Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Niall Ferguson is still spinning the dross of his rage and vanity into a bigger pile of dross



Fans of Niall "Saucypants" Ferguson will take pleasure in learning that after a fairly quiet summer, the Sexiest Scotsman has come roaring back into public view with a scathing indictment of Paul Krugman, a three-part essay cheekily titled "Krugtron the Invincible" (the link will take you to Part Three).  In it, Our Man Niall reveals the prize-winning economist for the charlatan and character assassin he is.  Professor Ferguson so thoroughly undermines Krugman's credibility that the well-whipped cur has subsequently announced plans to resign his professorship, return his Nobel Prize, and take up a new career as a flagellant and leper.  And then we wake up.

Returning to reality for a moment, we may note that Ferguson's new essay, which appeared in the Huffington Post, is a fairly typical display of Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson's favorite subject: his own vanity.  He expends much effort trying to prove that Krugman is consistently wrong about important subjects, like the imminent break-up of the Euro, and closes by labeling Krugtron a crude, anti-intellectual bully, unworthy of the important public position (columnist for the New York Times) he now holds.  We must not forget, Ferguson exclaims, "the importance of humility and civility in public as well as academic discourse."  As The Krugman has repeatedly flouted these standards, it is up to Professor Niall, the defender of decency in our public discourse, to call him out and cut him down.

The evidence that Professor F. piles up against Mssr. Krugman seems damning, but as I lack the expertise to judge which of the two men is correct, I leave it to members of Krugman's "claque" of "crass" and "crank"ish economist friends to refute Ferguson's allegations.  Dean Baker, for instance, notes that Ferguson's characterization of the 2007-08 crash as a "financial crisis" is incorrect; the banking industry did undergo a dramatic meltdown in the fall of 2008, but both the meltdown and the recession resulted from a burst housing bubble, which destroyed several trillion dollars' worth of household wealth.  This may seem a merely semantic point, but Ferguson's interpretation of the causes of the current recession underlies the policies, namely fiscal austerity and tight money, that he believes will cure it.  Joe Wiesenthal, an honorary KrugClaque member, observed last spring that Ferguson had been making consistently inaccurate economic predictions for years, all stemming from his distaste for Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus bill and the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing policy.  And Brad Delong reported earlier this month that Ferguson either made an appalling mistake or flat-out lied about interest payments on the national debt, which he claimed were 8% of GDP (they are 1.3%) and likely to rise to 40% over the next six decades (they will almost certainly do nothing of the kind).

If Ferguson was trying to benefit the public by offering a more accurate view of economic reality than Paul Krugman's, he didn't do a good job.  But I conclude that what drove Ferg to waste electrons on this screed was less an effusion of public spirit than A) a desire to prove he is actually better at economics than the Krugster, B) envy of Krugman's position at the Times, C) his own desire to preen, evidenced by Ferguson's repeated self-identification as a "historian" and his posturing as a martial hero in the "Scottish regimental" mode, and D) an inability to accept negative criticism from anyone, particularly if it comes from those Ferg considers beneath his dignity, whether they be unwashed economists from a vulgar school like Princeton or "mediocre" authors and book reviewers

This latter trait was conspicuously evident two years ago, when Ferg responded to an unfavorable review in the London Review of Books by insulting the reviewer, demanding an apology, and threatening a lawsuit when the reviewer offered a correction ("Ferguson is not a racist") but declined to grovel.  Ferg also displayed it in a non-apology he issued last spring, after he remarked in a public address that John Maynard Keynes's homosexuality made him a bad economist.  Ferguson began his May 7 "Open Letter to the Harvard Community" by admitting that his remarks were stupid.  He then walked back his contrition, asserting that he was right to draw attention to Keynes' sexuality because it was relevant to "historical understanding of the man," attacking his critics for their intellectual laziness and unwarranted hatefulness, and arguing that while he occasionally said "stupid things" so did "most professors and – let's face it…most students."  In closing, he demanded that the public forgive him.

There is something almost pitiful in a man so paranoid and self-aggrandizing that he cannot even make a proper apology, but must instead use the occasion of apologizing to assert that his sin was actually intellectual heroism, and to trash his enemies, real and imagined.  The more recent subjects of Niall's ire, namely Paul Krugman's "claque" of bloggers, have been happy to repay Ferguson in kind, with one predicting that "Ferguson will teach us the importance of humility…in the same manner that Lindsey Lohan can teach us the importance of sobriety."  One, however, intensified the pathos that clings to Professor Ferg by reminding readers that Our Man Niall was once a halfway-decent historian, whose innovative study of World War One, The Pity of War, sounds so appealing that I might just go read it myself.  Since then Ferguson has squandered his talents, such as they were, in the service of the plutocrats who pay his lavish speaking fees, whose interests Niall-o cheerfully defends and to whose prejudices he routinely caters.  The Sexiest Scotsman's solicitude for the ruling class has brought him wealth, fame, and prestige, but it hasn't brought him the level of respect he feels he deserves, and I think that really means it hasn't properly substituted for the self-respect Ferg forfeited when he sold out.   "The wealthiest person," a wise man once said, "is a pauper at times / Compared to the man / With a satisfied mind."

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(My thanks to John Craig Hammond for his editorial assistance.  Any errors left herein remain the responsibility of the author.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An interesting read and I think a conclusion I would have to agree with. Ferguson became a "Davos Man". My advice: take a low profile, bury yourself in the archives and go back to working on the basis of evidence first, conclusions after. That is how an historian works. (Unlike an economist who STARTS with a model.) We know you are capable of doing brilliant work.