Coalition government abandoned austerity and that is why employment has recovered. Why Nial does not consider that? Niall has a PhD…wow! ah sorry…in HISTORY! Oh his dissertation was on German inflation 1914-1924. I did not like the banks being bailed out by government…but that saved the economy and that was GB.

  • I want to think that facts aren’t the exclusive domain of “the left.”

    But here’s the thing: when Ferguson’s argument rests on facts that are wrong, it isn’t correct politicalness that undermines his argument, it’s sloppy workmanship. See his extraordinary and wrong claim about weekly wages in the FT.

  • Jamie Stevenson

    On a factual point from the disputed FT article, Ferguson has not answered the point made in Portes’s reply that Ferguson’s 8% (nominal) wage rise figure referred to the five years between 2010 and 2015, but his 2% inflation figure referred just to the single year 2014-15. If that is correct, then the juxtaposition of these two figures next to each other was not only misleading but also deliberately so – unless Ferguson is going to plead economic ignorance. With the two figures (8% wage rise and 2% inflation) side by side, the reader is clearly meant to conclude that the annual rate of rise in (real) wages was running by 2015 at 6%. Totally misleading given that cumulative inflation over the five years between 2010 and 2015 will have been in excess of 8% (equivalent to less than 2% per annum) so that REAL wages actually fell over that period. Unless Ferguson can find fault with these figures, he has to apologise for misleading the reader either deliberately or out of ignorance. His failure to do one or the other (disprove or apologise) wrecks his intellectual credibility.

  • Charles Lemos

    Niall Ferguson is an embarrassment to the honorable profession of historians. His peers reject him, laugh at him and mock him openly. He caught in yet another outright fabrication and he blames those who caught him. He is shameless.

  • Hegelman

    This superstition that Britain has a crippling public debt problem makes the German claim that the Jews conspired to lose Germany the First World War seem intellectually respectable.

    Paul Krugman has published an article recently showing how obscenely wrong the claim is, under the title “Seriously Bad Ideas”. Here are a few telling extracts everyone who talks about UK economics should know:

    “Oxford, Britain — One thing we’ve learned in the years since the financial crisis is that seriously bad ideas — by which I mean bad ideas that appeal to the prejudices of Very Serious People — have remarkable staying power. No matter how much contrary evidence comes in, no matter how often and how badly predictions based on those ideas are proved wrong, the bad ideas just keep coming back. And they retain the power to warp policy.

    What makes something qualify as a seriously bad idea? In general, to sound serious it must invoke big causes to explain big events — technical matters, like the troubles caused by sharing a currency without a common budget, don’t make the cut. It must also absolve corporate interests and the wealthy from responsibility for what went wrong, and call for hard choices and sacrifice on the part of the little people.

    So the true story of economic disaster, which is that it was caused by an inadequately regulated financial industry run wild and perpetuated by wrongheaded austerity policies, won’t do. Instead, the story must involve things like a skills gap — it’s not lack of jobs; we have the wrong workers for this high-technology globalized era, etc., etc. — even if there’s no evidence at all that such a gap is impeding recovery.

    And the ultimate example of a seriously bad idea is the determination, in the teeth of all the evidence, to declare government spending that helps the less fortunate a crucial cause of our economic problems…Here in Britain, however, it still reigns supreme. In particular, one important factor in the recent Conservative election triumph was the way Britain’s news media told voters, again and again, that excessive government spending under Labour caused the financial crisis.

    It takes almost no homework to show that this claim is absurd on multiple levels. For one thing, the financial crisis was global; did Gordon Brown’s alleged overspending cause the housing busts in Florida and Spain? For another, all these claims of irresponsibility involve rewriting history, because on the eve of crisis nobody thought Britain was being profligate: debt was low by historical standards and the deficit fairly small. Finally, Britain’s supposedly disastrous fiscal position has never worried the markets, which have remained happy to buy British bonds despite historically low yields.

    Nonetheless, that’s the story, generally reported not as opinion but as fact. And the really bad news is that Britain’s leaders seem to believe their own propaganda. On Wednesday, George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer and the architect of the government’s austerity policies, announced his intention to make these policies permanent. Britain, he said, should have a law requiring that the government run a budget surplus — with current revenue paying for all spending, including investment outlays — when the economy is growing.

    It’s a remarkable proposal, and I mean that in the worst way. Mr. Osborne isn’t offering the wrong answer to Britain’s problems; he’s offering an answer to problems Britain doesn’t have, while ignoring and exacerbating the problems it does.

    For Britain does not have a public debt problem. Yes, debt rose in the wake of economic crisis, but it’s still not high by historical standards, and borrowing costs have rarely been lower. In fact, interest rates adjusted for inflation are negative, even on very long-term borrowing. Investors, in other words, are willing to pay the British government to make use of part of their wealth.

