Magazine article The Spectator

Phoney Fact-Checking - a Pedants' Revolt

Magazine article The Spectator

Phoney Fact-Checking - a Pedants' Revolt

Article excerpt

Jonathan Portes, master of the political correction

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. …

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