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Right to reply – Jonathan Portes on Niall Ferguson

11 June 2015

5:39 PM

11 June 2015

5:39 PM

Two weeks ago I was too ‘obscure to bother with‘ for Professor Niall Ferguson. He’s changed his mind, dedicating an entire article in The Spectator to me. In particular, he is very upset that, after I complained, the FT was obliged to correct his recent article about the UK economy.

Professor Ferguson’s article contained one undisputed factual error (about UK business confidence) and one statement which the FT’s independent complaints commissioner found to be misleading, but which Professor Ferguson argues is composed of two ‘true statements’. This was:

‘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.’

As anyone familiar with the UK economy will know, the statements are only true if they are taken as referring to entirely different time periods. The 8 and 10 percent figures refer to earnings growth between 2010 and 2015. The inflation figure refers to the rise in prices between 2014 and 2015. In fact, inflation between 2010 and 2015 (that is, the inflation figure to which it would be accurate and relevant to compare the 8 percent or the 10 percent figures) was approximately 11 percent, not ‘below 2 percent’.

None of this is in dispute. However, Professor Ferguson continues to claim that there is nothing misleading about his original statement: indeed, when challenged he restated his position:

‘Weekly earnings are up by more than 8 per cent … Inflation is below 2 per cent and falling. Correct your disingenuous self.’

I leave it to Spectator readers to judge for themselves whether Professor Ferguson’s statement, and subsequent ‘clarification’, is misleading, and if so deliberately or inadvertently. They can also judge for themselves whether this statement, and the other factual error the FT was obliged to correct, undermine his credibility and the arguments in his article.

Professor Ferguson then goes on to ask ‘has Jonathan Portes ever erred?’ He points out that a paper I wrote in 2008 concluded that there was ‘little hard evidence that the inflow of accession migrants contributed to a fall in wages or a rise in claimant unemployment’; and that in 2013, I wrote that the evidence was ‘mixed on wages, with some evidence of downward pressure for the lower paid’. He argues that the latter statement contradicts the former.

In the intervening five years, we’ve had new evidence and the UK labour market has changed, so it wouldn’t be surprising if economists thought that the impacts in 2013 weren’t necessarily the same as in 2008. But, in fact, as a recent summary of the evidence (by Jonathan Wadsworth, of the LSE and a member of the government’s independent Migration Advisory Committee) put it:

‘There is still no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs & wages…any negative impacts on wages of less skilled groups are small.’

That is, the evidence (which includes my paper, cited by Professor Wadsworth) is mixed; there is no evidence of an overall negative impact; and there may be some, small negative impact for the lower paid. It’s difficult to understand what point Professor Ferguson is making here, or what contradiction he sees.

Of course, despite Professor Ferguson’s failure to come up with an example, I’ve made plenty of mistakes. However, since I value my credibility, when I make a mistake I try to correct it in a timely and accurate fashion, rather than attacking the character of the person who pointed it out.

Response from Niall Ferguson:


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