    Meanwhile, Britain’s real economy is still ailing. It’s true that employment has held up surprisingly well, but that’s only because of a spectacular, unprecedented productivity bust: adjusting for labor quality, output per person-hour has declined around 7 percent since early 2008.

    Nobody fully understands either why this slump has happened or how to reverse it, but surely the combination of a still-weak economy, terrible productivity performance and negative borrowing costs says that this is a time to increase investment in things like infrastructure. (Passenger trains here make rail service in the United States look good, and traffic congestion is getting ever worse.) Yet the Osborne proposal would kill any such initiative.

    But Mr. Osborne sounds very serious, and, if history is any guide, the Labour Party won’t make any effective counterarguments.”

    • Copyright101

      makes the German claim that the Jews conspired to lose Germany the First World War seem intellectually respectable

      Did jews have disproportionate influence on British and US governments in WW1?

      Did jews have disproportionate influence on British and US governments in WW2?

      Do jews have disproportionate influence on British and US governments now?

      • Nemesis

        Copyright comment recommended by …… no-one.

        • Copyright101

          I can see four (so far). Your comments seeing to be faring slightly less well.

          • Kussit

            Good point, Copy. Make that Seven !
            And another up for this comment.

          • Nemesis

            A post by no-one upvoted by no-one.

          • Kussit

            Whatever, Cripple.

          • Nemesis

            You are remarkably obtuse. My comment was intended to convey my opinion of those who upvote you.

  • Matthew Keaton

    Hi Nilal, one note about this topic:

    “He went after the last two sentences in the paragraph above — saying they were ‘wholly and deliberately misleading’ because I had cited nominal average weekly earnings, not inflation-adjusted figures.”

    I think (know) you misunderstood his critique here. Portes’s wasn’t saying the problem in your analysis was accounting for inflation, the problem was that you compared the rate of growth over a 5 year period to the rate of annualized rate of growth (growth over a one year period). If the annual inflation averaged 2% every year, the rate of growth in the CPI from 2010-2014 would also be over 10%. And yes, I know you said under 2%, but the two figures are in the same ballpark, yet you presented them in a way that made one seem starkly different from the other. Your apples to oranges comparison would have convinced anybody who isn’t good at Math that real wage growth had been positive and significant when it had in fact been stagnant. That is what was “wholly and deliberately misleading.”

    Just thought I’d clear that up, cheers

  • Alltaxationistheft

    The real danger of Portes is the part he plays in the BBC’s politically biased coverage of events. They reel him out always as the neutral academic & give him free reign to vent his pro tax & spend agenda

  • Morgoth

    Portes, along with Barbara Roche, were the main brains behind New Labour’s demographic blitz on the white British. They are both Jewish. Lending yet more credibility to the ”Far Right” claims of Jewish people being over represented in media and politics and also being relentlessly detrimental to the interests of the Native British.

    • Nemesis
      • Morgoth

        Why have you replied to me with a you tube video of a Monty Python sketch? is it because you do not like what I’m saying but cannot counter what I have to say but feel compelled to do something, anything…..

        • Nemesis
          • Morgoth

            I repeat:

            Why have you replied to me with a you tube video of a Monty Python sketch? is it because you do not like what I’m saying but cannot counter what I have to say but feel compelled to do something, anything…..

          • Copyright101

            I don’t think we’re going to get an intelligent response from that tool.

          • Nemesis
          • Copyright101

            Well I take that as a compliment thanks, referencing my old IDs!

          • Nemesis

            You are easily flattered.

          • Copyright101

            Then why did you post it?

    • ohforheavensake

      And here you are again. Strange little man.

  • BetterAndBetter

    Ha, I saw this guy on the train yesterday.

  • CRO

    One cannot but agree with Ferguson; fact checking is for wimps! Everybody must have the freedom to invent their own reality, irrefutably supported by their own ‘facts’.
    Academic research would thrive under the battle cry ‘mundus vult decipi, ergo
    decipiatur’ (the world wants to be deceived, so let’s deceive it) and never let
    the facts spoil a good ideology! One really wonders how he got the professorship at a renowned institution like Harvard. When reading his article, Groucho Marx comes to my mind: “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

  • wattys123

    Portes really despises English culture, no amount of immigration is enough. His economic arguments mask his real agenda,

  • Jon Stone

    Ferguson misled his readers and got caught bang to rights, so he writes a new article complaining about ‘nitpicking’.

    Honestly, don’t these lefties know that it’s OK to lie or misuse statistics so long as you’re a self-righteous right-wing zealot?