Thursday, August 02, 2012

Niall Ferguson Is Still a Fecking Gobshite, with Extra Gob

Niall C.D.E. Ferguson, O.F.G.*, concludes his book Civilizationpants with an expanded version of the essay he published in Newsweek last year, and which drew your humble narrator into this extended wallow in crapulence.  To summarize: Ferg asserts that all civilizations eventually fall, and often do so very quickly, as in the case of the Romans, the Incas, the Bourbon Dynasty in France, and the Soviet Union.  (That the Roman Empire took several centuries to collapse, that French civilization and the Bourbon monarchy survived 1789, and that even the collapsing Soviet empire enjoyed two decades of fitful adventurism before the final dissolution, are observations that need no expansion here.)  In the modern West, the last imperial power, the United States, is likely to collapse in consequence of its excessive debts, which Ferguson argues are comparable to those of several past empires on the verge of collapse: Habsburg Spain, the Ottoman Empire, France under Louis XVI (again).  The successor to America's imperial mantle, China, has absorbed some of the West's values but remains an aggressive and authoritarian state; it has downloaded some but not all of the West's "killer apps."  Westerners probably cannot recover their former predominance without matching China's investments in education and scientific research, and without balancing their nations' budgets.
          Ferguson's last few pieces of advice seem sensible enough, as does his reminder in passing that Europe owed its rise to power more to its institutions than to its military strength.  But I'm not sure I would want to appoint Niall-o to head any sort of Multi-National Task Force on the Current Crisis, in part because one of his proposals, regarding balanced budgets and austerity, would be very counter-productive right now.  Setting modern Europe aside for the time being, Ferguson's insistence that the U.S. has reached an unsustainable level of debt elides one essential figure, which is the cost of servicing that debt. At present the U.S. government spends about 10% of outlays on interest payments (including intra-governmental debt), which is high, but nowhere near the 50% paid by the Ottomans and Bourbons and the nearly 100% paid by the 16th-century Habsburgs.  The reason debt-servicing costs are low, even as the national debt climbs to record levels, is because interest rates are effectively zero – on some Treasury bills, they are negative.  Given that the United States can essentially charge investors for the privilege of loaning it money, it behooves the U.S. government to borrow every penny it can lay hands on, and use the revenue to jump-start a stagnant economy.  (Yes, this means we'll be bequeathing the millennial generation a huge debt, but right now we're bequeathing them a 20% unemployment rate, which is more damaging to their long-term economic prospects.)
          Mainly I want to keep Ferg away from policy-making because I'm not sure he's willing to support policies that reflect his more sensible assertions.  Niall may be skeptical about the long-term correlation between military force and world dominance, but that doesn't mean he isn't prepared to commit American air forces to the destruction of Iran's nuclear program (as he intimates at the end of Chapter 2).  He may favor scientific research and educational investment, but his idea of an appropriate education would be one steeped in Western classics – all written by British authors,** incidentally – rather than one which focused more directly on developing critical thinking skills.  Niall-o has more recently argued that Americans shouldn't bother to invest in education, because it won't do impoverished children any good.  In April 2012 Ferguson was one of the distinguished guests at the Millken conference, a $6,000-a-ticket gathering of the rapacious rich hosted by Ferg's soulmate Michael Millken.  When one of the panelists, billionaire Jeff Greene, began talking about the stresses faced by the impoverished American underclass, and suggested that with a little more "education" and "after-school programs" poor kids might be able to stay out of jail, Ferguson "drawled…'Dream. On.'"  So it appears Niall-o doesn't really believe education will help anyone who is much below his own income level.  Presumably, like other American conservatives, he would prefer to build more prisons, where as punishment disaffected young people would be forced to read Ferguson's books.

(The above photo is either of Michael Millken or Niall Ferguson; take your pick.)

*Order of the Fecking Gobshite, created by King George V in 1931, and awarded quasi-annually since then. 

** The author has decided to reserve discussion of Ferguson's ideal core curriculum for another blog post, as this one is already long.

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