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Gene Lyons: Lying about Obamacare

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During a presidential campaign, the temptation is always to melodrama. Having spent most of 20 years lamenting the vanishing professional ethics of the news media, I nevertheless found myself gobsmacked, as the Brits say, by Newsweek’s cover story by Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson entitled “Obama’s Gotta Go.”

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Ferguson’s surely entitled to his opinions (although not his vote, as he’s a British subject, not an American citizen), but to paraphrase the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he’s not entitled to his own facts. Riddled with ludicrous errors and manifest deceptions, the article’s publication on the cover of a major news magazine at first struck me as ominous.

That Ferguson’s a professor made things worse. Academics theoretically hold themselves to more strenuous standards than journalists. I even found myself rummaging around in the honor code of the University of Virginia, where I went to school, for definitions of academic fraud.

And yes, it’s that bad. Vote for whomever you like. But if you make your choice based upon the following howler, then you’ve been had: “The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit,” Ferguson charged. “But the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation now estimate that the insurance-coverage provisions of the ACA will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012-22 period.”

In fact, as New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman pointed out, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that Obamacare will actually reduce the yearly budget deficit by an estimated $210 billion over the decade. There’s a chart documenting that non-obscure fact on page two of the CBO report.

Krugman demanded a correction by Newsweek.

Instead, Editor Tina Brown’s latest plaything allowed Ferguson to double-down. Rather than apologize, he posted an online rejoinder calling Krugman’s objection “truly feeble,” and boasting that he’d “very deliberately” written “‘the insurance-coverage provisions of the ACA,’ not ‘the ACA.’”

In short, Ferguson very deliberately misled his readers to the tune of $1.4 trillion — considering only the debit half of Obamacare’s balance sheet, but not its revenues and savings. Then he falsely cited the CBO to cover his tracks.

Even his alibi quoted the CBO report out of context. Internet sleuths quickly caught him out. A flabbergasted John Cassidy summarized in the New Yorker, “one more time: The Oxford-trained, Harvard-employed, Newsweek contributor Niall Ferguson just edited the CBO report to change its meaning.”

To repeat, it’s perfectly legitimate to doubt the CBO’s conclusions or to argue that Obamacare will prove a budget-buster. What’s not OK is falsifying quotes and misrepresenting data.

(According to the University of Virginia student Honor Code, “alteration of data to deliberately mislead” constitutes academic fraud, punishable by expulsion. With Harvard alumni crying foul from sea to shining sea, I just thought I’d throw that in.)

Nor is it just Obamacare that makes Ferguson crazy. His Newsweek article is riddled with similar absurdities. Writing in Atlantic Monthly, Matthew O’Brien documented a dozen factual/logical blunders the embattled historian couldn’t explain away.

Some are so transparent as to evoke laughter, such as Ferguson’s complaint that while the stock market has risen 74 percent on Obama’s watch, “the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak.”

What happened next, if you’ve forgotten, was the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. By the time of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, the economy was shedding 750,000 jobs a month.

If hardly anybody’s happy with the 427,000 private sector jobs added to the U.S. economy since Obama took over, blaming him for a crisis he inherited is hardly playing the game.

Then there’s Ferguson’s fraudulent lament that “nearly half the population is not represented on a taxable return ... We are becoming the 50-50 nation — half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits.”

Never mind that the Bush administration wrote the current tax code. People who don’t pay federal income taxes do pay many other kinds of taxes. Challenged by Atlantic Monthly’s O’Brien, Ferguson again resorted to weasel-words, sniffing that “I specifically said ‘taxable return.’”

But let’s be charitable. It’s remotely possible that Ferguson doesn’t know that almost every American with any income whatsoever must file a return remitting payroll taxes, which in turn finance Social Security and Medicare — the U.S. government’s two largest benefit programs by far.

In short, the tax lament is humbug, too.

I’m not one to wax sentimental about the glory days at Newsweek. But when I worked there during the 1980s, a phalanx of fact-checkers would have spiked Ferguson’s screed before it reached galley proofs. Today’s magazine employs none. Meanwhile, the good news is the vigorous, Internet-driven pushback the article’s gotten.

Exactly why a man like Ferguson would sacrifice his academic reputation for the sake of this demagogic rubbish is a bit of a mystery.

The usual answer, however, is the lure of power.   

Gene Lyons, Arkansas Times columnist, is at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.

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