Niall Ferguson

Pedant’s revolt

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

Pedant’s revolt
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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?