I sometimes envy Niall Ferguson his productivity, but that envy rarely survives contact with the ponderous prose that Ferguson uses in his books and the diaphanous twaddle that appears in his columns. Take his latest essay in Newsweek, “America’s ‘Oh Shit’ Moment.” Let us set aside, for the moment, the most grating element of this column: Ferguson’s determination to seem “cool” by dropping cultural references that are both out of date and irrelevant to his argument. The dorm-room poster to which the title of the essay refers is sufficiently old that I don’t recall ever seeing it in college (and I’m not a young man), and Ferguson’s reference to the hoary Mac-vs.-PC debate isn’t going to win him many new readers among the 17-to-21 set.
Instead, your humble narrator would like to draw attention to the biggest intellectual flaw in Ferguson’s piece: his assertion, buttressed with historical examples, that when great nations fall they fall quickly and catastrophically. Ferguson is fond of disaster scenarios, to the point where they appear to have clouded his judgment. He asserts that Imperial Rome and the Soviet Union are both relevant examples of great empires that fell with great alacrity. Actually, both of these states had been undergoing serious internal problems for decades, if not centuries, before they formally “fell.” Rome experienced a hundred years of civil war, foreign invasion, plague and famine in the 3rd century CE, and entered the 4th century a much diminished empire. However, thanks to reforms by emperors such as Diocletian and Constantine, it was able to survive for nearly two more centuries. The Soviet Union, for its part, had been in serious trouble for almost 30 years before its collapse in 1991. In the early 1960s its industrial sector began to stagnate and its cities began to run out of food; only by selling oil and natural gas and borrowing money was the Politburo able to import enough grain to survive. These stopgaps lasted for about 25 years, and then they failed, and so did the Soviet Union. Final collapse may come quickly, but it is usually preceded by a long and often highly visible period of decline.
Ferguson argues that the United States is coming close to collapse by neglecting the "killer apps" that made the West great. However, some of the evidence he adduces in support of this argument is contradictory or otherwise flawed. He notes that American consumerism is declining and also that Americans don't save enough, which suggests that he thinks we should be both consuming and saving more money. One can't really do both at once, not on the scale needed to resuscitate a stagnant economy. He also infers that the United States runs the risk of falling behind East Asia in public health because the U.S., Japan, and China now all have life expectancies in the 73-83 range. That's good news for China and Japan, but it's relatively easy to raise life expectancy from 43 to 73 (through better nutrition and preventative medicine); it's much harder and more expensive to raise it from 78 to 88. As with other forms of growth, the U.S. is simply running into diminishing returns as its economy and society mature, and so will Japan and China and (eventually) India.
Of Ferguson’s solutions to our collective ills, the less said the better. He seems to favor abolition of public education – or at least the expansion of tax-funded voucher programs – the abolition of “pseudosciences and soft subjects” (like history?) in universities, the elimination of banking regulations, and admonishing Americans to work harder and save more money. The former three projects are beloved of Republican governors and legislators throughout the United States. The last was actually advice that David Halberstam was giving Americans 20 years ago, warning that if we didn’t work harder and save more we would never have an economy as successful as Japan’s. That path didn’t lead Japan anywhere we would care to follow. Perhaps, with 9% unemployment and flat consumer sales, we would actually be better off if everyone in the U.S. worked less and consumed more.
Just as a stopped clock is right at least twice a day, however, Ferguson does have one intelligent thing to say: “We need to download the updates that are running more successfully in other countries, from Finland to New Zealand, from Denmark to Hong Kong, from Singapore to Sweden.” I don’t disagree. Americans have gotten a number of good political and economic ideas from abroad, including secret ballots and Social Security. One suspects that Ferguson and I would disagree about what constitutes a good “update” to our national operating system, but let’s give credit where it’s due, especially since so little is due.